**This is the latest of the essays I wrote before a black belt test. I wrote it April of 2014.**
Lining up to bow in to class one afternoon, the teacher (a fellow yudansha) said, “Look to your left.” We all looked to our left. “Those are all the people you are responsible for when training,” she told us. Several people were standing to my left.
“Now, look to your right.” We all looked to our right. “Those are the people who are responsible for helping you.” As the most senior student that day, I turned to face a wall. No one was to my right.
In that moment I felt very alone. I felt the responsibility of what it means to be a senior student. Usually, during a night class when more yudansha are in class, I don’t feel that weight of responsibility, but that afternoon it hit me. I am one of the senior students in this dojo and I am responsible for a lot of people.
This kind of responsibility does not weigh lightly on me. Not at all. I take responsibility seriously, especially the responsibility of teaching others. When someone comes to a class I’m teaching, I want to be the best teacher I can be during that class and in that moment. I know that I will never be perfect, will never be the right teacher for every student. I understand that some students will not like me or my teaching style. That’s all right with me. But I never want anyone to say that I wasn’t prepared, that I didn’t know what I was doing, or that I didn’t care.
Because I care…a lot. As a senior student and as a teacher I care about the quality of my techniques and my ability. I watch other teachers and I see their bad habits and I think, “Which of my bad habits are students picking up on?” I think about my arched back, my lack of grounding, or even my odd hand movements. Will someone copy my very peculiar flick of the wrist when I do certain techniques? I shudder to think that one of my cohai would mimic something very specific to my own aikido, but I know it will happen from time to time. I’ve seen tests where I can clearly see which senior student the tester worked with during preparation. I’ve had people tell me they can see certain former sempai in my own techniques.
We all copy our teachers and sempai. That is why I feel the responsibility so heavily. That is why, right now, I am taking criticism of my own aikido more seriously than I have ever done before. As a senior student and sometime teacher, my aikido is no longer my own. It belongs to everyone. It is shared. That is a serious business.
Hoa Newens Sensei, in his book Aikido Insights, has an article about when you know you are ready to teach. The first step is when you feel a burning desire to teach. I can check that off my list. I love to share aikido with people and to help out my cohai. One of my struggles, though, is to not teach all the time. I have to regularly remind myself that when I’m training I’m not teaching. My training time is my time to practice and refine my own aikido. I can help my partner, but I’m starting to recognize that the best way to help my partner is to do good aikido, not talk them through everything. If my partner is a really new person, then a certain amount of verbal instruction is necessary. Aikido is really complicated when you are first starting and we Westerners are used to verbal instruction, so I tend to talk more when helping a brand new person. Unfortunately, I can get into the habit of talking with my peers as well. We have all given each other permission to critique and help when a technique is not working, and we take advantage of that. Even so, it’s been my intention to guide my peers physically rather than verbally, by taking my partners arm and moving it so he has my balance rather than telling him he doesn’t have my balance.
Of course, this is still a work in progress. I still talk too much when practicing.
I also have the intention to not talk too much when I’m actually teaching a class. Here again, we don’t need a lot of verbal instruction, especially if we are advanced. I want to be able to teach with my body, and not always with my mouth! One of the best compliments I ever received about my teaching was when a student who had only been practicing for a few months came up to me after class and told me she really liked my class, that I struck a good balance between talking and showing. I was pleased that my efforts had paid off, but then the next time I taught I felt like a chatterbox! Just like with aikido in general, my ability to teach aikido is a work in progress.
The Way of a Warrior
Cannot be encompassed
By words or in letters:
Grasp the essence
And move on toward realization!
Another thing Newens Sensei wrote in his book about teaching is this, “knowledge is a cumulative burden that needs to be continually unloaded unto others if the soul is to continue its travel.” I think this relates back to saying that you are ready to teach if you have a burning desire to share your knowledge. Perhaps that “burning desire” is the “burden” that needs to be released. I’m starting to wonder if the desire to teach, even inappropriately during training, is the need to unload our knowledge. We learn so much in aikido—physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual training builds up in our bodies and spirits. We only have so much “space” in ourselves to store all of this. After ten years of training, I think I’ve stored up quite a bit of aikido. Of course, that is a small amount compared to others who have thirty or forty years of training, but it’s enough for my knowledge to start accumulating. It’s like cramming a lot of stuff in a box. Only so much will fit; there is not infinite space. When it gets to the point where the lid to the box pops off, then it’s time to get rid of some of what you’ve accumulated. Giving it away freely is the best way to free yourself of the stuff and help someone else in the process.
Back to responsibility. This is what I’m feeling so acutely at this point in my training—this desire to teach, this need to unload what I’ve learned. But I want to be sure that what I’m teaching is right. I want to be sure that my aikido is sound. Just because I have knowledge doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good knowledge. My focus is now on making sure my aikido is good enough to be up in front of a class and teaching, because if I can’t stand in front of a class and be confident that I’m teaching aikido well, then I shouldn’t be up in front of a class at all.
Perhaps that day when I looked to my right and saw no one standing next to me it was a message that I need to take care of myself as well as those to my left. When I was coming up the ranks I relied heavily on my sempai, so much that I was in danger of stunting my growth. Now that I am a sempai to many and am teaching, I have to take care to continue to look after myself. The responsibility that sometimes rests heavily on me is a reminder to keep myself strong, continue to train and practice diligently, so that I can pass on my knowledge and teach freely and confidently.
As O’Sensei said,
Day after day
Train your heart out,
Refining your technique:
Use the one to strike the Many!
That is the discipline of the Warrior.