In my last post I discussed two Japanese words–awase and musubi— are slightly different concepts of connecting with a partner’s energy. I focused on musubi, which means “knot.” As uke (attacker, receiver of the technique), I can feel when my attack gets tied to what nage (thrower) is doing, either by a slight loss of balance that causes a bit of a lean onto nage or by joint locks.Read More »
Aikido is a Japanese martial art. Although it is practiced around the world, its cultural context is important. From the uniform to the technical terminology, aikido comes with cultural nuance.Read More »
In the US, we have an independent mindset that defaults to “Yeah, but why should I?” Why should I obey this stupid law? Why do I have to step back instead of sideways? Why, when I begin a martial art, do I have to do all this bowing to everybody?
Zanshin translates as “remaining mind.” It does not mean the mind remains on the past or a few moments ago, or that thing you did well or poorly. It remains here and now.
Zanshin also translates as “the mind with no remainder.” Divide any number by one and the remainder is zero. If you are one hundred percent in the present, there is no room for ego to attach to the past or to fear the future.
In Aikido, zanshin is the moment after a throw, not walking away, but remaining present and focused on the uke. But it goes deeper than that, I think.
I took my blackbelt two weeks ago. It was a four hour ordeal, a constant challenge to stay present in the current movement. Botch a throw? It’s in the past. Feel something odd or curious? It’s in the past. The hardest part was to stay present in the moment, letting future and past go. Remain. Be ready.
But the actual hardest part has been the post-test. Now I can reflect and ask questions. And that means the post test is the real test of zanshin. Self-judgement? Let it go. Why let my mind remain there? Success. Failure. Good throw. Bad throw. None of it is zanshin, fudoshin, or mushin.
The blackbelt test means taking the first step into the practice of aikido. It means becoming a beginner. For five years it has been the spoken and unspoken direction of my training, looming as a target in the distance. For the past six months, the whole dojo has leaned into preparing, investing in me. My time and thoughts were consumed by training and preparation.
Suddenly it was here.
Now it’s gone, and with it, the direction it provided.
The carpet got pulled and I wasn’t really expecting it. Now what?
I know the physical basics of our curriculum. The broad strokes of form are familiar. Now the mental stuff of training. Shoshin – beginner’s mind. Stay curious. Search deeper. Explore the movements. Mushin – avoid opinion and judgement and just be in the zone. Fudoshin – do not waiver from the shugyo and don’t quail from new challenges. Zanshin – be more fully in the moment and remain there.
“They tell me I only have weeks, or maybe months to live.”
My friend has tears in her eyes as she tells me this. Her parents, primary caregivers for months now, sit on either side of her with pained expressions. Their daughter is in hospice care. They are her escorts to the grave. And all four of us sitting here in her apartment this evening knows it.
I notice a thought rise up: This is not okay. She should not be dying yet; she’s 12 years younger than me. And I realize that, once again, I’m blaming uke.
Uke grabbed my wrist incorrectly. Uke grabbed the wrong wrist. Uke should have grabbed my wrist with more/less energy.
I am arguing with reality. Responding this way, I put myself at odds with what truly IS in the moment. By overlooking this opportunity to agree with my partner’s ki, I create conflict. I am unwittingly attempting to impose my will upon this moment when I could be treating it with acceptance and kindness.
Sitting on the couch next to my friend, I look around and take a deep breath. As I open myself more fully to the present moment, I become aware of the sound of her oxygen machine turning on and off, over and over. Tubes. Morphine. The changes in the contours of her face. The color and texture of her hair. The brightness of her eyes. The color of her skin. The shape and size of her body. Her speech.
I’m curious, so I ask her how she feels about all of this. About having cancer. About dying. What is it that you want your parents to know? What is it that you want to say that you have not said yet?
Before she can respond, her father begins talking. He talks about her achievements. He talks about how proud he is. He speaks softly, and he speaks at length. His heart is breaking, and I can see it. He is in his 70’s and he is walking what must be one of the most painful journeys a parent can ever experience.
I find myself blaming uke again. He should let his daughter express her truth. He is trying to distract her from her pain because he doesn’t want to face his own pain. He should be handling this differently.
But this is simply me arguing with reality again. And I catch it just a little more quickly than before. My aikido is beginning to bleed off the mat and into parts of my life I never expected.
I think of kneeling across from uke in suwari waza. Uke grabs both of my wrists and I start pushing and pulling, trying to execute a technique; trying to do it *extra* good this time!
“Ohhhh… you’re using so much muscle right now,” my Sempai tells me. And she’s right. My habitual response to conflict: How can I get out of this predicament? How can I defeat this opponent and avoid pain and suffering?
We reset and she grabs my wrists again. I shift my focus to kindness. How can I connect more fully with this situation? How can I more openly and completely accept and embrace these current conditions, which are true regardless of what I think or feel in this moment?
Uke smiles as she loses her balance and is smoothly pinned. I’m smiling, too.
Back in my friend’s apartment, the dinner plates have been cleared away and we’re sitting around the table, laughing and remembering good times. My friend is exhausted, and it’s time to say good night. As the evening draws to a close, I ask her what she wishes for in the world.
She answers without hesitation.
Since the day I started training in aikido 2 1/2 years ago, I have admired everyone in a hakama and wondered what it would be like to wear one. Standing on the sidelines, I would watch carefully as my sempai casually tied their hakama in magical and mysterious ways. And at the end of class I would hang out on the fringes, listening and watching as they chatted and folded their hakama into amazing little squares with elaborately knotted straps. What would it be like to graduate into that club? Would I ever truly learn to do what they were doing?
Fast forward a couple of years and here I am at 3rd kyu, practicing in a hakama of my very own. In spite of excellent instruction and guidance from several of my sempai, it has taken a solid four months to learn to tie my hakama in a way that consistently stays on my body for the duration of class. Sometimes after class I still get tangled up when trying to untie my hakama straps. This has been offering me opportunities for growth, like learning to be more patient and compassionate with myself.
It almost sounds funny to me that learning to put on and take off my hakama has taken on significance in my aikido training. But it’s true.
Even more powerful are the lessons I’ve been encountering while learning to fold my hakama. It’s still a work in progress, and I’m not surprised I’m still folding while everyone else is picking up the mats and putting things away. The interesting part for me has been getting a clear look at my inner dialogue and emotional response to being the last one folding.
As people were picking up the mats around me one evening, I felt that familiar pressure mounting within, and that trusted old unhealthy self-talk kicking up. “You’re too slow. You’re inconveniencing others. You’re not quick enough. You’re not good enough.” I remember picking up my half-folded hakama and retreating to the rear of the dojo in shame, finding an empty table upon which to finish my task so I wouldn’t be in the way of those putting away the mats.
Mark Sensei walked by and asked what I was doing, and I told him I’m too slow. He pointed out that it probably wouldn’t have taken that much longer to finish folding on the mat.
Over the following weeks, it has become increasingly clear that I was touching upon a lack of self-confidence and self-worth. Somehow I believed that I didn’t deserve to take a few moments to finish up folding my hakama, even if it meant that someone might have to wait a couple minutes more to put away the mat I was folding on. I was falling into my well-worn and quite unhealthy “people pleasing” pattern yet again.
Upon deeper reflection I saw a common thread emerging. These same habitual, unconscious emotional patterns were driving my fear of executing basic throws and pins with confidence. I didn’t want to risk anyone becoming upset or unhappy with me if I was unskillful. As a result, I would cautiously tiptoe into techniques and pins, almost in an obsequious way, so that everyone around me knew that my intentions were pure. I didn’t want to hurt anyone, and feared the possibility of being punished for making a mistake.
In an attempt to keep myself emotionally safe, I was hiding. Playing small. Avoiding risk in our dojo; an arena where safety, mutual respect, and support had been established and demonstrated to me for more than two years. I came to realize that in those moments of shame and embarrassment, I was operating on auto pilot, allowing old patterns to drive the bus in even the safest and most supportive of contexts.
All of this, from the simple act of folding my hakama.
A few months have gone by since that evening I scurried off the mat. I’m still the last one folding, but I’m noticing more inner joy in the process. And just the other night, as all the other mats were put away and I found myself confronted with the pressure to avoid my inner discomfort, I relaxed and continued folding on the final mat to be put away.
Some of my sempai friends teased me good-naturedly. I grinned, feeling a strong sense of kinship and belonging. I folded my hakama just a little bit better than I had last time. I finished, stood up, and put the final mat away. And as I walked to the back of the dojo to thank my teachers, sempai, and kohei for class that night, I felt a sense of calm joy. Without fanfare, I had turned a corner in my training.
To injure an opponent is to injure yourself. To control aggression without inflicting injury is the Art of Peace. – Morihei Ueshiba
A good stance and posture reflect a proper state of mind. – Morihei Ueshiba
I always admired the heroes in old Westerns. The townsfolk are under threat and the sheriff, gunfighter, farmer has every reason to ride away. But something galvanizes him to action. Instead of running, he stands, fearlessly facing death. And he fights the lawless, the greedy. He stands straight and fights from his conviction.
Fudoshin translates as immovable mind or steadfast mind. I think it relates to the English word “conviction.” An immovable mind isn’t stubborn, but tenacious. It isn’t calcified, it is oriented. Fudoshin may be best understood by what it protects the warrior from. Fudoshin protects from the four sicknesses of the mind: anger, doubt, fear, and surprise (zen-buddhism.net).
I find it interesting that the “sicknesses” are all reactionary emotions. When a dog snarls and I am startled and become afraid, I lose my composure. When someone is angry at me and I respond in anger, usually my reactions are off center and focus on attacking the person rather than moving toward an outcome.
Mushin (empty mind) and Fudoshin go hand-in-hand. I do not just empty my mind of conscious thought, but also anger, doubt, fear, and surprise. Empty all that out, and then explore how much easier it is to observe. How much easier it becomes to move without doubt or fear.
When I started aikido, others taught me how to stand, how to step, how to slide, how to lift my arm. I was confused. I doubted myself. I got irritated . I got worried I looked foolish. I probably did. My balance was easy to disturb. My mind moved all over.
Now I’m becoming more aware of how my mental state affects my posture and movement. Often tenseness, leaning, and imbalance reflect my state of mind.
I have been reflecting on fudoshin and conviction for over a month (which is why this post is so late). I still haven’t reached any conclusions on what my conviction ought to be in regards to violence, what principle I will not move from. But the question itself is valuable. And, by degrees, doubts and fears fade.
Quotes from https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Morihei_Ueshiba
Image from Nate Brush