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We had a sho-dan promotion at our dojo recently, a 73 year-old gentleman named Lloyd McClellan.
Lloyd's story is his to tell, but I'll share my own experience of Lloyd.
When I started training, at 46, I read a few things by George Leonard Sensei. Leonard Sensei had also started Aikido at 46, I believe, and had written an essay titled "On Getting a Black Belt at Age Fifty-Two." He went on to become a 5th dan. I found these bits of information very heartening. 46 was not "too late."
From my newbie perspective Lloyd has been training "forever." He is older, he is senior to me, and he is competent, kind, generous, a good teacher, and he's strong as an ox. Those things are great, and worthy of admiration, but didn't surprise me that someone who'd been training forever would have those qualities.
Lloyd is also a just plain cool guy. He wears a cowboy hat and a cowboy mustache, and he drives a pickup. It would surprise me if there weren't some cattle at some point that back up that hat.
He knows his limits on the mat - he doesn't roll a lot, doesn't sit in seiza - but he doesn't let them stop him. I've seen him frustrated, tired, and in pain, but I've never seen him discouraged.
But the most impressive thing about Lloyd didn't really strike me until his sho-dan demo came up. Lloyd started training when he was 65. I don't know if it ever crossed his mind to ask himself "what am I thinking, starting a martial art at my age?" If it did, he didn't let it stop him.
"Your form was fine." Sensei said when he came to discussing my 4th-kyu test. He was giving us each feedback in the post-exam circle of promotion candidates. "Were you nervous?" he asked.
Huh... Nervous? I had felt really well prepared. I hadn't been afraid I would screw up any particular techniques (but of course I did anyway). I knew I was really focused. Intent on giving it my best. I had sort of half-assed my previous test (5th kyu), and had instantly wished I could've done it over - done it right. But there aren't do-overs on tests. This time I was doing my darnedest to nail it.
"Yeah..." I allowed, as best I can recall saying, "not totally freaked out, but I was probably a little nervous."
I was totally freaked out. The weird thing is that I didn't recognize it. Sure, I made a couple of mistakes on jo suburi - the one thing I thought I really had down, and there was that one technique where my back heel came off the ground and I noticed my leg was shaking... I didn't recognize that I was nervous. It's not OK with me to be nervous. Nervous is fearful, uncertain, and weak. I don't get nervous.
What I did recognize was a feeling, one I'd had after my first and only piano recital as a teenager. I had played "Come Sail Away" by Styx. I played it just fine. But when I was done and sat down I had to ask someone how I'd done. It was like I hadn't even been there when I was playing. At the end of my test I'd had the same feeling. I thought I'd done basicall
One of the aspects of Aikido we are constantly exploring is that if an attacker or body does not perceive a threat (such as a strong grab or hard block) they will naturally not react defensively (or at all). Staying relaxed and soft can help the other person become relaxed and soft, too.
The guy with the ball doesn't tuck his head and charge through the line, instead he walks through like he has no place special to be. It's so soft, relaxed, and casual the whole opposing team fails to perceive the threat - until he starts to run, and then it's too late. Freaking brilliant. (And legal, too.)
My exam for 4th kyu is one week from today. I'm excited, and starting to feel almost ready. I have gotten so much from my practice these past few months, and have been having a blast training.
Several of us who will be testing have been on the mat 4 to 5 days a week lately, staying late to train together after class, helping each other and working with our mentor, who has his hands full between me and two 3rd-kyu candidates. I've got a jump on the 3rd kyu test, at least, when I eventually get there! I've being doing ukemi for them when I can, and going through all the jo and bokken suburi that are on their test (mine are a subset of theirs). We've all learned and grown a lot together, and gotten closer as friends, too.
I am mentoring someone for the first time, too. She will be testing for 6th kyu, and I will be her uke. She is a joy to work with, and I'm looking forward to her test!
Since my 5th kyu exam in February I have trained 143 days (so far), helped with moving the dojo to our really nice new location, trained in two seminars - Robert Nadeau Shihan, and Mary Heiny Sensei - and assisted with the logistics of the latter. I've participated in two Aikido In Focus workshops with Sensei, watched a lot of exams, and enjoyed several dojo parties. I've gotten more comfortable with working with brand-new beginners, doing my best to provide ukemi that lets them get the feel of techniques - or at least doesn't get in their way. I've been having way too much fun practici
I ran across this quote recently, and quite liked it, especially in light of some recent conversations about Aikido. At first it seemed in line with the fairly mean-spirited "Stupidity Should Be Painful" sticker on my guitar case. But on further reflection it's much more compassionate - about expecting the best of those around you.
"Most people accept stupidity and incompetence in every form they come across because they would rather be seen as easy-going and friendly than to get what they pay for and want. But the really easy-going and friendly people are found where _competence_ is rewarded, stupidity is an accident to be ignored, and incompetence has a cause worth fixing. If you _actually_ care for the people around you, you don't allow them to be stupid, and if you _respect_ people, you are not afraid to have zero respect or tolerance for (some of) their actions."
I was benched by a cold tonight. Darnit. And Tuesdays are my favorite nights, too. Waah! Not too a big deal, I know. It will pass, and I'll be back on the mat soon enough. Just the same, there was the gnawing undercurrent to the evening, knowing I was missing something important and irreplaceable.
In so much of my learning life there are second chances. I can read a book again, watch a movie as many times as I like, review meeting or class notes, catch a webinar or conference presentation later online, search email for a keyword and bring up everything I've ever communicated about that subject. It's easy to scan an article or report, knowing I can look it up later if we really need it.
Not so with Aikido. When I miss something, it's gone. As ephemeral as a sunrise. Wild, undomesticatable knowledge, transmitted person-to-person, body-to-body. I've only been training for a year and a half, but in that time I have heard virtually none of the same things repeated. Yes, a lot of the same techniques, but never shown or explained in quite the same way. There has not been a single moment when I've thought "Oh, this again. We already went over this." There is always something precious conveyed. Every class is inspired - and inspriing. Hence the frustration at missing an evening.
"No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man."
Billy Collins, former U.S. Poet Laureate described the situation perfectly
I have long suspected that that is an Instructors' Course at Aikido Summer Camps or Association Meetings where teachers learn techniques for making us laugh at ourselves (and cringe a little), to improve our technique and awareness, or jar us out of habitual patterns of thinking.
Every Aikido teacher I've encountered - Sensei, the yudansha at our dojo, and visiting teachers alike - to the best of my recollection, has used pointed humor and sometimes pretty stern shaming in their teaching. Mostly it's really funny, and often includes some very good physical comedy. And it drives the point home like a nail gun.
"This is what some of you look like. I'm exaggerating, but only a little."
I have to laugh, and at the same time *facepalm* I see that once again I have let my arm trail behind my center in a tenkan, or completely forgotten to hold Uke's shoulder down when setting up the pin for sankyo. D'oh!
One whap upside the head I received in a recent one-on-one session on suwariwaza was "They call it 'knee walking' not 'duck walking'." The teacher, whose natural, flowing, centered shikko is an inspiration, then proceeded to show me exactly what my "duck walking" looked liked. Oh no... It was both mortifying and very funny.
A teacher could very "politely and respectfully" explain the rationale, physics, and anatomy behind their instructions, and demonstrate again the "preferred" way we should be working toward, blah, blah, blah... But that's explaining, not training
There are many times when I am struck with gratitude for my teacher. Here is a man who has trained in Aikido for many years, who is a perceptual genius, and who has devoted himself to sharing the art with his students.
The physical experience of training with him is that of being enveloped - utterly controlled, and completely safe. The emotional sense is one of total freedom to try, fail, and learn, again completely safe, trusting.
That is not to say it's all sweetness and nice, painless, or comfortable. Sensei sees through pretense, to the heart of the matter, and is willing to be direct and honest. Sometimes a seemingly off-hand comment cuts deep. My initial reflexive reaction is to defensively discount it as a moment of temper or frustration perhaps, or simply something misperceived. "That's not so." "I am not like that." "He's wrong."
But it's probably true that more it stings, the more accurate it is, and the harder I've been trying to hide it.
I've learned to allow for the possibility, even in my initial denial (which I now recognize as automatic, and meaninless), that there may be some truth there. "What did I do, or how was I being, that created that perception?" Of course, there is no differentiation between how I am perceived and who I am really. There is no "real us" that the world never sees. There is only how we come across to others.
It's a privilege to work with someone who sees so clearly. No one has ever had such faith in me to be open to str
I have posted about past Aikido In Focus workshops. They are held at our dojo, and led by Dave Goldberg Sensei. Each (as the name suggests) focuses on one aspect of Aikido. I've done all that have been offered since joining the dojo, and each its own way has been life changing.
My first, just over a year ago, was called "Relax, It's Aikido." You can read about my experience of that workshop here. The work we did in that short morning session let me see there was a whole way of being I had unconsciously walled myself off from, and allowed me to regain access to that way of experiencing life.
So here we are with another workshop coming up this weekend. I signed up for it weeks ago. I'm looking forward to it in the way one might normally reserve for going skydiving, or doing a ropes course: Excited, nervous, hopeful, maybe a little scared, giddy... I try to balance this against the reality that this is just a 2-1/2 hour one-time thing, with one very human sensei leading it, and a varied handful of students. Who knows how it might go. I try to not get my hopes up about what could be accomplished in so short a time. But then my past experiences tell me that significant insights and changes are possible.
Here is the subject of this workshop:
In what ways am I getting in my own way?
How am I limiting myself?
What should I be "looking at" in my own practice?
Interesting. I don't feel frustrated or stuck. I haven't been on a plateau. I'm preparing for my upcoming 4th