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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Review: Dueling with O-Sensei

Dueling with O-Sensei
by Ellis Amdur
Edgework Crisis Intervention Resources PLLC

Many years ago (more than I'd like to think about, really), I read Timothy Zahn's "The Peaceful Man", a short story set in the far future, where mankind was at war with the inhabitants of some far off planet. The story was narrated by a military psychologist, and told of his experiences with a member of the military who was a practitioner of Aikido. The writing and concepts in that story were intriguing enough to me that I became interested in the art, and after seeing a demo at my high school, I went and began studying.

Four and a half years later, frustrated and disenchanted with an art that hadn't delivered nearly what I believed it promised (and with wrists now painfully sensitive from years of abuse), I hung up my gi and hakama and walked away. I briefly explored some other Japanese arts, before choosing to focus exclusively on Muay Thai and the PDR. But despite having walked away from the art, I retain a strange fascination with it. The concepts still inform some of my practices, and I'll always have a soft spot for it, even if I never set foot in an Aikido dojo again.

Dueling with O-Sensei rekindled many of my thoughts and feelings, good and bad, about Aikido, but the book really offers an insight into the culture of martial arts as a whole. Like me, Amdur has his roots in Aikido, but has since moved on (his training is primarily in specific Koryu systems), but seems drawn to return and at least think about his experiences in that art and others.

The book is a collection of essays, previous published in Aikido Journal. I remember the magazine, not these essays.

Throughout the collection, Amdur spends time wrestling with questions that, while sometimes specific to the Aikido community, are really applicable to the practice of all martial arts. The deification of teachers; the abusive or predatory nature of some instructors; the psychological impact or ramifications of training; questions about the history of the art. I say that he wrestles with them quite deliberately--the remarkable thing about this book is that it does not simplify the issues by taking a single clear, unwavering stance. Just as there is no shortage of material glorifying Ueshiba Sensei and the art he created, it is equally easy to find those who have nothing but bad things to say about him and his practice. Amdur takes the more difficult, but more rewarding path, of really trying to struggle with the questions that he came across during his practice. To acknowledge both good and bad, instead of categorically choosing one over the other.

This book has a lot that's worth thinking about for any practitioner of the martial arts. Certainly, anyone who trains in Aikido, or thinks they might want to, should read this (especially if they have only been exposed to the glorified version of the art and its founder). But there are enough ideas in here that can be applied to all forms of practice to make it worthwhile for just about martial artist. The questions it asks are not always comfortable, but those are sometimes the best kind of questions.


Neil Bednar said...

Jake, nice review. I've never read Amdur's book but I am intrigued by his current work in psychology (and I seem to be more and more interested in the psychological aspects of martial arts and combat as I get older.)
I followed a similar path in Aikido as you but it just took me an additonal 15 years to hang up the hakama. When I look at it and the people involved I see things more clearly and bravely than I did before. There was too much bullshit and nonsense in my opinion, but the bullshit need not have been there (which is the sad thing). There are some people in Aikido nowadays more and more (and this applies to other TMAs) who are finding the courage to walk a different path, even if in the same art- but asking questions and not being afraid to test things. This is all part of the revolution we are now seeing in the martial arts and fitness world I believe.
Recently I attended a seminar on aiki-bodywork and it got my brain churning about Ueshiba. As the zeitgheist would have it, the next week a blog I follow posted this:
And it blew me away- ESPECIALLY the part about the famous 1800's Japanese wrestler Matsuda being bested by the girl in the article. And of course, the circle wouldn;t be complete if not for the fact that I'm currently reading Daniel Kanneman's book "Thinking Fast and Slow", about the neuropsychology of humans. So was Ueshiba's prowess "real"? It depends what you mean by real. You'd have to ask yourself if pickpocketers and magicians skills "work" on people. The answer to that is of course "most of the time". Would it work in tha cage?

Jake said...

Thanks Neil.

The psychological aspects are definitely of greater interest to me the older I get. Coach Blauer got me going on that, and I keep going down it. It seems more and more important as I go.

Agreed that the BS in Aikido doesn't have to be there, but I couldn't ever get away from it. I just gave up.

That article is interesting.

Heard a lot of good things about Kanneman's book. It's on my reading list (which is huge).