Qualities – Discovering and Developing Our Better Selves

This is the seventeenth in this series of 26 posts, one for each letter of the alphabet, that I am writing during the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, April 2016. You can find all the posts, as they are published throughout the month, by following the A-to-Z April 2016 tag.   

Q is for Qualities.

For better or worse, everything we do has certain qualities to it. There are physical sensations, emotions, and gut-level feelings. We can learn to notice these, and they can provide us with valuable feedback about a situation. We can also learn to deliberately express them, and that can change our experience of the situation.

Playing with qualities on the mat.

Just tonight in class Sensei led us through a progression of levels, each one defined by the embodied qualities we expressed at that level. That’s a hard idea to grasp if you’re not used to working this way, so let’s look at what we actually did on the mat.

We started out by practicing a simple, familiar technique very precisely, exactly as we were shown, step by step. This was our first level. We did this for a little while, switching roles back and forth as we worked with our partners. Then Sensei clapped for us to line up, and asked us how it felt.

“Sharp,” someone said. “Hard.” “Direct.” “Connected” “Linear.” “Angry.” “Rough.” “Aligned.” “Crisp.” “Tight.” “Harsh.”

He was not looking for conceptual interpretations of what we had felt; he wanted the gut-level sensations.

Throughout the class we worked through several more levels, each keeping the good qualities of the first, like connection and alignment, but now also allowing for more and more freedom and creativity. By the end of the class the qualities we were expressing in our techniques were quite different.

“Flowing,” one student offered. “Smooth.” “Inviting.” “Springy.” “Circular.” “Easy.” “Expansive.” “Open.”

This kind of exercise can be done in almost any context. By paying attention to the qualities we are embodying, we can change the nature of our communication and connection, affecting both our partner’s experience and our own.

Try one on for size.

Wendy Palmer Sensei encourages us to work with qualities in our training and in our lives. She suggests choosing a single quality to work with for some time. This is a simple and effective way to expand our range of expression especially in areas that are foreign to us, or uncomfortable. If it seems like our techniques – or our presentations in client meetings – are uncertain or hesitant, we might try on “grounded,” or “clear.” If we find ourselves being reactive and pushy, on the mat or with our family, we could play with “calm,” or “light.”

Palmer Sense suggests that we focus ourselves on our chosen quality by asking “What would it be like if I had more _____,” mentioning whatever quality we are working on. Alternatively, “If I could have more _____ in my life, what would that feel like?”

Maybe my technique feels rough and grabby, or friends have been telling me I seem harsh. So, let’s say I would like to play with the quality of being soft. I could ask myself throughout the day “How would it feel if I could have more softness?” Looking at the question from this perspective of curiosity helps us to not trigger the resistance that might come from a more demanding “I should try to be softer.”

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“Live! Live the wonderful life that is in you! Let nothing be lost upon you. Be always searching for new sensations. Be afraid of nothing.”
~ Oscar Wilde
The Picture of Dorian Gray

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You can try this anywhere. Try it on a walk around the block: “How would it feel if I had more looseness?” Or during an Aikido class: “If I had more firmness, how would that feel?” I used to drive with a strong grip on the steering wheel, sometimes to the point my hands would hurt. More tension that necessary. So I tried asking “How would it feel if I could have more lightness?” It helped.

There will be times in life that firmness is called for, and times softness is a better choice. When we develop fluency in a broad range of qualities – not just the ones most naturally comfortable for us – we can have the most appropriate ones available when we need them.

Further Reading

Whether you ever set foot in a dojo or not, I encourage you to read “The Intuitive Body: Discovering the Wisdom of Conscious Embodiment and Aikido,” by Wendy Palmer Sensei. Her teachings about qualities (and incidentally, also about meditation) were a great help to me early in my Aikido training, and are something I continue to work with regularly.

Linda Eskin is a writer, Aikido student, personal trainer, horse person (with a pet donkey), and former software/web industry professional (tech comm and UX). She is currently completing two books for students of Aikido, one for children and one for adult beginners. Linda trains with Dave Goldberg Sensei at Aikido of San Diego, in California, and holds the first black belt rank, sho-dan. Sho-dan literally means “beginning rank.”

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