One day in early February 1987, I climbed the stairs to the College Avenue gym at Rutgers University for my first class at the Rutgers University Aikido Club. I remember how excited I was to actually find an Aikido class and better yet, that it was on Rutgers campus, on only a short bus trip from where I was living off-campus. I first read about Aikido in Joe Hymas book, Zen and the Martial Arts when I was about 16 years old. I knew then, that I wanted to practice this amazing art. Sadly, in the early ’80s, there were no schools near my Jersey Shore town where I grew up. That had all changed when I transferred to Rutgers University and now would be able to practice.
Fast forward 33 years later to another day in early February, where I’m sitting in seiza, with my friends/Aikido of Charlotte Dojo family and many others during our annual seminar with my teachers’ teacher, Andy Demko, Shihan. We had just finished a round of testing for both kyu (lower, non-black belt dan) ranks and several at dan (black belt) level. I was soaking in the excitement and joy that most Aikidoka feels when there is testing. It is a celebration of hard work and dedication. I was especially excited because 3 of my friends and fellow Aikido of Charlotte brothers had just tested and performed incredibly well.
The mat was packed with seminar attendees, friends from many dojos all over the country. Demko Shihan and my teachers, Dennis Main Sensei and Jonathan Weiner Sensei were out in front and about to hand out testing certificates for students who have taken tests on another day. Another tradition of testing, specifically when Dan testing is anyone who just tested for Shodan or first-degree black belt that day, is given their new belt in front of everyone and is expected to change their belt and for first time and from that point forward, they are a Shodan (also translated sometimes as committed or serious student.) Jack F., Aikido of Charlotte member and friend was going to be getting his new black belt and I could not be happier. After Jack accepted his new belt, he bowed, first to his instructors to thank them for their time and dedication to teaching him, then turning and bowing to everyone on the mat, to thank everyone who assisted along his path getting to this moment, whether they actually participated in his test or had ever trained with him. For in Aikido we rely on our fellow Aikidoka to progress in this art. One cannot develop technique without a competent attacker or uke and one cannot learn to fully commit to an attack and not anticipate with a competent defender or Nage.
After Jack’s bow, it was anticipated we would break and get ready for the next round of training sessions, but the instructors announced that the had one more rank item to present. My teachers started talking about an individual who had made great improvement and had overcome a number of challenges including, weight loss, knee surgeries, advancing age, multiple Aikido organizations over 33 years………wait, were they talking about me? My heart skipped a beat and then I heard Demko Shihan announced that there were recommending me for promotion to the rank of Shodan.
My throat tightened, my eyes started to tear, and I stumbled forward, almost losing my balance as I made my way up front. I was handed my new belt and bowed with as much gratitude and joy as I could muster. That I have finally reached this major milestone in my 30+ year sometimes on again, sometimes off-again martial arts journey…I had made it. Whatever “it” was. Intellectually, I knew that there really wasn’t a difference, but emotionally and spiritually I still needed to come to terms with “becoming a shodan.”
What I have come to feel/discover despite reading or “knowing” over these last several weeks is this….everything changed and nothing has changed.
Nothing has changed:
• I still need practice 3x per week
• I still cannot take ukemi well on my left side
• I will still hear my teacher say, “Relax harder, Jim-san”
• I am not an instructor (yet)
• I accept ownership of the state of my dojo and my dojo family, leading by example
Everything has changed
• I am more confident in my Aikido, not in my amazing Aikido technique, but in my ability to persevere, adapt, and in time, with consistent effort, begin to understand a little of a technique
• I have a new plateau to get comfortable with and begin to see Aikido in a new light as I am working on techniques to deepen my understanding of the basics, not just to demonstrate my understanding of them to date.
So I contemplate the days in February, separated by 33 years…One marks the beginning, the first step on a path. The second does not signify an end or even a change in the journey, but a milestone to be acknowledged as I pass on the same journey extending to the horizon. Anticipating that there will be other important milestones to be aware of, I am now more than ever committed to just follow the path that has been laid out before me by my teachers.