On the path toward correct perception, is there ever really any room for regret?
Recently Mark Sensei asked us to consider the difference between “extending” and “pushing.” I am beginning to understand that aikido techniques involve extending rather than pushing. And for about two years now, I’ve heard Mark Sensei and my gracious sempai remind me to “extend ki.”
But what does that really mean? And how do I know if I’m actually doing it?
Sensei explains that it’s like chopping firewood. He says (and I’m paraphrasing here), if you think of the axe simply hitting the surface of the wood, the axe doesn’t go through so well. But if you think of the axe going completely through the piece of wood and beyond, cutting the whole planet in two, it’s a very different experience.
So maybe extending means acting with the intention to move through a surface unimpeded, while pushing means acting with the intention to put pressure against a surface. Perhaps the main difference here is “placement” (for lack of a better word) of the mind.
Nice. But how do I know when I’m successfully extending, versus simply pushing, or trying to bulldoze my way through a technique?
Sensei and my sempai remind me that one litmus test for this is muscle contraction. As Nage, pushing with my muscles at any point during a technique naturally and automatically activates muscles in Uke. So if I, as Nage, feel Uke pushing against any part of my technique, I can be sure that I am trying to muscle my way through the technique somewhere.
When I feel myself trying to push through a technique with muscle, I am guided to stop, recenter, and try again. Correct my posture, correct my movement, correct my very perception to the extent that I am able, and try again.
For me, as a 4th kyu student, the difference between successfully extending during a throw (for example, ude oroshi, or arm drop throw) can be very subtle and difficult for me to discern. Add in my habit of going slack when confronting resistance (going slack in order to avoid conflict), and things become even more confusing. “Was I meeting resistance with ki extension, or was I trying to push through with my muscles?”
I have spent much of my time furrowing my brow, trying to “get” a technique with my intellect BEFORE trusting myself to move smoothly. And I have spent way too much time silently chastising myself, berating myself, and punishing myself for not understanding aikido more quickly. I am beginning to realize that my self-flagellation practice might be completely counter to the spirit of O-Sensei’s teaching.
Mark Sensei and my gracious sempai also remind me to practice with confidence; to trust that ultimately, aikido is not an intellectual pursuit. So trying to “think” my way through a technique may be helpful in the beginning, when I’m learning where to put my hands and feet… but after those pieces are in place, it’s appropriate to move with confidence and let the mind “drop.”
Very recently, while practicing shomen-uchi kote-gaeshi with two of my sempai, I decided to truly extend ki toward Uke’s center line (as best I know how), and to move in a spirit of freedom, confidence, and joy, even though I did not feel comfortable with this technique, which I only remembered seeing a couple of times before.
After a couple false starts, trying to “do” this aikido with my brain, I finally set it aside and gave myself full permission to make mistakes, receive correction, and screw things up. I put my mind forward, right on… no; right THROUGH Uke’s center line. And as she attacked, I simply moved in a way that felt correct. Extension. After the throw, both of my sempai looked at me with expressions of surprise and joy, congratulating me on doing the technique well (for the beginner that I am).
One could argue that these first two years of aikido for me has been almost all mistakes, as a direct result of misperception; for example, my (very real) lack of understanding of how to stand balanced with equal pressure distributed between my two feet and the floor. In the past I would have considered that to mean “failure,” deserving punishment.
(Sort of like punishing a 3rd-grader for not yet knowing advanced Calculus, as I think about it. Not very reasonable.)
But now I’m beginning to see that my aikido journey has been and continues to take me toward a more correct perception of myself, others, and the world. Much like traveling along an upward spiral, I encounter new lessons, I continue forward, I circle around and encounter lessons I’ve previously seen earlier on the path, but I see them from a new perspective, with new skills available.
I like to think that correct perception includes infinite space for love, friendship, forgiveness of self and others, curiosity, and most of all, joy. No punishment of self or others is required, for on this path, where the only thing sacrificed is false or incorrect perception, there can be no loss of anything real, or of value. Only loss of the delusion I’ve been mistakenly accepting as true.
Which for me begs the question, in the lifelong pursuit of correcting misperception, is there ever any need or reason for feelings of sadness or regret?
And how deeply can I focus on bringing my heartfelt joy onto the mat as I continue to learn, with compassion for myself for the mistakes I’ve made, and compassion for others as we all move along our shared path as humans?
(featured photo “upward spiral” copyright 2006, Clint Vigil: https://www.flickr.com/photos/surveillant/242071071/in/photostream/)