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.”