A dojo-mate of mine came back to training after a long absence. A shoulder injury kept him off the mat for the better part of a year.
We got the chance to practice for a bit, and he paid me a very unlooked-for compliment. "Wow, what a difference since the last time I trained with you!"
I was really surprised. I never consider myself making any progress in aikido. Mostly because I try not to think that way. It's the journey, not the destination, right?
Since I'm not spiritually advanced enough to be completely devoid of pride, I was happy with that remark. Then I got to thinking, how does one make progress in aikido? It's especially interesting as it is mostly taught in the Japanese style of demonstration, with little or no discussion, though we don't follow that completely in the U.S.
Simply speaking, a student must pay attention.
I know my method. When I first watch a technique, I watch the footwork, especially the opening. The body position is the most important part. Then I may watch other parts, like the actual technique. Then I watch my partner do it while I take ukemi. Then finally, I try it. If I still am confused I can watch others around me or even -- God forbid -- ask!
But it's the paying attention part that is most important. After a while, all the ideas become kind of ingrained, somehow. It becomes, "Oh, that's that one, yeah." But that is a big mistake because there is always some subtlety to notice for the first time.
There's an infinite variety applications that can be done in aikido. So we're back to paying attention. The more I think about it, that's all there is. Paying attention.