The Path of Practice by Dave Lewin (Yondan test September 20018)
*this article was submitted as part of test requirement for dan rank. *the author submits: i am sharing personal views - not on behalf of AI. im an annoying perfectionist sometimes -sorry!
Aikido contains within its name the concept of “Do” or “Way”, and so we often speak of it as a ‘path’ that we follow. This Path is not like an interstate highway, where after some hours you have travelled from one city to another –a clear beginning and end. In Aikido we take the focus away from the ‘destination’ and uphold an ethos that the end result is not the point. In a world where short-term thinking rules the day and existence is defined by doing instead of being, Aikido practice eschews our results-oriented tendencies and focuses on the process instead. We say “Aikido is not for people who want instant gratification; it takes time.” “Results don’t happen overnight.” “It’s a long, hard road..”
But, saying that we do not focus on an end-result is not the same thing as saying we don’t care about improving, and/or that we can't measure our own progress. I believe that no matter how much people like to wax poetic about the process, we do want to improve (what that means or looks like is a whole other topic not covered in this article..). I think new students will want to know that their instructors have, over time, improved in comparison to when they started. And I think if you asked someone whether they’d like to become, I don’t know, let’s say “proficient” in executing the techniques sooner rather than later, I think most people will choose sooner. Who wants to practice for years and years and still feel like they have not developed any skills or feel like they can't demonstrate anything? To say that we are “not worried about the results” should only mean that we don’t care how ‘good’ we get, as long as we improve over time. In short, over time a person’s skill/ability should increase, and we should be able to tell whether this increase occurs efficiently or not. To say it another way: we can be good students or not-so-good students; we can imagine a continuum from good to bad, and we can have an idea of where we are on that continuum.
As I grow more into a role of a teacher on this Path, I find myself pondering what makes a good student, and/or good learning, because I deeply desire that all of my dojo-mates and others on this Path are in fact improving -that we’re all getting there together in a way that makes an efficient and effective use of our time. I’ve never liked the idea of time wasted, and this goes for time on the mat as well. And so, in pondering this, I have played with the metaphor of the Path and have extracted some insights that I think may be useful for students (me included!), so I share them here..
The Path Goes ‘Round
Since there is not really an end-point, the Path is more like a track field –a circular path that you get on one day and go around over and over thereafter. We can’t practice everything at once, so practice over time is like running around a track, doing different techniques as you go around, until one day you come full circle. Oh hey, there’s Kote Gaeshi again... Hi, Irimi Nage, nice to see you again -looking dapper.
Some people walk on the Path for a while, and then one day decide to get off. They may keep the Path in their minds and hearts, but are not walking on it anymore. And, sometimes those who have stepped off the Path decide one day to get back on and start walking again. To be clear: to be on the Path, you have to be walking on the Path.
The Path (Should) Go Up
But wait! A track-field is flat, so it’s limited for our purposes here. On a flat track, each time a runner passes by a marker that they’ve passed before, they are at the same level they were the last time they passed it. In Aikido, however, each time we come around and see a technique, principle, concept, etc. again, we should (hopefully) be viewing things from a more knowledgeable position. So, it’s not a flat circular path, but rather a circular path that goes upward -perhaps like a spiral staircase...
Time Passed ≠ Frequency
Making sure we go up is about more than just the raw total of time we spend on the Path which starts one day when we proclaim “I practice Aikido.” Someone who has practiced 4-5 times a week for 5 years will most likely improve more than someone who has practiced only once a week for the same 5 years. They will both say “I’ve been practicing for 5 years,” but this doesn’t factor in frequency. Simple math suggests that the less frequently one trains, the less they will be exposed to the techniques and principles on the Path. Every time they come back around to a technique, so much time will have passed that it’s like starting over on it again –the staircase is not going up.
It’s hard to improve this way. There is no judgement here, it’s just math. The mind/body needs to experience the techniques repeatedly and frequently in order to begin to ‘own’ them. The only way to do this is to come to class and train, or go around, and up, the Path --often.
This chart illustrates different outcomes based on frequency; the arrows do not represent an actual measurement, but suggests a comparison:
Consider a hypothetical where two people practice for 1 year, but at different frequencies. How different will their exposure to techniques be during one revolution? The following illustration imagines such a difference:
PERSON A (4-5 times/week)
PERSON B (1-2 times/week)
Frequency is not Always on the Student
Simply “going to class” does not guarantee that a sufficient amount of time will be spent training; it is possible for people to not train frequently enough within one class! If the instructor claps to stop training and give long-winded, verbose explanations, it means that all that time is spent not training. Or, if the instructor runs through a barrage of techniques, quickly clapping before people can really practice any of them, to what extent are the students really ‘practicing’?
Personally, I would argue that if these things occur too often the students are not being afforded enough time to actually let the principles seep into the mind/body. They stay as mere thoughts; the student could get the same thing from just reading about Aikido. The principles may echo in the head (mind), but the body will not have a chance to learn what to do or how it should feel. If techniques are being changed quickly, they might not even solidify in the mind (“what was that?” “Did you see it?” “I don’t know, I think I saw Sensei do this”.. etc.)
Also, students usually don’t get to decide what techniques or principles will be practiced. If Koshi Nage is only taught at a dojo once in a blue moon, how good do you think the students at that dojo will be at doing Koshi Nage? Some may say, “well, it’s up to the students to see it and practice on their own,” but in my view that's no different than watching something on a video, ie, the instructor is not really adding any value.
'Shoshin' - beginner's mind
Frequency ≠ Quality
Training more frequently means we will go around the Path more, and thereby see/practice the principles more often. But simply seeing/feeling them is not enough if the right kind of focus and awareness is not applied each time. Those that train frequently need to hold on to their beginner’s mind.
Studies tell us that our brains are wired to crave and thus gravitate towards familiarity because it’s comfortable. One problem with this, though, it that once we’re familiar and comfortable, our awareness and focus dims and fades. In practice, if we start to see techniques or principles as things-we-already-know, we will become desensitized and lose focus. We reach a plateau that we can only overcome by being challenged or by challenging ourselves—the staircase isn’t going up. It’s hard to improve this way..
Quality is Not Always on the Student
Personally I believe that on some level we must concede that just like there's a good student/bad student continuum, another continuum exists where good teaching is on one end and not-so-good teaching is on the other end; some people are better than others at leading people in the practice. Quality instruction can be the difference between someone taking 5 years to understand a technique versus 2 years. This is a sensitive area of discussion with many considerations that I won’t get into here, but suffice it to say that the quality of the time spent training is not always on the student..
A Path Can Fade and Disappear -or Crumble..
Like all knowledge, the knowledge of Aikido depends on the human beings who learn it and pass it on to others. If a knowledge or skill is not passed on, it disappears. Period. But also, a teacher cannot just open someone’s head and insert knowledge --especially a bodily knowledge like Aikido, which demands kinesthetic learning. The student needs to put effort into learning, and needs to keep moving forward (or, up), or else things don’t move forward.
It’s not like the teacher builds the staircases so that all the student has to do is walk up the steps; each student has to build each step of their own personal staircase.
And, the staircases need constant attention. If we don’t keep building steps and going up, the steps we’re on actually start eroding and crumbling, requiring that we go down and rebuild the steps we’ve lost. We can share the burden with our dojo-mates, and give each other tips and help each other, but (assuming we have good blueprints) the ultimate ownership of the task of building our own spiral staircase lies with each of us alone.
Revising the Metaphor
So, I’ll keep tinkering with it, but for now I think we now have a more robust metaphor: the Path of Aikido practice is like a spiral staircase that we’re only given a blueprint to, and how high it goes depends on how well/clear the blueprint is drawn + the effort that we put in to building each step for ourselves...
... But wait! A mystery nags us as we build the steps of our staircase --what, exactly, is at the top? What are we building up towards? Mastery? What does that look like? There exists a tension between valuing the process over the end-result on the one hand, and yet needing something to guide the process on the other hand.
As one goes farther/higher on the Path, one begins to see that they now know and can do things that they didn't fully "see" when they were at the bottom. Experience itself is what allows us to see deeper into what we are working towards. This strengthens our resolve that continuing on the Path and training well is all we need to focus on --the results will come.
One can also see that as one gets farther/higher, the circumference of the staircase gets smaller and smaller --as if there are less and less techniques to experience. The thing that our senseis always tell us is true: in Aikido there are hundreds of techniques; but also, in the end there is really only just one technique. Though we can't see the top of the mountain, we know that as long as we are going up, we are getting closer.
So (sigh), the metaphor needs another adjustment: the Path of Aikido practice is like a spiral staircase going up a (huge) mountain that has a peak that is covered by clouds, and we’re only given a blueprint to building the stairs, and how high it goes depends on how well/clear the blueprint is drawn + the effort that we put in to building each step for ourselves --phew.
A long hard road indeed...
David Lewin, Yondan & Co-Dojo Cho (Test in September 2018)