A Practice Session: Repetition

Repetition. It’s the key to learning. Repetition and trying to duplicate your effort over and over again really is the foundation to almost everything we learn. Granted, the kind of repetition I mean in does differ slightly between martial arts and writing. If you write the same sentence over and over again, you are actually just repeating an preset action with almost no variation. With writing, you have to write a different phrase using the same grammatical rule or writing technique to do the same thing as you would if you did the same aikido technique over and over. The difference lies in what part of you is actually at work—in writing it’s your mind, and in aikido it’s your body. Each actually requires you (the whole being) to try to duplicate a single event over and over even as the situation you’re in changes.

Each irimi-nage or shiho-nage or ikkyo I do is different. I’ve done them thousands of times each, but each repetition is different. Why? Because I’m not in exactly the same position to start with, my mind is not in the same place as the repetition before, and my uke isn’t either. We’re a few seconds downstream metaphorically speaking than we when we did the last technique. Nothing is the same because we are two human beings at work and our interaction changes our situation from second to second. In fact, this subtle variation is an important part of learning, as it exposes you to new situations.

In writing, mindlessly writing the same sentence over and over doesn’t do anything except maybe help your penmanship. As for the actual skill of writing, writing different phrases (which takes the place of the ever-changing uke above) accomplishes the same thing as the kata waza practice in aikido. In fact, each art form has something similar. Copying masters in painting is much like writing in a certain style or form is in writing or going through a certain test format in aikido. Repetition of the basic elements of the art, until they become almost reflexive is important. You see this mentioned in Zen books a lot. The monk, Takuan, probably has the most famous example of the swordsman going from beginner to expert to beginner again. Knowing this doesn’t make anything easier, but at least you know what you’re getting yourself into.

After living a decade on my own, I really started to pay attention to cooking. I missed things I had at home, and I missed many of the things my Grandmas made for me when I was a child. Making inari-sushi and sanbaizuke made me think about Grandma Muranaka, who made those things I enjoyed so much. I do think of her when I stuff the little inari pouches. Grandma Fujitani taught me to make futo-maki and I make namasu the way Mom was taught by Grandma. Each of these things required practice. My first two dozen futo-maki were terrible. Now I’m better, but not nearly as good as Grandma. I’ve almost got her sushi-su down.
Food ties generations together. One of the things that really sealed the deal for me with Becky was that she accepted these bits of food that are passed from one hand to the next, from one generation to the next. She relished them, and that was important. To accept them meant accepting me, accepting my family and traditions. I have tried to do the same for her. I’ve practiced making challah a good number of times now. Her mother taught me, and only repetition would make it work. That being said, it never comes out like her mother’s, but she actually seems to like that.

Jacques Pepin has given a lot of interviews where he’s talked about his training, and how that helped him. The deboning of thousands of chickens, the chopping of thousands of onions, the mincing of thousands of cloves of garlic, and the importance of repetition. Repetition refines technique. Technique is the guarantee you bring to the table of quality. He’s right. Although it takes a lot of time, practice is the only way to improve. Otherwise, you’re always winging it and failing more often than you probably should be.

The One Art isn’t so much that once you learn one art, all your techniques translate in order to instantly master another. Learning the One Art means you understand the process of learning technique and applying these new techniques to your vision. Your vision, your sensibilities, remains constant from one art form to the next, but each form has its own techniques. The One Art means you many not need as much instruction in a new form because you’re willing to work on each technique and accept the repetitions you are required to do.

There are so many times I wish I had done aikido before poetry. Aikido was so good at getting me to understand the concept more clearly. On the other hand, if it had come first, would have the problems I’ve had with poetry with aikido instead? Who knows? In any case, it is never too late to practice which should be done constantly and often.

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