Payet sensei raised his eyes from his meal as I entered the kitchen. He studied my troubled expression for a moment, nodded when I bowed to him, then returned to his food. He had no way of knowing what troubled me on that fateful day since I had never discussed the topic with him. Even if he did somehow know or guess I was troubled, he had no way of knowing I might approach him about it either.
I observed him for a long moment from the other side of the table, wondering how I should tackle the issue, but he was already ahead of me.
“What seems to be the trouble, Gadi?” he said calmly without lifting his eyes from the plate:
“Trouble?” I replied while shuffling on my feet, my voice trembled, tainted with a slightly high pitched sound due to my distress.
“You look and sound stressed. Care to share?”
“Now? While you eat?”
“Sure, why not? Lunch is the best time to digest food and words.” He looked up and smiled. “Go on, better start before the next class begins. I need to teach.”
“I’m lost with my studies of aikido,” I said, and with that innocent sentence, a flood gate lifted, and a stream of frustration that began to gush from my mouth. “I feel like I know very little and understand even less,” I continued, “despite the fact I’ve been training, four to eight hours daily, for the past year and a half.”
“That’s a lot of training,” Payet sensei nodded.
“Which makes it even worse. I’m at the point where I can recognize and perform each and every technique on the syllabus. In fact, my head is full of aikido information and yet, none of it seems to improve my abilities or bring about a deep understanding of the art.”
I took a breather while he finished chewing his last bite. He glanced at me, and I interpreted his silence as a cue for me to continue, so I began to talk again, recycling the same complaint, but from another angle. When I finished, I felt deflated, choked and very miserable. He sighed, cleaned his mouth with a napkin and stood up.
His eyes captured mine as he stretched to his full height, making sure he had my full attention. Then he slid his body into the kamae position—the basic fighting stance of Yoshinkan Aikido.
“This is my kamae,” he declared mysteriously after maintaining the position for a few seconds.
Speechless, I stared at him, completely taken aback by the mesmerizing execution of the move. His transition from standing at attention to the fight stance flowed beautifully from his core, his body effortlessly travelling on the imaginary plane that extended from his back foot to the tip of his fingers and beyond, toward me, through me and far beyond. I could actually feel his energy, even though he stood a few feet away.
“Find your kamae,” he concluded, and with that, the lesson was over.
I had finally found my one liner, that cherished phrase that would send me on the right course to excellence. I say “found it,” rather than “thought I did”, due to the reaction it emanated from every cell in my body and every corner of my mind.
The genius of his words slowly dawned on me as I aimlessly stared through the window of the kitchen and thought of everything I had learned, heard and knew of the basic stance.
- A representation of my center and balance.
- A reference point for every move I take—be it the basic movements or the techniques.
- A tool to sense and act upon other people’s balance and center.
In fact, Payet sensei words made so much sense that I felt entirely stupid.
“How had I missed this all-encompassing and vital information?” I shook my head in bemusement. “How had I ignored what was there, right in front of my eyes, the whole bloody time?”
During the next aikido session, I paid extra attention to my kamae—aware of the way I moved in and out of the position, and tried to sense its relationship to the techniques and to the kamae of my partner. I also observed the kamae of other students, and was fully attentive when watching the kamae of the instructor who took the class.
The conclusion I ended up with was alarming. I realised Payet sensei’s lesson was totally useless without knowing the correct way in which to grasp that vital information.
“Find your kamae!” the words tumbled inside my head, their truth taunting me, driving me insane with frustration.
“Find your kamae! Find your kamae!”
I was completely engrossed in my contemplation as I left the training hall, so much so that I did not realize someone was standing in the middle of the hallway, blocking my path.
“Careful!” I heard Mark Baker’s warning and saw him jump out of the way.
“Sorry sensei,” I apologized, and he chuckled while studying my expression.
“I’ve seen this pained look before,” he said. “What’s bothering you, Gadi?”
That is how I ended up with the second most important lesson I’d ever had.
“So you know what you want to achieve but you don’t know how to achieve it?” Mark summarized after I stated the problem I faced.
“Exactly,” I nodded. “I’m completely at a loss here.”
“Well, at least you’re not alone with this problem.”
I was taken aback by his words.
“Yes. Why do you look so surprised?”
“Because I was sure you knew all there is to know about kamae and its applications.”
“I could only wish,” he chuckled, “but even if I did know everything there is to know about kamae, that’s not the point.”
“So what is the point?”
“To learn how to teach yourself: not just kamae, but any subject. If you aren’t able to do that, you’ll be condemned to stay here forever, waiting for someone to feed you the information, information that you’ll find near impossible to adjust and fit to your individual self. On the other hand, if you learn how to teach yourself, you’ll gain the ultimate freedom. You won’t need anyone to tell you how and what to learn. All you will need is one word or one pointing finger. Basically, all you’ll ever need is an inspired idea, and you can do the rest by yourself. What?” he raised his eyebrows at the wide eyes that stared at him. “Why do you look so confused?”
“Because I don’t get it. How can one teach himself the ins and outs of something he doesn’t understand?”
“By knowing how to tackle the information he desires to learn,” Mark said and pointed at the training hall. “We both know the info we seek is presented there, right in front of our eyes and for quite a few hours everyday. The question is how to grasp it and make it your own.”
“Indeed, how can anyone do that?” I asked and added. “Can you do that?”
“You’ll know once I can,” he smiled mischievously.
“Because the moment I know how to teach myself, I’ll be waving to you from there,” he pointed at the entrance. “Wave, and then move out and away.”
The two sentences I heard that day became my new obsession, tightly grabbing hold of my conscious and not letting go. The words rang within my skull as I walked, worked, trained and rode on the train. Even when I went to bed at night they kept prodding at me, keeping me awake for hours, not leaving even when sleep finally found me, relentlessly occupying my dreams.
“Find your kamae!” the inner calling demanded. “Learn how to teach yourself.”
Unfortunately for me, knowing what was needed was virtually impossible to apply without further guidance. Luckily, I didn’t need to wait long and, the following week, as I stood in kamae during class, I saw Payet Sensei approaching.
“If you want to feel the center you must bring your elbows in,” he said. “A little more, yes, a little more. OK. This is good.”
And he walked off, leaving me to struggle with the awkward position of my arms. But even as I stood there, all twisted limbed and with an upper body that felt as taut as a wooden board, I smiled to myself, knowing that the technical application he had just instructed me was in fact the first physical exercise on my quest.
Squeezing the elbows in would teach me how to relate the arms to my center. No less important—it would serve as the first clue on how to teach myself. To dismantle the whole to its particles, and to study each part thoroughly before moving on. In other words, to try and capture the essence of kamae through practicing kamae was very difficult. It was easier to break it apart and learn each particle.
“Pinocchio?” I heard the voice of Chida sensei and it pulled me out of my deep meditation. He came to stand a couple of feet away, his eyes on my kamae, a smile pasted on his face.
“Yes, sensei?” I frowned.
“Choto katae, neh, (A bit tight)?”
“For training, sensei.”
“Good training,” he nodded, still smiling, and touched my arms. “Like wood. Like Pinocchio.”
His smile faded when I continued frowning, although a faint reminder of jest lingered at the corners of his eyes.
“Come and see me when the class is over,” he said.
“Yes, sensei.” I bowed, my ears burning with shame.
“Was Chida sensei mocking my efforts?” I wondered to myself as I sat and waited for him in the Sho dojo. “Can’t he appreciate what I’m trying to do here? Could it be that Chida sensei honestly believes the elbow-practice was not as useful and as inspiring as I thought it was?”
I sighed and looked at the door, hoping that when he appeared he might elaborate more on the subject. A minute passed, and suddenly the door opened and Chida sensei stepped in. He held a small electric heater in his hand. He placed it on the floor in front of me.
“It is broken inside,” he said and handed me a screw driver. “Fix,” he ordered and walked off.
I don’t think I bowed when he left the room, I was so confused by his strange request. I stared at the heater for a second then went down on my knees for a closer inspection. After all, my father was an electrician. I could give it a go.
First I gave it a full external inspection, hoping Chida sensei was wrong and that glory would manifest itself as a redundant malfunction. But everything seemed fine. Chida sensei was right. It was broken inside.
“Dismantle the whole to its particles, and study each part thoroughly,” the inspiring thought about the kamae soon came to my mind. A smile spread across my face. Chida sensei was not mocking me but in fact driving me to do exactly what I was doing during class. Without hesitation I picked up the screwdriver and moved inside.
What happened next I can’t fully recollect nor explain. The only images filling my memory are a haze of flying screws, scattered pieces and a blend of colorful wires that twisted and turned like snakes all over the broken and disemboweled structure, the empty metal shell that once was a heater.
“Idiot!” I cursed myself. “The fact that your father is an electrician doesn’t automatically qualify you as anything!”
I smiled miserably when Chida sensei arrived an hour later to monitor my progress.
“It’s broken inside,” I whispered faintly and he smiled and asked me to wipe the sweat from my face. He then sat next to me and took the screwdriver.
“No point to break down to pieces,” he said as he began to put everything together. “If you don’t know how to put everything back in place.”
From there he moved on to explain how as an uchi-deshi he had to learn how to fix everything, but I wasn’t fully listening to all the details, my mind had been captured by the red alert sign he had just placed in front of my face. A red sign that was a good lesson in electronics and also applicable to aikido.
“Don’t break down what you can’t put together again.”
Chida sensei, in his own special way, was trying to warn me to be very mindful of the process I took. And to remember that ultimately, the objective is the bigger picture, a working heater and a full range of techniques in aikido.
Fifteen minutes later the heater was fully revived to its glorious past. He plugged it into a socket and we both smiled as a second later, it started to warm up.