Exams and failures

Pasquale_RobustiniIn the summer of 2012, during the usual Philippe Gouttard seminar in Follonica (Tuscany), I failed my 3rd dan Aikikai exam with the great French master. Some would argue that my image as a teacher, although since a short while, could suffer a serious damage. Furthermore, the feelings after a failure are diverse. The will of practicing decreases a bit. You feel a somehow mentally tired knowing that all you’ve done was not enough, while you were convinced it was much. Like after a bicycle or horse accident, it is important to start over again soon! Thank God I was at a seminar, so, immediately after my failed test, I was back on the mat!

Someone would wonder why in the first place I wanted a French teacher to test me. I would have been free of asking a very respected Italian teacher for a Hombu Dojo degree test. Maybe it would also be safer since it is widely known how the French federation Philippe Gouttard comes from allows for very few positive dan tests. The thing is Phlippe Gouttard is the teacher I see most, the one who knows me best, together with Valter Francia who is the one I started practice with in 2001. Valter introduced me to Aikido and to Philippe, who is a reference point for him, too. In agreement with Valter and the French master, I had decided long before that my 3rd dan should have been granted by Philippe Gouttard or no one else. Why?

pasq_philippeTraditional Budo used to be passed by a Master on to his students of “the Way”. Only when such a Masters is sure a student has received the complete transmission of knowledge, this student can become in turn a Master. It is his turn to bequeath his knowledge to others finding a “heir” whom he will pass on all the “secrets” of the art. It doesn’t work that way any longer, at least not in Aikido as we know it. I started Aikido with Valter Francia, who had previously started with Roberto Martucci. One should never forget about his own origins. Those people allowed me to start practicing Aikido but both are too young to be my Masters of the Way – they should be at least a generation apart. In English the world Master may have just the meaning of an expert in a job or art. A 40 year old may be a Master Chef and another 40 year old could learn cuisine from the former, technically speaking. I don’t think the latter would accept lessons in life from the former. Remember, the word “sensei” in Japanese means just teacher; I can understand many consider some same-age Aikido teachers their Masters, but just from the technical point of view. The Master of the Way, the Budo Master is something quite different. I sure acknowledge Valter Francia as my original teacher, but I don’t have a Master of the Way, unfortunately. Maybe this is because I started at a relatively old age? But I do have some reference points, both technical or non technical. Although it is not possible that someone the same age as you can be your Master in Budo, Valter Francia di his own job: when he thought it was time he let me go. As if saying “now you can go on by yourself”. Or “After all those years with me what are you doing here? Open your dojo, go out and teach, if this is what you want, I agree”. So did I. And it is worth noting that Valter Francia has never come in my dojo to hold a single class, out of his respect for me and my students. I did invite him, though; he’d always refuse, he does not think it is suitable for my image as a teacher and for my students, who need to believe in me most of all. In other words, it was a kind of modern Menkyo Kaiden…

pasq_philippe2This does not mean I have reached the end of my path. If the 1st dan of Budo is a “student at the beginning of the Way”, the 2nd dan is “the one who seeks the Way”. Here I am now: I’m still seeking. In my own research I chose Philippe Gouttard as my reference point. He won’t be my Master of the Way in the strict sense of Budo, he won’t be a guide in life, but by all means he fulfills everything I’m looking for on the mat. Each one of us has his/her own reasons for practicing Aikido. Each one of us is looking for something along the Way. Often this something is very different among practitioners. This is legitimate and beautiful, too. At the beginnings, any teacher seems to be unreachable and inimitable. Many teachers still seem so even after many years we practice. It is good and useful to practice with many different teachers, trying different interpretations of Aikido, often leagues apart from each other. But after a while you get to the point where you make your choice.

When I started, names such as Christian Tissier and Philippe Gouttard instilled fear and respect. I took part to their seminars in Rome, as well as those of other teachers I particularly appreciated like Roberto Martucci and Nino Dellisanti. When I was a fresh 1st kyu, Philippe Gouttard came to me and told me I had improved a lot, that I was “on the Way”. He also told me not to call him Sensei, just for our difference in age, merely 10 years – sure I couldn’t be his son.  I used to appreciate Christian Tissier a lot, his technique, the beauty of movements. Philippe Gouttard’s Aikido instead took me from within. I felt unique perceptions, unusual sensations. Philippe Gouttard can bring his own suffering on the mat, all his troubles of a human being. His Aikido is filled with pathos, it is intense, visceral. He always says he wants to teach us what allowed him to grow up, to overcome his fears, his limits: the very essence of Aikido or Budo in general. The way I am, rational, scientific, my brain always churning in order to understand how things work, I would suffer an educational method based on rationality and analysis, as the western way of learning is. It would encourage me to use my brain too much, as it comes natural to me. It would not do me any good. In order to grow, I need my practice to stimulate the cerebral hemisphere I use less, the one appointed to intuition, to the artistic, emotional, sensible side. It would be pointless to practice Aikido to nourish the rational hemisphere to the detriment of the less developed one. Aikido stimulates me just because it touches the inner side I am less familiar with. This gives me the feeling I’m growing, improving, completing my being. Probably it is very good, at the beginning, to analyze all the movements, split the techniques to understand the moves and recreate them. Doing it again and again may also be useful to pinpoint certain concepts once in a while. The danger is falling into a habit of thinking about what we’re doing even if we are advanced students. This is not good, at least for what concerns me. As I stated before, each one of us has his/her own reasons for doing Aikido. Reasons that can be the exact opposite of mine.

Many think Philippe Gouttard’s seminars as being a real “massacre” from the expenditure of energy point of view. It’s quite strange, but this “massacre” has always recharged me. I do feel fatigued, of course – by all means, but after his seminars I feel way better than before. Practice is really intense, this is true. But it is also true no one is pushed to do something he or she can’t afford to do. At certain levels, though, you are pushed beyond your limits, and even further. Isn’t it just the aim of Budo to explore our own boundaries? Who has been in the hands of Philippe Gouttard knows very well that being thrown by him is no frightful experience at all. He is very strong and he puts all his power in the throw. But who’s being thrown does not “feel” all that strength on his/her body. There is no negative feeling. Philippe Gouttard often encourages us to bring our frustrations and anguishes on the mat, but at the same time he strongly forbids to discharge them on our partners. The technique, the practice should be used to reconcile with ourselves. The partner is a means to obtain this, not a punching ball for venting our rage against. pasq_philippe3Philippe often says that when being thrown our partner should feel like in a protective embrace. A throw, a projection, should be like a protection, a game of words better rendered in French (projeter/protéger). Aikido is not meant to destroy but to reconstruct. As an osteopath, Philippe cares a lot about the practitioner’s joints. Every single movement he performs is aimed to let any articulation to work as mother nature designed it to do. If Aikido is meant to reconstruct, it is pointless to twist a joint in the direction it would break. Even if we never do it to the limit, after years of practice and constant repetitions, injuries will surface. Yet, as he always says, people wonder why practicing Aikido for years they have pains in the back, in the neck and so on. Actually, many great masters wear braces, protective bands, they have problems with their hips or knee and the likes. The problem is that few teach and practice Aikido to “stay young”, to slow down the aging process. And even if Philippe is one of them, who’s repeating this ad nauseam, we are not always able to put his “physiological” advices into practice. So some pain will appear. We must be very careful. Not taking incorrect postures while performing our techniques is more important than the technique itself. Actually, practicing to stay young is paramount for a guy like me who started at 36! I must say I’ve never got injured in all these years of Aikido practice. On the contrary, I’m well aware of how Aikido can recharge my batteries every time. Who knows me really well sees a different “light” in my eyes when I’m back from a seminar. I really feel the need, the urge of practicing with Philippe Gouttard periodically in order to recharge my energies depleted during every day’s life. This is no small thing…

But it is not all. What about the right attitude? In the world of martial arts, Aikido is both respected and easily dismissed as “sissy stuff”. There is no competition, no tournaments, some movements may be counterproductive during a real combat. People who train for combat or sport competitions often smile about it or at least they raise a brow. An aikidoka should not be interested in overcoming an opponent. When I asked Philippe Gouttard about it he replied that while two partners are practicing, each one knows who is the stronger of the two. I must admit it is true. One of the things that struck me most about the French master was that anytime he talked about Aikido I couldn’t help but agree. Philippe Gouttard is very different from me as a person. Maybe this is also why training with him stimulates me so much. My attitude with others is often permissive, I avoid disputes whenever I can, to the extent I sometimes don’t express my opinion or a dissent. I try to be as kind and gentle as possible with others. I’m always happy to smile and I don’t take myself too seriously. All those attitudes may be very useful in a lot of occasions, but they don’t work well on a mat. At least they don’t on certain mats, where you need Aikido to teach you something more than empty “kata”, empty forms. On Philippe’s mat those kata are “filled” with some other kind of substance, just to demolish them and get rid of them as far as possible. That’s why the exercises, the “techniques” you see at Philippe Gouttard’s seminars are almost always the same – something many complain about, missing the point. The point is training inside ourselves, fighting against false kindness, against cliche smiles, against the need/will to be good to anyone so that everyone will be good to us. Well, I saw the video-clip of my dan test. That very kind of attitude was missing. I was not there, centered, self-reliant, I was not in command. What I usually seek on Philippe Gouttard’s mat, I was not able to put into practice during my own test. That explains the outcome…

follonica-philippeIt’s a fact I believe Philippe Gouttard’s Aikido is the right one for me. I don’t care he is not the highest rank in our didactic line, I don’t care he is a rather controversial character in the Aikido environment, I don’t care his approach makes more practitioners want to go than to stay; out of respect towards what Budo was originally, I consider fairer and more equal that, if I will ever reach the status of “acknowledged Aikido student” corresponding the the 3rd dan, Philippe Gouttard will be the one to decide. He is the only one who can say if I have effectively reached that step along the Way. Simply because he is the one who knows me more, the one I follow most. That’s all. If he will reject me again I will trust his judgement. What I want is someone who can certificate the actual quality of my exam. I know that Philippe won’t be afraid of rejecting me if my competence and skills will not be adequate – as he already did, knowing that as a consequence I might part form him. I won’t do it, as I didn’t after the Follonica 2012 exam, as I immediately made it clear with him. I strongly wanted to be tested by him. What should I do? He sacks me and I’m through with him? Come on! Maybe, being over 48 years old I don’t need to adorn myself with the highest possible title for the embellishment of my teaching activities. I went to college, I know what it means to take exams, to pass them and fail them. For me, knowing I won’t pass if I’m not prepared is a quality guarantee. It matters to me first whether I truly meet the requirements of a 3rd dan Aikikai level or not. I know Philippe Gouttard will never “betray” me on this. I trust his dispassionate judgement and I know how sorry he is when he is forced to reject an examinee he knows since long time ago. If then I will stay only 2nd dan for a while, this must be my own problem, not his. On the contrary, I wouldn’t ever make a problem out of it. Maybe someone else would?

P. Robustini

Making a fool of myself with Philippe Gouttard in front of everyone – Turin, December 4, 2010: I just didn’t get it…  (Hey, now I know it very well! ;-))

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Budo, by Werner Lind, Ed. Mediterranee – Italian