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!
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:
Let Us Beat Our Swords Into Ploughshares by Mark Garten
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.
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.
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.
One Tuesday evening in August, 1992, I left work after a 12-hour shift, climbed onto my motorcycle, and headed for the dojo. My 4th kyu test was two days away. On the way across town, a storm came raging in from the north, and I drove into a huge downpour. I found myself stuck in bumper to bumper freeway traffic. The rain was so piercing on uncovered flesh that I stopped under an overpass to see if it was hailing. No, it was just rain, gushing from the sky in an impossible deluge. I waited in vain for it to let up, then decided to take my chances and squeezed back into the soggy traffic.
I arrived late at the dojo, drenched—cartoon drenched—pulling off my boots and pouring water out of them. I slipped into a dazed state.
In class, my wife Adele asked a question about kote-gaeshi, and our teacher went into a long demonstration, showing every variation of this technique known to man. I wanted to raise my hand, and, as in the Far Side comic, ask, “Sensei, may I be excused? My brain is full.”
Something had happened to me in the storm. I had slipped into a detached, dull state of mind, and I seemed to be stuck there.
When I got home, I opened my motorcycle seat. In the compartment below, I had stashed Peter Matthiessen’s “Nine-Headed Dragon River.”
Inside the cover, the frontispiece—a purple and gold page depicting a dragon—was wet. The rain had soaked through the front of the book and the purple had bled onto several pages, staining them indigo. I fanned the pages open to dry them, and my eyes fell upon this:
“In this very breath that we take now lies the secret that all great teachers try to tell us, what one lama refers to as, ‘the precision and openness and intelligence of the present’.1 The purpose of meditation practice is not enlightenment; it is to pay attention even at unextraordinary times, to be of the present, nothing-but-the-present, to bear this mindfulness of now into each event of ordinary life”.2
I closed the book. There seemed to be a thin film separating me from the present moment.
The next two days were odd. I couldn’t rouse myself from the befuddlement that had come over me in the rain storm. I felt like I was sleepwalking.
From the beginning, Adele and I took aikido shinsa as matters of great import. As our 5th kyu test—the first test in our curriculum—had approached, we trained diligently. We were fortunate to be aided by the extremely talented Franco Acquaro, then a shodan (1st degree black belt). Franco was in town from Hawaii for an extended stay. His brother lived in Austin and had started aikido at about the same time we had. We were testing together, and Franco, wanting his brother to do well, took us all on as his personal project.
We jumped at the chance to take private lessons from such a gifted martial artist, and that first test had gone well for all of us.
Adele and I worked hard preparing for our next test, 4th kyu. Our passion for aikido made us a little impetuous. Lacking a mat at our house, we had taken to tossing each other onto our water bed—until after one lively throw we heard a great crack and saw that we had broken the bed’s base.
We both wanted to show that we were worthy of this art that we loved so much, to show that we had made some progress in embodying its principles. But now, with the test two days away, I found myself in a mental fog, and I couldn’t snap out of it.
I carried this state of mind all the way through the test. Adele did well, but I was sloppy and unbalanced.
The examination ended with a bokken kata (wooden sword form) that finishes
Emile Swain by Dan Gradings
with a flamboyant spin where the sword extends straight out at shoulder height and you turn a full 360 degrees and then another 5/8 of a turn, stepping back and raising the sword over your head, then pausing dramatically before sheathing it. My whirl wavered like a wobbling top at the end of its spin.
After the test, in his comments in front of the class, our sensei praised me. I knew that he was trying to offer me encouragement, but his words only made me feel worse. I wished that he had spoken truthfully about my performance, or even that he had said, “You can do better than that. You’ll have to take the test again.”
I’ve come to see that the primary goal of aikido is not to learn self defense through a martial art or to develop grace in movement—though it teaches both of these—but to cultivate a state of mind and a way of being in the world.
Why had I, before my 4th kyu test, been unable to rouse myself from my stupor? For the same reason that we are all unable to snap ourselves out of our normal day-to-day dream state. It takes practice to remain in the present.
In Shin Budo Kai, we practice a form of meditation, of sitting and watching the breath. But what’s even better is that we get to stand up and move around, to train in the “precision and openness and intelligence of the present” while having fun throwing each other about.
Peter Matthiessen had given me the clue: “to pay attention even at unextraordinary times.”
I see now that my problem was that I kept trying to change my mental state. Wanting things to be other than they are pulls us away from being-in-the-moment and perpetuates dullness. I was trying to get out of a dazed state of mind when I should have embraced it.
I think this is what Imaizumi Sensei meant when he spoke of “the endless accumulation of fresh starts”3. Ironically, at any moment we can choose to create a better outcome, not by trying to make things different, but by paying the closest attention to what is.
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.