I felt dismayed. In the midst of preparing for my first aikido test—consisting of 10 techniques—I made the mistake of asking one of the black belts what you had to do for the shodan (1st degree black belt) test. Before the next class, he approached me with a sly grin and handed me a ream of papers. As I scanned them, my heart sank. 292 techniques, around 10 solo and paired jo and a dozen bokkenkata (choreographed forms done with wooden staff and sword). And after all that, in a rite of passage called randori, a mob is sent rushing at you and you’re expected to somehow survive.
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 suspect that most people who practice a martial art have been asked a similar question. “Have you ever had to use tae kwon do—kenpo—kung fu—brazilian jujitsu—kick boxing—sumo wrestling—northwestern wounded praying mantis style…?”
What we’re really being asked is, “Can you give me the salacious details of a fight where you triumphed because of your martial prowess?”
Those of us who follow Chekhov’s dramatic advice know that if a martial art appears in the first act, it must be used by the third.
I am always initially taken aback by the question, “Have you ever had to use aikido?” I find myself thinking, “I use it all the time. I’m using it right now. Isn’t it obvious?” Then I realize that the question is, “Have you ever used the techniques of aikido in a fight?”
Not if I can help it…
Very early in my practice, I began to realize that aikido had given me the gift of an expanded awareness, along with a trust in my intuition. I can’t say exactly how, but the practice of the art made me more aware of my surroundings, and more confident. I also realized that my upbringing had taught me that it was wrong to feel suspicious of others. But other people’s intentions are not always good. The repetitive practice of “controlled attack/blending with/resolving the attack” taught me not only a method of protecting myself, but instilled the intuition to read the intentions of others.
My wife Adele and I had been practicing for about a year when we took a trip to Rome. My mother-in-law warned us about the gypsy children fleecing the tourists. (But she had also warned us about the Rastafarians in Jamaica, and I found the ganja smokers to be among the gentlest humans on the planet).
We arrived in Italy, befuddled after an all night flight from Austin, took a train into the city, and came up into the morning light across the street from the Colosseum, carrying all our luggage. Immediately a German tourist walked by and a crowd of kids in gypsy dress—bright, colorful dresses, scarves, balloon sleeves, and lace—descended upon her. A little girl thrust an open newspaper into the tourist’s face while the others went into her pockets and yanked at the camera strap on her shoulder. An Italian man stepped forward and chased them off. The woman walked away angrily, with no thanks offered to her rescuer.
A few days later, we were walking down the street, on our way to a small church that housed Michelangelo’s Moses. I noticed a group of children coming toward us, but they were dressed as Italian school kids, not in the colorful gypsy style, so I paid no attention. Instead, I looked up toward an ancient building’s top story, admiring the angels in the architecture. Suddenly I heard Adele shout “No!” Surprised, I came back to the scene before me, and saw a little girl a couple steps away, beginning to raise a newspaper toward my face. Adele stood beside me in hanmi, one arm raised before her, holding a folded map. (I thought of photographs of O-Sensei armed only with a Japanese fan, defeating a swordsman). I also stopped in the hanmi posture we had learned in aikido—one foot naturally in front of the other—and raised my hands out just above waist level.
The newspaper dropped. The stream of kids planning to rob me parted and flowed around us, hurrying on down the street. They were looking to attack someone oblivious of his surroundings, and the simple act of awareness was enough to protect us and cause them to go elsewhere.
Over the years I’ve had several incidents where I have seen trouble coming and just gone the other way. I’m confident that it’s been my aikido practice that has developed in me the awareness of my circumstances and the trust in my intuition that has prevented me from walking into danger I might not have otherwise perceived.
The closest I have come to actual physical conflict since I started practicing aikido came a few years ago. Adele had a blacksmith shop in a spot a couple miles from downtown Austin. The land sloped downward right off of a busy street, making it a good hiding place for nefarious after-dark activities. Every morning Adele would walk the grounds, picking up all sorts of nasty litter including hypodermic needles, used condoms… She also acted as a Mother Theresa of the Felines, spaying and neutering, then twice a day feeding an expanding orphanage of stray cats.
One morning when she was out of town, I went to her shop to feed the strays. I was out in the yard picking up the previous night’s detritus when I saw a guy walking up the street drinking from a bottle wrapped in a paper bag. Just as he walked by a garbage bin, he threw the bottle down on the street. “Hey!” I shouted. “Pick up your trash! There’s a trash can right there!”
The man turned, and I saw he was not the old derelict I had assumed him to be, but a buff, strapping 20-something who was now walking straight toward me, flexing his muscles, and staring intently.
“Crap!” I thought. “I didn’t want to get into a fight over this.”
But my training took over. I stood in hanmi, one foot in front of the other, weight slightly forward, breathing calmly, relaxed, extending ki. I watched him approach me with a fierce expression. Remarkably, I wasn’t thinking about what I was going to do. I just waited. When he was about five feet away, he suddenly smiled, stuck out his hand, and said, “Thanks, man. Thanks for calling me on that. I shouldn’t have thrown that down.”
I was greatly relieved, happy for a peaceful resolution. I’m convinced that if I had shown either aggression or fear, things would have turned out much differently.
And, okay, there was one situation where I actually “used aikido.” A friend of mine from work played in a death metal band. I went to hear him play at a club one night. In front of the bandstand was a mosh pit where young men slammed into each other. Not wanting to take part in the action, I stood a good ten feet back from the swarm of grappling bodies. In the middle of a strange heavy metal version of “Ring of Fire,” someone pushed me hard from behind. Without a thought, I spun around, grabbed his wrist and elbow, and bent him forward into the beginnings of an ikkyo throw. It surprised us both. My friends all looked at me with “what are you doing?” expressions as the guy I held down was saying, “Wait, man, wait… Let me up.” “Okay,” I said. “Just don’t shove me.”
After a Shin Budo Kai seminar in Albuquerque, we gathered in a ballroom to celebrate Imaizumi Sensei’s 50th anniversary in aikido. Sensei agreed to take questions from the attendees. Index cards were passed around, and several people wrote down their queries. Someone handed in the inevitable question. Imaizumi picked up the card and read aloud, “Does aikido work as a practical martial art?” He looked out at his gathered students, and said, “I’ve lived in New York for 30 years and no one has ever attacked me with a sword.”
I smiled broadly at his response. It was one of those Zen answers that either goes over your head or hits you right between the eyes, knocking you clean into enlightenment.
What I took from his comment is that what we’re practicing is much deeper than a practical martial art. The practice bestows grace in movement, relaxation, clarity, confidence, and a way to resolve conflict. At its best, it leads to a complete transformation of the self. (I wrote and erased that last sentence twice before I wrote it again, thinking of my own still-existent shortcomings. The transformation is an ongoing process. I’m still walking the path.)
So, in answer to the question “Have you ever had to use aikido?” my answer is yes, I use what I have learned from aikido all the time. If it were only useful in the rare instances when you were attacked, practicing it would hardly be worth the trouble.
O-Sensei with Fan
And, by the way, if you ever decide to attack someone with a sword on the streets of Manhattan, Imazumi Sensei is probably the last person you should choose.