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Transmit or Transform

Image: My teacher, Ryugan Savoca Shihan, doing something that looks far more violent than it is

It’s time to revisit the overly broad focus of our year–this idea that this aikido isn’t just techniques. It’s a budo, or a martial way of life in which we are really training our whole selves. I want to do that by considering what, exactly, we are doing when we train. I think we are simplifying conflict and negative states, for the purposes of study, so that we can increasingly transform these things we don’t like into graceful expressions of power. That’s an audacious goal, and it’s easy to slide off of it! So we want to be clear about how we are getting there. 

We are mostly organized around learning techniques that we perform with one another. And in this, we learn some physical principles, like blending with your partner, getting off the line of attack, or how to strike with real follow through that stops short of overcommitment. We keep coming back to the idea that this is a martial art, and that martial effectiveness matters, mostly in the form of me invoking the greatest fear I have as an aikido teacher, which is my dojo winding up on @Mcdojolife. But to what end? Unless you’re living in a Steven Segal movie, you’re not going to use your aikido skills “on the street.” They wouldn’t work, simply because all martial arts are constructed partner play with rules that you do within a social contract, with a special uniform, in a dojo. There are more and less brutal applications of martial arts, meaning the rules and structure of the game can include more or less risk, injury, and pain… but no martial art teaches you how to commit violence. There are a couple of interesting people writing about the difference between martial arts and violence, and anyone who is seriously studying aikido should delve into this at some point. My favorite author on this subject is Rory Miller, who helpfully focuses on the infinite complexity and chaos of any one instance of real violence, and the order and structure that’s inherent in any martial art. Seeing violence as complexity and chaos, as opposed to training, which is ordered and predictable, really helps me understand what we are doing. Because I don’t know about you, but all kinds of complex, chaotic, violent stuff happens inside my head when I train. Not so much when I teach, but when I am training, even after more than 20 years, sometimes I get scared or angry. Mostly angry. Or I lapse into needing to “show someone.” Show what? I don’t know. My skill and power, probably. But because there’s no winner in aikido, just hundreds of thousands of repetitions of these forms with different people… there’s no real reason to show anybody anything like my skill and power. In these moments I am just afraid, and feel inadequate.

There is nothing and everything at stake in our training--very few tests, no demonstrations or contests. We are, ultimately, training to study ourselves. And when we study ourselves in our training, we can start noticing how much complexity and chaos we are bringing to our training, which is structured and ordered, and therefore fundamentally non-violent, simply because it’s so controlled. To put it as bluntly and simply as possible, any time you can’t just locate your front foot and pivot around it, your complexity and chaos is getting in the way. And it is often doing so in some internally violent way like an intense inner critic provoking a freeze response in you, or a totalizing shame spiral of “never being able to do it right,” or a judgment of your partner or your teacher. I have been in all of these states myself! My capacity for inner violence is vast. And if I am honest, I started training because I wanted to learn how to externalize this inner violence. I wanted to learn how to dish it out, in addition to learning how to take it, because boy do I take a lot of inner violence from myself! For many years, my training was stuck in a “transmitting” place, in which I got better at doing the techniques and everything, but I was training in a way that was spiritually dull. I was there to give my discomfort, insecurity, pain, and so on to my partners. If someone threw me in a way I didn’t like, I threw them even harder and sharper. If someone commented on my aikido being pretty good for a woman, I gave that sexist shit right back to them in the form of a particularly nasty nikkyo or an elbow-punishing pin. If someone was afraid while training with me, and getting more and more tense, I laughed inside, and bounced them around more. If I had a terrible day at work, I could not wait to go to the dojo to take it out on someone. 

As I read what I just wrote back to myself, it fills me with shame, because it’s so easy to succeed at violence in a context where everybody is doing something so controlled and repetitive, and is making themselves so vulnerable to you. To clarify, I wasn’t just being an asshole. I trained like this because I was in a dojo and a broader culture that supported it. I was training with people who were also taking out their bad days on me. I was training under teachers who modeled lapsing into violence, and taught that budo meant beating one another up while laughing that we were putting the “harm” back in “harmony.” I was training in a larger culture that simultaneously fears conflict and glorifies violence. I did not yet understand that the goal is not simply to externalize or transmit these acts of inner violence, but to sit with them–watch, study, and slowly transform them. Increasingly, I believe that the point of doing the same techniques over and over and over again is to simply watch what comes up in you as you do them, in exactly the same way you watch yourself in zazen. This is hard to see when you don’t even know them all yet! But it’s crucial, because all kinds of stuff will come up. Training is a button-pushing activity. Every student in this dojo has someone they absolutely hate to train with; has a strong negative assessment of something I do; is afraid of being hit or having their wrist twisted; is wrestling with a strong inner critic; is collapsing into a protective laziness; is terrified of their abilities; is worried about an injury; cannot deal with cleaning or putting their shoes in a neat line or hates the way conditioning reveals how out of shape they are or bowing pisses them off or the light coming in the windows in the early evening gets in their eyes and angers them or this style is annoying and different…

…I could go on, but the point of training is to watch all of this inner violence in an otherwise ordered, structured space, while you're doing an ordered, structured activity. And watch what you do with it. Watch it puncture your training. At some point, you will surely respond to someone doing something you don’t like by trying to throw them harder, or freeze because your inner critic is going ballistic on you. That rupture is absolutely part of the journey, but it is not the point. The point is to be able to discern when you stop training, and start dishing it out, and your structured, ordered training erupts into little acts of violence. 

In a broader culture that knows so little about conflict and violence, you can train for a long time thinking that you’re learning how to work with structured force and develop power, when you’re really just dishing out your inner violence. It was humbling to get the feedback after almost twenty years of training that my aikido, which I considered powerful, was just kind of brittle and painful. Developing real power meant letting go of all those little externalized acts of violence–training instead of dishing it out. Here is my promise to you. Training really does get more and more powerful and forceful as you get less and less caught up in your inner violence, and more interested in committing fully to the structures and forms that we are learning. There is power in this practice. To train with real force and power, you need to be a clear conduit for the forces that are getting generated by the techniques. You need to be listening. This is why we sit zazen. It helps you with this listening process, even if you’re still a beginner.

Take time the next time you train to notice that the dojo and our practice is fundamentally non-violent, simply because it is rule-bound, simplified, orderly. Maybe the next time you bow in, or bow after I demonstrate a technique, you can notice how formally we practice, and appreciate the purpose of this order in a different way. Notice the difference between this fundamentally ordered training and the disorder and violence that it brings up in you. Notice when you feel stuck or have a lot of chatter or judgment in your head or physical pain. Notice how this changes your training. I do! I have felt every single student in this dojo change their training because they’re nervous or angry, or because their inner critic is in the driver’s seat, or because they don’t like what we are doing or something I said. I have also felt a number of students lose themselves in training, and momentarily tap into a little bit of actual power, which is exciting! That’s what we are here to do. 

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