Socrates: “One comes to manifest this sort of love after seeing beauty here on earth and being reminded of true beauty as it was seen beyond heaven. When reminded, the wings begin to grow back, but as they are not yet able to rise, the afflicted gaze aloft and pay no attention to what goes on below, bringing on the charge of madness. This is the best form that possession by a god can take, for all those connected to it.” Plato; Phaedrus; 249d-e
We end up in a street lined with bars and hit one of them at random. A couple of us sit down in the outside serving area while Georgious, Bjørn Eirik, Dimitris and some of the others to say hello to some of Georgious’ friends. We order beer.
About half way into my beer, an elderly man wearing chinos, a dark t-shirt, a baseball cap and a really big smile greets us from the street. This turns out to be Georgious’ older brother Dimitris, a semi-retired achitectural engineer. As it turns out, he is also a zen priest, having been ordained by the very same Sensei Fumio Toyoda who taught his brother aikido. He buys some tsipouro at the bar, but in stead of joining his brother and the others inside, he comes out to sit with us.
The Priest, as I will name him from now on to avoid confusing him with the other Dimitris in our party, turns out to be an eminent storyteller and an experienced cafe-philosopher. -The kind that will sit in cafes or bars and engage anyone in a critical inquiry into any subject worthy of interest, and who will react to a distraction by dealing with it and then go straight back to where he left off in his line of thought in stead of starting a completely new discussion. As readers who knows me will have guessed already, we hit it off like long lost friends the moment we greet. There is just no end to this guy’s awesomeness.
He start asking me about my self and how long I’ve practiced. I tell him that I’ve been practicing Aikido for twelve years, and that it is approaching five years since getting my black belt. I know as I tell him this, that the question of my next grading is not to be avoided. It seems to be impossible to say that you’ve been practicing steadily for so long without being asked when you will get 2. dan. My answer has already been rehearsed through several repetitions.
“There are several reasons I could give. I could tell you that for my own personal development it does not matter what rank I am, as the whole point isn’t how much I am being formally acknowledged as a practitioner. The point, off course, will always be how I can develop further regardless of rank. I could tell you that I will be known and respected as a teacher back home regardless of my rank, and that I’d rather people come to me for my reputation than my credentials. But what it all really comes down to is that it’s becoming damned expensive to do these gradings, and this year I put all my savings into this trip to Greece.”
“I guess what rank you are is important to your friends back home, though.” The Priest smiles as if there is some kind of secret that only he knows, hitting my bad conscience spot on. He goes on:
“Listen. I will ask you a question, and if you answer correctly, I will give you your nidan right now.”
I immediately see the part joke, part pedagogical trick which is concealed in his proposal. He is going to test me, not as a practitioner of technique, but as one who walks the path of aiki (the aiki-do) towards enlightenment. Neither is he serious about grading me. Not in the officially recognized way, anyway. It would cause no end of trouble if he tried, as he would be trampling in on someone else’s turf. I suspect in stead that he is going to check my understanding of walking the path. It is like an old master giving a potential student a trick-question to check his worth. The joke about grading me is just a kind of ploy that makes him weighing me like that a socially acceptable endeavor.
Off course, I could just be over-analyzing the whole situation, but it’s really much more fun this way. You should try it. Besides, if it is only me that has this perspective on this and our following conversation, and it isn’t shared in any way by The Priest, it doesn’t make my perspective any less true. It is, after all, how I perceive the conversation.
I tell him to ask his question, knowing that he will never tell me if I pass. I even suspect there is no way of passing, as this is often part of the point in games such as these.
“Why do you practice aikido?”
Again, it is a question asked many times, and I have several rehearsed answers, all of them true in their own ways. I know that he may have an answer in his own mind, and I know that, in my own eyes, I cannot fail any more spectacularly at his test if it turns out that I give him that exact answer through trying to guess what he’s thinking. Why? Because I would fail to answer the part of the question that is about me. I would fail to answer why I am doing aikido. This is part of the trick. This is in part why the test can’t be passed. I decide to not give him the answer he is thinking of. Instead, I am going to give him the right answer.
“I have been asked the question several times,” I reply, “and I have given several answers. All of them true at one time or the other.”
“I used to do aikido because of the beauty I found in its movements and because I wanted to take part in that beauty. This was why I started. I continued to practice because it proved to be a positive addition to my life and personal development. Among other things, it developed my body, and it has also been at least as instrumental in treating my mental condition as the medications I’ve been prescribed. And I can say this even though taking Ritalin also has really helped.”
“The reason why I practice today, however, is because it has just become what I do. I love it and it does wonders for me, but this is not the reason why I keep going to practice. I keep practicing because I am one who goes to practice. It’s both what I do and who I am. Just that, and nothing more.”
The Priest does not even need time to think about my answer. His reply is immediate:
“Aha,” he says, “and what is this aikido that you practice? What, when it all comes down to it, is it that aikido really is?”
I contemplate for a short while. Not because I haven’t answered the question many times before, but because it is one of those questions that it is always worth trying to answer as if it was asked for the first time. There are so many answers to this question that are correct, and yet none of them will ever suffice to be a final answer. If this was the case, why practice aikido at all? I answer:
“Part of the answer can be found in what aikido means semantically. Something is always lost in translation, but it means to walk the path of meeting in a harmonious way by joining, as opposed to crashing, and to work with the joining forces in a way that creates force. I think ‘the way of synergetic meetings’ is a good english name for it, even though I’ve heard no one else use this particular phrase.”
He nods, still smiling as if he knows some kind of secret. I go on:
“At the same time, aikido is also a path to enlightenment. It is a way of practicing in such a way that you realize, not in the sense that you know intellectually, but in the sense that you really know, that everything you experience is you. That everything that cause harm, is you causing harm to yourself, and that there is no opposition unless you yourself create it. This is something that I find really intriguing about the way we practice: How you can see that every time your technique is being blocked, it is because your ego has taken over and is creating a tension because you want to succeed. Therefore you can’t make the technique work properly until you stop allowing your ego to want it to work, thus eliminating the perceived opposition between you, your partner and the technique.”
“You could say that,” The Priest replies, “because aikido is really about love, and that is the essence of aikido. Here, let me tell you a story…”