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Friday, November 8, 2013

I Don't Care That Much

I was recently watching a video of a class led by a very famous aikido instructor. In the course of teaching the class, he told the story of how his instructor had corrected students by whacking them with a shinai (a bamboo sword used in kendo). When, for instance, his elbow was out of place in the middle of a technique, whack! The elbow felt it. He called this practice a very effective method of teaching, and blamed "treehuggers" for the fact that it is no longer in use.

I was recently part of an online discussion with an aikidoist who had just joined a new club. He was frustrated by the club's different way of doing things, and wasn't sure whether to continue with them or to try the next-nearest club, which was an hour's drive away. One person, a devoted aikidoist who had immigrated to another continent to follow a particular instructor, responded harshly, telling him that his interest in aikido was merely "superficial" if the distance to the dojo mattered to him.

It's worth noting at this point that both the hardass instructor and the intercontinental traveler probably know more about aikido than I ever will, and are probably better at aikido than I will ever be. Their devotion and sacrifice are undoubtedly keys to their skill and knowledge. Here's the thing, though: I just don't care that much.

I don't care enough about aikido to endure being regularly beaten with a stick while I practice it. I don't care enough about aikido to pack up and move across the ocean so that I can train with a particular instructor. In fact, I don't even care enough about aikido to drive a two-hour round trip every night I want to train: I would barely get to spend a waking moment with my wife on those days, and two or three days a week of that would get old quickly.

Maybe that makes me a "treehugger"; maybe that means I'm only "superficially" into aikido. I can live with that.

I have nothing against people who are willing to make great sacrifices for their arts. In fact, I'm very glad there are such people; they often become great resources for the rest of us. I certainly don't want to disparage that kind of devotion. I just don't have that kind of devotion myself -- at least not to a martial art -- and I'm not particularly interested in listening to people tell me that I should have it.

I used to have an aikido instructor who told me that aikido should be the third most important thing in my life, after God and my family. I nodded to him politely when he said this, but I knew it would never be true for me. My priorities are not his. I'd rather be a great musician or a great writer than a great martial artist, and my martial arts interests are not limited to aikido (though the time and the money I budget for martial arts training currently are). By telling me how important aikido needed to be to me, he wasn't helping me; he was alienating me.

The veil over the martial arts is being lifted. As more and more information about them becomes available to the general public through the internet and sports like MMA, more people see through the myths. The martial arts are not a shortcut to enlightenment. They do not offer us supernatural powers. They are not inherently moral or noble. Only a few of them are trained in a way that really prepares practitioners for the rigor of combat, and even those are virtually useless against modern weapons. We are running out of reasons for the martial arts to be important.

The increasingly obvious truth is that the martial arts are only as important as the people who practice them choose to make them. To be sure, some people really get into the martial arts and make them into a way of life, just as others do with cars, basketball, or writing poetry. But we aren't all like that. In fact, I suspect most of us aren't like that.

The people telling us that we must endure this hardship/make this sacrifice/rearrange these priorities for the sake of our martial arts aren't trying to help us get what we want out of the martial arts; they're trying to convince us to want the same things they want. I have a different idea: what if we all just tried to help our training partners achieve their own respective goals?