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Saotome Sensei’s Significance of Leadership (Part 1)

Saotome Sensei’s Significance of Leadership (Part 1)

Saotome Sensei in the kitchen of the Aiki Corral Ranch, Myakka City Florida, August 26 2015

This the first of a few articles that Saotome Sensei asked me to help him write on the subject of leadership.

“Leadership” is an important concept for Saotome Sensei, and one that he thinks has critical significance for all teachers of martial arts.  He frequently mentions the term in his seminars, and at recent instructors camps for ASU it was a point he repeated and emphasized at length, often in the context of military history and culture.

The essence of what Sensei tries to convey to ASU dojo cho and teachers is that they are no longer students for themselves, and their training is no longer for their own enjoyment, benefit, education or edification. When he feels his students are not training with a sufficient sense of seriousness, intensity, and appreciation for the life-and-death implications of every instant in the dojo, it becomes upsetting to him.

I once had a conversation with a friend and officer who is responsible for performance and curriculum development at the US military academy, which I feel captures Sensei’s sentiments precisely.  I asked him about the essence of his job, and he replied that it was very simple to define but took all his focus to accomplish.  To him, success was measured in the number of special forces soldiers who came back from deployment alive and uninjured, and the objective of his job was unequivocally to improve that number every year while simultaneously teaching each year’s soldiers more skills than he taught the previous year’s soldiers, in less time.  He made it clear that there was simply no possibility allowed for failing at this objective, and that all of his actions, decisions and efforts were measured in nothing less than human lives.

In the military, the job of instructor is defined as providing new soldiers more measurable skills in less time, every year; success is measured in lives.

It may help to remember that for a number of years, Saotome Sensei was a consultant to the US Pentagon and helped to train the US Special Forces at a location in Northern Virginia, and he was always impressed by the sincerity and determination of the soldiers and officers he encountered to extract as much value from every moment of their encounters with him, because they knew one day their lives may depend on it.  Of course, as martial artists most of us are not soldiers, and we do not pretend to be.  We have no expectations of going into combat, and Sensei is not trying to make us into soldiers.  What he is trying to get us to take into our hearts is the deepest awareness and conviction that everything we do in the dojo as teachers has the same potential for life or death consequences as a military academy instructor.

We are all human, we all crave respect.  But too often, many look at martial teachers who are accorded the highest levels of regard and admiration, and conclude that the respect is accorded to (or generated by) the ranks or titles those teachers bear.  As a result, many push for these external symbols, and feel they are entitled to them because they have students and they have “hung around” long enough.  But Saotome Sensei says that those who truly crave rank, authority and positions of leadership rarely have a proper understanding of what those ranks imply.  A week or two after Saotome Sensei awarded me the Ueshiba Juku designation, we were visiting at his house and he told me,

“Guy, I am giving you Ueshiba Juku.  I apologize, I am sorry, this is not a reward, it is a tremendous burden and serious responsibility. I give this to you because you are already taking this responsibility for ASU, because I think you understand the seriousness of the mission given to me by O Sensei.  Ueshiba Juku means you take O Sensei’s mission into your life too, and like me you cannot rest ever again because our duty is so great.”

When we transition from being students to teachers, we often find our new status exciting and satisfying without realizing that we are crossing a very significant threshold.  Sensei asks, how many martial art teachers are mindful that their every word, every action, every lesson and choice inside the dojo might be measured in the lives of their students some day?  How many teachers never leave their comfort zone, or think of teaching time as time to play or bask in the respect of the students?  How many teachers are prepared in their heart to get a phone call at 2 in the morning to learn that one of their students died in a robbery or a moment of violence?  Will they make excuses to themselves how it wasn’t their responsibility? Will they be able to tell themselves that they did everything possible to prepare that student, that they were a good enough teacher, that they themselves had built their martial wisdom with all their body and soul so they could prepare that student enough?

Several years ago, I had sought counsel from Sensei when one of my students had killed himself.  The student was a Korean War vet, and he had suffered greatly from PTSD and deep childhood psychological problems that made our student-teacher relationship exceedingly complicated, difficult and unpredictable.  He was nonetheless an important part of our dojo family, and the suicide hit us all very, very hard and shook me up on levels I had not prepared for.  Sensei put his hand on my arm and very somberly told me, “this is very hard.  I have known this many times. Until a student dies, you do not truly know what it means to be a martial art teacher.  You understand now.  You must be the strong heart for the dojo so it can heal. Now you will be a better teacher.  Now you will build a stronger dojo.”

Sensei often tells his teachers, “you are not a student, there are many behind you”.  When he says this, he is hoping to convey that accepting the role of teacher means that every time you are teaching a student, you are in a meaningful sense accepting the responsibility of standing beside her in front of a knife or a gun.  That when you are practicing or training at a seminar, you are not doing so for pursuit of some abstract perfection of technique, but with the ever-present conviction that in this instant, your focus and your investment of your entire soul and guts may make the difference of whether or not one of your students dies some day.  When you train as an instructor, the quality and intensity of your training impacts every single student you have taken responsibility for and whether you manage to surpass your limits even briefly or bring home a new insight will define your dojo and all the students in it.  Every opportunity to train with our shihan must be approached with the mindset that it is our last opportunity to make a difference.

When Sensei says “there are many behind you,” he means you must be desperately, determinately committed to prepare and rescue the lives of many people you care about with every drop of sweat, and to drag every bit of insight possible out of every repetition, every technique.  “Students put trust in their teachers, that the teachers are honest in their attempt to lead them to martial wisdom.” It doesn’t mean that we cannot smile and enjoy our training, but it means we can never take our time on the mat lightly, especially our time learning directly from Saotome Sensei.

“This is your duty!
This is your responsibility!

This is the reputation of ASU and your teachers!”

It may seem like a grim philosophy for guiding a lifetime of training, and indeed O Sensei said that Aikido must be joyful.  There is a uniquely Japanese philosophy, mono no aware, which refers to a deep appreciation and aching sadness at the poignancy and transience of beauty and life.  At its heart it recognizes that the falling sakura (cherry blossom) is all the more beautiful and sublime precisely because it is so temporary, so ephemeral, so fleeting.

mono-no-awaremono no aware

The path of Aikido is a martial path, it must be trod with knowledge and appreciation of our fragile mortality so that we can gain the strength and wisdom to understand how to build a path of healing.  Our ability to bring healing to our students, to others, to society will be limited if our appreciation of death is shallow, and if we train ourselves in the words and actions of aikido stripped of the life and death meaning that was the foundation from which O Sensei built the vision… and mission… of our art. To be a leader means that our actions are motivated and guided by our determination, and our knowledge of our responsibilities and the ripples that result from our efforts.

Photo: Saotome Sensei in the kitchen of the Aiki Corral Ranch, Myakka City Florida, August 26 2015

Shihan Mitsugi Saotome and the Healing Breath

Shihan Mitsugi Saotome and the Healing Breath

In 2013, I was visiting with Saotome Sensei at his Aiki Ranch in Sarasota over lunch. We took our conversation into a stroll through the acres of beautifully landscaped property surrounding the Aiki Shrine and the home he shares with Patty Saotome Sensei.  As we walked, he pointed out how his “garden” has changed since they bought the undeveloped property, the different varieties of plants they were cultivating, which plants and environments attracted which animals, and which were his favorite spots.  “We have nine varieties of bamboo!”

Eventually, the conversation turned toward some philosophical and training questions that I was struggling with, and he provided some answers that were surprising and profound, particularly as they showed how Sensei linked the applied philosophies and principles of Aikido to all aspects of life.

I asked, “Sensei, you often use me, Don (Ellingsworth, my peer and co-founder of my Dojo), and Rick (Rick Hotton, an internationally-known Shotokan Karate teacher and student of Saotome Sensei) as your ukes (attackers).  It’s clear that during instruction, you prefer really strong, clear, martial attacks from your students.”

He nodded “yes,” with a bit of an “of course” expression on his face.

I continued, “Sensei, what is going on inside you when you are being attacked?  Does your spirit, heart rate or breathing change at all at the moment of powerful attack?”

To respond, he gestured around the serene slice of nature that was his home: “Like walking through my beautiful garden – my breathing not change, my heartbeat not change.”

We continued walking for a few moments while I digested this.  I could understand that a Shihan – an archetype instructor and Aikido genius like himself could maintain this sense of meditative serenity while being attacked by large and fierce opponents; however, I had felt it was part of my study to learn to attack my teachers more fiercely and martially each time I stood before them, and that this ran in opposition to internal training.

I then asked, “Sensei, what about your attackers then?  When they are attacking to destroy you, what should their spirit, their heart rate, their breathing be like?”

He again responded, “like walking through garden – breathing not change, heartbeat not change!”  Smiling, he continued “of course, young people have high spirits, great energy, exuberance, of course it’s natural that their spirit and heart change when they attack and train.  But later, as we follow Aikido, we must learn not to get excited by the conflict.

When attacked, your breathing should not change – as if you are walking alone through a beautiful garden.

Guy, you already very powerful.  Most Aikidoka already powerful enough, but still try to be more and more powerful.  But muscle power stops ki (energy), stops perception.” Sensei very carefully articulates this word, “per-cep-tion!”  “You imagine doctor crushing your wrist and listening your pulse?” While saying this, Sensei had picked up a branch, and mimes clenching it in a death grip, his facial and neck muscles straining.  “Ridiculous!”

“This is paradox, intensity while calm,” he said.  “But it is important paradox at the heart of our training.  Our desire, our want, our fear and struggle, this stops our breath, it stops our ki, it stops our perceptions. When we attack, we go outside ourself with our want to change others.  When we defend against an attack which might hurt us, we go outside ourself with our want to change others.  But you can’t change enemy!  Enemy never obey you!”

 Sensei went on to explain that one must look inside and become aware of one’s physiological reactions to stimuli of all types – good and bad – and learn to recognize when things draw us away from our centers. Alternatively, we must find our gardens – the environments and memories that help us be connected to our surroundings and cultivate a sense of connection with the universe.  “I am part of this garden.  Guy, right now you are part of this garden. There are countless things happening in this garden right now, insects, squirrels, birds, that do not care about our talk.  This garden is very beautiful, it is my treasure.  I am a rich man.  I let that feeling guide how I respond to my uke.  Appreciation.” Sensei articulated “app-rec-i-a-tion” like he did “perception”, making it clear he wasn’t talking about “finding one’s happy place” so much as learning to cultivate a constant internal mindfulness, appreciation, and connection that is not disrupted by an attacker’s actions or one’s response.

Sensei explained “when you can train with this feeling and calmness of breathing – kokyu – you will have begun to study the healing breath.  You will be able to perceive where others’ energy is stopped, where they are weak, where their health is failing.  It is not magic.  Physics!  Awareness!  When you can perceive better, you can find compassion, you can discover your freedom.

This is the true center of Aikido training, that cannot be taught by words or listening, only by gathering proper kokyu under hard conflict.”

When you have begun to be mindful of your breathing while under attack, you will have begun to cultivate the perception necessary for healing yourself and others.

In his writings, Saotome Sensei translates “Aikido” as the “way of harmony and the unification with the forces of nature and the universe.”  Scholars of the art certainly have observed that this is far from the most typical translation, but after having this conversation with Sensei I think it illuminates that he views “harmony and unification with the universe” not as an abstract philosophy or ideal to be reached through our actions, but should be the actual process by which we understand ourselves, practice our art, and cultivate our ability to help others.  That we should learn to recognize when we feel calm and connected, and let the memory of that harmony guide our reactions and actions in all things.

I have found that this can be a very concrete and experiential concept, which can be explored “on the mat.”  Students can be encouraged to spend time at the beginning of training breathing and meditating, and learning to feel their pulses and explore expansive, relaxed breathing.  Then, it is possible to introduce training of familiar techniques, slowly, that allow nage (the one who executes the technique) to focus not on how the technique is performed or what happens to uke, but instead focus the entire time on maintaining uninterrupted breathing and posture.  I find it’s also important as teacher to monitor all the students and help them realize when they have lost focus (in Zen meditation temples, this is the responsibility of an assistant with a bamboo switch!)  However, it can be rewarding and surprising for students to discover how maintaining a strong mental center can transform an attack into an effortless technique!  As a teacher, I am additionally gratified that this exercise also lets me study how well I have cultivated the ability to perceive interruptions in others’ breathing and harmony.  Perhaps if I train hard enough, I can become a true healer.

But first, I’m going to focus on my breathing.

Aikido and Atemi

Interview with John Messores Sensei: Aikido and Atemi
Conducted in 1997 by Guy Hagen and Adam Silverman.

H/S: Sensei, can you describe some of your background in Aikido?

Sensei: I began my training in traditional Karate in 1968.  I was introduced to Aikido in 1973 by a fellow Karate student.  At that Dojo, I was part of the original group that helped bring Saotome Sensei to the United States.  Iíve been Sensei’s student since 1975.

H/S: Like you, many of your students have backgrounds in other martial art styles.  Do you feel that having experience in other martial arts contributes to learning in Aikido?

Sensei: You can get personal inspiration from other martial arts.  I get inspiration from boxing and my background in Karate.

H/S: Instructors can be reluctant to let their students explore other styles and martial arts.  Do you encourage experimentation?

Sensei: Most people start their training at the most convenient school, selecting the Dojo up the street, according to price or convenient hours.  Few beginning students make an informed first choice.  However, people should not be bound to one instructor their entire career.  If they are attracted to another art they should follow it; students should always be given freedom.  They’ll do what they want anyway; and as people mature as martial artists, they explore more.  For those reasons, an “open door” policy is best; as students explore other martial arts, they may get tired and return.  Another important point to remember is that while other martial arts can provide inspiration for a student, or round out their training regimens, when the student comes to the Dojo they should be committed to doing Aikido.

H/S: What effect has your background had on your own technique and style of instruction?

Sensei: I enjoy working with atemi and more angular, sharper and harder moves in my Aikido. These sharper moves–Atemi, or what some people call “killing techniques”–provide a different way to explore Aikido.  Practicing nice circles can be good training, but  I feel there are other aspects to consider.

In the United States, many people have embraced just one aspect of aikido–the pacifistic variety for example–but that’s just one path.  There’s plenty of room for us all to find our own path in Aikido.

H/S: So you look at atemi and martial techniques as training tools?

Sensei: Each person has their own approach.  Training isn’t abstract or general, but applied; the “martial” aspect of training-the grinding against each other, pushing hard and fast against each other-helps students realize their training goals faster.  Other than atemi, you can even include things like chokes (shimewaza) or groundwork (newaza) to help illuminate a particular technique. Atemi can be as equally informative as evasions, wrestling, boxing, or other martial techniques.

Karate shows that there are many types of attacks.  However, many of them take a lot of time to hone.  If you don’t practice a lot of kicking, for example, you won’t have an effective kick.  If you don’t spend a lot of time developing a strike, it isn’t useful to pretend that it will stop anybody.

H/S: Short of studying another martial art, then, how can Aikido students incorporate these ideas into their training?

Sensei: Students should pay attention.  They shouldn’t just run in when attacking; in addition to being fast and hard, they need to learn to be sensitive and flexible.  Some guy off the street won’t attack with a clear, classical strike; you have to consider wild punches or jabs.

However, atemi is not just a punch or strike.  Atemi grows out of other parts of an aiki technique–part of the whole, not a separate component.  It is part of the variety of Aikido.  As you perform variations of any technique–shihonage for example–you should consider how atemi could be a component.

Another important aspect of this is that it leads both nage and uke into being sincere.  As a result nage delivers true atemi, atemi that keep uke on their toes.  This sincerity prevents students from viewing being uke as just making time until they get to be nage again.

H/S: “Finding your own path” in Aikido does not stop upon becoming an instructor.  Sensei, as a teacher, how do you continue to learn?

Sensei: Aikido can become the “jazz music” of martial arts.  When you are demonstrating in class you’re exploring as you teach; looking for new ways to express your technique, or to express old techniques better.  Eventually, you build a repertoire of effective teaching “tricks” that grows over time.

As a teacher, you can do what you want to, you can explore anything you want.  Students have to try and mimic their teacher.  Because of that, instructors can gain feedback by paying attention to their own techniques reflected through their students. If you look around the room and realize that all your students are doing poor ikkyo, you have to ask yourself why.  You have to ask yourself how you can perform and teach ikkyo better.  As a teacher, you students are your product.  As a student, you are your own product.

By watching your students, it’s like watching 20 people perform a technique incorrectly.  It’s good to watch everybody’s version of a technique; but its not good to say “this is the best way to perform shihonage” but rather “this is a good way to perform shihonage.”

There’s a fine line in teaching students while demonstrating techniques.  Instructors often select ukes according to their personality of attack, to better demonstrate a particular technique.  However, the students are not there to be killed or make sensei look good.

Every person has their own characteristics.  It’s easy for an instructor to rationalize away his or her idiosyncrasies.  But the public deserves professional behavior.  If this was old Okinawa, we would be training in a traditional Dojo, probably inside the family.  But here, we have to be aware of our public image-not just as a teacher of a self defense form or exercise, but as having something more to offer society.

Eventually, however, you have to take your Aikido off the mat.  We graduate from being a recipient of Aikido to a giver.  We grow by taking more and more responsibilities– for ourselves, for other students, for teaching, for the Dojo.  Eventually we graduate to our own Dojo, or to multiple Dojos.  These are all part of your growth as a technician–but the goal of aiki is not to be a great technician.  Technique is a “means to the end” of personal growth.

Things like life, jobs, families, can each take time away from your training.  So will things like the frustrations of running a Dojo or organization; we all have the same hassles.

This is the need for professionalism.  By professionalism, I don’t mean simply “businesslike”, but a balance between business and martial professionalism.  “Professional” includes the image an instructor presents–the haircut, the dress–but itís most important to consider conduct.  Professionalism requires earning the respect of the public, not just students–students have to be respectful!  You’re not professional until the public in general sees you as professional.

However, everybody has only so much time to train, and everybody has to find their own path, what fits them best.  One goal of Aikido is to find the form of aiki that best fits you.