Seasoned budo people have been humbled time and again as they strive for mastery. No matter how proud their demeanor or how ample their egos, the old adage holds: death, taxes, and having been humbled. These people have also picked themselves up and carried on.
It’s easy to understand how one’s ego would be pummeled down to size in the sparring arts. When I practiced Karatedo years ago, I occasionally sparred with a particular yudansha (black belt) who had seemingly unending patience. He’d wait and watch tirelessly until he saw an opening or until my own patience had expired and I’d committed to striking him. I didn’t manage to hit him once: every time I initiated a punch or a kick, I was rewarded with a sharp series of blows that I’d feel but didn’t see. Several experiences like this blunted some of the protruding corners of my ego.
What about Aikido? We don’t compete, score points, or hold tournaments, and in much of our practice we cooperate with each other. At least we cooperate when we’re helping each other work on particular elements of our art. This combination would seem to furnish a model environment for self-deception and ego inflation, and I think that this does attract more people with fragile egos than do the competitive arts to try out the art.
But Aikido techniques are comparatively very complex. Compounding this, most of Aikido happens below the surface, subtly, almost imperceptibly if unaccompanied by extensive explanation, demonstration, and trial. Learning Aikido well demands focused effort by the student. It takes years of dedication to learn and execute Aikido effectively. And yes, we do challenge and test each other, especially as we become more senior. Consequently, in earnest Aikido-training, egos get humbled all the time.
Seasoned Aikidoka have had their techniques grounded, reversed, and rendered ineffective so many times by more capable martial artists that they’ve lost count of how long ago it was that they stopped counting. We’ve been promoted in rank, and sometimes students far junior to us have stopped us too. We’ve received attacks that we couldn’t handle. We’ve frozen under stress. We’ve been stopped by training partners intent on impeding a technique that they knew beforehand we were going to practice, who made attacks that by all reasoning demanded some other technique or superior ability than our own. These experiences provided conditions ripe for bruising egos, with the potential for causing feelings of humiliation. When our bruised ego matters to us, we lose our focus; we stop learning.
Those who have persevered in the art have without a doubt had their egos hurt, but they’ve moved on. Maybe they’ve toughened. More likely than not, however, they’ve stopped giving the same significance to the outcome of each practice. Some are able to focus instead on what’s happening in the moment and on improving. Accept the moment. Take ownership of your abilities and the outcome that just happened. Move on. Probably all seasoned Aikidoka have accepted that they’re neither invulnerable nor perfect, so they become less vulnerable to experiencing a loss of self-worth in response to any particular failure.
I think that one reason martial artists tend to gravitate toward each other and why dojos are such great environments is that we’ve learned some humility, at least in this facet of our lives. Not all students become humble in this manner; they tend to leave the art or stagnate.
We therefore don’t merely pay lip service to approaching martial arts with humility. To master Aikido, we need to be humble. Some of my most educating experiences were when I kept getting struck, stopped, or reversed when practicing with my Sensei or an expert martial artist; or even when practicing with a junior a technique that I was far from mastering. These situations provide learning opportunities that are gems, ready to be mined. But to mine them well, we must approach those situations with humility, and with humility we can maintain shoshin (beginner’s mind). Only then can we focus on what we need to be doing and understand what went wrong and how to fix it, unimpeded by distortions that are otherwise generated to sooth a bruised ego.
There’s additionally an insidious element of pride of which many may not be conscious. This is because it is a manner of lacking humility that tends to be lauded in the modern world. It’s often confused with pushing ourselves to greatness. A student practicing solo recently kept stopping and explaining that he’s his own worst critic. He explained that it’s not his ego that gets in the way when others better him on the mat, but that it’s his pushing himself to get better that causes his frustration. This push, he said, makes him frustrated when he plateaus or progresses slower than he thinks he should. While striving towards mastery is indeed laudable, such frustration at oneself stems from a lack of shoshin and distracts from what we really need to be doing. Whether our ego can be injured by others or by ourselves, isn’t the end result the same?
Humility is one of those things that help to keep us in the moment, with our eyes and ears open and our minds receptive. Humility is difficult to achieve, but it profoundly changes how far and fast we can move along the path of martial arts.
Brad Gould Sensei