It’s 31st January 2006. Toronto, Canada. 4 pm
In the kitchen of Sensei Henry Kono: one of Morihei Ueshiba’s (Founder of Aikido – respectfully called O’Sensei, meaning ‘Great Teacher’) last students.
I’m buckled over on Sensei Kono’s kitchen floor, unable to get up and wondering how the hell I had gotten there. It had started plainly enough: he stood in front me, presented his hands’ palms up between us, and said, “Place your palms on mine and just follow.”
I did and excited to ‘feel’ this man’s power.
“Stop controlling, just move with me,” Sensei said.
[I’m not controlling anything, what’s he talking about?]
“Are you carrying anything?” he asked without a glitch in the motion.
“Relax your shoulders then.”
[This is not turning out how I imagined]
“Good, right…no, you’re controlling again!” he said.
“How can you tell?” I was confused. “I don’t feel that at all.”
Not breaking his flow he shifted against my hands very slightly. My body shuddered and reacted so unexpectedly, I lost my balance. His hands were still touching mine, silently guiding me back. No more needed to be proved. I breathed and ‘tried’ to relax.
“Can you slow dance with a partner Jorge?”
“Umm, sure, why?”
“Do you know how to ride a bike?” he continued.
“Well, when you dance, you just dance, right?”
Before I could answer.
“and when you ride a bike, you just ride, right?”
“You don’t do dancing or do riding, do you? You just dance and just ride. It’s a funny thing with Aikido students,” he reflected with a quizzical look “they DO Aikido!”
It clicked. He noticed.
“Let’s dance,” he offered with his palms up.
Just ‘dancing’ with Sensei as I followed his palms with mine, relaxed my body completely. Here we were, 2 grown men, hands-in-hands, moving to and fro, spinning. I got so lost in the movement and felt so secure in his touch, it didn’t register I was falling onto the ground. My nervous system never registered a threat of falling, because he had maintained perfect pressure throughout the movement on my hands, for my brain to feel ‘secure.’ He felt where my kinetic intent was headed by feeling my physical inclination through the hands. I felt no pushing, no pulling. My nervous system didn’t react because there was nothing to react to; there was no stimulus.
“There was no technique,” said Sensei Kono. “O’Sensei would lecture on philosophy and spirituality more than the Martial technique. The physical practice was meant to be a physical map to the truth. He would use the techniques (physical demonstrations) to demonstrate principles. However, mostly his monologues were on laws, Spirit, Heaven, the ‘Way’ etc. He was an extremely devout spiritual, philosophical man.”
“So what was he trying to say?” I asked.
“He wasn’t,” he replied. “You have to understand Japanese culture. These Masters will not give you their secrets directly; it’s theirs, you see. You have to earn it by discovering it yourself through the practice. They point the way by demonstration, but they won’t tell you the secret. What I do know is, there’s a whole lot of people ‘doing’ Aikido.”
I realised then he was right. I’d experienced a multitude of Aikido teachers, and they felt nothing like this. They were hard; combative, painful. It’s as if in hindsight, they were proving to me the ‘power’. The power of combat, however, is not why studied Aikido. This experience, this embodiment is why I was drawn to Aikido. Sensei Kono drew me a few diagrams and untiringly explained in different ways the underlying premise in Aikido, which he had figured out on his own after a brief stay in Hawaii.
“Life is hard, and it’s going to push and pull and throw you on the ground at any opportunity. Your training is to recognise the pushes, the pulls and when you’re falling. Then to know, with experience, what you can and can’t control; when you should go with it, change direction or push back. And if you fall, you’ll know how to with minimal damage and get back up; just like riding a bike.”
These parting words and profound experience with Sensei Kono would shape my thinking and questioning style for what was to come with my physical deterioration with ALS. There are very few instances (if any) when we meet a ‘Master’; a man with such skill and presence that alters our perception in such a profound, existential way, that we’re never the same again. Sensei Kono was mine.