Notes From a Gentleman Farmer

September. Here, at 8000 feet, any night a freeze may come. One late snowpea plant is still blossoming. The rest are going brown, and heavy seed pods hang from the vines. The spinach has gone to seed, but the zucchini and yellow squash are crawling across the potato stalks, even sneaking through the deer fence to escape into the wilderness. If Weather Underground predicts a freeze, I’ll have to decide whether and what to cover. Gardening at high altitude is a challenge.

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The Endless Accumulation of Fresh Starts

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.

Kote Gaeshi by Sigurd Rage

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.”

Gaudi Dragon byPeter Corbett

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.

 

  1. Chogyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1973), 155 

  2. Peter Matthiessen, Nine-Headed Dragon River (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1987), 104

  3. Ralph T. Bryan ed., The Aikido of Shin-Budo Kai (Sandia Park: Samashi Press), ix Shugyo toha taerukoto no nai denaoshi dearu” “Shugyo is the endless accumulation of fresh starts”

(Featured image “Lightning” courtesy of Tom VanNortwick.)

Dignity and Respect

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.

Copyright 2012 J-O Waldner.

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.

How You Contribute to a Harmonious World

For almost 15 years, Durango Shin-Budo Kai has been a community resource for boosting mind-body unification, refining the spirit, and teaching nonviolent conflict resolution. As a 501(c)3, we are committed to the embodied practice of aikido as a means to increasing the peace and harmony for each practitioner, their families, the community, and beyond. As a martial art, aikido is remarkably adaptive. Its principles can be practiced by anyone of any gender, age, cultural heritage, or physical ability. (Indeed, we have welcomed onto our mats practitioners who were partially blind or wheelchair-enabled.)

While our nonprofit organization outlines our 2018 community outreach and education goals, we wanted to share the most exciting accomplishments from the last year.

Growth
New Year’s Day marked our one-year anniversary in the new dojo at 1140-A Main Ave (inside YogaDurango). Within this location, we hosted a jam-packed Open House, not to mention two successful semiannual introductory classes. We trained our bodyminds and refined our spirits during our solstice and equinox shugyos. These events brought guests from other dojos near and far, which contributed fresh zest to the training mix.

We added this blog to our website! The original articles you find there every month are generated by our own practitioners. There, we delve into what is new or old, lost or found on the path of this remarkable martial art.

Guides
DSBK once again participated in Durango 9R School District’s Keys to High School Success program where middle school students preparing to enter high school circulate through various learning stations throughout the day. With 6-8 dojo members on hand, we lead exercises that allow the young people to experience for themselves the power of relaxation, how to access calmness under stress, and what a difference it makes to center attention in the lower belly when facing a challenge. This year our participation made The Herald!

Michael Wilkinson (left) instructing the adults’ class.

In 2017, we also witnessed an important torch passed. After serving as the Kids Class Instructor for over a decade, Michael Wilkinson (4th degree black belt) retired from the post. Michael was a guide and a mentor to many, many children and teens. For some, he was a beacon—the only reliable and trustworthy adult available during those tough, transitional years. We are grateful Michael continues to practice and teach in the regular, adult classes. Meanwhile, Sky Yudron and Philip Riffe took over instruction of aikido’s next generation. They enjoyed packed classes with attendance reaching the double-digits during the long, hot summer.

Promotions
Promotions in rank occur when a student successfully demonstrates a selected range of techniques, ability, poise, and weapons exercises known as katas. Preparations for these “tests” unify the entire dojo around the candidate, generating a spirited, committed exchange of knowledge, skill, and insight. Promotions underscore the health of the dojo and the perseverance of its members. In 2017:

  • Tim Birchard earned 5th kyu (and in October, earned 4th kyu)
  • Sky Yudron earned 2nd kyu
  • Nate Brush earned 2nd kyu (and in December, earned 1st kyu)

Jenny Mason completed most of the weapons demonstrations required for Nidan, 2nd degree black belt. (Imaizumi Sensei will have the opportunity to review her promotion once she has completed all the requirements in 2018.)

Gratitude
We are all deeply grateful for the opportunity to train together, to grow and develop together, and to share the wonderful and transforming art of aikido with adults and especially the next generations in the kids’ classes. We know that this opportunity exists only because of the support of our partners and families to whom we are deeply grateful. As always, we will seek additional ways to extend our contribution to the community in the coming years. This natural rhythm of give and accept, extend and receive, inhale and exhale is fundamental to aikido and to all healthy relations.

Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to DSBK Aikido, a registered 501(c)3 educational non-profit. All our instructors volunteer their time for free. All funds go toward rent, insurance, and aikido outreach events and efforts in the community. Contributions allow us to keep the cost of membership as low as possible, making the practice more accessible. The ripple-effects of these benefits translate directly into your meaningful contribution to a more harmonious world.

For information about how to give, please visit our Patronage page. Or mail a check to: Steve Self, DSBK Treasurer, 120 Trail Ridge Road, Durango, CO  81301. Make the checks out to DSBK Aikido. You will be sent a receipt with the nonprofit info for taxes.

Here’s to a more harmonious 2018!

Which way is down?

Which Way Is Down?

I’ve always been a bit clumsy. From bumping into walls to drawing surprised glances when I dance in public, I have always felt challenged by my lack of physical grace.

But even so, I’ve always believed I knew which way was down. It’s just right there; look at the floor. Toward the center of the earth. Gravity is pulling me there all the time. Easy, right?

Well, on this fresh new journey into the world of Aikido, I’m beginning to realize that locating “down” may be simple, but it’s not always easy. Not for me, anyway.

Don’t get me wrong: when I am serving as Uke, my sempai clearly show me where “down” is. I am led down again and again, so it would seem that my intellect would understand instantly.

And yet over the past inaugural year’s training, countless times I have been under the impression that I was leading my uke “down,” only to be shown that I was actually leading them in any number of other directions. Currently, in the process of learning katate tori ikkyo hantai tenkan, a technique requiring Nage to lead Uke around and down simultaneously in a corkscrew-like path, I am surprised how easily I forget where “down” is. I lead Uke toward this wall, that wall… across the room… or even at some cockeyed angle approaching the ceiling. But not down.

The challenge I’m facing, I believe, is my habitual tendency to run all teachings up into my head and through my intellect before committing to movement.

I am graciously reminded by my sempai that the body often knows how to do a technique, but the intellect wants to “check it out and make sure it’s correct” before allowing the body to move. The result: confusion, leading to breaks in flow and continuity. Or, more recently, leading me to stare at my own hand as if I had never seen it before. A few of us shared a good laugh over that one.

All of this became clearer to me the other day as I was participating in our dojo’s Kids Class. A new boy about 5 or 6 years old attended for the very first time with a big smile on his face, occasionally glancing back at his father for reassurance. I asked the kiddo to roll over backwards, and he immediately did a very impressive back roll without even thinking about it.

I offered what I thought would be helpful corrections, pointing out that whichever knee is up shows us which shoulder we roll back over.

After my feedback, the poor kid could no longer do a backward roll. In fact, all I had truly done was brought the boy’s awareness up into his head where his intellect tried to “make it perfect,” resulting in a partial back roll turning mid-way into a front roll/barrel roll flop.

Turns out this is all good news, because it’s leading me toward some key questions:

In this moment, how aware of my body’s position in space am I? Where are my arms? Where are my legs? Where are my hands and feet? In which direction(s) are they moving?

And, in the bigger picture: What intention am I setting today? How am I feeling? How will I respond to perceived challenges, conflict, and friction?

As I come back to the present moment, time and again throughout the day, perhaps the best question I can ask myself truly is, “which way is down?”

Moving Around My Own Center

Mark Sensei commonly reminds us to move around our own center, regardless of what uke may be doing or not doing.

After spending my entire life reacting to the behaviors of others (a survival strategy that served me well as a child, but no longer serves me as an adult), this wisdom sounds very counter-intuitive. And, like everything else Mark Sensei demonstrates, it works.

When uke grabs my wrist and I turn tenkan, I understand intellectually that the best thing I can do is simply to turn around my own center. And yet, time after time, the habitual responses that have been grooved into my nervous system over decades take over. And I find myself staring intently at uke’s hand grabbing my wrist, struggling as muscles are engaged.

In that moment, Mark Sensei might say that my attention — and therefore my mind — is on the contact point between uke’s grab and my wrist. And he would likely say that’s okay, and encourage me to simply acknowledge what is taking place and move mind back to my own center.

Where else in my life might I benefit from moving from my own center?

“Fire Dancers – 17” by Travis Nep Smith

Instead of worrying what people think of me and trying to change myself to fit into various circumstances, what if I simply lived my truth, with respect for myself and respect for others?

Instead of focusing on the past and giving energy to recreating arguments in my head, or conjuring up memories of who has wronged me and how, what if I simply focused on what brings joy and satisfaction in my own life, regardless of where those other people are today?

Where else in my daily life can I trust enough to listen carefully to inner wisdom and move around my own center?

Tim has been training in aikido since 2016 and is currently ranked 5th kyu.