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The Wisdom of Aikido for Life

"You will need to get a cultural visa if you want to work in Japan, Ronnie…how about Aikido?”, said Ted, my new housemate who was renting me a room in his old Japanese house in Kyoto. Ted had been in Japan for over 14 years at the time and he certainly knew the ins and outs of being a “gaijin” (foreigner) in Japan. A “cultural visa” was some sort of status the immigration authorities designated to put a framework around the scores of English-speaking foreigners who were streaming into Japan during the 1980’s to get high salaries for “English conversation teaching”- a term I learned quickly in Japan. It meant that you opened your “Native-Anglo mouth”, spoke English words and the Japanese “student” would put down in cash a startling sum of money for the “experience”.

It was just what I needed at the time. Not yet 25, I was tired from a year of traveling through Asia with my backpack and sense of wanderlust. It was a truly amazing year, unlike any other of my life, and it made a deep imprint on how my life would unveil after that. There were 2 months of trekking the Himalayas, 5 months traversing India alone, on trains, busses, mixing in with the locals wherever possible. China was just opening up to independent tourism, and I grabbed at the opportunity, spending over two months all over this huge country, ending up disguising myself as a “local” in the very west of China: sneaking on to a dilapidated bus with a fellow Australian traveller, Danny Hakim, for a 3 day journey bound for Kashgar, a “forbidden city” for foreigners at the time. Kashgar was like going back centuries in time, it had not seen tourists in years; it was one of the westernmost cities of China populated by the Uyghur Islamic minority, near the border with Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Pakistan. Kashgar had served as a trading post and strategically important city on the Silk Road between China, the Middle East and Europe for over 2,000 years.

As part of my “Deep China journey” I also picked up some Hepatitis A, which I took with me to the Philippines; after 10 days in hospital, I took the next 6 weeks to convalesce on a small island, where I stayed on about $5 a day, doing yoga, swimming, eating papayas and mango, reading, writing and gaining strength for the next part of my journey.

Welcome to Japan

Japan awaited me in more ways than I could imagine…but what was Aikido and why should it have interested me? As a child and youth I took no interest in martial arts, and this was one of them. Yet, I did check it out, and could you imagine? I fell in love with it all- Aikido, life in Japan, a Japanese women and the fact that I could make enough money to live on just by opening my mouth and speaking English. I would leave Japan 2.5 years later with my black belt in Aikido, conversational Japanese, diverse knowledge in various traditional spiritual traditions, a broken heart and a nice savings account.

In those days we mostly just wrote letters, long hand-written letters which we put into an envelope with stamps on it. I wrote my parents frequently, sharing with them my excitement, stories (censored), and love of what I was learning. One day my father called and asked me: “What is this Aikido business- how long does it take to learn?”. I told him, “A lifetime. It’s all about Zen.” He said: “You have a good mind, can’t you do it in a year? Come home already!”

The What and Why of Aikido?

Aikido is a relatively new martial art founded by Morihei Ueshiba ("O'Sensei") in the first part of the 20th century. Ueshiba was an accomplished martial artist in various arts who over time was inspired to synthesize the techniques he was practicing with a comprehensive philosophy of life, influenced by ancient Japanese concepts as well as other endemic religious philosophies of Japan (specifically, “Oomoto-Kyo”, a split off of Japanese Shinto).

Ueshiba created Aikido as an art that practitioners could use to defend themselves while also protecting their attackers from injury. Aikido is often translated as "The way of harmonious spirit", with the goal being to practice refining and applying the techniques with a partner in set types of attacks movements of defense- falls, throws, grabs et. al all focus on nuanced movement in perfecting the technique while avoiding aggressiveness. Aikido is comprised of hundreds of movement techniques in circular fashion, the concept of breath and “Ki” (life energy) are at the heart of all practice.

Aikido is a body-mind art form that stresses learning through movement and work with a partner. Key concepts- all which are learned “through the body” rather than intellectual discourse- are, among others:

- Centering- focus the scattered “monkey mind”.

- Presencing- being where you are in “full”.

- Blending with attack and not going frontally against it.

- Abstaining from use of force, employing movement of the circle and extension of “ki”.

- Maintenance of harmony. There is no competitive element (at least not in the traditional Aikido which I learned).

Living at the time in Kyoto and then Osaka, my first introduction to an Aikido dojo (school, in Japanese) was to that of Steven Seagal- yes, the one and only Holywood actor to be. While Seagal was there (his then Japanese wife was the owner of the dojo), he hardly showed up but when he did his overwhelming presence was certainly there. I must say that I did not feel any harmony in that place but just a lot of people running around in traditional Japanese “skirts”, falling down on the mats and getting up again, only to fall again. My curiosity (and need for a cultural visa) led me on to another dojo, this time very traditional, very Japanese and very welcoming.

It took me a while but eventually I was “hooked”, eating, breathing and dreaming Aikido, during the hours I was not actually practicing each day. It became my life, I felt I had found a new home, I had entered a new world with unlimited room for growth and development. My Japanese improved and although I would never get away from being a “gaijin’ (foreigner) in the eyes of the Japanese, it did not bother me too much. My creative pursuits defined my world (as well as the “English conversation money” which put the sushi on the table).

My parents come to Japan

As immersed as I was in my “Japan trip” I felt a great longing for my family as well. So much so that after nearly 2.5 years I had decided that I would invite them to visit me- but only my mother. My father, whom I loved deeply, could be “trouble”. My mother was always accepting of whatever I ended up wanting and doing, but my father could be unpredictable. I decided to raise the topic on one of our rare phone-calls:

“Listen, I really miss you”, I said, “and want you to see my life here. Eema (Hebrew for “mom)- can I send you a ticket?”

Silence on the line. My father (“Abba” in Hebrew), eventually answered: “What do you mean send Eema a ticket- what about me?” Now it was my time for some silence till I too broke: ”I am not sure you will like everything I am doing here, you might not be comfortable.”

Ya, right, nice try, Ronnie. A week later I got a phone call: “We are coming in a month”.

I prepared for this visit. It was exciting, on the one hand, and worrisome, on the other. I had this good little life going for me, even though I had just recently separated from my Japanese girlfriend forever a few months earlier, I was anxious how all this would go over and I certainly had no plans to leave Japan at that time. When my parents came it was all that I had longed for: the warmth, affection, love and intimate conversation that I had always felt in my family that I grew up with. A big part of me had been missing, and only now could I sense that.

But my dear father? Well, he also had an “agenda” it appeared. He had come to both extend his love as well as show me that “enough is enough already”, time was moving on, time to get on with life and end this “traveling thing”. As planned, I took them to every one of my activities, including my English conversation classes (“What? You make a $100 for just talking for two hours? Not bad…”, he commented). My father’s reactions were per his agenda, negating what he saw while mixing it with some good “Yiddish humor”.

I took them to see our Aikido practice where there was a 10 minute mediation at the start of every class. My father could not sit still, he nudged my arm and said: ”Ronnie, what is everyone doing just sitting there with their eyes closed?”. I shushed him to keep quiet and explained to him that meditation is about not doing anything, including thinking. A minute later another nudge on my arm: “Ronnie, you are so naïve. Nobody just sits there with no thinking!”

Over to my Shiatsu class. He read the newspaper as we students were practicing on each other. After the class I offered to do some Shiatsu on hism so he could experience it, which he agreed to. When I asked him how he felt: “How do I feel? I feel like you’re pressing my body, kvetching all over…Ronnie, is this what you want to do? Work in a sauna?”

We were invited to a Japanese tea ceremony, where there were about 100 foreigners in the audience. After about 30 minutes of very slow movements, the director asked if there were any questions from the audience. I could sense my father getting ready to launch a question, I braced for impact: “Tell me, all this moving around with the tea- couldn’t it also be done with coffee?” Some foreigners smiled and laughed, others looked at us with a scorn. I was looking where to bury myself.

At the end of their trip we went out for dinner and it was here that I felt it time to address the elephant in the room. Even though I was not going out with any woman at that time, I felt a strong need to get my father’s approval to live with and marry anybody from any place or culture in the world- it was my life after all.

Obviously I was naïve on this one, but I had the need to get it out there. My father was ready, he had all the “weapons” lined up: shock, amazement, disappointment, guilt trip, anger, sadness, vulnerability- you name it, they were all there: “How could you do this? Have you forgotten where you are from?”. He was pulling all the big guns, and I, with all my Aikido training, was doing the exact opposite what I had trained for, going right smack into the punch. My mother, bless her accepting heart, just said two things: “Shah, shah, take it easy Ronnie…Mordechai (my father), stop shouting already”.

They left the next day. I would see them after 8 months in Israel on a short break in the action, before I left to do another year in Taiwan, more or less the same model only this time in “Chinese”. After 4.5 years in the Far East I left, and never did resume that path. It has always been with me.

Aikido- 2023

I don’t think I would ever have written this post had it not been for the wonderful Harvesting Your Wisdom group on Zoom- the exceptional group I facilitate of wise women elders (and at times some men), from 50+ to 80+ years of age, who come each week to dive into new concepts, topics of depth for introspection, reflection, open conversation and personal growth. I so enjoy bringing to this group new perspectives, challenges and methods of understanding our lives, our aging and what it really means to “harvest our wisdom”.

In re-engaging with Aikido together with the group after so many years, I found myself reflecting on what wisdom did Aikido have to offer me at this time of my life. I found that it had not changed at all, only today I am older, a veteran of many years of experience, but now, as ever, I am challenged by the questions that Aikido brings to us all:

- Am I centering myself in my life or am I letting my worries and concerns get the best of me?

-Am I bringing my presence into whatever I do, or am I forever “multi-tasking” and wanting to be “there” when I really am just “here”?

-Am I blending with the challenges and forces that make me upset, or am I going head on and wrestling with them, letting these forces dictate and define my life?

-And finally- do I embrace the circle of my life or am I caught in a cycle of regret, desire and fixation on what I think "should be"- that certain goal, milestone, and disregarding what is all around me that is coming together?

I glance over to my shoulder to the Japanese black-belt certificate in Aikido that I received 37 years ago and wonder why it is THAT certificate- of all the others on my office wall- that gives me the greatest pride.

I think back and hear my father’s voice saying: “Nu, Rone-le, enough already, when are you coming home?”

Something within me wants to answer: “Abba, you are no longer here, but I am home. In fact, I wonder if I have ever left.”

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Ronnie I love this post! I love hearing your father and mother again through your words, and I remember meeting you when you finally came back to Israel to live...full of Aikido at that time, messages that I so needed to hear then and clearly need to hear now as well. And now there is even a term for the last item on the list...FOMO...what a trap! For years I would remind myself to move at Tai Chi speed...somewhere that got lost but my body is now making me do that again, which I really appreciate. Thank you for these words.

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