Finding Quiet

Jen Stoakes To stay true to my belief that I study aikido on the mat to enhance my life off the mat, I decided that what I most wanted to cultivate during the San Dan process was a more sophisticated sense of finding quiet in the center of chaos. Over my years of training, I have seen Senseis embody this profound aspect of the art and have caught momentary glimpses in my own practice. The San Dan process gave me the opportunity to look more intensely at myself and my training habits, so I could both create and discover more quiet.

Because this was not my first experience preparing for a black belt rank, I knew on some level I wouldn’t really know quiet until I experienced it in more than just a fleeting sense. I felt like I was in a tornado for a few months. Quiet was ever-elusive. I kept hearing my dad’s voice saying, “be careful what you wish for.” My immediate and consistent reply was, “but if you don’t deliberately ask for the lesson, how will you ever grow?” Kimberly Sensei has been teaching me for years to lead the attack, not to sit there and wait for it to push me over.

One of the many aspects of Aikido practice that I love is that when I set an intention to study a particular principle or concept, I am inevitably surprised with what reveals itself. This time, the surprise in store for me was how much my intention to find quiet attuned me to the experience of being uke. Although we are taught that ukemi skills are just as important, if not more so, than skills as nage, we focus on our nage-waza when we train for an advancement in rank. We train with the expectation that our sempai will challenge our capacity to lead, not to follow.

As my San Dan process unfolded, I certainly felt challenged as nage, but I was astounded by how much anger showed up when I was taking ukemi from someone who tried to push or pull me, instead of blend with me. I realized how violent we can be when we think we are “doing” Aikido. My tolerance as uke plummeted. It was excruciating at times to train with people who seemed (from my perspective) to be uninterested in the subtleties between blending and throwing.

From my first day as a student at Two Cranes, I have learned to always look at how I am contributing to any interaction. This is a principle my dad learned from Aikido, which he infused into his parenting. I was never allowed to blame anyone else for my actions or reactions. As hard as this can be at times, it eliminates the possibility of seeing myself as a victim. As frustrated as I would get with training partners who felt aggressive towards me, I focused on my own experience and examined my own contribution. This process, so engrained from my childhood, led me back to examine how I was treating my training partners. I had no choice but to accept that these frustrating moments offered a mirror. The frustration helped me to see that the best I could do was to clean up my own waza—to dedicate myself to blending even when the interaction felt harsh and aggressive. I did not doubt that I could match the aggression manifesting in my training partner—I have been clear for a while that I have that in me. My goal was to move beyond the aggressive response, to a place where more potential for a blend existed.

Both from the perspective of uke and nage I explored the moments in which we moved from tension and duality to blending. I discovered subtle ways to influence that shift. The physical and emotional exhaustion from too much reaction, rather than blending, led me to deeply desire less forceful effort in my waza. The authentic blend became my focus.

The testing process requires us to go deeper than we might dare to go in daily training. The basic tenets that O’Sensei laid out—grounding, blending and centering—were intellectually available to me in the first few months of my training. Yet these simple and profound concepts are unattainable without embodied experience and a willingness to stay engaged in the process, which takes (for most of us) many years and many hours on the mat. Even though a part of me always envies beginners (all those classes where every word the sensei says is life altering!), I am deeply appreciative to be far enough down the path, in a place where I welcome these profound concepts with patience, knowing that truth and knowledge take time to unfold.

It has taken me a few months since my San Dan demonstration to articulate my thoughts. What I experienced during and immediately after was a new sense of quiet. As someone who spent the first few years as an Aikido student preaching to everyone I could about how they should begin training, and spending hours in dialogue about the teachings, it was quite new to find myself without words. I found quiet.

Jen Stoakes