It’s going well! Something must be wrong!
A newer student was doing a rather advanced technique rather beautifully a couple of days ago. He was throwing me every time, gently and with ease. We were dancing; we were in flow. And yet, as time when on, things started getting a tiny bit choppy. He began to pause ever so briefly to give thought to what was happening and mime the technique in the air between throws. Finally, overcome by ‘confusion,’ he called Sensei over for help. Fortunately that moment was also the end of that round of technique. Saved by the bell, as it were.
I recall this from my own long-ago (and not-so-long-ago) practice. Managing a throw or a series of throws without effort, without thinking, without having any idea what I was doing. Uke falling or rolling without me having done much of anything. The technique doing itself, almost. Almost like it was happening through me.
But how can that be? It can’t. Something must be wrong. Right? Sensei?
I’ve just started learning to paint in watercolor. Today I was working on a painting and something beautiful happened: a splotch of pale purplish-blue blooming subtly against a beige-ish background, drawing the eye alluringly through an otherwise monochromatic swath.
I had no idea how this happened. I certainly hadn’t planned or intended it, and gods know it wasn’t due to anything close to mastery of the medium (this was only my second class after all). There wasn’t even blue on my brush at the time, I don’t think.
I pointed it out the to my teacher, the expert. “How did this happen?” I asked. (How can this be? It can’t. Something must be wrong. Right? Sensei?)
“I don’t know!” A good teacher and holder of space, she was calm and knowing, but also joyful and celebratory. So I celebrated too. Kinda.
But I wanted so much to figure it out. What did I do, how did I do it, how can I replicate it? How can I control this form so that I do sublime things like this on purpose? How?
It came together for me in that moment why this teacher teaches the way she does (which honestly drove me a little nuts at first): emphasizing taking our time to experiment, play, see what infinite things are possible from the various ways to apply water and paint. It’s not about making stuff. Get the feel, she says, of running the brush across an entire sheet of paper for no reason at all. Find out, she urges, what happens when you drop a blob of cadmium yellow into a puddle of alizarin crimson. Take time to watch it develop. Witness how the color changes as it sinks into the paper. Observe the chemical dance of the materials meeting each other. Touch the paint to the paper as you will, and marvel at what unfolds.
In other words, become intimate with the form not so that you can then plan out and execute the perfect painting, knowing precisely what to do with the materials to get the outcome you want (though that may happen through lots of practice); but rather so that you can expand your notions of what is possible by way of this medium. In this way we’re opening up the field of fascination, creating more opportunities to be surprised. Learning the feel of the art so that the art can move through us. So that we begin to recognize those pale blue blotches as the moments of grace they are.
More than anything, just keep painting, she urges. Be loose. See what happens.
Accidents are the point
This brought me back to that moment on the mat—to my wonderful partner’s understandable puzzlement—and showed me in a new way why Aikido is a martial art. We’re learning forms so that stuff can come through us—beautiful stuff that can sometimes feel like it has nothing to do with us. Naturally we are baffled in the rare moments when this actually occurs: we need to know what happened and why. In our confusion we’re compelled to analyze it, to replicate it so that we know it wasn’t an accident.
But you guys—what if every glorious thing that happens on the mat IS an accident? What if we actually didn’t do anything? What if we are practicing merely to make our bodies into the kind of vessels capable of holding and channeling the divine energy we are tapping into? Isn’t that powerful enough? To be a container and conduit of something infinite and unknowable?
Even now—possibly even more so now that I’m a black belt who’s ‘supposed’ to not only ‘know’ stuff but teach it to others—I find myself tempted to define what is happening. Categorize. Replicate. This, though, is what keeps us small. It limits the territory of what is possible with this art—with art, period. Freedom happens within form. The form facilitates freedom. Traditionally we’re taught to focus more on form, which is easier to control. We’re rarely if ever encouraged to open to the possibility it holds, the vastness it contains, for this is inexplicable. Unteachable. A mystery. It’s also the point.
So (and I’m talking to myself here): next time you’re practicing and something goes haywire (i.e. you’ve executed a pristine throw with zero effort), notice the allure to figure out what you just did. It’s so TEMPTING to go into our heads with this stuff. We all become scientists when confronted with something too vast to understand. Try as we might, however, there is no replicating any instant of divine communion. Moments of grace are just that because they are unique, unrepeatable—and honestly, not even personal.
If we’ve been practicing any art for any length of time, we know that there is no ‘there’ there when it comes to mastering anything. These days I’m finding that mastery is actually an endless opening to forces of purity and beauty that want to be known in this world, and doing what we can to give them safe passage. This is the privilege of being an artist—martial or otherwise. The ‘slog’ inherent in this vocation is in the repetition, the mistakes, the wrestling with resistance, the growing pains as we get bigger (“The test of a vocation is the love of the drudgery it involves,” quoth Logan Pearsall Smith**). All so that we can be awake enough to marvel at the accidents when they occur. This, it turns out, is the point of it all.
Just keep practicing. Stay loose. See what happens.
*As is my wont I looked up the word “accident” in the thesaurus. Among the synonyms: chance, coincidence, twist of fate, bit of luck, serendipity, fate, fortune, providence, happenstance. By definition, then, accidents can be (have always been?) things to celebrate.
** with whose work, apart from this quote, I am wholly unfamiliar. Please let me know if you know him to be a historical jerkus and I will remove him from this post post-haste.