Make a start. See what happens.


Writing about Aikido

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.

What power is and isn’t

I’ve had the great fortune of lucking into practices that don’t have much to do with the mind and everything to do with the body. I say “fortune,” I say “lucking into” because it’s not like I chose them after much deliberation and weighing of options. On the contrary: Something felt right and I dove in and, after not long at all, the force took hold and I was swept up, not having to effort much to stay with the practice.

Not that these things aren’t rife with challenges in terms of what they bring up. My part, however, is the showing up. The lion’s share of the work is done by the powers that be.

Powers. Power. It’s something I’ve been thinking about of late – as in, it’s finally risen to my word-brain and concepts have been coming together. It’s been swirling around in my system for a lot longer than that. Here’s what I’ve come to understand.

Power is life force. It’s energy that moves through our bodies in a contained flow—ideally. Ideally it brings with it information from life, from the divine, from the intelligence that moves all things.

It doesn’t look like this for most of us. There are plenty of people whose life force is strong and magnetic, but the information carried therein is cluttered with debris in the form of old hurts or completely disconnected from anything larger than their own closed system. (Hi Donald Trump.) Or someone who’s like way in touch with the universe, man, but whose physical presence is so dim that none of that wisdom has any hope of making its home here on earth. Most of us fall somewhere in between those two extremes.

Power has nothing to do with other people. There’s no such thing as power sharing, balance of power, having power over another. All we’re doing when we orient this way is playing in a sandbox; knocking over each other’s castles, throwing and burying, taking each other’s toys. Moving around a bunch of dirt that neither increases or decreases in volume; that in quality remains dirt. Getting nowhere, though we’re encouraged every time our pile gets bigger, devastated when we’re crunching a few grains along the bare boards of our playspace.

Nor is power saying “fuck everyone, I’m doing what I want.” That is anger. That is outrage. Not that this isn’t useful: for many, this is an in-road to power. The realization that you have given your life force away, for a second or for your whole life, is infuriating. The rage that comes from that is the priming of the pump. It allows us to feel pure, useful energy flowing through us in a jet-propelled whoosh. A danger is getting stuck here – there are many people who delight in being outraged, devote themselves to it, even make livings from it it, forgetting (or not realizing) that it’s merely a stepping stone to real power.

Power doesn’t increase with a multitude of bodies amassed in a shared interest. That’s force. Unless that mass is wide awake and shares a divine directive, they’re just working together to plow the sand until everything else is buried.

Power is being unaffected by others’ experiences. Not in the sense of closing off our hearts. Compassion is vital. Rather, it’s being able to act independent of how others might react. Everyone’s on their own trip – it’s your job to focus on your own.

This is not something to theorize about. You can do it somatically. Feel your body vibrating. Feel the center of it. Jettison what isn’t yours. Become full of yourself, your own energy. It’s not arrogant; it’s essential. It doesn’t mean you don’t care. On the contrary, you can’t truly care – have compassion, make a difference, any of that – until you are in contact with yourself.

We hear pieces of this, all the time, in many contexts. For example, “Don’t worry what anyone else thinks.” Right. Sure. But without an alternate place to put our attention, we stay focused on those very others we’re trying to disregard. There’s no hope of even understanding what that means, let alone putting it into action.

Or, “oh, just tune in, you’ll feel what’s right.” Again, wonderful in theory, but tuning in isn’t a decision, it’s a skill – one that, if we were raised in the west, we very likely weren’t taught.

This is where practice comes in. We need to cultivate our ability to feel into what’s happening for us. It’s only when we notice what we’re doing with our energy that we can change it.

No doubt you’ll be flabbergasted by my next statement: aikido is one phenomenal way to build this sensitivity. By moving and interacting the way we do, we become aware of our habitual patterns of attention and relationship. We learn to decipher what is ours and what is others, how to stay grounded and steady in the face of challenge, and to move in harmony with the greater guiding forces in the universe.

A concrete example of this is a ki test. When a partner pushes on us and we take that energy and channel it down through our center and into the ground, our out through the tips of our fingers and into the next town, we are accessing the channel of pure, clean energy running through us and connecting us to everything. We become conduits of our own highest selves. As practice advances, the harder we’re pushed, the more we are in contact with our own source – our power. We learn to pay attention to this source, not what others are trying to put in our space, or take from it.

We can prattle and theorize and educate ourselves and build muscles and audiences. We can read and diet and meditate and become CEOs. We can do all this and never come into contact with our power or hope to affect anything. We need practices—challenging ones—that physically show us our life force and help us cultivate it. What is yours?

Can you feel it?

There’s a current of goodwill, of rightness, clarity, peace and beauty running through and around us all the time. Extending one to the other, connecting us with all other beings, with all there is. It is a quiet, constant movement, an aliveness, an unending choreography inviting us forever into the dance. It is grace.

Can you feel it?

Of course you can’t. Neither can I. We’re humans. There’s way too much shit that’s been building up in our bodies and psyches since babyhood, placed upon us by our people and the world at large, separating us from that beautiful, perfect flow. It’s what the old stories point to about our being fallen. It’s what wisdom traditions acknowledge that we feel separate from, are forever trying to get back to.

It is, in short, the work of being a person. We all have this task. Whatever we think we’re up to, it has roots this project. We’re looking to get back there – to feel that goodness, rightness, connectedness. To be in that place of flow, of freedom, of timelessness. To feel love. To feel loved.

I fibbed when I said I can’t feel it. I do feel it. Sometimes. For an instant here and there on the mat. Yes: an instant. Here and there. Sometimes. A few minutes out of upwards of 300 every week. Most of the time it’s that other thing – that being human thing. That wrestling with whatever segment of the crust of personhood is currently blocking me from the love.

The crust shows itself in many forms, many layers. Usually the layer closest to our skin is the one that keeps asserting itself. The core wound, some call it. The ways we weren’t met as little ones, the ways well-meaning and misguided folks shaped us, and how we seek to feel safe in the world now. Could be fear of conflict or being trapped or challenged or abused. Could be a need to be liked or to control everything. These are our youngest injuries – the ones laid in first and the most relentless to deal with.

The layer farthest out might be what happened to us that day: particularly gnarly traffic, too much time spent staring at a computer, a conflict with someone, a sickness, the weather, a mood. Who knows.

And again (and again and again and again), it’s neither that simple nor that linear. But it is unending. It just is. We’re human. Damn it all, it’s our work. Before I understood this, I did a lot of casting about for how not to have to do it anymore. It wasn’t until I began training that I grasped that we’re going to be up to it until we surrender our human form.

Happily, I’ve also found that aikido is the most direct way to reach through the nonsense and into the light. No analyzing needed. Whatever is up for me is usually embodied, symbolically or literally, by the person attacking me. In other words, I can work with the thing, whatever it is, in real time. Not always “successfully,” not in a way that heals anything in that moment, but in a way that is direct and purposeful (not to mention a lovely alternative to stewing or obsessing or self-distraction or self-destruction).

Those who start practice and stick around have already locked onto this truth, I think. They’ve committed before they knew what they were committing to. It’s been theirs to do all along. All roads have been leading here. Congratulations and welcome. It would have been easier to stay asleep. But you’ve awoken and found this path. Now what?

Thing one: recognize that everyone has this cross to bear (oh how dramatic! But true. Being human is the hardest, hardest thing). We’re none of us assholes; some are just crustier than others. We’re not all plotting how to make one another’s lives more difficult. (Remind me of this, would you, when I’m in my car cursing the moron who is willfully ruining my day by taking too long to cross the street?) We’re all just walking around bearing unbearable loads of wounds, patterns, stories.

At the dojo we can unite in this mutual acknowledgement. Engage in rituals to which we all agree, and which respect and honor this important work we’ve chosen. Bowing alone (about which I hereby threaten to devote many future posts) establishes and reinforces this agreement possibly more than any other partner practice.

Thing two: as much as you can, keep bringing to mind why you’re here, and what life is inviting you into. Know that that flow, that current, that goodness is indeed in you, in others, and in all that surrounds us. It is what connects space-matter to the earth’s molten core. All of it is yours to access and work with if you choose. It’s what we’re doing with technique: it’s why we’re encouraged to keep moving, to keep our feet connected to the sweet and nourishing source of the earth. It’s why we blend and yield and make big, welcoming shapes with our bodies. It’s why we must be direct and even disruptive, carving paths through which the goodness can flow.

We’ve got to be awake all the time. It’s so terribly hard sometimes. It can be the last thing we want to do. But by practicing we honor the All-That-Is because we’re sipping it from that vast and mysterious plane and expressing it through our little selves.

Ideally. Maybe. Some day. But for most of us, no matter how advanced, we’re doing the work of being human. We’re doing it directly, purposely and in a loved and supported way when we’re in the dojo and, more and more, as we walk through our daily lives. As you keep practicing those heavy sacks of old detritus will change shape; get lighter. Every now and again, for a sweet, electrifying instant, you might actually touch grace, and know that it’s the real thing.

None of our business

However life chooses us to be of service in it has absolutely nothing to do with us.

Calling is not a choice. It’s not what we think we like or prefer or have aptitude for. Our egos have plenty of ideas about what we’re supposed to be good at: what we excelled at in grade school, what is “marketable,” what will make the biggest splash, what we’d spend our days up to if we had a bazillion dollars and grillions of hours to devote.

Passion has nothing to do with what any of us came here to do. Desire: bupkus. Drive: meh. (Eek, sorry guys. I know these are the qualities most of us well-intentioned and productive westerners spend our lives cultivating, polishing, pining after. I think, unfortunately, they might be red herrings.)

It’s that gift part. It’s the calling part. It’s the quiet mystery. It’s the wonderful, insane, “how in the hizzizle did I end up here?” phases of our lives. Those are the times life is nudging us in the ribs, encouraging us forth to be of some actual use at this silly, short-lived party.

We know what’s ours to do, I think, when it’s something other than our own agency pulling us toward it. We know what’s ours to do, I believe, when we’re shocked that we’re doing it at all. We know what’s ours to do because it hovers above and around us in gentle, persistent presence. There might be resistance, drama on our part. We might ignore it or make ourselves sick willing it to go away. But it doesn’t.

I am conscious of two endeavors in my relatively brief, error-ridden life that have not gone away: writing and aikido. Ask me any time before 2011 if I saw myself as a martial artist and I would have snarfed red wine directly between your darling, delusional eyeballs. Ask me if I’m a writer and I would have until very, very recently given you my well crafted, overly prepared and rather arrogant line: “well yes, in a sense. Writing is my gift but it’s not my passion.”

I envied others’ pursuits, casting about for what I might do that was as beautiful and meaningful and powerful and exotic: why had I not devoted my life to being a landscape architect or an acupuncturist or a glass blower or a parent or a dancer?

All the while god chuckled, tears falling down its formless cheeks in knowing amusement.

Because in all my tortured searching, questioning, beseeching to be shown the path, it was right under my nose. When I finally looked down and saw I was walking the damn thing, I realized too that there had been no choice in the matter – it was never my call to make. It’s just what was. And as I’ve allowed these two strange yet inevitable bedfellows to turn toward each other, they’ve begun an almost effortless dance that has had rapid and surprising effect. In a way I am shocked. In another, it feels like nothing.

If an endeavor has swept you up in this way (fixing old cars, caring for your elderly parents, going on ten mile runs, channeling the dead, walking dogs, having coffee after coffee with burnt-out coworkers, taking improv classes, letting people stop you in the street and tell you about their lives … or, I don’t know, aikido) – even if you’ve only been up to it for a year or a month or a day – you might know what I mean.

If you’ve ever dug up a piece of garbage you wrote or painted a decade ago (right before you quit in despair and futility) and realized that, at the time, you were actually channeling the divine into a piece of fragile and fleeting beauty to live here on earth … perhaps you feel me.

Everyone else, keep looking. No doubt there’s something of this nature that’s whispering to you, waiting patiently to welcome you into its peculiar, irresistible lair.

What we find ourselves in the middle of—even if we’re busy ignoring it—might actually be the very thing that’s rippling out into the world in waves of goodness and truth. It might be as challenging as it is enjoyable. It might bring us to our knees in its name. Or it might feel like nothing special: it’s just who I am; it’s just what I do.

But it won’t release us from its embrace.

As with most things, reading this won’t connect anyone to their calling in a firework-burst of sudden comprehension. As with most things, we’ve got to find this out for ourselves in however much time it takes (and then forget and find out, forget and find out, again and again in the ever-widening spiral). As with most things, it will probably involve a struggle of some kind. But perhaps this can serve as a kind of a reminder-buoy for the times you find yourself lost, treading water.

The point, though, is this: if you’re fighting like hell to make your purpose known in the world (or to yourself), ease up for a moment. You likely don’t have to try so hard. Instead, ask to be guided there – to be shown what you need to see. With a soft, broad focus, let it come to you. Give yourself a break from the laser-focused search. It’s not your job anyway. It’s none of your business.

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.


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.

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.

Water bottle waza

Waza is one Japanese word for practice.

I consider it one of the greatest achievements of my almost five years of Aikido training that I can consistently show up to the dojo with my gi, belt, snacks and weapons, that I get myself there early enough to change, stretch and practice a bit before we officially bow in, and when I need a break my water bottle sits just off the side of the mat, full and waiting, ready to replenish me when I need it.

There’s lots else I’ve learned to do over the years (evidenced, to my continued incredulousness, by the black belt I now wear), but the above was among the most challenging initially. Learning techniques was nothing I’d ever done before. I had to give up trying to figure things out, silence my critic, and place myself in the hands of those with experience, trusting they would guide me where I needed to go. That part was a no-brainer, literally: I could relax into the fact that I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

But I did know how to get myself places, you see. At least I thought I did. I grew up doing sports, have been to other classes and workshops, and liked to think I’d lived sufficient decades of everyday life to know what it was to arrive somewhere on time and prepared. And yet in the face of this new and baffling martial art, my regular identity as A Person With Her Shit More Or Less Together was tested along with everything else. It was unnerving.

I’d be out walking the dog, arriving back inside to see that class started in 15 minutes and having a 20 minute drive to the dojo ahead of me. I’d arrive frantic and half-dressed while the rest of the class was already a significant portion into the warmups.* Things like crossing all the way into the dressing room (on the other side of the mat from the dojo entrance) seemed somehow intimidating and herculean, whether I was on time or not. Sometimes I would awkwardly tie myself into my gi top and belt just outside the dojo door, being twice as disruptive as I would have been if I only braved the journey to the designated changing area. I probably don’t have to tell you, most of these times I did not have my water bottle with me.

I’d hover above myself, baffled at why I was acting this way.

By its nature, newness unhinges us. It shakes up our system. In the case of learning, say, a Japanese martial art, we’re experiencing newness – brand newness – on every imaginable level. For one thing, we suddenly find ourselves occupying an almost 100% physical, nonverbal space. We’re required to pay respect, do service and follow instructions. We’re bowing all the time. For god sake, we spend an hour and a half falling on our butts, getting back up, falling again. If we’ve been steeped in a culture that encourages talking and thinking – that stresses invulnerability, perfection, figuring it all out – this is all utterly and disturbingly foreign. Our systems freak out, and things that have been historically steady in our lives go sideways.

This is neither uncommon nor unnatural in the face of taking on something new. As the new-age adage says, we have to break down in order to break through. Breakdown isn’t fun (it would probably be called something else if it were). But it’s inevitable. And I think where we dig ourselves in further is worrying about the upset. Panicking that something is wrong – that we’re wrong (rather than human). Perhaps instead of trying to fix the freakout we can focus on something small, knowable, and still intact, and start to build out from there.

I see the water bottle as kind of a hallmark of this concept. It’s a staple of any athletic practice and, for me at least, was the easiest to forget. I see it with beginners now too, having to leave the practice space to fill a glass in the kitchen or, being too gun-shy about undertaking something so brazen as self-care, suffer through 90 minutes of intense training slowly dehydrating.

In my initial overwhelm and confusion, I too chose the route of suffering and, before long, with my body no longer able to bear it, water bottle forgettings became fewer. Eventually I worked out the timing so I’d arrive at the dojo with a few spare minutes to settle in. But early on this alone took a surprisingly massive of attention to rearranging circumstances of my life before I even set off for the dojo. It was my first taste of mindfulness extending outside of partner practice; of doing Aikido off the mat. I wasn’t going around throwing people or stopping cars with my ki. I was committing to stopping whatever I was doing no later than 5:45pm, putting my gi and belt in my bag, finding and filling my water bottle, and leaving enough time to not have to swerve and red-light run my way to the dojo.

Only very recently has it become second nature, something I can do without thinking. This alone is a path of mastery – one that slowly and inevitably improves with practice but isn’t without plateaus and backslides.

My encouragement to beginners, then, is this. Don’t worry about figuring out techniques. Your body is going to learn them the more you show up, relax, and trust. Focus on structuring your time, your day, your life to supporting your practice. Plan ahead, set alarms. This is stuff you’ve been doing your whole life, skills you have some context for. You know what a water bottle is, how important it is. Perhaps you can use it as a kind of totem. Pay an unorthodox amount of attention to it. Respect it as you would a practice partner. Let it remind you of your practice. This may lead to remembering to bow, remembering to keep our back heel down, remembering all the basic elements of this beautiful, vast and complex art that you are only now learning.

It’s as basic as that, believe it or not. From your first day on the mat, everything in life becomes part of your Aikido practice, and you can use it to aid your learning. Doing techniques perfectly is not the goal; mindfulness is. Be gentle with yourself and start with what you know. Remember your water bottle.

*My dojo has since implemented better structures to prevent disruptions like this, and to make timing and entering less ambiguous. “On time” is at least 15 minutes before class begins. If we arrive after that, we will either find the building locked or will be asked to sit and watch class.

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