The way we test is really unique and says a lot about the art of Aikido.
Our first test is the 7th Kyu test after finishing the beginner’s classes. The techniques in the test consist of a few of our stretches, ki exercises, and very basic techniques. What it’s really for is getting us used to getting up there in front of the class at the risk of… failing. Not that anybody has really, technically FAILED a 7th Kyu test that I’ve seen, but what’s interesting is what we naturally do in the days leading up to the test: We stress out about FAILING THE TEST. Others may tell us that we can’t really fail it and we may act like we’re not really worried about it to our training partners…. but we are. Somewhere deep down, maybe at times not so deep down, we think there is a chance we might get up in front of everyone and be ridiculed by our teacher and the class, getting shamed off the mat and laughed out of the dojo. As simple as the exercises in the test may be, it’s amazing how we amplify their difficulty leading up to the test.
As we test, we wrestle our fear of failure in front of people we barely know, most of whom are very good at this crazy art. Even when we make it to higher ranks, we are put in crazy situations during the test, especially during the randori (multiple attackers). Our teacher may ask us to lay down while someone pins each arm, each leg, and three people are waiting for the command to attack so they can come in and try to take our life with a sponge noodle. Why? This would never happen on the ‘street’. Why are there seven people on this randori? If I ever piss seven people off at the same time in real life, I’ve got issues. The reason why is that under the scrutiny of our peers, we exercise our failure muscles. We’re always kept just out of our comfort zone where the risk of failure is imminent. If we don’t take that risk, we don’t advance. Essentially, we are moving up the ranks by failing, not by winning competitions. Through this process we become less fearful of failing.
As in most things with Aikido, this is exactly how it is in life. We advance by failing. If we don’t take the risk of failure and fly in the face of it, we can expect high levels of mediocrity at best (or we’re incredibly lucky).
As with most things with American culture, we grow up from a very young age believing that we succeed by winning. We win the football game. We get straight A’s. We knock the guy out. We win the race. This is great as long as we’re winning. What happens if we stumble? Now what? Some never recover from this and are devastated. Societal pressures don’t make this any easier. This mindset is very hard to sustain.
When studying very successful, innovative, and sometimes world changing people, we observe that they succeed by failing. They’ve had many moments of falling down, dusting themselves off, and getting back up only to risk failing again, and repeating this process until one day they discover the theory of relativity or the pet rock. Taking the risk of failure can be frightening, but history shows that those who stay resilient in the face of failure achieve great things. If that’s the case, can we really call it failing?