Why Test?

A Reflection on Sandan

Fierce: 1. Having a savage and violent nature; ferocious. 2. Extremely severe or violent; terrible. 3. Extremely intense or ardent: fierce loyalty. 4. Strenuously active or resolute: a fierce attempt to escape. 5. Informal: Very difficult or unpleasant: a fierce exam. 6. Savage or threatening in appearance.

In my effort to become more “fierce,” I have tried out various approaches and failed. I summoned images of wild animals (see definition No. 1). I tried to imagine myself reacting to terrible situations (see definition No. 2). I meditated on fierce reactions: being fiercely in love, experiencing fierce pain (physical and emotional). None of my experiments ultimately showed staying power; all were fleeting. Fierceness felt as ephemeral as ever. None of the expressions of fierceness felt as if they came from an authentic and consistent source.

My efforts to be fierce meant that I resorted to muscle strength and ignored the truth of my center. This surprised me, as I am not an aggressive person. Nor do I have any real chance, physically, of being able to get most ukes to the ground. And, at least in theory, I know where my center is and how effective it can be in resolving the conflict of an attack. But I struggle to trust the power of my own movement when I’m telling myself to “be fierce.” I lose the flexibility and flow that I have cultivated since I first stepped on the mat.

I faced another challenge as I experimented with being fierce, as I fear the idea of hurting someone—even though I know on an intellectual level that advancement requires trusting my ukes to take care of themselves.

As I struggled to be “fierce,” failing time and again, I realized I had never defined what it means for me to be fierce (dictionary definitions aside). What has to happen in my mind and body so I can experience myself as an effective martial artist? Since that realization, and since posing these questions to myself, my challenge has been to define “ferocity” in a way that feels authentic to my practice and my character. I am becoming to understand that my fierceness is quite different than the abstract notions that come to mind from the word itself.

It turns out ferocity is not a physical thing I can “do.” Nor is it an emotional state to summon. It is a state of mind, perhaps even an attitudinal alignment to a problem. I am starting to experience myself as fierce by asking myself how I may be fierce already.

I am fierce when I stop apologizing—to myself and others—for my perceived inadequacies off and on the mat. When I do not take time to apologize, I cannot dwell on excuses and explanations. If I am able to get to the dojo only once a week, I work to shed the feeling of regret and frustration that I could not train more. I use the hour to train my ass off.

I am fierce when I trust that I can maintain the intensity of the connection with uke. When I maintain the connection with uke, I trust the relationship, I trust the effectiveness of the second step, and I trust the inherent intelligence in the shapes of the techniques.

I become fierce as I begin to comprehend my capacity as a leader--both in my own life and as a role model. I am fierce when the intent behind my atemi is real. I am fierce as I acknowledge the wealth of training under my belt, and as I access and integrate the potent lessons of my teachers. I am fierce when I summon a brilliant blend from my cellular memory, when I am able to be the technique rather than act it out.

Off the mat, when I have little control over my daily schedule at work, I practice fierce ukemi. Indeed, I have taken relentless ukemi for the last few years, throw into the world of litigation which demands a huge amount of my time. Frequently, I am drained of energy, stressed out, and frustrated at my lack of knowledge about the litigation process. Nevertheless, I approach each day as when I take ukemi on the mat. No matter who or what may be throwing me around, I pay attention to my center. I constantly strive to maintain my dignity, no matter the circumstances. If I am nervous or in high pressure situations, I ensure my stance is clear and my posture vertical. I give myself over to the challenge and remember to breath deeply. At least a few times a day, I make sure I take deep enough breaths to feel my rib cage expanding beneath my suit jacket.

Opportunities to be nage at work, while few and far between, exist as well. When I meet with clients, I always offer a framework for solving the problem, and I make sure I communicate clearly and efficiently. I have begun to see myself as a fierce advocate—not one who loves the fight, but who can help clients make educated choices between non- judicial resolution and traditional litigation.

When I am forced to fight, when settlement talks or negotiations and diplomacy fail, I am a fierce advocate for civility, in the litigation world where this quality is too often forgotten. When I file a lawsuit, or when a lawsuit is filed against one of my clients, I always call opposing counsel to introduce myself. I listen carefully to my opponents and make every effort to see the problem from their perspective before acting. I say thank you.

Anno Sensei’s calligraphy of Take Musu Aikido hangs in my office. It reminds me each day is an opportunity to respond to conflict differently than what others may expect. While I am undeniably a part of an adversarial system, I do not have to be adversarial in my attitude and interactions.

One of my training commitments has been, and will continue to be, to embrace the qualities I may already have and let them manifest more fully on the mat. Equally fulfilling is the discovery that O’Sensei’s vision of self-correction provides the opportunity, each day, to discard ingrained responses that are not useful and establish new patterns of response.

Perhaps, then, the gift of the Sandan process is to introduce me to take musu. In the coming years, I look forward to delving further into how Aikido can be both a study of universal principles and an individual expression of integrity and compassion, a practice in which it is possible to explore how fierceness comes in unexpected forms.

Jessica Levin