The Power of Contemplative Practice

I suspect if you’ve been practicing Aikido for a few months or a many years, you have experienced the challenge of describing what it is.  Perhaps you have found that it’s not so easy to explain the value of ‘Aikido’ to a person who knows little about the art.   Over the years when I have been posed with the question, ‘what is Aikido?’ I used to say “Aikido is a modern Japanese martial art and….”. Before I could get the words ‘contemplative practice’ out of my mouth, I would see the glaze over in their eyes and hear the utterance of  ‘ohh, I better not mess with you”.  Never mind my attempt to carefully explain that it is a movement art founded by an exemplary spiritual teacher designed to study how to cultivate a sturdy center, a stable core, and a pacific mind.

 “No, it’s actually not what you think”, I try to explain.  “Aikido is all about connection!”  It is an art, founded by martial artist and spiritual teacher, Morihei Ueshiba in the mid 20th Century. In response to the wisdom he gleaned from years of training as well as unspeakable suffering he witnessed during WWII, he created an art that he hoped would reconcile conflict and bring the world into a more harmonious state.  Like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, O Sensei used his Budo (martial) training to teach compassion and non-violence.  Every day that I put on my training uniform, I think about O Sensei’s quest for a non-violent world.

So yes, Aikido is a martial art.  But Terry Dobson says it well, “Aikido is an art of reconciliation”.  The founder says, “Aikido is the realization of love”.

Most every day at the dojo a student, a parent, or an instructor says to me in some fashion: “I want to find ways to be present, and centered, maybe even overjoyed!”  How do we do that in this tumultuous political and social climate of 2018?  Perhaps more than ever, contemplative, spiritual practices like Aikido, Zen, Tai Ji, Yoga, Taiko, Calligraphy and Psychotherapy can us answer that query; help us lean into the light, energize our spirits, and untangle our monkey minds.  With the vindictiveness of the political season surrounding, we need a practice that invites us to consistently return to our original purpose, our original light.   We are easily distracted, even deluded by past thoughts and future planning. When our alligator brains are in charge, we are inclined to stress about what catches our attention; we create obstacles with occasional disastrous consequences.

When we dig deep in a daily spiritual practice, we can experience ourselves as a wondrous multi-dimensional mixing of heaven and earth.  We are condensations of water droplets, cumulus clouds, sand and stardust, talking to and listening to each other.  We are miracle creatures, capable of genius, compassion, and deep wisdom. We are also chaotic, likely to be bound up, convoluted, entangled creatures. We are capable of heinous, corrupt and sadistic behaviors. 

Aikido practices can assist us in working with our aggression and fear. There are multiple opportunities to work with untangling our minds.  The two-step turning exercise is one great example. In the act of spinning in place, we can identify a quiet center and, like the Sufis, turn, turn, turn. It’s a simple way to anchor ourselves in a center spot in our bodies. Our shin kokyu practice includes “tori-fune” movement that invites us to extend our body forward and backward rigorously. We can feel the extending receiving rhythm as though we are rowing a boat along a lively river.  (In Shinto mythology one is rowing a heavenly bird boat and traveling to the land that links heaven and earth.) There are ample tools available.

One of the most important acts we do in practice is to offer our hand to our partner. We have heard it referred to in many ways.  Initiate the attack, send out a call to partner, offer an open heart of gratitude to the universe. There is a vivid overlap of life in this act, ordinary activities we may do daily by shaking a friends hand or helping a child or an elder take a seat, reaching out to pick up a pot on the stove. Ordinary life perceived as extraordinary.  Whatever the practice we choose to consistently calm our mind and vibrate our soul, it restores us. Putting together a package of tools and practices that works for us given the complexities of our lives.  We know we need various ways to untangle ourselves from our delusions, our fears, powerful sense of inferiority and superiority.  We need to feel our miraculousness.

Kimberly Richardson