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.
Where’s your spine? You’re spineless. Have some backbone. Phrases like these tend to be uttered by the mean and misguided to point out another’s fear or hesitancy. Horrible, hurtful … and, it turns out, inaccurate.
Of course, as with most concepts in our language that have become warped and contorted, it has some basis in the truth. Our spine is indeed the source of our strength, our courage, our autonomy, our attunement, and lots else.
Our spine, called the backbone because the vertebrae can be felt and sometimes seen through the skin on our back, actually runs right through the center of our torso. It’s a kind of tent pole, if you will, that holds our bodies up. It’s the core of our energetic field. Keeping our attention on our spine keeps us attuned to ourselves, our truth, our needs, our edges, our experience.
Some of us do this naturally. Many do not (*raises hand*). Instead, we reference the world outside of ourselves. (By “reference” I mean put our attention on; make central; use to determine how, where and who we are in a given moment.)
This particular pattern of attention references anything but self. It instead goes through life asking, usually unconsciously, “what is the situation here and how can I blend into it so I’ll be accepted? What is this person up to, and how can I give them more of what they want, or be like them, so that they’ll love me?” Someone who does this pattern can be charming, nurturing, generous. Emotional. Loving. They can also be overly social, scattered or chatty, seeking feedback through protracted eye contact or touch, and not especially adept on third plane without others doing things for them.
Having never gotten enough—food, nurturance, attention—as a little one, we are always reaching for more love. More approval. We’ll contort ourselves however we can to get it. We’ll abandon self—not by leaving our bodies, but by liquefying our field to merge with others’. (Which, if the other person isn’t accustomed to behaving the same way, they might feel invaded or ‘slimed.’)
The physical phenomenon beneath this pattern of attention is that we’re not aware of our own core. We’re so accustomed to referencing others that we forget (or actually, never knew) the same resources are available within, and that we are capable of holding ourselves up. We’re looking everywhere but at our own center, our own spine—hence, spineless. But not cowardly. How can someone unaware of their own capability willingly reject it? Would you do this on purpose? Of course not. As with all survival strategies, we can’t know what we never learned. Can’t do what we were never shown.
The great news about any habit that has its roots in our physicality is that we can address it there. We don’t have to spend years analyzing it or unearthing its initial causes. (I mean, sure, we can do that for kicks, too, if we want. It’s just that emotional wounding—any wounding—results in a warped energy field. I’ve come to appreciate the simplicity of going directly there.)
There are lots of other ways to take this up. Any martial art, where you’ve got to know where you are before you have any hope of interacting successfully with another, is a failsafe way to build core. (I didn’t realize this was what I was doing when I started Aikido, but I know that it’s helped me reference core to the point that my mergey tendencies are almost undetectable now.) Same is true of partner dancing. Pilates is the most obvious one as it goes right there: its stated purpose is core strength. There are also balancing exercises and meditations where we visualize our core going through our body and extending into the earth and up into the heavens.
With our attention on our spine more consistently through one of these practices, we can then start to notice where our edges are, when we might be invading someone else with our needs—and when that is happening to us.
We can help our friends who do this pattern too. Rather than engage their need for feedback (or in addition to it), we can put our attention on their alignment, their capability. Their spine, really. Pay as much attention to their courage and autonomy as to their great hugs and delicious brownies.
This is a small piece of a huge topic: a lifetime of behavior built on a strategy used to survive as a baby. We’ll explore it and others in Intro to Energy Basics.
The other day I overheard someone say, “Oh, I overlooked that. I’m a terrible person!”
I know this lovely being to have perfectionist tendencies. But what hadn’t been so starkly clear to me until I heard this language is how he conflates his value as a human being with never making mistakes. On the rare occasions he slips up, this is what he says about himself. To himself.
And to others.
Panning back I suddenly re-witnessed a lifetime of this. Me doing it to myself; others doing it to themselves; others doing it to others; others doing it to me.
Yes, doing it to. This is an attack. It’s an assault. It’s a holding of an impossible standard: perfection. And not just perfection, but perfection according to an individual: a subjective, ever-moving target, impossible to reach or sustain.
There are some who do this prevalently, but even those of us blessed with a modicum of perfectionism will sometimes perceive others’ mistakes as affronts. If someone “messes up,” according to us, they’re a terrible person. They’ve attacked us with their awfulness. When really the opposite is true. We’ve devalued them with our assessment. We’ve deemed them unworthy of living (or at least living in our presence) because of their flaws. Our fear of our own imperfection leaks, often mercilessly, onto others who probably don’t hold the same standards for themselves (or they do, but the standards are distinct from our own.)
This breaks my heart a million times over. Especially since it’s not possible to project onto others what isn’t going on a thousandfold in ourselves. “I’m a terrible person” is a chant that took root at the back of some of our skulls at a young age. Our lives became about proving this isn’t true through constant vigilance, striving, performance, judgment. Never relaxing, never settling, never feeling okay. This can be too much for a body and mind to hold. No wonder we foist some of the burden onto others.
This isn’t a universal survival pattern, but it’s pretty common—even celebrated—in our culture. Achievement, productivity, performance determines our worth. Look at cover letters. Look at commercials. Look at the damn Olympics. Mistakes don’t factor in. They’re not allowed. They’re covered up, condemned.
Of course there are wonderful things about perfectionism too (every pattern has a light side). Without the minds and talents of our über organized friends we wouldn’t have beautiful design, helpful systems, or vital infrastructure. We need these tendencies in the world. It’s just that harm is caused when we are unconsciously driven by them.
So what to do?
Challenging though it is to try to deprogram a lifetime of learned behavior, we can always start with compassion. Turn toward that voice that asserts that we or anyone else who is flawed is also awful. Connect to it gently. Ask it where it got these messages. Find their origin; question their truth.
We can spend time around those we judge as being chaotic or messy or not having their shit together. Connect with the joy, ease and creativity they may also bring. Notice that mistakes as we perceive them don’t actually result in death or anything close to it.
And hardest of all: we can let ourselves start to feel. Feel the pain and sadness inherent in holding ourselves and others to such impossible standards. Feel the freedom in doing something insane like not paying a bill right away, or being two minutes late, or not being the one to replace the empty toilet paper roll. Feel into what your body and heart are asking for in a given moment versus what Should Be Happening.
And for the love of god, go easy on yourself with this. Don’t apply perfectionist tendencies to the task of loosening them. Easier said than done, of course. So, get support. Don’t do this alone. (Yes, I know you’re capable of doing it alone, but that’s not the point here. Quite the opposite, in fact.)
Under behavior—any behavior—is our essence. Our true value and worth. Who we really are. A beautiful, already perfect soul comprising love and joy. There’s nothing to prove there. Nothing at all. It is she who we’re looking to connect with.
We’ll explore this and other patterns in upcoming posts, and at the Energy Basics workshop coming up next month.
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.
My dear friend and fellow aikidoka Dave Philhower shares some gorgeous insights, imagery and instruction. Enjoy!
At its core, Aikido is a mindfulness practice. It is not about how to defeat an attacker. It cultivates our groundedness, our whole body awareness. Our ability to focus on one thing at a time. Modern day-to-day life can slowly erode our focus and balance. Without noticing, we become disconnected from our source, and from each other. No one intends for this to happen. It just does. How, then, do we reconnect to our ground?
Schedule time for misogi.
Just carry your bokken.
Feel its rhythm, its bounce, as your boots stick in mud.
Feel its balance as you hop across a stream.
If you walk and talk mindfully, you will see a place.
It will wink at you, and ask you to come.
Perhaps you will stretch and breathe deeply there.
Perhaps your sword will start to buzz in your hands.
Raise it to the sky. Start rowing back and forth with it.
Play with your bokken. Let it sing. Dance.
This is kaguramai.
This is about connecting, not perfecting.
Feel your bokken.
Balance it on your hand.
You need not remember a whole kata or set of kumi.
Swing, strike, block.
This is how I find my flow.
Add in some meditation.
Some cold water.
Bless your sword.
Stand barefoot on the rocks, in the water.
Feel the sand shift under your feet.
Swing, strike, block.
You will find a flow, a form.
Misogi-the practice of purification-is necessary, because we naturally accumulate impurities from the world around us. Think about your house. Even if you do nothing to it, dust accumulates in your house and gradually it becomes dirty. Doing the practice of misog is like cleaning your house. The more consistently you do this internal housecleaning, the more you will be able to sustain a clean, clear heart.
—Anno Sensei, from interviews with Linda Holiday Sensei in Journey to the Heart of Aikido, 2013, p. 213
Every few months, my beloved and I schedule a Day on the Land. A day for misogi. We pack up hiking packs with food and drink, layers of clothes, a picnic blanket, a travel altar. Then we head out of town, into the woods or out to the wild Pacific shore. As I packed up for our first Day on the Land last April, I intuitively brought my bokken, a heavy wooden training sword. I strapped it to the outside of my pack as we hiked up the fire road in Devil’s Gulch.
Hours 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
Now I always carry my bokken with me on our Days on the Land.
Last weekend, my beloved brought her staff [jo], and we walked the land with our wooden weapons in hand, looking like two REI samurai. In NorCal’s first rainy season in several years, the hills were flowing with water, fluorescent with green, and spotted with mushrooms.
Recently, I discovered an ancient word that describes what I have been experiencing: kaguramai.
“O’Sensei often performed solo movement with a wooden sword or staff. People referred to this movement as kaguramai [sacred dance offering]…His movement definitely had the feeling of an offering done in a sacred place.”
—Anno Sensei, Ibid, p. 219
I am soul-sure that the combination of lots of time on the mat, the ki-washing machine that is our dojo, and our practice of misogi, time on the land, [Shinrin-Yoku, forest bathing] has led to this new opening- dancing with my bokken. Please consider carrying your jo or bokken next time you spend a day in the woods.
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.
Sometimes at the beginning of class I have students walk around the mat feeling into different parts of themselves – center, feet, heart, the room, the earth, the universe, playing with what part of them is “driving,” experimenting with surrendering control and letting themselves be driven. Checking out how all of this affects their movement, interaction with others, feeling of themselves. Does it feel familiar? Is it new? What do you notice?
Regardless of what students are instructed to focus on, the intention is to awaken to how we move through space. To do so with attention in our physical being, rather than on the usual thoughts or judgments or goals or whatever is coming through our headphones. Out of the head and into the body.
This is vitally important for a million reasons, one of which is cultivating our ability, in any given moment, to tell what is true.
In these times when there is so much noise, so many claims, so much information flying around, we have a lot of sorting to do. Right now especially we are privy to much that historically has been harder to access, that had been behind the curtain, that we had to go looking for. Injustice is no longer only blatantly obvious only to its victims and warriors. It’s now in all our faces, all the time. These facts are ticker-taped across our awareness on a daily basis. We’re seeing shifts in our world that have potential for massive healing or destruction. Unless we take up residence in a Siberian cave, we cannot deny that it’s happening.
And yet, some do. Still. Even now. Why?
In anticipation of some difficult conversations and downright brawls in the years ahead, I’ve been reflecting on this. What is the difference between a being who is in contact with the truth versus one who believes rhetoric and refuses to abide facts? (Of course I am framing it this way for the sake of argument, acknowledging fully that it’s not so black and white—pardon the expression—as that.)
It turns out that knowing and believing are not the same thing. One lives in the mind. The other, in the body. On a topic of oh, say, institutionalized oppression, to say that we’re merely disagreeing—that one person’s “truth” is just as valid as the other—is inaccurate.
Facts are of the physical universe. Science, for instance, relies on evidence—that which we can access via our earthly senses. “Gut feelings” are called that because they are actual sensations in the tummy. To have access to our senses we must be in our bodies, be attuned to them, know how to operate them. For many, this is unimaginable. We’re just not gonna go there. With good reason: we’ve all been invaded and traumatized, on purpose or not, consciously or not. We’ve gotten messages that our physicality is not a safe place to dwell. Not to mention that it’s been trained out of us for generations—Descartes saw to that.*
Denying our bodies by and large means a retreat to the mind. Not exactly a Siberian cave, but definitely a wind tunnel of myriad arbitrary ideas. In that abstract, un-rooted place where nothing is really real, we can pick and choose what we hold on to and what we let blow through. With nothing solid to test that truth against we usually end up surrendering our attention to whatever cacophonous presentation is the most relentless.
If this is what belief stems from, and I think it is, we can literally believe anything. Overwhelming and disquieting, to say the least.
Knowing, on the other hand, is when our cells vibrate with the truth of something. It lives in the gut, in the skin, in the spine, the throat, the connections between our muscles and bones. It’s when, for instance, considering a potential situation makes you feel solidly planted several inches deeper in the ground versus twitchy and spacey. Or when you’re somewhere and know you need to leave immediately because you feel that certain kind of nauseated. Everyone’s tuning mechanisms work a little differently. It’s up to each of us to learn our instrument.
It’s no coincidence that the deeper I’ve ventured into my aikido practice the less confusing things have become. (Mind you I say less confusing, not not confusing.) Over time, practice has connected me to the divining rod that is my body. I know what’s true more of the time because I can feel it. Not because I read it in a book or saw it on the news or heard someone say it (even if they’ve said it a billion times). As my attention is trained on ever subtler nuances of movement in myself and others, I become more aware of what it feels like when my cells sing in resonance with a thought or action that is true or right or loving or kind, or that forwards wellbeing or evolution—my own or the world’s.
Ai is unity. Ki is energy. Do is the way. When we practice aikido we’re unifying with the god force that runs through all things. We’re doing it to heal ourselves and heal the world through our alignment to ultimate rightness. Training helps us attune more and more to THAT truth—the one that, if we feel into it, is actually rather simple and obvious. It’s nothing to do with what our parents or newsfeeds or priests or friends or teachers or addictions have vied to install in our minds.
It’s a tough thing, choosing to abandon the conditioned behavior of hunkering in our heads, sorting information based on what ‘makes sense.’ The body can be unfamiliar territory, full of wounding and aches, full of memories we’d rather not dredge up, full of demands to move in different ways than we’re used to. It’s also our most necessary instrument in discerning what our life is for.
More on how we might navigate this tricky business in upcoming posts.
*If you’re a fan of utterly profound, gently delivered insight and are not yet following my friend Justin Wise’s blog, On living and working, I invite you to resolve that on that double.