I was reflecting this morning on the life of Morihei Ueshiba, the creator of the martial art called Aikido. The name means “the way of harmony,” and the story is that Ueshiba created the art after a spiritual awakening in which he realized the interconnectedness of all phenomena. But before that, he was a ruthless warrior, having participated in numerous death matches with other martial artists, always emerging victorious.
Ueshiba was an exceptional martial artist, and it’s difficult to know where the facts end and legend begins. It is said that he hit a hole in one the first and only time he ever swung a golf club. He also supposedly faced off against a military firing squad, firing live ammunition, and was able to dodge their bullets.
Since the founding of Aikido as a martial art, it has attracted numerous students around the world. But none, so far as I am aware, have approached the level of skill of Morihei Ueshiba. Why is that?
I believe one of the reasons might be that, although students undoubtedly would like to arrive at the same high level of skill as the master, they are not actually following the same path that the master walked. Students of Aikido train in Aikido, the system of techniques that Ueshiba developed. But Ueshiba himself trained in older, traditional Japanese and Chinese martial arts. It was only after he had mastered those arts that he had his breakthrough which led to the creation of a new art. But why would someone who didn’t follow the same path be able to realize or practice that new art in the same way?
Jack Kerouac developed a new method of composition that he called “spontaneous prose.” The technique utilizes a quasi-meditative mindset, in which the conscious mind gets out of the way and allows the unconscious (or, as the ancients might have said, the genius, the daemon) to express itself in the writing. In its essence, the idea is quite similar to what a martial artist strives to attain: effortless fluidity and immediate execution of the appropriate technique, without recourse to the conscious mind.
Kerouac never did perfect this method. But he was able to produce some staggeringly beautiful passages in the novels that he wrote in this way, especially Visions of Cody. What mostly gives his “spontaneous prose” a bad name is not his work itself so much as the people who sought to emulate it, without doing the same work that Kerouac did to arrive at it.
Kerouac was steeped in the Classical tradition of Western literature and was an erudite and thoughtful writer, (even if verbose at times.) It was only after working through other, more traditional methods of writing that he arrived at his new method of spontaneous prose. But many people who heard about this new method simply went ahead writing down whatever undisciplined garbage passed through their untrained minds, deluding themselves into believing that it could be as good as the work of a seasoned and trained writer.
People are always looking for shortcuts. We would like to be able to achieve the same levels of greatness – in art or business or sports or whatever the field may be – as the great masters, but very few of us are really willing to do the same amount of work that most if not all of those masters put in in order to attain their high levels of skill. And it doesn’t help if the teacher takes a “Do-as-I-say, not-as-I-did” approach.
What’s worse, there are countless fools and charlatans who shouldn’t be teaching at all, who attempt to cash in on our desire for a shortcut by selling quick-fixes and empty promises of easy attainment. There’s no foolproof method of discerning who has something worthwhile to offer and who is just selling snake oil. But I think two things to look for are: 1) whether or not this person has himself done what he is recommending to others; and 2) whether or not the person giving advice on “how to succeed” has ever accomplished anything significant besides writing a book or producing a seminar.
For example, ten years ago the big thing was The Secret. I didn’t read the book, but I saw the film, and I noticed that everyone featured in it giving testimony as to the great efficacy of practicing “the Secret” all had one thing in common: they all made their living as teachers of The Secret. They wrote books, sold seminars, or led church-type groups. Supposedly, all these men and women have mastered the art of manifesting reality with their thoughts and intentions, and yet the only thing that any of them can think to do is to make money selling this idea to other people.
In other words, it’s a pyramid scheme. I don’t deny that positive thinking and deliberate intentionality are good things, but they aren’t shortcuts. The best philosophy to have, in my humble opinion, is this:
There Are No Shortcuts. Just Do The Damn Work.
Believe none of what you hear, and only half of what you see, as the old saying goes. Pay attention to what people do and have done, not what they say and talk about. And even if the author or speaker is genuinely successful, what guarantee is there that he’s being honest with you about how he achieved that success? Maybe he’s successful because he’s a cheat and a liar – he wouldn’t be the first – and maybe the last thing he wants is for you or anyone else to join the ranks of his competitors.
But then, don’t take my word for it. I’m a Cretan, and we’re all liars, the lot of us. But I’m a more honest liar than most.