Make a start. See what happens.

We can’t breathe

A virus that’s attacking our lungs. George Floyd crying “I can’t breathe” over and over before being suffocated to death. Wildfire smoke choking much of the western U.S. Saharan dust clouds crossing the ocean to infiltrate the respiratory systems of the American south. Intolerably high temperatures everywhere.

We can’t breathe. Air, perhaps the one thing we took for granted — smog- and pollutant-rich though it has been for years — is eluding us. Its absence making us sick. Killing us. (As always in this country, disproportionately killing people of color.)

Several days over the last few weeks I haven’t been comfortable anywhere. Air purifiers and fans circulated what little oxygen was left to us in our small apartment with all the windows shut in 90+-degree heat. I decided that I prefer smoky air that moves to air that is thin and still. The air-conditioned car has felt life-saving.

Constantly I’ve been aware that this suffering of mine is nothing compared to that of folks driven from their homes by fire; driven out of their own cars and onto the ground to be cuffed, knelt on, shot; feeling the life drain out of them as doctors look around in vain for an available respirator.

We can’t breathe.


I went looking for what this points to, the fact that we — as a nation, a culture, an ailing, flailing, crumbling empire — can’t breathe. It wasn’t terribly hard to find.

In Chinese medicine the lungs are associated with grief, sadness and detachment.

“The lungs encompass the heart centre and the emotions. The symbolism of many of the symptoms which affect the lungs is breath holding, being in a state of emotional hurt, a sense of giving up and fear of living life fully, with the mucous which often accompanies these conditions a physical manifestation of unshed tears.”

“Symbolism of Illness: The Lungs and Breath,” Melanie Creedy

And from a different Australian article:

“…the lungs are directly affected by emotions of sadness and grief, which constrain the organ’s feelings, and restrict its movement. Being unable to express these emotions or being overwhelmed by them causes the lungs to weaken. Our immunity goes down, and we can easily develop respiratory problems… Grief is a necessary painful process. It is a transitional period of acceptance that one part of our life has changed.”

“Grief and The Lungs,” Olivier Lejus

Grief, then.

In this culture, grief is a disorder. It is seen as something we need to cope with, get through, overcome. If necessary (and it is often deemed necessary) we drug ourselves so that the fullness of grief doesn’t overpower us.

This, of course, is no remedy at all. The repressed grief will hide somewhere in our bodies and express itself as something else: resentment, illness, abuse of self or other. It carries into future generations, embedding in our evolution, growing us into a detached, head-based culture that encourages being ‘strong’ in the face of grief (i.e., bottle up anything you’re feeling for fear of freaking out the kids).

It was trickier to search for physical manifestations of grief. I found “symptoms” of grief. I found ways to cope. To get through. I typed in “grief and letting go” and found advice on how to let go of grief and move on.

What is missing in all of this, I think, is the acknowledgment that grief IS letting go.

Thankfully (and not surprisingly), Jack Kornfield’s wisdom swims gently upstream from the prevailing current. He says:

“Grief is one of the heart’s natural responses to loss. When we grieve we allow ourselves to feel the truth of our pain, the measure of betrayal or tragedy in our life. By our willingness to mourn, we slowly acknowledge, integrate, and accept the truth of our losses. Sometimes the best way to let go is to grieve…

Most traditional societies offer ritual and communal support to help people move through grief and loss. We need to respect our tears. Without a wise way to grieve, we can only soldier on, armored and unfeeling, but our hearts cannot learn and grow from the sorrows of the past.”

– From his intro to “a Meditation on Grief”

What are we grieving? What are we not letting ourselves grieve? Why can’t we breathe?


To help with these questions I revisited the teachings of one of the sagest elders out there, Stephen Jenkinson. To oversimplify his vocation, Stephen educates folks about what it is to be human, sane, and mature in the face of death—and how to be useful in our dying culture.

In a 2012 interview that I revisit often, he points to all that is happening (eight years ago, mind you, not the thousand-fold version of it we’re seeing now) as the signs—not the causes—of a dying culture. The question he poses is, “If the culture is dying, then what is asked of you?” He likens it to a dying parent: in that scenario, do you try to stop it happening? Do you get as far away as you can? No.

“You approach. You’re terrified, you’re enormously distraught, you don’t know what to say or do, but still you must make your feet walk toward his/her deathbed. That’s the obligation we have if the culture itself is dying. Our job is to be a faithful witness to what is happening… Don’t turn your head, and don’t blink. Cause some day someone much younger than you is gonna need to know what it looked like in the early days when things started to turn real bad, and it was irreversible. They’ve gotta get it from somewhere, man, they’re not gonna get it from newspapers… But they might be able to believe someone in whose eye they can look while the story’s being told.”

– Extraenvironmentalist podcast, Interview: Stephen Jenkinson – Culture of Dying

We can’t breathe because this culture is dying and we don’t know how to grieve it. We haven’t been taught that. We’ve been taught to act, fight, fix, deny. We know how to long for how things used to be. We are expert at kidding ourselves that it will all go back to ‘normal,’  convincing ourselves that we actually want that.

We can’t breathe because we can’t let go of our collective biases, beliefs, attitudes and actions that have contributed to the terminal illness of this world. We won’t let go because we believe they’re the truth, and if the truth is taken away what do we have left to stand on?

We can’t breathe because early on we disconnected from our collective breath, the breath of the planet, which has done her best to impart her wisdom since the dawn of humanity. That is when she—and we—started dying.

We can’t breathe because we can’t face our grief here at the deathbed of our known way of life. Grief, if felt, if allowed, is the pathway to something new, but if we don’t let our hearts break that metamorphosis isn’t going to begin.

We can’t breathe because we don’t know what is to come. We need to know, we strain to know, we frantically grasp and rearrange the few pieces of certainty left to us to formulate a story we can swallow—one that ends happily. That lets us know that everything is OK.

We can’t breathe because we won’t surrender into grief that comes with acknowledging that it’s not OK. It won’t be again for a long time, not until we learn what we are supposed to. That may take generations.

And so?

This morning I step outside and smell smoke faintly, grateful that there is any air at all. Eye my little air purifier and tabletop fan with reverence. Amazed that even a few years ago I couldn’t imagine that I’d ever stop taking air for granted.

I feel my own directive being re-awakened. I can’t breathe, my body is in pain, and there are things I can’t ignore any longer. It is time. It is time — as I’ve known for a while — to consciously bear faithful witness to our dying world. Become a hospice worker of sorts. Keep turning toward what is happening, powerless though I am to stop it. Be as kind as I know how to be to myself and others. Face what I have done and continue to do to contribute to our hurt, our disconnection, our brokenness. Do what I can to repair it.

It’s not a passive activity, grieving. We must stay awake as the parade of emotions barges through our being. We have to say what we need to say before it isn’t possible any longer. We have to face what is broken, hidden, unresolved.

To grieve is to let go, yes, but it is also to repair what we can, remove the wreckage of what we can’t, and prepare for whatever newness that clearing makes way for.

We don’t like this year because it’s getting harder and harder not to grieve, so we’re holding on tighter and tighter. Constricting our collective breath. As with our culture’s approach almost everything, it is completely unsustainable. It is the opposite direction of healing and growth.

Sounds like giving up, I imagine, to willingly let go in this time when all there seems left to do is fight for our lives, and in a culture that knows no other way. Perhaps it is not for us to go down swinging, but rather breathless and in awe.

Practicing in Spacious Solidarity

We practice Aikido to create a better world. No matter how long we’ve been training, Life is calling for us right now to step more deeply into presence, groundedness, serenity, decisiveness, and compassion. Our personal spheres need to be extra big—and filled with ki! Here are some things we can do with our attention and our bodies* to continue to cultivate all of this.

  • Life is offering us the biggest collective ki test of our lives. Welcome its steady pressure. Take what you feel into your center and channel it down into the ground. Extend your center out into the universe. Feel how much you can actually hold. Feel your network of fellow aikidoka holding it with you.
  • Widen your focus outward from self-preservation to the good of the community and the world. Prioritize based on the good of all. Take opportunities to be kind, to support another, to offer what you can from a safe physical distance.
  • Notice the space that Life has opened up for us in the form of all we suddenly cannot do. Feel the pause that invites us to take. Blend with the stillness. Be aware of ways you try to fill it with the automatic busyness your body may be used to. As with on-the-mat technique, actively counter those urges. Relax your shoulders. Wiggle tension out of your body. Take deep, grounding breaths. Reach instead of push. Melt instead of pull. Pause. Move slowly. Starfish!
  • Bring extra awareness to your connection to the ground. Anxiety takes us into our heads; we can counter this by taking our attention in the opposite direction. Go barefoot, feeling each point of contact between your foot and the floor or the ground. Open the soles of your feet to release tension into the earth and take up nourishing energy from below. Blend with gravity.
  • Your home is now your sacred training space. Bow in and out of it. Keep it clean, spacious, harmonious.
  • Stay accustomed to sitting in seiza. Meditate or work in seiza for a little while every day.
  • Keep the ritual of practice in your body by doing the warmup sequence (as much of it as you can remember) each day. Take the time to do it fully, with a period of meditation before and after.
  • If you’re hunkering with someone who doesn’t do Aikido, teach them the basics you know— hamni, seiza, ki tests, slow and gentle attacks, two-step, rowing exercise, etc. Transmission does wonderful things for our practice, and you’ll be gifting the world with your very own beginner Aikidoka.
  • If you’re hunkering with a fellow Aikidoka, hopefully you’re already practicing together.
  • Grass is a lovely substitute for mats. You can practice falling, rolling, kiai, weapons, and generally taking up space. Trees make wonderful kokyu dosa partners.
  • Do solo weapons practice. If you don’t have a jo or bokken at home, get creative. Broomsticks, wooden spoons, sticks all work fine. Avoid live blades.
  • Study your vocabulary. Read aikido books. Watch videos. The instructors have lists and recommendations if you need them.
  • Let go of perfectionism. We’re all beginners at pandemics, and it’s going to take some trial and error to figure out how to navigate this new way of living. With the support of our dojo and other communities, we’ll make our way forward with exquisitely imperfect grace.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. If you have ideas, please email me or add them in comments. Check back frequently for more guidance and resources.

*With medical care being the precious commodity it currently is, please err well on the side of safety and not overextending.

Train on

Train on, friends, and dedicate your practice to this time of great change. To all that is being brought to light. To the thrum of calm and rightness beneath the panic. To what we as a world are being invited to see. 

Train on, trusting the wisdom of your body and heart to know what is safe and what is harmful. Extend your broad, soft gaze beyond self-preservation to the wellbeing of the community and to the world. Trust your instincts, warrior.

Train off the mat, but don’t stop your training. Keep one point. Extend ki. Stay grounded. Invite. Receive. Maintain a clear, calm, well-boundaried, ever-expanding container for all you’re capable of, all you have to offer.

Train on, staying mindful of the world of precautions and breakdowns. Have compassion for those with no training, whose spheres only have enough room for fear.

Train on for love of the planet, compelled as it is right now to align with what is right and true and inevitable. Honor the those who will fall in the wake of our collective waking.

Train on with this question in your heart: “what is Life asking of me?” Know that your response to whatever you hear in answer is your training in action. 

Train on, whether you’ve been training for days or decades. You’ve been called onto the path of the warrior so you can be of service in times like these. Likely your role is something beyond crisis management. Your training connects you to a deeper part of yourself—one who orients to a larger sphere of truth, a longer horizon of time. Who can see where this is all leading. Hold that knowing for those who can only be afraid. 

Train on, aware of how effortless it is to know what is right. See how you already know where you’re supposed to be and what you should be doing. Notice the gravity of the ‘yes,’ the certainty of the ‘no,’ and the flimsy static of the ‘I don’t know.’ The truth is evident, waiting patiently for each of us to turn to it. There’s far less rummaging necessary than we ever imagined.  

Train on, feeling into how this time of imbalance is necessary to bring us all into greater balance. Recalling how training through your fear has brought you to where you are, and will only keep going, as long as you train on.

Fanning the flames of anxiety

A few weeks ago I composed a funny email to students in the Aikido class I teach. Amid the latest wildfires, terrible air, power outages and all manner of apocalyptic phenomena that have sadly become symptoms of late fall here in northern California, I had some inkling that folks would be reluctant to show up for our Monday night practice. The message went something like, “don’t let the smoke stop you from coming to class. We’ll move extra slow and have some meditative practice.”

Not a terrible message in and of itself; however, it did assume the recipients needed reassurance.  My fellow Aikidoka are awesome, smart, attuned warriors who know how to take care of themselves. Why would I assume they were hesitating? Further, why would I presume to introduce the idea that they should be?

Thankfully some grace intervened before I hit send. A busy workday ensued, and when the hour drew too late to send the message, I settled into the trust that every class is fine and perfect no matter who shows up.

To my delight, LOTS of people showed up—more than have been at this particular class in a long time. (Yes, every class is fine and perfect, but more is always merrier!) The air stayed clear. We had a great time.

No doubt my ‘reassurance’ would have only served to dwindle the ranks by putting folks’ attention on a nonexistent problem. So why did I feel the need to tell people not to worry? What was going on with me here?

Here’s what I’ve been able to piece together (it’s a sequence that may sound familiar to Aikidoka: trigger > automatic response > intervention of grace > do something else > better situation for everyone).


I was ‘inspired’ to write my students after I came out of the weekly staff meeting at my small, close-knit company. Over half of us were experiencing some direct effects of the fires—hosting evacuees, navigating transportation issues, dealing with power outages and plugging gaps in emergency preparedness—and all this of course was a microcosm of what was going on with thousands of people in the area. So I suppose I was picking up on just a bit of ambient anxiety. As much as I’ve worked on it through Aikido and in other ways, if I’m not paying attention I will always absorb other people’s feelings.

And I was in a vulnerable state, so more apt to be blindsided. The day before had been the 14th anniversary of my father’s sudden and unexpected death, the trauma of which is stored deep in my cells and gets activated annually on the day and throughout the week, resulting in actions that are little bit more fear and panic driven than they usually are. Though I’m conscious of the date, every single year I forget its effects. (It’s so hard to be aware of this stuff when we’re in the middle of it, isn’t it?)

Plus I was still integrating my recent belt test, followed by a development workshop where some really deep stuff had been brought to the surface. And I’m prone to seasonal depression.

So. I was a bit more scrambled than usual.

Automatic Response

All of this unconscious disturb in my nervous system triggered my particular automatic response, which is To Do Everything In My Power To Calm Down the World. Since there was nothing in any of the circumstances I had actual power to fix, my mind invented something. It projected the anxiety onto another group of people about whom I care deeply, and it manufactured a way to solve their nonexistent problem.

Honestly, at moments like this I just have to stand back and marvel at the power of the mind to invent and carry out the complex shit that it does. And not just randomly! It’s always in the interest of protecting us—in twisted, distorted ways, but still, that’s its motivation. It really is an exquisitely honed piece of machinery, designed with only good intentions. It’s something to be celebrated, even if we can’t always trust it. Kind of like… I don’t know, a nuclear power plant. An absolute marvel of engineering, spectacularly useful, but surrounded by concrete and razor wire for very good reasons.

Anyway, like the fires around us, the spark of an idea—‘reassure’ my students—grew very large very quickly. Large enough to drive me to compose an email. But also (thank goodness) obvious enough to show me that something was out of alignment, and ultimately render me receptive to the guidance that came.


I like to think that what stayed my hand when I was about to send the email was some subtle understanding that the action was rooted in anxiety. Even I couldn’t parse in the moment whose it was or where it came from, I knew that was the motivator. And that is a dance that never ends well. Acting from or responding to anxiety, no matter how loving our intentions—is always going to fuel the fire.

Action doesn’t calm anxiety, you see. Of course we believe it does, and many of us spend much of our time doing things to quell our uncomfortable feelings. Anxiety is a response to feeling out of control. It’s a natural fear reaction to the unknown. Inconveniently, most if not all of life is an uncontrollable mystery. And our good, sweet, stalwart, well-meaning, well-trained, well-oiled minds can’t abide that anything close to that idea. They will go straight to the fix. Our bodies will follow suit. It’s all automatic; wired into us ages ago, again, for many good reasons.

Do something else / do nothing

And here we are in the dojo, hard at work rewiring this very device. We spend years in early practice responding to attacks with our learned ways of coping with anxiety: fix, control, muscle, leap three feet off the ground, contract, wither, quit. It keeps not working and we keep doing it.

Then a few months or years or decades in, something happens. We start to glimpse a new way of responding—one that’s rooted, weirdly, in non-action. It’s a way we’ve never before employed so it’s hard to trust it at first. “I didn’t ‘do’ anything; why did uke fall so easily?”

We begin to learn, very slowly and over the rest of our lives, that reacting in kind to anxiety breaks the flow, and is far less effective than holding a huge, grounded, calm space in which it can simply exist. Settling into the unknown, unattached to what’s going to happen next. Maintaining that space for others to bring whatever they’ve got. Quietly aligning to the highest versions of others and of the situation, waiting patiently for that to emerge.

Perhaps then we start to awaken to moments of self-forgetting, noticing the conditions and triggers that render us more vulnerable to anxiety, more apt to engage with it. We make a bunch of mistakes, but every now and again our training kicks in and we catch ourselves, re-orient, and just for a moment we open to grace. In doing this (and failing to do it, for how else do we learn?) we are cultivating the ability to re-center ourselves in the moment, no matter how wobbly we are.

A better situation for everyone

This is mindfulness training in service to the world, my friends. The wildfires here represent an infinitesimal fraction of what’s happening on and to our planet. This moment in history is supplying us with no shortage of anxiety to dance with. Learning to respond differently doesn’t just make our lives better. It helps the world. In the inevitable moments of doubt that trip us up on any spiritual path worth its salt, maybe this truth can serve as a beacon for all of us to get up and keep going.

Let’s stop trying to fix the world by managing all its anxiety (whatever our strategy is), and hence fanning its flames. Instead, let’s work to transform our own discomfort into something else—something steadier, more eternal. Endeavor to blend with the void rather than control it. Even in just giving this our best shot (which we do by simply showing up at the dojo), the ripples that flow out from us will be ones of greater ease, trust, compassion, love and healing.

This doesn’t mean we won’t feel anxiety. Of course we will. We’re human. But part of our job as warriors is not to let it spread. And we do that not by trying to stop it, but by attuning to the highest good in any situation, the greater flow of it all.


I often hear new students thanking ranking students for their patience. I’ve been thanked this way plenty. I certainly did the same thing as a new (and not-so-new, actually) student. I know that, at least in my case, often what was behind my thanks was a tacit apology: sorry for not knowing exactly what I’m doing in my first classes in a brand-new art that I’ve never tried before. Thank you for not rolling your eyes or berating me for not executing these baffling techniques flawlessly. Surely there’s something better you could be doing with your time; I am grateful that you chose to spend it with me, putting up with my flawed imperfection, my beginnerness, my humanity.

Probably not difficult to see where I’m going with this. We, as ranking students, are not exercising patience when we’re working with you—not in the way you imagine it, anyway. We are not reluctantly bowing to the new student, sacrificing our chances to work with someone who ‘knows what they’re doing,’ and taking one for the team to spend five minutes tolerating your confusion. We know how confused you are. We expect it and you know what? We’re glad for it. We welcome it because there’s no other way to start, well, anything really, but especially Aikido.

What we are doing is time traveling back to the moment we were in your bare, uncertain, overwhelmed feet, learning this technique ourselves. We’re learning something new about the technique: breaking it down differently in our own minds and bodies so we can transmit it more easily to you. We’re finding stuff out about our own technique in this process. We’re rejoicing in awe at the fact that you’re here—another astoundingly brave warrior having made the choice to venture into the unknown to confront their own demons (don’t worry, the demons won’t attack until at least your third class).

If all that amounts to patience—and maybe it does, but not by any definition I’m familiar with—then you’re welcome to thank us for it. But do so knowing that we have more space for you than you can imagine. We’re thrilled at your newness, we know what a long road it is to finally putting your foot in the right place, taking a brave roll that doesn’t hurt, attacking with enough commitment to compel your partner to do something, or yourself doing something other than fight, flee, or freeze when one of those attacks comes your way. We know how scary this is. We know you don’t know. We don’t expect you to know a thing.

So against this vast backdrop of welcome and nonjudgment, be magnificently imperfect! Be bold, be curious. Experiment. Notice what others are doing but don’t get obsessed with doing it exactly that way (except when it comes to etiquette). Put all your focus on getting to the dojo as much as you possibly can. Ask ranking students questions before and after class to get a bit clearer, at least, on who we are and what we’re up to. Get to know us. Feel into the community that wants you so much as a part of it.

Make no mistake: there’s lots we need patience for in Aikido, but mostly it’s to do with ourselves. It takes a behemoth amount of gentleness to be with the fear that comes up, and to stay with practice long enough and steadily enough to begin the process of breaking it up so that it eventually dissolves and evaporates (and usually reveals another layer, and even that is something we learn to work with differently as time goes on).  We need patience for the inevitable moments that reveal that we may not be gliding through life as gracefully as we’d imagined—and that perhaps we’re more broken than we hoped. If we can have the patience to allow that level of vulnerability to exist, we can recognize the potential to work with it on the mat.

This is the kind of stuff we as ranking students are developing patience for. New students who are absorbed into this ever-widening spiral, this ever-deepening ground, are welcome to learn from it, template it, try it on for themselves and in their own practice. Patience is one of the many virtues we develop in Aikido practice for the purposes of developing into better warriors and better people. When it comes to greeting you, well. All that is is happiness.

You are welcome.

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

My aikido practice is young. It’s the kid who proudly declares, “I’m 7 ½!”—those additional six months actually mean something, add significance to my scrawny, developing body of practice. It’s at an age where the half still matters.

In other ways, it’s older than time. Beginning aikido felt like jumping fully into the rushing river of where my life was headed, rather than sitting on its banks, occasionally dipping a toe in. Ker-splash, and I was on the move, my development accelerating, my life appearing in greater technicolor than ever before.

But as biological time goes, even as an adult, 7.5 years is a significant chunk of time. And I can tell you that it has taken that long for certain, very simple concepts—ones I have been privy to from the very outset of my training—to land in such a way that they influence how I engage my practice and my broader life. Here are a few.

1. Slow down

It’s exciting to watch demonstrations, isn’t it? Bodies are rotating, feet are stepping, limbs are flying and, more often than not, someone ends up on the ground. I think at the outset most minds glom onto that last part—someone ending up on the ground—as the ‘goal’ of any technique. So when it’s time to practice, we bow to our partner with that outcome in mind… and we pull ourselves out of alignment almost immediately in the trying.

Here’s the part of the demonstration I missed entirely for the first few years of my practice, heard but didn’t register for the next few, and only very recently started incorporating into my training (to its revolution): go as slow as you need to in order to feel what’s happening. And then go slower than that.

Techniques look so cool in fast motion because the people demonstrating them likely have spent years executing them slowly, feeling into what actually happens when we relax rather than force. In fact, the only way to feel ki moving through us is to relax (for reals – try it right now. Tense your body and check for any subtle sensation beyond your bones and muscles. Now let the tension go and feel in once more. See the difference?). Forcing and muscling is a lizard-brain fight response that we come to Aikido to de-program. Movements from this place happen quickly because they are unconscious, ingrained. To do something different we must allow ourselves space to choose a different response, at least at first.

Anyway, I must have practiced sufficiently slowly often enough to advance this far in my own practice, but I’ve never been so deliberate about it until recently. And I can tell you it’s heavenly. Pausing when someone grabs to feel the energy of the attack flowing in, filling my body and being channeled into the ground, watching that energy shift as I begin to move… it’s divine. It’s like holding a glass of water in the sunlight, observing how the liquid splishes and ripples and reshapes in response to how the container moves.

Luxurious as it can be, moving slowly is also essential. So establish the habit early. Usually when I’m teaching I declare this in no uncertain terms: the goal is not the throw, the goal is connection. Who knows who hears it (goodness knows I didn’t!) but it’s worth re-emphasizing. Of course feel free to speed up periodically to see how your slow practice is influencing your more automatic movements. No need for your entire practice to be in slow motion—there’s lots to be learned at speed.

Remember, too, that you can always ask your partner to attack more slowly. If they do not and you feel unsafe, enlist Sensei’s help or bow to them and excuse yourself.

See if slowing down on the mat doesn’t affect how you move through the world and change what you notice.

2. Stay with your nage

Like almost everyone new to aikido, I was terrified of falling. For most of us, once we’re past a certain age it’s an utterly counter-intuitive concept. Falling down is associated with harm, with injury, with failing. Why would we do it voluntarily?


For one thing, learning how to fall safely is hugely handy in instances when we’re outside the dojo and gravity wins. Cultivating the reflex to relax rather than tense up when we fall unexpectedly can mitigate injury, and even save your life (I’ve heard of such cases).

For another thing, good, committed ukemi (attacking and being thrown) is one of the most valuable forms of support you can provide to your fellow aikidoka. Disconnecting, moving away, or freezing up gives your partner no real energy to work with.

In my earlier practice I was so reticent to fall to the ground that bad ukemi happened more often than not. The truth is that most of my aikido injuries have come from not going with the flow of what nage is doing, and deciding instead to release myself from the technique too soon, disconnecting, blocking, and straight-up resisting.

Granted, it’s not a conscious choice to stop chasing nage or refusing to fall when thrown. As with so much of what we’re working with in aikido, this is all deep programming. In this particular case, the programming actually makes a good deal of logical sense: fall down = bad. Few of us can just decide to rewire ourselves in the moment and begin practicing kinder, more comfortable ukemi.

But there is a trick – one that my Sensei has spoken of and demonstrated from the off, and one that I wasn’t able to wrap my head or the majority of my practice around until more recent years: stay with your nage. Here’s how I began to see that (before abruptly forgetting for another handful of years):

It was during the stage with which probably every aikidoka who begins practice in adulthood is intimately familiar: the “oh god, it’s a rolling technique, surely I will die within the next five minutes” stage, in which rolls are the most impossible, painful, terrifying element of practice. It’s a phase that seems to last an eternity, though in reality only lasts a few weeks (and probably has a lot of folks quit before the stage is over). Anyway, I was square in the heart of this stage when Sensei invited me to practice a rolling technique with him one day. Great, I thought, as if practicing rolls wasn’t scary enough, now I needed Sensei to throw me??

Yes, yes I did.

It was supposed to go like this: I move in to grab Sensei’s shoulders and he sends me away in a roll. For the first few throws I let go of him, scurried away a few paces and threw my body into some hysterical semblance of a roll, slamming my kidneys or hitting my head or one of the myriad other unpleasant things that would happen in my panicked over-thinking and resulting physical contraction.

And as with so many breakthrough moments it took all of three words from Sensei for everything to turn around: “Look at me,” he said, as he threw me. I did. My roll was shockingly smooth. “Look at me!” he said as I came back in the other direction and he threw me a little faster. The words eventually turned into a sound and a facial expression that reminded me to keep focus on him. Feeling braver with each attack I moved back in, until he had thrown me about a dozen times into relatively smooth and painless rolls – at speed, no less.

My rolls changed forever during these few moments of staying connected with nage, in this case visually. It really does make all the difference in terms of safety, connectedness, and fun.

Move fully in to your partner’s space with the attack. If that feels dangerous, again, slow down (you can request this as uke too). A committed attack doesn’t mean a fast attack. Always be looking to face your nage, to “get” your nage. Chase their center with your own. Even as you are falling, turn toward nage. As you are rolling, keep your eyes on nage. These days I often find a limb or two wrapped around nage’s shoulder or waist as I fall. Not clinging for dear life and forcing nage to peel me off of them, but rather orienting to the spiral of the attack as I slide to the ground.

It feels worlds safer—not to mention more harmonious—than how I used to attempt this. And again, it is far more useful to my partner.

I personally still have plenty of work to do around ukemi (good thing I have a lifetime!)—and I have seen many new students understand and execute this concept from the off. Our practices are all unique and certain elements will unfold within different timeframes. But it’s more or less a constant mantra these days as I attack: move forward, move forward, turn toward, turn toward.

3. A ‘good’ practice does not mean being constantly triggered

First off let me say this: err on the side of showing up to class, especially in your early days of practice. If you’re sore or tired or sad or confused or scared or angry, show up anyway. If you’re injured, show up and watch. It’s absolutely vital to get your body into a rhythm of practice, however your body engages it once you’re in the door. The important thing is to show up.


Maybe I’m the only person who spent so many years training under this particular misapprehension: that having a full and productive practice meant not only showing up, but training at the highest level of intensity possible during the entire 90 minutes (or more) on the mat. Nothing wrong with that in and of itself—it’s a fabulous workout. But for most of those minutes I was also profoundly terrified.

In addition to whatever lifelong narrative cocktail I came in with, I think the underlying logic went something like this: if my base instincts were going to be re-wired, I needed to have some sort of trauma constantly on the surface, constantly working with it, never easing up.

I probably don’t have to tell you because you’re smarter than I am, but my friends, this is not a sustainable way to move through life.

Yes, of course this is what we came to aikido to learn (whether we knew it or not at first): attacks come in and touch off some response in our bodies. We learn to notice that response and do something different. Naturally this habit carries into broader experience of practice, the dojo, our relationships, our life.

But, at least as I remember it, I slammed myself into practice (made all the more painful by my resistant ukemi), was at the dojo a ton, took few breaks during or between classes. Somehow I had it in my mind that this was how it was supposed to be—and that even with all this, I wasn’t doing enough. It was a delightful dance of overextension and guilt. Yummy.

I remember one time I stayed home because my back was bothering me. I complained to a sempai about it, saying how I ‘wished’ it weren’t so. “Have you gone to the chiropractor?” was their logical inquiry. I said something about how finances were tight. They offered to lend me money, a gesture that turned out to be a crucial reality check. Truthfully, I could have afforded to see the chiro, I just didn’t want to go. It wasn’t about healing the injury and getting back on the mat. It was about my body begging me for a break that I didn’t feel entitled to give it, and wouldn’t admit to anyone—least of all myself—that I needed.

But I didn’t see that experience for what it was in the moment, and spent several more years ignoring what my body and psyche needed and kept throwing myself into intensity that was often too much for me. (That same sempai said to me at another point during kokyu dosa, “Who ever told you you had to work so hard?” Life-changing in the moment and, as with so many of these moments, quickly forgotten.)

Yes, I learned a lot by engaging practice this way, my response to life has been reshaped, I am a new and stronger person with far more capacity.


This put me in real danger of burning out. I suspect a lot of folks have left practice after a few weeks or months or even years due to this same phenomenon. I’m not sure why I didn’t. Probably because this path is so vital to my life that nothing was going to pull me from it. I’m lucky. (And a little dense.)

It is true that we have to be mildly ‘triggered’ some of the time on the mat so that we can establish new habits. But we have to remember that we’re also building a container for joy and authenticity to flow through. We’re shedding the old habits in order to build new ones. As with anything we want to change, it’s far more effective to focus on what we’re aiming toward versus what we want to go away. This is the part, I think, that I didn’t hear. I thought that joy I was experiencing was a side effect of my hard training, not the point.

So yes. Show up. As often as you can with as much dedicated attention as you can muster. Be fully present, respectful, and attentive to what is going on around you. And reserve a bit of that attention for what is happening in you.

Sometimes what feels like too much is exactly what we need. Soreness is great; injury is not. We can all get a little loopy toward the end of a vigorous class, but to lose touch entirely with what is happening isn’t safe. Crying on the mat is perfectly fine—emotions often come to the surface to be worked through. But you are not required to keep training while consumed in trauma. You always have permission to take yourself off the mat when challenge crosses the line into something else.

These are subtle distinctions, and if we’ve never done anything like this before it can be tough to tell the difference. Indeed, some of us come to aikido to learn how to make these discernments at all. Which leads me to my next and probably most important piece of newly realized wisdom:

4. For the love of god, talk to Sensei

At my dojo we train nonverbally. This is in the interest of staying in our bodies and doing our best not to get into our heads. We can call Sensei over if we’re stuck, and he’ll show us something and/or say something that ranges from helpful in the moment to practice-transforming.

What many students don’t know—or don’t hear, and certainly what I didn’t hear even though I know it has been said plenty—Sensei is available outside of these moments as well. You can ask to meet with Sensei, you can write to Sensei, you can respectfully approach Sensei before or after class as long as you’re not interrupting them (use your judgment and ask a ranking student if you’re not sure).

The point is, your instructors are available—thrilled in fact­—to discuss your practice and give you a reality check about what they see. Just because we don’t talk on the mat doesn’t mean we’re not allowed to talk to each other at all.

The too-few times I have availed myself of the magnificent resource that is the Sensei check-in is when I’ve been on the brink of (or in) a full-on crisis. Akin to my misconception about practice needing to be constantly triggering if I was going to grow, I also assumed that I needed to figure all of this out without any feedback beyond what I was getting on the mat. I knew Sensei was tracking my progress since I was invited to test periodically, but I assumed that if there was anything I needed to know beyond that he’d tell me.

Meanwhile, all the long-dormant stuff that my practice was stirring up was flying around causing projections, ideas and feelings I had no idea what to do with. I could have brought these to Sensei any time, not just at the breaking points.

So. Don’t not do what I … didn’t do.

I do better in writing, so most of my Sensei check-ins are over email, which works well for both of us. As with on the mat, it doesn’t take a whole lot for him to cut straight to the heart of what is up for me, make me feel seen and known for exactly where I am and where I’m headed, and inspire me to go deeper in my practice (as well ever so gracefully pulling me back from the ledge: the bit that isn’t necessary if you approach your teacher soon enough).

What’s most important about these conversations, at least for me, are the reality checks around blind spots. There’s always something we’re not seeing. What’s nifty about aikido—will I ever stop saying it?—is that what is up in our practice is more often than not up in our lives. So whatever wisdom we glean from Sensei applies in other corners of our world. It’s the most effective therapy we could ask for.

That all said ….

This doesn’t mean corner your Sensei every chance you get for a rap sesh. Ranking students are available to ask about dojo operations, etiquette and traditions. Feel into what sort of conversation is needed, when and with whom. If practice is starting to feel dull or less nuanced, if a particular technique or dynamic is causing you regular distress or confusion, or if you’d just like some perspective on how your practice is going, do seek out Sensei. Don’t wait until you’re the brink of leaving because that’s the only thing you can think to do to make the agony stop. (But if you are on the brink, before you go – for the love of god, talk to Sensei!)

This is a spiritual path, remember, and like all worthwhile paths it is rife with challenges and calls for powerful guidance. But it’s also your path—your guides aren’t going to drag you up the mountain. If you’re curious what’s around the next bend, take it upon yourself to seek out the wisdom of the ones who have gone before you.

So, this some of what I’m beginning to grasp in a new way or for the first time. There are concepts some of us figure out in the first weeks of practice that take others of us years. The most challenging elements of practice are different for all of us, but hopefully it’s reassuring for newer students to know that higher ranking students are learning their own simple lessons. That is never going to stop. The quantity of what there is to learn is impossible to take in—never mind retain—in a short amount of time. Again, good thing we have a lifetime.

In a way, the above is offered in the hope of ensuring your practice can last a lifetime. We’re all putting such pressure on ourselves all the time to ‘succeed,’ whatever we imagine that is supposed to be. Your Aikido training is not about succeeding. It is an unfolding, that is all.

We want you here. Take your time. Take your space. Honor your courage. Pay attention. Lean into support. Stay committed. Never stop learning.

Glorious accidents

It’s going well! Something must be wrong!

A newer student was doing a rather advanced technique rather beautifully a couple of days ago. He was throwing me every time, gently and with ease. We were dancing; we were in flow. And yet, as time when on, things started getting a tiny bit choppy. He began to pause ever so briefly to give thought to what was happening and mime the technique in the air between throws. Finally, overcome by ‘confusion,’ he called Sensei over for help.

I recall this from my own long-ago (and not-so-long-ago) practice. Managing a throw or a series of throws without effort, without thinking, without having any idea what I was doing. Uke falling or rolling without me having done much of anything. The technique doing itself, almost. Almost like it was happening through me.

But how can that be? It can’t. Something must be wrong. Right? Sensei?


I’ve just started learning to paint in watercolor. Today I was working on a painting and something beautiful happened: a splotch of pale purplish-blue blooming subtly against a beige-ish background, drawing the eye alluringly through an otherwise monochromatic swath.
I had no idea how this happened. I certainly hadn’t planned or intended it, and gods know it wasn’t due to anything close to mastery of the medium (this was only my second class after all). There wasn’t even blue on my brush at the time, I don’t think.

I pointed it out the to my teacher, the expert. “How did this happen?” I asked. (How can this be? It can’t. Something must be wrong. Right? Sensei?)

“I don’t know!” A good teacher and holder of space, she was calm and knowing, but also joyful and celebratory. So I celebrated too. Kinda.

But I wanted so much to figure it out. What did I do, how did I do it, how can I replicate it? How can I control this form so that I do sublime things like this on purpose? How?

It came together for me in that moment why this teacher teaches the way she does (which honestly drove me a little nuts at first): emphasizing taking our time to experiment, play, see what infinite things are possible from the various ways to apply water and paint. It’s not about making stuff. Get the feel, she says, of running the brush across an entire sheet of paper for no reason at all. Find out, she urges, what happens when you drop a blob of cadmium yellow into a puddle of alizarin crimson. Take time to watch it develop. Witness how the color changes as it sinks into the paper. Observe the chemical dance of the materials meeting each other. Touch the paint to the paper as you will, and marvel at what unfolds.

In other words, become intimate with the form not so that you can then plan out and execute the perfect painting, knowing precisely what to do with the materials to get the outcome you want (though that may happen through lots of practice); but rather so that you can expand your notions of what is possible by way of this medium. In this way we’re opening up the field of fascination, creating more opportunities to be surprised. Learning the feel of the art so that the art can move through us. So that we begin to recognize those pale blue blotches as the moments of grace they are.

More than anything, just keep painting, she urges. Be loose. See what happens.

Accidents are the point

This brought me back to that moment on the mat—to my wonderful partner’s understandable puzzlement—and showed me in a new way why Aikido is a martial art. We’re learning forms so that stuff can come through us—beautiful stuff that can sometimes feel like it has nothing to do with us. Naturally we are baffled in the rare moments when this actually occurs: we need to know what happened and why. In our confusion we’re compelled to analyze it, to replicate it so that we know it wasn’t an accident.

But you guys—what if every glorious thing that happens on the mat IS an accident? What if we actually didn’t do anything? What if we are practicing merely to make our bodies into the kind of vessels capable of holding and channeling the divine energy we are tapping into? Isn’t that powerful enough? To be a container and conduit of something infinite and unknowable?

Even now—possibly even more so now that I’m a black belt who’s ‘supposed’ to not only ‘know’ stuff but teach it to others—I find myself tempted to define what is happening. Categorize. Replicate. This, though, is what keeps us small. It limits the territory of what is possible with this art—with art, period. Freedom happens within form. The form facilitates freedom. Traditionally we’re taught to focus more on form, which is easier to control. We’re rarely if ever encouraged to open to the possibility it holds, the vastness it contains, for this is inexplicable. Unteachable. A mystery. It’s also the point.

So (and I’m talking to myself here): next time you’re practicing and something goes haywire (e.g. you’ve executed a pristine throw with zero effort), notice the allure to figure out what you just did. It’s so TEMPTING to go into our heads with this stuff. We all become scientists when confronted with something too vast to understand. Try as we might, however, there is no replicating any instant of divine communion. Moments of grace are just that because they are unique, unrepeatable—and honestly, not even personal.

Actual mastery

If we’ve been practicing any art for any length of time, we know that there is no ‘there’ there when it comes to mastering anything. These days I’m finding that mastery is actually an endless opening to forces of purity and beauty that want to be known in this world, and doing what we can to give them safe passage. This is the privilege of being an artist—martial or otherwise. The ‘slog’ inherent in this vocation is in the repetition, the mistakes, the wrestling with resistance, the growing pains as we get bigger (“The test of a vocation is the love of the drudgery it involves,” quoth Logan Pearsall Smith). All so that we can be awake enough to marvel at the accidents when they occur. This, it turns out, is the point of it all.

Just keep practicing. Stay loose. See what happens.

P.s. I looked up the word “accident” in the thesaurus. Among the synonyms: chance, coincidence, twist of fate, bit of luck, serendipity, fate, fortune, providence, happenstance. By definition, then, accidents can be (have always been?) things to celebrate.

Death and right action

Beings come into the world and they leave it. They do so on their own terms—or would, if we let them. But … usually we don’t. We are constantly interrupting the natural rhythms of life with our own thoughts about how things should go. With our fear of loss and of mystery. With our attachment to being able to see and understand what’s happening. With terror of heartbreak.

My dog is dead and I am in the middle of that heartbreak. I was prepared for her to die but not for her to be gone. Her absence is excruciating. This is the pain that we do our best to avoid and I can understand it in this moment. This is why the medical profession is devoted to keeping beings alive—to put off, for as long as possible, having to feel this.

That’s why we, our dog’s humans, attempted to divert the direction in which her life was clearly headed. Well-intended, loving and right-seeming as it was at the time, I will regret this forever. I’ll regret the vet visits, the two days in the hospital, all of the torment that trying to ‘help her feel better’ put her through. I regret every morsel of food I offered her after she clearly told us she was done with it, that she was done with her body. I regret not being kinder to her while she was in my life, the moments I chose my own comfort or convenience over her joy. Or when I chose what was “best” over her requests for something quite different. Most of all I regret pretending I didn’t hear those requests.

But I heard them. I heard this one in particular: “I am dying; just don’t leave me.” But we did. I did. Rather than keeping her in close and familiar surroundings, letting her sickness unfold and helping her leave when it was time, we subjected her to fear and stress because we wanted to ‘help her feel better.’ What we were really up to was delaying the pain we’re feeling now: the pain we were always going to feel. She did ultimately come home and die peacefully here, but it was not the lead-up to her death that she’d asked for—that she’d asked me for because she knew I could hear her. It was the opposite.

There actually is a natural order, a very clear direction in which life flows. It is apparent if we attune to it. Easier said than done, of course. For one thing, it’s so damn subtle, and it really requires that we turn the volume of our conscious mind way down and raise the antennae of our body awareness and emotional intelligence if we’re going to hear anything at all. Plus it’s not always blissful. Colluding with the flow of Life means opening ourselves to shocking loss, severe pain, blinding disorientation, discomfort, inconvenience.

The thing is, though, that it can actually lessen suffering when we cease our attempts to dam all that flows naturally.

This is aikido, of course: cultivating our ability to feel / hear / see how life wants to express itself in any given moment and, at super-advanced levels, acting in accordance with it. That last part is precisely what I didn’t do. The excruciating truth of this points to the next phase of my practice: closing the gap between perception and action. Integrating what I know to be true with doing the right thing in response. I’ll come to peace about all of this, one day, hopefully, through practicing that, getting better at that, on the mat and off. I’m headed back to class today, for the first time after she died, to begin my practice again with this intention, this commitment.

Actually, though, none of this is all that super advanced. Yes, aikido teaches our bodies to attune to the universe at the cellular level. But we can all, always, be up to this. We can listen for what our critters, plants, friends, elders, children are asking of us. Asking ourselves if we really do ‘know better.’ It’s not so complex. Usually all that’s being requested is kindness. I bet we can all hear it more clearly than we think or admit. The world is in the state it’s in because we’ve been trained to override this simple truth to avoid inevitable pain, inevitable endings.

This is my biggest regret, and biggest learning. The painful moments teach us the most, after all. It’s just that much more torturous to realize our mistakes when we’re out of time to put things right. When it’s literally life and death. No matter what reasonable, comforting things anyone says, I know that I not only betrayed that wonderful little being, but I disregarded and disrespected Life. And not for the first time – more like the millionth – but certainly the most immediate and significant. A tiny lead weight of this knowing is attached by a string to each shard of my shattered heart. They’ll stay weighted thusly until this all moves through, until I find some peace around it. If I do.

I am grateful to my dog for being my teacher in one of the most agonizing lessons I’ll ever learn. I know she forgives me and that I will eventually forgive myself. This raw wound will turn into a scar that will always hurt to the touch, reminding me to act from knowing, from truth, and from love.

I love you Paloma, and I’m sorry.

I thought I was better than this


Commitments are always tested. Have you found that? Stuff we promise to ourselves and to other people—resolutions, relationships, recovery, things that don’t start with “r”—are constantly challenged, called into question. When they are, we’re often faced with a choice: abandon ship, stagnate, start all over… or step in and get better.

A commitment to practicing aikido is a commitment to that last one—getting better. It’s a path of impeccability. (Thankfully I noticed this when I was too far along the path to turn back. I don’t know that I would have been brave enough to say ‘yes’ to this kind of thing sight unseen.) If you’ve been practicing for any length of time, this might be becoming clear. Whatever your highest calling is, however your body and psyche need to expand in capacity and strength: that’s the path you’re on, and that’s what’s going to get tested. Year upon year, layer upon layer, it’s an overt, nonstop challenge to get better. At the deepest, most authentic, most profound levels of mind and soul and body.

Shutting down and melting down

My core challenge has always been—will always be—conflict. My particular nature/nurture cocktail dictates that being in the presence of a fight—not even in one, just near one—feels like the threat of death. My patterned response to this has been to shut down while it’s happening and melt down later.

This isn’t why I chose to start aikido, but you better believe it’s been getting worked on subtle and overt levels all the time, on the mat and off. Without being fully conscious of it, when I began my practice I committed to developing my ability to stay upright and mobile in the face of conflict.

The test

The other night I found myself in the literal middle of an argument: two people I love and respect, seated on either side of me at a dinner table in a nice restaurant, began a heated debate. My body went into its automatic response: I drilled my energy down into the ground, got very still, stopped breathing, and willed it all to end.

Ironically, we’d just been talking during appetizers about the various ways my aikido practice has helped me become more powerful. And now, moments after speaking about this, this claim was being tested. I recognized it as such, and watched in despair as my body went into freeze. Why wasn’t I speaking up, stopping this, doing something to make the situation different? Why wasn’t I being more powerful?

I was disappointed and distraught, to say the least. I thought I was better than this.

But then …

But then, fascinatingly, during the car ride home—the window of time generally reserved for post-freeze meltdown—I noticed that I …. I wasn’t melting down. Quite the opposite actually. I was pissed off. I was furious. Fuming. Mind you this wasn’t the most rational response to the scenario—the argument had been a perfectly reasonable and necessary one. It shook things up and opened eyes. Still, I was mad. Mad at the debaters for having such strong opinions that they had to air at the potential expense of a nice evening. Mad at myself for always seeing the truth on all sides and not having stronger views of my own. Even madder at myself for not having done anything to calm this down—especially since I’d been sitting right between them. And so forth. I was furious for a million reasons.

The point, though, isn’t what I was angry at, but that I was angry: a far more powerful response than the weeping, resigned pile of goo that would have been me in a past scenario. The anger empowered me to do things: follow up later with the folks involved, air my feelings, put the parts of it to bed that I could. Step into what I needed to learn from it. Resolve it in myself, rather than let bitterness and resentment stew in my cells for goodness knows how long. Anger can show us the truth, you see. It spurs action. It may not be the most enlightened reaction, but for many it is an unquestionable step on the path toward true equanimity.

I was better than this, I came to see. I did do something different when faced with the choice, it just didn’t play out as I expected. It wasn’t on me to change the reality of the situation—conflict is a very necessary reality of life (another huge lesson I’m learning over and over)—but to respond to it in a way that was more grounded, empowered, and fluid. That happened. It was subtle, but it happened.

We don’t have to think about it

And the part I celebrate most is that it was automatic. Over time, our aikido training rewires our nervous system to instinctively respond to situations with power and equanimity. That’s the piece of my training that kicked in in this scenario. It didn’t change how I thought I should have behaved in the moment. Rather, it roused me to action that would prevent the moment from becoming a lasting bit of trauma.

So many subtleties and complexities to all of this, but one big reminder here is this: something is happening, even if you don’t think it is. On the mat and off, in moments that feel like failures, like backslides, like stagnation, deep in your cells a warrior is developing. You don’t have to be running into burning buildings or leading charges, fending off half a dozen ukes with ease or even doing a perfect technique. You’re on the path of impeccability, shedding layers and layers of dry old skin, being perpetually tested, and finding out again and again that you are, indeed, better than you’ve ever been.

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