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going back to first grade

May 4, 2011

The steaming tea was poured and we bowed. He took a sip. But as the water touched my own lips, I had to pull back. It was too hot! The first thought that flew into my head was How could he have drunk that? It simply wasn't possible that it was an acceptable temperature for him. In that moment there was no "opinion", no "you take the high road, and I'll take the low road," no "different strokes for different folks." To my mind (and my mouth) in that moment, I was right and he was wrong.

Now, I am a person who prides herself on being able to see things from another's perspective. I teach first grade and I work all day long to get six-year-olds to have some consideration for each other and to stop acting like the entire world exists for their benefit. I want them to be able to take care of each other and in order to do that they have to try to put themselves in another's shoes and realize that other people have different thoughts, feelings, needs, and abilities than they do.

Maybe I need to go back to first grade myself, because I keep catching myself in these moments. Not that I think these kinds of thoughts more frequently –– just that I notice them more; how automatic they are. Do we really believe that other people are different from ourselves? Or are we all pretty much under the same illusion that I am the center of the universe... the only one who is really real. That those other people out there would all do and believe exactly as I do if only they could see clearly! Of course I want to believe that I am an empathetic, open-minded person. And I would venture to say that most of the time I come across that way. But what I am interested in, and what the practice here at the dojo reveals to me again and again, is that shadow inside - that person who believes that she is the only one who can really be "right."

Helping a child in the kids' class or an adult beginner I catch that voice in my head. Don't get me wrong - I truly appreciate everyone that I work with and I am well aware that I learn a great deal in each encounter. I love feeling the way a body can suddenly change as something drops and that maybe I even helped that person to discover something! But I catch that voice sometimes: How can they not get this? Why did they do that? Because that's not the way I would do it… at least not today. But I have many memories of my own days as a beginner (soon the dojo and I will each celebrate our 10th anniversary) and being mystified when Sensei told me "you're leaving your center behind" or "stop resisting" or "don't put your face where my fist is!" and I had not a clue what I was supposed to do instead. But slowly, slowly, slowly my body has come to understand these things better. Sometimes the realization came suddenly, but more often it changed without me even knowing it. Now, even though I still sometimes leave my center behind or resist or put my face where it shouldn't be - at least I know enough to understand what's happening. It comes with time.

So I remember the feelings of frustration and confusion and despair - thinking that Aikido would never be anything other than a painful and clumsy affair. I see them sometimes on the faces of people I work with. We are all trying so hard! And I know that it just takes time. Time and diligent practice. And that allows me to catch that voice in my head, quiet it, and push forward with my partner toward a new understanding for both of us.

So I am learning every day how to look at things anew. I'm faced again and again with my own inner shadow. It's a gift that Aikido gives me, this working with a partner all the time. In the differences between two people there can be friction. I am pulled out of my comfort zone. My partner (knowingly or not) is holding up the mirror - patiently, steadfastly - in which I might see myself. Turning to look directly into it makes this practice all the more difficult and rich. --Kate Savoca

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