Two days back, there’s the annual Inter-University Aikido training at NUS and you will get to train with a lot of new folks from other universities, as well as bumping up with a lot of old pals, chronologically these pals are still significantly younger than me, so the ‘old’ in the pals here, refers to them as familiar faces from other university dojo.
For an Ikkyo-omote waza, I paired up with this petite girl from Singapore Management University. Harry sensei was showing a kind of a leading hand technique which will be quite technically difficult if there is no blending.
With this girl, there is no blending.
She was asking me if she was doing it correctly, and I replied. ‘Wait, there’s a problem I need to sort out.’
One of us is too hard and one of us has to soften.
No prize for getting the right answer.
Anyway it is not a matter of ‘seniority’ or ‘superior’ skills. She’s quite hard, and there’s no way that I can make her follow my leading hand, it’s a slippery fish analogy, the hard I try, the worse it becomes and eventually, both of us will walk away unable to execute the technique nicely.
So I soften, and try to blend; it was still awkward for a few cycles, then I caught her vibe and rhythm, and the technique begins to work. As a nage, she was quite hard and linear which is not what Harry sensei wanted us to do, nonetheless, I followed and let her leading hand, lead.
When it was her turn to be uke, she couldn’t follow, too hard.
So I soften some more and things begin to work, I could lead and she could follow.
And eventually we managed to get along with the technique, and enjoyed the session.
It was a problem
After class she came to me and we chatted a bit, and I found out her name was ‘Shuling’, so I asked her if she’d figured out the problem, she admitted that she’s too hard.
To make a fair argument, that’s life. She is not ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ being hard, neither am I the ‘better’ one being soft, I just want the technique to work, and the technique not working is a problem I need to fix with her. It is not a competition to see who is better than who. Which is why there is no element of competition in Aikido. We want to work with people, and make the situation work, so in order to work with people and get the best out of a situation, we open up, soften our stances and try to understand the other party, and help the other party open up as well.
We try to understand how our partner works, and help them help us. In a myopic spirit of competitiveness, we try to understand our partners, so that we can exploit them, and their weakness, so that we can win, the competition, the medal, the glory. What and who did we end up destroying, for us to become a champion?
Every time we partner someone, we have to calibrate our synchronicity, no two person is the same at any given time. Every touch point is unique and very much one in a gazillion event of a lifetime. It is a very precious connection and it is also a problem, because even with familiarity, it doesn’t always works. Even those Aikido friends’ I’ve been training with for years, I mentally prepare to meet them for the first time, every time. That’s beginner’s mind for me.
We can never fully understand our partner. In an Aikido context, how Shuling worked is only one part of the equation. Of course, I being more senior to her allows me the luxury of choice; to slow things down, soften and go along for the ride. I could have bumped into a chap more senior than me who is oblivious to how skillful he or she is, in that aspect, I as the uke/nage, too have to blend, in a soft way in a hard way, depends on the partner you got.
So we have to solve that working problem, and the technique can be the killer breaking up the work, or the technique can be one that brings two differing people together. One has to back down so that another one can step up, and once that person has stepped up, he or she can help the other one who backed down in the first place. So this is Aikido in a back and forth movement, nobody wins, but everyone one wins big. If you compete, there can be one winner, with a bigger problem. Isn’t it a better idea if everyone comes together, forget about the competition, solve the problem and win bigger?
You can’t choose your partner
Well, actually you can, but you have to wait your turn. I told Shuling that the dojo mimics life. How many of us has friends who became not friends, and our ‘enemies’ coming to our aid? Sometimes, as much as we mentally choose our partner, it is also a kind of cosmic fate that chooses our partner for us, and who we end up with is who we need to blend with, hard or soft, it all boils down to how hard and how much you treasure that brief fart of a connection you have with your training partner.
It might not be much, but that’s all we’ve got to give.