My shaky signature on the little sign-in card betrayed the fact that I was choking back some fear. This was Day One of my aikido training, and although I was greeted with warmth, kindness, and friendly smiles, all I could see were hakama.
The hakama. Symbol of someone else’s perfection. Mockingly pointing out the fact that, once again, everyone (EVERYONE!) outranked me. Reminder of my own broken, flawed self. Always too young. Too old. Not smart enough. Not rich enough. Not patient enough.
For a split second, I considered just turning around and heading back out the door. They could keep my monthly fee and I could keep my dignity intact. As long as I didn’t think about the fact that I had given up before trying.
On the mat as I stumbled and flailed, straining to understand and to execute techniques “correctly,” I felt worse than insignificant; I felt like I was getting in the way of everyone else in the dojo. Being a nuisance. Somehow delaying their training by requiring their guidance.
But I have kept coming back. In starts and fits at first… lots of absences. An injury. Plenty of excuses. But, for now, with increasing consistency.
And now, 17 months later, I’m seeing that all of this IS the process.
The beginner joins the class and is introduced to katate kosa tori kokyunage tobi komi. The “Twenty Year” technique. (Or maybe it’s “Thirty Year.”) Witnesses the technique for the very first time.
Thoughts occur. Emotion arises. And the journey begins.
A young Shizuo Imaizumi taking ukemi for O-Sensei, the Founder of Aikido. Even Imaizumi Sensei started out as a beginner. Regarding this photo, Imaizumi Sensei recently said, “That was taken at the old Honbu dojo around 1967. I used to stay in the dojo daytime in those days. So if someone came to visit the dojo to see O Sensei, I took uke for his demonstration. Good old days!”
Some of us beginners will be on fire for awhile; believing that we’ve found ‘the answer’ to all of the problems in our lives. We may race around the dojo with elation or move with exaggerated humility, trying our best to fit in. But we will hold some belief about the value and impact that “success” in aikido will have upon our lives.
“Once I earn 5th kyu, everything will be different!” “Once I become 4th kyu, THEN I’ll really know my stuff!” “Once I get my HAKAMA, footwork will just take care of itself and life will be easier…” and so on.
After some time, the New Romance energy fades. The honeymoon ends. And we are faced with ourselves.
Some of us will disappear abruptly, just too busy. Some of us will drift away, making promises and repeating oaths of dedication, hoping that somehow our words will mean more than our actions. Yet we show up less and less often. We all have our reasons.
But some of us will find ourselves intrigued. Entranced. Puzzled and delighted as aikido slowly expands, filling our lives from the inside out, more and more. Other interests begin to take a back seat as we discover that this aikido stuff is way more than learning and executing techniques. Way more than “moving up through the ranks.” That the word “connection” means way more than I’ve ever realized.
In my aikido practice as a beginner, something new seems to be emerging. A new, deeper sense of enjoyment, fulfillment, and joy that is not dependent upon getting something “right” or achieving some particular level of rank. Rather, a new sense of delight in simply being part of the dance of aikido.
We beginners, (without hakama, sometimes without gi’s, whatever our age) play a SUPER important role in the dojo, whether we realize it or not. I like to believe that every time I show up to practice, learn, screw up, and try again, I am offering myself up for refinement in some small way. Offering myself up to have yet another rough edge sanded down a little bit… to surrender another tiny little piece of my egotism, my selfishness, my stubbornness. Surrendering another tiny little nugget of my resistance to connect; relaxing my grasp on my belief that there’s a need to protect myself as something separate from the interconnected web of life.
By showing up time and time again, we beginners are giving all of our sempai (Teachers/Guides; more experienced sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles on the path) the opportunity to dive even more deeply into their own learning, training, and passion for the Art. And in doing so, they have the chance to start fresh as a beginner, as well.
Everyone in the aikido world, at some point, was a beginner. Even Imaizumi Sensei. As long as I can keep that in mind, I have hope.