What You Bring Is What You Get

I’ve got such an urge to go all Yoda again, but I will refrain. For now. It can be said that what you bring with you, is what you get back. Put another way, the world reflects the face we present it. I’m sure that the finer points of this notion could be argued by brilliant philosophers and drunken frat guys for decades, but for now we only need the broad strokes. As a student of budo, a martial way, you are accountable for three things, and with all three the same can be said – what you bring is what you get.

What are those three things? Responsibility to the dojo; responsibility to your partner; responsibility to yourself.

Responsibility to the dojo is often a hard concept for Westerners to understand and accept in Japanese martial arts. Very often the mindset is, I pay my dues, you teach me, I go home. It is sensei’s dojo, right? What more is there? In the dojo, the student is responsible for the dojo. The higher the rank, the more they must care for it. Sensei’s job is to provide the place to train, and the art to be trained in. The students maintain it. They maintain the dojo by cleaning it, paying dues so the lights stay on, greeting new members and walking them through the intricacies of etiquette (and for us, ukemi). They maintain it by keeping their gear orderly and stored properly during class.

The students roll out the mats for class, and put them up. The students clean the mats, the kamiza or kamidana, and everything else (including the toilets). And they do so without being asked. For our dojo, the rec center provides a cleaning staff that tends to much of this (so no bathroom duty just yet), but other tasks we must do, and do well, quietly and attentively. As odd as it may seem, this too is part of your training. Additionally, upper ranking students tend to sensei’s hakama after class, so he/she has the ability to tend to students who may need him, and dojo business that needs to be finished. They hold office positions to handle the routine administrative duties the dojo must tend to. And, always remember, you may be doing it now, but sensei did it himself as he/she came up the ranks. And, sometimes when visiting other dojo, still does.

Responsibility to your partner includes some aspects that may at first escape you as obvious, but will seem so clear once you read it. When you study the budo, you are often in the care of, and have the care of, a partner. When you begin your relationship on the mat, you do so with a bow, and at that moment you are accepting their well-being as your personal responsibility. You are taking it upon yourself to see to their safety, their health, and their training. And they have done the same of you. This does not mean bossing them around or acting like you’ve got it all figured out. You do so by being a proper nage, and often more importantly a proper uke. When you accept a partner, it is on you to make your partner and the technique your complete focus. There is nothing else in your budo world until sensei says otherwise. Checking your hair in the mirror is focus away from your partner. Coming in sick and spreading it to your partners and sensei is bad form. Being overly aggressive is bad form. Discussing what you’re wanting to do after class is focus off the technique, which, at best, will lead to sloppy technique, at worst injury to your partner. When you bow and accept a partner, they are your world.

Part of that is being a good uke. Your partner cannot learn the technique properly if you’re being a prick. It doesn’t take long to figure out how to stall a technique. Sensei just showed it, and you can see where the flow must go. To stall it all you have to do is go against the flow. And what does your partner learn from this? Pretty much that you’re a prick. Techniques are done based on the attack, so you give the proper attack. If you change the attack to stall a technique, the technique must change. And then sensei gets upset because you are not doing what you are supposed to be doing. Give solid attacks, mindful of what your partner is supposed to do, and where you are likely to end up. Bone crushing grabs are unnecessary, and inappropriate. Stiff arming your partner is unwelcomed. Walking off to tell someone else in class about some girl you just slept with is not only rude and trashy, it’s a bit pathetic.

Just the same, don’t throw yourself through a technique for your partner. Just as they can’t learn if you stall them all the time, they can’t learn if you do it for them. Give an appropriate attack and let them learn.

Responsibility to yourself is not as egotistical as it may sound. Simply put, sometimes your partner is not in the right head space, and you need to look after your own safety. It is proper form that if an upper rank addresses you to work on a technique, you accept graciously. After all, they should know more than you, and are offering that experience to you. However, you are not a slave to higher ranks. You do have free will, and if you think they are not in the proper headspace – either that you don’t feel safe with them, feel you can’t trust them, or that they may bring you harm in your technique or self in the way they attack – do not accept them as a partner. Politely decline the offer and find someone appropriate to work with. You must look after your own health and well-being, just as you would for a partner. You can’t learn if you’re injured. You can’t learn if you’re laid up in bed for a week with an illness a partner passed to you.

Aikido is a true budo, a true martial way. Your time in class is more than just learning a technique, it is about learning a way of being – how to move, how to think, how to react. It carries off the mat into your daily life. Your life will be remembered by others by how you tended to yourself, to your fellows (your peers, your superiors and subordinates), and how you tended to the world. Be sought after in life, and remembered well when you are gone. Be responsible for those around you, yourself, and the places where you dwell. Be an good uke.

“The purpose of training is to tighten up the slack, toughen the body, and polish the spirit.” ~ Morihei Ueshiba O-Sensei