Zen and the art of…well, everything
Aikido is the martial art I trained in physically for twenty years. Since my spirit is willing but my joints are weak, I now mostly follow the mental, and spiritual aspects of the art. Martial arts was never meant to be a sport. It is a lifestyle.
We used to say that someone doesn’t find Aikido, Aikido finds them. We would also place imaginary bets on who would stick with it when they first entered the dojo. Some of the most unlikely people became the most committed Aikidokans, while some of the gung ho people soon drifted away.
I was one of the most unlikely ones.
In school, I was the brain, not the brawn. I cried and threw up when I had to run laps, and my mother thought teaching girls to play softball was a waste of time. In short, I was a sissy. While I climbed my share of trees, and punched a guy once who was upsetting my sister, I was considered by most to be a girly girl. With my blonde curls, long fingernails, and petite stature at 5’2″, I would have been voted least likely to kick anybody’s ass anywhere.
At age 33, Aikido found me. I attended a week long workshop for CEO’s at a rustic ranch in Aspen, Colorado. Having just left a lucrative job with a large ad agency to start my own very small one, I needed all the help I could get.
Tom Crum, John Denver’s body guard at the time, started teaching the basics of Aikido in the mornings for those of us who were interested.
Learning that I could have a solid enough base and extension of chi to withstand the onslaught of a tall, two hundred pound man, lit me up in a way nothing else ever had.
I felt powerful for the first time in my life, and was determined that it wouldn’t be the last. It took two years to find a Sensei in my area. My full on training started at age 35. My company went under when I was 36, three years after it was founded. That’s when I began to begin to learn the true zen of Aikido.
Early in my training, we were at a seminar given by one of the leading Japanese Senseis in the world. It was cold outside where we were training. Sensei had shown us a move, and we divided into pairs to practice it.
Two of the trainees worked up the courage to go to Sensei and complain about the cold. What could they do to stay warm? They asked him. He succinctly and quietly, in true Zen style said, “Keep training.” They looked at each other knowingly. Extension of their Chi would warm them up. They continued to train.
After class, they approached him again. “Sensei,” they questioned, “We kept training like you told us to, but we never got warm. What did we do wrong?”
Sensei answered, “I only told you to keep training, I never said you would get warm.”
He didn’t say stop complaining. He simply implied it in his answer. Aikido, and other arts like Ju Jitsu, are all about embracing what attacks us. If we run, it may follow, And it may be faster. If we struggle against it, we can find ourselves wrapped up in the web of the attack, unable to escape. If we hide from it, it might find us. I tried all of these things when my company went under. I was in shock and denial, then anger and bargaining, and finally giving up into a deep depression.
When we are attacked, Tom Crum tells us to open our arms wide and say a resounding “Yes.” As the attacker enters, we step slightly to one side or the other, wrap our arms around the opponent, keep moving in the direction they are headed, and release them into a throw. Or we may turn with them toward the ground, holding gently onto one of their arms or hands, and apply a joint lock, holding them in place until help comes, in the real world, or until they tap out on the mat.
I was good at the throws. Joint locks were another story. A 14 year old boy taught me what I was doing. As I struggled to turn his arm in a lock behind his back when he was on the ground, enough to get him to tap out, I got frustrated and gave up.
He rolled over and said, “Carol, you always give up just before I’m about to tap out.”
My greatest life lesson to date came from that boy. It isn’t just a lesson in perseverance, it’s a lesson in believing you can and then just doing it. Relaxing into your own energy and theirs, and moving in the way you have been taught to move. It’s also a lesson in applying just the right amount of pressure. Cranking an arm would injure the opponent. On the street, that might make sense. In the dojo, that makes people not want to train with you. And without people to train with you, you aren’t growing.
For two years I wandered lost in the wilderness of my own self-pity in the real world. I couldn’t find any passion or interest to pursue as a lifetime goal.
My only purpose was on the mat in the dojo three times a week or more.
Eventually, keeping on training is how I changed. My attackers in the outside world, recession, oil and real estate bust, disenchanted partners were in the past. The world had moved on around me, embracing me and then throwing me. It was up to me to get up off the mat after being thrown, and jump back into the fray. But with a centering and grounding that I hadn’t had before. I entered graduate school at age 38, to become a psychotherapist. It was a far cry from the glamorous work of advertising and public relations. I was pissed about having to go back to school. The hurdles and obstacles, and even the simple tasks of getting accepted, rounding up grades and degrees, and picking classes, felt insurmountable.
But, I had thrown huge guys across a room. I had pinned those same guys until they tapped out. I had fought first two guys at once, then three, and by the end of my training there would be five guys attacking me at a time. I had thrown guys over my head from my position on my back underneath them. In my muscles and bones I knew that I could handle what life threw at me, and that grad school was simply ongoing training, like Aikido.
Since then, I have gotten a divorce, had a baby (now 26 years old), graduated from grad school, had a private practice, suffered a threat to my license, worked for six months at a wellness center that then went under, and started a private practice again from scratch in a new city. There have been heart breaks and difficulties, and sometimes it felt like I would never “get warm” again.
When anything feels too difficult now, I hear a 14 year old boy tell me I tend to give up just before I would have succeeded. I remember a Sensei who didn’t promise warmth. He just said keep training. And so I do.
Previously published on medium
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Photo credit: Carol Lennox