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I have always found my failures much more interesting to study than when everything goes down as I wish. Here is one of my recent discoveries of a failure which has been going on for years.

I have always been very relaxed with grades in all the martial arts I have been in touch with. I did the examinations when the teachers told me to do it, more eagerly at the beginning, more reluctantly lately. I do understand that this system is very important for many people so I have always treated it with respect, but I do not support the use of it as a hierarchy classifying the people training as more valued or less valued as training partners. For me the training partner is another human being on the same road as me, period. There is no difference for me wether they are high ranked or beginners. They are equal humans, nothing more, nothing less. That being said, I do go better together with some people than with other, but that has nothing to do with grades or experience.

Every partner presents a different problem for me which I have to solve. The keiko itself can be the teacher while my partner gives the initial conditions and restrictions in which I will study for the time we are paired up. For me the “partner pair” has never been a miniature teacher / miniature student within the session even when the experience differences are substantial. We are doing keiko together and should not be instructing each other in what to do.

However, without knowing it until some days ago, I have put very much value into the senior/junior system. In this system it does not matter if we practice a lot or almost nothing at all, if we do lots of grades or none at all, or if we have talent or not; the only thing that matters is simply the date we started. I have kind of put myself on the map like that and identified myself like that. This is who I am: These are my seniors, and these are my juniors, and without any meaning of hierarchy or value, it is simply like this, and it will never change, because the dates we started are not changing no matter what we do.

Then some time later the senior/junior system, or sempai/cohai as the Japanese call it, was given some importance. The structure that had been built without my knowledge got some weight loaded on to it.

In the past I was always used as a backup plan whenever the teacher of the day did not have time to teach the class and needed a last minute substitute. As I was always there and was the senior of those that would show up it kind of fell natural into place like that. It always bugged me, but they were my seniors so I always accepted it. I never said a word. I just put more and more and more value into making sure to get a substitute at least a week in advance if I needed a substitute myself. For me the keiko is, and always has been just as serious as any job I have had. I try my best never to be late and to be there when I am scheduled to teach, trying to do the best job possible for my level. I don’t really have any other important things in my life, so it has always been very simple for me. However, I do understand that for most people it is just a hobby, which can be thrown aside if something that matters more in their life comes in the way.

The next thing that happened was naturally that the new teachers, which in my head were my juniors, because they started practising at a later date than me, continued doing the same. I still did it, whenever it was necessary, as I was going to practise anyway, but I did say words about it. I never enjoyed teaching, and if I have to teach a class I generally like to know about it before it happens, even though I feel my way during the time on the tatami rather than plan something. It became a strict line in my head separating my seniors and juniors. It did not matter in normal cases, but when I felt like I was being used it did matter if it were my seniors or if it were my juniors not showing up for their classes.

Still, this was happening quite autonomously. I did not think much about it. And as I have never had any attachment to the grades I felt quite free from the ego drive to be successful and stuff like that which I consider something which will hold us back on the road. I must even admit being a little bit proud of being free from the desire for the grades. However, without knowing it the ego still held a solid grip on me due to this stiff view built under cover regarding my sempai and cohai. My prison cell built by my ego had invisible walls, but those walls locked me in preventing the freedom of my mind.

Charging the batteries before a 0530 morning session in Kawagoe May 2014.

Charging the batteries before a 0530 morning session in Kawagoe May 2014. Photo by Roland Hultberg.

Then came one day somebody mistook a junior to me to be my senior. Not any junior, but one both higher ranked and more skilled than me. This happened as I was rejected as a training partner and there was also the implication (half way meant as a joke of course) that this person would be a better training partner than me and that he/she would go ahead of me in the partner selection hierarchy. In other words that they would train together and I should go find somebody else. Oh my! How my ego bit me there!

It came out of the blue, like lightning on a sunny day. All the aggravation and frustration from many years came rushing back to me like an avalanche. Luckily all of this happened only on the inside, and nobody knew what had just happened, but I practised the rest of the session in a very disturbed state (which might be a topic for another blog post).

This disturbance came from the ego. I never meant to consider myself better than my juniors, but somehow I really did! It stings my heart just to write those words; it is so far from what I thought I was thinking. The sempai/cohai system were just a formal etiquette from the beginning, and it came from the Japanese culture. However, in my head, during the years, it gained lots of weight it were never supposed to have, subconsciously, without me noticing it happening. The ego built a fortress inside my mind, hoping that I would not notice it, imprisoning me within myself.

Suwari waza with Marius in Sjøholt December 2013. Photo by Sigurd Hatlen.

Suwari waza with Marius in Sjøholt December 2013. Photo by Sigurd Hatlen.

So after this I have been going through my thoughts, tearing down this stiff structure inside my mind, taking the ego fortress down brick by brick, digging myself to freedom from my prison cell. I have finally found out what happened and how this could happen without my knowledge. The ego is very, very tricky. It hides exactly where we are not looking.

I have become more aware about my own feelings when selecting training partners after this experience. I did in fact expect some advantages when being chosen as a training partner, even though I would never admit that some weeks ago. There is nothing more important for me than the comfort and wellbeing of my partner, so finding prior partners eager to practice with me again can be considered a great success. Being rejected as a training partner has always been quite hard for me. This happens naturally to all of us as there are sometimes more than one who wish to practise with the same partner at the same time. Still, the keiko is what I do, this is who I really am, this is me. If somebody do not wish to practise with me my ego will bite me where it hurts. However, now I know about it so my awareness is growing and my ego can’t hurt me any more in this particular way.

So I found one fortress. I am sure there are more of them lurking inside there. The advantages from getting more free from the ego is apparent in every technique we do. To be able to just be, instead of trying to be something more that is what I am searching for. The ego always tempts us to try to be something more. Throw stronger, be faster, make it look more spectacular, and so on. If I find a way to just be me, to be in harmony with myself, then maybe somewhere further ahead on the road I can be in harmony with all my lovely training partners which I now, finally again, in truth consider to be equal.

Enjoy your keiko! Aiki make people happy!