A few years ago having found myself alive at the age of forty, I resolved to prepare for the next forty years of my life. I had never imagined that I would live past my thirties and imagined that my fate was similar to that of my paternal grandmother whom I had been named after. In an act of rebellion, I had changed my given name when I was twenty. Deep down, I was not convinced that just changing my name would change anything and when my life started to take turns that mimicked my grandmother’s life, I feared that indeed I was doomed, my life would soon end, and it felt as though it had yet to begin. I was wrong.
At this time I began to realize that fate might be all an old wife’s tale, and that perhaps there is nothing like fate, there is just a life to live now and here. My life is in my hands with whichever constructs of mind and spirit I may be able to summon. This is when I found Aikido. I had just moved back to Berne after having lived in Germany for a few years and worked in the United Kingdom, a geographical combination that left me with few friends or ties in Berne. I started to look for activities that interested me beyond that which I could explain rationally.
Aikido got on my list of potential activities to look at after I read a book by George Leonard on the subject of mastery. In this book Leonard, himself an Aikido fifth dan, often drew parallels to his Aikido practice to illustrate what he was trying to convey about mastery and learning. The reading of that book made me wonder as to what Aikido might be, his writing made sense to me and made me even more curious. Then the first time that I entered the Berne dojo, Chris Mooney Sensei was there for a seminar. I was clueless but fascinated by what was going on. I was also rather pleased that there was somebody speaking English, my language. It gave me a connection point to an art that was both foreign and puzzling. My choice of dojo was influenced by another factor: Barbara Imboden Sensei. Although I sensed that I might have very little in common with her besides gender, I liked her presence, attitude and clarity. To this day, more than eight years down the road, I have never regretted this choice. I am rather fond of my Sensei Barbara, have great admiration for her and we remain two very different persons.
After I started training at the Berne dojo on more or less irregular terms, for the next few weeks each time that I hit the tatami, each and every time, I barely had the energy to get up. A few months later I had surgery to remove a benign tumour. One month after surgery I was back in the dojo, and I had energy like I had forgotten than I once had had. While physical recovery was apparently fast, emotional and psychological recovery was another issue altogether. Back at the beginning of the millennium, and shortly after surgery, I took one of those executive stress assessment tests and the surprise was that I scored higher than a colleague whose young wife was dying of cancer. The only conclusion that I could draw was that there was something wrong in my life. That was six years ago, that was about the time that Aikido began to anchor itself in my life.
I kept practising Aikido, feeling better, and making little to no visible progress. Then major changes started to take place in 2002, it started with me resigning from my position before I had a new contract. As it was to be, although I was offered a dream job in a technology company, this company being NASDAQ quoted, it had its stock take a tumble before my contract was signed, and the dream job evaporated in Wall Street. My son had turned 18 that year and decided to go study in the United States. In addition, I took the decision that my husband – the third one, and not the father of my son – was to leave my house and gently showed him the way out of that life of mine. I found myself unemployed, alone by choice, and without any idea as to what my life was going to be about. All of this was my choice, it was time to reconnect to my dreams. I packed my bags and spent two months in Jordan at the end of the year. Did not go to the dojo for the whole of 2003. I felt that I needed Aikido desperately, and desperation does not make for a healthy relationship companion.
The time in Jordan marked my life beyond recognition, like the time in Egypt. In Jordan I was living with my friend Mohammad’s family in Amman. With him I explored Jerash and Salt and spent many hours in the kitchen with the women. Finally, in Jordan I learned to cook with my friend’s mother and to ask myself the question of what it is that I want. When in early 2003 I returned to Berne, I fell in a deep dark hole, the kind of hole that some like to call depression, and that I prefer to call letting the self find itself. Eventually I began to emerge out of my deep blue funk, started jogging again, then started doing zazen and isometric exercises every morning. In May of 2003 I found myself spending a few weeks in Cairo and finding myself all over the city as though that was my city. This recovery happened spontaneously while I was fasting during the month of Ramadan later that year. Without any effort or thinking, it became clear that I was going to return to the dojo. My body loves and demands movement, and Aikido had gotten into me. While I had initially been thrilled at the prospect of being a total beginner in Aikido, when I returned in 2004, I returned with another attitude, I wanted to learn and I was going to learn. Something had happened, the shift from “that life” to “my life” had just began. That life had been about what I thought was expected of me, and this life, my life, is about what I want to do ever since I can remember having thoughts: writing.
While trying to find the threads of my life again, I came to realize that I had made more compromises along the way than I had ever imagined possible. Little by little, I had abandoned every single dream that I had ever had. One by one, I had given it all up. If when I first entered the Berne dojo I seemed half-dead and incapable of learning, it was because I was barely alive.
I started writing poetry and fiction as soon as I could write, I wanted to be an architect, I wanted to be an agronomist, and I wanted to be a physical education teacher. I wanted a simple life: I am a poet. Instead I became a physicist, mother, and failed marriage three times. Although I did not make these discoveries about myself on the tatami, it was the observation of my reactions in Aikido that opened up my eyes, again and again, to how I had been programmed. Unexamined automatisms are what I call unconscient programming. We all walk around immersed and controlled by these automatisms until the moment that we start to observe ourselves and start connecting and facing the energy of those around us. That is how my training as uke began: I was unaware that there is somebody there to whom I could somehow give some response and energy without hurting myself.
Irimi was a very foreign concept in 2002, it meant assertiveness, forward projection, penetration. My automatic reaction when faced with a threat was to turn my back, and expose myself fully. No defence. However at first when I heard the expression irimi, and during the countless times that I was explained what it is, it seemed like a ballet step. It took me years to figure out that it is a principle and sometimes it is the forward foot, other times the back foot that follows the thrust of the advancing centre. Irimi is neither a ballet step, nor is it a movement of the feet, it is an attitude, and the whole body moves with the centre as a whole. The fact that I can write the words, does not mean that every and each time that irimi is called for, that I am present enough to execute it.
I participated in the Summer course in Uzès in 2004 and met Chiba Sensei for the first time. Other than greeting him, I did not speak with Chiba Sensei, but what returned home with me was the distinct impression that he and I had just engaged in some very private dialogue. It could be because it was on the closing session while we all sat around him for the question and answer session. I had only one question, and one question alone, and then I did not dare to ask it, but he answered it. My question was how he related to his students. What I understood is that when Chiba Sensei enters the dojo he bows in respect and reverence to his student’s kamii. This answer gave me not only something to think about, it also reassured me and left me at ease.
Gabriel Sensei and I have engaged in a privileged relationship ever since that same summer in Uzès. It is the relationship of a student and that of a teacher in this very real life of ours. The odd thing is that the student is a writer, the discipline is Aikido and the lessons take place between two human beings in the presence of each other’s egos. There is much that Gabriel Sensei has taught me, and there is much inspiration that flows into my writing in ways that I fail to understand and originates in our continued sporadic interactions.
In the summer of 2005 the dark clouds of the deep blue funk covered my horizon, except that this time I plunged to deeper depths. In a moment of total frustration I cried on the shoulder of one of my best friends and in the office of my accountant. It was time to seek professional help, I had lost several kilos in just a few weeks, I had a tennis elbow that refused to heal for months, and my sleep cycles were heavily disturbed. Still I smiled, I showed nothing. Those who have never been in the firm grip of a disabling depression may have no idea of how dark those clouds are on those days when nothing, but nothing wants to happen. I called it paralysis. It was a paralysis that also had me writing hundreds of thousands of words. Over the next few months between psychotherapy and Aikido, my job was to put myself back together. It took over a year, however when I returned from London and Chiba Sensei’s 40th Anniversary Celebration in October 2006, I felt that I was finally back together in one piece. Nothing made it more evident than Chiba Sensei’s repeated lessons on ukemi and the importance of staying alive when you take ukemi.
Life, like in Aikido, is all about the ability to fall down and get up again. I have heard this referred to as being like a bouncing rubber ball. Yes, a bouncing rubber ball with eyes in all directions, constantly alive and ready for what is next.
Just on the first week of February 2007 in Geneva I presented a talk that went above and beyond all that I had ever done before, I presented emotion and logic and at one point I lost the majority of my audience. After this talk, I was acknowledged for my leadership. This acknowledgement of leadership is one that I was not ready for. There is much to learn. Somehow my life is all about falling down, and getting up without loosing the martial attitude. It seems like it just began.
Berne, March 2007