So, at 4am the morning of my shodan test I awoke realizing I needed to re-compose my answer to this question. At 5am, I was typing, working on what might have been the fifth version I’d written in a week.
You see, the night before, after finally mustering enough energy after work, I gave a practice talk (using what I then thought to be the final version of my essay) to Yvette and Ilana, my wife and daughter. After I’d finished, I, of course, asked them what they thought. They were very supportive, saying it was really good, but they both said something along the lines of I needed to soften it; it was good but very “linear”; I should look to make it flow more. Then Yvette said something which really shook me deep inside. She said, “You know, this question is about you”. For several moments I was stunned. And then my ego stepped in. Although I sincerely appreciated the feedback, there was a sizable part of me that was more than a little frustrated, I mean come on! It was less than 24 hours before I need to give the talk and it sounded to me like I needed to rewrite it!
This situation presented a golden moment. An invaluable life lesson. I had been handed a mirror and all that was needed was an open mind to catch a glimpse of myself.
But in those moments after Yvette and Ilana had spoken to me, my mind was not open. My ego had risen. What does my wife know about aikido? My daughter knows aikido, but she’s not old enough to fully appreciate the question. But after that initial surge of ego, and after quieting my mind, boom! At 4 in the morning I awoke to see myself in the mirror. In an instant my wife and daughter had managed to put their finger on something that I, not for the lack of trying and four drafts later, had been unable to get to the bottom of during the week since Kevin Sensei had given me the question. Something hadn’t felt right, but I just couldn’t see it. And had my mind remained closed I would have completely missed an opportunity to learn something truly meaningful about myself.
What I saw in the mirror was the scientist; the straight to the point linear thinker (the shortest distance between two points is a straight line); a rational argument builder; the hard worker. And I also took a good look at my ego. When put under duress, this is what had revealed itself. And although I could have used more sleep at 4am, the moment was a beautiful thing.
And so it is with aikido. When we practice and when we test, our egos are constantly challenged, and that is as it should be, because an ego is something one does not need for aikido. If we bring an ego with us to training, we are going to lose many opportunities to learn. In fact, it might be impossible to learn aikido properly lugging an ego around the mat.
In my mid to late teens I studied karate for several years. Similar to aikido, this developed the ideas of both a strong physical line and mental focus, but the motive behind the mental focus I developed then was vastly different from the one I’ve developed since and the one that aikido has helped me to cultivate further. The mental focus I developed then was one of aggressive power. Now, I’m not saying that karate is solely responsible for developing this attitude, since I was younger at the time and full of testosterone, but it’s still tough not to develop such an ego based attitude when the objective of a practice is to defend oneself by responding to aggression with aggression. When attacked the aim is to win, to defeat, to be better than somebody.
In aikido we train to respond differently when attacked: we train to form a union with the aggressor, to dissipate aggressive energy as quickly as possible. Countering aggression with aggression can only lead to more aggression, which at the end of the day is no good for anybody. Being able to respond to such a high intensity situation, like when one is attacked, with compassion and desire, to cause little or no harm, is a motive that has little relationship to the ego. It is for this reason O Sensei insisted that there was to be no competition in aikido. Competition is all about winning. In a real battle or fight there can be no winners when the prevailing attitude is aggression. This is what we must understand to practice aikido properly.
So, if we want to train in a martial art that is all about defending oneself in a way that causes no harm, then we must train in a non-egocentric way. And if we train this way, then this is how we must test.
And we should take special care when we test to not become attached to the results: becoming attached to results will affect the ego. Too much success and one’s ego can inflate; people can start to define themselves by these successes. Or failure- not meeting one’s expectations- can cause one’s ego can be hurt. Such attachment can cause us to compare ourselves to others, to want us it to be better than others: We yearn for the next kyu level, get impatient and try to dash towards a black belt. Here, motive is key: let others serve as an inspiration to better ourselves, to become better than we were yesterday: it’s not about being better than somebody else; that’s a road to nowhere.
Looking back to when I first started training in aikido, I set out in the same vain as I’d finished my karate training many years ago. Some of those ideas were good, such as the train hard ethic, dedication and focus; however, in spite of having spent several years engaging in various practices to let go of my ego, at times I still found myself wound up in competitive thoughts. How quickly can I test? How long to get my black belt? I can do those techniques, why can’t I test for a higher kyu level? Why does sensei keep correcting me on a technique that I’ve been tested on before? These are ego emotions, the desire to want to be better than something or somebody, and as such are emotions that must be relinquished to properly practice aikido. I would say this training is the most difficult and takes the most time, and perhaps explains why Sensei invites us to test based not only on our ability to perform techniques.
As my training has progressed and I have been challenged more physically and mentally by the training and testing process, so have I been able to recognize an increasing number of occasions when I have been confronted by a mirror reflecting my inner nature. Furthermore, these events do not exclusively occur when practicing aikido: these events have arisen when I’ve been at work and at home. In fact, I’ve found that these occurrences tend to correlate with times of stress, which emphasizes further the importance of testing in aikido: it is natural to get a little tenser when we test and this alone can reveal a lot about ourselves.
Aikido is a beautiful art form. On the outside, its flowing circular movements are both mesmerizing and powerful, and potentially lethal if not executed with a compassionate state of mind. And on the inside, aikido is arguably even more beautiful, requiring each one us to take a journey of reflection, to look in the mirror, as we work towards developing a means of self-defense where the response is rooted in understanding and non-aggression. This journey opens our hearts to a realm where we able to feel thankful and grateful for everything, even the opportunity to recognize something new about oneself at 4 o’clock on the morning of a shodan test.