A Bow of Gratitude to the Spiritual Teachers who Inspire us

April 12th marks the one month anniversary of temporarily closing our Two Cranes Institute doors. Those first days of not training together on the mat seemed unimaginable. Now as we navigate this upside down covid virus time with uncertainty and clamor filling our lives, I newly consider what Aikido practice means to us as a community. As Aikidoists we are accustomed to moving together, touching each other; we engage physically, emotionally and martially as we grab and strike each other. We fall down and get back up. It's what we love to do. Now this epidemic prevents us from connecting in the ways we naturally do. A friend and student recently said: "Will someone please throw me?" As teachers and practitioners we are, at this moment, urged to think out of the box, create virtual dojos and offer unique ways to continue our practice without human contact.

Throughout my forty years of practicing Aikido, in those life times when I have felt lost and stuck, I consistently return to the teachings of the founder. Watching O Sensei's movements both in videos and reading his words provide inspiration, but I also find his instruction often esoteric and reflective of a cultural environment that is very different than my own. I have been fortunate to study with teachers who trained with O Sensei and over the next few or months I would like to write stories of my experiences with these  teachers and share them with you.

One of these teachers is Motomichi Anno Sensei. Anno Sensei is a spiritual teacher at his core and Aikido is the medium through which he walks his spiritual path. A devoted student of O Sensei, he is one of the most exemplary teachers alive today. His message is humble and clear: “Aikido is a practice of heart.” Over the years of training with him I have collected stories and reflected on the power of his words, his techniques and his spirit. The present moment encourages me share them with you as best I can.
When I first bowed to Anno Sensei on a chilly, very early morning in April of 1985, I was nervous. We had just finished morning class at the Kumano Juku dojo in Shingu, Japan. Mary Heiny Sensei was chatting away with this compelling, down to earth teacher on the side of the mat. He was nodding his head and smiling. I remember how she suddenly turned to me and said: "Kimberly, why don’t you ask Anno Sensei for ukemi practice?” If you are not familiar with this ritual it's like a right of fire; grabbing and striking at Sensei, falling down repeatedly until I couldn’t breathe and then some more.

It probably lasted for two minutes, but it felt like a lifetime. It was only as I folded my hakama that I gained some semblance of composure and noticed his almost leprechaun smile and shining eyes as he cast his gaze on me – something I would watch him share with many students in the years that followed.

During Sensei’s first visit to California, I captured a glimpse of how a daily practice of training could deeply affect the arc of one’s life. I was curious how such a commitment to Aiki could lead a person to move to an extraordinarily high level of sensitivity and receptivity.  What he offered to us on the mat was an expression of his exploration of heart and spirit. It manifested in the way he lit up when he offered his hand into space to uke and then looked out into space as though he was seeing something filled with truth and beauty. I wanted to  know what he was seeing.

I thought then that if this man had not been an Aikidoist, no matter what else he may have done in life, from mopping floors to practicing corporate law, he would have used any situation he was in to further his quest for an open heart and expanded consciousness. 

20 years ago Sensei visited Seattle and taught a weekend seminar at Two Cranes Aikido and Emerald City Aikido. On the first evening class for brown and black belts, he set a tone that invited people to train deeply. “If the technique isn’t working properly, open your heart more,” he advised. Half way through class he asked people to share their Aikido with him. One by one they got up. Not only did people enjoy themselves, but they came together from many dojos that evening, across styles that often did not train with one another. He united us. Affinity of intent as opposed to antagonism; likeness as opposed to difference. These principles were acknowledged in every gesture. Heart transmission superseded styles and organizations. A sense of honor for the energy and hearts of others flowed through the air.

But it is his message to the children I want to tell you about. Anno Sensei was serious with the children. Two Cranes and Emerald City’s young students bowed in with Sensei and sat patiently as Linda Holiday Sensei translated his greetings. Then warm-ups began. He was deliberate and detailed in the teaching of stretches.  “Extend through your heels as you lean over to touch your toes.” Two step turns were broken down into minute particulars. The percentage of weight over the forward bent leg: 65%. The back leg straight. Sensei determined that these children could handle a level of detail I had not thought could hold their attention. Then came techniques: kokyuho and katatedori ikkyo tenkan. Rolling practice came at the end. Sensei threw almost every child in both classes each day and they rolled in delight. Then they threw him. The whole room was uplifted. Parents beamed.

He shared his thoughts on failure with the children. “The key to success is in having failure and trying again. Many failures lead to success.” He went so far as to express that sometimes failures lead to more failures and the pathway to success comes with moving through and working out these hard patches. Then Linda Sensei translated as Anno Sensei described a poem that had been close to O Sensei’s heart. It involved the white spirit and the red spirit. The white spirit was likened to our essence- our naturalness, to our desire to be dedicated to polishing our spirit by training and continually reaching for the most genuine part of ourselves. He explained that when we are born, we have a pure heart. We are unencumbered by ideas of who we might be and who we should be. 

Then there is the red spirit. While our teachers and our parents try to help us to succeed in cultivating our true self, things get in the way and can distract us from this effort. The red spirit in us is lazy. It wishes to sit back and play. It resists the requirement that we practice to polish because this is hard work. This spirit doesn’t want to work so hard. The red spirit is not bad, it simply needs discipline. Over time as we continue to commit to the practice of polishing, the red spirit’s power over us softens. As we continue to practice, the red and the white spirits alchemize into clear spirit. Our essence experiences a quality of peace and light.

“Aikido is the path of friendship,” he told the children. “You are practicing exactly what is medicine for our troubled world. If you do not continue to practice Aikido, you still can look back and recognize the quality of relationships you developed in your childhood and reflect on the depth and honesty of these companionships." Sensei also said, “Aikido is medicine for a sick world.” Here was Anno Sensei infusing the children with a sense of their personal power and their potential to heal the planet by doing what they were doing in that moment - extending, connecting, listening, centering and opening their hearts.

One of the children expressed that after his class with  Anno Sensei, he felt different in his body. He felt a fullness, an electric charge. Another child relayed how much in the present she felt. “I wasn’t behind myself, I wasn’t thinking ahead. I was completely connected to myself and to Sensei. It was as if as when I reached out to grab his hand I felt a cord to his center. I was floating.” 

The children had begun to express the clear spirit of red and white. With their words, they began to teach me what Anno  Sensei was seeing when he looked into space. Now on Easter Sunday, 2020, each of us are alone bowing into the space of O Sensei's vision. We have always been reliant on the confirming presence of our training partners; now we too must look into space to find what Anno Sensei perceives.

Kimberly Richardson