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

How we know what’s true (or, why we need our bodies)

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.

Listen and begin

The sonic boom that was this election and its ensuing ripples are waking up what has been latent in all of us. It’s calling us all to our truest selves. The world has made a clear request and demands our authentic response, and right swiftly too.

For many, the response comes in the form of fear and hatred being worn brazenly on the outside: the emergence of our collective shadow. For others—for me—it’s a neon sign pointing to my own ignorance, and an understanding that I have a lot of catching up—and acting—to do. Big time. Things are moving fast now and whatever’s been asleep in us has been roused. No time to lose.

Something that deflated in significance, almost all at once, has been my hesitancy to say things: to participate in social media, to share my writing publicly, to say what I see. I’ve historically withheld my full participation, even though, undeniably, this is where people see and hear and share and learn and interact the most. I’ve been resistant to the inevitable tide, overwhelmed by being in contact with so many people’s thoughts and emotions and lives in such close range all at once (not something my Gen X body has easily adjusted to). And of course there’s my own crippling self-consciousness. Online and and in real life, I’ve kept a filter up to protect myself.

I’ve been supporting my close friends’ activism with a kind of distant admiration, harboring deep feelings about what is right and true, but flabbergasted most of the time by subtleties and nuances and brilliant points I would never have thought of. I know I’m always missing something so I gave up trying to follow. Plus there’s potential conflict inherent in all of it—a lifelong terror of mine. Heaven for fend I have to choose a side, or worse: that things get unpleasant.

Anyway, none of these feel like excuses I can rest in any longer. It seems dumb that I ever have.

I realize this: I’m a beginner at activism. Like anything new it will start awkwardly and I’ll make many mistakes. I’ll say the wrong things; I’ll inadvertently offend. But it has to start. I’ve been avoiding this because it’s felt too hard, too complicated, too impossible, too overwhelming. It’s been intimidating to take up because I have no idea what I’m doing. It’s why people shy away from aikido or painting or cooking or whatever … because after a few stabs they can’t do it perfectly so fuck it.

But now, it seems, there’s very little to lose (I say “seems” because what is happening in the world is not new—it’s just that the volume has been turned up). So I’ll do this badly for awhile. Maybe forever. But I’ll do it. Dignity be damned. I owe it to the world to finally extend my gaze past my own overly examined navel.

Still, as I toddle out on undeveloped legs in my effort to finally contribute something more than crossed fingers, I acknowledge my klutziness. I acknowledge that it took a threat so giant, glaring and global to finally make me see and be willing to stand up. Like so many, before now, I wasn’t ready. Now I am. I humbly request the forgiveness and support of those who have always known better.

Fortunately I’m steeped in a community of experts. My apprenticeship has been occurring even as I’ve resisted it. I have all the resources a beginner could ask for.

But this is foundation of mastery, isn’t it? Don’t not do something because you fear doing it badly. Whatever call you hear, no matter how mysterious or foreign or shadowy seeming—move in that direction. Start in tiny increments if you must, but do it now. I’ve never been one to go in for urgency but damn. Most of us—definitely I—have been asleep for so long that the world had to issue us (and by “us” I mean people who haven’t been suffering for generations) a rather horrifying ultimatum.

If you haven’t already connected to your response—what life is asking of you at this moment in history—I suspect you don’t have to dig too deep to unearth it. Find it, my friend. Find your heart, your voice, your strength, your calling. Find the support that is so near at hand to help with its emergence.

Listen, and begin.

Called to warriorship (November 9, 2016)

We’ve been training for this our whole lives….

I am not ‘trying to be optimistic’, though as a straight white lady living comfortably in a relatively sane and insulated pocket of the world, I could certainly exercise that luxury. Those ‘trying to be optimistic’ are those whom this disaster won’t touch—not initially anyway.

I’m not weeping in terror, either—my privilege doesn’t give me the right to do that, at least not for myself and my own safety.

No, the cause of my own insomnia last night was shock at a response I did not see coming: I am willing to fight. I am going to fight.

I’m grateful today for my aikido training in ways I could not have predicted. The layers of fear it’s brought up and burned off. The anger and rage that’s behind that, that has been sort of bubbling and quaking and not directed anywhere, just feeling like energy, like fuel. Changing shape and changing me. The spiral rising up my spine that in this moment has me feeling far more courageous than I ever I thought I would or could. Far more angry too. Far more willing to fight for those who might need me to defend them. This is in stark and shocking contrast to what would have been my reaction not long ago: “I will pray and hope and be nice to everyone and see what happens.” No way. I mean, I will pray for sure. I’ll be kind, I’ll nurture, I’ll love. But I will also use what strength I have in service to those who don’t have the resources I do.

The question that arose for me back when Voldemort first appeared on the scene, which I never asked publicly, was, “if we want him to go away, why are we paying so much attention to him?” Fear and revulsion and resistance are as nourishing a food to such beasts as adoration and support are. More so even. We’ve fed him with our attention all along, we who hate him. Understandable—we couldn’t just ignore him and let him do what he did without having tried to stop him.

Nonetheless, here we are. America is as dangerous and violent and fat and fake and greedy and dishonest and vile as the sludge demon we’ve elected to represent us. This needed to be revealed. The box is open; the beast is out. No amount of hope or optimism will put it back in. No amount of shiny lacquer will cover over what we now face as a globe.

But I’m not fighting the great reveal. I’m honoring it: honoring what’s being shown in me, in us. I’ll fight instead for those caught in the current of this necessary and horrible revelation. The ones who are in actual, immediate, physical danger should this monster actually ascend to the throne and be put in charge of the CIA and given the bomb codes. Before he actually executes the destruction that we all fear.

(The question my outrage asks now: could we possibly let him? How can we let him? Is there not any way to shove a stick in the gears of this invisible machine that is relentlessly consuming us? Could those who allegedly know better simply refuse to keep handing him power, laws be damned? Doubtful, I know. This is a stone of wrong that’s been clogging the artery of evolution and is finally on the move. It hurts like hell, this breakage and this release. But again, we couldn’t sit on the lid any longer.)

So yes, those who are most vulnerable in the face of this need warriors to fight with and for them, but I can’t and won’t beseech you to begin or keep training for this reason. It’s not how it works anyway. Aikido is a spiritual path because you are literally, actively training for whatever the world needs from you—and you can’t necessarily know what that is. Practice, it seems, reveals that too. Because it blasts open parts of us that we didn’t know were shut down. Like what just happened in our country, it unmasks the ugly bits of us—releases them, gets them on the move, transforms them into something else. Calls us to our highest selves. This doesn’t always mean warriorship. It often means peace, kindness, patience, forgiveness—any number of qualities that, in their purest, un-contorted, agenda-less form are necessary for a healthy soul. Ones you have to work hard to find. Ones that life, I can assure you, needs you to find.

Maybe it’ll take something as monstrous as this election to understand why you’ve been training. Maybe it’ll be subtly revealed in your daily interactions. Most likely it’s both, but nothing happens if you don’t return to the mat and face it. The world doesn’t need you to fight, perhaps, but it does need you to confront your own demons. This is the only way anything gets healed.

This is bringing out the worst in those who are the worst. But it seems to me to be bringing forth something else in the rest of us. What is it for you?

Kokyu dosa

Reach for the center. Reach right through the center. Stay relaxed, keep your eyes open, body unified, and extend through your partner.

I hear myself giving tips like these to students when we do our closing exercise, kokyu dosa. Translated as breath movement or breath exercise, kokyu dosa is an extremely subtle moving partner meditation. It’s about taking our partner’s balance using just our ki, without striving, muscling, checking out, or giving up: all attributes that we’re cultivating in a more overt way during the rest of our time on the mat.

To do this, we reach for our partner’s very center: a mass of energy that is (usually) undeniably present and must be moved if their balance is going to go. Reaching into that place, one will likely encounter resistance: not from their partner’s fighting, but rather from encountering that true, immovable, grounded part of them. It’s a feeling distinct from stubbornness or push-back. For me, it’s like hitting a membrane of sorts. Hard to define, and everyone’s center has a different quality.

We all have different reactions to this energy. We might try to go around it; try to push through it using our strength; back up, regroup and try again; stay just at its edge not daring to go any further; employ some twisty maneuver to trick our partner into falling over.

None of these strategies work; in fact, we usually find that we sacrifice our own integrity when we attempt stuff like this. As with everything in aikido, the learning gets more and more subtle as we progress.

We are forever doing kokyu dosa with the work that is in front of us, with the things that are calling to us. I know I do, anyway. My writing, for instance—the thing that’s right in front of me, that wants my attention, that needs me to move in much more consistently and powerfully than I’ve been doing. Instead, I’ve been sliding around it by finding anything—anything else to do. Whenever there is a free moment during which I can write, I immediately find another task. Work, chores, online whatnot … stuff that somehow feels productive and yet is false. I’m moving, yes (kind of), but I’m not accomplishing the work of my soul. Even while writing this, if I hit a stuck point I find another place to put my attention for a moment or more: checking email (which I’ve done about 900 times since beginning to write this), walking the dog, looking out the window … My attention is scattered, my being decidedly split. I’m doing anything but reaching for the center. I’m slipping around it.

Recently my Sensei described kokyu dosa as the hardest thing we do in aikido. The challenge is to stay with the movement, with our partner, with the flow, regardless of how stuck we feel. Keeping our energy directed toward and through the center (the task, the work, the growth, the calling), even if it doesn’t seem to be getting us anywhere. Remain focused, relaxed, and committed. Don’t assume this is the wrong art, the wrong dojo, the wrong partner, the wrong anything. Don’t go to a place of “I suck at this” or “this person is a jerk” or whatever we do when we find ourselves in a tough spot.

Reach. Stay unified. Don’t divert. Don’t give up. Keep your eyes open. Stay present. As with much instruction I give, I say this like it’s easy; like it’s something one can just decide to do.

It’s the hardest. Whenever I practice kokyu dosa with sensei I get shown again and again that my body still has no idea how to take a powerful center. And goodness knows I have a long way to go off the mat. We all do. There’s always an edge.

Mysterious and frustrating as it is, kokyu dosa gives us a felt-sense opportunity to observe our habitual behavior when we’re in the face of something difficult. For instance, I’ve been noticing my tendency of late to strain to the point of near-pain rather than give up, and then when I have zero left to give, surrender dramatically and get knocked over. When the thing to do is relax, relax into that resistance, surrender the outcome, pay greater attention to the feedback I’m getting, not work so hard … all that good and graceful and advanced stuff. I know it’s what I need to do: I’m writing it so clearly part of me understands it. But often, so often, my body does something different. Horribly frustrating. Wonderful learning.

So, in addition to enjoying the delightful bafflement of kokyu dosa (and/or reveling in the fact that you’ve made it through to the end of another tough class), you might challenge yourself to watch—really watch—what it is that your body is doing in response to what’s in front of you. Our entire practice is an opportunity for this but kokyu dosa doesn’t carry with it the technical choreography or ultimate object of throwing your partner. Nobody’s flying at you in an attack; you get to sit there and check out whether you’re sliding away, retreating, fighting, using too much or too little energy, closing down, blaming our partner for being too [fill in the blank] … these are a few of infinite ways our bodies try to deal with confusion and difficulty.

And you might then go a step further and explore how this response translates to the most challenging aspects of your broader life. I know, yeesh. But this is why we do aikido. One can argue that kokyu dosa is kind of the point of it all. The more puzzling something is, the greater the gift.


I wrote this in 2012, on the eve of that year’s presidential election. Different time, different context, different issues, different writer. I could (and probably will) make points more trenchant and relevant to today’s particular flavor of chaos. Nonetheless … much of it still feels true.

The world is unraveling. This is not news. Of course it isn’t. It’s only recently entered my understanding in a more visceral way that it’s undeniable now, but it never wasn’t the truth. The election is futile. No matter what happens tomorrow, we’re still headed toward decline. Obama may slow the decline, Romney will accelerate it, but either way, nothing will be fixed or solved with either of them in office. Nor will it be fixed or solved by us recycling or paying attention to the weather patterns or cutting fossil fuels. It’s too late. We’re being ripped apart at the seams. For so long we’ve felt the tug. Now it’s starting to rip.

It’s okay, there’s nothing we could have done. This is the direction of our evolution. It’s an inevitability of an ever-expanding universe. Nothing we do or don’t do, or have or haven’t done, would or could ever stop it. If you close your eyes and sense your insides – the mini-universe that resides in you – you can feel the pulling there too. The audible rip; the sensation of dynamic polarization. The expansion and near-explosion. It’s hard to bear. Tearing hurts. Disintegration is uncomfortable … we spend our energy and our dollars and our lives trying to prevent that very thing in its every form.  We destroy ourselves trying to prevent destruction.

But here we are: a society and a world encroaching on not existing as we always have. The ways we’ve done things and are still trying to do them just don’t hold up in the world that it is. The world is changing, and so many of us are frantically grabbing at the frayed edges of what once was, pulling with all their might and attempting in vein to lash the shreds together, hoping they’ll hold. They won’t hold. We need to let them go.

But we can’t because if we do, we’re surrendering ourselves to the unknown. To pain and chaos and strife and possible death. To definite lack of control. Having let go, our only recourse is to sit and watch it all fall down. Those of us who hide and ignore and distract won’t be able to. We all have to be here for it, and we don’t know what it is. We have to trust. We don’t know how to trust. We can’t let go. So we fight.

Our fighting takes every imaginable shape. We fight injustice, we fight diseases, we fight wars—both in them and against them. We fight with each other, we fight ourselves. Oh, so hard we fight ourselves. We fight against feeling pain, intimacy, pleasure, anger, hopelessness, fear. We hold our bodies so tightly against these things that they ache and distort and crumple and decay far more quickly than they’d otherwise need to. And then we fight the failing and when we can’t we go back to pushing it—and anything that reminds us of it—out of our consciousness.

And we go with all our might at the things we think we can fix. We perceive a problem and we villianize whomever we’ve decided was its perpetrator. We lash outwardly with blame for our inner hurt. We turn such a blind eye to our own incompleteness and raise pitchfork mobs out of others with similar pains, and go after the village ghost monster bent on making him pay. We don’t recognize that we’re each of us wading through our own worlds of hurt and just heaving it on to one another: here, you carry this for me.  It’s all your fault anyway. You bear the burden.

But this isn’t a wrong way to be; it’s how we are. It hasn’t caused the unravel. The unravel was coming. The unravel is us moving from Capricorn to Aquarius. It’s the game board changing, and life and the universe requiring something far different from us than most of us know how to live. So we man our old battle stations and prepare to ward off something that has no way of being destroyed. It’s merely a shifting world, and our only choice is to shift with it … or not.

So how, I now wonder, do those who are willing to let go facilitate the letting go of everyone else? Ha. We don’t. We don’t because that would be interfering with a process we understand to be inevitable and natural and that will have its own relationship with each being it encounters. We can’t meddle – it’s counter to the spirit of what’s going on. It would be just another attempt to hold something together. To “save” something, be it order or justice or the fabric of society or values or each other.  There is no saving to do. There is only letting go. In joy, in joy, and with open hearts. There is only release.

There can be celebration, I imagine: celebration for the astoundingly magical unfolding of existence. Laughter at the absurdity of it all. The comedy, the brilliance. Comfort in the fact—the only real truth we have to go on—of the unstoppable expansion of the universe and the changing nature of all things. I’ll raise a glass to that.

But whatever happens tomorrow has already happened. IS already happening. We surely can’t stop short, throw up our hands and say forget the whole thing. For our own understanding of survival we need to keep going. It’s just that I can see now that our actions are empty, but we have no others at the moment. We’re in the throes of an enormous universal limbo. We’ve let go of one trapeze and can’t yet glimpse another one to grab. We’re hanging in mid-air, and there’s no evidence of a net to catch us. So we’re feverishly attempting to weave our own out of what we’ve always used: fear and hope and words and thoughts and things things things. We drive toward a solution and our efforts dissipate into the blackness so we redouble and try harder. It hurts, it makes us tight and tense and yet we know no other way.

Let it break

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.

— From “Sweet Darkness” by David Whyte

A few years ago I was in a state of, shall we say, spiritual disorientation. A limbo between a very solid What Had Been and a blackly obscured and unknowable What Was To Be. That liminal state where it feels like there’s no ground under one’s feet (usually because, in every respect but physical, there isn’t). All I knew for sure was that everything felt wrong. All I felt able to do was wander around – literally. Searching, maybe, or simply keep moving lest I get sucked into the black hole that yawned, terrifying, at the edge of my consciousness.

In retrospect, I was in the very early stages of one of the most massive, devastating, and necessary changes of my life. This feeling was Life shaking me awake from what had become a deep and complacent slumber – you are more than this, it whispered. Time to move on; time to get going; what lies ahead you have no way of knowing, it irksomely quoted Tom Petty.

I had no conscious inkling of this at the time, though. I just felt generally unsettled and awful, with nothing I could point to as a reason. There was no evident injustice causing my despair, no major loss inspiring this grief. Nothing I could use to explain in a way anyone else could relate to. It was coming purely from within—utterly invisible and impossible to describe, so I didn’t try. I didn’t tell anyone. Instead, I wandered through the hills near my home, crying a lot, not understanding. I wasn’t suicidal but had the thought more than once that if death came for me I wouldn’t mind. I’d go quietly.

It was rough.

One day my wanderings took me to a familiar hiking trail, drew me toward a familiar tree. It wasn’t a particularly magnificent specimen. It didn’t stand out except for its position relatively close to the path. It was a scraggly old pine whose lowermost foot of grayish bark had been scraped or eaten off by some creature or other. It seemed elderly. It was a being that I always felt compelled to greet in some way, with a touch or a wave, as I moseyed by.

Today I stopped, my heart full of questions that had no words. I leaned against my tree, back-to-trunk, breathed, breathed, my inner critic judging me as usual for being pathetic and dramatic. My ego terrified of being seen by anyone who passed by.

Despite all this, as soon as I connected myself to the tree I felt the web of intelligence it shared with all the other trees, with the ground, the ancestors beneath, the sky above, the all of it. The whisper of breeze through the leaves overhead, the rustling of life in the undergrowth—none of it was random noise. It was the harmonious hum of all existence, the lucid voice of the everything.

I was in a holy place, I knew. Guidance was available. I didn’t know what to say. What to ask. I just knew I needed help. So I asked for that. Asked for help.

Listened. Nothing.

I feel like my heart is breaking, came my silent confession.

Then let it break, I heard in noiseless response.

Let it break.

I did. Then and there, the elderly tree still holding me, I let my heart break. A quiet, heaving, knowing sob. An opening, finally, into the expanding territory of my soul. A painful stretching of the heart to take in all I was becoming aware of. Permission, finally, to feel it all—even the stuff that hurt. Especially the stuff that hurt. It swept in to fill the void for a moment, nearly more than I could bear, but enough to glimpse where this all was going.

For a second, just then, there was orientation. Ever so briefly I felt my place in the world again. The tree helped me see not only where the ground was, but where my ground was. For an infinitesimal moment, I could almost make out where I was headed. It was a place I didn’t understand yet. There were no answers, but there was information.

Let it break. My heart needed to break, my space to crack open to allow for this expansion. Much of my suffering had come, I realized, from trying to Keep It Together when clearly It was not even a thing anymore. Trying to sustain a shape that wanted me to shift. Holding fast to a branch as the current of life endeavored to move me downstream.

There was also the suffering caused by trying to leave the darkness too soon. An old metaphor that never fails to wow me is that of caterpillars transitioning into butterflydom. They literally liquefy in their chrysalis. This cannot be comfortable. Interview any moth you meet: they will not, I’m sure, look back upon their cocoon days with nostalgia and longing.

And it doesn’t end there: they must, once they awaken—giant new wings wound around them in this space that is suddenly and clearly too small—fight their own way out, however long it takes. To help a butterfly out of its cocoon is to kill it. It must break out on its own.

So must our souls, stirring in the confines of what is no longer ours to be. There has to be a break, a tear, a rending, as we emerge new into the blinding light. None of it is comfortable. All of it is necessary. It is nature. Our nature.

It took ages, lots more miles of hiking and plenty more pain, but eventually my outer world did come into alignment with what I was catching foggy glimpses of in those first days.

I’m remembering this now, I think, because I find myself in the midst of another one of these giant, nameless shifts that is taking its sweet time revealing itself. It’s showing up as anxiety and despair running through every channel of my life—some acidic compound, perhaps, being poured through the lines to purify them. It’s having me crave silence, sleep, alone time, wandering. It’s inspiring inner critic attacks about how I need to be more productive or at least dooooo something with or about what I’m feeling. It helps to reflect on an earlier occurrence of Whatever This Is. I did eventually make my way out of the chrysalis, tottered confusedly for a bit in the blinding newness, and grew accustomed to the new self that had been gestating during all those months of perplexity and pain.

It’s the hardest work of our lives, and can be the most fascinating if we stay awake to it. To recognize something is amiss, acknowledge that where we are is no longer relevant and something else is calling to us. To not deny it, fix it, contain it, or even define it. And definitely to not paint a veneer on it so that things still seem shiny and okay. On the contrary, we need to move forward into the mystery. To allow our hearts and our worlds to break, to be upended, to sit motionless in the dark and let ourselves liquefy. Trusting that eventually we will emerge and unfold into something far bigger than our old minds can just now hold.

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.

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