When I drove into Lawrenceville, MJ, I understood for the first time what the term, “idyllic,” meant. The entire town has a quiet, relaxed feeling to it, with old houses resting comfortably amidst the trees and fields. Even the local deli, which was gracious enough to help me shrug off the effects of my flight with an excellent roast beef bagel sandwich, had an easy feeling to it, with its patrons casually chatting over cups of coffee. It struck me as a town in which it is hard to be in a hurry, a town in which it is hard to remain tense.
In other words, a perfect place to study Kokikai aikido.
I arrived at the location for camp, the field house at the Lawrenceville School, quite a bit early. It wasn’t long before I saw the tell-tale signs of a camp setup in progress: a large truck pulled up, and two people quickly began unloading rolls and rolls of foam mats. Eager to shake off jet-lag, I introduced myself and started to help. As I rolled the mats into the field house, I was struck at how great the space was. Two-thirds of the entire roof consists of opaque skylights, which allows the entire facility to be bathed in a diffuse light. The field house is essentially an indoor track and field, so the mats were setup inside the oval track. It was during this time that I met Jorge, a young fifteen-year-old who was (I believe) about to be one of the youngest students ever to test for shodan. I also met Ron, one of Jorge’s teachers, an older gentleman who was quick to smile and even quicker to hand me more mats to unload from the truck. More and more people began to trickle in and, even though I had never met these people before, there was no doubt that we were all part of an extended Kokikai community.
After the mats were set up, I got changed and started meeting and re-meeting people. There are so many Kokikai aikidoka! And yet it is not hard to start remembering their names. One of the more amusing aspects of Camp for me was stating were I was from. At first, I simply said: “Everett, Washington.” That got me puzzled looks, which I didn’t understand until I realized that were trying to figure out where Everett was in the DC area! I quickly amended my statements to “Everett, in Washington State.” That stopped the confusion! There were a number of folks I haven’t seen in several years, and I was glad to see them.
It wasn’t long before it was time for the first class. By this point, the mat was filled with at least 200 people. As we started our warm-ups, I was reminded of something a friend of mine told me at a camp long ago. “The whole place sounds like soft thunder.” It’s the best description of the sound of several hundred people practicing large ukemi or tenkan that I’ve come across.
When Sensei Maruyama stepped onto the mat, the focus of the camp intensified. One of the things that I appreciate most about camps is that Sensei does not waste time on the more technical aspects of technique. To be sure, if he has a new idea or concept he is quick to teach it, but really camps are more about “the big ideas.” Perhaps the most important of these is, as Sensei says, to “discover one’s best feeling.” In fact, this camp I noticed a focus on being present, being aware, long before your opponent attacks. But, as Sensei pointed out, capturing your best feeling is not sufficient; it is only a start. One must find one’s best feeling, and then prove it through the application of technique. This was the first time I really considered this idea, which, upon further reflection, is really what the idea of a “Do” art is all about.
One of the things that really appeals to me in Kokikai aikido is that defeating your opponent is not enough. In fact, I think it’s likely that, by the time you reach shodan in Kokikai aikido, you have already learned and practiced enough of the physical techniques that you should have little doubt that you could defend yourself should the need arise. Were that the only goal, many of us would get our blackbelts and walk away. Instead, in Kokikai aikido technique becomes a reflection of who you are as individual. Do you think you are at peace with yourself? That you are calm, stable? Then step onto the mat and prove it through self-defense technique. I do not mean prove it to your teachers, peers, or students, although they are perhaps the most powerful aides in testing yourself. Instead, I am starting to realize that you are proving it to yourself, or to the universe at large–however you want to phrase it. If there was one idea I got from Winter Camp, it was that this “process of proof” is never-ending. Even Sensei Maruyama tests himself to ensure that he continues to grow.
More on winter camp soon.