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Paradox: the reason I’m competing in Japan again

by on September 12, 2013

I’ve promised a number of things on this blog which I have not yet followed through on. (Rosin, I haven’t forgotten!) Tonight I’ll cross one of those items off of my list by discussing why, after a fair bit of soul searching, I decided in the end to pony up the money for another international tournament.

This will be my 4th internationals since 2005 (I missed the US tournament while working in Japan) and after three go-rounds I don’t have any illusions about my chances.

My best events are all embu, and, while Carlos and I did pretty well in London considering, until I have the opportunity to get more than a day or two of practice with my partner before the competition, it’s hard to imagine getting more than a few rounds in.

As for randori… if experience is any guide, the draw, more than anything else will determine how far I go. 145lbs and once-a-week practice are unlikely to carry me very far, unless I’ve taught myself more in our seclusion than I think I have.

No, hopes of winning something would be the wrong reason to go.

These days, for me it’s all about learning and growth. I never doubted that I would learn something at the tournament, but the question I had to ask myself was: is it worth the expense? As always, there will be seminars taught by world-class instructors but, let’s face it, the quality of the instructor matters very little in a seminar with hundreds of people. Chances are, I could learn more technique at local seminars in Maine and New Hampshire.

But this train of thought brought me to an even bigger question that I’ve pondered before, and will no doubt ponder again: is aikido even what I want to learn? To any outside observer, the allocation of my travel budget no doubt paints me clearly as an “aikido” person. Paleo/ancestral health activities are making a decent run for second place of late, but, since 2004, nothing comes remotely close to aikido.

By any objective measure, I am an aikido person. The funny thing is though, that’s not how I see myself. Actually, self-identification these days is a little tricky. From 12 – 20 years old, things were much more clear cut. At my core I was a wilderness-tripper (and all of the dirty hippy granola things that went along with it). But I ended up at a school with a laughable outing club, and when my intestines dictated a radical diet change, my summer camp trip-leading plans went out the window as well. It’s hard to be a tripper when your context is snatched away. Against this backdrop, the increase of aikido in my life was more relative than absolute.

This is not to say that I was not a dedicated aikidoka, or that I did not enjoy learning and practice. I am and I do. But let’s just say that I’m not entirely comfortable being a 30-year old martial arts devotee with long hair who lives next to his parents.

Yet, despite my unease about being an aikido person, the fact is, I AM an aikido person. There is something that keeps drawing me back, that keeps me signing up for the next seminar.

Actually, there have been a number of reasons over the years. In my early years, it was the promise of a black belt, and the opportunity to spend an hour of roughhouse randori at the end of our practices. As the Vassar club grew, there was a certain competitiveness that drove me to maintain my position at the top of the club.

But once you start going to international events, the idea of being the best quickly falls away (unless you’re Josh Ramey – and in a way it’s worst for those at the top, since everyone will get unseated at some point). These days, competitive drive plays a much smaller role in my motivations.

I think what really keeps me on the mats recently are the little glimmers of understanding I get learning and experimenting with “soft” or “internal” aikido. I was convinced that softness could be an effective strategy by Dave Nettles and Toby Threadgill, and I sought out instruction in this vein from Henry Kono. These days, the things I don’t yet know about internal aikido are what keep me coming back. Some of the most interesting things I’ve picked up from Henry are not about technique at all, but about mindset, and thus the implications extend far beyond the mats.

Unfortunately, there will be very little soft or internal aikido on display at internationals, especially in the competition. Competition is fuel for the ego which makes true aikido almost impossible. (As a side note – I long held an uninformed loathing of freudian terminology, but at the very least, the concept of ego is quite useful, both here and in other contexts.)

The funny thing is though, is that in a way, competition is exactly what’s bringing me back.

While I may not be entirely sure about identifying as an aikido person, there is one identity I wholeheartedly embrace: the paradoxical outsider – and this is what convinced me to pony up in the end.

In chapter 10 of “The Phantom Tollbooth” Milo and Tock visit a house inhabited by a giant, a midget, a fat man, and a thin man. Of course they all end up being one person – the smallest giant in the world, the tallest midget etc… (Juster, Ch. 10)

This is the role that I want to play. I have my foot in two very different worlds, and to some extent I am the crazy outlier in each. In competitive aikido circles I’m the one doing the woo-woo magic dancing, while in the soft aikido circles I’m the one engaging in the dubious practice of competition. I’m not entirely sure that I need aikido in my life, but there’s no doubt in my mind that I want paradox.

On my circuitous journey to Japan (now even more circuitous that I’ve been rerouted through Shanghai) I’ve begun to read a book called “Wandering God: A study in Nomadic Spirituality”. In it, Morris Berman discusses paradox in a way which I found very relevant to this essay:

“I suspect paradox is a very old genetic memory, in that it seems to be continuous with the kind of alertness that animals often display. In humans, as the word “paradox” suggests, it includes holding contradictory propositions, or emotions, simultaneously; sustaining the tension of this conflict so that a deeper reality can emerge than one would have if one simply opted, for example, for Self or Other. In the SAC [sacred authority complex], no paradox is present; one has “certainty” instead. And in unitive trace (ascent experience), Self dissolves into Other, and that is that. This latter process can be fed into war, for example, in which the Other is obliterated in favor of the Self, even while the Self is dissolved into the nation or the cause. It would seem that these are psychologically infantile (or adolescent) solutions to the problem of bipolar (Self/Other) contradiction. What many HGs [hunter-gatherers] seem to display, by contrast, is a kind of mature ambiguity.” (Berman, p6)

“‘Certainties’ of all sorts may reassure us psychologically, but they do that only by sharply restricting the range of our experience. Treated with nonideological integrity, as a lived (somatic) experience rather than a formula, paradox may teach us that broader possibilities exist. Theoretically, at least, there is hope for us yet.” (Ibid., 18)

Reading the first few chapters of the book, I felt Berman describing not only an element that has long fascinated me, but my primary motivation to attend this tournament.

I’m going to Japan to hold on to my paradoxes. I’m doubling down on the dubious practice of competition, but (perhaps to the dismay of my teammates?) I’ll be trying hard not to try to win. I want to get out on the mat and try to convince myself that neither my opponent nor I exists (“敵もいない植芝もいない”) – (Ueshiba sensei, as quoted by Henry Kono)

We’ll see how that goes.

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