In my last post I discussed two Japanese words–awase and musubi— are slightly different concepts of connecting with a partner’s energy. I focused on musubi, which means “knot.” As uke (attacker, receiver of the technique), I can feel when my attack gets tied to what nage (thrower) is doing, either by a slight loss of balance that causes a bit of a lean onto nage or by joint locks.
“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.
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.
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’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.
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.