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navigating the beautiful and baffling art of aikido

Always something

I’ll tell you right now, friends, it’s always going to be something. Something that scares you, confuses you, confounds you, discourages you. Rolls, tests, freestyles, ikyos, high falls. Relationships, rules, expectations, misunderstandings. Kicks, weapons, nankayos, bows. Working with a particular partner. Avoiding injury and sometimes not. Something is always going to challenge you. Welcome to the mat: the microcosm of life.

We come to Aikido not to get good at Aikido. That’s a side effect. This practice is about learning. Learning, learning, all of it is learning. Opening up, letting go, working at the edge of our comfort zone. Being annoyed. Being frustrated. Wanting to quit. Being tortured by the inner critic. Breaking through. Encountering the divine. Forgetting again. Becoming better human beings for all of this. For how else will we learn to stay calm, centered and grounded in the midst of challenge without our practice being challenging?

Our first taste of this, usually, is finding that things don’t make sense in the way we’re used to them making sense. This is the first stop, as it were: where some people decide this isn’t for them because they can’t explain it. This isn’t a linear practice (neither is life, and that’s the whole point here). It’s not something you can categorize or even define, not really.

Aikido is all about spirals. For me, the spiral has always symbolized expansion through upswings and downswings.

There are plenty of upswings. There’s the community for one. You’re not imagining it if you feel loved by strangers when you step on the mat. We love you, have your back, cheer you in your learning. You won’t be coddled, but you’ll be supported.

This, too: for every moment of frustration there will be a moment of joy – not in tandem, not in a way you can track. But I’ve felt free as many times as I’ve felt confused. I have giggled way more than I have cried. Whatever has me bunched up — even my thoughts about practice itself — is loosened and dissolved by the end of class. Every time. I can’t give you a bullet-pointed list as to why this happens. But I can tell you unequivocally that it does.

Still, it’s always going to be something. Belt tests are not the only tests in Aikido. Every moment is a test of your mindfulness, your courage, your humility, your commitment, your groundedness, your delight. We’re practicing to get bigger than life so that we’re no longer subject to its arbitrary currents. We’re setting down roots like a sturdy piece of seaweed in the bottom of the ocean, dancing with life and remaining grounded and gleeful. We must be uprooted, unnerved, tested again and again to make sure we’re holding firm to ourselves and awake to the joyful flow.

Your job is to show up for those tests. No matter how terrifying or splendid or unfair or liberating or confounding. You can analyze it all you want but you’re not doing the work unless you’re on the mat. In practice you can’t be in your head. You’re in a paradox (hurry and slow down; be mindful and don’t think; be fierce and be gentle; push yourself and take care of yourself), and if you overthink it, you’ve lost it.

Here’s what to do instead: come to class. Show up, no matter how confused or hesitant or resistant or low-energy or distracted or busy or unworthy you’re feeling. Spare yourself the need to figure anything out; just do as sensei says. Luxuriate in the fact that the container is being held for you. Leave your ego at the door. Be willing to appear foolish. Bow deeply in honor of this art, this lineage, this dojo, and most of all, your brave self who has chosen this path. Know that it’s always going be something. Show up anyway. Be surprised.

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Perfect

The other day I overheard someone say, “Oh, I overlooked that. I’m a terrible person!”

I know this lovely being to have perfectionist tendencies. But what hadn’t been so starkly clear to me until I heard this language is how he conflates his value as a human being with never making mistakes. On the rare occasions he slips up, this is what he says about himself. To himself.

And to others.

Panning back I suddenly re-witnessed a lifetime of this. Me doing it to myself; others doing it to themselves; others doing it to others; others doing it to me.

Yes, doing it to. This is an attack. It’s an assault. It’s a holding of an impossible standard: perfection. And not just perfection, but perfection according to an individual: a subjective, ever-moving target, impossible to reach or sustain.

There are some who do this prevalently, but even those of us blessed with a modicum of perfectionism will sometimes perceive others’ mistakes as affronts. If someone “messes up,” according to us, they’re a terrible person. They’ve attacked us with their awfulness. When really the opposite is true. We’ve devalued them with our assessment. We’ve deemed them unworthy of living (or at least living in our presence) because of their flaws. Our fear of our own imperfection leaks, often mercilessly, onto others who probably don’t hold the same standards for themselves (or they do, but the standards are distinct from our own.)

This breaks my heart a million times over. Especially since it’s not possible to project onto others what isn’t going on a thousandfold in ourselves. “I’m a terrible person” is a chant that took root at the back of some of our skulls at a young age. Our lives became about proving this isn’t true through constant vigilance, striving, performance, judgment. Never relaxing, never settling, never feeling okay. This can be too much for a body and mind to hold. No wonder we foist some of the burden onto others.

This isn’t a universal survival pattern, but it’s pretty common—even celebrated—in our culture. Achievement, productivity, performance determines our worth. Look at cover letters. Look at commercials. Look at the damn Olympics. Mistakes don’t factor in. They’re not allowed. They’re covered up, condemned.

And yet mistakes are the only way we have of learning anything at all.

Of course there are wonderful things about perfectionism too (every pattern has a light side). Without the minds and talents of our über organized friends we wouldn’t have beautiful design, helpful systems, or vital infrastructure. We need these tendencies in the world. It’s just that harm is caused when we are unconsciously driven by them.

So what to do?

Challenging though it is to try to deprogram a lifetime of learned behavior, we can always start with compassion. Turn toward that voice that asserts that we or anyone else who is flawed is also awful. Connect to it gently. Ask it where it got these messages. Find their origin; question their truth.

We can spend time around those we judge as being chaotic or messy or not having their shit together. Connect with the joy, ease and creativity they may also bring. Notice that mistakes as we perceive them don’t actually result in death or anything close to it.

And hardest of all: we can let ourselves start to feel. Feel the pain and sadness inherent in holding ourselves and others to such impossible standards. Feel the freedom in doing something insane like not paying a bill right away, or being two minutes late, or not being the one to replace the empty toilet paper roll. Feel into what your body and heart are asking for in a given moment versus what Should Be Happening.

And for the love of god, go easy on yourself with this. Don’t apply perfectionist tendencies to the task of loosening them. Easier said than done, of course. So, get support. Don’t do this alone. (Yes, I know you’re capable of doing it alone, but that’s not the point here. Quite the opposite, in fact.)

Under behavior—any behavior—is our essence. Our true value and worth. Who we really are. A beautiful, already perfect soul comprising love and joy. There’s nothing to prove there. Nothing at all. It is she who we’re looking to connect with.

We’ll explore this and other patterns in upcoming posts, and at the Energy Basics workshop coming up next month.

Growing pains

ho·me·o·sta·sis (n) — the tendency toward a relatively stable equilibrium between interdependent elements, especially as maintained by physiological processes.

Change is very, very difficult for humans. As biological beings, we are bound by homeostasis. If an aspect of our being goes out of whack, our system will do its best trying to bring it back into balance. To use a very simple example, if our internal temperature deviates a degree or less, we shiver or sweat. Two or three degrees, we’re sick. Three or more degrees and we’re in danger of dying. According to our most basic nature, change does not correlate to survival. Fundamentally, despite our best intentions, we avoid it.

Look at habits. Look at the excruciating headaches that ensue from giving up caffeine, the emotional turmoil of quitting smoking, or the sometimes life-threatening symptoms of alcohol or opiate withdrawal. Once our body gets used to something, reversing the process sends it into a confused and urgent attempt to find equilibrium. Very often this involves pain.

Inconveniently, by this same principle, establishing new habits is as hard as breaking old ones. Always, always our system is trying to pull us back to what we’re used to – what it perceives as “safe.”

All this is to say, of course, that it’s very possible your body or psyche might be experiencing some disturb as you take up Aikido. This is not just common, it’s inevitable. Aikido is one of the most transformational practices there is because it blatantly requires us to shed layers and layers of the armor we’ve always used to survive, of who we’ve always taken ourselves to be. This is the only way to encounter our genuine, powerful, divine, authentic selves.

Not only that, Aikido insists upon doing this at a purely physical level. Processing and theorizing don’t help much. We just have to do it. Often we can’t explain the growth that is happening—to our selves or anyone else.

Faced with this level of threat, our homeostatic lizard brain will no doubt be on alert. This shows up in lots of ways: backing away from practice being the most common one I see. Whatever reasons we have for retreating can feel very real—needs suddenly materialize in other areas of our life, demanding our time and attention at the exact times we’ve planned to be at the dojo. Our protector parts can be very clever.

Starting Aikido isn’t like quitting smoking or taking up jogging or leaving a toxic relationship or changing our diet—obviously healthy decisions that everyone can understand and get behind, that after some months of discomfort lead more or less to a permanent shift. No, this is a spiral inward, ever deeper into ourselves to uncover endless new territory. And some aspect of our system will always be fighting like hell to make sure that change doesn’t happen. Each moment of transformation comes with some psychological or emotional or physical disruption—sometimes fun and mind-blowing, other times uncomfortable and painful. It’s a commitment like no other, it grows us like nothing else, and we have to be very, very brave to take it up and keep it up. We have to be warriors.

As I write this, I’m nursing an uncommon injury resulting from one of these all-to-common transformational moments: a badly taken fall resulting from (what else?) resistance. It’s brought up an inexplicable sadness; and a mysterious fear lurks, black and smokey, at the edge of my consciousness.

I recognize this as an inner valve twisted open to release some new layer of my soul that’s ready to emerge. Of course, that hasn’t stopped my mind from doing its cursory flip through the catalogue of ways to make the pain go away: give up, retreat, find an alternative, blame, keep resisting… Fortunately I’ve been at this long enough that this list breezes through in a matter of seconds, dusted atop the solid knowing that the only thing to do is get back on the mat in a few days. Slow my movements way down. Get support in practicing, practicing, practicing this particular thing to loosen my resistance around it. Get a reality check from Sensei on the dimensions of the issue that I know I’m blind to.

Generally, it’s important to remember that if we’re uncomfortable it probably means we’re growing. Trying to fix the discomfort by going back to an old way of being is not the action of a warrior. Plus it rarely works. Instead, welcome the discomfort. Get curious about it. Lean into it, explore it. What old part of you is being challenged? How and why is it fighting? What’s getting ready to shift? (The best place to check this out, of course, is in the dojo. Sure, journal about it all you want, but make sure to get your uncomfortable self back on the mat.)

And remember that everyone who chooses the path of warriorship is going through this on some level. In any given moment someone on the mat is on the brink or in the midst of a change that homeostasis is trying to talk them out of making. The serenity you see in the faces of more advanced practitioners is from having gone through this millions of times and knowing it’s going to happen again—and thankful for it, because each instance makes us bigger, opens us further, releases us deeper. Scary and inexorable. Sublime in its mystery.

Have compassion for yourself and your companions who are making the hard decision every day to challenge the allure of homeostasis and change for the better—and make a better world for us all.

Kaguramai: learning to dance with my bokken

My dear friend and fellow aikidoka Dave Philhower shares some gorgeous insights, imagery and instruction. Enjoy! 

At its core, Aikido is a mindfulness practice. It is not about how to defeat an attacker. It cultivates our groundedness, our whole body awareness. Our ability to focus on one thing at a time. Modern day-to-day life can slowly erode our focus and balance. Without noticing, we become disconnected from our source, and from each other. No one intends for this to happen. It just does. How, then, do we reconnect to our ground?
moka

Schedule time for misogi.

I. PRACTICE

Just carry your bokken.
Feel its rhythm, its bounce, as your boots stick in mud.
Feel its balance as you hop across a stream.

If you walk and talk mindfully, you will see a place.
It will wink at you, and ask you to come.

Perhaps you will stretch and breathe deeply there.
Perhaps your sword will start to buzz in your hands.

Raise it to the sky. Start rowing back and forth with it.
Play with your bokken. Let it sing. Dance.

This is kaguramai.

daveyThis is about connecting, not perfecting.
Feel your bokken.
Balance it on your hand.
Spin it.

You need not remember a whole kata or set of kumi.
Swing, strike, block.
Move.
Walk.
Simple joys.
This is how I find my flow.

Add in some meditation.
Some cold water.
Bless your sword.
Stand barefoot on the rocks, in the water.
Feel the sand shift under your feet.
Swing, strike, block.
You will find a flow, a form.

II. MISOGI

Misogi-the practice of purification-is necessary, because we naturally accumulate impurities from the world around us. Think about your house. Even if you do nothing to it, dust accumulates in your house and gradually it becomes dirty. Doing the practice of misog is like cleaning your house. The more consistently you do this internal housecleaning, the more you will be able to sustain a clean, clear heart.
—Anno Sensei, from interviews with Linda Holiday Sensei in Journey to the Heart of Aikido, 2013, p. 213

Every few months, my beloved and I schedule a Day on the Land. A day for misogi. We pack up hiking packs with food and drink, layers of clothes, a picnic blanket, a travel altar. Then we head out of town, into the woods or out to the wild Pacific shore. As I packed up for our first Day on the Land last April, I intuitively brought my bokken, a heavy wooden training sword. I strapped it to the outside of my pack as we hiked up the fire road in Devil’s Gulch.

treesesHours later, after meditating, after silently watching trees sway, tracking hawk’s flight path, I ‘discovered’ a spot that called me. I knew to take off my shoes, hold my bokken at my left side, and bow in. Simultaneously acknowledging its sacredness and helping make the space sacred, I stepped into this Forest Temple.

For awhile I sat, meditated. Listened to the water. The wind. Then I felt a tug. I stood up, carefully walked to the spot that pulled me, and began to play with my bokken. Shifting my weight back and forth. Getting to know the stream. Slow happo-giri, eight directions cut. Soon, I was in the middle of a huge figure eight, the Infinity Loop, my sword circling around me. I was part of a great Ki generator. It felt like light was flowing out from me. My mind cleared of all thought.

That was the moment that I knew to bring my 92 y.o. Grandmother out West, the moment that my duty to help her die with dignity was clearly heard. Tress swaying together, roots intertwined.

“The practice of misogi [purification] develops a heart that is able to endure suffering. In human life, there are many misfortunes. You need courage to deal with them. And you need courage to help those weaker than yourself. Misogi is undertaken to cultivate that strength of spirit. To develop an undefeatable heart.”
—Anno Sensei, Ibid, p. 214

davey2Now I always carry my bokken with me on our Days on the Land.
Last weekend, my beloved brought her staff [jo], and we walked the land with our wooden weapons in hand, looking like two REI samurai. In NorCal’s first rainy season in several years, the hills were flowing with water, fluorescent with green, and spotted with mushrooms.

III. DISCOVERY
Recently, I discovered an ancient word that describes what I have been experiencing: kaguramai.

“O’Sensei often performed solo movement with a wooden sword or staff. People referred to this movement as kaguramai [sacred dance offering]…His movement definitely had the feeling of an offering done in a sacred place.”
—Anno Sensei, Ibid, p. 219

I am soul-sure that the combination of lots of time on the mat, the ki-washing machine that is our dojo, and our practice of misogi, time on the land, [Shinrin-Yoku, forest bathing] has led to this new opening- dancing with my bokken. Please consider carrying your jo or bokken next time you spend a day in the woods.

The agony of conscious incompetence

I wrote this for my coaching school’s blog in 2011, the same year I started aikido. At the time I didn’t connect the two. (Hindsight can be a lovely thing.) Though the context is coaching, hopefully it’s clear how this applies to any practice.

I was recently introduced to a learning model that’s opened up a lot of space around my own development and my work with clients. It’s known as the four stages of competence, the stages themselves being: (1) unconscious incompetence, (2) conscious incompetence, (3) conscious competence, and (4) unconscious competence.

Unconscious incompetence is when our blind spots are still blind, and we’re blissfully ignorant of what we’re capable of growing into. (Or maybe it’s not so blissful, and that’s why we seek coaching.) Once introduced to the new possibility or skill we want to develop, we may begin vague cognitive understanding of it, but the rest of our system has no reference for it yet. We don’t yet know what we can’t do.

Conscious incompetence then ensues. This is the stage when we are aware of the thing that needs to shift but we haven’t yet shifted. It’s having the desire for change while feeling stuck being how we’ve always been. I’ll talk more about this in a second.

Conscious competence comes when we’ve gotten the hang of the new skill or quality, but it’s not yet second nature. For example, if we’re learning to drive a car, we still need to pay attention to which way we need to turn our ankle to reach the brake pedal, remind ourselves to check the rearview mirror, and largely ignore whomever is riding with us so that we can concentrate on what we’re doing.

But eventually, finally, blessedly, comes unconscious competence, when we’ve embodied the new skill and it starts to happen automatically. We’re cruising with the radio on full blast, with our attention on the scenery, on our companions, on our own inner life.

But let’s back up for a moment to that second stage, conscious incompetence. This phase can be pesky. Actually, it can be hell. To use the driving example, it’s the stage when your mother is sitting terrified in the passenger’s seat, digging her nails into the dashboard and pushing down on the nonexistent brake pedal with both feet, shrieking at you to not hit the squirrel. It’s rolling backwards down hills and bouncing off the side of the garage. It’s making mistake after mistake after mistake and thinking you’re never, ever going to get it.

Can you see how this applies to growth edges in self-development? You are invited into a new narrative that is possible for you, but which you have not yet embodied. It can be immensely frustrating to see a new way of being in front of you, understand and be inspired by the possibility of it, and yet still employ your old set of behaviors because it’s all your system knows to do.

I had a client who had always believed that he was the catalyst for everything that happened in his life and in the lives of those around him. He didn’t think people would do things if he didn’t remind them. Once he realized it was possible to trust that the world could take care of itself, he began to taste the joy and freedom that comes with being able to let go. So he didn’t understand why, soon after he had this realization, he was still micromanaging his employees and doing the lion’s share of tasks at home. He became frustrated with himself and wondering why he was “sliding.” Which, of course, wasn’t the case at all. He was just learning.

When we encounter conscious incompetence, I think we have a choice. We could let our inner critic grab the mic and begin a running commentary on all the ways we’re utterly inadequate, for not being The Better Person We Know We Can Be, which invariably snowballs into greater self-loathing and a much slower progression toward the new way.

Or, we can remember what it was like to be a teenager learning to drive a car. We can observe toddlers learning to walk, falling on their little bums again and again and again. We can appreciate the how huge it is to be aware of something that wasn’t even in our consciousness until now. We can give ourselves permission to fall, and crash, and fail, and cry. We can surround ourselves with a support system of folks who will pick us up, dust us off, encourage us, forgive the messes we make, and remind us how far we’ve come.

And then finally, when we’ve reached that blissful state where we’re so used to our new way of being that we’re no longer aware of it, those same folks can remind us of the time when we thought it was impossible.

And this is the gift we have the privilege of giving our clients as well: letting them bounce off as many garage doors as they need to, and reassuring them that one day, they’ll be on cruise control.

Wisdom from a fellow aikidoka

Some beautiful reflections from Karin Karis in the Netherlands following her 3rd degree black belt test. Enjoy.

Black belt test: what I wanted to express

How we know what’s true (or, why we need our bodies)

Sometimes at the beginning of class I have students walk around the mat feeling into different parts of themselves – center, feet, heart, the room, the earth, the universe, playing with what part of them is “driving,” experimenting with surrendering control and letting themselves be driven. Checking out how all of this affects their movement, interaction with others, feeling of themselves. Does it feel familiar? Is it new? What do you notice?

Regardless of what students are instructed to focus on, the intention is to awaken to how we move through space. To do so with attention in our physical being, rather than on the usual thoughts or judgments or goals or whatever is coming through our headphones. Out of the head and into the body.

This is vitally important for a million reasons, one of which is cultivating our ability, in any given moment, to tell what is true.

In these times when there is so much noise, so many claims, so much information flying around, we have a lot of sorting to do. Right now especially we are privy to much that historically has been harder to access, that had been behind the curtain, that we had to go looking for. Injustice is no longer only blatantly obvious only to its victims and warriors. It’s now in all our faces, all the time. These facts are ticker-taped across our awareness on a daily basis. We’re seeing shifts in our world that have potential for massive healing or destruction. Unless we take up residence in a Siberian cave, we cannot deny that it’s happening.

And yet, some do. Still. Even now. Why?

In anticipation of some difficult conversations and downright brawls in the years ahead, I’ve been reflecting on this. What is the difference between a being who is contact with the truth versus one who believes rhetoric and refuses to abide facts? (Of course I am framing it this way for the sake of argument, acknowledging fully that it’s not so black and white—pardon the expression—as that.)

It turns out that knowing and believing are not the same thing. One lives in the mind. The other, in the body. On a topic of oh, say, institutionalized oppression, to say that we’re merely disagreeing—that one person’s “truth” is just as valid as the other—is inaccurate.

Facts are of the physical universe. Science, for instance, relies on evidence—that which we can access via our earthly senses. “Gut feelings” are called that because they are actual sensations in the tummy. To have access to our senses we must be in our bodies, be attuned to them, know how to operate them. For many, this is unimaginable. We’re just not gonna go there. With good reason: we’ve all been invaded and traumatized, on purpose or not, consciously or not. We’ve gotten messages that our physicality is not a safe place to dwell. Not to mention that it’s been trained out of us for generations—Descartes saw to that.*

Denying our bodies by and large means a retreat to the mind. Not exactly a Siberian cave, but definitely a wind tunnel of myriad arbitrary ideas. In that abstract, un-rooted place where nothing is really real, we can pick and choose what we hold on to and what we let blow through. With nothing solid to test that truth against we usually end up surrendering our attention to whatever cacophonous presentation is the most relentless.

If this is what belief stems from, and I think it is, we can literally believe anything. Overwhelming and disquieting, to say the least.

Knowing, on the other hand, is when our cells vibrate with the truth of something. It lives in the gut, in the skin, in the spine, the throat, the connections between our muscles and bones. It’s when, for instance, considering a potential situation makes you feel solidly planted several inches deeper in the ground versus twitchy and spacey. Or when you’re somewhere and know you need to leave immediately because you feel that certain kind of nauseated. Everyone’s tuning mechanisms work a little differently. It’s up to each of us to learn our instrument.

It’s no coincidence that the deeper I’ve ventured into my aikido practice the less confusing things have become. (Mind you I say less confusing, not not confusing.) Over time, practice has connected me to the divining rod that is my body. I know what’s true more of the time because I can feel it. Not because I read it in a book or saw it on the news or heard someone say it (even if they’ve said it a billion times). As my attention is trained on ever subtler nuances of movement in myself and others, I become more aware of what it feels like when my cells sing in resonance with a thought or action that is true or right or loving or kind, or that forwards wellbeing or evolution—my own or the world’s.

Ai is unity. Ki is energy. Do is the way. When we practice aikido we’re unifying with the god force that runs through all things. We’re doing it to heal ourselves and heal the world through our alignment to ultimate rightness. Training helps us attune more and more to THAT truth—the one that, if we feel into it, is actually rather simple and obvious. It’s nothing to do with what our parents or newsfeeds or priests or friends or teachers or addictions have vied to install in our minds.

It’s a tough thing, choosing to abandon the conditioned behavior of hunkering in our heads, sorting information based on what ‘makes sense.’ The body can be unfamiliar territory, full of wounding and aches, full of memories we’d rather not dredge up, full of demands to move in different ways than we’re used to. It’s also our most necessary instrument in discerning what our life is for.

More on how we might navigate this tricky business in upcoming posts.

*If you’re a fan of utterly profound, gently delivered insight and are not yet following my friend Justin Wise’s blog, On living and working, I invite you to resolve that on that double.

Listen and begin

The sonic boom that was this election and its ensuing ripples are waking up what has been latent in all of us. It’s calling us all to our truest selves. The world has made a clear request and demands our authentic response, and right swiftly too.

For many, the response comes in the form of fear and hatred being worn brazenly on the outside: the emergence of our collective shadow. For others—for me—it’s a neon sign pointing to my own ignorance, and an understanding that I have a lot of catching up—and acting—to do. Big time. Things are moving fast now and whatever’s been asleep in us has been roused. No time to lose.

Something that deflated in significance, almost all at once, has been my hesitancy to say things: to participate in social media, to share my writing publicly, to say what I see. I’ve historically withheld my full participation, even though, undeniably, this is where people see and hear and share and learn and interact the most. I’ve been resistant to the inevitable tide, overwhelmed by being in contact with so many people’s thoughts and emotions and lives in such close range all at once (not something my Gen X body has easily adjusted to). And of course there’s my own crippling self-consciousness. Online and and in real life, I’ve kept a filter up to protect myself.

I’ve been supporting my close friends’ activism with a kind of distant admiration, harboring deep feelings about what is right and true, but flabbergasted most of the time by subtleties and nuances and brilliant points I would never have thought of. I know I’m always missing something so I gave up trying to follow. Plus there’s potential conflict inherent in all of it—a lifelong terror of mine. Heaven for fend I have to choose a side, or worse: that things get unpleasant.

Anyway, none of these feel like excuses I can rest in any longer. It seems dumb that I ever have.

I realize this: I’m a beginner at activism. Like anything new it will start awkwardly and I’ll make many mistakes. I’ll say the wrong things; I’ll inadvertently offend. But it has to start. I’ve been avoiding this because it’s felt too hard, too complicated, too impossible, too overwhelming. It’s been intimidating to take up because I have no idea what I’m doing. It’s why people shy away from aikido or painting or cooking or whatever … because after a few stabs they can’t do it perfectly so fuck it.

But now, it seems, there’s very little to lose (I say “seems” because what is happening in the world is not new—it’s just that the volume has been turned up). So I’ll do this badly for awhile. Maybe forever. But I’ll do it. Dignity be damned. I owe it to the world to finally extend my gaze past my own overly examined navel.

Still, as I toddle out on undeveloped legs in my effort to finally contribute something more than crossed fingers, I acknowledge my klutziness. I acknowledge that it took a threat so giant, glaring and global to finally make me see and be willing to stand up. Like so many, before now, I wasn’t ready. Now I am. I humbly request the forgiveness and support of those who have always known better.

Fortunately I’m steeped in a community of experts. My apprenticeship has been occurring even as I’ve resisted it. I have all the resources a beginner could ask for.

But this is foundation of mastery, isn’t it? Don’t not do something because you fear doing it badly. Whatever call you hear, no matter how mysterious or foreign or shadowy seeming—move in that direction. Start in tiny increments if you must, but do it now. I’ve never been one to go in for urgency but damn. Most of us—definitely I—have been asleep for so long that the world had to issue us (and by “us” I mean people who haven’t been suffering for generations) a rather horrifying ultimatum.

If you haven’t already connected to your response—what life is asking of you at this moment in history—I suspect you don’t have to dig too deep to unearth it. Find it, my friend. Find your heart, your voice, your strength, your calling. Find the support that is so near at hand to help with its emergence.

Listen, and begin.

Called to warriorship (November 9, 2016)

We’ve been training for this our whole lives….

I am not ‘trying to be optimistic’, though as a straight white lady living comfortably in a relatively sane and insulated pocket of the world, I could certainly exercise that luxury. Those ‘trying to be optimistic’ are those whom this disaster won’t touch—not initially anyway.

I’m not weeping in terror, either—my privilege doesn’t give me the right to do that, at least not for myself and my own safety.

No, the cause of my own insomnia last night was shock at a response I did not see coming: I am willing to fight. I am going to fight.

I’m grateful today for my aikido training in ways I could not have predicted. The layers of fear it’s brought up and burned off. The anger and rage that’s behind that, that has been sort of bubbling and quaking and not directed anywhere, just feeling like energy, like fuel. Changing shape and changing me. The spiral rising up my spine that in this moment has me feeling far more courageous than I ever I thought I would or could. Far more angry too. Far more willing to fight for those who might need me to defend them. This is in stark and shocking contrast to what would have been my reaction not long ago: “I will pray and hope and be nice to everyone and see what happens.” No way. I mean, I will pray for sure. I’ll be kind, I’ll nurture, I’ll love. But I will also use what strength I have in service to those who don’t have the resources I do.

The question that arose for me back when Voldemort first appeared on the scene, which I never asked publicly, was, “if we want him to go away, why are we paying so much attention to him?” Fear and revulsion and resistance are as nourishing a food to such beasts as adoration and support are. More so even. We’ve fed him with our attention all along, we who hate him. Understandable—we couldn’t just ignore him and let him do what he did without having tried to stop him.

Nonetheless, here we are. America is as dangerous and violent and fat and fake and greedy and dishonest and vile as the sludge demon we’ve elected to represent us. This needed to be revealed. The box is open; the beast is out. No amount of hope or optimism will put it back in. No amount of shiny lacquer will cover over what we now face as a globe.

But I’m not fighting the great reveal. I’m honoring it: honoring what’s being shown in me, in us. I’ll fight instead for those caught in the current of this necessary and horrible revelation. The ones who are in actual, immediate, physical danger should this monster actually ascend to the throne and be put in charge of the CIA and given the bomb codes. Before he actually executes the destruction that we all fear.

(The question my outrage asks now: could we possibly let him? How can we let him? Is there not any way to shove a stick in the gears of this invisible machine that is relentlessly consuming us? Could those who allegedly know better simply refuse to keep handing him power, laws be damned? Doubtful, I know. This is a stone of wrong that’s been clogging the artery of evolution and is finally on the move. It hurts like hell, this breakage and this release. But again, we couldn’t sit on the lid any longer.)

So yes, those who are most vulnerable in the face of this need warriors to fight with and for them, but I can’t and won’t beseech you to begin or keep training for this reason. It’s not how it works anyway. Aikido is a spiritual path because you are literally, actively training for whatever the world needs from you—and you can’t necessarily know what that is. Practice, it seems, reveals that too. Because it blasts open parts of us that we didn’t know were shut down. Like what just happened in our country, it unmasks the ugly bits of us—releases them, gets them on the move, transforms them into something else. Calls us to our highest selves. This doesn’t always mean warriorship. It often means peace, kindness, patience, forgiveness—any number of qualities that, in their purest, un-contorted, agenda-less form are necessary for a healthy soul. Ones you have to work hard to find. Ones that life, I can assure you, needs you to find.

Maybe it’ll take something as monstrous as this election to understand why you’ve been training. Maybe it’ll be subtly revealed in your daily interactions. Most likely it’s both, but nothing happens if you don’t return to the mat and face it. The world doesn’t need you to fight, perhaps, but it does need you to confront your own demons. This is the only way anything gets healed.

This is bringing out the worst in those who are the worst. But it seems to me to be bringing forth something else in the rest of us. What is it for you?

Kokyu dosa

Reach for the center. Reach right through the center. Stay relaxed, keep your eyes open, body unified, and extend through your partner.

I hear myself giving tips like these to students when we do our closing exercise, kokyu dosa. Translated as breath movement or breath exercise, kokyu dosa is an extremely subtle moving partner meditation. It’s about taking our partner’s balance using just our ki, without striving, muscling, checking out, or giving up: all attributes that we’re cultivating in a more overt way during the rest of our time on the mat.

To do this, we much reach for our partner’s very center: a mass of energy that is (usually) undeniably present and must be moved if their balance is going to go. Reaching into that place, one will likely encounter resistance: not from their partner’s fighting, but rather from encountering that true, immovable, grounded part of them. It’s a feeling distinct from stubbornness or push-back. For me, it’s like hitting a membrane of sorts. Hard to define, and everyone’s center has a different quality.

We all have different reactions to this energy. We might try to go around it; try to push through it using our strength; back up, regroup and try again; stay just at its edge not daring to go any further; employ some twisty maneuver to trick our partner into falling over.

None of these strategies work; in fact, we usually find that we sacrifice our own integrity when we attempt stuff like this. As with everything in aikido, the learning gets more and more subtle as we progress.

We are forever doing kokyu dosa with the work that is in front of us, with the things that are calling to us. I know I do, anyway. My writing, for instance—the thing that’s right in front of me, that wants my attention, that needs me to move in much more consistently and powerfully than I’ve been doing. Instead, I’ve been sliding around it by finding anything—anything else to do. Whenever there is a free moment during which I can write, I immediately find another task. Work, chores, online whatnot … stuff that somehow feels productive and yet is false. I’m moving, yes (kind of), but I’m not accomplishing the work of my soul. Even while writing this, if I hit a stuck point I find another place to put my attention for a moment or more: checking email (which I’ve done about 900 times since beginning to write this), walking the dog, looking out the window … My attention is scattered, my being decidedly split. I’m doing anything but reaching for the center. I’m slipping around it.

Recently my Sensei described kokyu dosa as the hardest thing we do in aikido. The challenge is to stay with the movement, with our partner, with the flow, regardless of how stuck we feel. Keeping our energy directed toward and through the center (the task, the work, the growth, the calling), even if it doesn’t seem to be getting us anywhere. Remain focused, relaxed, and committed. Don’t assume this is the wrong art, the wrong dojo, the wrong partner, the wrong anything. Don’t go to a place of “I suck at this” or “this person is a jerk” or whatever we do when we find ourselves in a tough spot.

Reach. Stay unified. Don’t divert. Don’t give up. Keep your eyes open. Stay present. As with much instruction I give, I say this like it’s easy; like it’s something one can just decide to do.

It’s the hardest. I do kokyu dosa with sensei and get shown again and again that my body still has no idea how to take a powerful center. And goodness knows I have a long way to go off the mat. We all do. There’s always an edge.

Mysterious and frustrating as it is, kokyu dosa gives us a felt-sense opportunity to observe our habitual behavior when we’re in the face of something difficult. For instance, I’ve been noticing my tendency of late to strain to the point of near-pain rather than give up, and then when I have zero left to give, surrender dramatically and get knocked over. When the thing to do is relax, relax into that resistance, surrender the outcome, pay greater attention to the feedback I’m getting, not work so hard … all that good and graceful and advanced stuff. I know it’s what I need to do: I’m writing it so clearly part of me understands it. But often, so often, my body does something different. Horribly frustrating. Wonderful learning.

So, in addition to enjoying the delightful bafflement of kokyu dosa (and/or reveling in the fact that you’ve made it through to the end of another tough class), you might challenge yourself to watch—really watch—what it is that your body is doing in response to what’s in front of you. Our entire practice is an opportunity for this but kokyu dosa doesn’t carry with it the technical choreography or ultimate object of throwing your partner. Nobody’s flying at you in an attack; you get to sit there and check out whether you’re sliding away, retreating, fighting, using too much or too little energy, closing down, blaming our partner for being too [fill in the blank] … these are a few of infinite ways our bodies try to deal with confusion and difficulty.

And you might then go a step further and explore how this response translates to the most challenging aspects of your broader life. I know, yeesh. But this is why we do aikido. One can argue that kokyu dosa is kind of the point of it all. The more puzzling something is, the greater the gift.

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