When Goals Go Bad

A couple of months ago, roughly, I set a goal for myself of training as if I were going to be testing for 5th kyu on February 6th, the next day tests are held at our dojo. As I said in a post about it then, my goal was not to test that day, or even to be ready to test that day, just to train so that I could be as prepared as possible.

What I was hoping to avoid was what I did before my 6th kyu test. In that case I was bopping along happily training in whatever came along in class (which is great), but not paying any particular attention to what techniques that would be required on the test. When my name appeared on the Dreaded Dojo Whiteboard (where Sensei writes the candidates names), I found I had a lot of learning to do. So I was hoping to at least be less blindsided if my name were to appear this time around.

If you’ve read my last few posts you know that I’ve been uneasy about something recently. I couldn’t put my finger on it, though. It felt like some mashup of grief, disappointment, pressure, and feeling very inadequate. But I couldn’t put my finger on a reason. There were no circumstances to support feeling like that, or none that I could see.

What was really out of character was Thursday night, in weapons class. I was freaked out at not feeling like I had one of the techniques down clearly. I didn’t know it, and felt like I should’ve known it. Sensei was walking around the mat watching and correcting people, as senseis do when they are teaching, you know, normally. I was really concerned that he might see that I didn’t know what the heck I was doing. Mind you, I fully realize the absurdity of that thinking, on a lot of levels. Just the same… I could hardly make myself breathe, I was so wound up.

I blogged about that on Friday morning (“Stupid Ego”), and one of my friends commented “hmmm just wondering but would it have anything to do with you having set a deadline for your next test? Perhaps not realizing it but feeling the pressure to get up to the next level by a certain time period might be part of the issue.” My first reaction to that was basically “no, no, that’s not it, I wasn’t really trying to test then, blah, blah…” But the more I thought about it, the more I see she nailed it. I was saying I wasn’t really trying to test this time around, but really… I was kinda hoping I’d would.

(For those readers who aren’t familiar with martial arts, you test when your teacher decides you are ready. You don’t ask to be considered. You, of all people, are the least qualified to make any determination about your own readiness. You just train. If your teacher says you’re ready to test, you test.)

How it works at our dojo is that before you can be considered to test for 5th kyu you have to have done at least 40 training days (not hours or classes) since your 6th kyu test. I  have been really pushing to get there, and just hit 40 just a couple of weeks ago. Suddenly at 40+ there’s the possibility of being considered for testing. At least a month before your test you need to find a senior student who is willing to mentor you. I’ve talked to a few, and have had a few in mind, just in case, because if your name appears on The Whiteboard you’d best get busy finding a mentor, fast, especially if you have a preference for who you work with. Because the next test date is February 6th, and everyone needs to have a mentor at least a month ahead of time, if you’re not called to test by the first few days of January, you’re not testing this time around. So there’s a pretty narrow window time there.

Anyway… I’ve been assuming (probably wrongly, but there goes my little mind & ego, running off together) that Sensei has been watching to see if I’m within shooting distance of testing in February. And I’ve been putting a lot of pressure on myself to not screw up, and really feeling it when I do (inevitably) do just that.

My friend’s comment finally rang true when I put the dates together and discovered that the unidentifiable knot in my gut started about the time I hit 40 days, when testing became a possibility. Once I realized that I really did have some attachment to, or at least attention on, being called on to test, I was able to let that go a little, and the knot started to unwind. I had a wonderful time in Friday night’s class, just training.

Enthusiastically getting to the point where something is a possibilty, and actually doing it, are two very different things. Like signing up to go skydiving is a different experience from jumping out of the plane. I’ve spent a few months training as though I intended to be ready to test in February. I signed up for the skydiving trip. Do I have an opinion about whether I could actually be ready to test? Sure. I have a lot of opinions about that, some of them in direct contradiction. And, quite correctly, they count for nothing.

I find I’m consciously having to let go, and let go, and let go of any attachment I have to the whole testing thing. What there is to do is to train, relax, learn about Aikido, and have fun, so that’s what I’m going to do.

Big sigh… There, that feels so much better…

It’s a Lot Like Line Dancing

I’m going to try to keep this brief, because come hell or high water I am going to get 8 hours’ sleep tonight.

Have you read the two diaries that make their way around the Internet every so often? One is by a cat, and one is by a dog. The cat reports the horrors of his captivity, while the dog is excited about everything that happens, all day long:

8:00 am – Dog food! My favorite thing!
9:30 am – A car ride! My favorite thing!
9:40 am – A walk in the park! My favorite thing!

(From http://www.wanderings.net/notebook/Main/DogDiaryVsCatDiary)

My experience of Aikido all this week has been reminding me of the dog’s diary: “Woohoo! My favorite teacher.  Yay! My favorite kind of class. Awesome! My favorite people to train with. Oh, good! My favorite techniques.”

The teacher tonight asked me (since I’ve been to a lot of classes this week) what techniques we had been working on in the classes. Or at least what kind of work we had been doing. I could only come up with a very short list. I really should start being more conscious of that, I suppose. So I’ll try to post a very brief summary of at least a few memorable points from each class, mostly to use for my own review.

Tonight we did a lot of bokken work:

  • Cutting, one direction, and then with irimi
  • 8-directions cut (happo giri)
  • Front rolls, and back slap-falls (?) with bokken

We also did a bit of open-hand jiyuwaza.

A fairly large class, with a broad range of levels, learning happo giri looks a heck of lot like a big group of folks trying to learn a line dance. It went very smoothly, and none of us whacked each other. I couldn’t help but think of The Electric Slide (video on YouTube), though, as we all stepped and turned at the right angles, all together. A music video would be hilarious.

The most recent exams at the dojo were last week. Exams come around every few months, with the next date being February 6th, 2010. I don’t know if I’ll be testing then (for 5th kyu), and I don’t care. But I am setting it as a personal goal for myself to be on track to test then. That means paying even more careful attention to the techniques that are on the test, training thoughtfully, etc.

We each work with a senior student when preparing for an exam. It’s our responsibility to find a mentor, so I’ve been doing some watching and thinking about who I might want to work with some day. At least if my name does appear on the Dreaded Dojo Whiteboard, I’ll have an idea of who to ask.

To be clear, my goal is not to test on February 6th. I am not even hoping to test then. That’s up to Sensei, of course, and I’m not in any hurry to “get there” anyway. The goal is to train as if I will be testing, regardless.

OK… Off to bed. Two classes first thing in the morning. Right after my 8 hours of sleep.

Reflections at the 1st Milestone

This Saturday morning I will arrive at a milestone of sorts on my Aikido path – my first test, for 6th kyu. I’ve done 36 training days over the course of four and one half months. I can’t believe it’s only been that long – it feels like a lifetime (in a good way). Some reflections on my journey so far:

Early on I injured my shoulder, and I have recovered completely from that injury. I have lost 20 pounds. I worked with a personal trainer/PT to set up an exercise program, and am in better shape than I have been in years. I’ve made new friends at the dojo, locally, and online, and have reconnected with still more friends through Aikido. I’ve seen several rounds of tests, including the Sho-Dan test of one of my favorite sempai. I’ve learned that I like (and need, really) meditating before class. I’ve been to a dojo picnic, a party, and camping.

I’ve always enjoyed learning, so I dove into Aikido from many angles. Even before looking into local dojo I listened to all 9 episodes of the “Aikido – The Way of Harmony” podcast (which you can fine in the iTunes Store). I have listened to them again since, many times since, and I’m sure will many more. Together they are a great introduction to Aikido, and I hear them in a completely new way each time I listen.

I’ve read a nightstand-full of books, including “The Art of Peace” (O Sensei) of course, “Aikido and the New Warrior” (edited by Richard Strozzi-Heckler), “The Way of Aikido – Life Lessons from an American Sensei” (George Leonard), “Aikido for Life” (Gaku Homma), and “In the Dojo – A Guide to the Rituals and Etiquette of the Japanese Martial Arts” (Dave Lowry). Shifflett’s “Aikido Exercises for Teaching and Training” has been a great help generally by providing a broad look at training and learning, and specifically by sharing good information on stretches and exercises that address some problems I have had for years. And of course it was the horse trainer Mark Rashid, and his book “Horsemanship Through Life,” that brought me to Aikido in the first place.

I’m currently browsing through “Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere” (Westbrook & Ratti) A bookshelf of others awaits, include all three of Ellis Amdur’s books, Donn Draeger’s 3-volume set “Martial Arts and Ways of Japan.” Those may be just the thing for cold evenings after the time changes. (Daylight and nice weather are cherished commodities for horsepeople.)

Videos have provided still more information and inspiration, including Ellis Amdur Sensei’s DVD, “Ukemi from the Ground Up,” George Ledyard Sensei’s 3 DVD (videos) set, “2006 Seminar on Entries,” and many, many shorter, less formal videos on YouTube. I’ve also found “Aikido 3D” (software) to be a very useful tool for reviewing the mechanics of techniques. It’s perfect for those “how did that technique go, again?” questions that haunt one late at night.

I had no interest in weapons at first, thinking of them as a kind of interesting sideline for people who are into that sort of thing. Now I have my own set, and enjoy training with them every bit as much (if not more, on some days) as I enjoy open-hand practice.

So far I’ve participated in classes at the dojo with Dave Goldberg Sensei, of course, and also with most of the yudansha: Mike, Karen, Jason, Megan, Cyril, and Andy. Each has an entirely different style of teaching, and they all complement each other beautifully. I’ve also been fortunate to participate in several seminars with visiting instructors.

Robert Nadeau Shihan came to our dojo in late July for a two-day seminar on “Aikido as an Art of Harmony,” giving us all an opportunity to look through the lens of Aikido at how we are in other areas of life. His coming here also gave me a “be healthy and back on the mat by” date when recovering from my shoulder injury. I’ve never been so proactive about healing, and by gosh it worked. It took a little convincing to get my brain to realize that rolling would be OK again (you can read my earlier post on that process), but I did it, pounding heart and all.

Our own Dave Goldberg Sensei, who’s August Aikido In Focus workshop, “Relax, it’s Aikido,” had me giggling with the fun and joy of it all, and days later awash in tears as I realized how much I had been guarding myself against feeling, in my body and my heart, for a very long time.

This past weekend was a three-day retreat in the local mountains with our Dave Goldberg Sensei and guest instructor Kayla Feder Sensei. Again, whole new ways of experiencing Aikido, of thinking about (or not thinking about) technique, and applying Aikido for the advancement of humanity. A side benefit of the Retreat was that it provided a reason to pick up my guitar again, which I did with far less frustration and more success than I expected.

In preparing for this test I have been working several times a week with my mentor, Scott, a senior (in rank) student who is a wonderful teacher, endlessly patient, enormously capable, and always kind and compassionate. I’ve learned as much about teaching as about technique, and I hope I can put some of that to good use if I have the opportunity to mentor a kohai someday.

I could not strive for rigor and mindfulness on the mat while letting other aspects of life go to pieces. I set some small goals at the beginning, and met them all. My car, which was always littered with fast food wrappers, empty water bottles, and hay, has been clean for months. I decided to stop fumbling in hurried frustration every day with a simple gate latch in my electric fence, and set my mind to opening and closing it fluidly on the first try. I typically run late for everything, but have not been late to a single class, or arrived unprepared. As I reach this first milestone on the path I’m considering what goals to set for the next leg of the journey. Some of them will involve horseback riding, which I set aside while initially immersing myself in Aikido. I will be seeking a balance between Aikido and dressage (essentially an equestrian martial art) in the coming months.

Honestly, I found Aikido of San Diego in the usual pedestrian way on the web. The location and schedule were convenient. I liked everything I saw and read, and was impressed with attitude of the people I met when I observed a class. So I signed up. I expected a decent school with solid instruction. I hit gold.

If this is how it goes getting to this point, I can hardly imagine what might lie ahead.