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Home > Columns > "The Mirror" > September, 2005 - Symbols, Metaphors, Change

Symbols, Metaphors, Change by "The Mirror"


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This column was written by Janet Rosen.


This column is dedicated to my teachers.

One evening six years ago, I had a mishap at the dojo and ended up in the urgent care clinic getting my knee x-rayed and immobilized. My husband was waiting in the reception area when I came swinging out on my crutches. With a twinkle in my eye I said, "Hey, I better not get too used to these things, or they'll become a real crutch!"

He looked startled, then laughed. I got a lot of mileage out of that line in the days ahead and still keep it on the back burner. But behind the joke was something I'd noticed in my nursing practice: there is often a profound difference between an object and what it "means" to the person who is supposed to use it.

On a spinal cord injury rehab unit where I used to work, I became friends with a young man during his months of treatment and therapy. For him, the wheelchair was an invaluable tool to master. It represented mobility, control of his environment, and a return to productive and independent living in his community.

Some time later, I worked with a middle-aged stroke patient for whom the wheelchair was a mobile prison. It was a daily humiliation, a reminder of her losses. Her walker, on the other hand, represented her considerable progress based on weeks of hard work, and she was proud to be able to walk with dignity again.

For my father, yielding inch by hard fought inch to Parkinson's disease, a walker embodied an admission of the disorder's progression. In his eyes it constituted such a stigma that for many months he chose to be homebound rather than let us obtain a walker for him.

Looking from the outside, it is clear that the "crutch" is in and of itself merely an object that fulfills a function. Yet each of us carries a highly personal set of self-images and beliefs that creates a parallel object, laden with significance that may not ever be consciously articulated. The symbolic content is so powerful that it determines how, or even whether, the actual object can be used.

Can we see this phenomenon at work in the dojo? I think we do, in how certain experiences on the mat resonate deeply with a person, evoking tears, laughter, annoyance. We may also experience it as a factor in that weird disconnection between what we "know" we are supposed to be doing and what our bodies actually can or cannot do.

Watch students react to a shomenuchi strike: one, wide-eyed, steps back off the line far in advance of the strike; the next waits and meets the strike with a block, entering with jaw set; another stands, transfixed, then cringes and moves haphazardly.

It's fascinating how one strike poses such a different "problem" for each person. Clearly it is not the purely mechanical act it appears to be when viewed from the outside. It is a potent incoming message, and each student is processing it very differently.

Yet the most common form of instruction seems to assume that simple mechanics will solve the problem.

"Relax! You need to wait!"

"Don't block! Blend!"

"Stand up! Put your foot here, then there!"

With enough repetition, it will eventually sink in as a change in how the body moves when a shomen strike comes. For instance, student #1 will learn to wait for the attack to come before moving. Student #2 will learn the footwork for moving off the line, and how to change the shape from blocking to blending. Student #3 will be taught to quit cringing and move in an entering direction.

In each case, the correction is based on framing the problem as "how to deal with timing of a shomen strike." Yet, while a problem with timing certainly exists in my training, it is not a problem that I feel in my gut when a shomen strike comes at me. It is also not the problem that so fascinates me when I watch other students:

I watch student #1 and read an unwillingness to actually accept the attack. It's the body expression of a blurted out "yes, but."

I watch student #2 and read a defensive taking over of the situation. "Nope, let me tell you how it is."

I watch student #3 and read a frightened, disorganized response. "Oh, lord, it's gonna be bad!"

Symbols are powerful. It's counterproductive to stop training and talk about them! But it seems just as counterproductive to pretend they are not a factor. The use of metaphors and encouraging attention to how one experiences being on the mat are two ways that the students' "symbols" can be addressed somatically within the training itself.

During the 18 months I was off the mat for surgery and rehab, I visited various dojos to find a new place to train. At the time of my first visit to City Aikido, I wrote about the instructor that "he was talking about how it felt/energy stuff in very metaphorical terms and trying to elicit feedback/comments from the class....frankly I don't see that putting people on the spot, trying to think up similes and metaphors to describe how part of aikido feels is something that will help me either understand or do aikido."

Shortly after that, I was finally able to resume my training. It was a few short weeks later that my notes read:

I took the one hour class but decided to sit out the second, longer class of the evening since my knee had swollen up pretty bad earlier in the week after taking both classes...He was encouraging students to describe how a particular stance/attitude felt to them before actually working with a partner, then again after working with a partner on technique. While they were practicing, he came over and asked me if I was making any sense out of what was going on. My immediate and pretty much gut level reply was, "You are encouraging each student to come up with his own metaphor for training. Most teachers, whether consciously or not, will adopt a specific metaphor to teach by, and not every student will make sense of it. I like that you are encouraging each student to find his or her own metaphor."

He smiled and noted that he has had the experience, especially at seminars, of working with students that really don't want to find their own. They want a teacher to hand it to them, to tell them how it feels. Or others who didn't want to think about anything, or reflect on feelings, just go through the movements.

Just as with the crutch or the commode, the shomen strike evokes in each of us a reaction based on a highly personal set of self-images and beliefs. The same is also true of ukemi. A few months ago, another of my instructors had a student come up and attack him with a simple wrist grab. He responded with a simple turning to take balance, leading to a gently supported takedown. The student repeated the attack several times; then he called up a different student for a few minutes, than another, until probably a half dozen of us had participated.

To the observer, each attack looked different and each takedown looked very different, though the result was always the same. Afterwards, the instructor spoke about what the attacks and the ukemi felt like to him. An athletic young man would not accept "going down," fighting with such tension that he became stuck, unable to regain his balance while making it more difficult for his takedown to be gently supported by the instructor. Another student came in with a lot of energy, but so overcommitted that he essentially took his own balance, over and over, so the instructor just needed to get out of the way. A third was told that he was working hard at trying to be a good uke, to do what was expected (Alas, I was never told what mine felt like. I suspect it was restrained, with a behind-the-beat quality of, "so, where are we supposed to be going?")

It's none of my business what a person's individual symbols are, or how and why they originated. It is enough to acknowledge that we have them and that they affect our training. Many students are attracted to aikido because they perceive it as a place that offers the potential to practice and learn a different way of being in the world.

If we are only encouraged to consider the shomen strike in mechanical terms, then is it more or less likely that mechanical changes in timing, stance, posture and breathing will carry over to how we deal with the demands from the outside world?

If as an integral part of the training process, we are encouraged to consider "how it feels" to be moving, to be connecting with a partner, to be receiving and channeling energy, might our aikido deepen and will we stand a better chance of transforming ourselves?


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