The long AND winding road
A shodan essay by Kirsten Williams
The Long And Winding Road...
How long have you been practicing Aikido? It was a question that filled me with both pride and embarrassment. Pride because 12 years working on any endeavor shows commitment and proof that I was in it for “the long haul.” Embarrassment because there would be that little voice in my head chiding me. The voice that would tell me it took too long to obtain my black belt. And then the excuses would crop up – injuries, family commitments, personal challenges. So many things that took time away from training.
Therefore, the first lesson for me from Aikido was letting go of my life-long perfectionism and tendency to compare myself to others. This perfectionism has served me well throughout my academic career; it drove me to get good grades, get into veterinary school, and to apply myself during classes and clinical rounds. When something has worked well for you, when it is deeply ingrained, it’s hard to let go. Striving for perfection has been a huge part of my identity.
This Aikido journey has shown me that every person is on their own journey and it’s normal to have times of intense training, and times where other pursuits take precedent. And that’s okay.
...I've Seen that Road Before...
Another challenge Aikido training presented for me was “non-linear” learning. I had been used to learning new skills and information in a step-by-step process that would build upon the previous lesson. Coming to a dojo and being presented new techniques, some simple, some complex, in a random manner, made it feel like I could barely comprehend a concept or lesson, and then not see that technique again for weeks or months. The opportunities to learn a technique in depth and with repetition, such as learning the 31 jo kata during a 4 week Kangeiko, was cause for celebration.
I recognize that there may have been a feeling of linearity if I had attended class more frequently. And with several classes per week, each hosting students at different levels of experience, there cannot be a strict A-Z approach to training. Embracing this style of learning and appreciating the different ways it challenged and enhanced the way my brain works, is the second gift of Aikido. I was often surprised when revisiting a technique that I hadn’t seen in a while that there was a familiarity with it, that something had taken root deep in my psyche or muscle memory. Also, with the different students in each class, you might be training with someone more familiar with the technique, or someone new to Aikido, and either way, there was something to be learned from working with that partner. Lastly, while having different teachers demonstrating the same technique but in slightly different ways might be frustrating for some, I learned to internalize the minor differences and use the ones that work best for me (providing I knew the “correct” way to do it for my tests).
...The Many Ways I've Tried...
I have always been a rule follower, often to a fault. Many of the dojo rules are in the student handbook, yet there were some unofficial rules and customs that were harder to ascertain. This kind of vagueness caused me stress because the last thing I wanted to do was make an error or earn a “Dame.” I find it interesting that there are so many rules in Japanese culture that are easy for a person growing up in that society to understand, but so easy to mess up as an American having grown up in a culture of independence and informality. I always find it challenging when at a new dojo or having a visitor to ours when it comes to lining up in rank order. It seems rude (to me) to ask someone’s rank, yet I’ll feel even worse if I sit to the right of someone of a higher rank, unknowingly.
Another unwritten rule that I had violated was parking in Sensei’s prime parking spot in front of the dojo entrance for a 6 AM class at the Telegraph address. Some people said it was the Uchi-deshi’s responsibility to alert me to the custom, but I felt terrible for making the mistake. So, accepting the fact that we all screw up and it doesn’t mean the end of the world is another lesson from Aikido. And these “mess ups” make for good stories!
Embracing the gradual discovery of rules and customs of Japanese culture and the discipline of Aikido has been a gift.
...Many Times I've Been Alone...
“I don’t care to belong to any club that would have me as a member.” I’ve always loved this quote by Grouch Marx because I’ve never been a “joiner.” No Girl Scouts, no team sports. No clubs at school. Maybe it was a reaction to always being picked last for teams in grade school. I gravitated toward racquet sports where I could play singles or doubles and didn’t have a whole team of people depending on my ability or performance.
In school I didn’t hang out with people in cliques and always avoided labels. The friends I did have did not fit in neatly into other designated groups, either.
Aikido has provided a sense of belonging I haven’t felt since veterinary school. I love the supportive environment of the Aikido dojo and the fact that we don’t “compete” against other dojos in this discipline. Aikido attracts people from all backgrounds and has worldwide appeal, and most of us share a love Aikido’s harmony and peaceful aspects as envisioned by O Sensei. I am proud to be a member of this unique “club” and I look forward to the other unexpected lessons I will learn in my Aikido future.
...And Still, They Lead Me Back...
On that note, I want to express my deep gratitude to all of the people I’ve trained with over the years and the for the encouragement and support I’ve received on my long and winding road.
-by Kirsten Williams
(shodan test 12/10/22)
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