My experience of learning in Aikido - particularly learning with the body - has brought up some surprisingly clear memories of learning motor skills in early childhood. Things I hadn't thought about... probably ever.
I remember learning to tie my shoes. The rabbit runs around the tree, and then pops down into its hole. I remember being shown many times. I understood what I was being told. I could do it myself right then, too. But the next day it would be gone. Something about a tree and a rabbit, but I'd have the setup for that scenario wrong. I'd have to ask someone to show me again. Then at some point, and I don't think I ever noticed when that happened, exactly, my hands just knew how to do it. I don't remember ever being concerned with how quickly I could tie my shoes, but I can tie them in a flash, without looking, as I'm sure most people can.
Learning to print letters was next. Remember that cheap lined newsprint paper with the huge spaces - a solid line, a dashed line, and a solid line? The stuff designed to help awkward little hands learn to form each letter with exactly the correct proportions. I kept confusing the lower-case b and d, and p and q. And this time, unlike with tying shoes, ego entered the picture, and with it, tension. I was not only interested in forming legible characters, for some reason that is now a mystery it was terribly important to me that they be perfect. Perfectly round, perfectly straight. Eventually I figured out all the shapes, but the striving for perfection turned into tension. I gripped the pencil so tightly my hand hurt. I'm sure the tension didn't help my writing speed, either.
Music is a great place to explore learning motor skills. My primary musical instrument happens to be guitar, but students of any instrument have surely had the same experience. You want to play faster. You want to be cool. You want to ROCK. But when you pick up the speed before you're ready, you crash and burn. And the more you practice playing fast, badly, the better you get... at playing badly.
I had been told a hundred times by music teachers to practice slowly and steadily. Work on getting it right, with smooth transitions, and clean tone, and speed will happen on its own. Yeah, yeah, I know... I'd practice slowly a few times, start to get it, and then speed up and fall apart. I didn't finally really get it until I participated in Blues Guitar Week at the Augusta Heritage Festival. I traveled all the way across the country for a week of Fingerstyle Blues, with Woody Mann, one of my guitar gods. And what did we do? We played s l o w l y. The whole class, about a dozen of us, together. With a metronome, for heaven's sake. One... and... two... and... three... and... four... and... It was painful. It was dull. It was unglamorous and disappointing. And the next day? One.. and.. two.. and.. three.. and.. four.. and.. We sounded a little better. Huh.
By the end of the week we were playing several tunes at a reasonably impressive speed - correctly. Beautifully, even. Clean notes, good timing, and expression. In just a week! And I can still play those tunes well, with a few minutes of review. But the important thing I learned that week was that practicing correctly, as slowly as you need to go to keep it correct, is what will lead you to doing it correctly at speed, eventually. The more you try to take shortcuts or rush the process, the longer it will take, and the less solid the end result will be.
Now there is Aikido. At first irimi and tenkan were those darned letters, b and d. Ai hanmi and gyaku hanmi were p and q. I seriously could not tell backward from forward when I first started. Backward relative to the direction I was facing before I started turning, or forward in the direction I was moving now, orů? Oh, heck. I didn't even have a framework for the information coming in, because it was so unlike anything else I'd done. I knew the rabbit should run around the tree, but where did the tree go? It was just here yesterday... And the hole? I'd forgotten all about the hole! My partner would show me again, and for the moment it would make sense.
As I've started to get the motions of Aikido in my body I find myself coming up against the tendency to rush again. Most of the time I can go slowly, stay relaxed, and work on getting the movements correct and fluid. But that pesky ego creeps in. I want to try it faster. I want to look cool, like my yudansha friends and teachers. I want Uke to wonder how they ended up down on the mat. So I rush, I use force, and I get tense. And I practice doing bad Aikido. Sometimes I catch myself at it, when it's obvious. Other times I'm reminded by my partner, saying it feels like I am trying to drag them through the technique. Often it's Sensei, pointing out that my shoulders are creeping up toward my ears as I attempt to muscle my partner into submission. Again.
I always feel like I've taken two steps backward every time I get in a hurry. Not only did I fail to train as I'd intended, which is humbling, but I've recorded the wrong thing in my muscle memory, and have to do it correctly that many more times to offset having programmed the wrong thing into my body and senses. In a practice where "true victory is self victory" there are plenty of aspects of "self" over which one can strive for victory. For me what's coming up lately is my longstanding and ultimately self-defeating habit of trying to do things faster and more powerfully than I'm ready for. Something to work on every day, for sure.
I suspect, of course, as with so many things where it seems important to get to another level, that by the time I am able to be faster and more powerful, I will finally learn that speed and power aren't the cool stuff after all. I wonder what I'll be trying too hard at then?
For now, relax and breathe. One... and... Be loose and expansive. Two... and... Feel the energy Uke is bringing, and join with it. Three... and... Be patient. Keep the rhythm between us steady. Four... and...
One day there will be beautiful, expressive music there.
"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.