When starting out in a practice, one’s senses are not developed. So we need to always be “developing our eye”, so to speak, so that one can better pick up on the details, the nuances that are associated with greater sophistication and progress. When our eyes are not so developed, we need the details to be easier to see. Usually this translates to “bigger” and “slower” movements, whether we’re the ones observing or doing. Another, overlooked aspect is: “more strongly”, likewise applying to both when we’re observing and doing.
Why is doing things “more strongly” overlooked? First, in contrast to “bigger” and “slower”, there is little to no visual indication. Of course this is true when you’re watching someone else do something big or slow. But it also applies when you yourself are doing it; you can not only have the sensation of moving slow or big, you also get visual feedback of the same. The visual feedback may actually what we depend on more in the early stages, since our senses of movement and touch are still relatively dull. On the other hand, regarding “more strongly”, you have no visual feedback when doing something yourself. In the beginning, you likely are using the amount of strength or force that you’ve chosen arbitrarily (or based somehow on the conditioning you’ve undergone in life so far) just to accomplish the form or technique you’ve been given. That is, you unwittingly associate a certain amount of strength or force with the technique. When it comes to “big” and “slow”, this association can be mitigated because you can see examples of others doing the same thing (e.g., technique) more quickly or small. You can thereby acquire an image, or an ideal, to work toward and copy. However, when it comes to “strong” or “forceful”, you can see an example of someone doing something with little strength, but that does not give you an ideal to work toward and copy. Doing something with x amount of strength is not an image but a sensation. Creating an ideal becomes a different kind of task. You have to imagine for yourself what the ideal is like – specifically what it feels like. The more important piece is that you do this while observing your own non-visual sensation, or feedback, of how much strength you are using in the moment. This can be a significant challenge, as our imagination often comes up with a crude ideal of doing with “ease” or “no strength”, an ideal that is almost immediately challenged by the necessities of many other things that we’re not close to sorting out, let alone identifying and noticing. As for “big” and “slow”, you can depend upon your existing eyes, but for “strong”, you have to almost start from scratch, and refine your senses of motion, exertion, touch, etc.
Secondly, the above mentioned association between techniques being done in certain ways has a sociocultural basis – i.e., it is a conditioned way to see things. You walk into the dojo and start your aikido experience with certain conditioned ways of thinking, perceiving, etc. and by joining the dojo group and culture, are exposed to other conditioning. One of the ideals of starting aikido is to depart from non-aikido conditioning and realize something “better”, such as resolving conflict and aggression differently. But as it is when you walk into the dojo, you equate certain images with “effective”, “practical”, “amazing”, “impressive”, etc. If what the people in the dojo are doing doesn’t fit your expectation, you will not likely put yourself in the situation where you will learn to disentangle those things that you equate and possibly expand or deepen your grasp. The same thing goes if you equate certain images with “peaceful”, “joyful”, “supportive”, “safe”, etc.
Unfortunately, it’s not necessarily the case that the people in the dojo categorically have deepened their grasp of matters and realized “better” conditioning. They may continue to be subject to non-aikido conditioning. In relation to doing things “strongly” or “forcefully”, many of us have an image of what that looks like. In doing aikido, do we truly depart from that conditioning, or do we simply assimilate it and give it a slightly different image? Even if you entered a dojo with people who are truly realizing a different, “better” way of “strong” and “forceful”, you yourself initially perceive and interpret based on your non-aikido conditioning. What this translates to is, for example, your senior throws you very forcefully but actually using little strength; and for your part, the only way you can conceive of this happening, and for you to attempt yourself, is to use a lot of strength. Another example is, you attack your senior with a lot of strength, and they handle it easily; for your part, especially when interpreting what happened and when attempting to do so yourself, you do so from the perspective of your inexperience in aikido. Yet another example is, you attack your senior strongly or persistently, and are not satisfied until they do something that is sufficiently strong or forceful for you to notice or recognize as a “proper” outcome.
How then, to realize this “better” way yourself? Simplistically copying someone who can sense and move with a greater sophistication than yourself is not practicable. (At this juncture, some people choose either to adopt the slightly different image of using strength, some to conservatively stay with the level of doing things at a basic level i.e., “big” and “slow”, some others try to simplistically copy the sophistication and figure out how to continue to do that in their dojo culture, and some simplistically copy, find that it doesn’t work, and dismiss their initial inspiration person/group as faulty, imperfect, and not worth examining.) It is at this juncture that we can plainly see how personal the practice becomes.
It is personal in that one has no recourse except to become familiar with one’s own senses and experience. It is about one’s relationship with oneself. This requires effort in that one has to learn how to concentrate, reflect, look inward, summon curiosity and interest. The student who tends to maintain a state of already knowing, of being confident and comfortable, etc. is the student who may be less inclined to make this effort.
It is also personal in that one has to develop one’s own way to make use of the seniors and teacher e.g., the image that one has of them, the memory that one has of the interactions. It is about one’s relationship with one’s community, which includes mentor, seniors, peers, juniors, and strangers/”other”. This requires effort in that one must try to reconcile that which one sees in one’s role models with however one oneself is currently. One must also try to reconcile all of the imperfections and failures, and simultaneously keep a check on over-idealizing of the role models. One must be receptive to the here-and-now of the interactions as well as the feedback given about the interactions. One must be attentive and selfless.