(This post was written by Paul Norris, a senior student at Vermont Aikido.)
Walking has been described as a process of continually losing your balance and catching it again. We’re used to doing that, so it doesn’t feel as vulnerable and out-of-control as it sounds. Even running, which basically consists of keeping yourself so off-balance that you’re constantly falling forward, feels familiar and relatively safe. Most of us don’t remember learning to walk, but it’s a difficult skill to master, with a steep learning curve, frequent unanticipated catastrophes, scraped knees and tears.
Aikidō feels to me like learning to walk. It’s frustrating and humbling: it looks so effortless, and it’s so difficult to do. It’s counter-intuitive in many ways, so that I often feel like I’m fighting myself and my body’s familiar patterns. It involves working with partners who are grabbing me or trying to hit me, throw me or poke me with a wooden stick. And although I frequently explain to people that I’m pretty confident I could use my training in an actual fight, by keeping my head long enough to run away, in the dōjō you’re not technically supposed to run away from your uke.
There are moments when it all works: when I feel balanced and centered and able to blend with uke’s attack and re-direct it, effortlessly and spontaneously. I’m not sure these moments become more frequent or consistent or predictable with time – but maybe it’s just that I’m seeing more and more deeply into the limitations of my technique. I do seem to make fewer bone-headed mistakes, and I’ve been able to work on some of the deeper aspects of Aikidō: maintaining good posture, connecting with my ukes rather than just trying to throw them. But the training is still difficult and challenging.
I would love to master the art of Aikidō: at peace with myself and the world, fearless and enlightened, free forever of any embarrassment. No more need to be patient with myself or my partners, struggling to deal with my imperfections. But one of the joys and frustrations of training is the chance to see that it’s precisely my attachment to this unattainable goal that makes me lose my center, trying to muscle my partners into submission, gloating when I succeed in throwing someone and gritting my teeth when I fail.
In other words, continually losing my balance. Isn’t that what I really want to learn how to do? In the dōjō, but also in my life. I don’t study Aikidō for combat effectiveness: I’m not a good fighter. I lose my temper too easily, and I’m afraid of getting hurt. But if Aikidō is about being in harmony with the universe, does it make any sense to pursue a dream of unchanging balance? Training in Aikidō gives me a path to follow that leads me forward. Losing my balance on that path is part of walking it. Recovering my balance is the other part: acknowledging that I’m who I am, doing what I can do. No more and no less.