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Thoreau and Emerson on Art

Garrison Keillor, in an editorial, compared the writers Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The contrast is interesting because each man had a poetic vision of the world that we may take into our training. Each view reflects a similar dichotomy in our martial education.

Emerson took a humanistic view of life. He said, “Every great and commanding moment in the annals of the world is the triumph of some enthusiasm… this is the one remedy for all ills, the panacea of nature.”

Enlightened enthusiasm.

Our chosen martial art will lead to black belt and beyond only when we enter the dojo with a special sort of enthusiastic commitment. We take this burning itch to each practice session, and we infect each other with excited discovery in our relationships with our comrades.

Keiller went on to a different angle that we can apply to our martial art training. “The purpose of all great art is to give courage and thereby cheer us, just as the purpose of education is fundamentally cheerful—to draw us out of gloomy solitude and into a conversation with other scholars.”

Does this fundamental, educational, attitude reign in your dojo? Is the dojo an enthusiastic environment under which education and loving collaboration are possible? (It has been shown that learning only comes along with such enthusiasm).

Is courage (the courage to stand for what’s right) part of your education? I don’t mean the courage to fight and defeat an opponent but the courage to forgive and love the opponent as well as yourself.

“We must be lovers and at once the impossible becomes possible.” Sound like Ueshiba? Do you participate in the world (greater dojo) with the kind of love quoted above by Emerson and constantly spoken of by Ueshiba? Do you know that the love you develop for your classmates and Sensei lead directly to love of all people and things (even enemies)?

Keiller made the point that “Nothing is so cheerful as the urge to commit art.” I love his term “commit art.” Instead of committing violence, commit love and beauty (art).

Another quote by Emerson that we should take to heart is this one:
“This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it… Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”

We must, as the wisest have advised, come to each class, approach each technique with a clean mental slate. Leave your preconceived notions outside of the dojo and take delight in the moment of discovery. Love must come to life moment-to-moment--new and always freshly exhilarating.

The contrasting view, the one espoused or exemplified by Thoreau, comes only after the Emersonian conditions persist. Thoreau became a recluse, famous for his statement that we each have to march to the rhythm of our own, decidedly unique, drummer. He said that the masses lived their lives in a state of quiet desperation and if we’re to escape this doom then we have to find our own way. He was not a cheerful or optimistic man but he knew that the existential reality is that we make our own meaning. He made his. We make ours.

Thoreau’s point leads us to realize that at the highest level our martial art becomes our own with our own personal inflections. We may even find that our innovations stemming from the faithful following of the principles and traditions and accepted ways to perform techniques lead often to a new thing altogether. Such self-knowledge leads all masters to their own art. Ueshiba, of course, gave birth to Aikido after enthusiastically studying an anthology of martial and mystical arts. We probably won’t make such a grandiose discovery but whatever it is, it will be our own.


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