The most beautiful sound in the world: the entire dojo laughing together.
My aikido practice is young. It’s the kid who proudly declares, “I’m 7 ½!”—those additional six months actually mean something, add significance to my scrawny, developing body of practice. It’s at an age where the half still matters.
In other ways, it’s older than time. Beginning aikido felt like jumping fully into the rushing river of where my life was headed, rather than sitting on its banks, occasionally dipping a toe in. Ker-splash, and I was on the move, my development accelerating, my life appearing in greater technicolor than ever before.
But as biological time goes, even as an adult, 7.5 years is a significant chunk of time. And I can tell you that it has taken that long for certain, very simple concepts—ones I have been privy to from the very outset of my training—to land in such a way that they influence how I engage my practice and my broader life. Here are a few.
1. Slow down
It’s exciting to watch demonstrations, isn’t it? Bodies are rotating, feet are stepping, limbs are flying and, more often than not, someone ends up on the ground. I think at the outset most minds glom onto that last part—someone ending up on the ground—as the ‘goal’ of any technique. So when it’s time to practice, we bow to our partner with that outcome in mind… and we pull ourselves out of alignment almost immediately in the trying.
Here’s the part of the demonstration I missed entirely for the first few years of my practice, heard but didn’t register for the next few, and only very recently started incorporating into my training (to its revolution): go as slow as you need to in order to feel what’s happening. And then go slower than that.
Techniques look so cool in fast motion because the people demonstrating them likely have spent years executing them slowly, feeling into what actually happens when we relax rather than force. In fact, the only way to feel ki moving through us is to relax (for reals – try it right now. Tense your body and check for any subtle sensation beyond your bones and muscles. Now let the tension go and feel in once more. See the difference?). Forcing and muscling is a lizard-brain fight response that we come to Aikido to de-program. Movements from this place happen quickly because they are unconscious, ingrained. To do something different we must allow ourselves space to choose a different response, at least at first.
Anyway, I must have practiced sufficiently slowly often enough to advance this far in my own practice, but I’ve never been so deliberate about it until recently. And I can tell you it’s heavenly. Pausing when someone grabs to feel the energy of the attack flowing in, filling my body and being channeled into the ground, watching that energy shift as I begin to move… it’s divine. It’s like holding a glass of water in the sunlight, observing how the liquid splishes and ripples and reshapes in response to how the container moves.
Luxurious as it can be, moving slowly is also essential. So establish the habit early. Usually when I’m teaching I declare this in no uncertain terms: the goal is not the throw, the goal is connection. Who knows who hears it (goodness knows I didn’t!) but it’s worth re-emphasizing. Of course feel free to speed up periodically to see how your slow practice is influencing your more automatic movements. No need for your entire practice to be in slow motion—there’s lots to be learned at speed.
Remember, too, that you can always ask your partner to attack more slowly. If they do not and you feel unsafe, enlist Sensei’s help or bow to them and excuse yourself.
See if slowing down on the mat doesn’t affect how you move through the world and change what you notice.
2. Stay with your nage
Like almost everyone new to aikido, I was terrified of falling. For most of us, once we’re past a certain age it’s an utterly counter-intuitive concept. Falling down is associated with harm, with injury, with failing. Why would we do it voluntarily?
For one thing, learning how to fall safely is hugely handy in instances when we’re outside the dojo and gravity wins. Cultivating the reflex to relax rather than tense up when we fall unexpectedly can mitigate injury, and even save your life (I’ve heard of such cases).
For another thing, good, committed ukemi (attacking and being thrown) is one of the most valuable forms of support you can provide to your fellow aikidoka. Disconnecting, moving away, or freezing up gives your partner no real energy to work with.
In my earlier practice I was so reticent to fall to the ground that bad ukemi happened more often than not. The truth is that most of my aikido injuries have come from not going with the flow of what nage is doing, and deciding instead to release myself from the technique too soon, disconnecting, blocking, and straight-up resisting.
Granted, it’s not a conscious choice to stop chasing nage or refusing to fall when thrown. As with so much of what we’re working with in aikido, this is all deep programming. In this particular case, the programming actually makes a good deal of logical sense: fall down = bad. Few of us can just decide to rewire ourselves in the moment and begin practicing kinder, more comfortable ukemi.
But there is a trick – one that my Sensei has spoken of and demonstrated from the off, and one that I wasn’t able to wrap my head or the majority of my practice around until more recent years: stay with your nage. Here’s how I began to see that (before abruptly forgetting for another handful of years):
It was during the stage with which probably every aikidoka who begins practice in adulthood is intimately familiar: the “oh god, it’s a rolling technique, surely I will die within the next five minutes” stage, in which rolls are the most impossible, painful, terrifying element of practice. It’s a phase that seems to last an eternity, though in reality only lasts a few weeks (and probably has a lot of folks quit before the stage is over). Anyway, I was square in the heart of this stage when Sensei invited me to practice a rolling technique with him one day. Great, I thought, as if practicing rolls wasn’t scary enough, now I needed Sensei to throw me??
Yes, yes I did.
It was supposed to go like this: I move in to grab Sensei’s shoulders and he sends me away in a roll. For the first few throws I let go of him, scurried away a few paces and threw my body into some hysterical semblance of a roll, slamming my kidneys or hitting my head or one of the myriad other unpleasant things that would happen in my panicked over-thinking and resulting physical contraction.
And as with so many breakthrough moments it took all of three words from Sensei for everything to turn around: “Look at me,” he said, as he threw me. I did. My roll was shockingly smooth. “Look at me!” he said as I came back in the other direction and he threw me a little faster. The words eventually turned into a sound and a facial expression that reminded me to keep focus on him. Feeling braver with each attack I moved back in, until he had thrown me about a dozen times into relatively smooth and painless rolls – at speed, no less.
My rolls changed forever during these few moments of staying connected with nage, in this case visually. It really does make all the difference in terms of safety, connectedness, and fun.
Move fully in to your partner’s space with the attack. If that feels dangerous, again, slow down (you can request this as uke too). A committed attack doesn’t mean a fast attack. Always be looking to face your nage, to “get” your nage. Chase their center with your own. Even as you are falling, turn toward nage. As you are rolling, keep your eyes on nage. These days I often find a limb or two wrapped around nage’s shoulder or waist as I fall. Not clinging for dear life and forcing nage to peel me off of them, but rather orienting to the spiral of the attack as I slide to the ground.
It feels worlds safer—not to mention more harmonious—than how I used to attempt this. And again, it is far more useful to my partner.
I personally still have plenty of work to do around ukemi (good thing I have a lifetime!)—and I have seen many new students understand and execute this concept from the off. Our practices are all unique and certain elements will unfold within different timeframes. But it’s more or less a constant mantra these days as I attack: move forward, move forward, turn toward, turn toward.
3. A ‘good’ practice does not mean being constantly triggered
First off let me say this: err on the side of showing up to class, especially in your early days of practice. If you’re sore or tired or sad or confused or scared or angry, show up anyway. If you’re injured, show up and watch. It’s absolutely vital to get your body into a rhythm of practice, however your body engages it once you’re in the door. The important thing is to show up.
Maybe I’m the only person who spent so many years training under this particular misapprehension: that having a full and productive practice meant not only showing up, but training at the highest level of intensity possible during the entire 90 minutes (or more) on the mat. Nothing wrong with that in and of itself—it’s a fabulous workout. But for most of those minutes I was also profoundly terrified.
In addition to whatever lifelong narrative cocktail I came in with, I think the underlying logic went something like this: if my base instincts were going to be re-wired, I needed to have some sort of trauma constantly on the surface, constantly working with it, never easing up.
I probably don’t have to tell you because you’re smarter than I am, but my friends, this is not a sustainable way to move through life.
Yes, of course this is what we came to aikido to learn (whether we knew it or not at first): attacks come in and touch off some response in our bodies. We learn to notice that response and do something different. Naturally this habit carries into broader experience of practice, the dojo, our relationships, our life.
But, at least as I remember it, I slammed myself into practice (made all the more painful by my resistant ukemi), was at the dojo a ton, took few breaks during or between classes. Somehow I had it in my mind that this was how it was supposed to be—and that even with all this, I wasn’t doing enough. It was a delightful dance of overextension and guilt. Yummy.
I remember one time I stayed home because my back was bothering me. I complained to a sempai about it, saying how I ‘wished’ it weren’t so. “Have you gone to the chiropractor?” was their logical inquiry. I said something about how finances were tight. They offered to lend me money, a gesture that turned out to be a crucial reality check. Truthfully, I could have afforded to see the chiro, I just didn’t want to go. It wasn’t about healing the injury and getting back on the mat. It was about my body begging me for a break that I didn’t feel entitled to give it, and wouldn’t admit to anyone—least of all myself—that I needed.
But I didn’t see that experience for what it was in the moment, and spent several more years ignoring what my body and psyche needed and kept throwing myself into intensity that was often too much for me. (That same sempai said to me at another point during kokyu dosa, “Who ever told you you had to work so hard?” Life-changing in the moment and, as with so many of these moments, quickly forgotten.)
Yes, I learned a lot by engaging practice this way, my response to life has been reshaped, I am a new and stronger person with far more capacity.
This put me in real danger of burning out. I suspect a lot of folks have left practice after a few weeks or months or even years due to this same phenomenon. I’m not sure why I didn’t. Probably because this path is so vital to my life that nothing was going to pull me from it. I’m lucky. (And a little dense.)
It is true that we have to be mildly ‘triggered’ some of the time on the mat so that we can establish new habits. But we have to remember that we’re also building a container for joy and authenticity to flow through. We’re shedding the old habits in order to build new ones. As with anything we want to change, it’s far more effective to focus on what we’re aiming toward versus what we want to go away. This is the part, I think, that I didn’t hear. I thought that joy I was experiencing was a side effect of my hard training, not the point.
So yes. Show up. As often as you can with as much dedicated attention as you can muster. Be fully present, respectful, and attentive to what is going on around you. And reserve a bit of that attention for what is happening in you.
Sometimes what feels like too much is exactly what we need. Soreness is great; injury is not. We can all get a little loopy toward the end of a vigorous class, but to lose touch entirely with what is happening isn’t safe. Crying on the mat is perfectly fine—emotions often come to the surface to be worked through. But you are not required to keep training while consumed in trauma. You always have permission to take yourself off the mat when challenge crosses the line into something else.
These are subtle distinctions, and if we’ve never done anything like this before it can be tough to tell the difference. Indeed, some of us come to aikido to learn how to make these discernments at all. Which leads me to my next and probably most important piece of newly realized wisdom:
4. For the love of god, talk to Sensei
At my dojo we train nonverbally. This is in the interest of staying in our bodies and doing our best not to get into our heads. We can call Sensei over if we’re stuck, and he’ll show us something and/or say something that ranges from helpful in the moment to practice-transforming.
What many students don’t know—or don’t hear, and certainly what I didn’t hear even though I know it has been said plenty—Sensei is available outside of these moments as well. You can ask to meet with Sensei, you can write to Sensei, you can respectfully approach Sensei before or after class as long as you’re not interrupting them (use your judgment and ask a ranking student if you’re not sure).
The point is, your instructors are available—thrilled in fact—to discuss your practice and give you a reality check about what they see. Just because we don’t talk on the mat doesn’t mean we’re not allowed to talk to each other at all.
The too-few times I have availed myself of the magnificent resource that is the Sensei check-in is when I’ve been on the brink of (or in) a full-on crisis. Akin to my misconception about practice needing to be constantly triggering if I was going to grow, I also assumed that I needed to figure all of this out without any feedback beyond what I was getting on the mat. I knew Sensei was tracking my progress since I was invited to test periodically, but I assumed that if there was anything I needed to know beyond that he’d tell me.
Meanwhile, all the long-dormant stuff that my practice was stirring up was flying around causing projections, ideas and feelings I had no idea what to do with. I could have brought these to Sensei any time, not just at the breaking points.
So. Don’t not do what I … didn’t do.
I do better in writing, so most of my Sensei check-ins are over email, which works well for both of us. As with on the mat, it doesn’t take a whole lot for him to cut straight to the heart of what is up for me, make me feel seen and known for exactly where I am and where I’m headed, and inspire me to go deeper in my practice (as well ever so gracefully pulling me back from the ledge: the bit that isn’t necessary if you approach your teacher soon enough).
What’s most important about these conversations, at least for me, are the reality checks around blind spots. There’s always something we’re not seeing. What’s nifty about aikido—will I ever stop saying it?—is that what is up in our practice is more often than not up in our lives. So whatever wisdom we glean from Sensei applies in other corners of our world. It’s the most effective therapy we could ask for.
That all said ….
This doesn’t mean corner your Sensei every chance you get for a rap sesh. Ranking students are available to ask about dojo operations, etiquette and traditions. Feel into what sort of conversation is needed, when and with whom. If practice is starting to feel dull or less nuanced, if a particular technique or dynamic is causing you regular distress or confusion, or if you’d just like some perspective on how your practice is going, do seek out Sensei. Don’t wait until you’re the brink of leaving because that’s the only thing you can think to do to make the agony stop. (But if you are on the brink, before you go – for the love of god, talk to Sensei!)
This is a spiritual path, remember, and like all worthwhile paths it is rife with challenges and calls for powerful guidance. But it’s also your path—your guides aren’t going to drag you up the mountain. If you’re curious what’s around the next bend, take it upon yourself to seek out the wisdom of the ones who have gone before you.
So, this some of what I’m beginning to grasp in a new way or for the first time. There are concepts some of us figure out in the first weeks of practice that take others of us years. The most challenging elements of practice are different for all of us, but hopefully it’s reassuring for newer students to know that higher ranking students are learning their own simple lessons. That is never going to stop. The quantity of what there is to learn is impossible to take in—never mind retain—in a short amount of time. Again, good thing we have a lifetime.
In a way, the above is offered in the hope of ensuring your practice can last a lifetime. We’re all putting such pressure on ourselves all the time to ‘succeed,’ whatever we imagine that is supposed to be. Your Aikido training is not about succeeding. It is an unfolding, that is all.
We want you here. Take your time. Take your space. Honor your courage. Pay attention. Lean into support. Stay committed. Never stop learning.
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.
Beings come into the world and they leave it. They do so on their own terms—or would, if we let them. But … usually we don’t. We are constantly interrupting the natural rhythms of life with our own thoughts about how things should go. With our fear of loss and of mystery. With our attachment to being able to see and understand what’s happening. With terror of heartbreak.
My dog is dead and I am in the middle of that heartbreak. I was prepared for her to die but not for her to be gone. Her absence is excruciating. This is the pain that we do our best to avoid and I can understand it in this moment. This is why the medical profession is devoted to keeping beings alive—to put off, for as long as possible, having to feel this.
That’s why we, our dog’s humans, attempted to divert the direction in which her life was clearly headed. Well-intended, loving and right-seeming as it was at the time, I will regret this forever. I’ll regret the vet visits, the two days in the hospital, all of the torment that trying to ‘help her feel better’ put her through. I regret every morsel of food I offered her after she clearly told us she was done with it, that she was done with her body. I regret not being kinder to her while she was in my life, the moments I chose my own comfort or convenience over her joy. Or when I chose what was “best” over her requests for something quite different. Most of all I regret pretending I didn’t hear those requests.
But I heard them. I heard this one in particular: “I am dying; just don’t leave me.” But we did. I did. Rather than keeping her in close and familiar surroundings, letting her sickness unfold and helping her leave when it was time, we subjected her to fear and stress because we wanted to ‘help her feel better.’ What we were really up to was delaying the pain we’re feeling now: the pain we were always going to feel. She did ultimately come home and die peacefully here, but it was not the lead-up to her death that she’d asked for—that she’d asked me for because she knew I could hear her. It was the opposite.
There actually is a natural order, a very clear direction in which life flows. It is apparent if we attune to it. Easier said than done, of course. For one thing, it’s so damn subtle, and it really requires that we turn the volume of our conscious mind way down and raise the antennae of our body awareness and emotional intelligence if we’re going to hear anything at all. Plus it’s not always blissful. Colluding with the flow of Life means opening ourselves to shocking loss, severe pain, blinding disorientation, discomfort, inconvenience.
The thing is, though, that it can actually lessen suffering when we cease our attempts to dam all that flows naturally.
This is aikido, of course: cultivating our ability to feel / hear / see how life wants to express itself in any given moment and, at super-advanced levels, acting in accordance with it. That last part is precisely what I didn’t do. The excruciating truth of this points to the next phase of my practice: closing the gap between perception and action. Integrating what I know to be true with doing the right thing in response. I’ll come to peace about all of this, one day, hopefully, through practicing that, getting better at that, on the mat and off. I’m headed back to class today, for the first time after she died, to begin my practice again with this intention, this commitment.
Actually, though, none of this is all that super advanced. Yes, aikido teaches our bodies to attune to the universe at the cellular level. But we can all, always, be up to this. We can listen for what our critters, plants, friends, elders, children are asking of us. Asking ourselves if we really do ‘know better.’ It’s not so complex. Usually all that’s being requested is kindness. I bet we can all hear it more clearly than we think or admit. The world is in the state it’s in because we’ve been trained to override this simple truth to avoid inevitable pain, inevitable endings.
This is my biggest regret, and biggest learning. The painful moments teach us the most, after all. It’s just that much more torturous to realize our mistakes when we’re out of time to put things right. When it’s literally life and death. No matter what reasonable, comforting things anyone says, I know that I not only betrayed that wonderful little being, but I disregarded and disrespected Life. And not for the first time – more like the millionth – but certainly the most immediate and significant. A tiny lead weight of this knowing is attached by a string to each shard of my shattered heart. They’ll stay weighted thusly until this all moves through, until I find some peace around it. If I do.
I am grateful to my dog for being my teacher in one of the most agonizing lessons I’ll ever learn. I know she forgives me and that I will eventually forgive myself. This raw wound will turn into a scar that will always hurt to the touch, reminding me to act from knowing, from truth, and from love.
I love you Paloma, and I’m sorry.
Commitments are always tested. Have you found that? Stuff we promise to ourselves and to other people—resolutions, relationships, recovery, things that don’t start with “r”—are constantly challenged, called into question. When they are, we’re often faced with a choice: abandon ship, stagnate, start all over… or step in and get better.
A commitment to practicing aikido is a commitment to that last one—getting better. It’s a path of impeccability. (Thankfully I noticed this when I was too far along the path to turn back. I don’t know that I would have been brave enough to say ‘yes’ to this kind of thing sight unseen.) If you’ve been practicing for any length of time, this might be becoming clear. Whatever your highest calling is, however your body and psyche need to expand in capacity and strength: that’s the path you’re on, and that’s what’s going to get tested. Year upon year, layer upon layer, it’s an overt, nonstop challenge to get better. At the deepest, most authentic, most profound levels of mind and soul and body.
Shutting down and melting down
My core challenge has always been—will always be—conflict. My particular nature/nurture cocktail dictates that being in the presence of a fight—not even in one, just near one—feels like the threat of death. My patterned response to this has been to shut down while it’s happening and melt down later.
This isn’t why I chose to start aikido, but you better believe it’s been getting worked on subtle and overt levels all the time, on the mat and off. Without being fully conscious of it, when I began my practice I committed to developing my ability to stay upright and mobile in the face of conflict.
The other night I found myself in the literal middle of an argument: two people I love and respect, seated on either side of me at a dinner table in a nice restaurant, began a heated debate. My body went into its automatic response: I drilled my energy down into the ground, got very still, stopped breathing, and willed it all to end.
Ironically, we’d just been talking during appetizers about the various ways my aikido practice has helped me become more powerful. And now, moments after speaking about this, this claim was being tested. I recognized it as such, and watched in despair as my body went into freeze. Why wasn’t I speaking up, stopping this, doing something to make the situation different? Why wasn’t I being more powerful?
I was disappointed and distraught, to say the least. I thought I was better than this.
But then …
But then, fascinatingly, during the car ride home—the window of time generally reserved for post-freeze meltdown—I noticed that I …. I wasn’t melting down. Quite the opposite actually. I was pissed off. I was furious. Fuming. Mind you this wasn’t the most rational response to the scenario—the argument had been a perfectly reasonable and necessary one. It shook things up and opened eyes. Still, I was mad. Mad at the debaters for having such strong opinions that they had to air at the potential expense of a nice evening. Mad at myself for always seeing the truth on all sides and not having stronger views of my own. Even madder at myself for not having done anything to calm this down—especially since I’d been sitting right between them. And so forth. I was furious for a million reasons.
The point, though, isn’t what I was angry at, but that I was angry: a far more powerful response than the weeping, resigned pile of goo that would have been me in a past scenario. The anger empowered me to do things: follow up later with the folks involved, air my feelings, put the parts of it to bed that I could. Step into what I needed to learn from it. Resolve it in myself, rather than let bitterness and resentment stew in my cells for goodness knows how long. Anger can show us the truth, you see. It spurs action. It may not be the most enlightened reaction, but for many it is an unquestionable step on the path toward true equanimity.
I was better than this, I came to see. I did do something different when faced with the choice, it just didn’t play out as I expected. It wasn’t on me to change the reality of the situation—conflict is a very necessary reality of life (another huge lesson I’m learning over and over)—but to respond to it in a way that was more grounded, empowered, and fluid. That happened. It was subtle, but it happened.
We don’t have to think about it
And the part I celebrate most is that it was automatic. Over time, our aikido training rewires our nervous system to instinctively respond to situations with power and equanimity. That’s the piece of my training that kicked in in this scenario. It didn’t change how I thought I should have behaved in the moment. Rather, it roused me to action that would prevent the moment from becoming a lasting bit of trauma.
So many subtleties and complexities to all of this, but one big reminder here is this: something is happening, even if you don’t think it is. On the mat and off, in moments that feel like failures, like backslides, like stagnation, deep in your cells a warrior is developing. You don’t have to be running into burning buildings or leading charges, fending off half a dozen ukes with ease or even doing a perfect technique. You’re on the path of impeccability, shedding layers and layers of dry old skin, being perpetually tested, and finding out again and again that you are, indeed, better than you’ve ever been.
Even as a devoted practitioner and advocate of ongoing self-development, I’ve had moments in recent months when I’ve second guessed the point of it all. With so much of the world in dire emergency, it’s to the point that I’m literally forgetting to check in with friends in the path of fires or with family members in destroyed cities because I’m too preoccupied with concern about a close friend at a violent protest or my sister having to evacuate her neighborhood.
Between trying to figure out where to send emergency relief funds, scanning the news daily to make sure nobody I love is in jeopardy (and being heartbroken for the millions who are), trying to gently educate relatives about the unconscious beliefs that are harming our world, putting attention on my and others’ self-development seems … extravagant. Questions of who I am and what my life is for are eclipsed by the urgent call from a world in crisis.
How our practices can shore us up
On a particularly tough day recently, smoke thick in the air from the fires burning a few dozen miles from my home, I began an evening of aikido—my central physical and spiritual practice. It was through an eerie indoor haze that I watched sensei take his place at the front of the room. We began as always, sitting seiza, taking a few moments to gather ourselves. Sirens shrieked outside—not fire-related, and not especially uncommon in our corner of the world. Still, it added to the air of something-not-quite-right-out-there as we bowed in.
In all the thousands of times I’ve commenced practice this way, it’s never felt holier to me. I sensed our group’s collective steadiness and inner quiet as the world was literally burning around us. The goodwill that we summon and send outward with every movement felt more significant; our connection to one another and the wider web far more precious and necessary.
This underscored a feeling I’ve consistently had in quieter moments: the element of my life that needs me most, that feels most necessary and right, is attending to my physical and spiritual practices. None more than they have given me the capacity to be where I’m needed. And what is needed, I’m finding—as many are—has to do with attending to those around us in more loving ways. Recognizing each other as human, listening to each other’s stories, and sharing what resources we can—both tangible and intangible.
In terms of my own development, my practices have given me a physical sense of my own core, my own strength, and my own ability. Giving to others from this place feels less like an exchange of limited resources, and more like a decision that comes from a place of autonomy, abundance, and connectedness. I can offer kindness and help in ways that don’t deplete me or call for something in exchange. This feels extremely useful, to say the least, at this moment in history. Almost like it’s all been leading to this …
It’s a process that will never be complete and is rife with backslides and frustration, but it is happening. It’s an often unconscious yet undeniable unfolding.
What is yours to uncover?
Naturally the direction of everyone’s development is unique. Maybe our times call you out beyond the realms of simple, local acts. Maybe you are driven to activism, warriorship, craftsmanship, heroism, education, divinity. Whatever it looks like, there is something that each of our lives is constantly building towards, and layers we can continually shed to get closer to whoever and whatever that is.
Now is definitely not the time to abandon what keeps us most centered. We actually have to keep turning back to ourselves, keep digging up what is cluttering our souls in a devotional pursuit of the place most steady and true.
Behold, my 6th kyu (orange belt / first adult rank) test in 2011.
Most white belt students in my dojo these days have more grace in one pinky finger than I had in my whole being. Our dojo has evolved! (For one thing, if you are a current Shusekai student, this serves as a wonderful instructional video on how and when not to bow.)
Flash forward to my nidan (2nd degree black belt) test in February 2017. This test is about 10x longer than the first one, so here are a few excerpts. If you watch closely you might notice one or two improvements…
This one does play correctly despite the rotated still.
Hang in there, it begins eventually …
So, dear friends, whenever you find yourself in doubt that consistent training leads anywhere, I hope you will return here and be reassured.
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.