The Power of a Twinkle - A Tribute to Mary Heiny Sensei

Wearing a crisp white gi and a silk black hakama, she approached the center of the mat with steadfast elegance; a conviction, a purpose. Never mind that time has curved her shape forward, her silver-haired head leading slightly. Turning away from us and setting her gaze on the photograph of Aikido’s founder, Morehei Ueshiba, O Sensei, Mary Heiny Sensei knelt down in the center of the room and sat in silence for what seemed a long time.  As she lowered her head to the floor in a bow that traditionally marks the beginning of an Aikido class, it appeared as if she reached into another world, as if her mind was reflecting on something personal and sacred to her that set her slightly apart from the rest of us. For a moment she might have forgotten that she was the teacher that day.  She clapped her hands together to alert the Gods and then stalled for a brief moment before turning to face the crowd, only to be curious and mildly astonished with the tone of the room.

When she rose to her feet, she winced just slightly, showing a smile that knows this physical routine so well and the aches that accompany it.  Anyone familiar with the lore of the frail eighty-five year old O Sensei being carried to the mat and watching him let loose on all his attackers like a marvel comics super hero, is awed by the power of the human spirit and how she reminds us of that. Not for one moment was her effect unambiguous as she took her place center stage in this monumental event to teach with her teacher. She could have opted out of this appearance to mourn over her other world, thinking about a mother who had passed away not even a week prior didn’t keep her from making simple and direct contact with each and all present in this act of bowing in. Her humility, as she watched the students attentively facing her packed together in a line like sardines in a can, was graced with sweetness and profound dignity.  

It was Cherry Blossom Festival time and the full moon lit up the sky. My husband and I had traveled on April 10, 2005 from Seattle, WA to the Aikido Schools of Ueshiba, Saotome Sensei’s flagship school on Butternut Street in Washington DC. We joined 150 other students for the weekend to witness Mary teach with Saotome Sensei (senior student of O Sensei) for the first time. He had been had been one of her / an instrumental instructor to her when she began training at Tokyo’s Hombu dojo-Aikido headquarters 40 years ago.  “He was the Tuesday teacher,” she had explained. “Saotome Sensei would take all the swords and knives away from his students when they came at him in multiple attack drills randori as if he were on a stroll through the park. I wanted to do that.  I wanted his elegant posture, his upright gaze and nimble movement.  I am still working at it.”

With a leprechaun smile she greeted the crowd, tilted her head back looking skyward and pronounced her reasons for visiting Japan in the first place in 1965. “I was a mere language student,” she confessed. Beyond extremely shy and stifled by polio as a child, ‘I could hardly lift my foot up to the curb for fear of loosing my balance’, she shared with us how her goal in life was to be an ethnolinguinguist, a career choice that was a sure to maintain a successful distance from all most all human beings. Keep the weapon of language between her and them.  “People terrified me. They were aliens. I shaped my life around keeping my distance from human beings.  So when a fellow language student Bob Fraser (Aikido Shihan and Founder of the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology S.F., CA) said I should get an eye of O sensei who was all about touching people’s hearts and souls, I thought ‘are you crazy?’ 

Though I have heard her ‘when I met O sensei story’ before, I do not tire of it. Like a fairy tale, it speaks to me how a life could be redirected by a ‘twinkle of an eye’ as she has gleefully described. Scanning the room, I considered all the budoka (martial artists) present that next morning, some who have devoted their lives to the teachings for 40 years plus, many of whom are attached to the old ways of throw hard, get ‘em to the ground, kindness be somewhere else and magic be nowhere.  But Mary pulled no punches. Her blatant admittance of vulnerability, made me feel slightly embarrassed, honesty about her neurosis and fear could cause anyone trying to be cool to squirm at the thought that enlightenment or at least direction/life path could come an eye’s ‘twinkle’. 

“Bob Frasier dragged me to Hombu dojo that day,” she explained. “One hour only!”  I reminded him. We climbed three levels of rickety stairs and found a bench inside the training hall.  A rectangular plack on the wall stated “Always train in the spirit of joyful exhilaration.” A class was in progress. Half an hour later a little old man with a baldhead and a long pointy white beard entered the space. People’s posture immediately straightened up. O Sensei’s small frame filled the front of the room where he lectured on the nature of reality for 20 minutes while drawing lines in space with his fingertips.  He threw an eely young buck across the room for a few minutes and bowed to end class. Until that moment I felt little attraction for what looked like a bunch of people in white and black pajama-like costumes pushing each other around the room. But as I watched him exit the training hall, he cast a glance in my direction; he looked right through me.  ‘Look deeper’ the gaze suggested. Here is your life.”

It was an unusually humid evening in DC - the air was thick and moist. Students were crammed into a space that barely fit us all, competing for what oxygen was available. But thankfully the sliding doors opened to a refreshing Japanese garden highlighted by maple and bamboo varieties and fat blossomed cherries. Inside gallant bold calligraphy pieces filled the wood paneled walls. Even if you couldn’t read the kanji, you knew they contained O Sensei’s words as though he himself was present and prompting you to be mindful.   As we listened to Mary’s stories of her training in Japan, I was acutely aware of how intimate a feeling there was in the room. We couldn’t escape each other if we had wanted.    

Clasping her fingers together and extending her grip towards her feet she began to discuss the deeper meaning of practice. “Aikido is psychic communication.  The human touch is full of information. I know immediately without knowing a personal history if my training partner is sad, if they like their life, if they are head over heels in love or plodding through a divorce.  Connection –it’s what we have to work with; it’s what we human beings use to know each other.  We would like to imagine that when we train in Aikido together, like life, we take care of each other while learning the skills we seek.  We’re trying to reach the place where we can resolve the conflict regardless of the problem, regardless of the intent of our attacker. That’s why we practice being attacked in every way possible.  These days I don’t think of my partner’s strike as a problem,” Mary clarified.  “I experience it more as a gift, an opportunity to mingle and harmonize with the attack.  Like the sorcerer’s apprentice we seek to transform/dissolve the intent of what might otherwise be devastating.”

One of the highlights of her talk that evening was the discussion of emphasis on what happens to you when you are faced with the grave consequence of being forced to end a life.  I have listened to my teachers’ advise me to consider the lethal part of my training as part of the package, but I haven’t ever heard an instructor address the karmic consequences of killing a human being.  For a moment, I reflected on those thousands of youth returning home now from the experience of war in Iraq.  If they did manage to come home uninjured physically, how are they now coping with having been required to kill another human being, perhaps an innocent child?  No one talks about the psychic consequence of that act. From the quiet in the room I sensed that people were considering how this dialogue was getting in. 

“Part of our responsibility to our practice is acknowledging the life and death of it. That’s what makes it real. For anyone who has faced lethal circumstances, the intricate question comes to mind, what if killing is the only option?  If we assess that there is no option short of eliminating the one who would do damage, if we exhaust all other possibilities first, then we must open your heart as large as we can and kill him. The karma we reap through our actions unites comes with a consciousness to match.”

That afternoon she began class with a chuckle, “I’m shorter than most of you here, but when I first trained in Japan it was with mostly men, many of whom were no bigger than my 5’2” frame,” she said. “They looked at me like they would consume me for breakfast, but they weren’t expecting a pasty white gal could play too.   I took them out every chance I got and felt great delight in doing so. Never mind that I was black and blue at the end of each day covered with intricate smelling plaster patches and tiger balm- like emollients.”

“Bring your attacker/partner uke to you.  I’m way too small to aggressively reach out physically into space that I can’t inhabit and try to drag you around. Besides, the field surrounding you is your space, not mine.  In order to convince you to come with me, I need to accept your offering and encourage you to move to where I would like to be. To do this I must magnetic and compelling. If I’m successful in enticing you in, then I can absorb your energy and pacify your force.  Of course the Buddhists would remind us that in the biggest sense of it there is no attacker other than ourselves. All attack is internal projection. That’s worth a moment of contemplation,” she smiled. 

By Sunday morning Mary’s low back was acting up.  Anyone who knew her well could sense that she was struggling to rotate her hips and bend her knees.  But there she was calling up the biggest boys in the room to demonstrate her work.  One man, earnest and confident, faced her preparing for attack.  His hands had the articulation of a finish carpenter.  I could see the confident look on his face shift towards perplexity when he tried to grab her wrist.  Just as he got within reach of her skin, she shifted her position to slide behind him. For a brief moment Mary’s imperious gaze resembled that of a swooping falcon with her one grabbed arm reaching for heaven and the other hand touching the floor, she split his energy. Though he drilled his feet to the ground, his body still moved forward and he was caught hanging in space like an apple on a tree.  He couldn’t stop himself, his powerful, stocky body leaned too far in front of his feet and he spilled to the floor.  

 Looking down at him kindly she reminded us, “in order to be effective we need to shape the path for uke to travel along. I can’t pull him down to the mat; I simply don’t have the physical strength. But I have other resources. I deliberately expand my chest to open my heart and make the invitation to connect not just tolerable, but natural.  This is a potent way for human beings to see their mutual connection to each other and to nature.

I know it sounds prissy but what if we were a burgundy peony or an oak tree?  How might we fill ourselves up with tree energy and blend by using that beauty, that steadfastness? We are those elements. We seem to spend time cutting down trees but we might want to spend time watching the life of a tree and note what a great teacher is there for us.”

Mary’s my teacher.  She amazes me and she drives me crazy.  But in her sermon that final day I witnessed her at her most eloquent and mysterious. The words she repeated were “I have immense gratitude for my teachers.”  She was looking at O sensei, but I knew she was referring to her mother and to the countless teachers she has studied with through the years; to her beloved students and to the natural world around her. “Bless our authentic human solidarity and bless our capacity to love each other with every breath we take, she said softly.  There was the silence as the tears began to stream down her face shamelessly.  It didn’t feel like despair, she didn’t hold her heart out of unhappiness. She simply stood tall and quiet.  Somehow Mary managed to be completely free of pathos. For all the embarrassment you might have felt two days before while listening to her admissions of Lucille ball like clumsiness and difficulty in her years of study, now was something that looked like some carved out example of what a spiritual life might look like. What it could mean to embody thankfulness. Even if you didn’t know anything about the art of Aikido, you couldn’t miss her sophisticated willingness to show us her own inner life as simultaneously simple and deep.  She is an unlikely character in the martial arts world and it is unlikely that we shall see a figure as multilayered, as fragile and potent, who didn’t arrive this lifetime with an athlete’s physique. But the fact that the resolution of conflict can happen far before the physicality takes place suggests the possibility of a whole new way to address peacemaking. “Let’s bow out,” she said.  As she stepped off the mat and made haste into the dressing room, she laughed, admitting that she was in a rush. “I have just enough time to see the cherry blossoms in full bloom before boarding a flight for home.”



Kimberly Richardson