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Defining Budo, Part 1

Updated: Jan 24

Image: O Sensei, in a pose that reminds me that the goal is not rigor for its own sake

This year, the dojo is reflecting on aikido as budo, or a martial way, or path. It’s a big, vague question, but I think it’s important to start here because it’s so hard to wrap our minds around how budo fits into this 21st century life. What does following a warrior’s path even mean in a western, modern world that is increasingly littered with spirituality but that leaves so little room for rigorous practice? And in which there is so much conflict, but no honorable way to fight? 

I wanted to start here because honestly, when I look at the way aikido gets more play on @Mcdojolife than any other single martial art except maybe Systema, and I notice that many aikido dojos I follow on Instagram kinda look like they are playing at being Jedi knights more than they are seriously following a path…

…it just feels like the most important question. What the heck are we doing here? If we don’t relentlessly follow this question in our training, it will become slack and drift along with the culture. And while that's fine for other martial arts, aikido has nothing culturally relevant, like being able to win a tournament, or beat someone up in an imagined bar fight, to offer. Instead, we have this relatively new, highly syncretic martial way of life developed by a singular visionary who left lots of direct disciples, but no blueprint. O Sensei devoted pretty much everything to the deep study of many Japanese martial arts; shinto religion and spiritual practices indigenous to Japan such as misogi; meditation; scholarship; and the continual refinement of aikido, which was an organic outcome of all this searching.

This is where I would start to define budo. O Sensei devoted his life to the study of martial arts, not for the sake of fighting, but to know and transmit the spiritual nature of conflict, and the spiritual value of training. He said that the purpose of training is to tighten the slack; toughen the body; and polish the spirit. We heighten our awareness by putting ourselves in an environment that has no slack, and in which we are exerting effort. We engage the “observing self,” and learn about our core strategies; our inner critic; the ways we let ourselves off the hook, or put ourselves on the wrong hook. By staying in this space, we polish our spirits. And do you know how we do this? I thought for years that my spirit needed a lot of punishment, and that this was the polish! But it turns out that the spirit gets polished as you learn how to stay in this space without collapsing, keeping it high stakes and difficult, while increasingly finding ease, joy, and awe in it. Everybody's experience is different. Most people will need to remember to keep finding difficulty after they think they know what they are doing. But if you're like me, the polish comes out of resisting the urge to simply endure it as a punishment. Instead, the pressure and the effort transforms you. Releases you.

Now, what I just described is not the way we live! And it’s not even the way we are doing practice most of the time, and I attribute that to my teaching style. I have been pushed by my teachers way harder than I am pushing my students, because I am a big believer in modeling and developing intrinsic motivation. I can’t make you do budo. I can hold a serious space. I can model budo by making a commitment to showing up even if nobody else does, continuously deepening my own training, and by working closely with my teacher. I can give students inspiring information and create a schedule that is as immersive as possible and a curriculum that is challenging. And I can ask each individual to deepen their practice in specific ways. But beyond that, whether or not you are a budoka is up to you. 

It starts with how you walk into the dojo. The next time you are walking up the stairs, just ask yourself how you're going to train today. Are you going to let the day’s clutter rule your mind, or are you going to stop, take a breath, and walk in the door with the intention of doing budo for the next hour? 

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