Imitation may be the highest form of flattery but it is also a great way to learn. The monkey-see, monkey-do teaching combined with an interpretive gloss is how most of us are taught. Add physical manipulation and now you have a training method.
In the Western tradition, the burden is on the teacher, even when done Socratically, to lead the students to a conclusion. Pedagogy, a pedagogue, from Greek paidagogos ‘the slave who leads to class.’ However, when I was taught, in true Japanese spirit, we were lectured to ‘steal’ techniques, meaning the burden was on the student to actively take information. This requires a higher level of agency in learning – an expectation of active engagement, not passive consumption. The older I get, the more that I am convinced the ‘truth’ lies somewhere in the middle – ‘students’ need to have a high degree of agency, but the ‘teacher’ can certainly facilitate the transmission of knowledge.
Perhaps I am proving myself to be a luddite, but as useful as online videos are, they are not conducive to imprinting information. They are wonderful in providing visual reminders – a historical record – a moving library, but consuming videos is not sufficient to making the art your own. To do that, I contest, one must be more active. Consider, the act of making notes, to physically write or draw something to memorialize the movement forces you to re-present the concepts in a different media and therefore you must re-conceptualize the technique. To ‘write it down’ forces you to segment, to try to distinguish important components, to deconstruct essential movements.
You will never exhaust your understanding of a technique because each time you focus on it, something new should reveal itself. I found an old note to myself:
“Observation / postulate – if there isn’t a clear narrative structure to presenting a technique, then it most likely is wrong. Aikido is a story of an interaction.”
Given that I wrote that after a seminar with Shibata sensei, I know it wasn’t inspired by some insipidly saccharine sentiment. (It may have been the very seminar when I remember him opining, “The purpose of Aikido is to kill.”)
I was reminding myself that without clear context every technique is mere movement – devoid of any meaning. Movements in a martial art must be doing purposeful actions otherwise they are wasted energy. A mathematical analogy is that the solution must be elegant – one can use brute computational force, but that lacks efficiency and style. All too often a martial art can gain embellished movement, extraneous parts that may add flourish, but are nothing more than tales told by idiots (yes, Macbeth, Act 5 Scene 5).
How do you know a movement has meaning? Answer, what are you targeting? If you are not gaining position, moving to a vital target or limiting your opponent’s options you are probably wasting time and energy. Efficient motion. Good biomechanics. Or as I suggested above, tell the story of the interaction – who, what, why, where, when. Basic format. Who initiated? What were they doing? Why did they do what they did? Where were they intending to hit? When (at what speed) were they approaching? All the variables and agencies should be clear to you. If you cannot re-frame* the story, then it isn’t clear for you.
Thus the suggestion to write it down. Re-frame the experience by translating it into a new media. Take notes, draw pictures, make new connections to external metaphors. Make it your own.
Try to mimic a teacher’s particular style – parody it even – you may find a new or useful spark you did not expect to discover.
This entire website is an extended meditation on learning and conveying Aikido – first by how I was taught/learned but increasingly on how I have re-framed it for myself to better understand universals: to deduce and distill principles. Let us be clear – these are idiosyncratic descriptions but I hope that they may foster new connections for you also.
Mulligan sensei once made a pithy observation that some people train for years but only ever train the same day. Meaning they fail to make connections and learn – every time they step on the mat it is the same experience, they don’t grow. And if you ain’t growing, you’re dying.
In his day job, Mulligan sensei taught English as a second language (ESL) and knew Chomsky, deep structure, and fluency acquisition and applied that as a metaphor for learning Aikido. You need to learn grammar for linguistic structure but the goal is fluency: Know the rules and break them like a native speaker. Learn the kihon and the precise movements in order to find the future freedom of expression in dynamic application.
Learning different languages can open deeper understanding of our mother tongue. Again, metaphors increasing connections – studying other martial arts should deepen your understanding of your own. But you need that foundational art.
Look back to Bruce Lee. Read his notebooks! His core art was Wing Chun, but look to his constant research to see how he made new connections. Generative grammar indeed!
Review the material I am (re)presenting. The influences are clearly enumerated and these posts an exegesis. Ultimately you should not agree with everything you read here but I hope you find something of value or new doors** to open.
Notes from Hombu circa 1994
*Re-framing. For me, the idea of re-framing is predicated on a sociological understanding, but one informed by Mikhail Bakhtin’s polyphony: combining here to mean that we should be studying widely to make connections and develop a re-presentation of our art [if only to ourselves] based on an appreciation for multiple perspectives. Note, this does not mean all perspectives are of equal value. They most definitely are not! I enjoy reading Marxist-influenced authors like Foucault, Bahktin, Bourdieu, but ultimately judge them incorrect. In a similar manner, I don’t think every martial art is of equal value, but I find valuable elements in all the arts I dabble in.
**Doors. Mulligan sensei is a music aficionado who can cite band membership, lyrics, and song tiles from any classical rock album. So pay homage and know where the Doors took their inspiration. And remember that Huxley riffed William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell – “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite” – to get his title. Bahktin’s intertextuality….