A Tree in a Hurricane

I’ve had a bit of a scare recently. I will not be fine (who among us will be, really?), but I’m a lot better off than I feared. 

The past week was difficult. I had just started outlining a twenty-year plan for my life and career from 47 to 67. I’d ordered a stack of interesting books, and made a list of mentors to talk to. There were things to learn, possibilities to investigate… Exciting stuff.

Then I stumbled onto what sounded like some very bad news during a routine physical. Suddenly the future didn’t look like it was going to be much fun. I don’t scare easily, but I’ve never been so afraid.

It was like being in a hurricane, struck by new information and realizations like 2x4s hurled in the wind. In that hurricane, Aikido was the deeply-rooted tree I was clinging to. Friday night’s class (see my previous post about it) could not have come at a better time or been more perfect. (How does Sensei do that?) Everything I’ve learned about meditation, breathing, staying present, being in my body, moving in, keeping my center… It all came into play. On Monday, when I should have been up in the mountains training my horse, I arranged for him to be turned out to play, and went to the dojo instead. Clinging to my sturdy tree. Another two classes last night kept me grounded.

Today I got test results that added up to very good news. More tests ahead, and ongoing management. But I was already doing that.

Aikido is probably the best thing I could have been doing for the past year, and into the future, both physically and emotionally. I had cut back recently to 3 days a week to spend more time with Rainy. But I’m going to try to go at least 4 days, 5 when I can, at least for now. Something else will have to give. Maybe I’ll have to hire a trainer to work with Rainy during the week.

This whole adventure has been a good reminder. Treasure every moment. Take nothing for granted. Don’t put things off. I’m so glad I went to that 5-day seminar at the start of the year, that I’ve been able to train so much, that I’m working regularly with my horse, that I spend lots of time with my husband having fun together, that I do rewarding work I enjoy, that I spend time in nature… There are a few things I need to be doing more – that I shouldn’t be putting off. Someone said “it’s not the things we do that we regret, but the things we do not do.” When you have opportunities to do what you love, take them. You never know if you’ll have the chance later. 

Right now I have every expectation that I will continue to have those chances. <whew!> So it’s back to crafting that twenty-year plan, with optimism and excitement. It will definitely include Aikido. Right after I go out for dinner and walk with the love of my life.

Life lessons from last night’s class, in which Sensei focused on good ukemi in freestyle:

  • Be present in your body.
  • Don’t go, or take a fall, in anticipation of what you think is coming.
  • Feel what’s actually happening.
  • Stay soft and responsive. 
  • Spring back the moment the pressure is off.
  • Keep your integrity. 
  • You have more power in the situation when you have a solid base.
  • Keep moving. Do something. Don’t just stand there and wait for the attack to come.
  • By choosing how you invite the attack, you will be better able to deal with it.
  • If your balance is really taken, go with it. Make the new direction yours. Own it. 
  • Keep your center, and be ready to respond to openings for reversals.

Important points to take to heart, in Aikido and in everything.

Along those same lines, via my friend William Cummings on Facebook yesterday:
“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles , but most of them never happened .”
– Mark Twain

Like Bread Dough

I’ve really been enjoying training lately, even though I have been at the dojo somewhat less to make time to work with Rainy, my horse. I look forward to classes like a kid on Christmas morning. I’m having fun with Rainy, and we’re progressing well, but I miss Aikido on the days I don’t go.  

The connections and similarities between Aikido and horsemanship go much deeper than I had expected. That will be the subject of my next column for "The Mirror" on AikiWeb, in June. I’m constantly making wonderful discoveries in that area, and hearing virtually the same words from my horsemanship teacher and Sensei. There have been a few jaw-dropping moments with each where all I could think was “did I really just hear them say that?”

For most of this spring, summer, and probably fall I am in a really wonderful place with respect to dojo life. I’m not close to testing (my next exam will be for 4th kyu), and I’m not advanced enough to mentor others. I don’t have any seminars coming up. Nothing in particular is expected of me. I feel like bread dough that’s been left in a warm, quiet place to rise. The ingredients are all there, and well mixed. There’s nothing to do but let them expand and mature. Just train.

I can almost feel the synapses in my brain making new connections, as the discrete skills and pieces of information I’ve accumulated over the past year weave themselves together. Recently, after being off the mat for a few weeks with a minor muscle strain I felt like I’d been away forever. I was sure I’d forgotten half of what I barely knew in the first place. But there it was. My body remembered.

This kind of somatic learning has been a very interesting new experience, and something I am beginning to explore in more depth. It’s fascinating being the one it’s happening to, and sort of watching it from the the inside.

While I do enjoy the intensity of working toward an exam, or being ready for an upcoming event, training with no particular goal is very pleasant and rewarding. I feel more able to explore different aspects of techniques, focus on ukemi, and be satisfied with improving and ingraining. Refining and deepening my understanding, rather than accumulating new pieces of information. I’ve also been watching how others teach, because from 4th kyu onward there’s the possibility of being asked to mentor others who are preparing for their tests.

Because I have no responsibilities, I’ve been free to take on other little things. Cleaning this or that, bringing flowers for the shomen from time to time, getting video of some exams, and so on. We will be moving the dojo to a new location in July, and I’m looking forward to helping with that however I can.

But mostly I’m just enjoying training. 

Milestone: One Year in Aikido

I am celebrating the completion of my first year in Aikido by staying home and fighting off a cold. I really wanted to be on the mat tonight. Instead I have the opportunity to practice writing with only half my brain engaged. My apologies if I ramble.

It’s hard to believe it’s already been a year, but it also seems like a lifetime. In some ways, it has been a lifetime. I am not the same person I was when I first stepped onto the mat.

It would be impossible to overstate my gratitude and admiration for my teacher, Dave Goldberg Sensei. He passes on the touch of the founder through his technique, speaks our dojo community into existence, and embodies a safe space for discovery and transformation. He demonstrates that one can be vulnerable and strong, gentle and effective, trusting, allowing, patient, generous… These have been more powerful lessons than any exercise or technique I’ve learned.

I have trained 155 days. I’ve participated in seminars and workshops. There was a dojo retreat, picnic, exam days, lunches, and parties. I’ve learned a little about Japanese culture and language, martial ethics and history, and met the most wonderful people. I reached my goal of losing 40 pounds, and on the whole am much healthier (the present cold notwithstanding) and stronger. I’ve developed some discipline in other areas where I had been, frankly, a slob about things. I still have a long way to go.

I’ve tested for 6th and 5th kyu. Whoever said your first test is the hardest one was right, I think. But I need to guard against overconfidence. I forgot how fully I threw myself into training up to 6th kyu, and did not train as well as I might have as my 5th kyu test approached. Yes, I trained a lot, but not with the same focus and attention as at the beginning. I’ve been trying to reclaim that, while allowing the process of learning to happen, like healing, in its own good time.

I came to Aikido hoping to develop skills that would help me in my riding and horsemanship. So far, so good, in those terms. But it has gone so much deeper than just those skills, in directions I never anticipated. I have been experiencing how one learns motor skills, and watching how to teach in that realm. I now have my horse, Rainy, boarded where I can work with him regularly through the summer, with a great teacher, in the company of others on that same path. It has only been a few weeks, and already we are making more progress than in the past two years. If I’ve been a little behind in my blogging, it’s because I’ve been at the barn.

I came to Aikido determined and fearless, and have learned to temper those qualities with patience and judgment. I’ve learned to notice and treasure the cycles and rhythms of dojo life. I discovered that I really like training with weapons, and meditating. I’ve learned to be a little more gentle with myself, let my mind be a bit quieter, to allow others more space and time to be who they are.

Touching and being touched, even being hit or held, was never a problem. But it took me a while to get comfortable with watching people. At first it felt awkward to even casually look on as techniques were demonstrated, never mind openly studying another’s body, movement, and posture. It seemed rude, intrusive, and inappropriate. Now it’s an aesthetic delight and a source of wonder, like hearing beautiful music, and learning to pick out the bass lines and sing the harmonies.

After a lifetime of doing my best to dismiss what my body and emotions had to say, I have begun to allow myself to feel, and to acknowledge that feelings have legitimacy. I have discovered a whole world of somatic psychology, body work, motor learning, and conscious embodiment that I had never been aware of, and am finding it fascinating. My skeptical, literal, rational brain would have dismissed most of it a year ago, but enough direct experience tends to shut down those objections pretty soundly.

Robert Nadeau Shihan, my teacher’s teacher, when discussing dimensions of ourselves in our recent seminar, said “You don’t know who you are, really.” New dimensions reveal new aspects of ourselves. I’ve been catching glimpses. Some have been surprising. Each has felt a little like coming home – right, familiar, and comfortable.

On one of my first visits to the dojo someone asked me “So, how long are you going to do Aikido?” It seemed like such an odd question that I couldn’t even form an answer. I’m sure I just gave a confused stare. The answer was then, as it is now, “For the rest of my life.”

OK, Earth, take us for another spin around the Sun. Let’s see what there is to see on this trip.