You Keep Using That Word…

We love to talk about it, sometimes glibly, sometimes with an earnestness you can only find in a dorm room bull session. We tell each other to recognize it, avoid it, and at the end of the day, let go of it, as if it were some detritus we’ve collected over the years, imperceptibly, like some disintegrated portion of ourselves.

I am referring, of course, to ego.

And with apologies to Mr. Montoya, I do not think it means what you think it means.

So, at the risk of offending all those earnest dorm room philosophers, I’d like to take a stab at it today. First, however, some background. What I propose here is not some metaphysical treatment of the concept, or an examination from, say, an Eastern or even aiki perspective. Today is all about practicality. And so, in that spirit, let’s subtitle this little discourse…

A Practical Guide to Ego

We all know the signs of overt ego gratification, so I’ll dispense with this one quickly.

The subtle hints we give, that emphasize seniority; the conversations we have, that are intended to exclude; the gratitude we lack, when offered a lesson; these are all behaviors that, even in our worst moments, we recognize as ego driven. And these are the behaviors that, when allowed to pass unchecked, are most destructive to dojo life.

But there are other, less obvious signs of ego poisoning.

The Self-Deprecating Student

Let’s start at the other end of the spectrum, with someone you may recognize. She’s the Aikidoka most disappointed in her technique. Unrelentingly self-critical, she never seems to measure up to some arbitrary, personal standard she’s devised. In her mind, judgment has already been passed, despite the remarkable progress she’s made, and continues to make.

And yes, she is just as ego driven as her boorish counterpart.

From where does her internal critic reside? And from what stuff does he make his judgment? From her own ego driven expectations.

Taken to its extreme, this behavior plays out in that instance where the student believes she doesn’t deserve the rank awarded to her. In that case, the student is actually substituting her judgment for that of her instructor. And although her behavior may appear humble, or even praiseworthy, it is, in fact, completely ego driven.

Let’s move on. I’ve written about this particular fellow before, but I think his type bears repeating here. We’ll call him…

He Who Approves

The problem here is one of judgment. We all know how criticism, specifically that noxious form intended to reinforce differences, or draw attention to rank, can be a vehicle for ego. What you may not realize is that praise, functionally speaking, is exactly the same. In both instances, the student, whether by critique or compliment, is relying on his own personal standard to judge a fellow student.

“So what?” you may ask. “I like compliments. What the heck’s wrong with you?”

But therein, of course, lies the problem. This interaction, this dispensing of judgment, confuses the role of teacher and student. In the dojo, the only role the student has, properly, is to receive instruction. It is the teacher’s role to correct, or offer praise when warranted. By giving the compliment, and thereby extending judgment, the student has usurped a role not meant for him.

I’m The Most Non-Competitive!

My last example today involves intent, specifically the intent a student brings to training. In truth, this topic is broad enough to fill several posts, so I’ll be brief.

In a nut: Aikido is a cooperative martial art, at least from my amateur perspective. Our training methodology is to approach our kata with martial intent and vigor, but with the purpose of helping our partner understand the technique. And yes, in some cases, this means countering the throw or pin. Sometimes failure is the best teacher.

But the intent here is always cooperative. It is never a contest of strength, never a desire to win.

Competition therefore, at least in a dojo setting, is yet another manifestation of ego. It is the refusal to put your partner’s training before your own.


To be clear, I’ve certainly been guilty, at one time or another, of all the behaviors I’ve just described. And yes, ego training is difficult — it’s a not insignificant part of my Aikido practice. I write this as a fellow student, a beginner, trying to make sense of a frankly confounding topic.

I hope you find it useful.

23 thoughts on “You Keep Using That Word…

  1. Now I am going to be self conscious when I tell someone to punch me correctly 🙁

  2. Just demonstrate correct strikes as uke. If your partner is aware, and is not fettered by ego, then he will adjust, regardless of rank.

    If not, then either he is not ready for that lesson yet, which is fine, or he is not there to learn, which you have no control over.

    Alternatively, you can ask the instructor, and she will correct the student.

  3. I’m currently working on an issue of pride right now. I’ve been working on doing exactly what Jerry just described. Attacking smoothly, slowly when I’m uke to demonstrate non-verbally to under-class-men. I’m coming into the issue in these last few months with my under-class-man then stopping me to correct me, because I wasn’t doing it as they understand it. Like I’ll attack morotetori and get off line of my nage. From my understanding from my instructors it is correct to get off the line of attack, even as uke.

    Here’s where my pride comes in. I’ve been accused by my under-class-men in the past of trying to defeat my under-class-men’s technique, or even stopped to be corrected by the under-class-men who feels that, for example, morotetori is done with uke face to face with nage. Most people who have trained with me know how many injuries I have, and know I’m more likely to bail early on a technique than resist it due to my fear of injury.(working on this too 🙁 ) So my pride comes in because I feel insulted, hurt and disrespected for being forced to stop training so I can listen to a 6th kyu’s lecture on my inadequacy. lol

    I’m non-confrontational so my partners will never know I’m pissed. While on the inside I feel resentment for being talked down to. I want to get to the point where I can just shrug and say in my head “silly 6th kyu.” or “I guess this was how annoying I was as a 5th kyu huh?”

    I know I should call the sensei over for help, but I feel awkward with that sometimes. I’m aware my partner has his own pride, and calling the sensei over could be construed as passive aggressive by me. So I never want to call Sensei over while I still feel upset at my partner. Maybe this is stupid, I might be over thinking the issue.

    I’m aware you can’t change how others act. Therefore if I want to have a more enjoyable training session I need to change how I react to others actions. In the end I think you are right, it is an issue of pride going both ways. But only I can change my pride issues. It isn’t my job to help anyone else with theirs.

    In the end when it comes to under-class-men I know who are famous for lecturing me, I’m working on just training for as long as I can without exchanging any words, then attempting to just train through my “instruction”.

    :/ ????????????

  4. Budo training can be looked at as ego training.

    MM, consider this: If Aikido is not about fighting, and is instead about not fighting, then don’t give your friend someone to fight. Don’t let your ego turn you into an adversary.

    You’ve identified pride as an issue you’re working on. May I suggest that the real uke in your encounters is not your training partner, but your ego instead? Whenever you get upset, (rightly or wrongly), it is your ego defeating your technique.

    And yes, maybe your training partner has ego issues also. (Don’t we all? 😉 ) And maybe he is clearly wrong in his behavior. But so what? That’s his training, not yours. Remember that all of us, yudansha included, are only students, and that it is Dee’s responsibility to issue correction on the mat. This is a lesson for me as well.

    One last thing to consider. You’ve referred to your friend as your “underclassman.” As his senior, know that we are holding you to a higher standard, someone who has a better grasp on the pernicious effects of ego in the dojo. Not just for your training, but also as an example to that pesky fellow who’s annoying you.

    With your good example, hopefully, your friend will learn in time. (Lord knows I was insufferable on the mat back in the day!)

  5. I’m not one to saying anything in response to some one making me feel upset. Which might be a good thing on the mat. But you feel it, and feeling it strips training of its joy. I’m all about having a positive training session. I’ve been keeping in mind that no matter who my partner is, Sensei will be clapping their hands for us to change partners eventually. 10 minutes of being prevented from training is nothing compared to the other 40 minutes of training in class.

    In the end the only person’s behavior I can immediately effect is my own. So it is a process of letting stuff roll off your back like water.

  6. We want you to enjoy your training, MM. You don’t have to train with the person upsetting you.

    But recognize that by doing so, you’re cheating yourself of a valuable opportunity. You forgo the chance at ego training, the type of internal study that, at least in my opinion, is crucial to budo. Ignoring this person, whoever it is, is the equivalent of avoiding the attack, rather than attempting to blend with it to a non-violent conclusion.

    When I look back at my teachers, several come to mind that had a disposition I wanted to emulate. And one of them was my junior.

    Who would you rather be, someone who is unaffected by the poor behavior of a fellow student, or someone whose balance is taken by an ill-considered comment?

    You have excellent Aikido, MM. Dee and I are very proud of you. You can do this.

  7. By the way, I speak from experience here. I’ve worked through exactly the kind of issues you are facing now.

    And I was also the jerk trying to one up my seniors.

    Sensei had a lot of patience with me.

  8. I’ve always had the opinion that I’ll practice with anyone who bows to me, or anyone who asks me to. Even if they jerk my chains 9 out of 10 times. Either I’ll learn to make training time enjoyable despite what comes my way, or I’ll continue being aggravated from time to time. I’m an optimist, so I like to say I’ll make it work out. I’m horribly careful about social stuff, so I’ll never not train with anyone who wants me to train with them. I’m not at the point yet however where I seek people out that have a reputation to be difficult, whether it be in daily training or a seminar. I want to get to the point where I have the skill sets to where I won’t need to care who is in front of me.
    In the past I’ve learned argumentative people either quit, or they change with time, so their is an element of patience I need, especially with the a new person. I was once a new person and I know it isn’t easy. Regardless of the person’s attitude, they are under taking something frustrating and difficult.

    Thanks for your confidence in me by the way 😀

  9. I must be really lucky or am reaping the benefits of only attending class once a week, but I haven’t had any problems with any students. Everyone seems to be eager and willing to learn and take help when warranted.

    Maybe if I attended more classes…people would start getting on my nerves more 😛

    Or perhaps I am just that scary that people just don’t pull anything on me (<— coy joke at my own ego :P)

  10. You scare me, DK.

    No problems, tho’. Every now and then Sensei likes to bring this topic up. Given the non-sportive nature of Aikido, and its budo aspects, it’s something to look out for. I think it’s more common than not in many Aikido dojo.

  11. It is common, more so at seminars. At least from my observation. However I have a different problem at seminars. At the last seminar I went to on several occasions the people I bowed to to train with flat out told me no, and went to train with people they knew instead. Also, I hate being called “sweetheart”, “honey” or “insert-random-patronizing-affectionate-term.” At the last seminar in Atlanta, young males of low rank enjoyed walking me through the techniques, like I was some sort of delicate flower. It took every ounce of sweetness I possessed to smile and nod.

  12. Just to be clear, I want to emphasize that I’m not referring to anyone in this post. I know that nobody is taking it that way, but I want to make sure.

    My choice of pronouns is for stylistic purposes only.

  13. I can’t imagine anyone calling you those names here, MM, considering our chief instructor is female.

    But, if I’m mistaken, please let me know privately.

    I will make sure the situation gets corrected immediately.

  14. No, everyone at our dojo knows better! >:-D Even Ryan!

    Except Mike Sands, but Mike can call me what ever he wants, cuz Mike is awesome! lol

  15. Jerry,

    I’m doing fine – spend most of the day doing my TM program with the large group here. Integration of silence and activity.

    I’ve taught a couple of aikido classes to date and am scheduled to cover more classes while I’m here.

    I still have one of the dojo keys. Where should I mail it?

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