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
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."
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
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.
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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