Updated: Mar 2, 2020
Over the last few years I've had the privilege of beginning a few exchanges with fellow dojo cho. These "seeds" are meant to be the beginning of long term friendships between our dojos in an effort to share ideas, help each other grow, and of course, spend long hours training on the mat!
One of the conversations that comes up pretty consistently surrounds our lineage, loyalty, and what that means for us as well as our students.
What we all agreed on was how grateful we are for what our teachers have provided - a path. In my case, Richard Stickles Shihan was my gateway to the world of Aikido. Ironically, our first meeting was spent with him grilling me about my Judo experience and whether Aikido would even be a good fit...
At 19 years old I was faced with a decision: continue with Judo, or find something new. I had known for quite some time that Judo, for many, doesn't have a great half-life for the body (torn MCLs, ACLs, ACs, etc...). However, I loved traditional martial arts, so I went about searching for something more longitudinal; something I could practice for the rest of my life. I had zero designs to ever become a teacher, I just loved the practice.
I visited over a dozen dojos in New Jersey, finding myself losing hope, comparing these senseis to my Judo teacher, who at 75 years old, still had a six pack, trained with everyone (and beat them), and genuinely didn't care about rank or position, but simply that everyone kept training consistently to improve themselves. No one seemed to measure up - until Stickles Sensei.
I found myself really taken in by his story of coming up in New York under Yamada Sensei, working at airlines to score tickets to follow him around the world to seminars. I decided that I would push and attend my first class at his dojo in Roselle Park.
It. Was. A. Disaster.
Stickles Sensei had a program for all beginners focused on cross-hand techniques with little to no resistance. This, as it turned out, is one of the most effective retention tools for new students I've ever seen (in the years I spent there, his ability to retain new students through to 5th kyu with this program was astonishing). For me, coming off of full resistance Judo, I thought it was a dance and an insult (very ego driven). I said as much to the uchi deshi that was living there at the time. He responded by saying he understood, but that I should give it one more try. The next day, Yamada Sensei, head of the largest Aikido organization in the USA, was giving a seminar at a nearby dojo in Red Bank. He said that I should take that seminar and if I still feel the same way, then Aikido was probably not the path for me.
This recommendation would change the course of my life.
The following day I went to this beautiful dojo in Red Bank (I highly recommend it for both aesthetics and the quality of Aikido) and began a day long seminar with Yamada Sensei. I was still negative - "what was this? Dancing?" I was again quickly losing interest.
About halfway into the first class I was practicing Shihonage with Karen DePaola Sensei (I didn't know who she was at the time, just that she was incredibly kind and helpful). As we were training, Yamada Sensei happened to be walking by and saw that I was making a very basic mistake (leaving uke's elbow exposed to my face). He walked up and quickly said, "wait!". I paused. "You see the elbow?" "Yes?" "You see your eye?" "Yes?" - in that moment he took my uke's elbow and immediately proceeded to elbow me in the face three times - hard!
Of course Karen Sensei was incredibly apologetic, probably thinking "oh my god, this guy is never going to come back". In my head I was thinking, "FINALLY! I'm sold! There is something to this!"
In that moment I formed a deep connection to Karen Sensei, Yamada Sensei, Stickles Sensei, and Jim Soviero Sensei that I will never forget. I owe the very existence of my Aikido path to these incredible individuals and it's a debt I pay each time I step on the tatami and bow in to train and teach.
From this experience, as I then came to expect, the bonds of loyalty deepened through continued exposure and through new bonds with tomodachi and sempai like Gary Pike, Joseph Roy, Derrell Thomas, Jeffrey Marfil, Sheila Cahilig, Daniel and Annie Small, Alice Hunnicut, and so many others. I would have disagreements, reconciliations, and what truly became a second family thanks to what Stickles Sensei built.
But the question remains, "does this sense of loyalty and devotion require blindness to fault and stubbornness to change?" I think the answer is no.
In the end, Stickles Sensei was both a wildly inspiring teacher and mentor while at the same time being a deeply flawed human. It turns out that most of us are. I supposed there are two ways to handle human discrepancies like this: 1) write off the person entirely, or 2) develop nuance in loyalty and devotion.
In approach #1, oftentimes the result is the famous line: "let he who is without sin cast the first stone". How many of us can truly claim to be perfect, or at least, to always think, feel, and do the right thing by everyone and every situation we come into contact with? I believe is unfair to expect this of ourselves or anyone else, lest we create some seriously difficult circumstances to live through.
Instead, via #2, we are given the opportunity to accept and work through our imperfections, to recognize them as an integral part of the human experience. We're able to continue showing loyalty and devotion, even to those figures who are flawed, but through whom we are able to challenge ourselves and grow some aspect of our character, without their flaws impacting other aspects.
I personally have no need for the childlike perspective of the "father figure"; that parental archetype defined by perfection, "always having the answer", and being everything we can aspire to. Instead, nuance allows us to pick and choose the things that help us in varying ways, to help us complete aspects of ourselves and grow throughout our lives.