Like many of you, I was attracted to Aikido because even though it is grounded in real combat and danger, it is a life art and philosophy. It is not motivated by machismo, fueled by insecurities, or limited by a competition mindset. That’s why more than 20 years ago, a conversation with a senior and experienced Aikido instructor surprised me and made me re-evaluate my priorities.
I was a young and dedicated junior student attending a seminar by an imposing and highly regarded teacher. The seminar instruction itself was fun and intimidating and inspiring and exhausting all together. As is often the tradition, on Saturday night we had a big party – in this case at a local dance and drinking establishment. There were dozens of Aikido people there, interacting, talking, comparing notes, dancing and just having a good time. That was when I noticed the teacher, sitting by himself off in a dark corner, staring into his drink with a dejected and introspective demeanor. Not one to neglect polite kohei etiquette or leave somebody out, I sat next to the teacher and attempted to draw him into the festivities.
What I hadn’t expected was that he was in the middle of a very emotional and personal self-examination moment, and I just happened to be in the right place and time for him to open up to me – a white belt he had never met before, and probably didn’t even know the name of. He told me that he had been training and teaching for thirty years, and had the respect of his peers, had learned more that he ever imagined, and by giving his entire life to Aikido had reached near the pinnacle of his career. But. He was divorced twice. His kids wouldn’t speak to him. He was deep in debt and owned nothing to his name. He had struggled with alcoholism for decades, and his health suffered every day because of it – not to mention aching joints and other injuries from a lifetime of severe and uncompromising training. He was a stranger to everyone, including his own students. Every day was a struggle, and after all that commitment and sacrifice, he said, he had nothing to show for his life.
The first thing that is probably going through your mind is “Oh, I bet I know which teacher he is talking about”… and you would probably be wrong. This is not a unique story, and that’s why it’s so important; I have encountered parallels to this situation in numerous arts and organizations.
What I wanted to share in this article is the realization that struck me right then – Aikido makes a wonderful life enhancer, but a fairly crummy life substitute. Like everything in this world, the art and the organization you participate in is perfectly ready to devour everything you have to give it and more, and leave nothing left for you. I realized that if I wanted to be happy in my life, I must find the right balance for my Aikido training, and make plenty of space to build a well-rounded and satisfying life, career and relationships for myself. Similarly, I must find a way to make Aikido part of those other aspects of my life.
<blockquote>Aikido makes a wonderful life enhancer, but a fairly crummy life substitute. </blockquote>
Don’t get me wrong, I have great respect for our senior teachers who have dedicated themselves to the monastic pursuit of Aikido. They become our Shihan, and take the physical exploration, innovation, and manifestation of our art further than any amateur can. Their passion for the art ignites us.
However, my pursuit of balance has shown me that students are attracted to balance and desire that same balance in their own lives. I have found that by finding self-respect in my career and my relationships, it was easier to find confidence and self-respect in my Aikido, and vice-versa. Everybody needs respect in their lives, and if you can only hope to find it in one place (like your Aikido training), some of your decisions and behavior will be motivated by desperation and not true dedication or delight in the art. Sometimes the balance has to shift – the training requires more commitment as we prepare for new ranks or help build our schools or organizations, our careers require more attention as we seek growth and stability, our families require more attention as we deal with life events. Nobody will ever tell you “you are giving too much. You are being too hard on your body. You need to spend more time away from Aikido in order to improve your understanding.” You have to learn when you should be saying that to yourself (without letting it just be an excuse for laziness!).
I have found it very rewarding to pursue balance and strength and integrity off the mat as well as on the mat (with my entire life), and I have gotten feedback that my priorities and efforts have helped my own students can examine their own paths, make meaningful decisions and changes based on those reflections, and find a balance that is suitable for them. Considering how my actions and decisions may be seen and evaluated by my students – inadvertently or intentionally – has even helped me be a model for me. My track record certainly is not perfect – boy do I know how to screw up! – but the balance I seek is a very simple and attainable one. I hope you will find value in finding quiet strength in all aspects of your life, and that you will use Aikido as a tool to accomplish and not to neglect your life.