Answers and Questions

(This post was written by Paul Norris, a senior student at Vermont Aikido.)

The people we learn the most from in our lives aren’t necessarily the ones who teach us facts, or even a set of skills – how to ride a bike, study for a test, cook an edible dinner.  They’re the people who help us find ways to achieve more in our lives, reach goals that require art: to discover the ability to navigate a relationship, or to age gracefully, or to care about other people’s feelings and understand our own.  But these aren’t arts you can learn by memorizing steps; and that means that learning them isn’t about someone showing you how to do it, as much as it is about being inspired, to explore it and learn for yourself.

In aikidō, your sensei teaches you specific techniques.  More than that, your sensei offers you their life in aikidō, everything they’ve learned: about what works and what doesn’t, how to learn aikidō and how to practice it.  In our dojō, our sensei tells us over and over that the important thing isn’t the answer, it’s the question.  He shows us techniques and we try to execute them, following his example; but we never really succeed, or at least I don’t.

In the most recent class I attended, sensei offered me feedback on my technique.  He described it in terms of being insincere: doing things because I’m supposed to.  “Tenkan, check.  Face forward, check.”  But he was clear that unless nage is sincere, unless nage actually wants to connect with uke, then just checking things off a list won’t work.  It’s insincere, and (at least this is how it felt to me, so I think this is what he meant) mechanical, and not effective, because it’s not actually aikidō.

So what would be sincere?  How do I do that, if the best I can do in my practice is to be insincere?  Maybe I have to admit that I don’t really care about uke, not yet.  I know I’m supposed to; but right now I just want uke to not overpower me.  And the only way I can imagine accomplishing that would be to triumph over uke, make them fall down instead.  Be right, and have them be wrong: that’s my answer.

And that means admitting that I don’t have the right question yet.  Because my answer doesn’t let me do anything except check items off a list, and try to make uke fall down, and hope I don’t get overpowered first, or hurt or humiliated.  Even though I know that’s not what I’m here to learn – but right now that’s all I know how to do.

Because everything sensei offers us, in all the classes he teaches, isn’t an answer: it’s part of the question.  It doesn’t tell me how to get past the point I’m stuck at: of trying to make uke stop threatening me, keep them from making me lose my center.  I know it’s not up to them to stop doing that: it’s up to me to keep my center.  But I don’t know how to act on that knowledge.  It’s an answer, and I don’t understand the question behind it yet.

But I’m starting to think that maybe that’s the question I need to ask: who do I need to be, to not be afraid of uke?  To not be afraid of connecting?