This month's "The Mirror" column was written by Linda Eskin © 2012, all rights reserved.
The last rays of warm summer evening sun streamed through the open roll-up door as Sensei clapped and sat the class down for a moment to clarify a few points about ukemi for the technique we were working on. He reminded us that Uke and Nage work together, both doing Aikido. We are partners, not opponents. As Uke we attack with intent, on target, reaching Nage, to offer something real to work with. Then we are to move willingly into the technique, not resist it. Share it - it's our technique also. Sensei demonstrated blending with Nage while keeping our own integrity, reminding us that doing so supports Nage's practice, too. We aren't training against each other; we are training with each other. Then he set us to working on that for a while, embodying partnership.
In Aikido, as Uke - the one who receives technique - we challenge our partner. We give the gift of an honest, clear attack so Nage can develop. We stay connected and interested, listening actively with the body to what Nage is saying through the technique. We provide feedback, appropriate to their level, so our partners can get a better feel for their own alignment and center. We support each other, so we all benefit from the experience.
I thought about this as I drove home, listening to a news program on the car radio. I rarely do that, but I'd forgotten to hook up my iPhone, so I took my chances with whatever was on. The subject was US presidential politics. It struck me how different politics is from our Aikido practice. It seems most of political discussion in our country (and it's generous to even call it discussion) is purely oppositional; it's all about making The Other look bad, proving how wrong they are, and trying to look right about everything. It's so common to see people coming from an inflexible position of already knowing, with no willingness to listen. Their teacups are full. There is little room for learning, change, or growth.
I reflected on the stark contrast between Sensei's words about partnership, shared in the supportive, cooperative environment of the dojo, and this familiar stubborn political rhetoric on the radio.
When I started training, I understood that we do our best to not injure our partners, of course. I understood that our goal in a self-defense application of Aikido is to protect our attacker. The example I give when trying to explain Aikido to friends is that of dealing with one's hypothetical drunken cousin who's being an idiot. We would want to put a stop to the situation, as safely as possible, with no gouging of eyes, or breaking of limbs. That's an easy idea to grasp. I understood that in Aikido we work toward calming the situation, rather than escalating it.
I understood about loving one's opponents, at least in the sense that we can recognize their humanity, in spite of their violence, and have compassion for them. I understood the stories - the one about Julio Diaz, who, when mugged for his wallet, gave the teenage robber his coat as well, and ended up sharing a meal with him, and Terry Dobson's story about the belligerent drunk and the old man on the train. I understood that we try to see through the eyes of the other, and approach the situation in terms they will accept and respond to.
I had even heard of applying Aikido in business negotiations - trying to see the situation from the opponent's point of view, and working toward a result that would be good for everyone involved, while ultimately getting your own way.
In each of these cases though, it's still about being right, knowing what's best, and working to bring the situation to the resolution you desire. It's done without harming the other, and maybe even helping them. But it's still about coming out on top, just done in a spirit of benevolence.
But this night, as I did my evening chores I saw deeper potential of taking Aikido off the mat and into the world. What if we could work together as partners, to our mutual benefit?
What if we could recognize and acknowledge our shared interests? In the dojo, we are all there for the same sorts of reasons - to be healthy, to be safe, to grow as people, to test ourselves... In the world, with very few exceptions, we all want the same things. We all want our families to be healthy and safe. We all want children everywhere to grow up to be decent people. We all want to go about our business in peace. No one wants war. No one wants disease. No one thinks poverty is a great idea. No one thinks nature should be destroyed. What if we could focus on the concerns we all share, and approach them as partners?
What if we could trust and respect each other? On the mat we know we are all learning, that we all make mistakes. When someone steps on our foot, or uses a little too much force, we do not cause a scene, crying that we were deliberately injured. We let our partner know, and move on. Even our teachers are learning. No teacher claims to be all-knowing, and no student expects infallibility. What if, in the rest of life, we could accept that most slights or injuries are unintentional, and let them go, even those from our leaders?
What if we could support each other, and accept support? On the mat we solicit and provide honest feedback. It's not about colluding to make each other feel warm and fuzzy or look good even though our technique might be ineffective. It's about helping each other get better results. What if, in the rest of life, we could speak to each other honestly, and listen openly, as partners?
What if pointing out a hole in another's reasoning were seen as a way of helping to clarify their position, instead of a mean-spirited attack? On the mat we challenge each other, for the purpose of helping each other grow. Even a solid thunk in the ribs is not meant as a "gotcha" - proving our partner is weak and stupid and we are stronger and better - instead it's meant to show our partner where there is an opportunity for improvement.
What if we could receive challenges to our own beliefs in the same spirit that we receive feedback pointing out holes in our technique? What if we could say "Thank you for pointing out the inconsistency in my thinking. I guess I need to take another look at my position on that," and not have that be a disgraceful failure on our part, letting the other person win? What if we could accept challenges with gratitude, and simply make adjustments when we learn from them?
On the mat we train together, with love and kindness, in partnership, so we can all learn and grow. What if we could have that same trust and openness in the world? I settled into bed and switched off the lamp, wondering if that vision could ever be realized, and maybe if it was what O Sensei had in mind all along.
"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.