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Painting of Maestoso II Catrina ridden by Shana Ritter. Painting by Janey Belozer.

Thomas and Shana Ritter perform a Pas-de-Deux to Music during the 2007 Open House Performance, aboard the Lipizzan stallions, Favory Toscana-18 and Conversano Mima. Photo by Amelia Gagliano.

The Way of Aikido
(previously published as ZenQuotes #2)
- by Shana Ritter

©2000 - All Rights Reserved

For this edition of ZenQuotes, I would like to include an excerpt from a book NOT on zen, but on aikido. The human tendencies that prevent and resist our progress are the same whether it be aikido, classical dressage, or any endeavor that requires a lifetime to master. These are taken from "The Way of Aikido: Life Lessons from an American Sensei" by George Leonard, 1999, published by Plume, Penguin Books.

"If the aikido training mat is the world, it's the world under a magnifying glass. Subtle personality quirks are made large and clear. Hidden agendas come quickly to light. Every attempt at overreaching is revealed in sharp relief."


"Broader cultural proclivities also pop up to glare at you like gargoyles when you open an aikido school. Perhaps the most striking of these is the urgent desire in this culture for quick results with a minimum of effort, along with a concomitant distaste for any long-tem path of practice that yields slow results. What we call "mastery" can be defined as that mysterious process through which what is at first difficult or even impossible becomes easy and pleasurable through diligent, patient, long-term practice. Aikido, perhaps as much as any other human activity, reveals the reliable and seemingly miraculous transformative power of such practice. It also shows how doggedly we resist it. Nobody - I repeat NOBODY - is going to look good after only a few classes. Athletic prowess can help but is no guarantee. An Olympic gold medallist quit after three classes because he didn't like the feeling of making no discernible progress.

"There's something especially endearing about brand-new aikido students in their shiny white uniforms, still stiff from lack of repeated washings. They are, in a way, our most valuable students; like babies, they represent our future. All of us, not only we the instructors but the inexperienced students as well, do what we can to ease their pathway into a challenging new skill. But, sadly, of those who first step onto the mat, less than fifty percent will be there a month later. Their reasons for quitting are many and varied. Still, certain character types emerge, and what we see under the magnifying glass of our training is generally true to one degree or another in other aspects of their lives.

"The Dabbler and the Obsessive
"There's the Dabbler who flits from one sport to another, from one job or mate to another. The Dabbler loves the first line flush of things, honeymoons, the shine of newness. Eyes gleaming, he or she approaches the instructor after class to say how wonderful it was, tells friends all about aikido, demonstrates techniques. At the first tentative spurt of 'progress,' the Dabbler's enthusiasm exceeds all bounds. When, inevitably, this upward spurt doesn't continue, the Dabbler becomes restless. Well, maybe aikido isn't right for me after all. It's too physical. Or too spiritual. Or too philosophical. So it's off to something new and different - t'ai chi or karate or golf or whatever. And, if as is generally the case, the Dabbler's pattern pervades all of his or her life, it's off to another job, another love relationship as well.

"There's nothing wrong with trying out new things to see what's right for you. There are times in life for experimentation. But when dabbling becomes habitual, it can prevent any long-term journey of mastery.

"The Obsessive is different. He or she comes into the dojo with an urgent mission. Energy so far forward that you can feel it ten feet away, the Obsessive asks the teacher, 'How long will it take me to master aikido?' The teacher can only answer, 'How long do you expect to live?' At the end of the first class, the Obsessive comes up to the desk. What books or videotapes can I buy so I can learn faster? How about private lessons?' The teacher replies that books and tapes and private lessons don't really help until you've gained some feeling for the art in your body. At the end of the next class, the Obsessive asks, 'Can I stay after class and practice? I'm going to get this technique right if it takes me all night.' 'Well, I've been doing aikido for nearly thirty years," the teacher replies, "and I've never gotten that technique exactly right.'

"When I encounter such a student, I do all I can to change his or her attitude. Just stay on the mat, I say. Keep coming to classes, stay in the present moment, enjoy your training. Progress will eventually come; if you keep practicing, it's inevitable. There's a pang in my heart. If this student's attitude doesn't change, I can be reasonably sure that he or she won't be around a month later.

"All too often, the Obsessive drops out because of an injury. So much overreaching, so much forward energy, can lead to catastrophe - physical, psychological, relational, financial. As on the mat, so in the outside world. In the quest for 'progress' at all costs, the Obsessive can be driven to cut corners, engage in illegal or hurtful behavior. In relationships, the extreme Obsessive, unwilling to take no for an answer, becomes a stalker.

"Yes, there are times, on a tough deadline or in an emergency situation, when all of us are appropriately obsessive. Again, it's only when the behavior becomes habitual that it works against us.

"The Dabbler and the Obsessive represent special character types that resist the path of mastery, but almost all of us are resistant to one degree or another. Learning any significant skill requires that, between spurts of apparent progress, we continue practicing diligently while seeming to make little or no progress. These plateaus can be quite long, especially when learning particularly difficult skills. In any case, the time we spend on plateaus is almost sure to be far longer than the time we spend making spurts of progress."

"Mastery Versus the Quick Fix
"There's a secret here, hidden from us by our restless desire for continual progress and our consumerist culture's false promise of fast, easy results: Most learning occurs while we're on the plateau.

"You're just starting to learn tennis. Your instructor drops the ball for you to hit a simple forehand. Again and again you try it. You listen carefully to what your instructor says. You feel clumsy, out of sync. The ball goes into the net or over the fence or ricochets off the edge of the racket. Hours go by, days. You seem to be getting nowhere. Then one fine day everything is different. The ball sails over the net and into the green more often than not. Your stroke feels more natural. This simple forehand is beginning to seem easy.

" 'Ah, at last!' you think. 'Now I'm really learning.'

"Wrong. You were learning while you were on the plateau, seeming to make no progress at all. This spurt upward toward mastery merely marked the moment when the results of your training 'clicked in,' when as is sometimes said, you got it into your muscle memory.

"Enjoy the spurt but also enjoy the next plateau. And as you go on to learn more advanced aspects of tennis, or anything else beyond the simplest skills, there will surely be a next plateau and a next and a next. The point here is so obvious that I'm almost embarrassed to make it. Yet in the land of the quick fix it sometimes seems radical: To learn anything significant, to make any lasting change in yourself, you must be willing to spend most of your time on the plateau. Not only that, but to join those on the path of mastery, it's best to LOVE the plateau, to take delight in regular practice not just for the extrinsic rewards it brings, but for its own sake.

"Ever since I began planning a forty-page special section for Esquire on mastery, which appeared in the May 1987 issue, I've been studying, interviewing, corresponding with, or just talking to people considered to be masters in their fields. Their opinion is almost unanimous that diligent, high-quality, long-term practice is more important than talent. In most of these people, I've also discovered a fascination with and, yes, a love of practice, a willingness to keep on practicing even in the absence of apparent progress. Research studies back up the opinion of expert practitioners that while talent is important, practice is far more important as a factor in high-level performance." is dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the art of Classical Dressage.
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