“I was having panic attacks,” Adele explains to the dinner party gathered at the local brewery.Read More »
“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.Read More »
As the milk for my morning’s cappuccino was frothing, I tore off yesterday’s page from our daily Zen calendar. Today’s quote was brief: “Practice thirty more years”.Read More »
“Dude! That is so smooth!”
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.Read More »
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!
In my teens I was a pacifist. I registered for the draft when I turned 18. But it was a stalling tactic. The Vietnam War raged and I had decided I would escape to Canada rather than fight in a war I didn’t believe in. I applied for conscientious objector status. My father had served in World War II and he believed it was important for America to fight the spread of communism. He didn’t agree with my anti-war beliefs, but he wrote a letter to the draft board supporting my request to be classified a conscientious objector anyway.
As time went by, I began to question whether pacifism could always be effective. Martin Luther King’s pacifist approach, appealing to the humanity and morality of all Americans, led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Gandhi’s brave pacifism, resisting the British by absorbing violence no matter the cost to self, had a lot to do with India gaining its independence.
But what about the Nazis? The question, asked so often that it has become cliché, is valid: “Could pacifism have stopped the Nazis?” It seems unlikely.
My father died when I was 44. Shortly after his death, I had a dream about him. In the dream, I told him that of course America had to enter the war to stop the Nazis.
“War is never justified,” he said.
We had swapped places.
There has been much criticism of Gandhi’s letter to Hitler, which begins, “Dear Friend,” and goes on to compare British Imperialism to Nazism. I think the criticism is wrong. Gandhi was appealing to Hitler’s better nature and not condoning his acts, which in the same letter he called “monstrous and unbecoming of human dignity”. Gandhi believed that even Hitler had a moral side he could appeal to. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. Gandhi’s appeal did nothing to stop Hitler. What was required to stop the Nazis, apparently, was a great deal of violence.
What hope is there for humanity if our only option is using violence to oppose violence?
As he witnessed the first detonation of an atom bomb, Robert Oppenheimer, head of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, quoted the Bhagavad-Gita, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
70 years after this first test of an atomic bomb, I visited the Bradbury Science Museum at the Los Alamos Laboratory. There were technical displays of physics and chemistry, and displays of the history of Los Alamos, which was a boys’ ranch school before the scientists arrived and vacated the residents.
I saw replicas of Little Boy and Fat Man, the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I watched videos presenting the ongoing development of nuclear weapons told with a benevolent, even cheerful, slant. I found myself wondering, “Just who is being naive here? How can this lead to anything besides the destruction of worlds?”
Oddly, the place had a guest book. Before signing my name, I quoted from a song by Sting:
“How can I save my little boy
From Oppenheimer’s deadly toy?”
The desire to overcome violence is no longer a Pollyannish dream, but an existential necessity. If humans are to survive, we have to find a solution to our violent nature.
Soon after I began practicing aikido, I realized that it is a third way, a path different from either pacifism or violence.
Unlike pacifism, aikido recognizes that aggression and violence are inherent in humanity, are components of our evolutionary success. Aikido recognizes our warrior nature and embraces it, and uses the tactics of aggression to neutralize aggression.
The other day, when I was handing out jo (wooden staffs) in kids’ class, a boy of 9 asked, “If aikido is nonviolent, why do we practice with weapons?”
It was a question I’d often asked myself. Why do we learn these weapon kata (choreographed forms)?
I knew several answers: we are preserving the traditions of the samurai; the movements we practice in empty-hand aikido are amplified in the movements done with staff or sword; it’s another way to learn to focus the mind, to remain in the present; kata are fun to learn…
“That’s a great question,” I told him. “There’s a Japanese concept called ‘katsujinken’. It means ‘the life-giving sword’. How can a sword give life? It could protect your family from the bad guys. Or you could use it to cut up vegetables for dinner. But these are just a couple of my answers. You should think about it and decide for yourself why we use weapons as a means to promote nonviolence.”
The gospel song goes:
Gonna lay down my sword and shield
Down by the riverside, down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
Gonna lay down my sword and shield
Down by the riverside
And study war no more
It’s important for us to recognize the breadth that humans encompass. We can be unspeakably cruel and selflessly compassionate.
Aikido teaches us to see from the point of view of our enemy, to blend with his attack and redirect it to a mutually benevolent conclusion, to protect our attacker as well as ourselves, to use the techniques of aggression to neutralize aggression.
Instead of beating our swords into plowshares, we’re making them out of wood and studying the tactics and the mentality of aggression in order to overcome it.
How do we translate the lessons of aikido to the national stage? Another difficult question. I feel that, after all these years, I am only just beginning to understand how to use aikido in my interpersonal relationships.
Could the philosophy of aikido have been used to resist the Nazis? I don’t have an answer yet. But I think that the answer may come if we keep asking the question. O-Sensei named his art “aikido” in 1942. The philosophy of aikido arose out of the destruction of World War II and it came from Japan, the Nazi’s most powerful ally. It was an attempt to take the culture of the samurai and turn it in a new direction, away from aggression and into the service of peaceful resolution.
As I was writing this, the phrase “fierce compassion” came to me. I thought I had made it up, but a google search showed me that the words had already been put together by others. In a dharma talk by Cheri Maples1 , she relates the concept of fierce compassion to “truly understanding our interconnection with others.”*
It occurs to me that what O-Sensei was doing through aikido was turning from the local to the universal, changing the focus of the samurai from the protection of their liege lord to the protection of all beings.
As a result, aikido brings us the teaching of fierce compassion, a path that just may save us from our destructive selves.
Featured Image–Nuclear Test
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 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.
“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.
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.
“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.