Striving for Constant Improvement

Scott Blaufeux Many people have asked me about my sandan preparation and what it means to me. Just how is sandan different, for instance, from shodan or nidan? Although sandan is in no way an “arrival,” it does require that you dig deeper, polish yourself a little more, become ever-more honest about yourself and your skills than you’ve ever been before.

Of course—as for everyone at every level—there’s the technical side. In my test prep, I’ve tried to look more closely at those things that I’ve historically had trouble with, identify my flaws and make a greater effort to correct them. Looking that deeply when senior students are pushing you, you see things that can sometimes be hidden in daily practice. There are many things that I’m still trying to improve in my technique, but the primary ones are:

bending my knees to better offer to and receive uke attracting uke to me so that I can blend better, rather than using strength keeping my elbows down and near my hips so I always have center line being patient, grounded and neutral in the middle of a technique zanshin, including uke in my sphere before, during and after the physical technique. But beyond the technical aspects of aikido, I hope that at sandan I am ready to make a qualitative shift and actually achieve some of those things that have been elusive in the past. Some days I feel that this goal is right in front of me. But I haven’t quite made this shift yet and don’t always get my technique right. Since it’s difficult (or impossible) to think of every detail of training all at once, I’ve set three overarching qualitative goals for myself: learning to feel uke better, overcoming fear and coming to terms with imperfection.

“Listening” to uke—feeling what he or she wants and going with it—is a principle that I’ve been working on for a long time. As a strong person, I often try to make things happen by sheer force (which, of course, makes me use my strength, so isn’t really aikido). For me, it is important to strike a balance between wanting to make things happen and learning to yield so that there can be a harmonious and mutually beneficial resolution to conflict or perceived aggression. Learning to give uke space and “listening” better would help me both on and off the mat. This may mean that I need to forgo the desire to be right. I’ve been told that I’m a good listener, someone who asks questions, and a good communicator who cares about others. Can I bring that quality onto the mat, listen and feel with my body, and make aikido more of a non-verbal discussion with my partners? This is what I am trying to do.

Learning to listen has another facet too: listening to myself, following my own advice. In helping junior students, I often share concepts that I hope will help: to slow down, pretend they’re holding a sword, use their arms as conduits, forget about nage, etc. (fill in your own favorites). My sandan training has shown me that I probably recognize shortcomings in others’ technique because I need to pay closer attention to those same points in my own practice. Training with senior students brings out my own mistakes, and the memory of what I’ve told kohai rings in my ears. Why is it so hard to practice what we preach? If we teach best what we most need to study, then I’d do well to be more silent with others and make corrections to myself so that I can learn from their mistakes while teaching them with my body, not with my words.

The one thing that I’m trying to change in my aikido, though,—to truly take it to the next level—is overcoming fear. We deal with different levels of fear every day, and aikido is a useful metaphor and a good practice for dealing with that fear. It might be fear of aggression, fear of making a mistake, fear of failure, fear of disappointing someone, you name it. If sandan is about anything, it is about reframing interactions, deciding to view them differently, to change them with our attitude, our actions, our demeanor. How much will an attack change if it is not met with fear and reactive aggression, but is rather seen as a gift?

Overcoming fear is not easy, especially under pressure. But the dojo is a laboratory, and aikido gives us the opportunity to study, to do research and to test our theories. To begin overcoming my own fears, I have to believe that a kinder and more positive attitude toward others will change them and take some of their aggression away. Some people have suggested that I do something as simple as smile. A smile changes people, how they feel about themselves and how they feel about you. A smile is welcoming and non-threatening, and people react to it in a positive way. If I practice this more, then I will be one step closer to being able to relax and smile when faced with potentially negative energy, and I’ll have the opportunity to positively affect outcomes before anxiety mounts or aggression is expressed.

Finally, aikido is also about coming to terms with imperfection. I can practice diligently and will still never be perfect. Yet this wanting to be perfect is ingrained in me. If I don’t hold myself up to impossible goals, there’s less frustration and it’s easier to be kind to myself and to others. That’s why it’s helpful to see senior students corrected by their teachers. It takes some of the pressure off me to know that we are all improving all the time and that there’s no arrival point. If those that I emulate are constantly improving, I will hopefully also continue to improve my whole life.

So as I come up to my sandan demonstration, I can be upset that I still don’t keep my head up, still don’t connect well enough to uke, still don’t start my techniques early enough, and still want to use strength rather than feeling my ukes and having a real dialogue with them. But sandan is just one milestone on life’s journey; it is no arrival. If I can achieve some degree of my technical and qualitative goals before my demonstration, I’ll be happy. I trust the process and look forward to those months after my test when all the study and hard work I’ve put in coalesce into what I know will be the kinder, gentler, more patient person that I want to be. Looking at myself honestly and working for constant improvement, that’s what sandan is for me. That’s what aikido is for all of us. Luckily, it is a lifelong process.