Falling for It

“My ex-wife chose the paint colors,” Trebb explains as we set food and silverware on the dining table.

He must have seen me eyeing the odd pastel yellow, blue, and green. Although the yellow leans too close to chalk and not close enough to daffodil, the overall color scheme is as charming as Easter candy or baby’s clothes. Definitely not a bachelor’s portion of the color wheel.

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Know Your Limitations

Face down. Prostrate on my belly. With my head turned to one side, one cheek smooshed and spread like a pancake on the griddle. That’s where I was when I confronted a demon.

The nage who had just whirled me down to the mat was now trying to master an immobilizing (but not deliberately painful) pin. As a senior student guided the nage through an anatomical contortion tutorial on my arm and its various joints and ligaments, I stared at the familiar yellow caution box printed on every mat. Amidst the legal disclaimer indemnifying the mat-making company from any liabilities connected to injuries incurred on those mats nested a fat, all-caps phrase: KNOW YOUR LIMITATIONS.

My focus locked on the words.

They stung with insinuation. I had lately felt very limited. Rather inept.

While working with a kohai days before on a paired weapons kata, the less experienced student (kohai) asked how to smooth out the bumpier or more confusing sections of the kata. As far as I could tell, poor form hindered his ability to execute those trickier bits and that form stemmed from inexperience—nothing 10,000 repetitions wouldn’t solve over the years. But I offered a few pointers my kohai could try right then.

Perplexed, the kohai statued in place. I explained the pointers in another way. The kohai’s eyebrows knotted. He attempted what I suggested and the resulting form was worse. At this point, I was perplexed. Normally, my explanations were succinct and effective. I tried various means—a physical pantomime of “efforting” the sword to “win” vs relaxing and letting the blade rise or fall naturally and without conflict; different metaphors; guided posture corrections while pressuring the tip of the kohai’s sword with the weight of my hand. The feedback ceased when it was clear we were both frustrated and dissatisfied.

Outside of the dojo, I was also struggling and feeling limited in a new relationship with a person who was intensely kind to everyone except to himself. To his nieces, nephews, siblings, his clients, friends, and the general public, this guy would sacrifice the shirt off his back. Mention this generosity to him or dare to praise it and he would recoil. He insisted he was not a good person. He was trash.

As a result, we cycled through a frustrating pattern. After a few months of building intimacy and trust, he’d pull away from my affection. No way could I like him that much, he’d scoff. He met my compassion with skepticism. Surely, all this niceness was a set-up. No doubt, I’d turn on him and hang him with a rope woven from all his faults. That’s what other partners had done before.

These and so many other tender recollections swirled through my mind while I stared at the yellow disclaimer.

“KNOW YOUR LIMITATIONS,” it practically taunted.

“Trust me,” I whispered telepathically to the yellow box, “I know!”

I knew I was limited. I did not have all the answers. I lacked the solutions to improve a kohai’s weapon training. I lacked whatever skills or experience were needed to assure my beau he was worthy…not just of my love but of his own love, which was far greater and more powerful than any affection I could ever offer.

As weeks passed, I continued to struggle with all my interactions. I felt verbally clumsy. A limited vocabulary…. I sometimes snipped at people. A limited store of equanimity…. I longed to withdraw from public life; retreat to the little cocoon of my house and never come out. A limited resolve….

Strangely enough, I was holed up at home when O’Sensei told me, “Cast off limited thoughts and return to true emptiness. Stand in the midst of the Great Void. This is the secret of the Way of the Warrior.”

I was flipping through my pocket-sized copy of The Art of Peace when I came across that instruction. I blinked. All the churning gears in my body and brain stuttered mid-spin. I was rather full. Ironically, I was flooded, full to the brim with all my lackings and shortcomings.  

Since air was a limitless element—and one I could have limitless access to—I sat down in the sunny apron on the floor and meditated. In Aikido, we also call this “ki breathing.” Ki being that universal energy or breath. I brought my attention to the present moment, consisting of nothing more than breathing in…then…breathing out.

Thoughts wandered in and then wandered off. Memories drifted by and gradually drifted off. Future anxieties and hopes came and went like tourists cruising through a National Park. For a time, I sat in that sublime emptiness. And then came that yellow disclaimer box. Only this time, it came without any burning insinuation. This time, it seemed like the best advice in the world to know my limitations.

Knowing was not the same as spotlighting. Or microscopically analyzing. Or fixing. Knowing was not fearing. Knowing was also not at all like denying or hiding the limitations. Knowing was such a kind word. As gentle as the dust on moth wings. Knowing was something to be done among friends. You get to know them more and more over time by remaining curious and compassionate.

Could I come to know my limitations? Could we stop being at war and simply unite as good friends?

“Never think of yourself as an all-knowing, perfected master,” O’Sensei advised as if seated next to me in my living room meditation. “You must continue to train daily with your friends and students and progress together in the Art of Peace.”

Now there was the disclaimer that ought to come printed on every practice mat!  

 

 

 

Image credits: “Yellow Disclaimer” by Jennifer Mason, CC BY-SA 2.0; “Lego-Darth-Vader vs. Aragorn” CC BY-SA 2.0; “Oh What a Night” CC BY-SA 2.0; “The Art of Peace” courtesy of Shambhala Press.

The Wrestler’s Vessel: A father and son give thanks for family, respect, and Aikido

Jerry and Nate face off on the mats. Jerry offers his torso as a target. Nate surges forward, his fist a torpedo gunning for his father’s gut. Jerry pivots, deflecting the punch. At the same time, he catches hold of Nate’s fist and positions his hands to apply a brilliant wrist lock called kote gaeshi. But then, as Jerry pivots again to apply the compressive bend, the flow of the technique stutter-stops. Nate regains his balance and a slight tussle ensues between the two men.

“You can’t force it, dad,” Nate grins.

Jerry pays close attention in class.

Jerry exhales a guilty laugh. A smile curves under his beard. “Wrestler’s instincts,” he apologizes. A former state championship wrestler, Jerry was Nate’s wrestling coach for many years.

Nate guides Jerry through the felt experiences of tense force and relaxed energy. Jerry listens with rapt attention and asks many questions.  Both their voices are characteristically deep and resonant, yet soft and subdued. If their voices were instruments, Jerry’s would be a tuba; Nate’s a trombone.

They repeat the attack and this time, father successfully slams son to the mat. In fact, Jerry takes Nate’s balance so effectively, Nate laughs all the way down.

“When he teaches me stuff, I just love it!” Jerry beams.

Because Nate began his training over a year before Jerry, he is ranked a couple kyus (levels) above his dad. He wears a hakama and sits ahead of his dad when, according to standard tradition, students line up to bow in at the beginning and end of class. It’s a strange reversal of the familial hierarchy.

“It was a little awkward at first,” Nate says, recalling when Jerry joined the dojo. “Suddenly I had this uke [practice partner] with thirty years of relationship to manage.”

Jerry confesses that before he took up Aikido at Durango Shin-Budo Kai with Nate, he and his wife seriously discussed how the father/son dynamic might change. In the end, Jerry felt it would be healthy to have a space where the son’s expertise could expand beyond the dad’s.

Nate (left) watches over dad Jerry’s Aikido (far right).

“I had to kinda rise in myself to lead,” Nate explains. As his father’s senpai (senior student), he had to take responsibility of that leadership role in order to keep his father safe and help him grow through the training.

Nate’s internal rise was immediately evident to his dad. At that time, Jerry and Nate worked together as teachers at Bayfield High School. When they passed each other in the hallways, Jerry observed how his son’s posture changed. He stood taller and walked with poise and balance. While carpooling, Jerry listened as Nate rattled off what he’d learned on the mat.

Likewise, Nate discovered all-new facets to his father soon after Jerry joined the dojo. “It’s interesting to watch him learn techniques, get coached, and make the effort to adapt and change,” he says. “It’s also interesting to watch him test and see how he deals with that stress. Watching him engage with that process…I’ve never seen that side of him.”

Both men point out that while they enjoy seeing each other in new lights, the mutually respectful relationship they bring to the dojo has been an ongoing work-in-progress reaching all the way back to their wrestling days. Nate took on wrestling because he felt intense pressure to follow in his dad’s colossal wake. For his part, Jerry thought Nate loved the sport as much as he did and was shocked to discover Nate hated every tangled, tussled minute of the training and competitions. Nonetheless, they worked through the schism with grace.

According to Jerry, a longtime pastor, “I think Aikido, in many ways, reframes the [biblical] concept of grace.” He goes on to explain how learning the fundamental principles of seeking your opponent’s agreement or seeing the world from your opponent’s perspective helped him extend grace not only to disgruntled students, but also to his own son as they worked out their adult relationship. “I intentionally worked to become an adult friend with my children.”

Nate concurs, noting, “We share the core value of respect. If we get irritated with each other or something’s not going right, that underlying respect helps work through the kinks.”

With Jerry preparing to relocate to Austin, Texas to be nearer to grandchildren, he and Nate now relish their time in class. The looming separation makes them intensely grateful for what Aikido contributes to their ever-evolving dynamic.

As Nate sees it, Aikido reinforces integrity, a word he links back to his childhood upbringing in the church. He says, “The biblical idea of integrity comes from ceramics and pottery.”

He goes on to explain how a potter can form a vessel from clay, then bake—or fire—it before glazing and firing it again. If, after the first firing, a potter notices any cracks in the vessel, he can either trash it and begin anew, or glaze over the structural weaknesses and move on. “The idea of integrity means starting over. For me, that’s what Aikido is. It’s not about being perfect. It’s about going back, finding the gaps, and starting over.”

***

Now that we’re all poised on the holiday doorstep, ready to start over with yet another New Year, the entire Durango Shin-Budo Kai organization offers thanks to the wider community for its ongoing support. We are especially thankful for guidance from the Community Foundation Serving Southwest Colorado, and we owe a mighty thank-you to Mountain Middle School, its students, and families for giving us the bright and beautiful space to practice. This natural rhythm of give and accept—extend and receive, inhale and exhale—is fundamental to Aikido and to all healthy connections.

Other families enjoy training together at DSBK. Laurel (left) and her dad Nathan tested together this Fall.

We understand that in this outstanding region, we all enjoy a bounty of exceptional charitable organizations and life-altering nonprofits. We appreciate your consideration as you make your year-end donations and thankful contributions to your local, regional, and national networks.

Founded in 2003, DSBK Aikido is a registered 501c3 educational non-profit committed to the embodied practice of Aikido as a means to increasing the peace and harmony for each practitioner, as well as for the whole community and beyond. As always, we will seek additional ways to extend our contributions to the community in the coming years. To that end, none of our teachers are paid, ensuring all funds go toward rent, insurance, and aikido outreach events and efforts in the community. For information about how to give, please visit our Patronage page.

Happy Holidays!

Ai’s Wide Shut

“It’s like we’re psychic,” Holly marvels.

“How did you know what I was thinking?” I ask.

We repeat the experiment. She shuts her eyes. I grab her wrist and we pause there a moment. Then I focus on her shoulder—specifically the bunched fabric of her gi top. I think about grabbing it with my free hand.

Before the thought can fully materialize, Holly steps back, defensively removing her shoulder beyond my reach. I did not move. I did not flinch. I only thought about attacking.

“Why did you move?” I ask her.

She says she felt her shoulder at risk. Almost a tingling sensation mixed with a sense of anxiety or concern.

We take turns as the “blind victim.” I close my eyes and she grabs my wrist. After a moment, I sense what I can only describe as danger clouding around my shoulder. I step back and remove it from that danger zone.

“That’s remarkable!” Holly exclaims. “As soon as I thought about shoving your shoulder, you moved it.”

Other aikidoka on the practice mats are having similar experiences. Mystified laughter erupts regularly in the dojo. Sensei patrols the experiment which he devised. He reminds us of its dual purpose. First, the blind test is designed to break up our tendency to go through the motions. We know each other so well, practicing so many hours together every week. Naturally, we get into the habit of performing the techniques.

By closing our eyes, we cannot perform. We can only extend awareness and deeply feel. This sensory experience is crucial to Sensei’s other goal, which is to give us a chance to feel what it is to know the other person’s mind. It’s one of the fundamental ki principles passed down from Tohei Sense and it hangs in a frame at the front of the room. It’s a concept that enables us to experience the “ai” or harmony of ai-ki-do.

Holly and I decide to alter the experiment. We’ve gone after each other’s shoulders several times. Perhaps that explains the supposed telepathy. We will, instead, think about attacking other, random and undisclosed targets. In other words, we’ll run a double-blind study.

I close my eyes and Holly grabs my wrist. She mentally, visually focuses on a bodily target. I sense my abdomen is in danger, so I pivot away, putting my free hand up to defend my trunk. Holly discloses that she had just imagined poking me in the gut. When I think about pinching Holly’s nose, she retracts her face, pivoting away to protect it. Every trial we run amazes us. The “blind victim” can sense the attack before it even happens.

How is this possible?

Do the electrical signals firing from my brain and out across my nerves pass to Holly via my connection to her wrist?

We run the experiment again, only this time, the attacker will not grab the victim. My ability to sense her intended attack takes longer, but I can still accurately detect what part of my body she targets. Holly experiences the same lag time. Somehow, signals pass through the air like radio waves. Without physically touching, we both experience a sense of “ai” and we are stunned. Humbled.

Holly delights in the equality of our mutual perceptiveness. That she, a brand new student with less than a month’s training, can match sensory awareness with someone who has trained for over a decade is reassuring.

To me, it suggests that Tohei’s fundamental ki principles run deep. Somewhere, without training, people developed an ability to know and understand the Other, the foreign, the supposed stranger. Despite what we see playing out in the national and international arenas, people are actually more connected and more capable of harmony than we realize.

 

Photo credits: featured image “Art Prize – The Eyes Have It” by Caribb CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; “Wellness” CC0; “Attempt to use human brain to receive radio waves” PD.

The Caretaker’s Test

The above picture comes from Scott Carlton’s recent 5th kyu test—the first demonstration a person gives to establish their rank as a beginner. The first time they truly come to Aikido’s front door and knock, knock, knock.

At first glance, the photo seems like an innocuous and typical first test snapshot, and yet, it actually captures a puzzling contradiction. Besides having just achieved 5th kyu rank, Scott also became an official, certified, and bona fide Registered Nurse. He passed all his tests and even landed a real nursing job at a local hospital.

So what’s a caregiver doing bending someone’s elbow in a funky direction in order to hold them on the ground? Indeed, what a nurse doing studying martial arts at all? One is devoted to preserving and protecting life through compassion and care. Isn’t the other bent on destruction and victories won by inflicting physical harm to an opponent?

As it turns out, the latter is entirely false…for Aikido, at least. As a martial art, Aikido strives to do exactly what a nurse must do: care for others at all times. Protect and preserve life while offering compassion.

“To injure an opponent is to injure yourself. To control aggression without inflicting injury is Aikido,” O’Sensei once wrote.

More than any particular technique, the primary lesson Aikido’s founder labored to pass on was to love. Love fearlessly. Love all. Cultivate a love so big that it could swallow up an attacker, just as water swallows all it encounters. If you can love someone who intends to do you harm, then you are invincible. You can protect yourself and everyone and anyone else you come into contact with.

It’s a radical, unconventional notion.

Earlier this summer, fellow blogger Nate B. and I saw just how ludicrous this idea sounds to the average person. We were out with friends at a busy outdoor venue. Seating was scarce but a kind couple invited us to join them at their umbrella’d table.

After a while of chatting, Aikido entered the discussion. The couple had heard of it, but were eager to know more from people who actually trained.

I said something like, “It’s a peaceful, nonviolent martial art.”

The husband wrinkled his whole face with skepticism. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

He went on to explain his military background and the various forms of martial training he had received while in service. “Not one was nonviolent or peaceful,” he insisted.

Nate and I did our best to explain Aikido’s emphasis on harmony and how we never push when the attack pushes, or how we blend movements if the attacker pulls. But, it felt a lot like explaining algorithms to a bumble bee—a creature that has flourished and thrived for millennia, easily identifying the fastest nectar routes without any algorithms, thank you very much!

“Is it like karma?” the wife asked.

“Yes!” I said.

She nodded but her eyebrows remained in a knot.

The husband shook his head. “If someone tried to shoot me…I dunno, man. I would destroy them.”

And yet, for those who train, for those like Scott, who dare to knock on Aikido’s door, the felt experience of the oddball notion is unforgettable. Throughout his entire test, Scott demonstrated utmost care for his attackers. Not just because they are also his training mates and pals, week in and week out; but also, because he has felt the difference between shoving and allowing. Between opposing and accepting. Hating and loving.

He, of all people, already understands his role as aikidoka and caretaker are one and the same.

 

Featured image: “Magician’s Hands” CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; all other images courtesy of the author.

Aikido, App’d for Dating

I downloaded the dating app, entered a punchy profile, and uploaded some pictures. My index finger hovered over the submit button. I hadn’t dated in almost 20 years. Back then, there were no smartphones or apps, I didn’t have cirrus gray streaks in my hair, and wrinkles existed only in my laundry. Did I really expect anything good to come of this?

I locked a big gulp of air in my ribcage and tapped the phone’s glass face. I exhaled. My only consolation: back then, I also didn’t have aikido.

My youthful forays into dating might seem quite successful to the average observer. I did, after all, settle into a serious relationship spanning seven years. Unfortunately, this partnership imploded catastrophically, as years of mutual co-dependence tore me and my partner to shreds. Without missing a beat, I fled into the calm harbors of a new partner’s love. After many joyous and emotionally functional years, this relationship also ended in disaster. I was not only jobless and penniless, but also homeless.

I took a couple years to rebuild myself. Financially. Emotionally. Spiritually. Aikido, along with many other therapies, contributed to a fuller, stronger sense of self. All the while, however, I avoided dating and romance the way buttered toast avoids falling face-up.

Gradually, enough signs amassed, all indicating I was ready. Ready to use the new skills I had honed. But as the newly downloaded dating app piled “new match” icons across my screen, I fretted. What if I was still that same twenty-year-old—that bighearted gal who would bend over backwards, warp sideways, and spiral herself into Gordian knots, all to please another person?

Never compromise your posture, my sensei often suggests. Of all the ways to interpret this advice, I often boil it down to maintaining good posture. Hunching, stooping, and slouching may indicate a lack of confidence, or an urge to “muscle it,” a desire to throw, overcome, trick or vanquish the other person. Viewed externally, I must sustain a centered stance throughout any technique.

I can also turn the advice into an internal experience of good posture. Never compromise or shift my own integrity to suit the attacker. Maintaining integrity connotes keeping with my fundamental values no matter what arises. If I value compassion and nonviolence, then I must do so no matter what the attacker attempts. I cannot meet force with force. I cannot retaliate or punish. I cannot engage in one-upmanship.

Looking back, I see how all my past bending and twisting ultimately compromised my ability to give and receive kindness. To give and receive real love, too.

Could this nearly-forty, nearly-Nidan gal now avoid contorting her eternally big heart?

For added insurance, I sought guidance from my much younger Millennial friends—the ones brought up so intimately with technology they are practically half cyborg.

If you match with someone, don’t be the first to message. You don’t want to appear desperate.

After the first meet-up, do not text or call the other person for a couple days. Better to seem aloof, kinda disinterested. Convey the mystery: you may be available, but are you attainable?  

The familiarity of the advice surprised me. The dating scene hadn’t actually changed that much. But I knew I had because I couldn’t follow the prescription. Attempting to appear aloof or mysterious compromised my posture. I would not be anything other than what I was.

So I message whenever I choose. On dates, I ask direct, genuinely curious questions and enjoy excellent conversations. After dates, I promptly offer gratitude for that person’s time and courage—after all, meeting strangers is not easy.

I am not juggling time gaps or power balances. I do not angst or fret. What if he thinks I am ____ (fill in blank with negative predicate adjective)? I do not twist into painful contortions.

I am maintaining my center, maintaining good posture, and operating according to what I value: dignity, respect, and kindness. I expect a lot of good to come from that.

 

Image credits: “smartphone dating app illustration” CC from Wikimedia Commons; “goats butting heads” CC from Wikimedia Commons; “parrot love in Trivandrum Zoo” CC from Wikimedia Commons.

Practice Watered Down

“Don’t change the kata,” Sensei Mark reminds the class.

We stand in pairs down the mat, like characters in a Jane Austen novel about to dance a quadrille or cotillion; only we are equipped with swords, not witty repartee. We are struggling with the day’s weapons instruction. Specifically, we cannot comprehend the correct and proper way to hajiki age (powerfully strike the opponent’s blade horizontally).

In bokkendo (training with the wooden sword called a bokken, in lieu of a real katana), the swordspeople have an arsenal of attacks, blocks, counterattacks, and counter-blocks at their disposal. According to today’s lesson, I should be able to deflect any kind of attack with a hajiki age. I can alternatively employ an uchi otoshi (a powerful downward strike on the attacker’s bokken), or a nuki, a maki, and so on.

With polite and obliging practice partners, I and my classmates have no trouble rehearsing the hajikis.

Jab!
Hajiki-whack! Win with my blade inches from my partner’s temple.

Slice!
Hajiki-whack! Win again.

Chop!
Hajiki-whack! Win!

This form of practice instills the mechanics. It drills the motions into the body, hopefully automating them for future applications. But then we play with hypotheticals. What if the opponent is no longer polite? What if the opponent wants to win as much as I do?

Jab!
Hajiki-whack! Wi–what the…??

Basic Newtonian physics enable my partner to win. Because every action has an equal but opposite reaction, my partner rolls the force and momentum of my sideways hajiki into a spiral and wins with his blade inches from my sternum.

The class is frustrated. Hajiki ages do not seem to work against any and all attacks. Maybe if we alter the footwork…? Perhaps, if we play with the pacing…? What if we just trick the opponent and beat him to the punch…? Some students insist a hajiki must only exist for very particular and specific strikes–obviously not the ones we are receiving from our partners right now.

Sensei shakes his head to that theory. “These katas have been practiced for thousands of years. They have to work or else they would have been changed already.”

He reviews the basic principles and the basic form again. He demonstrates the hajiki age with precision and clarity. He encourages his demo partner to misbehave, be sneaky, do whatever she wants to win. She obliges, but no matter what she does with her bokken, Sensei executes a smashing hajiki and wins.

We are sent back to our partners for another round, once again urged not to change the kata; change ourselves instead. Adapt ourselves to the form.

“Assume the kata is perfect,” Sensei encourages us over the bwack-bwack of wooden blades slapping. “Adjust your form until it works no matter what the attacker does.”

While my partner and I take turns hacking and jabbing at each other, I begin to visualize symbols of perfection. The Fibonacci sequence fills my imagination with its perfect spiral that simultaneously contracts and expands infinitely. The insides of seashells, the heads of cauliflower, the fat plate of seeds on a sunflower’s face, a hawk’s circular upward climb into the stratosphere, ocean waves, a fly’s compound eye–essentially, my thoughts are inundated with everything in nature possessing innately balanced form and perfect composition.

How can Aikido–or, in this instance the weapon work we practice to bolster our Aikido–become a Fibonacci spiral? To me, Aikido is made of so much flow. It is like water. All churn, pour, and gush. Water doesn’t naturally take the shape of the seashell, it grinds it into shimmering powder.

By the time class ends, my hajikis are still flash-flood messy.

Impossible! I brood all the way home. Water is too free, too wild, too vast to ever Fibonacci.

I share a distracted hello with the neighbors as they haul out hoses and sprinklers. Green coils ribbon across their winter-thirsted lawn. I am an automaton in the shower because I am so consumed with Sensei’s impossible instructions.

I head out to lunch with friends. The server sets artisan glassware on the table. The glasses have more curvaceous hips than the Colorado River. The server sloshes water into each glass then scurries away, leaving us to examine menus.

I am not reading the menu. Instead, I fixate on the condensation beading the outside of the glass while the water hugs the bizarre innards, just as it hugged the garden hose next door or the pipes in my house. In the glass, the water is so clear, so glasslike. Hydrogen and oxygen become silicon and potash. Seamlessly.

“That’s it!” I shout and am met with astonished eyebrow bridges around the table. “Water doesn’t have to destroy the Fibonacci spiral. It can fill it. That’s how a wild, unwieldy thing attains perfect form. That’s how you don’t change the kata. You change yourself.”

My friends nod then suggest moving to an indoor table–one where the sun cannot further cook my wits. I wave them off with a laugh then take a long, quenching drink.

 

Image credits: “KKDH_07_04-13_02” CC BY-NC 2.0; “frustration” CC BY-NC 2.0; “shell” PD; “water abstract art blue surreal” CC; featured image “water spiral” PD.