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

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Starting your practice

Stuff it’s taken me nearly 8 years of training to understand

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?

Well.

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.

And.

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.

AND.

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.

Glorious accidents*

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?

Art

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.

Actual mastery

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.

Self Doubt

From The Awkward Yeti
theawkwardyeti.com

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?
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.

But what do I DO?

Coming back for a moment from our spaceship ride into the metaphysical, here are some very elementary guidelines for your aikido practice. The info in italics pertains to my dojo specifically. Please always default to the rules in the dojo where you train.

  • Train often (at least twice week), with a light and joyful heart.
  • Be on time. That means 20-30 minutes early—time to set up mats, do service, get dressed, get settled, have some free time to stretch and practice.
  • Seek the guidance and support of ranking students (those with colored belts). Watch what they do; bring your questions to them before and after class.
  • During class, do your best to drop into a non-verbal space and learn with your body. Limit questions to those that are burning, and call Sensei over for those. Thank Sensei for his/her help with a bow.
  • If you are a beginner, seek out advanced students to practice with. If you end up working with another beginner and don’t know where to start, call Sensei over for help. Thank Sensei for his/her help with a bow.
  • Move boldly in the direction of your practice partner. Do not hesitate; do not wait for them to choose you.
  • If there are an odd number of students and you end up without a partner, find a pair (aim for two ranking students) and sit near them on the edge of the mat. When they rotate you in, you are uke (attacker) first.
  • Be calm, quiet and respectful. Avoid being distracting or disruptive.
  • Be still and attentive during instruction, sitting seiza in line.
  • Never enter or leave the mat or dojo during Sensei’s demonstrations. Wait until partner practice has begun. If you are just off the mat when it’s time for the next demonstration, promptly bow back on and get in line. If you are off the floor/outside the dojo, wait there quietly until the demonstration is over.
  • Follow Sensei’s instructions promptly. Acknowledge you heard and understood with a bow and “hai (yes), Sensei.”
  • Bow when entering and leaving the dojo space. Bow when stepping on and off the mat. Bow when beginning and ending work with a partner. Bow after you receive instruction from Sensei. Bow to open and close your practice. Bow even/especially when nobody’s looking. When in doubt, bow. Bow deeply, reverently, honoring the lineage, the dojo, your teachers and fellow students.
  • Gi (uniform) is tied left over right.
  • Keep your gi (and yourself) clean, tidy, odor- and pet-hair-free.
  • Keep the dojo clean and tidy as well! Pick up trash and dust bunnies, make sure flowers are fresh, mats are swept, curtains at the front of the room are drawn.
  • If you are given a service task, assume that it is yours to complete each time you are in the dojo. If you haven’t been asked to do it but see that it hasn’t been done, go for it!

These are rough guidelines; believe it or not there are subtleties to each of these simple items, and etiquette varies from dojo to dojo. Nonetheless—as we’ve firmly established—it can be overwhelming enough to start a new spiritual/physical practice without trying to keep all the rules in mind. This is offered as a humble reference to help guide you through unfamiliar territory.

Beginner me

So far in these posts I’ve addressed beginners as though I’m not one myself. This is the where I bust out the broom and dustpan and sweep that misnomer right on up.

I’ve been practicing Aikido for a measly (and magnificent) five years. I began at age 33, entering into training with miles of karma coiled into a tight spring. I suspected (and was proven right beyond my wildest imaginings) that somehow this practice would catch me up, mature me, usher me into a long overdue adulthood. Learning how to stand on my own two feet and stuff. Check. (And then some.)

Having been swept into the rushing current of the art and with so much time to make up, I trained and trained and trained. Different things motivated me at different times: when the physicality of it was getting boring or frustrating, my friendships kept me coming back. If I was in a big transition or crisis, the dojo tended to be the only place I could tolerate, practice the only thing that made sense. After awhile the routine of it was a comfort: knowing what I’d be doing on Tuesday night and Friday night and Sunday afternoon. Keeping that time safe and protected just for me. The more advanced I became, the more I felt responsible for newer students. There was always a reason to return to the mat, even when the Karmic Return wasn’t glaringly obvious (spoiler: it rarely is).

I trained and trained and trained. And, as a result, I advanced. I didn’t want to advance – my Sensei can attest to this. I wasn’t in it for the rank; I just wanted to practice. I actually actively resisted belt tests (promotions) for a while. Ahead of my blue belt test, for instance, I “informed” Sensei that I wasn’t ready; that I’d need to postpone for a few months. (Just so you know: it wasn’t my call. It’s never our call. Sensei knows; we don’t.) He kindly, amusedly, yet quite firmly insisted that no, I was ready. End of discussion. I was testing. I did. It was fine. Still, for most tests, my narrative was “after I get through this next one maybe I can just stop.” I couldn’t. I didn’t. Four years later, I had a black belt. A few months after that, I started teaching.

Still, as far as actual, biological time put into practice, I’m little more than a toddler. One of the reasons I feel able to speak to folks who are brand new is that I didn’t begin my practice decades ago. I can’t lean back in my rocking chair and brag to the youngins that I started training before the moon landing or the internet. My memories of my first days are sharper because they are so very recent. I speak not from any particular wisdom or authority, but rather from that freshness of experience. (Also, the first degree of black belt is shodan, which translates to “beginning rank.” It’s a profoundly humbling start – like parts of the Appalachian trail [I’m told] that you have to spend two days hiking to before you begin the actual journey.)

Finally, it’s important to remember that being a beginner is distinct from being new to something. Most of what I write here has to do with the latter. Surrounding, underlying, and woven through all of this, always, is the fact that we’re all beginners (and not just to Aikido – hopefully that’s obvious). The concept of Beginner’s Mind can feel overused and cliché in my northern California self-development-type circles, but when I can manage to abide it I’m always moved by its profound and timeless value. We can become so burdened and distorted by all that we think we know. As soon as we lock ourselves in as an authority on something we’ve locked everything else out (in which case newness must resort to violently breaking down the door). There is always something more to learn. The more we can open to this the freer we are.

When I see pictures of O Sensei laughing maniacally, or hear stories about his mischievous, impish nature, I often assume that energy was born of some secret he’d become privy to: the Buddha-laugh of enlightenment. But perhaps it has more to do with the fact that there is simply no end to the bounty of discovery. Everything in every moment can be delightfully new. Like a baby enraptured by a roadside mailbox or a dog delighting in new smells on the sidewalk brought in from the rain, each instant of our waking lives is a chance to have our minds blown. If you were truly connected to the vastness of that truth, would you not also walk around giggling?

Inevitably, by virtue of being human, I happily (and frustratingly, and angrily, and amazedly, and boredly, and confusedly, and easily, and harrowingly, and forgetfully, and ecstatically, and trustingly) count myself among scores of beginners. I invite you, too, to revel evermore in the newness of your experience.

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