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Steps Along A Journey Toward Nidan
Nidan Essay

This essay and all my training is dedicated to my Senseis, my training partners, the unnamed people who appear in this essay, and last but hardly least my family. They have supported and sustained me even when they really wished I would be home more.


In circles she turns,
In spirals she spins,
To be mixed is to one
So she is.

A friend wrote this poem for me while I was in high school. It makes more sense to me now. I think of it often when I train.


A friend had been hurt, not physically, but emotionally - and spiritually. An accident had occurred in his dojo. The news hit me in my center. When the shock had worn off, I wondered what I could do to help. My friend lives and trains in the lower 48, I live and train in Alaska. I had neither seen nor spoken with him in years. A phone call or letter might be appreciated, but would not communicate what I wanted to express. As it turned out, I would be visiting a neighboring city the following week. I decided that I would make the time to train in his dojo.

I borrowed a car and drove the 15 miles to the dojo. I got lost, so I was running a few minutes late. Most people were already dressed and on the mat. I hurriedly changed and signed the release forms. Then I bowed and came onto the mat. Class was just about to begin.

My friend was teaching. I was the only other yudansha on the mat. Not surprisingly, during class I was called up to take ukemi. I took the ukemi formally and impersonally. As class continued, my partners and I were stopped for corrections. My ukemi changed, becoming more responsive and trusting. My friend smiled, and threw me higher and faster. The other students smiled too. I later learned they hadn't seen him smile like that for quite some time.

Towards the end of class, my friend asked me to do the technique we were practicing - an irimi nage - on him. I realized that this was why I had come; finally, my opportunity was here. I wanted to train fast and hard, but I did not. Instead, I willed my body and my mind to slow down. I wanted to be able to experience every instant of the technique from the attack and entry through the take - down, and to be able to adjust instantaneously for whatever occurred. Once I had entered and taken my friend's balance so that he was leaning on me, I slowed the technique down even more. I could easily have thrown him unceremoniously down, and he could just as easily have bounced up. But I declined to engage in that sport. I would leave that to another day, another life; I hadn't the time or heart for it now. Instead, I took the liberty of looking at him resting on me and wondering if he understood, if he knew that this was my gift. I wanted him to know that I would take care that he did not fall hard and that he would get up with grace and dignity. I wanted him to know that for a few instants, he could lean on me. Gently and slowly, I placed him on the ground and then moved away to be ready for the next attack. We went through this dance several times. Each time, my friend came in harder and stronger, as if to ask if I would still take care and be kind. Each time, I paused for a mere instant after I had taken his balance, and each time I was careful to gently lead him down in a slow spiral. Finally, we changed roles and I became the uke. My friend met me and took me down just as gently, and even more gracefully. We moved as one unit. By now, most of the other students had stopped their practice to watch. They seemed to realize that I was not just a visitor from out of town looking for a place to train. They sensed that something special was happening, and that words were not necessary. After class, I asked a student where I could leave the mat fee. He asked if I would be back. When I said no, he did not allow me to pay.


When Norm was sick, I visited him in the hospital. Norm and I had received our shodans at the same time many years ago. This visit took place just after I had started my training for my nidan exam. Norm was barely conscious. I held his hand, and before I left I told Norm that it was time for me to train. I promised to do a few tenkans and irimis for him; I told him that I would imagine he was doing the moves. When I was on the mat, I thought of Norm. I hoped that somehow he would experience a small part of my training.

I visited Norm again, when no one was sure if he was going to live. His granddaughter came and went. Someone from the dojo came with me, stayed for awhile, and left. Later Sensei came, and he too stood by the bed. Surprisingly, Norm looked alert. He was thirsty. So I fed him ice chips and juice, and more ice chips and more juice. I couldn't leave. He was too thirsty. Norm was thirsty for water, for juice, and for life itself. Although Norm couldn't talk, I almost heard him begging me to stay, to give him more. And so I stayed and fed him. I had no choice.

I felt silly standing in a hospital room, thinking about my struggles at the dojo, my inadequate techniques, and my frustrations. I feared that my small efforts to feed Norm would not sustain him for very long. I wondered what else I could do. I could come up with very little. Finally, I thought perhaps, if I dedicated my training to him, it would help. I was sure I was thinking like a naive child, but I didn't care. I did it anyway. I silently promised that I would train for Norm, to inspire him to recover and to live. I promised that I would take the exam, and I promised that I would not give up. I have fulfilled my promises, promises I would make again without hesitation.


So I trained, and I trained some more. But it never seemed to be enough. I felt as if I were not improving. And indeed for a very long time, that probably was true. I felt ignored on the mat. I wasn't sure I had the heart or spirit to continue. But I kept training. I knew if I stopped or gave up, I'd never step on the mat again, and I would be breaking my promises. Slowly, as the weeks and months passed, I felt some progress - I felt more connected to my partners and better able to move with an attack and to take control of the interaction. I began to see things I had not seen before, and of course, I wanted to share those things.

As my test got closer, I realized it is a bittersweet event. I will no longer have the ready - made excuse to bring me to the dojo several times a week. I will no longer have the same focus or intensity. I will miss both. I also began worrying about others and about the dojo itself. I worried that other students might at times feel as I did - frustrated or worse, ignored on the mat. I noticed that the same people always trained together and seemed to actively avoid others. I worried about what that meant, and about how to make the dojo closer and more caring as a community. O-Sensei wanted aikido to bring peace and harmony to the world:

Rely on Aiki to activate your manifold powers; pacify all things and create a beautiful world.

Translation by John Stevens, Abundant Peace, p, 108 (Shambala 1987).

I do too. O-Sensei's teachings continue to inspire me and provide me with guidance. I strive to follow O-Sensei's vision of creating peace and beauty.

Nancy Simel, November 12th, 1999, Aikido North