Learning from Experience

This old man must still train and train.

– Morihei Ueshiba, shortly before his death

Aikido is learned by experience or taitoku (体得). Teaching was often done through challenge, offering something incomprehensible and then providing the means by which one can experiment and learn to understand through experience.

Aikido evolved from the jujutsu of medieval Japan, filtered through the rapid changes that nation experienced in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This method of teaching was part of this culture. It was accepted by the Founder’s (Morihei Ueshiba) students and their students because it was how things were done. 

There was no exposition or explanation. One was presented with movement and told to repeat it. Most of the early aikidoka trained daily for hours. It was expected that one would commit his life to the study of aikido. Thousands upon thousands of repetitions of waza and randori instilled principles that could not be articulated.

In Zen Buddhism, a monk is often given a koan (公案) or riddle to meditate upon, and it is the basis of learning. Think of “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” or “take the pebble from my hand.” The purpose of the koan is to test perception and progress. The potential monk cannot simply look up the answer. He must look into the question, look into himself and comprehend the koan based on understanding rather than instruction. The answer exists beyond the question.

When I started Aikido, I thought that if I had a manual or a handout or a Youtube video, I would be able to do anything in the curriculum. I was willing to buy the DVD’s, if that would cut down the amount of class time I needed. I could not have been more incorrect. Aikido is “felt,” not explained. It is the meeting of bodies with momentum in space, but those bodies are so articulated and varied that any explanation deals with only a single scenario of an infinite spectrum of possibilities. 

Good Aikido is physiological calculus. Solutions are constantly evolving. No amount of information is enough. 

Great Aikido is unconscious physiological calculus. The body acts and reacts because that is what it does. It is truly subconscious, rising naturally from the neutral mind. It is innate and undefined. It simply is.

The great paradox of Aikido is that we learn things so we can forget them. We do the same waza thousands of times and discover that we will never exactly replicate that waza. New “techniques” are born every time we engage in randori. 

It helps me to think of Aikido like the way I speak, whether it is in a conversation or from the platform during worship. I have poured literally tens of thousands of hours of my life into studying the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, the languages, the cultures, the philosophical and religious ideas. When I speak on a Sunday or when I answer a question someone throws at me, the words come from somewhere else. I am the agent of expression; and it is totally “me” who is speaking but there is simply no way I could consciously do the spontaneous speaking I do; and there is no way to teach it either, except through repetition and devotion.

Someone once asked me how you overcome barriers to public speaking. Just keep doing it. Fail repeatedly and spectacularly. Eventually, it will become natural. Then, it will become innate. Then, it will become something else entirely. There simply is no substitute for repetition – fail or succeed. Do. Do. Do.


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