Look for the Lesson

In any interaction with Sensei I assume there is a lesson – that Sensei knows exactly what he’s doing, and there’s a point to it.

In a recent class we were doing an exercise, each walking straight toward Sensei and turning tenkan to avoid his bokken swings, sideways at our midsections. I did OK the first time through, and got back in the end of the line.

The next time I was up I was ready. Was it going to be right or left? Watching for any sign… a shift of weight, tightening of an arm, or settling of a hip. I knew what was coming, and was ready for it. I tried to be equally ready to tenkan out of the way to whichever side, depending on the direction of the swing. When it was my turn I moved toward Sensei trying not to favor either way. Trying to not anticipate one or the other, left or right…

And he tsuki’ed directly into me.

I’m sure he had to pull the thrust to keep me from impaling myself, even though I folded in the middle and backed off. And the class and I had a good laugh. Dammit. I didn’t see that coming.

I can’t say whether he really meant it as a lesson, or if he was bored with going to the left and right, or was just having a little fun. But I took it as a lesson – although it didn’t quite sink in until a couple of days later, when I sort of got the joke and started laughing as I was feeding the horse and donkeys. I had been ready for something I “knew” was coming. I was planning what I was going to do, based on my expectation of what I was sure would happen. I was not open, perceiving, and responding to what was actually happening. Now I get it!

As far as I’m concerned, the exercise was a direct, intentional lesson in what can happen when I think instead of feel. Sensei knew exactly what was going on in my head, and pointed out the potential consequences in an immediate and visceral (or eviscerating?) way that I was sure to remember.

Did he really mean it that way? Maybe not. I don’t actually believe that teachers always do everything so deliberately. It’s just that it’s most useful for my own training to assume that they do, and always be looking for the lesson.

It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if he did do it very much on purpose.

I’m grateful for having “gotten the point,” in any case.

Commit First, Then Figure It Out

Something I have found fun and useful in several areas of life (music, riding, and now Aikido) is to commit to doing or participating in something, and then figure out how to make it happen. For instance, I might commit to being at a weekend horse camping event. Then I have to get after making sure my truck and trailer are ready to go, get my horse used to loading in the trailer, etc. I don’t wait until I’m ready, and then commit. I commit, and then use that commitment as a reason to get off my butt and get ready.

I recently signed up for a 3-day riding clinic in March. I’ve done virtually nothing with Rainy (my horse) for months. So having a date in early spring when we have to be capable of participating in clinic (plus having the truck and trailer current on maintenance, etc.) is a good goal. I’ve promised to be there, and paid in full. Time to start getting ready.

Now just this past week I have signed up for the Aikido Bridge Friendship Seminar. It’s in mid-January. I figured with 3 months to work on everything in general, and to get in better shape, I should be OK to participate in a 4-day seminar without dropping dead. I just need to put in some extra time, focus during class. It’s a killer opportunity, but it’s just a seminar. No biggie.

And then the videos I ordered arrived, of the same seminar from past years. Uh oh. Mind you, I just did my 6th kyu exam. Nevermind “beginner’s mind,” I have beginner’s everything. The video shows about 50 yudansha and about 2 mudansha, really going at it. On tatami mats (read: not very forgiving at all). LOL I really am going to die now. I can see the headline: “Local Woman Dies of Humilation and Bruises”

I’m kidding. I really am looking forward to it, and very excited about participating. But dang I’m glad I have 3 months! Getting my rolls and falls as soft as possible is one thing I’ll really be focusing on. If I start getting sore there I’ll get tense and guarded/defensive, and that won’t help anything. And luckily I’ll have a few weeks in November where I can really step up my training, from my usual 2 days a week to nearly every day. And I’ve been slacking off a little on stretching, strengthening, and icing. No more of that. Back at it.

As with any of these things I commit to doing, it’s great motivation for doing whatever it takes to get prepared. This looks a little deeper than the deep ends I’m used to jumping in, but I can swim even in deep water.

On Being Someone Else

A bunch of random-but-related thoughts have been swarming around my head lately like so many butterflies that won’t alight long enough to permit a decent photograph. So I’ll try doing what I’ve done before here when I can’t herd ideas into coherence – I’ll just blurt them all out and see if there’s anything useful among the lot.

Thought #1: When I was preparing for my first exam (6th kyu) one of the things I had to work on was basic jiyuwaza (dealing with free-form attacks by Uke – all simple grabs at this level).

Jiyuwaza was really intimidating for me. It wasn’t fear of getting hit or grabbed – I’ve done sparring before (and besides, I knew my mentor/uke wasn’t out to get me, really). It was fear of looking stupid, not being able to think of what to do. Brain cramps, basically. It felt to me like being asked to sing a song I didn’t know. I didn’t know what to do. Deer in the headlights time. Hated it. My mentor, Scott, would suggest practicing jiyuwaza, and I’d melt into a heap of whining about how I hated it, and wasn’t any good at it. “Oh no, not that.”

Luckily I recognized that for what it was. In addition to Scott’s very capable coaching about what to actually do during jiyuwaza, one thing that really helped me was dressage coach Jane Savoie’s advice to say to myself “I love doing jiyuwaza! It’s my favorite thing! This is my chance to have fun and play!” Yes, I actually said that stuff every time – in a convincing enough way that my brain started to buy into it. (Bless Scott’s heart for not falling over laughing.)

Another thing (finally, we get to the point…) that helped me tremendously was that I’d recently done jiyuwaza in class with one of the yudansha who has a particularly fun and self-assured presence. You fall or roll, and he’s Right There when you come up, hand outstretched, with a look like “well, what are you doing goofing around on the mat – let’s go!” Scott cited him as an example to follow. That was great, because while I didn’t know quite what he did, exactly, I did know how it felt. So rather than trying to do the things he was doing, I just tried being him. It worked beautifully. The “doing” came along with the “being” without thinking about it.

Thought #2: Robert Nadeau Shihan, in his interview for the “Aikido – The Way of Harmony Podcast” (also available on iTunes) discusses the futility of trying to do something one cannot do. One example from the podcast is learning to deal better with pressure. Rather than trying to handle pressure as our current self (which we’ve already determined has a problem with pressure), we can instead grow into someone who can deal with pressure better. I’m starting to see, I think, that one can make that jump to a new “someone who” very quickly in some situations.

Being too aggressive: A few classes ago I “got caught” being too… forceful? aggressive? I was frustrated, and trying to make a technique work by muscle and speed (as if I had any chance of that working). Eyes hard. Breath short. Not controlled. Not cool. No aiki happening. Sensei of course saw that and called me on it. (Thank you, Sensei.) (Grrr, Self.) Not what I’m training for.

Being too floppy: In a seminar on Connection earlier this month (see my post about that) we used video. Aside from all the usual “I look like a goof” stuff one notices in video, I saw that what I was doing was not consistent with how I felt, or what my intention was. I looked floppy, uncentered, unbalanced… Acck! I don’t feel like a floppy, uncentered, unbalanced person, but there you go. And really, what I saw on the video was consistent with some ongoing problems I’ve been having in my technique, like failing to grab solidly, not wrapping my thumb around to hold on. Wimpy, weak, unsure. Yuck.

Noticing a way of being: Recently I noticed something about the way Sensei was working with ukes. (See my earlier post “Vet Tech Analogy”) From that post:  "There was no rushing, no anger, no malicious intent. What I saw was calm, composed compassion, along with undeniable power and absolute control. It suddenly reminded me of watching a veterinary technician (vet tech) control an animal patient.“ It was exactly what I was not doing. It’s exactly what I want to be doing. Soft, controlled, effective Aikido. But until I thought of "vet tech” I didn’t really have an image for that. It seemed to be a huge collection of behaviors to be learned (and it is that, too, I know), rather than a unified way of being.

Thought #3: Wendy Palmer Sensei, in her book “The Intuitive Body – Discovering the Wisdom of Conscious Embodiment and Aikido,” suggests ways of letting our bodies teach our minds. One of the things we can learn from out bodies is about having certain qualities. Rather than complaining “I wish I weren’t so scattered,” or even making the more affirmative statement “I have great focus,” Palmer Sensei suggests asking of our bodies “What would it be like if I had more focus?” and feeling what our bodies have to tell us. We can do this with any quality we want to embody.

Palmer Sensei suggests picking one quality at a time, but I have two that sort of grabbed me. The first is tenderness. “What would it be like if I had more tenderness?” That’s kind of missing for me, so I’m trying on that question. But that didn’t feel quite complete. Something else was missing. Firmness. “What would it be like if I had more firmness.” Hmmm…

Putting things together: So for the past few classes (and everywhere else) I’ve been playing with these ideas. "How would it feel to handle Uke like a vet tech would handle a big, strong, scared puppy?“ "What would it be like if I had more tenderness?” “What would it be like if I had more firmness?” It’s definitely a different way of thinking than trying to remember to do things differently: grab more solidly, stay soft and quiet, etc. but it seems to be helping with those things. I’m starting to see the possibilities in “being someone who” does things the way I’d like to be doing them. It’s an idea I’ll be playing with more.

“Don’t do something different, be someone different.”

Connection (and Riding)

I’m just back from this morning’s seminar on Connection, and things are only just starting to sink in. So I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts (or feelings?) on this eventually. But here are a few things that stood out for me at first glance.

We did an exercise where we did shomenuchi ikkyo, ura waza, but without touching each other. Just staying together through the technique in a sort of magnetic way. It was pretty easy and slow at first, and as Nage it felt a bit like operating a marionette (a puppet operated at a distance by strings). But then we switched partners and I was working with someone doing it quite a bit faster. And I, when I was Uke, had to keep up! It required a lot more alertness, and willingness to actively move with Nage’s direction. He’d spiral backward and downward quite fast (it seemed), and I had to move to stay with him. A strange experience, throwing oneself!

A little light went on there. I have been relying on Nage to physically move me through techniques. Not actively resisting, but not actively extending into the technique, either. Shutting down. Being done unto.

Later, while doing kotegaeshi, I injured the back of my hand – I think by getting behind Nage’s motion, instead of staying with him. No biggie, but it blew up a little, so I sat out for a while to do the ice, pressure, & elevation thing. It gave me a chance to watch and let things sink in.

Everyone was working on a reversal technique, and exploring the idea that staying connected and active is what lets you be (as Uke) in a position to do the reversal. It occurred to me that staying actively engaged and connected, instead of shutting down and being done unto, is one of the things missing in my riding. I already knew this on one level – that I tend to shut down when “things get a little Western.” It’s one of the specific things I came to Aikido to work on.

Today’s work gave me a slightly different perspective on it. I’ve been thinking in terms of “don’t shut down.” But that doesn’t give me anywhere to go. “Not shutting down” is hard thing to do – because it’s a negative. (Go ahead and try not shutting down.) One of the things I know in horse training is that you can’t train a horse to not do something. You have to train it to do something else that is incompatible with the undesirable behavior. Something like “lower your head in response to rein pressure” is trainable, where “don’t toss your head” isn’t. The head lowering precludes head tossing.

I’d even thought, in my things I want to get out of Aikido, as far as “be able to take effective action in the face of overwhelming physical threat” (like when your 1,400 lb horse is bucking across an open meadow). But that’s hard to do, too, because it’s too vague. Or maybe it a consequence of something. There’s a step missing.

“Stay connected with your partner,” on the other hand, is something specific one can do. It’s specific and immediate (or ongoing, actually). It naturally precludes shutting down and being done unto. So there’s something I can work on. Staying connected with my horse. Going from “being bucked with” to “back in control” is a reversal of sorts, one that connection makes possible.

There was a lot more. It amazes me how much one can get out of two hours of focused work. I did a few things I’m kind of pleased with, some I’m not. In a few cases the things I’m pleased with were things I was doing wrong (or poorly), but could at least tell that I was doing them wrong, and was able to make some corrections. There’s a lot about what I saw on the video (no, it’s not on YouTube) that is in jarring conflict with how I see myself, and how I want to be seen. One of the things Aikido has helped me discover is that abject public mortification won’t kill me. Don’t hide from it, learn from it. There’s never any concern that I might run out of things to work on. ;-)

Vet Tech Analogy

I’ve heard it said that Aikido is more like police work than like the military. You want to control a bad situation, keeping everyone as safe as possible. There’s nothing comparable to storming in and taking out the enemy. It’s an analogy that resonates with me, and has been very useful in explaining to non-Aikido friends why my training isn’t about fighting or beating people up.

But I’ve noticed something in the past week that brought another image to mind. First, I was watching Sensei working with some of the yudansha. There was no rushing, no anger, no malicious intent. What I saw was calm, composed compassion, along with undeniable power and absolute control. It suddenly reminded me of watching a veterinary technician (vet tech) control an animal patient. Vet techs have a variety of techniques they use to immobilize a animal so it can be safely treated without hurting them, the veterinarian, or itself. The animal is absolutely controlled, but with no intent to cause it harm, only kindness and sympathy. It’s done firmly, so there’s no question in the animal’s mind that it might be able to get loose, but no more force is used than necessary. It’s interesting that the animal usually feels safe, and calms down.

Later I got to experience being Uke as Sensei demonstrated a technique. The analogy held up. There was no pain, or even force, but there was also no question of resisting, and a sense of total safety.

It’s easy to imagine some of the sense of safety being due to working with someone you trust implicitly. But cats don’t trust vet techs, and they still seem to have that experience.

If we can use Aikido with actual attackers (in whatever context), to evoke that calming sense of utter control and safety… Well, it’s an image I’ll keep around and play with, to see how well it fits.

Don’t Push So Hard Against the World

Several weeks ago I participated in the Aikido In Focus seminar called “Relax, it’s Aikido,one in a series of seminars by Dave Goldberg Sensei, Aikido of San Diego. In the last few days I’m finally finding my realizations from that experience forming themselves into coherent thoughts. OK, so I think slowly.

I didn’t know what to expect from this seminar. Relaxation is something I knew I needed to work on in my riding, at least, and it was bound to be a pleasant enough experience, so I signed up. I regularly go to a 90-minute class, and the seminar was only 2 hours, so I wasn’t expecting miracles.

But I knew immediately that something deeply important had happened to me in the seminar. The best I could do at the time was to see it as a mental image of hands lifting a stuck Roomba (a wandering robotic vacuum cleaner) out of a corner. Or perhaps more poetically, a little fish being helped from a tide pool into the open sea. (Funny that I think "kohai” sounds like it should be the name of a little fish.) There was a distinct sense of being set free from a tightly bounded existence, and having a vastly expanded space in which to live and play with others. I noticed friends laughing, and it made me happy. I seemed more receptive to the emotional states, both positive and negative, of people around me. Something happened, but I couldn’t say what it was.

There’s very little of the visceral, experiential "doing" of Aikido that I can put to words. I think that’s why I end up writing poetry about a lot of it – because that’s evocative, not rational or explanatory. This is really challenging for me, because the way I get things into memory frequently is by writing them down. So I sometimes feel like have only the most tenuous hold on newly-gained knowledge until I have put it into my own words. And when friends have asked me what we covered in the seminar, the best I could do was to blabber incoherently that it was a lot of fun. I could say there were these really cool exercises we did, but I couldn’t even describe those in any context that would make sense.

One of the things that started off this crystallization of amorphous thoughts just recently has been my discovery of a beautiful song, with this chorus:

Don’t push so hard against the world.
You can’t do it all alone,
And if you could, would you really want to,
Even though you’re a Big Strong Girl?

(Come on, come on, lay it down.)
The best made plans…
(Come on, come on, lay it down.)
Are your open hands.

From “Big Strong Girl” by Deb Talan, on the CD “A Bird Flies Out" (available on iTunes)

The seminar itself was great fun. Very pleasant and relaxing (as one might expect). We started with a sort of whole-body inventory – finding tension and letting it go, getting centered, breathing. When everyone was in a soft, relaxed space we moved on to doing lots of fun exercises, mostly interacting with each other. I could describe who did what, and how it all looked, but that would be beside the point.

It’s telling that when I mention or think of the name of the seminar, I almost always get it wrong. I remember it as being about ”feeling“ – about letting yourself feel. Sensei created a safe, trustworthy environment in which to experience relinquishing control, and going with the feel of things. We got to experience responding naturally and effectively by feeling each others’ movement and energy, moment-by-moment, and not trying to decide ahead of time, by thinking, what we should be doing.

The way I see it there are two ends to the spectrum that was revealed: A tense, forceful, controlled way of being versus being relaxed, open, and following the feel (an expression horsepeople will recognize). As you might have guessed by now, I tend to live on the controlled end. I know how things are supposed to be, and have some pretty good attachment to trying to make them be that way. That can be fine in some circumstances, like knowing and following traffic laws so nobody gets killed. But as a way of life it’s somewhat limiting.

OK, it’s a lot limiting. Days after the seminar, still on a vague sort of indescribable high from the experience, I finally started to see that bigger picture, and it hit me hard: I haven’t been letting myself feel. I habitually operate from already knowing, and forcing, rather than from perceiving and allowing. In response to a lot of physical pain over many years I mostly stopped hearing what my body had to say. I like people, and am happy to interact with them, but I don’t let them affect me, really. My emotional dial only goes from 3 to 7. In shutting out grief and disappointment I’ve also shut out joy and passion.

I haven’t been letting myself feel.

And then there I was, suddenly in tears, realizing the cost of living like that, and seeing the potential in letting that go. I’ve never experienced that level of emotion from a… a what… Epiphany seems too strong, too cliche, but yeah, that’s really it. (”a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience.“) A sudden insight about who am, how I am, bought on by the simple experience of relaxing, and letting myself feel, and act on feeling for a couple of hours.

The experience opened a broad crack in a thick wall. There’s light streaming through, and I can get to the other side, but I have a lot of work ahead. It still seems natural to hang out on this familiar, comfortable side of the wall most of the time. But with ongoing conscious examination of my experience and actions it should become easier to stop "pushing so hard against the world.”

I suppose that perceiving the reality of a situation, including movement, direction, balance, and energy of one’s partner, could have implications for one’s Aikido as well. Maybe the “best made plans” aren’t plans at all, but “our open hands.”

Discovering Connection

I suppose it’s true that in any pursuit, the more you learn, the more you realize how little you know.

At a few points thus far in my short Aikido journey I’ve had glimpses what might lie along the road ahead. Vague outlines of the tops of distant mountains. A barely perceptible pre-dawn glow from a city beyond the forest. Is that the wind, or the roar of a far-off river?

I had one of those glimpses recently, when Sensei demonstrated in a simple technique the difference that connection makes. No connection. Connection. Twenty seconds out of a ninety-minute class, and the impact was profound. More about that, please!

From this shore I’ve seen a bird fly in from another land, away over the horizon. Next Sunday we row out to begin exploring it. I can’t wait.

Aikido? Or Riding?

I’ve had this idea rattling around in my head for quite a while. I think students of either discipline will recognize these points – and will probably be able to cite many more.

Aikido? Or Riding?

Linda Eskin

Heels down, chest open, eyes forward. Breathe.
Relax your shoulders, soften your elbows. Breathe.

Look where you want to go
and you will go there.

Close your hands.
You’re not holding a teacup.

Don’t look at the ground.
The ground isn’t going anywhere.

Drop your center.
Get deeper, more stable, grounded.

Let your eyes be soft.
Take in the entire scene.

Be straight and light, 
Like a string is lifting the top of your head.

Heels down, chest open, eyes forward. Breathe.
Relax your shoulders, soften your elbows. Breathe.

Be firm and clear.
Direct your partner with certainty.

The stick is not for hitting.
It’s an extension of your body.

Flow with your partner.
Feel their energy and go with it.

Ask for no more
Than your partner can give.

Close your eyes.
Feel your way through the movement.

Align your body and intention. 
Your energy goes where your center is pointing.

Heels down, chest open, eyes forward. Breathe.
Relax your shoulders, soften your elbows. Breathe.

Don’t hurry things.
The more you rush, the slower you get there.

We’re all beginners.
It takes a lifetime. Just keep practicing.