Thursday, December 17, 2009
P.R. Sarkar, the Indian philosopher, asserts that there are four kinds of human being: warriors, intellectuals, business people (acquisitors) and workers. I’m not sure how you would prove such a thing scientifically, but I find his typology useful when sorting out my relations with other people. Most of my friends at Brooklyn Aikikai are obvious warriors, who find their meaning in severe physical challenges.
I, on the other hand, am not a warrior. At various times in my life, I have thought that I should be more of a warrior and tried many sports, but I never achieved much. There always came a moment where I’d be thinking, “I can’t get jazzed about this. I hate my coach more than I hate the other team,” and I’d go read a book or something.
So I’m an intellectual, not a warrior. I was born that way. You can’t change your basic life energy. Maybe in my next incarnation I can be an aikido black belt.
Which is not to say you can’t do anything about your life energy right now. One of the occupational hazards of being an intellectual is getting stuck in your head. Early in my Zen practice, my teacher drew his finger across his neck, indicating that my head was cut off from my body, and I thought, “Well, this guy knows me. I have something to learn here.” When he strongly suggested that I try misogi, or breath purification, a few years ago, I took it as a command and I’m glad that I did.
Misogi is sort of based on rowing. You sit with your legs folded under you, and you push the rhythmic chanting to the point of hyperventilation. Sometimes beyond hyperventilation. There isn’t anything competitive about it. You just want to get through it without fainting. At the end, there is an incredibly invigorating high, as you experience chi coursing through your body like the Colorado River coursing through the Grand Canyon. All Western intellectuals who think that Eastern descriptions of the body’s subtle energies are mythology should be forced to do misogi at Brooklyn Aikikai. Overnight, academic writing would suck less by several orders of magnitude.
So there’s the instant payoff of unblocked chi, and there’s a long term cumulative effect. In Zen, they often talk about “loosening the diaphragm,” and I thought I knew what they meant. In fact, I didn’t. My diaphragm was so tight that I had no idea what loose was. After doing misogi a couple times a week (on average) for an extended period, I now know what a loose diaphragm is. I keep discovering new muscles down there, both in my gut and around the base of my spine. It has changed the way I breathe and the way I sit.
I read a book once by a gastroenterologist who said we have a “second brain” in our gut, because we have more neurons down there than any place except the brain inside our skull. This is a rare case of Western medicine confirming to some extent something in traditional Eastern medicine, namely the concept that the “hara” is the center of our being. Misogi, with its relentless up and down action in the hara, moves chi up and down the spine, thus connecting our two brains in the head and gut. Two brains acting as one--it opens all kinds of possibilities for mystical experiences that just aren’t available unless you do Zen and misogi. It might even raise your SAT score.
Thursday, December 10, 2009
It was a cold and stormy evening. Three of us - me and two other members who were more junior than I was – were walking together after practice. The topics of discussion were the difficulties and experiences that were new and interesting for them. For me, however, they were neither new nor interesting. By this point, I had realized that everyone who outranked me had gone through all the stages I had, and, lacking an interesting story about joining the Dojo and lacking thoughts on quitting (anymore than quitting my profession) or unanswered moral or ethical dilemmas, I had nothing new or original to contribute to this blog. However, I thought it would very impolite to refuse a second request to write an article.
Several months passed. Then, I was volunteered to sweep the sidewalk in front of the Dojo. This was my second time doing this task. Having finished, I realized that the area that I covered, as well as the cleanliness level, grew two-fold compared to the first time I swept, which was during my first week of training. At this point, it dawned on me that the change in my perception of what is “good enough” was enormous, but - it was not good enough.
Over the years in academia, I have acquired a “good enough to pass the test” mentality. If a top grade was given for an exam, the effort was appropriate. If a job was offered after an interview, the effort was appropriate. If a certificate was given after a fifth kyu test, the effort was appropriate.
However, both aikido and life in general are quite a lot more than a series of tests. To progress, one has to adopt a different mentality, something along the lines of “this effort was only good enough for yesterday” to push the limits on a daily, or at least weekly, basis. An obvious and simple way to push one's limits is to annoy a senior student (one has to be careful, of course, not to raise the annoyance level above mild). Unfortunately, it only works so far, especially since with sufficient practice one can avoid that particular senior student on the mat (not to mention that skipping class becomes an ever-present temptation).
Thus, and it sounds extremely banal and trivial, nobody will help you unless you help yourself first. Stop minding the exhaustion and the pain, which always come when limits are pushed. Actively seek stronger, meaner practice partners (they usually have cold, dry eyes). Attend seminars, for people you know tend to be more and more forgiving. And, eventually, you will be rewarded by becoming a better person - overall.
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
I wasn’t planning on doing class that evening. I had already done the morning class, and since it was only six weeks since I had given birth to Cormac, I’d been taking it easy on the mat. But, I went downstairs to get something and saw that three of the six students lined up were women. I ran back upstairs (Cormac in tow) and put on my gi.
Coming slowly back to training after pregnancy and giving birth I see that I have missed the practice and also that I feel a responsibility as one of the senior members of the dojo to look out for the development of those junior to me. Recently, I have felt that most acutely with the female students.
I bowed in to the class and put Cormac in his bassinet on the side; Sensei started with ki no negare techniques. About 20 minutes later, Cormac started to cry. He was hungry. So, I excused myself and went to feed him. Five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes passed and he was still hungry (anyone who has seen him recently can attest to the fact that he’s in the middle of a growth spurt!). I found myself watching the clock and hoping that he would soon be done. I wanted to get back to training.
But, babies aren’t known for blithely following their parents’ schedules, and Cormac, as amazing as he is, is no exception. He did finish eventually, and I did go back for the last few minutes of class. But I was left with the familiar and distasteful realization of how nearly impossible it is for me to simply do what I am doing. My mind is elsewhere, racing on to the next thing. Even when I am in front of this miracle, this child, I can’t stay where I am! Will I ever change?
This daily practice gives me thousands of opportunities to see this – again and again and again. In Aikido, Iaido, Weapons, Misogi, Zazen… how rare it is to have a moment in which my mind, breath, body are all here! But then there is another chance and another and another. One more strike or throw or cut or breath in which to try to actually experience something as it is happening. Of course, I can’t actually “try to experience” something – that sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? But I can make the effort to relax, to drop excess tension, to turn my focus to what is at hand. Perhaps then I can simply do what I am doing.
Thursday, October 29, 2009
Thursday, October 22, 2009
The other evening, I was driving down Flatbush Avenue on my way to drop my son off with my mother-in-law when a speeding Dollar Van ripped off my front bumper. A Dollar Van is an unregistered form of public transportation - just wave down the van, give the driver a dollar and he’ll take you and the rest of the passengers up and down Flatbush Avenue.
I must admit that I am a little vindictive when it comes to these vans because of their lack of courtesy on the road. With that in mind, my aggression met with the other driver’s aggression and I lost. It was pouring rain out, and my front bumper was lying on the ground between our cars. The look on my face was a cross between disbelief and complete rage. He was yelling at me and I put a finger in his face as we exchanged some very colorful words.
I felt very tense and agitated as I squeezed my busted bumper into the trunk of my car. We both just pulled away from the scene. As I drove away, I replayed what had happened in my head. I was angry with the Dollar Van, but knew I could only blame myself. I allowed my hostility to take control of my actions.
I train aikido at Brooklyn Aikikai regularly and have been for a few years now. Beyond just training our bodies to remember techniques, we are there to “polish our spirit” and to quiet our minds. Sensei has reiterated that our actions outside the Dojo and how we apply the principles of these techniques in our daily lives are far more important than just learning how to fight. The concepts of blending; being soft when confronted with hardness and visa versa; timing and distance; being centered physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually; and accepting things as they are - these are the principles we try to do our best to practice daily on the mat.
That evening in the rain, amidst the confusion of the frenzied street, I exhibited none of the above principles. I lost my center, became mechanical in my obedience to my unbalanced emotions and perpetuated more negativity in a city already brimming with it. Is my training all for nothing? Am I developing any of those qualities that help me be a more conscious human being, or will I remain a slave to my emotions and immature desires? I have no one to blame for my broken bumper but myself. That evening I acted unconsciously and without attention or regard for others. I had an opportunity to exercise my training in my daily life and I failed.
I believe one of the purposes of training at the Dojo is to change something in us. By placing ourselves in situations that demand constant attention, we hope that it can drop that thing in us that is constantly drawing us away from awareness and toward something more habitual and mechanical. If, through daily training, I cannot take those principles into my everyday life, then my training is superficial and means nothing. It goes without saying that I need much more training. However, the important question is, what will I do with that training?
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
I came to the Dojo hoping it would pulverize any habit I had to be heady or mental about practicing meditation. I came seeking some kind of experience, akin to meditation, that could tear apart any ability I thought I had to pay exclusive attention to the present moment. Tear apart, so that I might know with certainty what kind of ability this actually was -- what it is made of -- and how to possess it.
There's a tricky thing about living -- I've noticed in my infinitely limited experience -- and it's not new -- what you look for, you find. When you chase an image, you are acting like its shadow. Tricky, because I catch myself assuming that I know what it is I want. I am convinced that I already see and feel the contours and flavor of the thing I yearn to possess. So. That's not a real problem, until you really want to learn something.
In the brief space between being shown a technique and performing it myself, I discover that Attention is a state that cannot coexist with wanting, with searching. Either you are absorbed in the dynamic chase motivated by that thing you want to possess -- believing you understand, following what you see with your mind, giving yourself instructions on how to move; or, your senses are open to what is actually happening. If I really observe that pause, that preparation before an encounter, I see clearly that the two states do not, cannot, go on simultaneously.
This invisible and vague thing I am attempting to describe involves, in my own experience, a choice between taking it casually and taking it seriously. If I can observe myself - when I am being casual, in any aspect of life, it is because I am becoming afraid to be absolutely present. Some hypocrisy within is urging me to give a little less, to not be caught being painfully serious, to only be there 80, 90 percent. The absent percent becomes the happy difference my mind applauds when it stirs me to try again. So much for pulverizing my headiness. Hm. I have a private belief that's been festering for what feels like ever; and it is fed intensely by the atmosphere of the Dojo. There are no casual gestures in life. What you do, is you. Your word is you, your handshake is you, where you put your eyes and what you pay attention to, is all what comprises you. And there doesn't seem to be any part of that which is outside the realm of the absolutely magical and mystifying. With that spirit in my heart, it becomes impossible to approach training in a compromised way. For here is an art that actually creates sense and order out of impulses, a dialogue of bodies becomes their expression beyond thinking, formulating, groping.
I was fortunate enough through an uncanny series of miracles to be allowed and able to train intensely and daily, with no preparation whatsoever. The inspired heart tunes in at a level unrecognized by the casual hum of daily life, and the experience is explosive. I cannot see much into the things I know I don't know about -- it is not my place to comment on just how Aikido is challenging, for now I can only know that it is. What I do see is that to own it, to excel at it deeply, one's heart must be full of devotion, absolutely without compromise. It is from that center of affection that the necessary attention is born.
Monday, September 21, 2009
"Destiny rarely calls upon us at the hour of our choosing."
That's either from the Old Testament, or "Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen" - probably the latter. It sums up my second encounter with Sensei. The first time I encountered Sensei I had wandered into the Dojo looking for a new martial arts school. I was very impressed, very interested, but very intimidated. I was scared by Sensei because I knew that I couldn't get away with anything with him. I began training at a school that was closer to my home, had cheaper dues (I was rather broke at the time), and was more . . . casual. Martial arts is like relationships; I had been in a very serious one, and wasn't ready for another major commitment.
Flash forward a few months - I was in Barnes and Noble, looking for a book on O'Sensei to learn about his life and philosophy. I saw this man with an elusive demeanor in his early or mid-thirties. I said to him, "Hey, if you find anything by a guy named Morehei Ueshiba, let me know." From his reaction, or lack thereof, I figured he had no idea who I was talking about, but, after a few seconds, he pulled out a book by him.
"Oh, are you interested in aikido?" He asked.
"Yeah," I said, "are you into martial arts, too?"
"A little bit." I figured maybe he had a cousin who was an enthusiast.
"What are you looking for?" I asked.
"A different translation of the Baghavad-Gita." Then it hit me.
"You're an aikido teacher! You teach at that Dojo on Third Avenue! I saw your class - it was very intimidating, but I'm very curious about your school." I bombarded him with questions. He knew the Sensei with whom I was training. Sensei didn't seem to care whether or not I joined the Dojo. I think he even may have preferred I didn't, since I was already with a school.
I visited the Dojo again one afternoon when Sensei and Kate were out of town, and Brent was teaching. I watched the class, and was ready to make this new commitment.
Brent asked me, "Have you told your Sensei that you're going to be training here?"
So, reluctantly, I did. I bought a bottle of sake, visited my first aikido Sensei, and said, "Sensei, thank you so much for all you've taught me. I am going to begin training at Brooklyn Aikikai, but I want to thank you for introducing me to aikido and giving me so much." Then, I handed him the bottle.
He said, "Yes, I know the school. Thanks for doing this the right way." He smiled warmly, and that was it. I felt a few inches taller. Integrity - that's how you stand tall without excess tension, isn't it?
During my first class, I partnered with Justin. I tried to practice the technique the way I did at my old school, but Justin grabbed my wrists and pushed me into the wall, HARD! I remember thinking, “How am I supposed to be 'soft' right now??” With his wrist and finger tattoos, I felt like I was fighting with a constellation - and not doing well.
"How was class?" Sensei asked.
"I feel like I took five of them at the same time."
As an actor and a student of martial arts, throughout my life and career, I've found myself physically at a loss. I feel as though I'm always negotiating between relaxed/slouchy/naturalistic and stiff/upright/try-hard. Here was something different. It was as if integrity was keeping my spine straight. As fears arise during training and become replaced inch by inch with breath and awareness, this duality begins to wash away. But, indeed, the path is narrow, and life is short. I see people at the Dojo, every one of them, full of courage, and willing to stand up for integrity. That is a very beautiful, and increasingly rare thing.
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Several months ago I bruised a rib during class. In quick succession I managed to get kneed and then punched in the same spot on the rib while taking ukemi. The next day my breathing was painful, movement was limited, and the thought of training was out of the question. It seemed obvious to me that I should miss a few classes so my rib could heal and I could avoid another, and perhaps more serious, injury. I emailed Sensei to let him know about my injury and that I'd be missing a few classes.
"Too many people take off time for injuries. They are actually gifts to work with." I don't know why, but upon reading Sensei's reply I laughed—I didn't know what to say or think, only that what I thought was the familiar and proper course (resting) was now gone from my mind. I went for a walk, thought about injuries being gifts (and what I could dish out to friends and family for upcoming birthdays), and then headed to the dojo for class not knowing what to expect.
As class got underway it was evident to me that pain, and avoiding it, was all I was thinking about. Each time I hit the mat my ribs hurt more, and with each thud I thought, "How can I fall without having my ribs hurt this much?" I watched Sensei and senior students more closely while they took ukemi. Their movements were relaxed and open. I realized that my understanding of ukemi was little more than how to fall safely without getting hurt—a pretty rigid definition, especially because its focus was on me not getting hurt, and not about the connection between myself and the person with whom I'm training. At this point, my injury gave me the ability to see some of the limits of my understanding of my practice, namely, ukemi understood as a passive falling, signaling the end of a technique, and not getting hurt.
And then a few months later I partially dislocated a shoulder during class. More presence! Sensei urged me to attend class as normal and work on kata, footwork, and conditioning. Training with this injury gave me more insight into lazy movements, of not turning my hips and arms properly—of all the things I was doing incorrectly but never truly realized because now, with a smashed shoulder, I couldn't do them in the same habitual way I always had.
Injuries limit our physical movement and therefore call attention to our techniques and practice in a unique way. In addition to seeing how I can greatly improve my footwork, move more from my center, etc., I began to see that taking ukemi is much more than just falling safely. It is an art of transformation, of moving openly from one state to another. Before I hurt my ribs and shoulder I wanted to remain healthy and free of injury (and who wouldn't?). But at the heart of my desire not to be injured was the anxiety of preservation. Ukemi, as I understood it before these injuries, was solely about preserving physical well-being. Consequently, as uke I would attack nage with hesitation. And as like begets like, my ambivelant attack would develop into a stiff and dull response to nage's movements. The last thing I wanted to do was open up and have a dynamic connection with nage and with whatever may follow.
Seeing that I have a ways to go with my ukemi is wonderful. It is important to have something to work on. My change in perspective, of being more open to transformation on the mat and off and less concerned with preservation, is something I will cultivate. As Sensei often says, "Don't hesitate—move forward in life!"
Friday, July 17, 2009
When I opened the plastic bag, I couldn’t help but think my canvas gi was made of cardboard. This was not the same as the ones I had seen others practicing in the day before: Mine bent rather than swayed, folded rather than fluttered.
I put on my cardboard suit and followed an advanced student’s directions on how to tie my belt. As I walked onto the mat, I marveled at my gi’s size, at the amount of space between my skin and the canvas. I felt like a small puppeteer commanding this cardboard frame – this stiff, canvas exoskeleton – to move at precise angles. I wanted to jump out of my uniform: I was sure the gi would stay in place, standing rigid and alert.
I tried to mimic Sensei’s stretching, but I kept moving left when he moved right, right when he moved left: my feet were wrong, my arms weren’t in the same rhythm, my pants were falling.
He told us to roll. I tripped my way across the mat. Instead of a circle, I was a tumbling brick. I did not roll. “Backfalls!” he said next. Now this would be easy! I thought. But for 27 years I had been perfecting my ability to not-fall. I had so long ago grown out of falling that the floor repelled me. Through a succession of labored manipulations I worked my way to the floor. “Now try falling,” I was told.
For the rest of that class, we practiced a series of movements that I recognized as Aikido but that my suit and I turned into a mishmash of awkward gestures – a Japanese-inspired performance art of flailing limbs and bows. I finished the class like I had jumped into the shower without removing my gi; even the tips of my belt were soaked through with sweat.
Almost a year later, I look back on that first day. I felt alien, and so my canvas space suit was appropriate. But I also remember a spirit of adventure, a sense of determination, and an expression of will over fear. That first day Sensei had shown us a submission move. “Do you want to try it?” I had been asked. “Ok,” I had shrugged apprehensively. But it is that same ok that I have carried with me over the past year. That same ok that is helping me to slowly alter my gi from cardboard to silk, or at least cotton. Whenever I forget the newness of that first day – that exertion of will power to just let myself fall – I just look at Sensei’s outstretched arm, grab tightly, and “Ok,” I say, “Ok!”
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
When Sensei mentioned that there was testing coming up, I was excited to learn that some of those folks would be people who started around the same time that I started. In some ways, it feels to me like we’re a “class,” and I was (am) very proud of them. That being said, I noticed some interesting feelings well up within me, as I am not testing. It’s not a surprise, since I have not put in even the minimum hours, but, nonetheless, my ego took a hit. I know that rank is not what this practice is about. The de-emphasis on belts and ranking is one of the reasons I was drawn to Brooklyn Aikikai.
For me, the greatest challenge this first year has not been the physical aspect of Aikido (this is not to say it isn’t challenging- it’s exhausting!), but it has been my relationship to the practice. When I decide to take on a new interest or skill, I expect to dive in and give myself over to it. I want quickly to become proficient at whatever it is so that I can express myself through it. Aikido is no exception.
But, now I am a “householder” - the single-income earner for a family that just became four. My time is honestly not my own. I see the young, single people having the time to take multiple classes, meditate, practice weapons and they improve quickly. Frankly, I’m envious. My ego is screaming, “I could be just as good at this! I want to be good at this! I want people to know I’m good at this!” But, my life just won’t allow me the time to do that.
Then, I come into the dojo. The first thing we do in the doorway is to bow - an immediate act of humbleness. We practice with an intense focus, honoring Sensei, our class, and the teachers of the past by coming to our knees in gratitude and with respect throughout the practice. As exhausted as we may be, we take care of the dojo first before even taking a sip of water. The intention the community holds - this is an act of service - is so pure. I see that in many ways we are not here for ourselves, but we are surrendering our own personal will to that of something older, deeper and greater. It is like the old story of the brazen student who does not listen to his teacher. When the teacher begins to fill a cup for the student to drink, he does not stop at the top, but lets the water flow over. The student asks why the teacher did this, and the teacher responds that the student is like the cup. He is already full so there is no room for the teacher to give him anything.
I’ve mistaken the purpose of this practice. At home, I have given up my needs and wants for those of my family. I thought I was going to Aikido to do something for me. But, in actuality, Aikido is a continuance of this selfless service, and it is through this surrender of the individual that one becomes part of something far greater and so much more fulfilling.
I get it now. My inflated sense of self - with the strength of Sensei - is choking me. What am I going to do? I know that I cannot beat it with pure strength. Instead, I have to allow it in, move with it, and drop down. Humbly come down to my knees.
MY Aikido training is a practice in humility. I AM being tested. Everyday.
Monday, June 15, 2009
The other day, some things occurred to me in a quite direct way when I got Sensei’s strike right on my jaw which knocked my head back and had me do an extremely quick back fall. It actually also stretched my neck and bent my back to a point where I would not have thought they could.
Practicing with Sensei or a senior person dislocates you. It upsets your balance. It messes you up. When you think you got the movement or the technique, and you feel strong, flexible, and ready to take your nice ukemi swiftly, Sensei throw a wrench in the works. He spoils it all. And after that happens for quite a while, you hopefully may realize that however hard you feel you’re training yourself, however much you feel you’re pushing your boundaries, working your muscles, that in fact your mind is orchestrating all that. It’s telling you what you’re doing, it tells you how much energy you should allocate to each thing, it even tells you how much more you should try to do, how much more you should and could push yourself and how to do that. It figures out ways to do things, and tells you how to do better. This way you know.
You know where you are and you know where you’re going, how much you have traveled and what to do next. It’s a sort of clear map. You think it serves your training. Getting a good strike from Sensei makes you realize how much more there is to it than that map. Suddenly you step out of it, out of that head-governed zone and try to deal with the chaos. Your body, not your mind, reacts then, usually in surprising ways. Only then you begin to train.
I think it was that same day that Sensei said “You’re not trying to defend yourself, you’re trying to know yourself.” or something to that effect, or maybe something that had in me that effect. Man is a creature of habit. We are constantly taught to make things familiar and safe, to reduce things into the comfortable, safe zone that we learn to build for ourselves to dwell in. So much that this becomes an instinct for us. And on top of that we think, think and think to further make things safe. That way we can know, we can predict.
We predict and constantly form expectations upon which we live our lives. We can live like this forever and we need to strive not to. What is so precious in the training is that it pushes us out of there into the unknown where we can actually learn much more about our real selves. What you do there is the beginning of your training. Let us all push each other there. It possibly is the best thing we could do for each other.
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
"Sometimes people ask why I bow in front of the statue of the Buddha in the dojo. I am not bowing to a piece of wood, I am bowing to everyone there with me in the dojo, and to the whole cosmos as well. All these gestures are extremely important because they help us to acquire correct behavior. They develop dignity and respect, they help to create a normal condition in us. Nobody today is normal, everybody is a little bit crazy or unbalanced, people's minds are running all the time. Their perceptions of the world are partial, incomplete. They are eaten alive by their egos. They think they see, but they are mistaken; all they do is project their madness, their world, upon the world. There is no clarity, no wisdom in that! That is why Socrates, like the Buddha, like every wise man ever, began his teaching with "Know thyself, and thou shalt know the universe." That is the spirit of traditional Zen and Bushido; and in studying that spirit, it is very important to observe one's behavior. Behavior influences consciousness. Right behavior means right consciousness. Our attitude here and now influences the entire environment; our words, actions, ways of holding and moving ourselves, they all influence what happens around us and inside us. The actions of every instant, every day, must be right. Our behavior in the dojo will help to condition our everyday life."
Monday, May 4, 2009
I spin wool into yarn on my spinning wheel. It ends up on a large bobbin. Then I make these large skeins using my niddy noddy (yep. that's what it's called).
I dye the large batch of yarn first so I get consistent colors for more than one skein. The yarn pictured got rewound into 200yd skeins.
Betsy's hand made yarn is available at http://www.betsyply.etsy.com
Monday, April 13, 2009
After ichimando a few weeks ago, Sensei asked the women who practiced that day what we thought of misogi, given that he's heard people criticize it as being “overly masculine”. Sensei's question took me by surprise because I had never thought about it in such terms.
While contemplating the question, instead of reaching any answers about misogi, thoughts about my job invaded. I find that one of most frustrating aspects of being a lawyer is convincing people that I actually am one. Once, after helping someone through their legal issues, I gave him one of my business cards. He looked at it, laughed, and said, “You're a lawyer?” Attorneys more often refer to me as “the young lady” on the record rather than how I refer to them, as opposing counsel (although I am tempted to use “old man”). In my office, the younger female attorneys are routinely the subject of letters written to our Director from older male attorneys complaining how we refuse to bend to their will. The younger male attorneys are never the subjects of these letters. These instances often throw me into a seething frustration, leaving me wondering if it's my age, gender, or ethnicity (or the entire magical trio) that engender such reactions.
Given the reign this magical trio has over other people’s perceptions of me and the amount of energy I’ve spent attempting to neutralize these perceptions, Sensei's question brought to light that I've never had to think about my identity at the dojo. All members of the dojo, regardless of age, gender, size or ethnicity, are expected to clean, cook, train with each other, sit in seiza until our feet are purple, bow to each other, and chant with all of our might. Women aren't expected to practice with less intensity or strength (and certainly won't be spared from getting smashed and choked), and men are expected to cook and clean. Sensei's standards for us, and, consequently, our standards for each other, are the same for each member. Because Sensei expects all from everyone, I've never thought to define our practice in terms of femininity or masculinity.
What I find so intriguing (and difficult) about practicing aikido and misogi is that we must be strong, but also relaxed, soft and aware. We must be what is stereotypically described as “masculine” and “feminine” simultaneously and without thought. When both the “feminine” and the “masculine” blend into one movement, one technique, where does the feminine end and the masculine begin? One day, while practicing sitting kokyuho with Brent, he mused that although he was trying to be as soft as possible and I was using as much muscle as possible, he was able to push me over repeatedly while I was attempting to apply the technique. The soft strength for which we strive is beyond masculinity and femininity, but, rather, is the result of the constant work of learning our bodies and polishing our technique.
Sensei teaches us to lose something every time we practice. Often I've wished I could go through life without a body, without a face. Aikido has given me exactly that – while on the mat, it has allowed me to shed the reactions to my identity and practice free from the limits that attempt to bind me in too many other aspects of my life.
Thursday, April 2, 2009
The word aikido can be roughly translated as "the way of harmonious spirit." In aikido you learn how to take your opponent's force and use it against him. You don't fight force with force. The most basic situation I can think of is if someone is trying to push you to the floor, and instead of pushing back you move out of the way and let them fall. In essence, you let your opponent do most of the work for you. This doesn't apply only to physical situations, though. I have come to realize that aikido is not just about physical training but mental training as well. You can use the same principles to deal with any situation.
One of the core teachings of aikido is to stay relaxed, both mentally and physically. When something is really not going well, our natural reaction is to get angry and fight it. I find that getting angry doesn’t help me find a solution to a problem. What I try to do is take a few deep breaths and let the anger subside then approach the situation with a clear mind and more often then not I'll find a solution to the problem in itself. Once I started to keep that in the forefront of my mind, I was able to apply the principles of aikido to anything, from twisting my hips when throwing or hitting a ball, to diffusing a tense situation between friends and even strangers. That's not to say I'm relaxed all the time, but certainly more than I use to be.
If you can stay relaxed and focused you can deal with anything. This is something for me to strive for in my day-to-day life. And hopefully one day I'll truly be centered.
Friday, March 27, 2009
A bit ago, I had a chance to spend a week as a guest at Brooklyn Aikikai. It was my first time to visit the dojo and my first time to do aikido. I was quite impressed by the dojo -- most specifically by the energy and positivity of the community. I am very gratefully to have been so warmly, thoroughly, and immediately welcomed into the midst of such a vibrant and inspiring practice community. Thank you all!
As it happens, while I was staying at the dojo, I received an unsolicited and uncharacteristic e-mail from my brother, in which he asked point-blank: "What do you think the point of your life is now?" In part, I told him that I imagined myself to be engaged in an effort to learn how to live a good human life -- and to put it into practice. And this is one of my strongest impressions about the dojo. I left the City thinking that Brooklyn Aikikai offers a positive and invigorating example of how one might live a good human life, and the value of such an example is not to be lightly dismissed. I tend to think that mainstream American society often does a lousy job of guiding people in the direction of a good human life -- a meaningful life; a dignified life; a beautiful life; a sacred life. Frankly, many, many modern Americans are utterly adrift and have no sound understanding of how to live…and, in the midst of this, the dojo offers an example of how life can be.
To further this stream of thought just slightly, one might say that the ideal of Mahayana Buddhism is the bodhisattva -- a being who vows to be reborn again and again and again in the cycle of suffering until all sentient beings have been liberated. Probably the most well-known bodhisattva in Buddhist mythology is Kanzeon (or Kannon or Quan Yin or Avalokiteshvara). Kanzeon is the bodhisattva of compassion and is often depicted with a thousand eyes and a thousand arms. These symbolize Kanzeon's ability to perceive all the suffering of all the beings in the universe and to respond compassionately to each situation with just what is needed. So, since I received my brother's big question, I have been thinking about what it means to look at the state of the world around us, identify what is most needed, and respond accordingly. And I have been thinking that Brooklyn Aikikai responds to the needs of the present world in a few critical ways.
The dojo offers training in discipline and self-control. Somewhere along the way, our culture seems to have forgotten that discipline need not be a negative term, and that, in fact, well-disciplined people are happier than those with poor self-control.
The dojo offers physical, visceral, concrete training to a world that has become dangerously abstract -- and in which many have largely lost touch with their physical bodies. This physical, concrete practice does wonders to re-unify one's mind and body -- to foster a healthy integrity between one's physical, mental, and spiritual sides.
And, perhaps this is a harder term to pin down, but I feel it is important. The dojo teaches its students to carry themselves and to treat each other with dignity. To behave in accord with a conviction that human life is meaningful and valuable. Indeed, sacred. And that human action matters. This, too, I am afraid is often lacking in our era, but it is of boundless importance.
So, that's my reflection. And it circles around again to end on a note of gratitude. I know that Brooklyn Aikikai in the form that I witnessed it would not be possible without the dedicated effort of many, many people, and I wish to express my thanks and respect to all those of you who have put your energy into building and nurturing this dojo. You've created something truly admirable, and I only hope that you will charge forward…optimistically, intelligently, diligently. And if the situation permits, I hope I will be able to join your Way and your community again.
Sunday, March 22, 2009
Two weeks ago three important moments occurred in the life of the dojo. One, we had a test where we saw five of our fellow members rise in rank. Two, we had a meeting where we learned about the plans for the dojo’s physical expansion and our part in raising funds. And three, I moved to a new apartment. All powerful moments in time, they taught me a wonderful lesson about what we are part of here in Brooklyn.
First the testing. Sensei knows where we are in our training and could do away with tests altogether, but there is something about them that still works. More than twenty members sat in seiza to support the four who were testing. Sensei threw us a funky wrinkle and called up several members for surprise practice tests as well. This heightened the intensity and pressed all of us to contribute. The spirit was strong and we needed the energy of every member there to pull through. In the end, after almost two hours, we had the four planned testers rise in rank, one surprise promotion and more than forty feet purple from lack of circulation.
During a test when Sensei yells “uke!”, people rush to aid their fellow students. That is a metaphor for what we do in our training with each other every day. What works about the test is it shows us all something about ourselves and the health of our community.
At our fundraising meeting we had an even greater turnout. This was the second Friday night in a row we were asked to attend and we did so en masse. The evidence suggests we are either painfully unpopular individuals or we are committed to the dojo. I’ve met almost everyone and I’m pretty sure we must be committed (not in the rubber room sense). We discussed the need to raise funds for an expansion of the dojo. This will allow for Sensei to continue the commitment of his life to the dojo, provide rooms for visiting instructors, and allow us to grow our uchideshi program. Could there be a more inspiring project? I have no doubt we will raise the money necessary to complete the expansion and beyond.
Lastly, I needed to bring furniture up and down stairs a bunch of times last weekend. On the way down it took three people almost three hours to load the truck. When I arrived at my new address it took eight people twenty-eight minutes to empty it. That’s because Sensei and Kate came. They were joined by Sensei’s friend and former teacher, Imetai. Later Sarah arrived (the day after her test no less). Sensei and Imetai have trained for more than fifty years combined. If you have ever wondered what physical transformation you might undergo in your training you should see two Sensei move furniture. It is terrifying and awe inspiring.
And if you’ve ever wondered what kind of bond we all have as fellow students, if you’ve ever wondered how committed we are to each other. I have your answers...
- We will rush to take ukemi for each other as long as the test lasts.
- Sensei knows with minute detail when you’ve been to class, if you are injured and what progress you’ve made. He and others live their lives committed to this practice and keep their doors and hands open to us without respite.
- And there is something in this bond, this commitment, which can convince a perfect stranger (Imetai) to race up two flights of stairs, repeatedly, until all of my worldly goods are in place.
These recent events proved to me beyond doubt that we are all part of something very special.
Monday, March 16, 2009
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
There’s a well-known song by Joni Mitchell that includes the lines:
“don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till its gone..”
While I’ve always loved the song these lines took on a new significance for me recently when I found myself laid out at home for several weeks, unable even to get out of bed much less train due to a severe hernia. I’m sure, like most aikidoka there have been many times in the past when I’d talked myself out of training. I was too tired, it was too cold out, it was too hot out, my wrists hurt etc etc. During these moments of laziness it was just too easy to make an excuse not to go, “I’ll go tomorrow instead, next week I’ll train twice as hard” and all the time taking for granted the fact that I was able to train at all. That I had my health, that I lived in a city with such a great aikido dojo and teacher, that I could afford the monthly fees – all of these luxuries were easily forgotten. Forgotten until I no longer had them.
During many long hours of lying on my back staring at the ceiling I found myself longing to be able to do the simplest tasks again. I couldn’t stand long enough to make myself something to eat. I couldn’t leave the house to go and buy groceries. And I couldn’t train. I found myself missing Aikido a lot during this time. All those excuses now seemed so wasteful and I was forming a new commitment to my life and to my martial art that I promised myself I would honor once I was fit again.
This was the first lesson being unwell taught me. The second was more subtle but no less valuable. Sensei kindly gave my wife a book of Zen teachings for me to read while I was out of action. At first I thought just how nice this was of him to try to try to keep me entertained and I was honored that he’d thought of me at all while I wasn’t training. I then realized that this wasn’t simply a kindly gesture – perhaps the message was that, even though you can't practice aikido physically, you can still practice aikido mentally and this was his way of teaching me even while I couldn’t even stand up.
Aikido isn’t just something that happens on the mat – it’s a state of mind, its something we take with us every time we leave the dojo and its still with us even when sick and incapacitated. We should treasure every moment we are able to physically practice it and we should continue to train even in those moments when we are not able.
Sunday, February 22, 2009
For the last few months, the questions I hear the most often is: “Why aikido?”, “ What does aikido give you?” So, this is an explanation for everybody who asks.
Only four months ago, after my first week of practicing aikido, I had a conversation with the Sensei. He asked me how I felt about my aikido classes. I don’t remember everything that I tried to say except for one fact. I answered him: “Because of the fact that English is not my native language, sometimes I don’t know which I am supposed to choose: watching techniques or listening attentively to what the teachers say”. And then the Sensei said, “Don’t worry about your language, just watch!”
Have you ever gotten a piece of advice in your life, which seemed so simple that you couldn’t believe it would work? I think that is what happened to me four months ago.
The next day, after my meeting with the Sensei, I came back on the mat. I tried to just watch…but I couldn’t stop thinking about all my limits: a language barrier, shyness, being exhausted mentally and physically. It doesn’t mean that I didn’t try to take the Sensei’s advice - I did, but…I observed the technique, and I was thinking “Ok, when it is your turn, just step forward on your right foot, grab his wrist and elbow - I think that I get this”. After choosing my “opponent”, I realized that “I DIDN’T get this”. Every class the same feeling - really depressing - again and again.
Just watch, just watch, don’t try to get “everything” at the same moment – that was in my mind, but unfortunately there were a lot of different things in the way also. I can’t say when I started to change but…it happened and it was an amazing feeling and hard lesson at the same time. Polishing my spirit, stopping my impatience, getting stronger physically – that’s what I thank aikido for, and that’s my answer to: “Why aikido?”
I have to add one more element which is perhaps the most important in my adoption of aikido. Because of aikido, because of people whom I meet at the dojo, I learn every day to open my eyes and look for more. I open my eyes on aikido, I open my eyes for me, I open my eyes for the most important things in my life. So, I will come again to the dojo tomorrow and…I will just watch!
Sunday, February 15, 2009
Recently, a friend of mine died, suddenly and at a young age. In times of tragedy and sorrow, you look for lessons to get you through. Lessons like, life is shorter than you think, so make the most of it.
What aikido offers me in such a moment is an opportunity: to be new. To start fresh, to let go. It may seem like a contradiction. After all, don’t we strive to follow the instructor’s demonstration exactly, to do it over and over? What could be more of ‘the same’ than tens of thousands of ikkyos?
But every time I step on the mat, I have the opportunity to be different. To drop a little more, to get closer, to enter deeper. Lift your hand, turn your palm…these simple adjustments can change everything. And as my practice deepens, I am offered the chance to do nothing – not to think, not to plan – and still to find myself where I need to be. Far from being exact and correct, aikido offers me the chance to be present. To meet my partner where she is, to experience her attack as distinctive – and in my response, to make my own life anew: Who I am. What I can do.
There is a saying in Japanese that describes the gift of aikido perfectly: Ichi go Ichi e. It translates loosely into “one time, one meeting.” When I was living in Japan, the Buddhist priest who used the phrase described it this way:
Each time we encounter another person in our lives, it may be the last time, and it may be very important, something may happen in that moment to change both of our lives. It may be something we have done before, but this one time between us cannot be replaced. Each time, this is our time: just once, you and me.
Monday, February 9, 2009
As someone who is soon to test again for rank, I found my mind returning to the question of why we test at all. This is especially poignant given the general consensus that rank is of no importance. "If advancing in rank doesn't matter, then why test?" the reasoning goes. "If I fail, what have I lost?"
Viewed with a fixation on rank, testing is difficult to justify. But testing is more than a way of acquiring rank (meaningless or not). Testing is a tool for improvement. During the period leading up to the test, we practice harder and more frequently. We are encouraged to focus on specific techniques, and question them in detail. We must become technicians. This kind of training takes us outside of our habitual practice and allows us to see techniques in a different way.
Then there is the test itself. During the test, we must exert ourselves to the utmost; we are pushed harder than any class pushes us; we are mentally and physically exhausted. This kind of training leads to improvement of a different sort. It reveals how we behave under pressure. It reveals how we handle fear. And, with our muscles exhausted, it reveals how to act from our center, from our hara.
Years ago I was told that during the test "you must die on the mat". At the time, I took it to mean that I must try hard and exert myself a great deal. However, there is more to this assertion than I initially understood. Trying hard is one thing, giving everything is another. Giving everything requires us to let go of our fears and desires. It requires us to let go of our very selves. This is the death we must strive for.