Aikido and The Gates of Speech

If you all follow me on our dojo Instagram (@liaikikai), you'll know that I sometimes go on tangents in the live videos, about resources and thoughts I have about things I notice in the Aikido community. It's available for 24 hours (sadly, that's just the nature of the live videos) so if you wanna see my ugly mug talking about this instead of reading it, feel free to hop on over (click the profile picture icon.) If you're curious how I got to 10k+ followers, you can follow this social media guide I wrote here.

Anyway, I was talking to Saul Rosenberg, who is Hagihara-sensei's longest practicing student and one of our beloved instructors, and who will be teaching a class during our annual summer intensive, along with the husband-unit, Dave Norton of Pax River Aikikai, Brian Mizerak of Kingston Aikido, and of course, Grandpa Eddie--I mean sensei. (Relax. Before anyone jumps down my throat for breaking propriety, it's homage to the fact that if I had a nickle for every time someone asked if I'm related to him, I'd have about 40 cents--the most recent of which being last night.) I often talk to dojo members about the very things I'm talking about here to the Void--uhhh general internet public--because it's one thing to just talk about findings and observations, but it's another thing to have conversations with the very people whose training may be affected by the culture. Likewise, talking about it often I think helps dojo-members recognize it when it occurs, and also helps introspection if they find themselves reacting to it. This way, maybe this single stone in a still lake can send out ripples that will reach the shore.

Anyway, in doing so, Rosenberg-sensei talked about the Gates of Speech, which I had never heard of but once I did some research into them, really resounded with me in all the right ways. He said he and his wife remind each other about them often, and I think they are absolutely worth not only talking about in an Aikido context, but in a context for life and how we interact with others. It is a list of "Gates" or more accurately, checkpoints we should go over before we say things, and the most recent version is easily remembered by the acronym THINK. There used to be just 3, but now it's expanded to 5.

As most of us know, my issues with the very community I'm so deeply involved with is how people interact with one another. Every time someone posts a video (or a question--I can't tell how many times someone posts a question and people go off on tangents rather than answering the original question), instead of giving helpful advice should they not jive with it, they simply make sweeping negative judgments and statements.

"Terrible technique." "Not doing it right." "Horrible." "Poor skill."

Just disparaging and negative. If someone disagrees, then they're "Ignorant" or "Disrespectful" Or "aren't doing real Aikido."

That's not to say we can't disagree with what is posted, but how we say something to convey our feelings will ultimately decide what our motivations are, or how people perceive those motivations. When someone posts those types of comments, what do we think is going on in their heads at the moment? For me, my first thought is "weird flex but ok." For those not caught up with the online lingo, it simply means that I view it as a comment serving only themselves--to "flex" or show off how much they know but not meant to help the original poster or those who read it. It's weird because... why? What greater purpose does it serve other than to make someone feel good by putting someone else down? Is that really how we personify the philosophy of not only peaceful conflict resolution, but the idea that what we practice is a way of life that's supposed to make us and the world better? All it does is make myself (and many others both inside and out of the Aikido community) view the person who says such things as insecure at best, egomaniacal at worse.

It just stopped sitting right with me so I wanted to find just some things that may be of interest to people who feel the same way I do. Without further ado, how to THINK before we speak, the Aiki way!


1. Is it TRUE?
The first gate of speech is the checkpoint of whether or not what we're saying is true. It may be our truth, but is it the objective truth? And if it isn't, then that makes it an opinion which means it's important to present it as such. For example, something may not be the way we do it in our own dojo, but that doesn't necessarily make it wrong or bad. Obviously if someone is claiming the technique we know as shihonage is actually called iriminage, then in cases like that it's totally okay to say it's not.

That's not to say we can't offer an opinion, but before we do so, it is important to recognize it clearly for what it is, rather than hiding behind claiming something is "true." After all, should claim our opinion as fact, it's very easy to be seen as untrustworthy, since it's a dishonest way of trying to get our point across so it's unlikely people would want to hear what we have to say if we lose that trust.

A better way to frame something, when we differ in opinion, is to provide a disclaimer of "In my experience..." or "My personal opinion..." and end with "But your experience may be different" or "Your mileage may vary." Even "That's just my 2 cents." is helpful in making a distinction between an opinion and claiming a truth.

This way it isn't trying to force our own beliefs on someone else, which has very rarely gotten people to agree with us.

2. Is it HELPFUL?
Which gets us to this next gate, the Gate of Helpfulness. Is what we're about to say helpful to someone's life or to their practice? Is it a comment that is actionable for them, meaning that they could follow it and have a consequence? Does it actually give tangible advice, or are we just saying something because we want to feel superior about what we know?

"This is terrible Aikido." vs. "You should step here (e.g.) to make it powerful." or "If you raise your arm a little higher/keep your elbow a little lower you can...."

The caveat is that if we ONLY offer advice without thinking about any of the other gates, we can still be perceived as just "flexing our knowledge" in which case while it's better than being outright disparaging and negative, it often comes across as us trying to be a know-it-all. After all, on its own, it violates the gate of truth is that we are presenting our opinion as fact. It can cause as many people to dismiss what we say and if we didn't intend for it to help someone, why would we be saying/posting it?

I'll give my own example. I've been going through these checkpoints even when deciding on the topics of my blog posts. A few months ago, I had written a piece on ideas of how we may be able to improve our community. Prior to that, I had a draft detailing all that was wrong with it that was fleshed out in terms of giving examples upon examples of the kind of behavior I found inappropriate. However, was it going to be helpful? The answer ended up being "no" and therefore that blog post got scrapped. All it was doing was pointing out what was wrong, but it didn't provide any value in terms of how to affect change, and no matter what, would have been confrontational and aggressive because it was accusatory. I recognized that the only reason I was writing it was to make myself feel better, and since I had already made my views on the matter itself clear, it was time to see how I could actually provide value in a way that people felt they could at least hear me out, if not try it.

Making it so it's easier for those listening wanting to give our advice a try is a good checkpoint for whatever we say, which takes us to...

Likewise, just because it is a helpful piece of advice in that it can produce results if followed, does it actually inspire people to want to try it? Is it phrased in a way that not only helps people understand, but also makes it so they feel like they could gain value from trying it? This is where the initial interaction is so important, because once someone has a negative or defensive attitude due to their perception of how we are speaking (and our motivations for doing so), it's very easy for them to dimiss the person on a whole.

So if how we say something cannot provide inspiration to trying what we say, then maybe reconsider whether or not it's a good idea to say it in the first place. Some inspirational ways of speaking involve speaking at the person's level, as a peer, rather than from either a place of authority or utilizing it as an authority.

"I teach my students (this) and they are able to...." or "X-sensei said (this) is the right way and the way you're doing it is wrong." or "Do it like (this)." and changes that high-horse lecture into "I found it very helpful to do (this.) It's really improved my (this.) I hope it helps your (this) too."

The next gate is whether or not what we're saying is necessary. Are there parts of what we say only designed to make a dig or hint at someone's inadequacies? To get the last word in? Are portions of what we're saying not relevant to the discussion? Are we attaching an opinion to an answer for someone's question, rather than actually addressing the issue at hand?

For example, if someone is asking a question about how to set the dye for their brand new hakama, and we start on (for whatever reason) the inequities of who gets to wear it, then not only is it not helpful, but it isn't necessary either.

5. Is it KIND?
This last one is close to my heart. I honestly believe people are very capable of great kindness, but sometimes we let our own insecurities get in the way of being kind. Sometimes, people will claim that they're just "blunt" or "honest" or "(the people who don't agree) can't handle the truth" and it makes me sad to hear because then they missed the other checkpoints entirely and aren't interested in actually helping. If someone does not hear what we say because of how we're saying it, we might as well have wasted our breath, and, at worse, made them more resistant to hear us or the topic in the future.

To say that this is just the way we are and people can either accept it or walk away is a deflection of personal responsibility in an interaction. I say it very often, "Intention does not mitigate the consequences of our words and actions." We all have a choice, and hopefully the things we are trying to convey to someone else (ESPECIALLY if it wasn't requested specifically) are us actually attempting to give our fellow man value, rather than just trying to feel superior.

It might take a few extra minutes to phrase what we say kindly, but it might make all the difference in the world to someone else. Are we interested in making a better community in terms of techniques? In which case, we must necessarily provide an environment that is kind enough for others to want to try things differently.

I'll leave you with an old Aesop's fable where the wind and the sun compete on who can make a traveler take off his cloak. The wind blew as hard as he could and only succeeded in making the traveler wrap himself tighter with his clothing, but the sun gently warmed him up, until it would be comfortable to take off his cloak. It's something that really made me think.


I hope you found these gates of speech as useful as I have. I would love to hear people's thoughts on it. You can drop me a comment, send me a private message, or even email me.

Please note that this topic was referring to situations where we'll be addressing people who didn't necessarily ask for comments or our opinions of what they say or what they show. Responses to trolls and disparaging/negative comments are a different story altogether.