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Do you need a break from the constant stream of contentious, terrifying news?
A refuge from the usual win/lose, zero-sum, us-versus-them thinking?

There’s a place to practice peaceful resolution of conflict,
to learn to keep your center while opening your heart.

A place to challenge your body, your mind, and your limiting beliefs,
to look inside, and see yourself in a whole new way.

A martial art – an embodied practice – where we train to evolve beyond fighting.
Beyond fighting each other.
Beyond fighting our circumstances.
Beyond fighting ourselves.

The inclusive, compassionate, and supportive community
of Aikido practitioners around the world
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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.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“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

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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.”

Lighten up

Exquisite. I had to look it up just now to be sure I had exactly the right word.

“Of special beauty or charm, or rare and appealing excellence, as music, or poetry. Extraordinarily fine. Intense; acute, or keen, as pleasure or pain. Of rare excellence of production or execution, as works of art or workmanship. Keenly or delicately sensitive or responsive.”

Yep. That’s it. Tonight’s classes were exquisite. Another of those “I don’t know how Sensei does that” evenings.

I’d better back up a few steps, since a lot of things came together for me:

  • I’ve been reading Dan Millman’s “The Way of the Peaceful Warrior” in which his training includes some intense self-discipline, and he manages that successfully (mostly). I found that admirable, enviable, and lacking in my own life.
  • I have signed up for the week-long Living Embodiment Conference in November 2012, and I’m really excited about it, even though it’s not for months yet. Something about this work speaks to me, especially as experienced and expressed through Aikido.
  • I keep telling myself I want to lose those last few pounds. And yet I find myself drawn to the kitchen, or mysteriously eating more than I really should. It’s not that hard, I’ve done it before… but it’s like I’m not paying attention. At all. 
  • Over the weekend I had things I wanted to get done. I did some of them, but piddled around and neglected many others. By Sunday night my car was still a mess, and I hadn’t started my laundry. Then today I couldn’t seem to get my brain wrapped around my work until around noon.

Habitual, unconscious, self-defeating behaviors have been getting the better of me, and I’m not proud of it. I drove to the dojo after work fairly fed up and disgusted with myself over my lack of self-discipline. I considered talking to Sensei, but got busy warming up, and forgot all about it.

The first class was a slow progression of exercises leading to a direct, penetrating kokyu-ho. Lots of feeling, receiving, and blending as uke, and giving clear, direct energy as Nage. I had the privilege of training with some very new people, and watching how Sensei worked with them on where they were holding tension, being out of alignment, or resisting. I try to check my own ability to observe, to see if I’ve noticed any of the things he’s pointing out. It was fascinating, as that always is, and I’m grateful to be able to observe his teaching close up, in addition to experiencing it myself.

So, I come to class all fired up to learn more about embodiment, and there it is, a major component of the first class. This happens a lot, and it’s not just me. It frequently happens that classes address something particularly relevant. People hear exactly what they needed to hear, or get to work through that thing that’s been on their mind. I hear of it happening very often. Maybe it’s one of those Shrimp Plate things, like when you buy a new car, and suddenly it seems like everyone is driving the same car. In any case, it’s magical when it happens.

The second class, Sensei said, was going to be jiyuwaza (free technique). Awesome. Great fun, a good workout, and always revealing. True enough, but this one also dug a little deeper.

It started with Sensei asking us to think of one way of being that, if we could be that way (or be more that way), our life would work better. (Not quoting here, just remembering it the way I understood it.) There is somewhere within me that little kid who wants to jump up, arm waving, and shout “Oooohh!!! Oooohh!!! I’ve got one!!!” Yeah, no long soul-searching required here: “My life would work better if I were more disciplined. Or maybe focused or something.” I tried escaping from it momentarily. “No, disciplined.” Done.

And again I had that experience of wondering if Sensei has installed a chip in my brain that gets scanned as I enter the dojo, or if he just reads minds naturally. In any case, I was delighted that the class was heading in this direction, because I needed it!

We started into the exercise by choosing two qualities that would support us in being that. Everyone arrived at their two. I chose whole (as in integrity), and committed. We did some work with those, embodying those qualities and expressing them in our jiyuwazas with each other. I felt grounded, sturdy, focused, aligned, and determined, but I also noticed that I felt serious, dark, heavy, dull, and alone. And that observer that we all have sat on my shoulder and watch me try to run away. I kidded around, I watched the pair next to us, I made light of something. I didn’t want to be there, as whole and committed. Huh…

I decided that whole and committed alone were dull and lifeless. So maybe another quality that would support me in being disciplined would be passion. It’s hard to be disciplined about anything if you’re not passionate about it. So I played with passion next – whole, committed, and passionate. Much better. More life, more power, more outward, more exciting. But still deadly serious, earnest, forceful… Still not a nice place to be. Effective, but somehow lonely and cold. Still dark and heavy. 

Dark and heavy, eh? Hmmm… What fourth quality would support me in being a more disciplined person? Lightness? Could self-discipline be light? Bright, airy, and weightless? So I chose that, as a counterbalance, or complement. In jiyuwaza it worked beautifully – whole, committed, passionate, and light – and was a lot more fun.

Wait, you mean one can be disciplined and joyful? Interesting… What sort of underlying, unnoticed, and unquestioned assumption about life would I need to have where learning that would be surprising? Oh, right! That being self-disciplined is to be serious, all work and no play. No fun allowed until you’ve done the things you’re supposed to do. Whoa… I checked in with what I was feeling. Yes, thinking about being a disciplined person feels, in my gut, like being sent to my room, or like being told I can’t play with my friends until I do my homework. Of course I want to get away, and be anywhere else! Of course I rebel at the perceived confinement, restriction, and separateness. 

What if my assumption about life and being disciplined was wrong? (Duh…) What if I can be a disciplined person who is whole, committed, passionate, and light? That brings up a whole different feeling – a sense of energy, potential, wonder, enthusiasm, togetherness, and freedom.  

Maybe it’s not only possible to lighten up and still be successful, maybe it’s necessary, for me. Hmmm… Well there’s something to play with (and remind myself of) tomorrow morning. And the next day, and the next.

I bowed in expecting to have a good time throwing my friends around the dojo, and getting thrown around in return. Yes, that was there. But also layer upon layer upon layer of discovery and learning? Dan Millman learns, in the book, that there are no ordinary moments. Indeed, there are no ordinary Monday night classes. I think “exquisite” pretty much nails it.

Learning Through Feeling – “The Mirror” on AikiWeb

Learning Through Feeling – “The Mirror” on AikiWeb

“When we live in our bodies we understand that it’s more satisfying to be than to have. When we’re embodied, love becomes more important than being right.

… To live in the body is to live truly in the condition of being human–what we know is that we’re helpless and vulnerable. We’re going to die. That frightens us. It also gives us choice. If we are someday going to die, we have a choice to live, to fully embody our destiny as human beings. …

We keep ourselves busy running from this painful recognition… To be with our desperation and need, instead of masking it with knowledge is an evolutionary choice. To live in uncertainty, but with aliveness and immediacy, demands the courage and durability of a warrior.”

Richard Strozzi-Heckler
“In Search of the Warrior Spirit – Teaching Awareness Disciplines to the Military”