Walking in the Aikido Fog
by Charles Bland
(This essay was written as a requirement for Nidan (second-degree black belt) test, April 2012.)
After you have practiced for a while, you will realize that it is not possible to make rapid, extraordinary progress. Even though you try very hard, the progress you make is always little by little. It is not like going out in a shower in which you know when you get wet. In a fog, you do not know you are getting wet, but as you keep walking you get wet little by little.
— Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (1973)
An aikido sempai once told me what he knew of aikido had been learned through constant and persistent training. Getting through the dojo door and onto the mat every night is the foundation of Aikido practice. The founder made the same statement several times through his life. Aikido is learned through training and repetition.
Reading Suzuki’s quote about walking through the fog snapped the two ideas together into what has become my own personal motto for training: get on the mat as much as possible; improvement is often imperceptibly gradual.
After training for over 15 years, I don’t always notice changes to my practice from one day to the next, or one class to the next. However, I can often look back over the past year and note small improvements. Changes happen, but slowly over the course of months or years.
Even knowing that improvement is gradual and will happen with training, making the first step to get through the dojo door can be difficult some days. These have always been the times when I needed to train the most; I need to go to class, but am having trouble getting off the couch. When thinking back to past classes, I can’t remember a time when after training I thought, I shouldn’t have gone to class. Every training has benefit. The ones where I had a difficult time motivating myself to get on the mat even more so.
Good training is frustrating. Without the sometimes painful push to improve, practice is empty. That push may come from Sensei, or myself – usually both. First Sensei points out what I’m doing wrong. Next I think, no I’m not. Really? then, how long have I been doing that? Ten years or more? After going through the mental process of recognizing what needs fixing, I make the effort to change my technique and hope it sticks. Unfortunately my old habits tend to be stubborn and the process may repeat a few times before I can move on.
These small realizations are droplets in Suzuki’s fog. The idea that even though I don’t feel like training, it will be worth it afterwards takes time to sink in. Going through the frustrating process of finding and recognizing the mistakes I’m making in my techniques, then attempting to fix them so that the changes become permanent can be painful and some fixes take months. Later in class I’ll notice I made the change without thinking, and remember the reason I keep walking through the dojo door.
I’ve found that one bokken suburi no matter how well executed is not enough, nor is one hundred. Only after thousands of suburi does the form begin to reveal itself. Thousands of suburi, and thousands of hours on the mat eventually lead to a better understanding of Aikido, and I feel like my training is just getting started.