Driving With Sensei

In my last post, I wrote about the success of our recent international convention. If you read that entry, you can probably tell that the experience was profoundly moving for me. I’d like to take a moment to focus on a single aspect of the event that, while seemingly mundane, I found to be quite interesting.

Often, when Sensei comes to a particular event, whoever is hosting that event becomes Sensei’s driver. This isn’t always the case, but it’s true in most instances. And this makes sense: the host typically is the one who knows where Sensei needs to be, understands how to get there, and can make last minute changes at Sensei’s request with the least amount of difficulty. At first, I thought that driving Sensei around would be, to be honest, relatively uninteresting. I’ve found that this isn’t the case–often, these car trips provided some real learning opportunities.

First, there’s the realization that you’re in a car with a martial artist of the highest caliber. I know many of you who read this blog have attended a variety of seminars and such, but I don’t know how many of you got the chance to be with the instructor of that seminar during “down time.” For me, it was very illuminating to be with Sensei in a setting that was off the mat. I admit it: at first it felt a bit like when you were in school, and you suddenly saw your teacher at the grocery store. Somehow, during the school year, you never really thought about your teacher as a person, who had to go shopping like everyone else. The experience was similar with Sensei: I got the opportunity to see that, as well-versed and proficient in aikido as he is, he is also a person. As the convention progressed, I began to be a bit more at ease at the notion that Sensei is a multi-faceted individual, and the fact that he was no longer a one-dimensional figure drove home the point that he is very serious when he says: “If I can do it, you can do it.”

Second, these car trips provide an opportunity to learn what Sensei is enjoying about the event, and what he would like to change. Given some of my past experiences with other instructors, I was very nervous about what might happen if Sensei didn’t like something. It turns out I needn’t have worried. Sensei was extremely gracious about anything that wasn’t to his liking. The key phrases I listened for were: “Dave-san, I’m not complaining, but…” or “No problem, Dave-san, but next time…” At those moments, he would express clearly what he’d like, and often it was a very reasonable and simple request. I honestly thought I would have to read between the lines to understand what Sensei wanted–this is not the case. He is clear, direct, and understanding.

A third aspect of these car rides that I found illuminating was that it gave me a chance to listen to Sensei about what he was thinking. While he didn’t discuss these things in great detail, I occasionally got glimpses as to what ideas he was trying to express on the mat and why he was trying to express them. In a way, it felt like being in a “Making of…” featurette that they add to DVD movies. I was able to get a small idea of what he was thinking about before he started to teach. Sensei also used the opportunities to tell me more about what he’d like to see done in the area as far as training, opening dojos, and so forth.

Driving around with Sensei was definitely not a moment to slack off–but I found it very interesting that it was not nearly as stressful as other, somewhat similar, experiences have been like. And I definitely recognize that its an experience that few people get in any martial art–the opportunity for some quiet downtime with the founder of your style of self-defense.

(Okay, I can’t help but add this in: one moment during the convention, I drove Sensei to the location. There was a parking spot right in front of the entrance. “Perfect!” I thought. I pulled in, and suddenly heard from one of the other passengers in the car. “Dave-san! Sensei can’t get out!” It turns out that, in my eagerness to get the perfect parking spot, I didn’t notice the fact that I had pulled too close to the car in the adjacent spot. Horrified, I looked at Sensei, who said simply: “Dave-san! I’m skinny, but not THAT skinny!” As the other passengers chuckled, I pulled out of the parking spot, dropped Sensei off, and found a different spot elsewhere. My face was red for about an hour, I think!)

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