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MI Magazine: Robertson Sensei Interview

In 2005, I was contacted by the Australian online magazine MI, and gave the following interview.

Question: Can I begin by asking your age and current rank?

Sure. I'm 46, and I received my godan in the Fall of 1997.

Question: How did you become interested in Aikido?

My older brother knew about aikido, but I hadn't really heard of it. We went to visit Bill Sosa's dojo and I was immediately hooked. I'd never seen anything like it, and knew then and there I had to do it. We went in for our interview and started training soon thereafter.

Question: How was training then compared to nowadays?

The particulars of training from one dojo to the next are so different regardless of the passage of time that it's hard to answer that. The main thing is that aikido is now widely available and it's easier to take for granted. Back then I don't think there were more than about three aikido dojo in all of Texas, and no one knew what I was talking about when I told them I did aikido. There were precious few books available in English on aikido. Now you can't keep up with them all.

I can tell you that Sosa Sensei was a very kind and gentle man, and yet the training was hard, both physically and mentally. I saw grown men cry. There was a definite edge to training in that dojo at that time. I came to understand that Bill represented both the enemy and the benefactor. Either way, you ignored him at your peril, and so awareness was sharpened.

Question: Did you travel to other dojos much in your early days to watch visiting Shihans or other notable instructors?

If there were other dojo in the area in the late 1970's, I wasn't aware of them. I'm pretty sure we were the only game in town in the Dallas area. We would travel to Austin whenever Rod Kobayashi Sensei came around, and the Austin folk would come up to Dallas for the same reason. I moved to Austin not long after I started my training, which also had a dojo associated with the University. So I would spend my time between these two dojo for the next several years before settling permanently in Austin.

The attitudes were really funny. The Dallas people thought all the Austin aikidoka were just a bunch of dope-smoking bikers and hippies, and the Austin crew thought the Dallas bunch were just street thugs and paramilitary types. It was always fun when we got everybody together, and of course my brother and I were right there in the middle.

Question: Did you take to learning easily or do you still see some of your students today showing the frustrating signs you once showed?

Both, in a way. Although I was never much into organized sports in school, I loved doing things with my body. I had taken up beginning gymnastics in college and brought a fair amount of body knowledge with me by the time I started aikido.

At the same time, we were being made to think of things in a whole new way. Some things were subtle and perplexing, and others were stupendously obvious once they are pointed out to you. You wonder how you got to be this old and never learned these things before.

So I got used to feeling like a complete fool when I'd come to the mat. I realized we were being asked to learn anew how to sit, stand, and walk. This makes it easy for me to empathize with new students. Aikido is frustrating for everyone. It doesn't matter if you're a trained dancer or if you have a physical handicap. You'll be challenged just the same, but in a unique and personal way.

Question: Have you ever traveled to Japan to train?

I had the pleasure of being asked to present a seminar in Tokyo. That was in October of 2000.

Question: Do you think those who train as a means of self-development pick it up any easier than someone who simply wants to learn a martial art?

I think there are pitfalls with either approach. People can become very self-absorbed when they undertake a path of self-improvement even when they have good intentions. I have very strong opinions about aikido being a healing art, and that people who do it should be service oriented. We say we study self-defense, but it can easily just become “selfish” defense. In aikido, we have to join with others. Their pain, their experience, their balance is intimately connected with our own. At the moment of the encounter, we should realize our fundamental oneness. If this isn't happening, then a key ingredient is missing.

Those who just want to learn aikido as a martial art, or a fitness routine, or a social hobby, or whatever are also likely to miss the profound depth that is available. If we do anything regularly, regardless of what it is, that thing will change us. So it is incumbent on us to be awake and mindful of what we are doing, how we are recreating ourselves.

Question: Do you think Aikido instructors have more trouble keeping students as opposed to Karate, BJJ instructors and if so, then how can this be turned around?

I don't know about the comparisons, but it's not something we should worry about so much. Peter Ting once said “the door swings both ways.” The only people who should be doing aikido on a long-term basis are the ones who are deeply called to it. Everyone has to be free to choose their own path, and it's not our concern whether they walk the Aiki Road a few steps or for their whole life. All we can do is present ourselves sincerely as guides to anyone who is curious to know what we've seen. The rest is up to them.

As a professional instructor, this is hard. My livelihood depends on having students. Even so, the quality of my daily life is determined by the relationships I have with my students. So, if I prioritize my living over my livelihood, I just have to trust that it'll all work out.

I'm always a bit sad when I lose a student, particularly if we've exchanged ki for any length of time. It always feels like a part of me is going out into the world. I've had to learn that this too is part of how we extend ourselves. They will always carry some of our experience with them, so sending students off with all good will is just part of the outbreath cycle of kokyu.

Question: Has your style of teaching changed much over the years?

I'm always looking for better ways to make the teaching of aikido representative of the principles of aikido. I think it's essential for instructors to demonstrate the fundamentals of aikido in all things. Not just waza, but in the presentation of material, the inflection of the voice, and in the interaction with the students.

If we seek efficiency in our defense movements, we should do the same with our teaching methodologies. Aikido training is not always very efficient, and I think we're finding ways to improve on that. At a certain point, we need to stop emphasizing endless acquisition, even of knowledge and skill. These remain important, but we also must seek refinement by discarding that which is unnecessary, that which does not serve.

This is part of the survival mind set. We have to be ruthless in examining and questioning everything we do, particularly as instructors. We have aikido in the first place because O-Sensei had the temerity to say “there has to be a better way.” I think this is our true legacy and tradition. We have to always look for better and better ways, and this comes from letting go of nonsense, and even letting go of things that have some value, but are not essential. It sounds severe, but it's not really. Flow is established by removing obstacles more than by pushing the river. There is a genuine lightness, a freedom and joy in discovering this.

Question: What advice would you give to students who become frustrated with training?

Stop taking yourself so seriously. You're going to die anyway.

Question: Do you ever get frustrated with training or are you beyond those feelings?

Hmm. Well, since I'm someone who takes himself seriously, I get frustrated just like everybody else.

Question: How important is weapons training to a student's development?

I'm going to take some flack for this one, but I'm going to say it's not essential. At least not for the reasons usually given. People will say that all our aikido movements come from the sword and so we must understand the sword. But I counter that all sword movements necessarily come from the body. So we should understand the body as the true origin for these things.

This is not to say that weapons training has no value. But firstly we should remember that we are not samurai living in feudal Japan. It's necessary to let go of such fantasies in order to be grounded in our modern circumstances.

Still, there is utility in preserving and transmitting old knowledge. And the sword and the staff are fun in and of themselves, and that counts for something. Finally, weapons work helps us understand our relationship with tools in general, so it is just another kind of blending exercise.

Despite my position on this, I actually really enjoy weapons training and would not be eager to see it dropped from our curriculum. If pressed, I would say that it's perfectly possible for someone to learn aikido well and not have to ever pick up a jo or bokken. They'd be missing a part of our culture, but none of us can ever hope to get it all.

Question: With so many organizations around today, is it a good thing or a bad thing?

Diversity is definitely a good thing. Aikido is a vast field. Any one of us can only get so much, and so we depend on others to discover and preserve the other parts. This presents us with opportunities for encounters and exchanges, and that's where aikido really happens, isn't it?

The bad part comes when organizations and ryu promote their particular brand of aikido over everything else. So again, it becomes self-serving -- “selfish” defense. We need to remember that we all do aikido. This is what takes precedence. It's healthy that we all do it differently and that we can gather together with other like-minded folk. But when we allow aikido to be yet another excuse for defending our tribe at the expense of theirs, then we are far, far off course.

A small group of my associates and I are actually working on doing something about this. We are looking at creating a new kind of organization designed to honor the separate styles, while at the same time building bridges so that we all have access to the abundant richness of this path. We're currently in the very early stages of formalizing our structure, so I can't really say much more about it at this time. But I welcome contact from among your readers if they might be interested in this sort of thing.

Question: How often do you train?

I'm currently just teaching two adult classes and one children's class a week. But I try to integrate all my daily activities in such a way as to keep learning. Training should eventually feel like ordinary living, and vice-versa.

Question: Is it advisable for students to cross train or is it best they put all their effort into one art?

This need not be an either/or question. Cross training can be very valuable. At a minimum, I think people should get out of their own dojo and visit others with different styles, even if we just stick to aikido. We learn from the universe, and nothing else. Any teacher who presents themselves as a one-stop solution is doing a real disservice to their students.

At the same time, a student has to understand that they are only learning one thing. If they can identify that one thing, then they are putting all their effort into one art, whatever we call it. Now they are drawing from the great sea rather than just from the local well.

That said, I do think a student should find a home. They should pick a dojo and perhaps an organization, make themselves a part of a community, and they should commit themselves to serving that community. Having a well established base allows for greater freedom of movement, does it not?

Question: How do you see Aikido developing in say 10, 15, 20 years?

Training methods will become increasingly efficient. The fundamental truth inherent in aikido is making itself more manifest already. We will discover that it's not really all that interesting to focus our energies on how to twist someone's arm, how to throw them down, how to take their balance. Once we get past that, we will discover the real martial art that lies at the center of aikido, and that's where the most intriguing and fun questions lie.

The lessons we learn on the mat for person-to-person interaction will be applied on increasingly large scales. We will see groups of people learning to do aikido with other groups, but on a higher order than just the physical encounter. Agencies and governments will begin to be influenced by our methodologies, with mixed results. But the world is changing and aikido is one stream among many influencing its direction. But that which we call “aiki,” in all its forms, will become more prevalent in society and human understanding. This is inevitable, and we are a part of that inevitability. As my degree is in anthropology, I find this very exciting, and I want to continue to be a part of it. It is our own evolution we are taking charge of. We should not just look decades ahead, but centuries. What we do here and now matters well beyond our limited lifetimes.

Thank you kindly for taking time to speak with us and share your thoughts and views.