A few weeks go, we had a seminar at the dojo. The instructor was Ronnie Burrows Sensei, one of the most experienced Kokikai instructors in the United States. The seminar was attended by Kokikai students from across the Northwest, and we all benefited from Burrows-sensei sharing with us some of her insights and philosophies behind training.
One concept she kept coming back to was how quick we are to react to instruction that seems counter to what we thought we knew. All of us, whether as students or as instructors, have at some point received advice that seems counter to our current knowledge. Sometimes this advice comes from a different teacher; sometimes it is the same teacher on a different day. But perhaps the most common instance of this reaction occurs after watching Sensei at camp.
Say, for example, Sensei showed a technique. Any technique. You watched, you listened, you thought you caught an idea. When the time comes to practice, you find yourself working with a senior instructor. As you train, the instructor tells you to do something that seems the exact and complete opposite of what Sensei just showed. What is your default reaction? If you’re like most people (and you’re willing to be honest about it), your default reaction probably is:
“But…but that’s not what Sensei did!”
Burrows-sensei commented that she and other instructors heard this comment quite a bit. Her response?
Her point was not be argumentative. Quite the opposite. Instead, this simple word, this simple statement, communicates volumes. What she is saying is: “Yes, Sensei may have shown that, or you might have seen Sensei do something and interpreted it in a certain way. But I right here, working with you, and I am trying to help you improve your technique. Based on my experience, and based on the way you are moving right now, I think you should try what I suggested.”
All of that summed up neatly with: “So?”
The other common situation, as I mentioned, occurs when students say something like:
“Sensei/that senior instructor/that person standing over there in the corner sipping a latte told me last week to do movement A. This week, it’s movement B. I don’t get it!”
Regardless of the source, we all get frustrated when we think the instruction we received one week–whether through our own experiences or through instruction–seems to counter what we are learning this week. But therein lies our problem. We assume that aikido training is sequential; that we learn one idea and that idea in turn builds onto the next idea. Training may well be sequential is some respects, but it is not completely so.
In fact, the truth of the matter is that all teaching is temporary. What we see one week, what we learned yesterday, was what we needed to try to understand at that moment in time. That moment is fleeting. It arrives, it exists, and it moves on. And once it has moved on, we’re on to the next moment, at which point a new idea might be more appropriate. This became very clear when I was helping a student a few weeks ago. In one class, the student wasn’t extending their uke enough. I pointed this out, and the student that he should work on extension. A few days a later, the student was over-extending, to the point that the technique wasn’t correct any longer. He had, quite simply, over-compensated. Thanks to Burrows-sensei’s insights, I was able to tell this student: “I know that a few days ago I told you to work on extension. However, you’re now overdoing it. I need you to ratchet it back a few notches.” Better phrasing, perhaps, but the truth is one day I was talking about extension–the next, the opposite.
Aikido is not an art of absolutes. When we learn, we must actively work to understand what’s being taught, so that we know how to apply it in a way that best makes sense. It is difficult, but we end up only slowing down our own progress when we assume that there is one correct answer for how to do something. Perhaps this is why Sensei never says: “Do it this way.” Instead, he says: “Find your best possible state.” All teaching is, in the end, temporary–except for when we are learning to teach ourselves.