A Glance Towards Nidan

 

How is it that four and a half years have passed since my shodan?  What do I have to show for it?  What has changed about my Aikido?  What has changed about me?  What have I learned?  What am I working on? 

I could spill a lot of ink answering any one of these questions; in all likelihood, it would devolve into gratuitous navel-gazing that would be of interest to no one other than myself.  Having said this, I will attempt to explore some of these questions in the space of a few pages in what might amount to a coherent narrative.    

I have structured this piece in the following manner.  I’ll begin by taking stock of what I was working on in the time leading up to my shodan demonstration, and juxtaposing my mindset in 2012 with my mindset today vis-a-vis my training; I will then talk briefly about the months following my shodan, and how I utterly failed to incorporate my training into my life off the mat; I’ll conclude by looking at how the path to my nidan demonstration has permitted me to focus on the structure of my Aikido training, of my mind and body, and how that has figured into my daily life.  

Everything is Different Except My Mistakes

In advance of writing this essay, l looked back to my shodan essay, written in April 2012.  The major things I was working on then were 1) doing my best to incorporate the endless amounts of feedback I was receiving into my waza with some level of competency, if not grace, and 2) doing my best to quiet my own ego, and not get frustrated with all of the input coming my way.  

Amid all the corrections and stress leading up to the demonstration, Jonathan Sensei’s advice in advance of my demonstration was:  Your mantra needs to be simplicity.  One could make the argument that it still should be. 

In re-reading that essay from 2012, what strikes me is the fact that I was receiving weekly feedback.  When I compare that reality with my current one, I realize that the feedback was actually an extraordinary privilege.  Three of the people who were giving me that advice for years ago are no longer training with us.  Today, Corey and I find ourselves in a situation where we’re outranked in our dojo only by Linda Sensei.  To get more advanced training, we have had to travel an hour to Burlington when our schedules allow, and attend as many seminars as calendars and budgets permit.  

This is not a complaint.  Teaching once a week has been an extraordinary privilege, and being able to help kohai along their own path is extremely gratifying[1].  Additionally, it has been a gift to be able to learn, to the best of our abilities, through training intensely with one another.  Having said this, in comparing my situation in 2012 with my current one, I will admit a certain hunger to have more locally based sempai.  

There has been a certain loneliness (as well as some unique gifts) to the endeavor of preparing for nidan. If I am to take stock of what I’ve learned since 2012, it is 1) I owe all of my teachers and sempai who invested in my preparation for shodan a debt of gratitude for their patience and love, and 2) the best way I can honor them in their physical absence is to keep training, and constantly strive to improve my Aikido based on the feedback they so generously provided all those years ago (especially since I’m still making a mess of incorporating it all)[2].

One other observation I make when comparing my 2012 self with my current one reveals a big shortcoming in my training, one that I will need to focus on more in the years to come (and by this I mean for the rest of my life).  In terms of what I been seeking to improve upon since shodan, the majority of items on that list have been mechanical.  Part of this reason is implied in what I described above:  the lack of sempai to correct me without solicitation means that I’ve been devoting a fair amount of headspace to trying to improve the body mechanics of my waza.  Of course, this is part of the training, since the forthcoming demonstration will in fact focus on the quality and specifics of my movement.

But the focus on the mechanics has come at the cost of me reading more about, thinking about, and working actively to embody the spirit of Aikido and O Sensei’s teachings.  I’ve been focusing on the body at the expense of the mind.  In trying to get the precision, the timing, the angles correct, I haven’t been thinking nearly enough about the why of it all.

Compare my 2016 self to my 2012 self, when in my essay I quoted my Ki-Aikido Sensei:  Remember the why, which determines the how, and results in the what.  

A Lesson in Utter Failure

Within months after my shodan demonstration in 2012, I fell apart.  

There were several opportunities to use what I learned in training in my daily life, both with others, and, more importantly, with myself.  I failed spectacularly in any attempt to use the principles of Aikido.  My relationship with my partner at the time took a spectacular nosedive soon after my shodan, and I did not have the mental or spiritual resources to deal with this in a manner that one would consider compassionate.  To state is more plainly:  I was unable to see things from her perspective, and then was unable to be kind to her or myself.  The ukemi I had to take as a result, both from my partner and from myself got more and more dangerous, and by the time that that relationship ended, I found myself reverting back to the worst possible practices to deal with the resulting anxiety and depression.  

Jonathan Sensei said at some point in the year leading up to my shodan demonstration:  We train our whole lives in Aikido to be able to use its principles once with our loved ones.  In other words, if Aikido does not make us better people off the mat, we haven’t learned a thing.   If that relationship with my partner at the time was any litmus test, I was failing utterly in my attempts to apply the principles of Aikido in my daily life.

All that training of keeping my one-point, of staying relaxed, of not being rigid, of not taking things personally, of not escalating a situation, or pivoting to put myself in someone else’s shoes:  even if I was able to do it on the mat, it appeared my abilities were limited to the physical confines of the dojo.  Off the mat, my actions towards self and others were manipulative and destructive, hardly the fitting of someone who claimed to be a trainee in the art of peace.  

In retrospect, the months up until and immediately following my shodan were certainly the beginning of my training.  

Setting the Course, This Time on Purpose

This story does tie back to the original question of how the preparation process has impacted my training and daily life.  What I am about to discuss does not imply mastery in any way, but rather, a blossoming awareness of what lies ahead for me as I continue to devote myself to the art of Aikido.

At the seminar in 2012 where I demonstrated for shodan, Kimberly Sensei quoted Anno Sensei who said, approximately, Every time I make a mistake, I try to love myself a little more.  The months following that 2012 seminar and shodan demonstration provided ample opportunity for me to do attempt such an endeavor.  I did not do so until after that troubled relationship ended; I did not realize in the heat of it that I had to make the choice, that I had to set my intention to do so.  

The weekend after that breakup, after I returned home after an ultra-marathon to an empty apartment (she had had friends help her move out while I was gone), I realized that it really could become a matter of life or death if I did not make that choice.  Given how violent my self-abuse had gotten, if I did not start actively extending plus Ki to myself as well as others, the odds of me committing a mortal accident would continue to rise.  

So I made the choice to try to love myself a little more.  In seeing how different my world was then before taking that first step versus my world now, that choice was nothing short of radical.

That choice obviously had huge implications for my daily life.  It has also had a big effect on my Aikido.  It has also helped me to understand, or at least appreciate, one of the things one of my sempai told me in the path to shodan:  training in Aikido is an erosion of the ego, not an indulgence of it.  

There have been setbacks, yes, many moments where I could have acted out of compassion instead of malice, or hurt, or impatience, but they are fewer, less intense, and more quickly resolved.  I am a better listener than I was five years ago, and am more frequently able to realize that I can take that singular moment to think before acting, to set my intention before I say or do a thing.  That moment gives me the time to do something on purpose instead of what my initial reaction might have been.  And that makes a world of difference. 

On the mat, it has certainly gotten me out of the habit of wondering why my uke is not moving in the manner I was hoping, and gotten me into the habit of wondering what I am bringing to the interaction that is causing resistance.  It has made me so much happier to receive feedback, because, as noted above, giving feedback is an act of patience and kindness (especially since the feedback I am receiving as a nidan candidate is similar, if not identical to the feedback I received as a gokyu candidate!).  

What has been wonderful about the constructive feedback I have received over the last few years is that while there are is that while the details of where hands and feet go do vary, the essence of what it is I need to improve boil down to the simplest concepts:  as nage, stay on your center line, initiate uke’s attack, stay relaxed, and remember to breathe.  As uke, attack sincerely, and do your best not to anticipate nage’s action.  What is gratifying about knowing that this is what I am supposed to be working on is that this is where the what and how of Aikido can meet the why of it.  The feedback is not just about the mechanics.  It’s about the structure of my mind, of my body, and how that affects the interaction.  

But, in the words of Kashiwaya Sensei, simple does not mean easy.  And any one of those items will take a lifetime of refinement.  But that’s not cause for alarm.  It’s reason to keep showing up at the dojo. 

So as I look back on the last four and a half years and look towards my nidan demonstration, I bow deeply to my teachers, my sempai, and my kohai who have all been a part of my development not just as an aikidoka, but in my quest to be a better person.  To all of them, I say:  thank you

 

[1] This is to say nothing of the joys of children’s class, which could be an entire essay (or book!) unto itself. 

[2] In the words of Jack Wada Sensei: “Let’s be okay with where we are, but let’s not settle there.”  

Jeffrey David Stauch