navigating the beautiful and baffling art of aikido (and other writings)


On the mat

Death and right action

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.

I thought I was better than this


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 test

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.

Attending to our practices as the world breaks around us

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.

Building capacity

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.

Self Doubt

From The Awkward Yeti

Proof of progress

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.

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?

Schedule time for misogi.


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.
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.


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.

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

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