Every so often, I get the opportunity to go sailing with my mom and stepdad out in Bellingham, Washington. I’m not a terribly good sailor, for the most part–my ability to acquire new terminology seems hopeless stuck on the “aikido” and “programming concepts” setting, because try as I might I cannot switch it over to “sailing jargon.” Still, I like to think that I can at least follow orders in a reasonable manner, so I like to think that I’m of some use when we sail.
One of the common phrases that my stepdad calls out when I’m on the boat is “A little bit more!” Pulling the boat into the dock? “A little bit more!” Tightening the lines for the sails? “A little bit more!” I’ve even done experiments: sometimes, when asked to do something, I’ll only go through the motions. Sure enough, the answer is: “A little bit more!” No matter what the task, no matter what I do, the answer is always to do a little bit more than what I’ve already done.
My stepdad, it seems, has been in discussions with Sensei.
Whenever you see Sensei, one of his most common expressions can be paraphrased to: “The difference between my technique and your technique is very, very small.” I’ve often wondered about this. I mean, I’ve been thrown by Sensei many times. He remains, to this day, the only person who has ever left me seeing stars without causing any lasting damage. The differences between my technique and his do not seem to be small in any way, shape, or form. But, as I think about what Sensei is saying, and I juxtopose it over what my stepdad often says, I’m starting to get a different picture. Perhaps the point that Sensei is trying to make has more to do with encouraging us to continually refine our techniques, and that these refinements can have extraordinary impact beyond what we might initially expect. This interpretation certainly fits in with Sensei’s methodologies–he’s constantly modifying techniques, and I’ve seen and experienced firsthand how a small change can cause a dramatic shift in uke’s posture and balance.
Another way of looking at Sensei’s comments has to do with infinity. I remember, in one math class, my teacher talking about infinity. One of the ideas that struck me was that the concept of infinity is not bound to size. For example, you could start counting at 1, and continue forever. 1, 2, 3, 4… You’d get to larger and larger numbers, with no end in sight. That’s one example of infinity. On the other hand, you could start at 0.1, and keep adding zeros to make a number smaller. 0.1, 0.01, 0.001, 0.0001… Again, you could go on forever, with no end in sight. This too, is an example of infinity, but in this case you’re getting infinity smaller, instead of infinitely larger.
I bring up, once again, my meager grasp of mathematics because I sometimes wonder if Sensei is calling us to look less and the “big movements” of aikido: the arms, the legs, the hands, and instead focus on infinitely smaller, infinitely more subtle movements. So when Sensei says the difference is small, he’s not so much talking about the difference in movements; he’s more talking about the difference in focus. He’s focused on the “small” infinite, constantly refining the technique. He’s calling our attention to the minutae, the little details, instead of the broader, more easily-seen movements.
For now, at least, I think I will try to look inwardly at the improvements I need to make.