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Nidan Essay

Something in each of our lives brings us to the mat for the first time. Yet I sometimes wonder, what persuades us to keep training? To begin aikido is not a glorious experience. For the first three months, we are sore and tired, we neglect our families, we are frustrated, embarrassed, and discouraged. By the time the novelty has worn thin, we know several unflattering things about ourselves: a) we like winning over others; b) we derive a twisted enjoyment from making our friends fall over in a heap; c) we are attracted to power for its own sake; d) we have stupid habits.

No wonder so many people leave in their first year of training. Yet, for the rest of us, the longer we train, the more reasons we find to stay. Every time we step on the mat, we enter into the possibility that person, body, and world will take on some new quality. Our expectation of change is not abstract or theoretical. It comes from discovering that our practice has tangible, concrete, observable effects on the patterns of our bodies. Even during our least satisfying hours on the mat, our physical experiences surprise us, and change how we think, feel, and move.

I originally came onto the mat because the visual beauty of aikido had captured my imagination. Although I am not a natural athlete, the beauty of this art has beckoned me on, drawing me further in, beneath the surface. I have the sense of being in aikido the way a swimmer is in the ocean, with its energy moving in many patterns at many levels. The experience of immersion is often uncomfortable, sometimes threatening, even ugly in the small scale, but always beautiful in the large scale.

"Well," you might ask, "what if a person just doesn't like the ocean, or isn't a very good swimmer?" It's true that aikido is not for everyone. There are other ways to explore beautiful patterns in the universe. Aikido is an ideal path for anyone who enjoys learning life's fundamentals through movement. Movement is our primary, fundamental means of knowledge. It is the one we all begin with as infants. Ultimately, all knowledge and thought is related to movement, since we cannot gain perspective, or build complex understandings of the world, unless we are in motion. By allowing us a way to move with others, aikido also makes use of our second fundamental source of knowledge: relationship. The human world is not made up of individuals; it is made up of relationships. Our experience of the human world, from infancy onward, relies on connection, contact, touch, and exchange. Eventually, we learn to accomplish these actions verbally and symbolically, but our words and symbols mean nothing unless we have experienced connection and contact. Our individuality is also meaningless, unless we have experienced touch and exchange.

Recently I am aware of how my movement and relationships in aikido practice are reflections of my individuality and self-importance. Like a swimmer in the ocean, I can feel alone and vulnerable to attack, and nothing seems more important than the preservation of my individual self. My bodily patterns hold this understanding at least as clearly as my imagination, so that I reflexively defend whatever part of me is threatened. Yet, when I swim in the ocean, I am impressed by my lack of importance! I depend on my surroundings to support and sustain me. My individuality wavers. I might become an expert swimmer, but from the point of view of the ocean, my personal presence is neither important nor powerful. After all, my blood is just another form of salt water. I see that when I stop insisting on always and only being an individual self, I am inseparable from the ocean. Its power and beauty are both inside and outside of my thin container.

Aikido has something to say to me about that. My human surroundings are as much a part of the natural universe as the ocean, and I am as dependent for my well-being on the support of others as I am on the ocean to buoy and carry me. Yet I am also my own protector. Aikido gives me a way to ask how I am a separate self, and how am I also an extension and expression of the patterns of the entire universe. How will / does / can my body hold this knowledge? Where is the moving line between myself and everything else?

At this point in my training, this problem of self / no-self is the difficult, wonderful, unsolvable puzzle that draws me onto the mat. On the mat, I do not puzzle about it in my mind, as I have done here, in order to put it into words. On the mat, I puzzle about it by making the patterns, sometimes gracefully, sometimes clumsily. Aikido offers me a way to be a natural, unfinished, integral part of a universe of beauty and power, but only if I learn to loosen my hold on self-importance.

How much I have wanted to be good at this! Wanting to be good is a fine motivator, but being unfinished is more important. A too intense wanting to be good turns my direction, folds back on itself into a wanting to look good, to be a finished product, to be invulnerable, to be different in a superior way. Then, I want to grasp and grab all that beauty and power I saw in aikido the first time. I want it only for myself. Then it is time for a correction, usually cheerfully supplied by training partners. If I am seriously out of balance, Sensei handles it personally. In this way, the reliable, durable, responsive human environment is there for us on the mat. It keeps us in focus, in motion, and in contact, reminding us of our interdependence, and of our natural state of being unfinished.

When I began to train, my patterns for being a human being were underdeveloped. I have not achieved that perfect beauty I thought I saw at the beginning. I am, happily, unfinished today. For whatever humanity I have gathered in my twelve years on the mat, I am indebted to every partner who ever consented to train with me, and every sensei who has devoted time to continuing our practice. With all its imperfections, controversies, and factions, the aikido community continues to enact generosity whenever partners practice together. There is real grace in that generosity. Please accept my thanks for the welcome you all have shown me, and the gifts you have given me. Please accept my gratitude in this simple form. Please, let's train.

Carol Lambert, July 3rd, 1996, Aikido North