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Things That Won't Kill Me
by The Mirror
08-01-2008
Things That Won't Kill Me

This column was written by Pauliina Lievonen.
Our garden is an overgrown jungle because neither I or my husband really likes gardening very much. We also don't go into the garden a lot, so we often have a neighborhood cat or two lying around in sunny corners of the garden.

Whenever we do tidy it up, cut the bushes and grass down to more acceptable height, the cats will come in sniffing around suspiciously, and circle the whole garden exploring it before settling down.

A pet theory of mine is that whenever something changes, in ourselves, or around us, something in us sees that as a potential threat to existence. However miserable I may have been until now, I was alive. If I try to change something, somewhere deep down I'm not sure that those new conditions are survivable.

So how do you react to something that potentially threatens your existence? By freezing, trying not to see it coming? Running away? Defiantly fighting against it?

I was practicing a new piece for flute that my husband and I were planning to perform together. It wasn't a very difficult piece in general, but there was one passage that I just wasn't able to play in time. I practiced it over and over and over again and if anything it kept getting worse.

Around the same time we had been practicing empty hand vs. bokken techniques at the dojo. What happens when someone swings at your head with a bokken? Some people freeze and enter too late. Some people jump out of the way and end up too far from uke to be effective. Some people get tense and try to muscle through the technique. Some people do all of the above…

One of my bad habits is closing my eyes in that situation, not wanting to see the threat, not wanting to deal with it. When I do manage to keep my eyes open, the attack always seems much more manageable than I had expected. At the same time, as I enter under the cut, it does feel like I'm willingly stepping into something that just might kill me.

One day I realized that the same thing was happening with the passage in the flute piece. As I started to play it, I was playing blindly and not quite daring to hear what I was playing. So I decided that for once I would really listen to what happens, mistakes and all.

Of course that didn't magically make the mistakes go away. But suddenly I was getting a lot of information about what really was happening, and that allowed me to start correcting the things that went wrong. After this, the passage started to slowly improve, until I could play it in time, and still hear every individual note.

Changing how you move and use your body can be difficult for the same kind of reasons I think. We get used to whatever patterns of tension we carry around, and they start to feel safe to us. Letting go, well you never know what might happen. Letting go doesn't feel safe.

One of the scariest things for a recorder player is playing a single high note that isn't preceded by anything. There's a good chance that the note won't speak and that you get a terrible screeching sound instead. So inexperienced players try to avoid that by tensing up and overblowing, which will produce a note with more certainty but will also guarantee that it will always sound strained and ugly. Just maybe not as ugly as a completely failed note.

Similarly, it's possible to keep muscling through an aikido technique and to be pretty certain of a reasonable success rate. At least with people who aren't too strong. Letting go of that muscling first means that the technique won't work anymore. So you might die. Except that your partner wasn't actually trying to kill you in the first place… forgot that for a minute.

I make my recorder students play ugly high screeching sounds on purpose, staying as relaxed as possible, until they start to find the fine edge between a screech and a sweet high note that is made by precison of finger movement and not by overblowing. But every single one is a jump into the unknown. They are for me, too.

When I remember (always easier to remind someone else than yourself), I try to practice aikido the same way, on the edge of failing. Using as little muscle power as can, to see what happens. Not closing my eyes to avoid the threat. Not trying to make sure of the outcome. Sometimes what happens is that nothing much happens. Sometimes I get hit. Then I try again but change a parameter, step a bit further, turn more, change timing. And something else happens.

I'm still alive.

© 2008 Pauliina Lievonen
"The Mirror" is a collaborative column written by a group of women who describe themselves as:
We comprise mothers, spouses, scientists, artists, teachers, healers, and yes, of course, writers. We range in age from 30s through 50s, we are kyu ranked and yudansha and from various parts of the United States and styles of aikido. What we have in common is a love for budo that keeps it an integral part of our busy lives, both curiosity about and a commonsense approach to life and aikido, and an inveterate tendency to write about these explorations.
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