This month's "The Mirror" column was written by Linda Eskin © 2014, all rights reserved.
I was a tomboy growing up. As a kid I could be found hiking in the hills with the local gas station dog, or playing street hockey with the neighbor boys. I haven't changed much, actually. Today I'm more likely to be found taking photos of cool bugs or greasing my tractor than heading to the mall for a mani/pedi with a girlfriend.
Being active and bold, getting my hands dirty, and playing hard are in my nature, I think. But also it's obvious to even a little child that the feminine is disparaged in our culture. Sensitivity, softness, delicacy, and charm were qualities I consciously avoided cultivating.
Taking up martial arts seemed to be a good fit, a chance to express and develop my natural energies. Get out on the mat and mix it up. My brief experiences with Judo in elementary school and Tang Soo Do in high school fit my pictures perfectly. Disciplined, physically challenging, courageous, tough… The dojo was an environment where I felt very much at home.
When I started training in Aikido many aspects of the practice were in alignment with my expectations. There was falling and shouting, striking and grabbing. A good bit of rough-and-tumble play, tossing each other around. It was great fun.
What I didn't expect was to discover that energies typically associated with the feminine were valued and cultivated in Aikido. Sensei encourages us to be receptive - allowing and even welcoming the energy directed toward us, including and caring for our partner. Movements are flowing and soft, but without sacrificing our own integrity.
Through this kind of training I've become more comfortable with my feminine side. I'm learning that these qualities are a source of strength and resilience, not weakness or fragility. Allowing yourself to be aware of what you are feeling is not the same as becoming a victim to your emotions. Listening to what someone has to say is not the same as abandoning your own position.
I've been participating in an ongoing discussion of masculine and feminine energies in Aikido. In the course of the conversation I realized something interesting about my experience: I've been developing my masculine side, too,
Working with masculine energy in a martial art was something I so thoroughly expected that I hardly noticed it. It was the background against which everything else stood out. In training we have been refining the masculine, learning to invoke those energies in a grounded and balanced way. Being ruthless without being mean-spirited.
So I came to the realization that I've not really been moving from masculine to feminine, but expanding my range in a functional way toward both ends of the spectrum.
Ultimately, one goal of training is to take the practice into our lives and the world. Without trying to, I've found myself doing just that. Apparently, after a while this stuff gets into your bones.
I have been working with suppliers and contractors on a home renovation project. I caught myself being "nice" to a pushy representative from a company famous for sleazy, high-pressure sales tactics. I started, in my habitual way of avoiding confrontation, to say that we had changed our plans and wouldn't need her company's product after all.
But then I noticed, in the same way we often stop and notice our posture and alignment at certain points in a technique, that something didn't feel right. I apologized for trying to avoid the real issue, corrected myself, and instead in a compassionate but direct and unflinching way told her why I would not be doing business with her company. She tried denying, justifying, and bargaining, and I just held my center, kept my integrity, and stayed on the center of the issue. Ultimately it worked. She got the communication in a way that left her empowered and feeling understood, not damaged.
Like being clear in a technique, I took the conversation in a direction that served us both, and resolved the situation by leaving no space for misunderstanding. This meant accessing both masculine and feminine energies that I was not comfortable with a few years ago - getting where she was coming from, including her perspective, and being grounded, direct, and certain about my own perspective.
It was a little thing, just one interaction, but I handled it in a new way, using new skills and energies I've learned on the mat. And I happened to be in a place where I could recognize how my training had broadened my range in a more functional way.
I was able to recognize my habitual dysfunctional manifestations of feminine energy - running away from confrontation, being evasive and vague - and instead bring warmth and kindness to what could have been a difficult interaction.
And I was able to apply masculine energy in a constructive way by being assertive and straightforward, without falling into the dysfunctional manifestations of that energy - being loud, defensive, or angry.
"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.