I’m writing this essay in April of 2020. I wonder how it will read in the years to come.
In the face of the ongoing public health crisis, I know that I value and depend on my Aikido practice the way I depend on art, humor, smiles, and all the things that take my life from mere survival to a life of meaning and connection and community. And, frankly, it’s pretty helpful in mere survival, too.
I didn’t realize how much I took it for granted, though. Even when I was hurt or traveling, I knew that the classes and the people would be there for me when I was ready to step back on the mat. huh.
When I started this essay, shortly after the great day when Scott, Eddie and I all tested for new Dan ranks, surrounded by our dojo community and family and friends of us all, it seemed that all the training that I had done would last me for years ahead - exploring the things I was discovering and helping students find their way through the curriculum as well as starting to help other dan ranks get ready for their next tests.
Now, I need all of that aikido training to maintain my Wa, my sense of composure and serenity. Now I maintain my Wa by training with you all remotely. Now I am exploring Aikido through individual training of body awareness, of learning new ways to sense and, one day, control different aspects. I train with you all like a mime, feeling the resistance of the non-present Uke grabbing my wrist or shoulder.
And I feel lucky to have a mindset to help me maintain and benefit from this practice, despite our physical remoteness from each other. The mindset I bring to it is founded and framed in the poem, “Cutting up an Ox”.
On a number of past Tai Sai celebrations or Kangeikos, Kim Sensei would recite “Cutting up an Ox,” by Chuang Tzu (the Thomas Merton translation) for the gathered Aikidoka..
The poem has always stuck with me. Not because I’m Daoist or a butcher or an emperor, but rather because the poem speaks to my aspirations in Aikido and life.
Here is the section that I cherish the most:
Guided by natural line, By the secret opening, the hidden space, My cleaver finds its own way. I cut through no joint, chop no bone. … There are spaces in the joints; The blade is thin and keen: When this thinness Finds that space There is all the room you need!
In terms of my physical and technical training, these lines have been a major part of Aikido life over the past few years. This is especially true as I have gotten older and suffered some long use injuries, especially in my shoulders.
I am at the point in my life that, although I am still strong, I must be sparing with that strength. I must be sparing because on many days my shoulders and hips and knees are like old clay pipes and I don’t know how much water pressure they can take.
So I need to find the spaces into which I can have my body and spirit move and have the blending develop into a throw or a pin without forcing Uke to submit. I just am there, moving through space, with them attached, moving in expanding or contracting spiral motion.
And I know how to find the path both from accidents of training and because of the intentional way we train. I know from feeling where Uke might unintentionally resist because they are new and just learning Ukemi. Or Uke may intentionally seek to block me, as Sempai have over the years or, perhaps, because we are learning Henka-waza.
But mostly I know these paths through space are there for me to access because of the many opportunities I’ve had to take Ukemi from my Senseis and Sempai.
Over all the years of my training, when I’ve been Uke for Senseis and an occasional Shihan (and I am so lucky for those opportunities), I have felt as if those practitioners are like the Emperor’s butcher - their hands and bodies move in directions and into spaces where I have no power to resist. I am not suffering, there is no pain, there is just perfect direction, taking me to where they desire, not out of ego, but through the correctness of their technique.
In these moments especially, the experience of being Uke has been transformative - transformative for my understanding of what is possible in Aikido in the connections between bodies, but more profound in what happens to my spirit.
The transformation and uplift of spirit is why I cannot let go of this poem in relation to my Aikido practice. The experience of being “the Ox,” to me, is like being connected to a universe alive with possibility, a universe who’s energy can be tapped into by people with mastery. And some level of that mastery might be available to me.
In truth, while this sounds all woo-woo, it’s a product of extended rigorous training, with teachers and partners who are equally dedicated. I’ve had glimpses of doing techniques with partners who said, after, “that was amazing.” And glimpses are all I expect, especially when Uke is not a person, but a public health crisis.
When Uke is the coronavirus, what are the characteristics of the attacks this Uke brings to me? Boredom, despair, loneliness, anxiety - these all attack me, from all angles, at any time, individually or all at once.
So, faced with these attacks on my spirit, I focus my Ki and my attention to technique, built and honed over decades, to defend myself, expending minimal energy, so I have resources for another day, week, month or season.
AIkido is there for me, even in those (these) days when I feel weak, or sad, or forlorn. And I believe that Aikido can be there for you, too. Let’s keep training together, bodies apart, and before too long, we will be back together, training with more skill and with distinct and overflowing gratitude for Aikido and each other.
- Josh Langenthal, 4th Dan, Aikido Institute
*This article was submitted for a 4th Dan test taken on February 8, 2020 (right before the COVID-19 shutdown!). Students of the Aikido Institute must submit Aikido-related essays as part of the dan testing requirements.