I wrote this in 2007, when I was up for promotion to shodan (first degree black belt) in Aikido. My teacher asks all of us who test for dan rank to write an essay about how Aikido affects our lives. This was my story.
Martial arts had never been an activity that I ever gave any thought. Not once did I ever think I should take up a martial art as a sport. However, once I started reading and studying Eastern religions and philosophy, I started seeing references to aikido. It was always said to be the most spiritual of the martial arts. Aikido kept popping up in my reading and the idea was something I put aside for the time; after all, it was a martial art and that wasn’t really for me. I filed the information away.
One night I had a dream. I was in a warehouse; it was dark and futuristic looking, and I knew I was in danger. In fact, I was being pursued and people were trying to kill me! I ran and fought was absolutely amazing in my dream. I was fighting in a style that was beautiful and powerful and I could move my body in ways that I never thought possible for me. To be honest, the dream may have been initially brought on by watching the movie, The Matrix, but the fighting was not entirely like it was in the movie. It was not impossible. I was not dodging bullets. I was not running up walls. I was not flying. I was, however, flipping myself around, twirling, and spiraling. This fighting dream became a serial dream. Night after night, week after week I had it–always the same. I was in danger, fighting in a remarkable way, twisting and turning and flipping, and always getting away. I woke up tired and worn out. At first I found the dreams thrilling but after a while I grew tired of them.
It was some months later when I read George Leonard’s book, The Way of Aikido. As I read about his aikido experience I had an insight. This was the fighting in my dreams! This was what I was supposed to do! A few months later I decided that I would do it. I would look up aikido and see if any dojo’s were in my town. There were four. I called the dojo with “traditional” in the name because I instinctively knew that that was the type of martial art I wanted. I called the number and I talked to sensei. I was pleased to know that the teacher was a woman. Everything about what sensei said sounded inviting. I never called another dojo. I never visited another dojo. I went to the dojo to watch a class and was amazed at how happy everyone seemed. This was a martial art and everyone was smiling! Afterward, students came up to me to ask what I thought. To be honest, I thought it looked weird. They understood. I came back for my first class and it felt weird too. I remember thinking during tai-no-henko that this wasn’t the fighting in my dream. Maybe I had made a mistake.
I took a few classes and then had to stop for a while due to family issues. A couple of months later I went back. Maybe I shouldn’t do this, I thought, maybe this isn’t the right time. But something inside me pushed me on–a voice in my head telling me to continue. I went to the dojo and when I walked in the door people remembered me. One student even jumped up and down and was happy to see me come back! From that moment on I never looked back, never had any regrets about my decision, and never strayed from my aikido path. There were times when I stumbled and wondered if I could do it, if I wasn’t too small and weak and delicate to be a martial artist. There were times when I was so frustrated that I cried. However, the thought of stopping, of not doing aikido anymore, was never there. Quitting was never an option. My path was laid before me and it seems that nothing was going to stop it.
I had lots of help along the way of course. Would I have continued if it hadn’t been for sensei, and for my sempai? Would I have even joined if it hadn’t been for the people in the dojo? Because, as I look back it seems to me that the students and teachers of the dojo are what kept me going. I was incredibly lucky to have so many remarkable aikidoka surrounding me. There was a strong sense of fellowship at the dojo. I had so much help and guidance and care.
I also knew, intellectually, that aikido was my individual journey to take. Somehow, though, I didn’t allow myself to take the journey in my own way. I allowed my sempai and teachers to cloud my vision and block my path. About the time I became 2nd kyu, I had a vision. I was in my gi and hakama walking along a path (my aikido path). In front of me on this path were sensei and all my sempai. They were blocking my way. This was the first time I’d realized that I couldn’t get through because I was blocked. There was no malicious intent in the blockage, no desire to hold me back, no ego–just…in the way. As I was taking this all in a giant hand (mine, I suppose) came down and pushed everyone out of the way and onto the edges. Now the path was clear.
My sempai were still with me, but now they were on either side of my path. In fact, my need to walk this journey alone was so pronounced that all the sempai were on the opposite side of a fence from me. I could see them, touch them, talk to them, and yet I was alone. The most striking image of this vision was that the path I was traveling on became huge once I was no longer blocked. My path was clear, open, and wide. I felt like a whole new leg of the journey was upon me. Now my way was truly my way. I felt lighter, less burdened, and feeling like I was carrying fewer expectations. I realized I had to do aikido my way; a way that was in sync with my body, my personality, my ki.
For many months I continued on that wide open path, continuing on my aikido journey within my own personal space. I felt like I’d grown as an aikidoka. The seed had been planted; my teacher and sempai watered and cared for me, but this was a time for me to actually grow. Occasionally, I recognized that I was falling back and relying on my sempai too much. I relied on their being in class, working with me, giving me their invaluable advice and friendship. I started to feel blocked again–too reliant on others. This time, though, I knew my trap. This was to be one of my obstacles. As I relied heavily on my parents and siblings growing up in my family, so too was I leaning on my aikido “family.” I became aware of my need and was able to overcome it.
Just recently I had another vision. I was on my path again, the same one as before. This time, however, the path wasn’t as wide. I was able to walk closer to my sempai, include them more intimately again on my journey. The fence was gone. They were beside me, not in front of me as before. As I looked down the path I could see a mountain. In my previous vision I could see nothing ahead of me. Perhaps significantly, the mountain looked like Mt. Fuji. I could only see the base of the mountain, not the peak. The peak was not blocked from view by clouds or any other impediments–it simply wasn’t in my sights. Sensei has mentioned that when you pass your shodan test you are at the base of the mountain. All the work and testing up until that point is your process of getting to the mountain.
The length of time to my shodan test is now measured in weeks, not years. The base of the mountain is in view. Perhaps when I get to the base I’ll be able to get a glimpse of the summit, or maybe I’ll just be able to see the next plateau. Perhaps the summit will never be in view. One thing I’ll know is that whatever happens, whatever the view of the mountain, and whoever may be walking with me, I always followed my path.