Quite honestly I might as well be writing about life, because maintaining one’s personal integrity off the mat is vital if you want to make your way in the world and be happy. For me, the mat on which I practise aikido is just a training ground for the mat of life, and I think that the two are bound together.
The reason for focusing on aikido is that the training, (true for martial arts training generally) seeks to engender this particular virtue. Indeed one of the pleats in the hakama is deemed to be representative of it, (the other six pleats also have a meaning).
So what is integrity and why is it an important aspect of our training? The Oxford English Dictionary provides the following definition:
1 - The quality of being honest and having strong moral principles.
2. - The state of being whole and undivided.
2.1 The condition of being unified or sound in construction.
I think that most of us would associate the word with honesty and having a strong moral compass, but not necessarily with the concept of being whole and with being unified. It is perhaps these aspects that resonate so much with aikido training.
So on to the next question. Why is it important to be honest, to be able to integrate the whole of your being and to seek unification, or should I say to be at one with yourself and through that with others?
In simple terms, aikido, (and again this probably applies to most martial arts) is about so much more than mastering a series of techniques. It is really about developing yourself and helping others to fulfil their potential, an unending, but fulfilling path. It involves change, and to change students need to look honestly at themselves. As none of us are perfect, that means looking at the bad stuff as well as the good, which is something most people generally avoid. Martial art training forces you to look at yourself under a microscope, which can be a very uncomfortable process. There is nowhere to hide on the mat! If we are to progress, we have to change, which is generally an uncomfortable process. It takes a certain strength and resilience to put yourself through this, but the rewards are there for those that are willing to stick with the programme.
It is a personal theory of mine that many students stop practising, when their training on the mat reaches their personal level of being off the mat. Some people through their life experience are already black belts. Whatever their level, there comes a time when to make progress, they have to take a close look at themselves. For some this is too much and so they find an excuse and drift away.
You cannot change yourself without this personal honesty and equally you will not fulfil your potential to effect change in others if you don’t bring that same level of honesty/integrity to your ukemi. You have to give yourself freely, you should not fall for the sake of it and neither should you let your ego get in the way of taking a fall. You just give and keep on giving and both parties are there to explore the consequences.
Integrity brings peace of mind, which in turn brings calmness, relaxation positivity, and unity of mind and body, all of which are fundamental virtues sought by martial artists. (I should add that many other paths seek to help us find these virtues as well). In aikido terms, it means we are able to bring our best selves to the mat and when practising with others, it becomes second nature to move at the appropriate time and in the appropriate way and thus create a smooth and beautiful movement that is a positive experience for the person on the other end of the engagement.
This is no less true in life itself. Integrity brings us a clear eye and a sense of personal well- being. This helps us deal positively with what life throws at us. So it is a necessary consequence of good training on the mat, that you are honest with yourself and with others. To not do this, is to sell yourself and your partners short. Again, this is no less true off the mat. We need to be honest with ourselves and with those that we interact with and we need commitment and strength to that.
So what can you do to bring about the change that most of us aspire to, but perhaps all too frequently don’t put enough effort into to realise? Just like on the mat, the first thing that is required is to show up. Life offers the chance to practise day in and day out. So don’t just drift through life, be purposeful and set your goals and ask yourself regularly whether what you are doing is going to help you be the person you want to be. Commit to train and honour your commitments. Don’t say things and then not do them. You let yourself down when you do and more often than not, if the commitment involves others, you let them down too. (I see this happen all the time, when organising events. People make a commitment to come and then don’t even have the courtesy to let you know, when they change their mind. It seems like a small thing, but it leaves a long lasting impression, especially if I see that pattern repeated time and time again).
Training starts with the little things, where integrity, or a lack of it, has little consequence, but getting those things right, starts a pattern of behaviour, which helps us to do the right thing, when tougher choices come our way.
If you consider your training on the mat, you will see we start in just this way. Attacks start from a static base and build up to a full on version over time. Our training should be demanding from day one, but not overwhelming. In this way, over time, we can prepare for whatever comes our way both on and off the mat.
On the mat, there is a teacher who can provide guidance, and off it most of us also have role models who fulfil this role like parents, teachers and good friends, but the truth is ultimately you are your own teacher and most of the learning is within. It’s up to you as to whether you listen to that inner voice or not, but you have no better friend!