Aikido – Big fish in a little pond


A really nice article by Todd Jones, outlining the role the ego can play in Aikido and Aikido communities. Sometime people are so keen to be “Sensei” that they miss the opportunity to share…

The more Aikido forum threads I read, the more convinced I become that we have a long way to go. Personal disclaimer: I am an optimist and worse, an idealist.

Aikido: the Way of Harmony is a non-competitive martial art. Who are we kidding? A far too significant number of the threads posted are either pretentious or unproductively contentious; this is not a condemnation of honest debate, but an observation of the current state of interaction. Fortunately, there are a handful of well-developed, thought-provoking, and/or educational postings that make a genuine contribution and provide an offsetting counterbalance to the topics under discussion.

Aikido is not merely a physical endeavor. For the Founder, it was, most importantly, a spiritual endeavor. For many of his disciples, it became a vocation, and unfortunately, none of his direct students proclaimed any understanding of his spiritual lectures. For many of their students, aikido has become little more than an ego boosting recreational activity. Most Aikidoka assert that the art provides a more humane approach to conflict resolution and therefore an elevated philosophical foundation. The sad fact is that there is ample anecdotal evidence that many of our most respected teachers have proven all too human… some more so than others.

To wit, in recent conversations with a number of distinguished colleagues, we have discussed at some length our mutual disappointment and dissatisfaction with the conduct of a great many of our teachers, peers, and partners. Not one of these conversations has failed to recollect comments or actions where perceived injustices have left indelible memories that have affected the individual in question. These observations have led to two questions of great import.

Why do we treat one another with so little respect?

Why aren’t more of us open-minded and openly complimentary of one another?

These questions are particularly important today as we transition into the next generation of aikido. The direct students of the Founder and the Second Doshu are passing away. We have a unique opportunity at hand; we can come together by building new bridges between us, allowing our teachers’ sibling rivalries to pass away with them… or we can continue to struggle against one another and perpetuate the disharmonious political environment we suffer in today.

My hope for and view of the future of Aikido is one in which we can all cooperatively support one another, recognizing that the many varied individual interpretations of the Founder’s art we see today are nonetheless legitimate Aikido.

It can be argued that our current predicament is, in part, due to Aikido’s lack of a competitive outlet. Humans are competitive by nature; alpha dominance, the desire for control over others is genetically driven. Biologically, it is the way in which each generation has ensured the survival of the best of the species. Philosophically speaking, this kind of control is illusory at best, but regardless, it is in our nature to seek it. So, we have an instinct for controlling and dominating others in a martial art with no structural competition. Ergo, we have a dilemma.

There have been volumes written about why we don’t need competition in Aikido, and this treatise is not suggesting that we do. The matter at hand is that everyone’s sempai is human, and therefore competitive by nature, so what do we do about it?

Innate competitiveness has created challenges to the survival of Aikido, both physical and mental. Although many teachers encourage their students to improve one another’s talents by challenging each other through gradually increasing their training intensity, it is equally common for some teachers to allow or encourage their senior students to take advantage of their juniors. All of us are aware of physically abusive instructional practices. There is at least one famous teacher who has extolled the virtues of injury through training as a way of proving one’s commitment to the art. That position is nothing more that a rationalization of the man’s lack of self-control and lack of caring for his students. It’s a compensation for his personal feelings of inadequacy. Otake sensei, former headmaster of the Katori Shinto-ryu, was never injured in his martial arts training. Unfortunately, abusive treatment has a way of being passed from father to son, adult to child, teacher to student. Abusing others does not help people to overcome their feelings of inadequacy, especially when there is little risk of reprisal. Until these teachers overcome their personal fears and insecurities, they will never learn how to teach in a caring and compassionate way.

Mental competitiveness tends to express itself on three levels: psychological, political, and economic. Psychological domination, or control, begins with the student-teacher relationship. The student must acquiesce to the demands of the teacher, if he or she wants to learn. There is at least one famous teacher who regularly takes liberties with his female students, married or not. What kind of example does this set? What kind of message does it send? What kind of competition is at work? What kind of personal inadequacies are soothed, but not solved? Why do his senior students tolerate it?

In the Aikido world, political control is a form of authority, not power; because authority is bestowed and can be rejected. Students can quit or go elsewhere. Originally, the IAF was only to recognize one organization per country; now that is not the case. Regardless, members of the respective organizations must comply with the rules and regulations of their chosen organization. Of course, the culture of each organization is unique. Some organizations are known for their chauvinism, others for their elitism, others still are cliquish. Why? Attitude is a function of the personalities and beliefs of their respective leadership.

If the leadership believes and communicates that “their way” is the “true way” (i.e. the “only way”), it is only natural that the students will take great pride in the derision of others. In this instance, the leadership has unintentionally undermined the Founder’s true intent of uniting the world through his art. This attitude can be born of elitism, sibling rivalry, or genuine technical disagreement. Elitism is merely a perception, more easily hid behind in Japan than in the West. Sibling rivalry is easily seen for what it is. And genuine technical disagreement can be solved on the mat.

Economic competition is always a factor in these matters. For professional sensei, it’s a daily fight for economic survival: keeping the school open, bringing in new students, and retaining seniors are just the most basic of the problems. Traveling to, or hosting seminars is expensive business. Being a professional sensei is a difficult and challenging job. Those who have made the solemn commitment have my deepest admiration and deserve support from all of us. Problems begin to emerge when these teachers become too competitive with one another; they become prideful: who has the biggest organization, the most students, the largest school. Who teaches the most seminars, has the biggest camp, controls the most geography?

The ultimate result is that there are too many isolationistic tendencies. An insecure teacher would rather be a big fish in a little pond than risk feeling, or being exposed as inadequate. Angry teachers would rather spurn the events produced by a “competitor,” just for spite. Far too many of us have unduly inflated egos and hypersensitive needs for adulation and manipulation. Far too many of us are willing to point out another teacher’s weaknesses instead of his or her strengths. Far too many of us are more willing to be offended than to be coached by our peers. Far too many of us are either unwilling or afraid to reach out. How tragic.

Decades ago, as a successful collegiate karate competitor, I came to thoroughly enjoy the camaraderie of other champions. There was a high degree of respect for one another’s abilities and accomplishments, and a very friendly, encouraging air of competitiveness. Outside of the ring, we were like brothers; but, inside, it was all business. Age, gender, race, creed, nationality, social or economic standing meant nothing; it was all about talent. Talent and temperament garnered respect and friendship. Each of us knew that on any given day, the outcome might be less than desired, or more. As a general rule, this has not been my experience in Aikido training, until the Aiki Expo events. Among the instructors, the Expo was a virtual mutual admiration society. Everyone has heroes; and there was no shortage of approbation expressed among and between the various representatives of differing arts, styles, and organizations. It’s inspiring.

So, what can we do to spread the appreciation and respect for our counterparts? The fact is that everyone wants or needs some degree of validation: emotional gratification through recognition by superiors and peers and even juniors. It’s encouraging to know that your efforts are appreciated and respected. The instructors at the Aiki Expo, like my karate comrades, set a wonderful example of how this can be accomplished. All it takes is enough self-confidence to be willing to risk genuinely complimenting your competitor. He then has two choices: accept the compliment graciously, or rebuke you. Who’s the real loser if he takes the low road? Who’s the real winner if it changes his perception of you?

Another suggestion is that we pay more attention to making critical observations instead of just being critical. Technical differences warrant frank and honest discussion, physical demonstration and explanation devoid of competitiveness, and open-mindedness… a personal recognition that there is more than one way to get the same answer. Watching the ways in which the Aiki Expo instructors are interlacing elements of one another’s expertise into their personal repertoire is the highest compliment that can be paid to another instructor. It’s happening with everyone.

Finally, let’s try not to repeat the errors of our elders. My past is replete with conduct I’m not proud of, but the same is true of all of my peers. Consider this an open letter of apology for prior offenses perpetrated intentionally or otherwise. And might I suggest, we all try to “get over it, get on with it.” See you on the mats!

Todd D. Jones

Postscript: We have an open door policy at our dojos – everyone is welcome :0)

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One Response to Aikido – Big fish in a little pond

  1. DDale says:

    I have to say as an ex aikidoka I find it a terrible shame that I too experienced more ego and self aggrandizement in aikido than I am now experiencing in a competitive (submission wrestling/BJJ) environment. It is almost as if lack of competition lets the ego run riot with some individuals.

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