The first time I stepped onto an aikido mat, I was taught how to centre, how to ground, how to extend and how to relax in a positive manner. I followed the directions I was given and I was able to see a dramatic difference in my performance levels. I was blown away! I had no idea how it worked, but the results were spectacular, almost other worldly, and it is with this sense of wonder that I have approached my study ever since. In short order, aikido piqued my curiosity and it still does. Trying to understand how it works is like trying to capture the perpetual carrot being dangled in front of my nose. I know it is a never ending quest and that I will never truly get a hold of it, and so you would be forgiven for asking ‘what’s the point’ in chasing after it. The fact of the matter is that the joy and the wonderment are in the journey, much like life itself.
The question I would ask you back is, what sort of journey do you want to take. Are you going to sit on the back seat, close your eyes and just wait to be told that you have arrived, or do you perhaps want to drive the car yourself? Better still, maybe you need to ignore the car and walk instead, observing all that is around you, asking questions when you can of travellers you meet along the way, lifting stones to see what is underneath and occasionally allowing yourself to explore a side road or two. The second option may appear harder and definitely slower, but it is so much more enriching. Do you want to live a life or do you want it to pass you by?
I often say aikido is synonymous with life and my answer to that last question is that personally I want to live a life. To do this, I need to take it all in. I need to be perpetually curious. Curiosity is a wonderful teacher because it feeds my ability to understand. It nourishes me constantly and helps me to grow. So how do we cultivate this aspect in ourselves?
The first thing to note about curiosity is that energetically it is an active state and takes you out and beyond yourself. In order to satisfy it, you have to take action and then you have to see what comes back through the senses. It could be as simple as asking a question and listening to the answer, or more complex, such as when the scientist sets up an experiment in order to observe what takes place, carefully noting all the results in order to draw some conclusions.
So how can we express this curiosity on the mat? There are many ways in which we can do this, but the first and perhaps the most obvious is to ask questions. Surprisingly, this most basic step is often ignored and indeed traditionally has been frowned upon. Yet even where teachers are open to being questioned, all too often students have a tendency to just do what they are being shown, rather than asking why they are doing what is being shown. By way of example, I, like many other teachers, have my own particular way of warming students up at the start of class. I have certain aims in mind and I’m very specific about how students should use their bodies and where they need to direct their attention as they do so. It is not necessarily obvious why I am asking for such specifics, and yet I am almost never asked why we are doing it this way. (I might add that in my regular class, I do explain why when I’m not asked, but I would rather students filled the space themselves.)
Following instructions blindly without any understanding of why, might get you results in the short term, but when the pattern changes you are likely to end up floundering. In short, the growth is in the ‘why’, not the ‘how’. With the answer to ‘why’ you have knowledge at a conscious level, which can be applied whenever it is appropriate to do so.
The second major way is which we can cultivate curiosity is through making a habit of truly paying attention to the feedback we are getting all the time, through our bodies. When we are working on our own, we need to really use all of our senses to gain the most knowledge from any given situation.
Sadly, I think we are cultivating a society that increasingly encourages people to ignore the feedback from the best pc ever designed, (our bodies). How many people do you know that don’t notice that perhaps their posture is awful, or that their lifestyle is destructive? It doesn’t even occur to them that they can change things for the better, because they simply don’t notice that things aren’t working out and they don’t have the curiosity to explore other ways of being. What is normal for you is not necessarily natural or good. In short, if you live in a goldfish bowl and you don’t know that there is something beyond it, then you just keep swimming around and around.
It has taken me many years of study to really start paying attention to the feedback my body is giving me and I’m sure I have a long way to go in cultivating this skill, but the more I pay attention, the more I learn and sometimes it is the more subtle stuff that teach me a lot. The only way to notice this is to pay attention.
Thirdly, when working with someone else, either as uke or nage we have a perfect chance to gain feedback from our partner and to learn from it. We can learn much from a well-executed technique, but much more from the mistakes. However, we will only do so, if we are committing ourselves to our partner and paying attention to what is going on.
Noticing when things didn’t feel quite right will perhaps allow you to understand how the technique broke down and give you an idea of what might need to change in order for things to work better. Whilst I know that giving this feedback to your partner is sometimes not encouraged, at the very least it is knowledge that you can use when you reverse roles. If your observations were right then perhaps your partner will feel it and learn from it. In simple terms, it really helps to take on the role of explorer and scientist in every engagement. When you do, you can’t help but expand your knowledge.
Finally, I would suggest that there is no one teacher who can give you everything that you may want and need to know. Again, in many quarters, mixing with other lineages and teaching styles is frowned upon. How sad!
I practised for 17 years within one association and it was so closed that I honestly never truly realised there were any other styles of aikido beyond the one I was studying. This happened because the truth was hidden from me and a culture of fear was used to discourage my natural tendency towards curiosity. Whilst that style gave me a fantastic foundation, ultimately my personal growth began to stultify and this was exacerbated by an increasing tendency within the organisation to stamp on creativity.
While I will always be grateful for what I was given, the best decision I ever made was to leave and to start exploring the wider world of aikido. I have met so many wonderful people and teachers, and some who were not so wonderful. In every instance, experiencing what they had to offer informed my journey. Where there was something new that suited my path, I have taken it on board and brought it into my practise, and the things that didn’t suit were left behind. In the latter situation, it wasn’t necessarily wrong, but I allow myself to be true to myself and to make decisions accordingly. I have learnt from the bad as well as the good! (Subjective judgements of course, but in the end they have to be.)
In summary, if you want to improve your aikido, (actually this is true for any other aspect of life that you wish to explore), then cultivate your curiosity. Remember that you are following your own path and don’t let anyone stop you from doing that. The important thing is to keep putting one foot in front of the other, observing what happens along the way, learning from it with a view to easing the way forward not only for yourself, but for your fellow travellers.