(This post was written by Paul Norris.)
What’s necessary to your training? The techniques? Your sensei? Your senpai and fellow aikidōka?
For me, a lot of my training happens when I’m not doing technique: before it begins or after it’s over, or when I’m taking ukemi for my partner or for sensei; at the beginning of class, lining up and bowing in; watching sensei demonstrate techniques; and then at the end of class, as we clear the mat and leave. These are moments when I’m not “doing aikidō,” figuring out which foot to move and how to work with uke’s energy. They’re unavoidable, a necessary part of training in aikidō. But more than that: in these moments, I have time to consider my training in a larger sense, and how I go about it. I think of this as practising a specific skill: learning and trying to demonstrate proper etiquette.
Etiquette, for many Americans, is a trivial and anachronistic concept, a set of arbitrary rules that used to be important, say in mediaeval Europe or Japan, but which are basically irrelevant to our everyday lives. I’m American, so Japanese etiquette isn’t something I know how to do. That means I’m just pretending in the dōjō: trying to act the way I would if I were Japanese, and knowing at the same time that I can’t possibly succeed. I don’t speak Japanese. I don’t have any idea how to make my bow correspond to our relative social statuses. English doesn’t give me any way to choose language that reflects my relationship with the other person, the proper combination of honorifics and formal/informal constructions and how to use them appropriately. I only have a rough idea what “onegaishimasu” and “dōmo arigatō” mean, and I can’t even be sure I’m pronouncing them correctly. It would be a lot more ‘honest’ of me to just act like an American: not bow to anyone, wear jeans rather than a gi and hakama. And not learn aikidō at all. But here I am, practising a Japanese martial art, pretending to be someone I’m not. Is that necessary, or even worth doing? Is it part of training?
I think it’s very important. It’s a pretending that makes something else possible. Through my training, I’m learning to be different, more balanced and flexible. Etiquette is a central part of how I can do that: acting as if I’m Japanese. What I say, how and when I bow, is the evidence of my learning. Technique can’t be mastered just by doing technique: it’s the external demonstration of correct posture and balance, ki and ma-ai. The same way, etiquette is the external demonstration of my training in attitude. As I slowly find my way into the movements, as I learn to take ukemi, my technique improves; and as I learn to care about how I work with others, how my behavior reflects on my dōjō and on my sensei and fellow aikidōka, my etiquette improves. Seeing that happen supports me in my training, learning flexibility and balance, finding my center: becoming who I want to become.