The Gateless Gate, Revisited
When I first read Andrew Sensei’s “The Gateless Gate” essay in 2007, I thought it was about each of us having our own gate through which we must pass to continue our journey in life. Interestingly, at the time, I envisioned actual physical gates and latches that reflected the personality of each individual.
Recently I re-read Sensei’s essay and have a new realization about it. I’m not saying my new interpretation is correct, but his message strikes me at a whole different—and deeper—level now.
Three years ago, to grasp some understanding of the idea, I had to give shape and form to something that I now realize has no shape or form. There is no actual gate. Now I see the Gateless Gate not as form but as our own self-created barriers that we choose to install in our lives…although sometimes we don’t even know we’ve installed them.
There is nothing blocking us from taking the step through the Gateless Gate and accomplishing whatever we want to do in life. The path ahead is wide open and obstacle free. That doesn’t mean the journey will be easy, but there is no barrier to entry.
Somewhere along the line, however, we start creating gates. They may be simple, rustic gates made of old barn wood and nails from the coffee can of cast-offs that’s in every garage. Or they may be intricate, complicated gates with dovetail joints and leaded glass panels, or sport three different colors of paint to complement the design.
In some ways, I think the complexity of the gate we create mirrors the story we create (and start believing) in our minds about why we can’t do something or pursue a goal or make changes. Our rationale may be a simple “I don’t have time,” or it may be a complex scenario of staying attached to past events and why they must dictate our future.
But there is no gate in reality. It is me who creates gates and blocks and barriers to avoid things that are difficult or that are easier to ignore than deal with straight on. I’m starting to see that the gate is mental and emotional barriers that may initially be created for good reasons—to keep us safe is one of those reasons, or to prevent us from experiencing pain. But eventually, at different levels, gates stymie growth and keep us stagnate. We begin holding ourselves back, perhaps even subconsciously, because safety feels more important than striking out on a new, unknown path.
And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.
Rather than spending time building a gate, why not choose instead to spend that emotional energy walking through the opening and moving forward? Why do we sometimes make things way more difficult than they need to be? And why do we spend time building very elaborate rationales (gates) for why we choose to stay stuck and not pass through and beyond the gate?
I’ve been riding with horse trainer Mark Rashid for many years. He once shared this idea: “In comfort, there is little opportunity for growth.” In our horsemanship journey, it means that we riders or our horses may sometimes need to struggle to get beyond a comfortable plateau. It may be comfy there, but it’s also stagnant and we’re not growing or getting better. But choosing growth can be a real test of fortitude as we knowingly go into a place of discomfort for the longer-term gains that are likely (but not guaranteed!) to happen.
As regards to Aikido practice, I’m coming to think that the Gateless Gate is our self-imposed limitations on what we work toward, the effort we put in, and the goals we set. Perhaps more important is the perception we have of our efforts and our dedication and our practice.
We may think we’re practicing as frequently as we can, and bringing as much martial spirit, focus, and intensity as we can to the mat. Maybe that’s true at one level. We’re doing the best we can at that moment. But in reality, we can always practice more frequently, more intensely, more deeply.
And more uncomfortably.
Maybe learning to practice from a place of continual discomfort is one of the keys to improving, in Aikido or anything. We will never be perfect in any endeavor, but if we start equating comfort with progress, we may be kidding ourselves.
I’m starting to see that the Gateless Gate may be the reasons (excuses?) we tell ourselves for why we miss practice, or seem content with drifting toward improvement rather than consciously working toward it. Yet there is the kicker. Even if we make the conscious decision to improve and reach the next level for where we are in our practice, that doesn’t mean progress is guaranteed, nor is it necessarily quick. It can take a lot of time and require a lot of pain (emotional, sometimes physical) to reach new levels (which then become the next new plateau that we must consciously move beyond).
I’m realizing in my own practice that big changes require big changes. That sounds simplistic, but if I am working toward a deep and fundamental change in my Aikido, it will not come from sticking with the same old approach I’ve used in the past. Change requires change, not sameness, and change is uncomfortable. That’s the price of the ticket. Status quo may be known and comfortable, but it will not get me where I want to go. Perhaps sheer hours of practice may lead to a bit of improvement over a long period of time, but that approach carries the risk of having one year of experience repeated for 20 years. For me, that is not improvement. I need to do things differently to have any chance at arriving at a different outcome.
Finally I see that there is no gate in the Gateless Gate. Life is waiting for us to walk through the opening. It’s up to us to take the gate off its hinges, toss it off to the side of the path, and wave goodbye to that piece of the past and those self-imposed limitations. It’s up to us to step through the opening that is the future and embrace the discomfort that’s wrapped around the gift of growth.
As a life planning coach once told me, the biggest risk with knowing what I want to do in life is making the choice not to do it, and being faced with the consequences of that decision every day….