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.