Coordination is a central idea in my training right now. Body coordination. Mind and body coordinating together.
Right now I am thinking a lot about mental coordination within myself. We talk about being “single minded,” usually in our focus on some activity. But all too often my mind bifurcates into conflicting thoughts.
Some of the central concepts of aikido are mental principles. I’ve mentioned shoshin (Beginner’s Mind). The other mental principles are zanshin (Remaining Mind), mushin (Mind-without-Mind), and fudoshin (Immovable Mind).
Mushin, No-mind or mind-without-mind, is odd to the Western mind. It is paradoxical to think about no-mindedness. But a curious beginner’s mind allows a person to experience it.
Every practice we begin with breathing. We settle into position, being aware of our posture, our bodies, our surroundings. Sensei says “Mokuso,” and we breathe. When thoughts enter our head, we acknowledge them and let them go. Worries from the day pop into our awareness and we let them go.
Mokuso means stilling or silencing thinking. We breathe to focus on breathing. Thoughts settle and still. Before aikido I was aware of my endless cycle of thought, analysis, worry, looking forward, looking back. But I struggled to interrupt the cycle. Until breathing trained me to create room for the cycle to get disrupted.
For me, letting go of thought is analogous to physically relaxing. Thoughts are like little bits of mental tension in mental posture. Thoughts cramp mental movement. Thoughts create resistance and bumps.
When I physically relax during practice, I become more perceptive of the physical interaction with my partner. The more perceptive I become, the more I become aware of the nuance of the physical dynamics.
Mokuso stills my body and mind, releasing unconscious mental and physical tension. The more I approach mushin, the more perceptive my mind becomes and the more aware I become of my surroundings. The more I become part of my surroundings.
One of my most vivid aikido memories is from my first year of practice. We were breathing before practice and, like a switch flipped, I became aware of sounds several rooms away. I could hear the clock on the wall.
It wasn’t ESP or enlightenment. It was my own barriers falling away. The mental effort of thinking suddenly stopped. And then my mind had the capacity to wake up to what was already happening.
This is a very beginner understanding, and maybe mistaken, but as Mind has less-mind, it becomes more present, relaxed and perceptive. Mushin, like relaxing completely, is not floppiness or lethargy. It is freedom to move with what is without timing or response.
Image: “Blue Bowl” by Pat Joyce is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Practicing Aikido in the Present Moment

I didn’t know it would feel like this.

It’s been two years now that I’ve been practicing aikido, and while there have been ups and downs, generally speaking it has been a relatively low-stress situation.

Now my 3rd kyu test is days away, and I feel as if I’ve stepped into a pressure cooker and there’s no way out except to go straight through. I feel like I’m in the womb, the labor pains are ramping up, and no matter what I do, the pressure is rising.

I notice a variety of conflicting internal responses to this upcoming initiation. On one hand, the desire to dive more deeply into practice; to run through all techniques and weapons katas five times a day. On the other hand, the desire to run upstairs, crawl under my bed and hide.

It seems as though I work to refine one technique only to discover that my execution of another technique has new flaws. Like trying to shore up one side of the sand castle while the waves just keep right on eroding what I thought I’d achieved. And the harder I try with my intellect to grab on to information and hold it firmly in my grasp, the more my smoothness falls apart.

This morning I remembered something that Mark Sensei talks about all the time: returning to the present moment again and again, such that every moment is meditation. As I practiced my weapons katas in the park, I focused on surrendering my intellectual need to remain “in control” of every movement and returning to the flow of the present moment.

And it dawned on me: What if I were to live in the moment during my 3rd kyu weapons demonstration? If the present moment is the only place where ease and joy reside, why not go THERE?

A neighbor walking his dogs walked up and paid me a compliment for my intense focus and dedication over the past weeks. Someone in a car shouted something at me as they drove by. Neither took my center. My practice took on an entirely new flavor. I was dancing. It was joyful and fun.

I didn’t know it would feel like this.


(featured image credit: pocket mindfulness.

Unity vs. Coordination

Aikidoka talk about unifying body and mind. It is a target we train for, but I still balk at the phrase. I couldn’t articulate why until I was recently re-reading The Aikido of Shin-Budo Kai. The phrase “coordinating body and mind” stuck out to me.

Unity, to my mind is an ideal or abstract state of oneness.  I realize that a high degree of mental and physical unity is what we pursue. But there is a process to get there, progress from my current state to better and better states.

Coordination, however, is separate things working together. As a beginner, I can wrap my head around coordinating body and mind. To borrow an analogy from Ikeda Sensei, a baby has to learn the coordination to walk. Then he has to wobble along from support to support in fits and starts until his little legs are strong and coordinated enough to walk freely. Then he has to learn how to go up slopes, down stairs, over rough gravel, across an icy sidewalk. Coordination is learned and practiced.

I can hit a baseball. But I lack the coordinated swing to hit a home run out of a major league park. I can be coached, I can physically and mentally train, I can practice, and one day smack a ball out of the park. But not without focused practice.

We train both mind and body separately and together. One without the other is useless. To strike only physically is madness. To strike only mentally is absurd. So each time I practice a motion, my mind participates. Whenever I have a mental intent, my body must move in order to fulfill it. No Jedi powers here.

I’m learning how to coordinate my body and my intent. The more they coordinate, the less either dominates or slackens. Everything begins to cohere into a single system.

I only understand unity as an embodied ideal sporadically, when uke attacks, I move, and things just happen. That only occurs on techniques I have practiced a thousand times. It almost never happens the first time I practice a new attack, technique or principle. Unity transcends mere coordination. But unity is coordinated. I can’t force unity to happen, but I can train my body and mind to be coordinated, laying a foundation.

Image credits: “Molnija 3601 watch movement macro.” Guy Sei.  CC BY-SA 2.

Toward correct perception

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.

Image copyright Panu Savolainen.
Image copyright Panu Savolainen.

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:

Getting Here, Being Here

I recently had a wonderful conversation about the mindset of martial arts with a college professor. He is particularly qualified to speak on the subject. His doctorate is in Sports Psychology. He is Japanese, with a Japanese teacher’s license, and he is an experienced kendo competitor.

We sat on my couch, enjoying a drink and good company in the afternoon sunlight, and talked about healthy competition. He asked me two questions. First, why do I practice aikido? Second, why do I get unmotivated to practice? I practice because I love the art. I slack off when I get too focused on me or my own achievement.

I asked him his mental approach to a kendo competition.  I was asking about his pre-game routine. His pump-up jam or meditation. His answer wasn’t what I expected. Japanese athletes train to approach their competitors with respect before the match because without the opponent, there would be no competition. At the end of the match, they bow in respect–win or lose–because without the opponent, there would be no competition. The concept was so foreign, I didn’t even think of that as pre-game preparation.

As we compared Japanese and American approaches to competition, we circled around the topic of motivation. Sport can’t only be about winning. Winning is a moment. Just as losing is a moment. That can’t be everything. Wins and losses lead to team and athlete growth.

From there, our discussion led us to the mindset of martial arts training as distinct from sport training. Why do we learn to hold a wooden sword and learn how to hit with it and be hit with it? Why learn to strike and block rather than do sports that are more traditional play? Although people have different motivators, my friend and I share the same core perspective: Training isn’t to win. It isn’t to dominate or be the best.

We train to be in this moment. Whether we are facing an opponent in the ring or chatting at a barbecue, we try to be present. Ready. Awake to what is going on. Mindfulness is bringing all your awareness to where you are. On the mat and off. Present and aware. We train to connect to what is happening around us. And, maybe more importantly and more difficult, is to connect to the people around us.

It all comes back to motivation. In sports, we train to be in the moment, to be alert and ready to play. We don pads and special shoes, bend into special stances, do special exercises that serve the game. Then we play, aiming to win while the clock winds down and the points rack up. And then, whatever the outcome, we wind down for the post game.

In martial arts we train to change the baseline, to create a new normal. We don pads and special clothes, bend into special stances, and do special exercises that train the body and mind to permanently change. We practice throws and strikes and falls to prepare for potential future threats. We practice reacting to threats, to violence, so that we change our reactions. However, there is no post game, just progress.

We slouched on my couch in the afternoon sunlight, neither of us worried about our posture. Neither of us was ready to jump up and smack someone. Yet our martial training shaped the moment and our respect for each other. We were present. As awake and aware as we could be to each other and the world around us.

Dignity and Respect

I’ve always thought of myself as the kind of person who treats everyone with dignity and respect.

In the short 21 months that I’ve been training in aikido, it has become glaringly clear that there is someone new whom I am learning to treat with dignity and respect: myself.

Through our aikido practice, I am beginning to feel a subtle yet powerful shift in the way I perceive others and the way I perceive myself.

One of the big lessons is to maintain my own center. For me, this flies in the face of my habitual patterns associated with being “a nice guy” in order to earn approval from others.

As always, our aikido practice on the mat serves as a wonderful mirror for my life.

Katate kosa tori kote gaeshi tobi komi: If I don’t maintain my own center as nage, I may find myself bending over uke as I try to complete the technique. I may end up initially taking uke’s balance, only to hand it right back to her, surrendering my effectiveness.

Copyright 2012 J-O Waldner.

As I truly begin to learn to maintain my own center, I find that I worry less about trying to please others and I focus more on speaking and living my truth. The more I treat myself with dignity and respect, the more I treat those around me with true dignity and respect. My old habits of manipulation and passive-aggressive behavior drops away as I learn to openly ask for what I want, knowing I may not get it.

The more fully I accept myself, the more authentically I show up on the mat and in the world. Joy replaces self-judgment. Giving myself over to the lifelong process of training replaces the idea of reaching some sort of “finish line” represented by a hakama or a black belt.

Turning around my own center, I maintain my balance. And I discover that I no longer need to agree with someone in order to treat them with dignity and respect.

Reach Out and Touch Someone – Extending Ki

What is ki? It is one of the first questions that beginners ask. The best answer I know is “Keep practicing and find out.” But that comes across as glib. What I mean is: ki–like fear, illness, joy, pain, faith, etc.–is something best understood through experience. Words point in the general direction like a pain chart at a doctor’s office, but each individual experiences it as an internal truth.

There is another difficulty with describing ki. Because ki is experiential, opinions vary from, “There’s no such thing as this woo-woo ki,” to “Ki is the universal energy that binds everything together.” While I don’t want to stir that debate, I would say that if you aren’t willing to act like ki is something possible to experience, if you think it is complete phooey, then aikido probably isn’t the art for you.

If ki is something you are willing to accept as possible in your worldview, there are a few things I’ve heard that helped me.

You can think of ki as:

  •  energy
  • focus
  • awareness
  • intention

None of these synonyms translate exactly. But they are signposts pointing toward it.

Many answers of “what is ki” didn’t appeal to me or resonate with me as a beginner. The Eastern mystical explanations also didn’t resonate with my experience of life. They were highway signs in a language I couldn’t read. I spent my first two years of practice doing my best and being open, sometimes feeling something, but not sure what it was. Then I read the following description of aiki and things began to cohere:

     The feeling of aiki, harmonizing energy, is the feeling of being “in-the-zone” like during a sports competition.

It clicked. I know that feeling. It is vivid awareness of everything happening around you, almost knowing what will happen before it happens. I remember moments during basketball games when I moved in a pre-conscious understanding of the whole court. I sensed where the opponent was thinking of passing. Where the gaps were in the defense. Where the basket was without having to look at it. I just knew all that stuff and was part of it, moving through it, shaping it toward an outcome.

Being in-the-zone in sports is like being in the rhythm.  My wife and I played in a taiko drumming group in Japan. For warm-ups, our club leader would relentlessly bang the same beat, sometimes an hour, while we either copied the rhythm or broke into quarter or 16th notes as we saw fit. We practiced in a hot, humid gym. Fifteen minutes was enough to make us tired and sweaty, but we tried to keep the beat. Our sticks blistered our hands. And then, when we became too tired to do anything but endure, something inside shifted. It wasn’t me keeping the beat; I had merged with it. We were all caught up in the rhythm which seemed to exist in and of itself. We participated in something greater than the sum of its parts.

Those two experiences–being in-the-zone and becoming the rhythm–helped me open up to what I was training on the mat. You can’t be in-the-zone at basketball if you don’t practice constantly. Just like you can’t sync band  ensemble without learning your part and practice. To experience that zone–to feel what ki is–you have to drill the fundamentals.

So when someone asks “What is ki?” I share the sign posts that help me, but the truth is, the answer ain’t free. If you want to know, keep practicing. You will feel it. More and more. Just keep an open mind to your practice and experiences.


Feature image  “Handshake”

Joy and beginner’s mind

My shaky signature on the little sign-in card betrayed the fact that I was choking back some fear. This was Day One of my aikido training, and although I was greeted with warmth, kindness, and friendly smiles, all I could see were hakama.

The hakama. Symbol of someone else’s perfection. Mockingly pointing out the fact that, once again, everyone (EVERYONE!) outranked me. Reminder of my own broken, flawed self. Always too young. Too old. Not smart enough. Not rich enough. Not patient enough.

For a split second, I considered just turning around and heading back out the door. They could keep my monthly fee and I could keep my dignity intact. As long as I didn’t think about the fact that I had given up before trying.

On the mat as I stumbled and flailed, straining to understand and to execute techniques “correctly,” I felt worse than insignificant; I felt like I was getting in the way of everyone else in the dojo. Being a nuisance. Somehow delaying their training by requiring their guidance.

But I have kept coming back. In starts and fits at first… lots of absences. An injury. Plenty of excuses. But, for now, with increasing consistency.

And now, 17 months later, I’m seeing that all of this IS the process.

The beginner joins the class and is introduced to katate kosa tori kokyunage tobi komi. The “Twenty Year” technique. (Or maybe it’s “Thirty Year.”) Witnesses the technique for the very first time.

Thoughts occur. Emotion arises. And the journey begins.

A young Shizuo Imaizumi taking ukemi for O-Sensei, the Founder of Aikido. Even Imaizumi Sensei started out as a beginner. Regarding this photo, Imaizumi Sensei recently said, “That was taken at the old Honbu dojo around 1967. I used to stay in the dojo daytime in those days. So if someone came to visit the dojo to see O Sensei, I took uke for his demonstration. Good old days!”

Some of us beginners will be on fire for awhile; believing that we’ve found ‘the answer’ to all of the problems in our lives. We may race around the dojo with elation or move with exaggerated humility, trying our best to fit in. But we will hold some belief about the value and impact that “success” in aikido will have upon our lives.

“Once I earn 5th kyu, everything will be different!” “Once I become 4th kyu, THEN I’ll really know my stuff!” “Once I get my HAKAMA, footwork will just take care of itself and life will be easier…” and so on.

After some time, the New Romance energy fades. The honeymoon ends. And we are faced with ourselves.

Some of us will disappear abruptly, just too busy. Some of us will drift away, making promises and repeating oaths of dedication, hoping that somehow our words will mean more than our actions. Yet we show up less and less often. We all have our reasons.

But some of us will find ourselves intrigued. Entranced. Puzzled and delighted as aikido slowly expands, filling our lives from the inside out, more and more. Other interests begin to take a back seat as we discover that this aikido stuff is way more than learning and executing techniques. Way more than “moving up through the ranks.” That the word “connection” means way more than I’ve ever realized.

In my aikido practice as a beginner, something new seems to be emerging. A new, deeper sense of enjoyment, fulfillment, and joy that is not dependent upon getting something “right” or achieving some particular level of rank. Rather, a new sense of delight in simply being part of the dance of aikido.

We beginners, (without hakama, sometimes without gi’s, whatever our age) play a SUPER important role in the dojo, whether we realize it or not. I like to believe that every time I show up to practice, learn, screw up, and try again, I am offering myself up for refinement in some small way. Offering myself up to have yet another rough edge sanded down a little bit… to surrender another tiny little piece of my egotism, my selfishness, my stubbornness. Surrendering another tiny little nugget of my resistance to connect; relaxing my grasp on my belief that there’s a need to protect myself as something separate from the interconnected web of life.

By showing up time and time again, we beginners are giving all of our sempai (Teachers/Guides; more experienced sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles on the path) the opportunity to dive even more deeply into their own learning, training, and passion for the Art. And in doing so, they have the chance to start fresh as a beginner, as well.

Everyone in the aikido world, at some point, was a beginner. Even Imaizumi Sensei. As long as I can keep that in mind, I have hope.