In 1980 Scientific American published an article on the physics of various martial arts. In the article the author makes the statement, “Aikido is the most difficult of the martial arts to learn. Its demands for skill, grace, and timing rival those of classical ballet.”
George Leonard has studied aikido for over 35 years and has published several books based on his experience in Aikido including “The Ultimate Athlete,” “Mastery,” and “The Way of Aikido: Life Lessons from an American Sensei.” In an interview in April of 2000 he said, “I’ve talked to a lot of people in different arts and they say there’s no question about it. Aikido is by far the most difficult.”
In this same interview Leonard tells the story of his son-in-law whom he describes as a good athlete who knows a lot about the body. “He and my daughter came to visit me at the dojo and he said, ‘This time I’m going to be here at the beginning of class and stay until the end.’ So I said, ‘Great!’ He came, and I told him that if he had any questions that I’d be happy to explain it to him. The class started and after about half an hour, he had this worried look on his face. I went to him and asked, “What is it?” He said, “I just cannot figure out how it works.” He was determined to figure it out. Most people just sit there and then go blank with their eyes glazing over. It doesn’t make any sense since you can’t see how it’s happening. This guy knows the body, he understands the body. He could see the people getting honestly thrown but he couldn’t see what was happening. So, after about another fifteen minutes I looked over, and he’s now looking sick! You know how you can get nauseated sometimes from being disoriented? Afterwards, the next day, several people asked me what was wrong with my son-in-law. He said, ‘I’m having a hard time here. I swore to myself that I would understand this, but I just can not understand it.’ By the end of class, he was red under his eyes — the poor guy was literally sick!”
It’s part of our culture to believe that we can somehow master everything with our intellect. We have difficulty relating to skills and experiences that require other kinds of knowing. When we encounter the challenge of learning this way it is common to become disoriented and confused. We may even blame the process or the teacher or say to ourselves, “I just don’t like this.” This is all a very common reaction.
It is also common to feel that if we are not “catching on” quickly that somehow the process does not hold value or it’s just “not for us.” Our consumer culture constantly equates “easiness” with “value.” However, it is precisely because we are not able to “catch on” quickly that the process holds great value.
I started playing the violin just over a year ago. It is not easy. In fact, many call the violin the most difficult of all the instruments to learn. It is completely unforgiving. It makes no concessions. It is a jealous instrument that demands you fully and will take nothing less. I will tell you that at times it completely defies me. Beyond every minor hurdle I cross is another that is doubly daunting. I pride myself at being a quick study, but I am repeatedly humbled by this small assemblage of wood, steel and horse hair. I know, though, that the mastery required is not simply over the materials of the instrument, but over myself.
In 1962, President John F. Kennedy, in one of the greatest orations of the 20th century declared, “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade… not because it is easy, but because it is hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
No one had ever been to the moon in 1962. Scientists and engineers had not yet developed the technology to make that journey into a reality. Many believed the goal to be impossible. But I recall in 1969, just 7 years later, watching on our small black-and-white television, Neil Armstrong take that “giant leap for mankind” onto the moon.
You are not in Aikido because it is easy. And if anyone were to say to me, “This Aikido is too hard” I would say to you, “Yes, isn’t that wonderful. We are so fortunate to have such a challenge to forge us. Without its difficulty there would be no way for us to grow.” When you encounter your own desire to quit [which everyone does] then you can remember that it is that very desire in you to quit that points to the value of your own training. If you were to say, “I am just too busy to train,” I would say that you are invoking a lame excuse and indulging yourself in a common cultural neurosis * “busy-ness.” You own yourself and you decide how you will use your time. And if you say, “This Aikido holds no interest for me,” then I would say to you, “That is only because you are not paying attention. To master Aikido is nothing less than to master yourself. And if you hold no interest to yourself then you are, of all people, most pathetic and are most in need of the very remedy you are refusing.”
Aikido comes from a world where the moments are brief and the stakes are are high, the edge of life and death. The challenges of Aikido cannot be solved by the intellect alone. They must be grasped by the heart and felt in every fiber. You will encounter yourself in a way that you cannot do in any other way. I can’t guarantee that you will always like whom you will meet in that encounter. I will guarantee, however, that pursuing that relationship will bring you immeasurable value.
~Philip Greenwood, Sensei