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navigating the beautiful and baffling art of aikido

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Starting your practice

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.

Disorientation

I was demonstrating a forward roll in class the other day and for a split second realized I had no control over what was happening: I was completely upside down, couldn’t speak to the class, couldn’t even technically guarantee that I’d land and practice would carry on. Of course I did and it did, but it reminded me of something pretty important about ukemi: the art of falling safely when we are thrown.

I recognize what a loaded concept this is. Most of us spend our lives avoiding falling down – literally and figuratively. We fight hard against harm, vulnerability, death. We’d never willingly place ourselves in a position to be thrown (embarrassed, confronted, outwitted), never mind being responsible for our own safety (People are just supposed to be nice to us, aren’t they?). Yet for exactly half our aikido practice we’re up to just this.

To even get to falling, we have to be willing to attack. This comes in the form of grabbing or striking our partner in a clean, committed way. There are lots of folks (myself included) who spend a lot of their early practice doing not-quite-attacks: grabbing loosely, diverting a punch at the last minute, or ending a strike about six inches away from the target. All very nice and polite, but the person receiving the attack doesn’t really have anything to work with or learn from.

Again, off the mat, how often are we in the world having clean, committed interactions? For instance, saying what we mean clearly and sticking with it? Or risking another getting hurt if they’re not equipped to handle what we’ve brought?

There’s lots more to say about attacking but here I want to focus on falling. We’ve attacked and we’ve been thrown. That is to say, we fall. On the ground. Submit to gravity and our partner’s good technique. We practice specific ways of doing this so that we stay safe and don’t get hurt. Rolling is one of them. Falling on our side is another. In class we drill these forms over and over again until we’re able to do them in a smooth and relaxed way (and then we keep drilling them throughout the life of our practice).

As with everything take up newly, falling is neither smooth nor relaxed at first. It’s bumpy, it’s awkward, it’s unfamiliar, disquieting, humiliating. We don’t necessarily escape unscathed. It can hurt.

It hurts because we’re not used to it: because we’re stiff and armored, accustomed to keeping ourselves walking invulnerably upright through the world. It takes quite awhile to get to a point where we can take a fall that doesn’t affect us physically or emotionally.

This is one of many seemingly insurmountable challenges to move through when we start practicing. it’s the thing that can make our bodies the sorest and our minds the most freaked out.

There’s also the disorientation, which is what I re-discovered the other day. We spend so much of our aikido practice honing our relationship to our center, the ground, our partner, the space around us. We endeavor to know exactly where we are, our awareness expanding farther and farther out into the surround.

But then we’re in the middle of a fall, and there is an infinitesimal moment where we don’t—can’t—know where we are. We’re upside down in a roll, or we’re heading toward the mat having just had our feet swept out from under us. The grounding we’ve been working so hard to establish is gone, and we have to submit to momentary bewilderment.

This might be the scariest piece of it all: having no choice but to relax and surrender.

And it is how falls smooth out eventually. This is how we can do them faster, more precisely, without thinking about them. This is how they (believe it or not) become fun: when we’re okay with having no idea which way is up and can trust that the ground is there to catch us, the same way it has during those hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times we’ve willingly thrown ourselves onto the mat.

When I’m teaching I always start falling practice with inviting everyone to heave a big sigh, let their bones and muscles go, land heavily, and stay there for awhile. Physically remembering that the ground – life – is there to catch us. Even when things feel confusing or terrifying or out of control. Time and again, we land.

What causes hurt and injury is our resistance to this. Ironically, when faced with uncertainty or fear, we stiffen up, try to control our bodies and the circumstances so that we don’t get hurt.

But there’s an aspect at the heart of every technique—every person, every experience, every moment—that is formless, devoid of time or space or up or down. Like death, it’s a place we fear and eschew, yet it’s a place of total peace. Allowing ourselves to let go, trust, and fall into it—even for a split second, on the mat or off—is one of the bravest things a person can do.

Keep falling. Keep training.

Always something

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Being bad

“Every single person who’s ever gotten really good at aikido spent a lot of time being really bad at it first.” —Nick Walker Sensei, in an interview about Aikido

I was practicing a very advanced technique with a new teenage student the other day. The technique is complex, timing-dependent, involving one’s limbs going in many different directions and still working as a whole. I guided him through it the first couple of times and soon he started getting the hang of the basic choreography (which in itself was amazing considering the advanced nature of what we were doing). The first time he did it without me talking him through it, he put a foot in the wrong place and didn’t manage to throw me. He apologized.

Different iterations of this occurred as we worked together – saying he was sorry for anything he didn’t do flawlessly.

This broke my heart. For one thing, through this apology flowed all of the other times this teenage boy – a beginner not only at a difficult martial art, but also at life: the most crushingly difficult thing for anyone – had failed. Or been told he’d failed, or was doing it wrong. All the times he’d been shamed or punished or bullied. Every feeling he, a child, has about himself that he needs to do things perfectly; is unworthy if he does not.

For another thing, I was—I am—that very same kind of beginner. One time early on in my practice, a small group of us were doing a technique maridosa style, meaning that one person performs the technique while the rest of the group takes turns attacking her in sequence. Everyone was to do the technique twice. My first go-round was so awkward and confusing relative to the advanced students around me that when my next rotation came around I waved the next person ahead, eschewing my turn so the others didn’t have to exercise any patience or tolerate my ineptitude. Thankfully it was met with encouraging “no, no!”s from the group and a kind insistence from Sensei: “We want you to learn,” he said.

This was a surprising and perfect thing for me to hear. These people, I thought, welcomed my awkwardness. They weren’t going to shame me for it or try to fix it. All of them were willing—happy, even—to slow down the whole dance so that I could learn the steps. This wasn’t something I could go drill at home and then show back up doing perfectly in order to spare them the time it would take to help me. Them taking time to help me was—is—part of our practice. It’s actually kind of the point. I’m supposed to be doing it wrong right now, I realized. There’s no other way I’ll learn.

In the wider world, though, we seem to have gotten it into our collective mind that we must be good at something the moment we take it up. Where did this come from? It’s not like as babies we decide to walk one day, stand up from our hands and knees and toddle helpfully down to the corner store to buy milk. We fall on our butts every few feet as we try to make our way across the living room carpet. We don’t speed away on a two-wheeled bike before getting a whole bunch of support from someone bigger and more experienced hanging onto the back of it again and again – and even then sometimes tipping over and scraping our knees.

And yet somehow if we take up something new in adulthood – or even adolescence – we think we’re supposed to do this all on our own and already be proficient at it. We don’t get hired for jobs unless we have experience on our resume – often we lie about aptitudes we have, backed up by the fact that we’re a “quick learner” and will be perfect at the skill in no time. We have to bullshit our way through, in other words.

Beginners to Aikido will find that bullshit does not work. You simply have to do it badly.

Even today there are moments in my practice when I decide that whatever we’re working on is too complex or scary or risky or that I simply don’t have the grounding/centeredness/wisdom/ability to do whatever we’re up to. In those moments someone always appears and grabs the back of the bike, showing the kind of patience or kindness I need to make me remember that I’m not supposed to have these things; that the reason I’m practicing is to acquire them. In other words, I’m allowed to be bad.

Maybe you started Aikido because you want to become an ass-kicking martial artist or learn to defend yourself or earn a black belt because that is just so cool. What you’ve actually signed up for is something quite different. We’re not here to learn a skill. Isn’t that funny? We’re not practicing because we’re aiming for anything. We’re practicing because this is a chance to infinitely unfold, to open up spaces in ourselves that we didn’t know existed. This is an art that works the edge of whatever we personally need to develop in life. There is no end to it.

Therefore there’s nothing we’re attaining, or earning, or aiming for. Sure there are ranks and promotions and tests and things we recognize as goals. But we don’t get there because we’re demonstrating perfect technique; rather, it’s because we show humility, persistence and, most importantly, a willingness to suck. To shut down our critics, be clueless, and let ourselves be guided and supported by those who were once in our shoes. That’s the quickest—and really the only—way to advancement.

It’s a lovely and rare opportunity to be allowed not to know. It’s also an incredible challenge for us perfection-driven beings to let go into this. It’s amazing what can open up if we do.

Please don’t apologize – not even to yourself – for not knowing what you’re doing. None of us knows what we’re doing in life, do we? What we do on the mat mirrors what comes up for us in life. Enjoy the chance to not know, to experiment, to make mistakes. To be bad.

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