I heard a story once about a woman—let's call her Jill—who was preparing to cook a roast as her little girl watched. Noticing that Jill cut off the end of the roast before placing it in the pan, the little girl asked why.
Jill paused. "Actually," she admitted, "I don't know why. That's just they way my mom always did it."
She had assumed it had something to do with how the meat needed to be prepared, but now that she thought about it, she couldn't figure out what purpose it served.
Out of curiosity, Jill later called her own mother to ask why she always cut the end off of the roast before cooking it. Oddly enough, Jill's mom also admitted she didn't know the reason, either. It was just something her mother had always done.
Now even more curious than before, Jill called her grandmother, a very old, frail, but happy lady. "Grandma," Jill began, "mom and I were just wondering—why did you cut the end off of a roast before cooking it?"
The old woman chuckled to herself as she reflected on some long ago memory. "Well, dear, when I was a young newlywed, we didn't have much money, so I couldn't afford to buy a bigger pan. I had to cut the end off so the roast would fit!"
. . . . .
I love that story. Over the years, I've found it applicable to so many areas of my life. Budo is one of them.
Much like Jill, we start out in a martial art learning to simply do what we're shown or told. We spend years focusing on and learning what to do. Put your foot here, hold you hands like this. We memorize the choreography, the steps in a complex dance.
Many folks become very accomplished "dancers" in their art: they look very graceful and polished doing it. I'll admit, I've been mesmerized by that kind of performer before. It just looks so COOL!
At some point, however, we come to a crossroads. A point where we discover our technique doesn't always work. It's disconcerting, because it usually happens at a time when we've been involved with the art for some time, and have come to believe we should know how to do this stuff by now.
When I reached that point, I think I did what a lot of people do: I assumed my uke wasn't doing something right. He wasn't committed in his attack; or, if he did react, it was the wrong reaction for the particular technique we were practicing.
I suspect a lot of schools, and the teachers who run them, fall into that mindset and never climb out. "This is how it's done, how it's always been done for generations!"
A little further down the road, however, I learned a very important lesson outside the walls of the dojo that has in turn profoundly impacted my approach to aikido and judo. The lesson was this: "I have absolutely no control over other people or what they do and say, nor do I have any control over most of what happens in my life. What I do have control over, is me. I have control over how I think or react."
In other words, I had to stop blaming everyone but me. I couldn't blame other people or situations for my own frustration and unhappiness. Likewise, I felt I could no longer blame my uke if something didn't work quite right.
Which brings me back to the story of the roast. It was at this point that I began to ask myself why am I doing what I'm doing? Why am I placing my foot here, why am I doing this with my hands? Why doesn't uke fall down when I do it? I can't blame the roast for being the wrong size! The roast is what it is. My concern is what do I need to do in order to cook that thing.
Don't get me wrong, I think we all need to start out only having to worry about the choreography. But at some point, in order to really transcend, we need to begin to understand the why.
The funny thing is, we discover that there are actually lots of pans we could use, lots of ways to prepare and cook a roast. We talk to other grandmothers and discover each one has her own recipe. It's when a cook moves beyond following recipes and understands the food itself and how cooking actually works that he becomes a chef. He creates his own recipes, he works with whatever's in season or available at the market that morning and creates something unique and wonderful.
To think, Jill was cutting off and throwing away a perfectly good piece of meat simply because she did what she was taught and never stopped to think about why.
I'm a student and instructor at Windsong Dojo in Oklahoma City, OK, where we study a non-competitive style of Tomiki Aikido, as well as Kodokan Judo, and Seitei Jodo. I've been studying budo for 19 years, and I hope to study many more. Welcome!