Every partner can teach you
by Paper Lantern
Many great thinkers found their most influential inspiration while in the washroom. You can see it in the writing of Descartes, of Shakespeare, of Sun Tzu. Okay, while that may not actually be true, I believe the close walls, the privacy, the reflections in the mirror and the hum of the exhaust fan combine to create in modern washrooms an atmosphere for introspection. In this atmosphere, inspiration can feel all the more meaningful, and it was in this very atmosphere of introspection and inspiration that I saw a poster that changed my aikido practice and much more.
Shortly after class one evening last spring, I was washing up before getting changed, when I was intrigued to find a new poster on the wall, next to the mirror. On a soft blue background, stood fifteen characters. Each character had a different colour belt, different hair, some had no hair, some were young, and others were old. Some characters were short, tall, one had one arm, others had two. Every character was different from the others, in all sorts of ways. I immediately saw the point in the poster, that aikido can be practiced by anyone, and the diversity represented in the characters is similar to that of the students at our dojo, but there was more to it than that. This poster only showed the characters' physical differences, but each one implied a lifetime of different experiences - countless moments spent in different places, with different people, doing different things, and all for their own different reasons. Through all that diversity, the uniform prevailed - the first thing I noticed was that every character wore the boxy outfit we call a gi. Now I've seen people wear gis in recordings of Olympic Judo matches, early UFC, and in the movie The Karate Kid, but I only ever really encountered gis at the dojo. That's why I so readily connected the characters in the poster with the people with whom I practice aikido. With these people in mind, I noticed the poster's text: EVERY PARTNER CAN TEACH YOU.
There are times when I feel frustrated during practice. Some partners are stiff and cause my techniques to fail. Others are beyond compliant and anticipate my movements, so that I'm not even sure if my technique worked at all. When I'm thrown awkwardly or too forcefully, my fall can be uncomfortable. Sometimes I feel like I receive too much instruction and correction, and wish I just had time to come to my own conclusions, and learn from my errors. I can certainly fume and blame my partners for their inability to adapt to my situation, and no doubt, I sometimes do, but I am much better off when I accept the offer my partners make when they block my technique, make a comment, or a throw. By doing so, I can challenge myself to learn from it. If by studying martial arts, I am supposed to learn to defend myself, surely I should first be able to defend myself from physical or emotional resistance in the practice of the art. Better yet, I can take these moments that might otherwise cause me distress, and be grateful for them as experiences for learning and betterment.
Lately, I've come to realize that my fellow gi-clad aikido students are not the only partners I practice with. One evening, I practiced with a pain in my upper back. That night, I had that extra partner to practice with and to learn from. Pain taught me what movements engaged certain muscles, and how to avoid using them. It also taught me to be especially patient and receptive to instruction, when if I had not been open to the pain's teachings, I could be short tempered and dismissive.
When I am aware enough, I use my frustration as a reminder that I should open myself to learning rather than just raging. This philosophy translates easily outside the dojo, where not only can every partner teach me, but so can every stranger, every place, and every moment. What I will learn from them is up to me.