Our dojo hosted a seminar with Mary Heiny Sensei last weekend, making the sixth year she’s been out to see us in Austin. In addition to being a wonderful person and a great aikidoist, Heiny Sensei has a wealth of stories about training in Japan in the early 70s. Her status as a foreign female meant she had a lot of obstacles to overcome, and she speaks of those experiences with candor and familiarity. I learned so much from her on the mat thanks to her skill as an aikidoist and an instructor. But even more than the training on the mat, her stories have stayed with me, and reopened a train of thought that I’ve considered on and off through the years: lineage.
By “lineage,” I mean more than simply the transmission of technique from master to student. Although that is encapsulated in the concept, I’m also thinking of the continuity of experience that personal contact allows. Even more than books or video, having a living, breathing human relate her experiences gives those stories an immediacy that allows them to sink in. They make a home in my brain, changing how I think and how I view the world.
On the other hand, when I visited Saotome Sensei’s Aiki Shrine in Florida a couple of years ago, he also spoke of lineage, calling us assembled students the third generation of aikido: O Sensei to him to us. He meant it to instill a sense of responsibility for carrying forward the art to successive generations. But his charge to us wasn’t personal; it was an admonition, not an anecdote. It lacked story. But for all that, his skill and instruction were clear, and insistent: you have a duty to continue this. Learn it, and pass it on to others.
Two facets of lineage, expressed by two very different people. Heiny Sensei’s stories and Saotome Sensei’s formidable skill, laid out before me, drawing me down the path to continue my practice, to bring it to others.
Our teachers, whoever they are, have written an epic, astounding poem of life and training and adversity and sweat and joy and pain, and invited us to add our own stanzas. I hope to write something worthy of their company.
I help teach the kids class at our dojo, and it never ceases to amaze and humble me how much energy those li’l ankle biters have. Thankfully, the class is only 45 minutes, because by the end, both Jay and I are usually sweating and panting after trying to keep up with them. I’d like to say I’m grateful that their energy and enthusiasm keeps me young, but that would be a dirty lie. In fact, their energy and enthusiasm are overwhelming and exhausting. You know, in a good way.
What I am grateful for is their open mindedness and willingness to try new things. When I teach adults, I often find that although the spirit is willing, the mind is weak: adults often have to overcome preconceived notions on how something should be done, despite repeated admonitions to the contrary. Once a kid understands what you’re asking them to do, they just do it.
That’s a refreshing way to approach new situations, and something I try, with greater or lesser degrees of success, to keep in my practice on the mat and my life off the mat. So although I often wish I could siphon off some of their energy into my batteries, I’m grateful for their fresh, uncluttered perspective and open and accepting spirits.
The story, which I’m lazily not going to look up, goes something like this: An elderly couple celebrates their long-time anniversary. Let’s say 50th. When asked by a well-wisher, “What’s the secret to staying married for so long?”, the man replies, “Don’t quit, don’t die.”
Today’s post on Zen Habits, “The One Deadly Sin of Changing Habits”, talks about that. The one guaranteed way to fail in starting a new habit is to not do the habit.
We see this all the time at our Aikido dojo. Someone will start training with us, and after a remarkably brief period of time—a couple of months, or weeks—they’ve stopped coming. “Work has really gotten busy,” they’ll say, or in one memorable instance, “I’m just not getting better.”
The funny thing about mastery: everyone who keeps practicing gets better. Everyone. Some people may get better faster than others, but everyone increases their level of competence up to the level of their practice.
Want to get better at something? Don’t quit, and don’t die.
I like simple.