Last month, when Sensei Don said that he wanted to talk to people about their goals for their Iaido practice, this raised an on-going question for me: Why do I do this stuff? Why do I do any of this stuff? With significant periods of time off, I have done one martial art or another (2 forms of karate, Tai Chi, Ba Gua and, of course, many years of Aikido) since I was 18 years old. I keep quiting. I keep coming back. Why?
What's the draw (pun intended)? A good question since I've spent hundreds of hours in these endeavors over the years.
I was initially attracted to the martial arts by the plain need to defend myself. I grew up in the 50's and 60's as a skinny, red-haired, bespeckled, geeky sort of kid in a rough industrial town in Massachusetts where being a geek was not cool. In fact, I had a target painted on me from the time that was in the first grade. Bullies loved to pick on me. My victimhood came to full flower one night during junior high when I was out on a downtown street going home after a dance at the local YMCA. A small group of guys came up in back of me. Someone tapped me on the shoulder and I turned around into a beautiful right cross that I never even saw. The next thing I knew my father was picking me up off of the sidewalk and I was looking for my glasses in the gutter. With this event my martial career really started. I managed to mostly dodge the bullies for my high school years but I always remembered this incident and by the time I was living on my own at age 18 I figured that it was time to take physical matters more in hand.
In 1968, judo and karate were the only things that were happening in the New England martial arts scene. Since I only weighed 125 pounds and didn't like the idea of bouncing off mats (that would come later), I signed up for Uechi Ryu karate classes with the soon-to-be legendary Charles Earle in Providence, Rhode Island. I studied with Mr. Earle for a number of months (and especially liked the way he taught and the way that he seemed to move like a panther), but I was off the college at UMass Amherst soon thereafter and my martial arts training lapsed before it had really begun. That is, until I took a phys ed class in Amherst in that funny new art called Aikido. I liked the dippy thing that you did with your arm as you spun halfway around, but it didn't totally catch on with me. It was the 60's and I had other fish to fry.
By the 70's, I found myself teaching school in New York City with someone who taught Shoren-ryu karate (Bob Weinberg had a classical education from Wesleyan and forearms as big as my thighs). We struck up a friendship. So I tempted fate (and common sense) and came to the class that he gave for the students of our junior high and I let the kids beat up on an actual teacher - me. This finally forced me to learn to really defend myself - at least against angry 15 year olds. My blocks got a lot better. Goal One accomplished.
By my early 30's, I now had some martial arts experience under my belt, I was living in the a smaller, but still substantial city (Boston), that had actual martial artists. I thought that I might try that Aikido thing again. It was graceful and non-competitive and I'd get to do that dippy thing with my arm again. I enrolled at New England Aikikai and diligently went through that awkward period known as "the first few years."
A couple of years in I had plateaued and was getting bored (even with the dippy thing) when one day in was in Paul Keelan's class and he came by and in order to show my partner something and used me as an example. Wanting to be a good partner, I grabbed his wrist and dug in (as much as I could dig in at this point). Rather abruptly I found myself on the mat. I didn't know how I got there. I didn't feel any application of power during my vertical short trip, I just ended up on the mat. I found this phenomenon interesting in the extreme and I immediately had my second martial arts goal - I wanted to learn how to do that.
And that was the story for a long time. Goal Two. There was obviously a lot more going on than just muscle, even though Paul was a big guy and had muscle to spare. There was something not quite describable going on and I've been chasing it on and off for years now. I chased it through Aikido and Tai Chi and Chi Kung and Ba Gua and even a little Hsing-I. I still haven't consistently caught it, but it's sure been an interesting journey trying.
A few years back, I stopped doing anything for a while. Kanai Sensei's death and Paul Keelan's retirement combined with my own health issues put the search on hold. Cession of training had happened before and I'd always managed to pick the search (if not the art) back up somewhere near where I left it. The quest didn't get old even if I have. It's still as fresh as the day that Paul threw me to the mat. Still there. Still shiny. Still just beyond reach. Goal Two, not accomplished.
Now I'm back at it - this time with a brand new impossibly difficult martial art at age 63. The old goals don't fit. It would be nice if I had confidence that I could defend myself, but probably don't really have the need, since I haven't been in a fight since 6th grade. It would also be nice if I found out what Paul used to throw me, but that quest has faded a bit too.
So I'm still looking for I don't know exactly what, and that has made the articulation of goals for my Iaido training difficult. It's a little hazy why exactly I've done all the training in all those other arts up until now. Not that there haven't been lots of side benefits. I got to resolve some of the more angry parts of my personality. I've become more calm and steady and concentrated internally, I've tested myself and therefore gotten to know myself better as a result of my training. I've created and maintained life long friendships with many interesting people who are on their own journeys. There have been different goals for different periods of my life - different things to work on and then, of course, there's the slight glimpse of the unnameable every once in a while just to make things interesting. Maybe the side benefits were the goals and I just didn't notice that at the time.
So, I guess that the current goal is to keep doing what I've been doing and see what happens. After all, the benefits have never been a direct result of the struggle. Why should they start now? At the moment, the current goal is probably to learn to get the sword back into the damn scabbard. I can go from there later. Probably best not to think about this stuff too much anyway. Gets in the way of the stuff.