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Home > Columns > "The Mirror" > May, 2004 - Mediating Reality, Connecting with the World
by "The Mirror"

Mediating Reality, Connecting with the World:
thoughts on aikido and spirituality
by The Mirror

This column was written by Janet Rosen

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This essay started out as a "by request" piece (thank you, Emily!) on the connection between my visual arts and my training in aikido. In fact, rather than similarities, the distinct roles these crucial aspects of my life play prove most illuminating. Painting is how I mediate the world, the process by which I integrate my experience of receiving the world into myself. Aikido is how I connect with the world, the process by which I learn to be a human being with other human beings.

At a time a number of years ago when the National Endowment for the Arts was under attack, a few of us artists were hanging out in a café and discussing the issue of art's importance to humanity (yeah, we do that, but not nearly as often as folks think we do; it interferes both with earning a living and with making art). It struck me that the presence of the cave paintings at Lascaux, and how art in every era is produced under conditions that make survival itself a daily struggle, indicate that we are dealing with a truly primal urge. Those who are compelled to make art do so because it is how they mediate reality. This statement is not to say all art is either art therapy or political art, both of which select their content in order to express a particular reality. Rather, the process of creation allows one to integrate the inner and outer worlds, to process the things that come into one's life and to integrate them in a coherent way. This would explain the strength of the impulse, the fact that those of us with it get incredibly cranky and eventually unstable if deprived of this integrative process, and why for those with the impulse, exhibition is often a secondary concern. While observing art (painting, music, etc.), or making art collectively (music, dance, theater, etc.), can be an incredibly powerful communal experience that can shape a culture, in my experience the first imperative springs from internal need.

Having realized at the age of ten that I was an atheist, I never received or formed a grand organizing theory on spirituality. Rather, my thoughts developed over years of experiencing things and pondering my reactions to them. From earliest memory, I always had unarticulated, deeply felt bonds with the earth, the trees, and critters. As a teenager, I watched other people acting stupidly under the influence of various substances, fighting, getting hurt, and dying. When I needed to be involved, somehow I found a calm, implacable presence that seemed to de-escalate the situation. Later, as a nurse, the same presence would let me connect with the dying and their families. Being present at death or at birth; holding the head of somebody with an unstable neck fracture to help move him; giving or receiving bodywork; watching the ground open up and take flight in the form of thousands of sandhill cranes: these have in common that they instill me with a sense of wonder, with being privileged to be present, and most of all, with a very vivid, palpable connectedness with the world. Hence my definition of spirituality: that which connects me with the world.

In this personal context, the making of art is not my spiritual practice. I start each studio session by changing into painting clothes, putting on music, and setting up my palette, which is a transforming ritual that puts me into an altered state. However, it is a totally inward-turning state, separating me from both the world and from my body. While this process fosters my ongoing mental stability, permits me to develop skills as a painter, and may even produce art that expresses spirituality, it is a process that separates me from the world and does not lead to my growing into a different person.

I did not come to aikido for looking for spiritual guidance or practice. I was an out-of-shape 41- year old who found exercise boring and figured that in a martial art I couldn't get bored and space out or somebody would punch me. I've no natural aptitude for anything involving movement, took three months to even try a forward roll, and had never in my life to that point had any interest in learning something that didn't come easily. For the life of me, to this day I cannot tell you why it was that from the moment I bowed onto the mat, it never occurred to me to stop. All I know is, something in the training resonated with me.

Fast forward a few years into my aikido training. I was able to state that my goal was to learn to be more sensitive as uke. This led to the realization that if one posits an aikido that does not "impose" but rather "finds" technique, sensitivity is equally needed by nage. Around that time, I had my knee injury and could only do "eye waza" and "brain waza" for over a year. During that time came the further realization that my interest was actually in "connection," and that in order to connect meaningfully I needed to be fully present, without distraction and without pretense. But while I could ponder and talk about these things, I knew that the dojo where I'd been for several years would not provide a training environment where I could actually work on them in the body. Fortunately, after visiting several dojo, I found one with a focus that would allow my training to develop in these areas.

The first partner practice many of us encounter in aikido is tai no henko, "basic blending exercise": at its most basic form, your partner grabs your wrist, you slide in and tenkan. In most dojo I've visited across the country, from instructors of all styles and schools, I've been told that we practice this exercise to "learn to connect with your partner." I started doing tai no henko in 1996, and sometime in 2002 I suddenly started grasping the implications of tai no henko, and how it can be a meaningful encounter with each grab. OK, I told you I'm a slow learner.

The partner who is soft, playful and responsive gives me space to learn about my own body's movement and timing. The partner who is a little faster or more solid or a touch edgy pushes my boundaries in a challenge to adapt to him while keeping my center. The partner who is willing to connect center to center, neither withdrawing nor contesting, is a pure joy and helps me learn how to live in the world as a person. I am striving to be all of those partners as well.

In the process I confront fears, some of which I'm just learning to articulate. Certainly a big one is re-injuring my knee. A fear of intimacy/engagement may be as responsible as the knee, if not more so, for my tendency as uke to disengage early, and my tendency as nage to move so as to turn away a little even if entering. I recently realized, after a couple of comments that I wasn't challenging my kohei enough, that behind my nurse's desire to take care of them there is a real fear of hurting beginners. A related fear is being too aggressive–not, as some assume, because it's alien to me; on the contrary, I know what I'm capable of out in the world and apparently have some difficulty squarely confronting the issue on the mat.

One stands and offers the wrist (or one reaches to grasp the wrist). Before the physical connection there must be a willingness to engage, and as part of that, a willingness to trust and to be vulnerable. If willingness is not there, it's evident in potent nonverbal communication your partner can read. But it is sometimes scary to be so open. It's also easy to get caught up in "doing stuff" and forget about the actual interface between you and your partner. I make a point, no matter how tired or frustrated I might be, to try to face my partner with a smile and an unspoken invitation each time we prepare to engage. This is approaching my partner with an open heart.

One of my instructors reminds me that my only "job" is to be there; once physically engaged, to not imagine other realities that induce me to either turn away or tense up, but to simply be there with my partner dealing with what is. The reminders are needed because sometimes quite obviously other "realities" intrude and muck me up. If I slow down, it's sometimes possible to resettle and come back to the here and now. Sometimes it's not possible: inconsistency is the one constant in my practice. But I try, and I think of this presence as having open eyes to see what is truly here.

Regardless of why I am here, grabbing or being grabbed, my partner likely has other reasons for being here. Each of us brings our own agenda, goals, desires, foibles, and weaknesses onto the mat. These implicit differences will bring us into conflict if we let our interaction become a contest of egos. Accepting my partner as he is, taking responsibility for my training, and letting him be responsible for his, is sometimes very difficult for me, but I think of this as the third part of the equation, having an open mind.

"Open eyes, open mind, open heart" is my reminder to myself that, while I am on the mat learning the movements and techniques of a martial art, through doing the physical training in a mindful way over and over I can also be a different person. If that person can more positively and productively interact with her family, community, and world, then the physical training is also a spiritual practice.

Happy keiko -- Janet

Janet Rosen
open eyes, open mind, open heart

© 2004 Janet Rosen.

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