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If in our daily life we can smile,
if we can be peaceful and happy,
not only we, but everyone will profit from it.
This is the most basic kind of peace work.
- Thich Nhat Hanh
On my way home after a delightful three and a half hours of training yesterday - the kind you float away from - I stopped by WalMart to pick up some cat food. One of the greeters (actually working the exit), a guy in about his 70s, who seems to always be there, called out to a woman leaving as I was walking in, "Are you happy?" "Do you know it?" "Well then, clap your hands!" So, great… Now I had that song stuck in my head. LOL But it was great to be able to answer for myself, "Yeah, I really am!" As I was shopping, I smiled at people, and they smiled, too. :-) I asked a taller clerk to get something down for me, and then later I helped a shorter woman who was struggling to reach cereal at the back of the highest shelf, and she went away smiling. Everyone seemed to be in a good mood. On a Monday. At 10 p.m. Shopping at WalMart.
When I first started training I lamented that it would take generations, if it could ever happen at all, to get a large percentage of people participating in Aikido, or something like it - something that can change one's experience of the world, and the world itself, for the better. Sensei told me something about it only taking a few people - not everyone… I don't remember how he put it. But last night an image came to mind: mixing dye into a big container of water. It
This is not specifically about Aikido, but I hope you'll enjoy it just the same.
We are fortunate to have the largest state park in California, Anza Borrego Desert State Park, right here in San Diego County. It's a great place to camp and hike, and an easy day trip by car. I spent many family vacations there, decades ago, scrambling up rocky trails in flip-flops, watching the wildlife, and playing card games. Kids at the campground would swim in the small hot spring-fed pool, where at dusk, bats would swoop down to drink, eliciting panicked shrieks from some of the children. The ranger at the campground check-in kiosk always had a tarantula on his sleeve. My sister and I would walk to the small campground store to get a soda or some chips. At night in the desert the sky is pitch black, sprinkled with a million brilliant stars. There is something special about the air — the wind howls, and gusts threaten to blow you over — even sound travels in a different way. There's a kind of stillness and quiet that's unique to the desert.
Every spring people visit the park's 600,000 acres to see the wildflowers. Depending on the rains, some years are better than others. Like with weather or surf, there are websites where you can check to see how the flowers are doing, and find the best places to view them. It's not something you can schedule by the calendar, because their blooming varies with the recent rainfall.
In a good year, if your timing is right, you might see a few hills
If you aren't already in the habit of reading the columns here on AikiWeb, be sure to head over there and check out my column about my experience of our recent open mat / exam prep sessions. I write as part of a group of women calling ourselves The Mirror. This month was my turn to write, and we all collaborate on editing and revisions. :-)
It's been about a year - actually a year and two months, since my 2nd kyu exam. My 1st kyu exam will be this morning. I think of each exam like New Year's Day - a time to look back, and to look ahead.
This year has been one of transitions. Bringing things into alignment. Getting behind center. Grounding. Being clear.
I changed the way I work. With my employer's and husband's support, I cut back on my hours, and now work exclusively from home. This has meant a huge reduction in stress and a better physical workspace for me. It allows more time and flexibility for my Aikido training, and lets me focus on writing as my primary activity.
Over the past few months I have upgraded my office, with a new computer and printer, and all new software tools for writing and design work. There have been a few steep learning curves, but now I'm off and running.
I established my own publishing company, Shugyo Press. I wrote and published my first book, "A Bowl of Love - How to Make a Big Green Dojo Potluck Salad." On Monday morning I will be moving directly into my next two books, one of which is to be my "Black Belt Project," something we each take on at our dojo, before our shodan exam. (The other is a secret, for now.)
There have been a lot of little things, too. A long-delayed household improvement is finally on track. My blog on AikiWeb just went over 200,000 views. I turned 50.
I've happily spent over 250 training days on the mat. I have helped out in the kids' classes
My to-do list for the day before my 1st kyu exam. I am also publishing my first book today: "A Bowl of Love — How to Make a Big Green Dojo Potluck Salad". I'd better get busy checking these things off!
Yesterday I completed one entire month on the mat. I'm preparing for my first kyu exam, which will be this Saturday, so I've been training even more than usual. I did it just because I could, and because it seemed to help me keep up the proper momentum, and stay loose physically. The nerve problem I was having with my neck and arm has been improving with constant activity, and I'm generally feeling very good. So why stop?
I trained every day, even Sundays. Every class, even the kids classes, and every open mat session.
When I shared that milestone with my friends, one suggested that I must be experiencing an "awesome growth spurt."
Actually, no. Although I have been enjoying training and having a lot of fun preparing for exams with my dojo mates, I've actually been fairly perturbed by my lack of progress. Sometimes it's felt like I'm going backward. It's been discouraging. For for each new "aha" moment there are three more things I see I seriously need to work on.
Here's what I said to him:
"Not really feeling like it... Well actually, yeah... But the kind of growth where you become more acutely aware of where the holes are, and what needs work. Humbling - in the classic sense of the word."
In writing that answer I saw the situation in a new light, and suddenly felt a lot better about things. I really was making progress, it just didn't look the way I had been thinking it should. So I guess that does still count as an "awesome growth spurt
[I wrote this post almost three years ago, but tucked it away with a hundred or so others in my Drafts folder, because it felt a little too raw. A conversation with a friend recently reminded me about it. Now, with another free intro class coming up at our dojo, it seems like a good time to hit the Publish button. Here it is, unedited.]
There is nothing that touches us quite like being "gotten" - known for who we really are. Being recognized. And there are few things so exasperating as being seen as someone who you are not.
The photo on the left is me, on my 2nd birthday, on what I'm guessing was a birthday present. A Wonder Horse. Like a rocking horse, but on springs. I think they make bull-riding practice rigs like this. I probably played on it until I outgrew it or wore it out. I'm sure I fell asleep on the damned thing. If they had these for grownups, there wouldn't be a weight problem in our country. It was only a plastic horse, but it offered movement and energy and adventure and freedom from gravity. I loved that thing.
The photo on the right is me, dressed and posed as someone I never was. I remember that day very clearly. They moved the round walnut coffee table over to where the photographer's background was, for me to sit on. I was told to smile like that, and the photographer positioned my hand, with my finger against my cheek, and turned my head just so. I protested, but the photographer (who was a professional after all, and who knew best) insisted. I'm sure it was supposed to look sweet and cute. But it didn't look like me. I was as furious as a little child can be. It still pisses me off to think about it. My mom recently gave me that red checkered dress from the photo, to do with as I like. I think I'll burn it.
In Aikido, we train to be both nage (like the rider - connected, clearly directing the horse in a way that doesn't elicit confusion or a fight) and uke (like the horse - light, responsive, moving, centered, with no resistance to the rider's direction). This classic video of Stacy Westfall's nearly legendary ride demonstrates both beautifully. And it's a beautiful song, too. To the unitiated, it looks like she's "just sitting there," but she's controlling every movement - it's just really subtle.
I have 13 training days left before my 1st kyu exam on March 9th.
It's been a very difficult week for me, personally, quite outside of my comfort zone. But I've been learning to deal with conflict in a way that benefits everyone. And isn't that the whole point after all?
I've been training really hard, with a lot of focus, and things are starting to come together. I'm seeing more patterns, groupings, and relationships, rather than dozens of separate techniques. And I'm starting to find some new subtleties and details. It still seems like there's a long way to go, but I'm basically feeling on track.
There's quite a large group of us all training for exams on the same day - from 1st to 6th kyu. We've all been supporting each other and training together, which has been a fantastic experience. We've also had a great deal of help from our very generous yudansha, who have spent hours with us refining techniques, clearing up confusion, and polishing the rough spots. I'm feeling very fortunate indeed to have them!
Tomorrow, Sunday, we have another three-hour open-mat session in the afternoon. I want to focus on smoothing out some techniques that I basically understand, but haven't gotten into muscle memory very well yet. Slow, smooth, relaxed, repetition. Breathing is important, I hear, too.
Right now, though, I'm really tired, and looking forward to a hot bath and a good night's rest.
Big ideas seem to come together for me in the morning, perhaps before the rational, detail-oriented part of my brain comes online and takes charge. Earlier this week, when I was uncharacteristically up before sunrise, a larger theme came to me that will help tie my book together. And now this morning, blundering around the kitchen getting my coffee, I realized that two things I've been struggling with are really the same. I am on the verge of publishing my first book, and in a few weeks I have my first kyu exam. In both cases, I've alternately been unconcerned, and a little panicky.
One day soon I will hit the Publish button, and my first book will go live on the Amazon store. And on March 9th, Sensei will call me up in front of the class, and for about 45 minutes I will bring forth everything I've got. No do overs. No excuses. I will wish I might have had more time for editing and rewriting. I will wish I had trained harder, spend more time, focused more clearly… But it will be what it is, and I will have to leave it at that and move on.
I know I still have some time. Feeling rushed and stressed out will not help me. These are just stepping stones on much longer paths — there will be more books, and more exams in the future. No lives are on the line. In the greater scheme of what's important in the world, these are No Big Deal. In one sense this is a sane, adaptive way of looking at things. But I recognize it as a defensive strategy: "It's not that important… I wasn