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not practicing is practice

April 7, 2010

“Forgetting or neglecting to be mindful can teach you  a lot more than just being mindful all the time. Fortunately, most of us don’t have to worry on that score , since our tendencies towards mindlessness are so robust. It is in the coming back to mindfulness that seeing lies.”

Wherever You Go, There You Are – Mindfulness Meditation for Everyday Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn

Having kids can really eat into your free time…

I had my first lesson in Aikido in Hitatchi, Japan in 1992 and have been a student of Aikido ever since. My fate was sealed in that respect the night I shared the mat with one particular uke – a fragile looking, elderly Japanese man. We were practicing a wrist grab technique – katate-kousatori tenkan – and I was trying my best to be respectful and not harm this kindly old man with the energy of my relative youth.

After a couple of minutes he indicated that I was not grabbing his wrist properly so I gave him a little bit more a little bit faster, mindful that I was forty years younger than him and about a foot taller than him! ‘Not enough’ he said, so I figured I should make my point by quickly grabbing his wrist and preventing him from moving into the technique. That was the nature of the attack that I committed to …

As I lay flat on my back looking up at this old man, not entirely sure how I had gotten there from my previously upright and arrogant position, I knew that I would always be a student of Aikido and that I would continue to practice.

And I have. I returned to Australia in 1993 and began looking for a teacher who, after a couple of false starts, I found in Sensei Michael Stoopman.  Under his patient guidance I practiced and in 2001 I graded for my blue belt. In 2002 the demands of a young family made getting to class more difficult and I stepped off the mat and began what would turn out to be seven years of not-practicing.

It would be Sensei Frank Bloksberg and a visit to his Dojo in Grass Valley, California who brought me back on to the mat in April 2009. It has only been since then that I have come to realise how much I have learnt while I have been not-practicing.

In an exercise from Wherever You Go, There You Are that follows the quote that opened this post you are encouraged to see if you can become aware of “how you carry yourself in your body in those periods when you are practicing and when you are not”.  No problems doing that this morning…  as I write this a great class last night has made me aware of a number of muscle groups that can obviously tell the difference!

So what have the seven years of my practice of not-practicing taught me? The importance of not just moving your body but of being in your body when you move.  The consequences of not being present in your relationships with… well with everyone really.

My feeling is that I am able to recognise these things because of my time spent not-practicing. I wonder if I would have learned these lessons if I had stayed on the mat? Perhaps.  All of the techniques we practiced last night I was taught over a decade ago. I demonstrated that I could “do” them in the gradings that culminated in my blue belt.

Now as I start to practice again, revisiting those techniques shines a light on the habits that I laid down over ten years ago. The teachings point to the same things that my elderly Japanese uke tried to draw my attention to almost two decades ago. Size, speed, strength – these things are not important. Indeed if you continue to rely on them you will often find yourself flat on your back grinning sheepishly. My old patterns of behaviour were based on big movements, on doing the technique to other people.

Now, I have begun to understand that true Aikido happens with other people and arises out of your relationship with them. Being fully present and listening respectfully while maintaining the integrity of your own being creates a shared space in which small, gentle movements allow you to lead others and move forward together.

No strength is needed.  The appearance of speed arises from the ability to slow things down.

Less is more. Not practicing is practice.

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