“Every single person who’s ever gotten really good at aikido spent a lot of time being really bad at it first.” —Nick Walker Sensei, in an interview about Aikido
I was practicing a very advanced technique with a new teenage student the other day. The technique is complex, timing-dependent, involving one’s limbs going in many different directions and still working as a whole. I guided him through it the first couple of times and soon he started getting the hang of the basic choreography (which in itself was amazing considering the advanced nature of what we were doing). The first time he did it without me talking him through it, he put a foot in the wrong place and didn’t manage to throw me. He apologized.
Different iterations of this occurred as we worked together – saying he was sorry for anything he didn’t do flawlessly.
This broke my heart. For one thing, through this apology flowed all of the other times this teenage boy – a beginner not only at a difficult martial art, but also at life: the most crushingly difficult thing for anyone – had failed. Or been told he’d failed, or was doing it wrong. All the times he’d been shamed or punished or bullied. Every feeling he, a child, has about himself that he needs to do things perfectly; is unworthy if he does not.
For another thing, I was—I am—that very same kind of beginner. One time early on in my practice, a small group of us were doing a technique maridosa style, meaning that one person performs the technique while the rest of the group takes turns attacking her in sequence. Everyone was to do the technique twice. My first go-round was so awkward and confusing relative to the advanced students around me that when my next rotation came around I waved the next person ahead, eschewing my turn so the others didn’t have to exercise any patience or tolerate my ineptitude. Thankfully it was met with encouraging “no, no!”s from the group and a kind insistence from Sensei: “We want you to learn,” he said.
This was a surprising and perfect thing for me to hear. These people, I thought, welcomed my awkwardness. They weren’t going to shame me for it or try to fix it. All of them were willing—happy, even—to slow down the whole dance so that I could learn the steps. This wasn’t something I could go drill at home and then show back up doing perfectly in order to spare them the time it would take to help me. Them taking time to help me was—is—part of our practice. It’s actually kind of the point. I’m supposed to be doing it wrong right now, I realized. There’s no other way I’ll learn.
In the wider world, though, we seem to have gotten it into our collective mind that we must be good at something the moment we take it up. Where did this come from? It’s not like as babies we decide to walk one day, stand up from our hands and knees and toddle helpfully down to the corner store to buy milk. We fall on our butts every few feet as we try to make our way across the living room carpet. We don’t speed away on a two-wheeled bike before getting a whole bunch of support from someone bigger and more experienced hanging onto the back of it again and again – and even then sometimes tipping over and scraping our knees.
And yet somehow if we take up something new in adulthood – or even adolescence – we think we’re supposed to do this all on our own and already be proficient at it. We don’t get hired for jobs unless we have experience on our resume – often we lie about aptitudes we have, backed up by the fact that we’re a “quick learner” and will be perfect at the skill in no time. We have to bullshit our way through, in other words.
Beginners to Aikido will find that bullshit does not work. You simply have to do it badly.
Even today there are moments in my practice when I decide that whatever we’re working on is too complex or scary or risky or that I simply don’t have the grounding/centeredness/wisdom/ability to do whatever we’re up to. In those moments someone always appears and grabs the back of the bike, showing the kind of patience or kindness I need to make me remember that I’m not supposed to have these things; that the reason I’m practicing is to acquire them. In other words, I’m allowed to be bad.
Maybe you started Aikido because you want to become an ass-kicking martial artist or learn to defend yourself or earn a black belt because that is just so cool. What you’ve actually signed up for is something quite different. We’re not here to learn a skill. Isn’t that funny? We’re not practicing because we’re aiming for anything. We’re practicing because this is a chance to infinitely unfold, to open up spaces in ourselves that we didn’t know existed. This is an art that works the edge of whatever we personally need to develop in life. There is no end to it.
Therefore there’s nothing we’re attaining, or earning, or aiming for. Sure there are ranks and promotions and tests and things we recognize as goals. But we don’t get there because we’re demonstrating perfect technique; rather, it’s because we show humility, persistence and, most importantly, a willingness to suck. To shut down our critics, be clueless, and let ourselves be guided and supported by those who were once in our shoes. That’s the quickest—and really the only—way to advancement.
It’s a lovely and rare opportunity to be allowed not to know. It’s also an incredible challenge for us perfection-driven beings to let go into this. It’s amazing what can open up if we do.
Please don’t apologize – not even to yourself – for not knowing what you’re doing. None of us knows what we’re doing in life, do we? What we do on the mat mirrors what comes up for us in life. Enjoy the chance to not know, to experiment, to make mistakes. To be bad.