On Common Sense

Common sense sounds like something everyone should be able to understand without an explanation. Yet what one person may call common sense may seem senseless to another. Common practices of etiquette provide many examples.
Sunday, October 1, 2006
Judy
Minot

When I began teaching aikido at a university dojo, Maruyama Sensei told me that I needed to give special attention to teaching university students. You need to talk more: he said, make sure they understand common sense. Sensei seldom says anything lightly and I have since given much thought to these words. The more I consider it, the more I realize that thinking about common sense can illuminate our practice.

Etiquette is like oil for the engine. It helps the engine to run by reducing friction

Common sense sounds like something everyone should be able to understand without an explanation. Yet what one person may call common sense may seem senseless to another. Common practices of etiquette provide many examples. Much of our modern etiquette derives from practices that were originally common sense ideas. I was told by a history teacher that friendly knights would raise their visors on encountering each other to identify themselves, and that this led to the practice of taking off one's hat when being introduced. Thus a principle of etiquette was distilled from a way to be safe1. Many etiquette "rules" become so internalized that we assume they are universal, as your grandmother does when she says, "Surely you are not going to wear that baseball cap at the dinner table?" Similarly, proper etiquette to an American, such as shaking hands on meeting, may be very uncomfortable for someone who is Japanese. We even continue to practice many rules of etiquette despite the fact that they make absolutely no sense. Even athiests say "Bless you!" when someone sneezes.

When new students come into the aikido dojo they are confronted by a set of rules and etiquette for practice, and they can be forgiven for thinking that some of them don't make sense. Many of these rules have to do with hygiene or safety, such as keeping your fingernails clean or respecting your partner's level of ability. These seem fairly simple to understand. Both inside and outside the dojo it is common courtesy not to have offensive body odor, and not to endanger others or cause them to get sick. New students often have greater difficulty embracing etiquette practices based on respect: bowing, the way we address the instructor, or the procedure we follow when late to class. These practice rules may differ from martial art to martial art or between styles of aikido, and they are certainly different from the etiquette used outside the dojo, and so to a new student they can seem as arbitrary as saying "Bless you!" The rules are not arbitrary. Maruyama Sensei pays a great deal of attention to our practice rules. If these rules are not arbitrary, then what is their purpose? Does it matter if we know.

Sensei once told me that etiquette is like oil for the engine. It helps the engine to run by reducing friction2. In martial arts practice we must be extremely attentive to issues of etiquette, because we encounter more friction than in daily life! The first thing that beginners often assume is that any etiquette practice they don't understand is "some Japanese cultural thing." There is something to be said for understanding these rules from the perspective of Japanese culture. Sociologists refer to Japan as a high context culture and the U.S. as a low context culture. In high context cultures a lot of communication takes place through things not said. In low context cultures people mean what they say, (or at least they think they do,) in any case people place highest value on explicit communication through words. If someone doesn't understand something in a low context culture, they ask questions. In a high context culture they would find out the answer by looking around them, seeing how people interact, understanding from the context. To a Japanese person, an American asking, "Why do we have to do this?" or "What should I do now?" may seem to have no common sense because "everyone knows" that words cannot really provide the answer. If we embrace this attitude, it can help us to sharpen our awareness and to become less dependent on explanation as we progress toward better mind-body coordination.

Positive mind is a fundamental principle of Kokikai Aikido practice. Therefore treating everyone with respect becomes essential to achieving our goals in aikido

We Americans often have difficulty with the concept of respect. Maruyama Sensei says that we should respect our instructors because when we become instructors our students will respect us, and the cycle will continue. Sensei also has said that we should respect our instructors, each other and all human beings3. This is not just something we should do out of altruism. In respecting others we benefit ourselves as well. When someone else acts respectfully toward us it increases our positive mind. But treating others with respect also immediately brings positive mind to our own practice. Positive mind is a fundamental principle of Kokikai Aikido practice. Therefore treating everyone with respect becomes essential to achieving our goals in aikido: by practicing respect we increase positive mind, by increasing positive mind we develop greater ki power, and we can become stronger both in self-defense and in our personal lives. The more we can embrace all human beings in our circle of respect, the more powerful we can become. This may sound esoteric. It is not. Many people practice all of the outward signs of respect while inwardly they are much more selective. It can require a great deal of effort to find ways to respect someone for whom you don't have a natural affinity or who you find personally challenging in some way. Some might imagine that it is even counterproductive to self-defense. It is the opposite. One of the wonderful paradoxes in aikido practice is this: as we have deeper and truer respect for others we can become better at self-defense; respecting others helps us to become more calm, more correct, more focused, stronger and more powerful.

Once we understand the importance of respect to our own practice it can change the way we look at all principles of etiquette. For example, we can view bowing as a way to remind ourselves how important it is to practice respect. Helping with dojo duties or wearing a clean gi are not abstract matters of good citizenship but are ways to respect others and increase our positive mind. This has helped me also as an instructor: I was uncomfortable with the idea of students bowing to me and addressing me as "sensei" until I was able to view at it as beneficial to their aikido practice. Asking my students to behave with respect towards me does not seem selfish in that light. When beginning students find themselves wondering why things are done a certain way, they may find it less frustrating if they simply remember that these are Maruyama Sensei's wishes. Respecting them is a way of respecting Sensei, and is a part of practice which will contribute to growth.

We need to be particularly conscious of all of the rules of etiquette when we interact with Maruyama Sensei. Respect for Sensei is important, but Sensei's health and hygiene are important, too. Sensei travels around the world teaching and practicing Kokikai Aikido and he is in physical contact with many people. Some people think that it shows toughness, spirit and dedication to come to class while sick. But this enthusiasm must be tempered with the awareness that if Sensei becomes sick all of his students suffer. Because Sensei has so many responsibilities to others, our interactions with Sensei can have an effect on many other people. It is common sense that we should treat Sensei with special consideration.

The longer I practice Kokikai Aikido the more I realize that it is based on common sense ideas. Proper etiquette is only one example of this. Still, however much ideas and words can help to shine a light on our practice, they are not a substitute for practice. The best way to learn, as Sensei says, is to "find out for yourself."

1 Another history teacher said that it was just to keep your hat from falling off when you bow. This is also common sense.

2 I think everyone who has had the opportunity to drive for Sensei cherishes at least one of his "driving metaphors". I hope someone will collect them one day.

3 This echoes the order of bowing after testing; we bow to the the instructor, to each other and to everyone watching.