“If the aikido training mat is the world, it’s the world under a magnifying glass. Subtle personality quirks are made large and clear. Hidden agendas come quickly to light. Every attempt at overreaching is revealed in sharp relief.”—
George Leonard Sensei
“The Way of Aikido - Life Lessons from an American Sensei”
Budo, like many things, can be seen as a microcosm of life. The dojo is a lot like the world. It’s a part of the world so this shouldn’t surprise us. What is often surprising is how intense experiences in the dojo can be. Activities in the dojo are a lot like any other place where people gather to participate in a shared interest. In the dojo though, everything seems more focused and intense.
Why should budo training in the dojo seem so much more intense than other activities?
Maybe it’s because in the dojo we are dealing with essential issues that we sweep under the rug and that polite society tries to avoid or hide rather than face head on. In the dojo we deal with violence and power and force. None of these things are even discussed much in polite society, yet we deal with them all the time. It is considered unseemly to suggest that violence and force are applied in life, or that people use power in ways that are bad for those around them.
I’ve written about trust in the dojo before. That trust is built precisely because we are working with these raw building blocks of violence and power and force. Society works to suppress physical violence and expressions of force and naked power. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’m pretty sure I don’t want to live place where these are frequently in play. I like living in a place where violence and physical encounters are rare. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t understand them and be able to deal with them.
We practice actual violence in the dojo. We train in the purposeful application of force. These things translate into real, physical power. Regardless of the ways in which society suppresses the use of violence, force, and power, they exist in society and are used in a myriad of subtle and not so subtle ways. People use the implication of physical power, or the threat of the use of other power, whether economic or social, to get what they want.
In the dojo, violence, force, and power are all out in the open, and we have to learn not only the mechanics of how to do violence and apply power, but how we feel about these things. Some people come in very timid and unsure of themselves and afraid to use whatever power they do possess. Others enter the dojo brimming with apparent self-confidence and believing their strength will make them powerful fighters right away. There are people who have had bad experiences being subjected to violence and sometimes there are people who have been bullies who are looking to enhance their reputation for power. There all the other folks strung out along the spectrum, each with their own agenda and expectations.
In the dojo we deal with violence, force and power at their most basic level. If I’m teaching sword or staff work, one of the first things that happens is I tell my student to hit me, and she doesn’t. She pulls the cut or strike. So I tell her to hit me again. And again she doesn’t hit me. Consistently new students will pull cuts because they don’t want to hurt anyone. This is the most common reaction the first time I ask a student to hit me. Most students have an admirable hesitation to do things that will hurts another person. One part of training is learning to trust their partner, and one part is learning to trust themselves.
Which is harder to do depends on the student. Some of them have learned to be afraid of their own power, so we have to work together until they can commit to trying to hit me without fear that I will be angry or upset when they do. Mostly there is no problem here. As the teacher in a koryu tradition, I’m used to being the beating dummy for new students. They need someone to attack that can safely handle what they are doing. They have to invest the time to develop control and precision. The time this takes varies a lot.
It’s wonderful watching students develop. Those who are afraid of their power gradually learn that it’s ok to use it in the dojo. The dojo is a safe place to learn about power. Students take time developing a new relationship with power and violence. One goal is for students who are afraid of their power and any sort of violence to establish a relationship with power and violence that contains neither fear nor domination. Power is a tool, and I want my students to be comfortable with it, but not enthralled with using it.
I do get a few on the other end of the spectrum though, who try wholeheartedly to put me in the hospital with a concussion. Some of them are already brimming with confidence. Some assume that if I’m dumb enough to tell them to hit me, I deserve whatever I get. Some are bringing their own issues to the dojo and are just thrilled to have someone to hit. Strangely enough, one of the goals for these students is the same as for the students who are afraid of their power: to establish a relationship with power and violence that contains neither fear nor domination nor an excessive reliance on it.
The dojo is a microcosm of life, and it is populated by all the same characters the rest of life is filled with. What is unique is how raw the interactions in the dojo are. Dojo etiquette can feel unbelievably stiff and strict, but that’s because it has to mediate the raw power and violence that is the life of a dojo. We see how people handle the etiquette and we see how they relate to power and violence. We see how they treat their partners and we learn how they respect others. This is life in a jar. We get to practice all those encounters we have every day outside the dojo where the power and violence are only implied and suggested in place and manner where the power and violence is overt and literally in your face.
That jerk who insists on intimidating people by standing way too close and leaning into people’s faces? He’s in the dojo and he’s still trying to push too close and intimidate you. Don’t worry about it. Here it’s not only acceptable to push him back, it’s entirely appropriate, and if you combine it with a gentle whack up side the head to remind him to keep safe ma’ai, all the better. The quiet one in the corner cubicle who is always worried about not upsetting anyone and keeps her head ducked down so you can’t see her eyes? She’s there, and give her all the respect she deserves. Just coming in the door is one of the toughest things she’s ever done. That mouthy, arrogant guy who knows he’s better than everyone? He’s there too, and hide your smile. Yes, he’s going to get slapped down repeatedly by the seniors until he learns that he’s not better than everyone, but it’s rude to show how much you enjoy seeing it happen. The guy who seems to like causing pain and problems purely for the pleasure of being able to cause them? Yes, he’s here too, and the seniors will undoubtedly let him know that unnecessary pain and violence won’t be tolerated here. They’ll probably let him know this and start ratcheting up the amount of pain and violence he receives until he gets the message. All the types of people that you meet in the world come walking through the dojo door, bow at the side of the training space, enter and take part.
So is there anything different from the dojo that makes putting up with all of these characters worth the bother? Really, they are bad enough at work or in the gym where they aren’t allowed to act out their issues physically, so why would anyone want to put up with them in the dojo where they can act upon all the implied violence of polite society?
Perhaps because all of us in the dojo are working on the same things, whether we know it or not. We are learning to handle our own ability for violence as well as the extent and precision of our own power. Whatever issues we have outside the dojo will be clear to everyone in the dojo. It doesn’t matter what issues we bring with us though, in the dojo we all learn to generate and apply power with precision, whether the application is straightforward or subtle. Some have trouble using power and violence, others are completely comfortable with it. The ones who have issues using power and violence gradually become adept at it. Eventually I don’t have to tell them to hit me. They know they can do it, that it’s expected and that it’s okay. They become comfortable with their ability to apply power and not hurt me, because they choose not to. They get comfortable with being pressured and attacked. The ones who had learned to pressure and attack people outside the dojo discover that always pressuring and attacking people may not be the best route. Everyone develops a new relationship with violence and power and force.
Out there in the world we have to make do applying the lessons we’ve learned. In the dojo, despite having all the same people and issues are staring back at us, or perhaps because they are there with us, we are actively working to learn new lessons about violence, power and force. Both the overly aggressive and the overly timid can learn the same lessons about being discriminating as to when and how much force to apply. We learn to discriminate between when someone is an actual threat and when they are trying to be threatening from what is in truth a weak position. The timid learn that they have power and how to use it. The aggressive learn that being overly aggressive is not a successful strategy. Both are learning when and how to apply force and when not to. They learn how use the power they possess and not place themselves in weak positions.
The dojo is the world in microcosm. All the same people and problems are gathered there. The interactions in the dojo are intensified because all the issues with power and violence are out in the open and being actively worked with. The wonderful thing is that in the dojo we are all learning to better understand and appreciate the use of power, force and violence. We learn when to use it and when not to, what can be successful and what will be ruinous, when to push back and when to just get out of the way. It’s the world in microcosm, but better, because we are learning what to do in the world instead of just stumbling along with whatever lessons life happened to teach us before.