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Home > Columns > "The Mirror" > April, 2004 - This is MY Mat!
by "The Mirror"

This column was written by Susan Dalton.

This is MY Mat!, by The Mirror

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On the mat, as in life, I tended to back up when attacked. I have a higher than normal threshold for tolerating intolerable behavior. Sometimes that skill is my greatest gift. It's why, as a community college instructor, I can connect with many students who don't usually relate well to authority figures. I am very open-minded and can see and respect many points of view. Other times, my gift for empathy sabotages me, and I become a doormat. Before I found aikido, I tried to live my life by being a nice (passive) person, hoping people would treat me with dignity and kindness, unprepared when they did not.

"Stop being so nice! Take up your space! Move through uke!" Sensei yelled. It was 1997 and I was working toward shodan, uncertain about testing but certain I didn't deserve a black belt. Breathe, settle, project, the process was starting to happen without my thinking so much. Sensei stopped practice and made me stride around the mat in front of everyone saying, "This is MY mat." I felt silly, but I knew I'd be marching and yelling until I straightened my posture and acted more commanding. Finally, he nodded and I resumed the technique.

"Think, 'This is MY mat!' Yes! Much better. Did you feel that?" Sensei was grinning now and so was uke. All my life I'd been taught to go around people, to avoid conflict. I didn't want to hurt anybody, and I certainly didn't want anybody to hurt me. Oh so very clearly, my issues on the mat reflect the issues in my life. And slowly, oh so very slowly, as I work them out on the mat, they're untangling in my life as well.

Help! I was trapped in the dysfunctional dynamics of my childhood. My boss was my passive, "just be nice" mother, and his boss was my entitled, bullying father. My boss's boss was mean and my being nice didn't stop or even slow him. My first day on the job he called me into his office, balled up some trash, then rang for his secretary who was busy at work in the next office. She stopped what she was doing and came in his office. "Throw this away," he said, looking directly at me as he handed her the trash. The trash can was right beside his desk, closer than the phone he used to call her.

In the next few weeks I saw him demean several people. The bigger the audience, the more abusive his behavior. People complained, but no one crossed him. I heard horrible stories. All evidence I saw suggested they were true. What had I gotten myself into?

Our first run-in, he screamed, belittled, and insulted. I cried. He was a large person and he used his physical size to intimidate. I felt as I did as a small child. Clearly, I was right, but I couldn't get myself together enough to talk. This attack had come out of nowhere, and I did not know how to respond. Everywhere I had ever worked people had valued my work ethic, integrity, and intelligence. He told me I was easily replaced, lucky to have this job. I sniveled, snorted, could not regain my composure. The next day he spoke in the hall as if nothing had transpired between us. I felt powerless.

Just as I had my brother and sister for support as a child, I had wonderful colleagues. We bitched and moaned. Nothing changed. The bully continued to flatten people. Even his favorites were not safe. In fact, they absorbed the most abuse. We envied those who found new jobs and left.

Years went by. Something did change. Aikido helped me discover a quiet place inside myself. I could breathe, settle, maintain my center. The bully raged. I no longer cried. He did not know how to react to my newly found calm. For the most part, he left me alone.

While I was away one summer, he did my yearly evaluation. It was terrible. He said I did not meet my professional development goals. In fact, he knew I had exceeded them. I wrote a polite e-mail saying that I did not believe my evaluation fairly reflected the year's accomplishments and that I would like to discuss this matter with him. Livid, he yanked me out of registration. All the way down the long, long hall to his office, he did not speak. Instead, he stomped and fumed. When we got to his office, he slammed the door and began to scream, insult, and curse. I breathed. I listened. I watched. I did not cower, did not raise my voice, did not cry. Instead I very quietly asked, "If I have a problem with my evaluation, would you rather I discuss it with you or in the faculty lounge?" He stopped yelling and looked at me, hard, then nodded. I watched him deflate before my eyes. By the time I left his office he had changed my evaluation and apologized to me, something I had never heard of his doing. The dynamics of our relationship changed irrevocably that day.

Aikido has taught me to stay relaxed and centered, breathe, enter when attacked, and use the other person's energy to "throw" him. Because this man attacked with such force, he took quite a fall. He congratulated me on my accomplishments and recommended me as my school's nominee for leadership training.

While in training, I wrote a journal entry about aikido and this experience. My instructor asked me to schedule an aikido demonstration at our retreat and relate this story. My son agreed to be my uke, and we worked very hard on our presentation. My husband promised to borrow and transport mats, to drive down after work to bring my son to the leadership retreat. I told my sensei what we were planning. As I rushed in with all the details of what a jerk my boss's boss was, Sensei raised an eyebrow. "You're doing fake aikido with him," he said.

"What!" I thought. "I could tell you a thousand stories about this man and his behavior. Why he..."

"You should thank him." Sensei watched my face. I must have looked incredulous. "He's giving you the chance to practice."

I had to chew on this one a few days before I could see Sensei's point. Certainly I must stand my ground and enter when attacked, but I was giving this man far more energy than he warranted. I was not as calm as I was pretending to be. Still, I was learning to enter even though I was getting caught up in the conflict. And I was finding my center. I had made progress. The lessons I was learning on our dojo's mat followed me home, to work, and to other mats.

Soon after I received my black belt, I attended a seminar where some of the techniques were unfamiliar and one instructor was demonstrating huge, flying breakfalls out of shoulder locks. As usual, I was tentative and wanted to go slowly with something unfamiliar. I asked to take "weenie ukemi" and when it was my turn to be nage, requested slow attacks. A fellow black belt ignored my request and attacked quickly and powerfully. Before I knew what had happened, my loud kiai rang across the gym and he was flying through the air. The instructor and other members of my group were laughing, and I was shocked at what I had just done. Did that noise and that movement really come out of me?

Maybe a part of that mat was mine.

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