What's the right answer?

There's something of a saying in our dojo (though it may very well have origins in other schools): Ask any five red-and-white belts (six dan or higher) the same question, and you'll get six different answers.

There's a part of many of us, particularly in the beginning, when I think we would prefer one way of doing things, one solution, one method. It's easier, and makes life simple. Especially in the beginning, when we're so overwhelmed by a wave of new information. Aikido was so completely alien for me, and not just the kata, but the very principles upon which those techniques were based: walking on the balls of my feet, stepping same-hand-same-foot, unbendable arm, etc.

I imagine it must be confusing then, for a "younger" budoka to ask the same question of several teachers and get different responses. Which one is right? seems to be the first thought, as if there were only one right answer, or even Which one is the way I'm supposed to do it? almost as if we didn't want to get in trouble for doing something the way the rest of the school or the head teacher would do it.

Then, the higher ranking I got and the more I taught others, I would get annoyed when a student would stop me and say, "But so-and-so said to do it this way." I'm still searching for the best way to respond to that, but I think the tone of my response has changed. I used to get upset and think, "How rude! While you are working with someone, you don't question them, but do it their way for that hour (as long as it's safe) and be grateful for their input!"

But I had forgotten what it was like to yearn for one path, one true answer to which I could cling so that the world would make sense. The longer I do this, the more comfortable I am with ambiguity or uncertainty, with the possibility of there being more than one right answer, and even then understanding that "right" may only mean "right for the time being" or "right for the circumstances."

I suppose we need a path to start on, a direction to begin walking. I suppose many beginners would quit if they saw how vast and nebulous it all is from the outset, without being able to see, as those who have walked much longer can see, how very, very simple it is, too.

Consequently, I find it harder to teach as if the thing I am teaching is the "right way," knowing full well, that someone else, most likely some one with more experience than I will come along and shatter that illusion for both me and my student. Over time, I find I have developed a list of qualifiers and conditions which I often use to preface my answers:

  • As I understand it...
  • From what I understand...
  • This isn't gospel, mind you...
  • This isn't carved in stone, you see...
  • This is just my 2 cents...

And so forth. I worry sometimes if I might be undermining my own credibility. I may not have done this as long as many others, but doing it for over a decade should give me a little credence, especially in relationship to say, a green or brown belt. Does it do anyone any favors to act as if I'm doing little more than guessing?

When confronted with the statement, "But so-and-so said to do it this way," does it help to explain that yes, that's one way to do it, but that's okay because there are many ways to approach it? On one hand, as I said, I fear the young and inexperienced will walk away thinking, Geeze, these guys can't get their act together and agree on anything! On the other hand, I want them to open themselves up to possibility, to explore, to trial and error, to self-expression.

In fact, more often lately, when confronted with the statement, "But so-and-so said to do it this way," I ask in all earnestness, "Oh, and what did they do?" and let my partner show me. Sometimes, it's something I've seen before, but sometimes not in which case I walk away with a new piece of insight, another avenue to explore.

If it's something I've already come across, I don't discredit it, but try to smile and stay encouraging. "Yes, that's wonderful. So-and-so is very skilled and talented." At which point, I offer to give them an alternative, and perhaps explain how I, personally, have come to the method I am currently exploring, but encourage them to explore all these options on their own as well.

It's something like a father, whose child is old enough to leave the house and make his own life, and who must now let go and allow him to find his own path. So, too, must we allow each other, ourselves, and our students to find their own path, and their own aikido. 


  1. Yes.

    In my place I commonly tell everyone to teach to their understanding at this time. There is no way to do it, we are trying to help you discover your own way.

    Thanks you!

    You ever get any information on your buddy that moved to Austin for me?

  2. Oops. Looks like I was wrong. He's actually in Amarillo. Sorry 'bout that!

  3. I had a judo teacher in Muskogee in the 70's named Gary.
    I can't remember his last name. I think he worked for the Health Dept. and he would be in his 60's now.
    Would you happen to know him?

  4. Nope, sorry, I don't think I know the Gary who you're referring to. (I've only known two Gary's in my time in judo, and both of them are far too young!)


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