The Gifts of Injury

I started to train in aikido at the age of 50. I came onto the mat with a body that had barely moved for all of those years. I was stiff, uncoordinated, and disconnected from where I was in space. I already had bad knees and an unusually tight torso. A real recipe for failure, I thought after my first few classes. Yet I intuited from the very first that aikido had something important for me, for my growth as a human being. So I persisted, showed up, trained, and tested; fifth kyu, fourth kyu, third kyu. I have great skills at persistence, after all.

Somewhere after third kyu I began to accumulate injuries. The first occurred on the mat. I was taking ukemi for shiho-nage and instead of flowing with the energy and following with my center I pulled myself back and wham—I could feel something in my left shoulder tear. I deluded myself for months that I had only strained something, so that by the time I made it to the surgeon I had a rotator cuff that was dangling by a thread. Apparently I have high tolerance for physical pain – a good thing in general, not such a good thing if you want to avoid making an injury worse.

Surgery and months of rehab followed before I was cleared by my doc to get back on the mat. And then, no matter how I tried, I could not roll on that shoulder in any direction. I could not allow that shoulder to rotate upward; no kaiten-nage ukemi. No forward rolling. No flying across the mat. I tried, I did physical therapy, and each time I attempted forward or backward motion my shoulder yelled at me. The rotator cuff was all sewn up, but it wasn’t rotating. My capacity to be uke was stuck, stalled.

All of this I took to mean that I would have no further opportunities to advance in belt level; one should, after all, be able to take ukemi at a more advanced level as one advances in rank. At first I was philosophical about it; ah well, I hadn’t come onto the mat to achieve. And then there came the year when a whole raft of people who had started to train a year, two years, five years after I had caught and passed me, put on brown belts and became my sempai.

I had never had this experience before. In my non-aikido life I have always been the fastest, the best, the one who could fly across the mat of the intellect with ease, the youngest to achieve professional goals. In my life off the mat I am a shihan in my field, the person who gets invited to teach seminars all around the world. I had no emotional skills for integrating this new reality of being not only slow, but apparently terminally left behind. When I tore a second shoulder in the spring of 2011 by simply reaching behind myself at my desk one day, my hopes dimmed again. When one of my feet began to jerk and droop for still-unexplained reasons, and it became harder and harder to walk, I began to wonder whether I could continue with aikido. Advancement, ha! Having my feet on the mat was being hard enough.

I went through a dark night of the soul about training. I showed up because it was the right thing to do, another well-developed capacity of mine. I attended no kyu tests; they were too much on the bitter end of bittersweet. I had little joy of my training. I was hyper-aware of the color of the belts around my friends’ waists. I made dark humor jokes in the dressing room about being a permanent third kyu.

But being me, who tends to move forward, I could not rest in this place. So slowly, I began to practice what I preach in my work as a therapist, and pay attention to what I could do, and what would give me joy. I noticed that the thing I’m very good at in my work as a psychologist, attending to energy, was something I could do on the mat. Because I had stopped worrying so much about what my waza looked like (after all, I wasn’t going to ever test again, right?), I began to free myself to play with energy on the mat. I gave up on advancement, and freed myself to be in aikido in the body, mind, and spirit that I have. I gave up, and in doing this, gifts have emerged from my injuries.

Giving up re-opened my practice. I could suddenly see and feel the lines of energy around myself and my training partners. When I paid attention, there they were, clear as if drawn in the air. I began to notice the feeling of my center’s energy landing on other peoples’ centers, the string of energy coming around their backs and up their fronts. Things miraculously began to feel easy and fun.

This was a gift. Had I been diligently pursuing my next belt test, and focusing on precision of movement, I would have gotten caught up in my hypercritical mind, which edits every moment of my life. But freed by injuries from that goal, I could soar in a whole new way. Friends commented that I had become fun to train with – and I knew why. I had left my critic in the dressing room. On the mat, and in my practice, the gift of my injuries was allowing me to simply be. When I received feedback from Sensei, I could translate than into energy concepts and for the first time in nine years not stand there feeling flummoxed. My injuries, by preventing me from my usual highly disciplined focus on getting things right, liberated me to flow.

I’m back on the test track as I write this. Spent an hour at the dojo being aware of how I still don’t get any of the nikkyo-sankyo-yonko wrist holds – but this time, not getting bound up in my self-criticism of what I have not yet figured out. It’s not always this simple. I came home from witnessing a series of demonstrations this month in tears, certain once again that I am deluding myself, that I have nowhere to go in aikido, that I should stop pretending to myself that I might advance.

This time I could move through that, and return to center. I figured that if Sensei thought I was capable of wearing a brown belt, then I should pay attention; this shower of self-doubt is, after all, something I am used to toweling off the psychic heads of my interns when they hit walls in their work and believe themselves incapable of becoming the therapist they want to be.

I went back to paying attention to energy. The gifts of my injuries, which sit in my shoulders, refusing to let me try to use strength, in my leg and foot, slowing me down and making me precise, in my arthritic hands and wrists and back, requiring me to use energy and not physical force to do anything as nage –all of the places where the body is torn and worn and broken are the places from which my aikido practice now flows.

I would prefer, of course, to not have been injured, to have a body that is flexible and pain-free. I grieve that I will not be someone who will put on a hakama and fly across the mat. Yet because I was finally able to see and accept the gifts that age and injury have offered to me, my practice has grown, and my joy in training has multiplied. My second kyu test was an experience of total joy and exhilaration; I was smiling throughout, so pleased to be in relationship to my ukes and to my practice.

It’s a whole new way of knowing center. Center is the body that I am, not the one I wish I had. Center is that body moving through the lines and spirals of energy, finding the lines and spirals of my training partner. Center is honoring that I am a tortoise on the mat, slowly and surely moving forward, center low to the ground, able to persist. The largest gift of injury has been to know center in an entirely new and more profound way. Center is radical acceptance of an embodied self whose very presence I had ignored for 50 years. And center is joy, in my practice on and off the mat. The ultimate gift of injury has been that joy. Wearing a brown belt around my waist has been lovely; the journey there, and to discovering the gifts of injury, has been better still.

Laura S. Brown