I'd just merged onto US 101 north heading home from noon class at Bay Marin Aikido when I flipped on the FM radio to see what was on NPR. It was an interview, with Gary Leffew, champion bull rider. His voice rolled easy over the radio, brimming with humility and slow, whimsical humor that is the mark of someone who has lived harder and suffered more than you could ever imagine.
As I wondered whether to change stations, interviewer Dave Davies asked Leffew to describe life during the eight seconds a rider has to stay on the bull to get a score. He laughed and began, "eight seconds doesn't sound like a long time, but I promise you, when you're on the bull, time becomes relative," and it seems like forever.
As Leffew continued in a relaxed drawl, I was still thinking about what we trained at noon class, the 31 kumijo paired jo awase, and how hard it is for people who are used to the 31 no jo kata to get out of the frame of mind of a solo practice and into the larger mind-space of a two-person shared practice. Instead of being in this little capsule containing only yourself moving through a series of strikes, thrusts, and parries you expand into a bigger sphere, one that encompasses not one but two people wielding weapons. Often what happens is that you get two people sequencing through their own solo practice in close proximity, never cultivating a mind large enough to include the other. This is not only bad practice, but it is dangerous too.
During today's class we put aside everything but the requirement to explore how expanding the mind to include both yourself and your partner allows the moves to make sense in the larger game. Widening awareness to include the other allows each to find the blend in a natural give and take where both partners move with a rhythm that is neither that of the one nor the other but a synthesis of both.
As these thoughts echoed through my mind I heard Leffew say, "my best rides happened when I got out of my conscious mind and opened up to the way the bull was thinking. The bull is 2,000 pounds of animal totally out of control, and if you can relax and become one with the bull, you can have a great ride. Every wreck I've ever had, whether I got thrown or stepped on, it was because I got caught up in my conscious thoughts."
He continued, explaining he'd been teased a lot by other rodeo cowboys for using terms like "zen" to describe his mental practice. But even his detractors had to agree he was onto something when he kept winning year after year.
I was riveted to the radio. What he described was what we were trying to do in class, except that we pay a smaller price for getting it wrong.
Then Davies asked him, "can you tell which newcomers are going to be great riders?" Leffew answered, "I don't look for talent so much as I look for 'try'. I've seen a lot of riders with talent give up after a few times being stepped on by a bull. The ones who end up being great are the ones who have enough 'try' in them to get slam-dunked, stepped on, or drug, and keep coming back."
He concluded in his understated way, "'Try' finds ability." So that riders with enough "try" in them to keep practicing eventually get better than the ones with talent alone.
Immediately I remembered a section in Terry Dobson's book, It's Almost Like Dancing, in which he describes the mind set for learning to take rolls. He writes, "nobody can make you leap off of your feet, you have to do it yourself" and just fly, trusting that the courage and tenacity you show will lead you to knowledge.
For those of us who may not be talented, or have started Aikido late in life, Gary Leffew's "'Try' finds ability" is like a sudden unexpected comfort, a humble cowboy's pragmatic encouragement that persistence, perhaps even in Aikido, will eventually pay off.
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