Sitting Off the Mat: Practicing Spiritual Aikido
Always practice The Art of Peace in a vibrant and joyful manner.
~ Morihei Ueshiba, O Sensei
I’m sitting off the mat at Portsmouth Aikido, as 27 people line up in seiza (kneeling position) to await the seminar instructor. This is the dojo I founded 25 years ago and that is now impeccably managed by its new owner and chief instructor, Aaron Cass Sensei.
For about five minutes, it is completely silent. I sit quietly, alone, in a spectator’s chair on the sidelines, taking it all in: the mat, the beautiful space, the Japanese calligraphy adorning the walls, the flowers on the kamiza (spiritual center of the dojo), the pictures of Kanai Sensei who helped us found the dojo and of O Sensei Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of aikido.
I sit there in peace, noticing everything, both outside and inside.
The fact that I am on the sidelines today instead of on the mat, is indicative of my current relationship with aikido. I’m still an instructor and board member at Portsmouth Aikido, and I teach aikido practice at times. And of course I use its principles in my daily life and work. The aikido metaphor is part of me now and always will be.
It’s just that I have gradually stopped the physical practice, which is a phenomenon I notice rather than a decision I’ve made. I notice I’m not getting on the mat as often. Curious? Yes. And fateful. The less I get on, the less I want to. Today, I am here because I respect our instructor, and Aaron, and the students who are on the mat. I’m watching — them and me. The action on the mat and my thoughts are equally of interest.
A Different Sort of Courage
One thought: this takes courage. It’s a personal challenge to come to the dojo I founded 25 years ago and sit on the sidelines. It takes courage, of course, to get on the mat, to practice. And a different sort of courage not to. Because it’s easy for me to concoct a story that I’m being judged, that I’ll be perceived as not strong enough, or injured, or afraid.
Instead, I write a new story: I am here to support my students (I still think of them as my students), the dojo, and our instructors. They understand this, too. That I am present in a new, perhaps a deeper way.
Another thought: I think it must be a bit like being a grandmother. The mother is intimately involved in every aspect of the child’s growth, as I was for so many years with this place of practice. The grandmother, however, sits quietly in her chair, observing her progeny, smiling to herself. From her vantage point away from the action, she sees everything — much more than when she was so close to it.
I started this, I think to myself. This would not be here in the form it exists today, if not for actions I took. My ki is in this space, on this mat, with these students, in their technique.
Practicing Spiritual Aikido
Still another thought: I have a new place in the dojo, perhaps quite literally. I’m forging a new
relationship. I have the courage not to practice, not to be the one who’s in charge, not to do it all. But rather to let other ki, other energy, come forward.
I am changing the story from “not strong enough” to “strong in a new way.” And I’m reminded of Ram Dass, who said: Our journey is about being more deeply involved in life and yet less attached to it.
Lastly, I think about other relationships in my life that have changed — grown and transformed. In some cases, it just happened. In others, I sought the change and transformed myself in order to create a more meaningful relationship.
I consider relationships that need changing, but aren’t quite ready. Can I allow the change to happen? Am I willing to change myself?
Back in the dojo, practice is beginning. The silence is gradually colonized by sound.
I hear the instructor’s footfalls as he moves down the hall toward the dojo. An important teacher, one who was instrumental in the dojo’s formation. Then the sounds of students bowing, standing, warming up, stretching, and falling — the unique sound of students taking ukemi (receiving the throw, falling, and getting up over and over again).
I hear the instructor say, “You have to study yourself, to see what you’re actually doing rather than what you think you’re doing. You can just do whatever, or you can stay present and polish your technique.”
And I think this is what I’m doing. I’m staying present. I’m polishing my spirit. I’m practicing aikido on the mat of my life.