“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.
My uke, Tim, makes this declaration while teetering on his toes, one arm so twisted his spine bevels. He looks like a factory-faulty scarecrow. Then, I complete the technique and the scarecrow buckles, ending up belly-down on the mat.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?