June 28, 2015
In the changing room, after the 2nd kyu test we had just sat through, Diego asked me, “So what did you think of the test?” It was December, my third month in the dojo. By then, I had discovered that class often left me at a loss for words. Watching the examination, the martial nature of our training was apparent to me for the first time. I felt that in a substantial way, Aikido was a way into matters of life and death, of living and dying. Not that the practice itself was dangerous; but that the techniques were about something much deeper than form alone. And I must confess that my initial reaction to that 2nd kyu test was a feeling of fear.
Before the test, Sensei had been teaching yokomenuchi, trying to get us to understand that the techniques were really an approximation for a life or death encounter. That to execute the form properly, we had to understand the intention beneath the form, and to enter into that state of mind. During the test, it felt as though the entire dojo had entered into this state of mind; that what was transpiring between uke and nage was of the utmost importance. As they struggled with techniques, as they struggled with exhaustion, the encounters seemed to transcend intellectual categories of passing or failing. Earlier, in the autumn, Sensei had taped up in the men’s changing room a picture of a hunting dog joyfully grasping a dead duck in its jaws, running through a stream. Above it, he had written, “this is what your Shodan test should look like!” For a while, I didn’t really get it. Watching that 2nd kyu test, feeling the intensity and focus in the room, feeling afraid of that intensity and focus, I thought about that picture. I thought, “am I the dog? or am I the duck? I don’t want to be the duck. But I’m definitely not the dog.”
So I said to Diego, “It was pretty intense”. Which was maybe the most obvious thing anyone could say. He laughed at my understatement, and we parted ways for the night. As words and thought gradually came back to me that night, it hit me that the last time I had felt this way - fear in the presence of life and death encounters - was my first year out of medical school, when I was a medical intern at UCLA. Like training Aikido, it wasn’t that the medical training was actually dangerous (though it was exhausting, and often painful); but I often felt overwhelmed and unprepared. That year (and for several years after), I was unprepared both technically and spiritually. There was so much to know - about bodies, how they worked, how they broke, about tests and treatment, and most of all, about humanity and the moral and spiritual dimensions of illness, recovery, living and dying. At the beginning of my medical training, even though I was book smart, I knew very little, and my ignorance meant that I didn’t know what was going to happen to my patients. Not knowing what was going to happen to them, I didn’t feel prepared to take care of them. I was afraid I would fail them. I was afraid because I was ignorant. About 9 years later, I discovered a different kind of fear. By then, I knew a lot. And I was about as prepared as you could be to take care of someone. And even though I had a much better sense of what was going on with each of my patients, I still didn’t know what was going to happen to them. I could see which treatments had the best chance of working; but you never really knew what was going to happen until you actually did the treatment. I was faced once again with this fear of the unknowable future, except now I could see that this was not a reflection of my own shortcomings, but was a fact of life. I was no longer ignorant. But I realized that I had been attached to this idea that I could somehow control the future if I knew enough.
Around this time, I remembered an anecdote I had heard about Kanai Sensei, from the New England Aikikai. According to the story, in his early days in Cambridge he used to give classes to the Police Department. He would demonstrate a technique, and then a cop would say, “Well what about if I did this instead?” And Kanai Sensei would then show how he would respond. And then another cop would say “What if I did this instead?” And again Kanai Sensei would show his response. After a certain point, one of the cops said, “So you’re saying that no matter what I do, no matter how I come at you, you would have a technique for it?” And Kanai Sensei replied “Yes, that’s right.” And another officer, somewhat incredulous, said, “Well, can you prove it? I could just come at you right now, and you could take me down?” And Kanai Sensei again nodded, and so this officer got ready to make the Aikido instructor prove his point. Just as the cop was was about to start his attack, Kanai Sensei said to him (possibly with a smile), “Just one thing… I don’t actually know what I’m going to do to you.” That’s the end of the story, at least as I heard it. One assumes the cop did the smart thing, and sat back down.
Reflecting on Diego’s question the next day, it seemed to me that I am back in my intern days, when it comes to Aikido. I know some things, but I’m basically ignorant, and unprepared, technically, physically, spiritually. I’m not the duck, but I’m definitely not the dog. And maybe I’m afraid that I won’t become the dog (or that I’ll end up the duck). The dojo reminds me of a teaching hospital, in good ways. It’s a place that recreates life and death situations in a safe way, allowing us to investigate how our body, mind and spirit perform in these situations, to encounter our fears and attachments, and to learn and grow stronger and wiser. There is a lot of mentorship and a lot of esprit de corp, as we all struggle with these same experiences together. The apocryphal story about Kanai Sensei suggests to me that at the end of the struggle to master technique, to master exhaustion, to master one’s body and mind, there’s the even more interesting challenge to accept the limitless possibilities within each technique and within each encounter. I hope that I am able to train long enough to get to that challenge. And I’m sure that if I do get there, I will once again feel fear, at least for a while.