On ‘Aikido Leadership and Personal Responsibility’ article

From reading George Ledyard’s ‘Aikido Leadership and Personal Responsibility‘, some points that resonated with me:

In relating to the organizational membership as a whole, things seem quite the reverse. The Shihan seems to be more interested in creating a harmonious whole than in correcting the many deficiencies he sees (often much to the puzzlement of the “deshi” who may have been severely chastised for exactly the same deficiencies).

I think this is puzzling only to those who do not identify themselves clearly e.g., do they see themselves as the same as the “average student” or as not “one of the masses”? I think that if I am actually functioning as a more serious student, regardless of any official deshi status, I can attend to and discern how the teacher interacts and relates with individual students. Of course the danger that many of us would like to avoid is ego and adopting a condescending attitude e.g., “Of course sensei doesn’t give you a hard time. You don’t count for much whereas I do.” However, refusing to acknowledge the possibility that I am not the same as everyone else is delusional and spiritually materialistic also e.g., “To see myself as different as the other people sounds arrogant so therefore I should deny any difference in attitude, skill, relationships, or any individuality for that matter.”

Another point is that it’s highly likely that the teachers who subscribe to this individualized, selective way of relating inadvertently abide by an elitist, in-group/out-group frame. In my own exposure to teachers I can see a clear attitude of, “I’m a professional. You may do aikido, too, but it’s an entirely different boat than the one I’m in,” which of course is understandable – they may be entitled to some level of pride in their profession and they actually do reach a level that most of us do not. The question is, how, from their point of view, to raise deshi-type students and average students at the same time? Since students are almost never bestowed explicit deshi status, something is conveyed from the teachers implicitly. If I am criticized or chastised for something others are not, then I am being sent the message that I should be operating by a different script with different expectations than others. Furthermore, perhaps the dual identity of being a deshi and simultaneously a part of the harmonious group whole is something that one can reconcile more easily if one is from and within the Japanese culture. I think that, if I am not from the Japanese culture, then I would be “pulled” to err one way or another e.g., be aloof and put myself distinctly apart from the group or be “one of the gang” and perhaps even hide my additional responsibilities and abilities.

I believe that training today requires much more personal responsibility than it did when I was a mudansha and lower level yudansha. No one is going to force you to be better. You won’t get criticized… you won’t take extra hard ukemi… the most you can expect is very oblique reference to what the Teacher wishes you to do.

True! The way you find yourself on the “advanced track” may be explicit, as in the cases of people becoming official Hombu Dojo deshi, or implicit, as in cases when a student strives to get more and is given more opportunities for interaction with the teacher. However, these days it is harder to fall into either of these clear cases of having more “deshi-ness”. Part of the responsibility mentioned is making time to live an unusual life and have more availability to your training. Another part is making a conscious effort to continually reflect on where you stand in the group, how you identify yourself, and what your priorities are (e.g., is it more important to be peers with group members or to be doing whatever more serious training entails?).

So if one is at a seminar or especially a rank test and the Shihan overseeing the test seems to praise some individual’s performance and singles him out, it isn’t meant to be feedback for that student. The Teacher is trying, obliquely, to say to the group, “Look. That is what I expect. I want you people to pay attention and shoot for that level of performance on your tests.”

In my initial period in aikido, before I’d ever considered politics, seniority, deshi/student, etc., for whatever reason I hung on every comment my teacher made. Certainly part of it was anxiety or neurotic in basis (“Oh no, does he mean me?”) but part of it was the obvious truth that I wasn’t perfect and any reminder, criticism, observation, etc. was useful to me and it would be a waste to neglect it.
Quickly it became common sense to me that anything the teacher said about someone, no matter how obviously specific to that person, there was part of the comment that applied me or that I could steal and take for myself. Part of my exasperation with the denseness of many aikido students is that other students’ experiences (e.g., teacher comments, other students’ experiences, successes, struggles, etc.) are overlooked despite being valuable resources to one’s own training. In all too many cases I believe that a student perceives many actions of teachers, seniors, and peers to be irrelevant to their own training.

To properly understand these oblique messages one must be honest with oneself. If the teacher … gives a lengthy lecture … one must ask oneself, honestly, if what he is saying is meant as a message for you. If the tests seemed to be lack luster, with ukes who didn’t really attack, with little energy or intention, one should understand that the makoto lecture was the Sensei’s way of saying that the attacks needed to have real intention, that the tests needed to have more energy. You have to ask yourself, is this true of my students? Does my dojo lack the kind of intensity the teacher is referring to?

I once saw an instance in which this very thing occurred. After the long talk about makoto, which to my mind very clearly referred to the low level of energy and completely ineffective attacks on the tests, I was talking to some folks who had interpreted what the Sensei had to say as meaning one had to care deeply about what one was doing and treat it very seriously. While makoto does indeed include that meaning, in the context of the tests it was clear to me that they had missed the point of the lecture and had concluded that the Sensei must have been talking to someone else. Not wishing to believe that their own practice could perhaps have more intention, stronger attacks, etc they chose the meaning that validated what they were already doing. This is the downside of the oblique approach to feedback… it requires people who willing to look critically at themselves and what they are doing.

First off, one way to resolve the challenge of misapprehending oblique messages at all is to frame the situation as learning a different language. For instance, a nod of the head translates to “hello”. A compliment to a student is a message to other students telling them that’s what they should be doing, etc. Question, question, question. If what the teacher said was a compliment to another student, what message could it have for me? If the teacher mentions a specific topic, why did he choose it on that occasion? If I have self-critical ears, what could they get out of the message? What could it mean to me?

Another misunderstanding regarding the top instructors… they don’t teach outsiders the same way they teach the folks within their own dojos. One only needs to visit the dojo of one of the Shihan level instructors when there isn’t some kind of event, when the teacher is conducting his regular classes with his own direct students. The contrast is often startling.

I remember thinking, early on while attending the first several of my seminars, “Is this it? I have this feeling the teacher is only talking about part of whatever he has been doing that makes him who he is today.” I think the self-critical, constructively responsible students will be more inclined to perceive the absence of certain messages or the incomplete-ness of their training. Not only will they be more inclined to notice, they will actively seek to complete their training however possible. If they wish to subscribe to certain aspects of their lives that keep them from seeking completion, then that is simply their priority. It should be acknowledged, however bitterly, rather than denied or minimized.

If one looks at the senior students of a given teacher and feels that they represent the kind of Aikido one is shooting for, then one needs to look at how they have been trained. If a teacher wishes to produce students of that caliber, then one must train his own students in a similar manner. If a student wishes to become like the seniors he sees teaching classes, taking the ukemi, etc. he must ask himself if his training is designed to do that.

I am not sure, but I suspect that in this culture we are implicitly discouraged from idolizing a person standing right next to us in most cases. Instead we are encouraged to find ourselves, to stand on our own unique two feet. However, imitation of examples we wish to emulate or become must be done rigorously and with at least some abandon in order to bear fruit. If I have it strongly in my mind that I can’t emulate my senior too strongly because I must stay true to myself, then I am going about the endeavor with a distinct mindset of denial or negation rather than acceptance and openness.

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