Irimi: The eye of the hurricane

(This is an excerpt from a manuscript I’m working on, a memoir hybrid about my many years practicing Aikido tentatively titled From Revenge to Reconciliation: How Aikido Principles Can Help You Stay Sane in a Crazy World. Since this is a work in progress, I welcome your feedback.)

Embracing Aikido as a lifelong journey involves practicing its most difficult, transformative, and incisive principle—irimi.[1]  The principle of irimi challenges you to enter directly into the heart of the attack. While animal instinct might yell at you to run, duck, or even try to stop the attack, and while the rational mind might counsel you to bargain or plead, practicing irimi means you quiet those voices in order to do something that may seem almost completely counter-intuitive. In a feat demanding exact timing, poise, and agility, you enter slightly off the line of the attack into a tiny slipstream of safety.[2] It is there, in the hurricane’s eye just barely to the side and in back of the attacker, that not only have you temporarily removed yourself from harm’s way, you can now influence his balance and thus tip the scales in your favor.

Ironically, it is also there in that quiet space inside the ferocity of the attack that essential information is conveyed. From an Aikidoist’s perspective, that information not only reveals how to most easily disarm the attack, it also reveals the attacker’s vulnerability, humanity and deepest needs which must be honored even as the attack is disarmed. This means that what lies in the heart of an attack—indeed, in the heart of any problem—are the seeds of its own reconciliation.  

In order to enter successfully into the heart of any problem, including a physical attack, you must first enter into your own fear. I had learned that my greatest fear wasn’t facing my ex-boyfriend armed with a stiletto. My greatest fear was loneliness. I was afraid I would never find a soul mate, and that I was destined to live my life alone and lonely. I was so afraid of my own loneliness that I could barely acknowledge my need to connect and bond. But my experience on the mat convinced me of the transformative power of irimi. Just as I had handled David attempting to stab me with the eight-inch stiletto, and just I was learning to throw large black belts by entering into the center of their attacks, I decided to go towards my fear of loneliness rather than run away from it. I chose the loneliest place I could think of, said goodbye to my Aikido and Lomi friends, and headed in my VW camper for the ghost town in the high desert near Death Valley where my sculpture mentor lived.[3]

Darwin, California had forty residents when I knew it in the late 70s and early 80s, a post office, miles and miles of mountains, creosote bushes, jackrabbits and sky. That’s it. There, I carved and walked and meditated. When I was around the town residents, I practiced saying no or nothing at all so that I could become more certain of my “yes.” My mantra, if you will, was “When in doubt, go to work.” Since I was almost constantly in doubt, I got a lot of work done, and many fresh sculptures soon peopled my studio. When I wasn’t carving, I smoked a lot of marijuana and conversed with the resident spirits.  During the deepening twilight of evening, I danced with my fear of falling and hurting myself by running down rocky paths I could barely see. I listened to the wind and the voices inside, some of which began to feel true and wise. I asked them if I was supposed to be with women. I asked them if I was supposed to be with no one at all, and simply plunge into the solitary life of a sculptor. But the voices told me I was not a hermit and that my real work was with people. They told me that it was time to find my mate. Actually, the voices were quite specific. They told me my mate was a man, and I needed to go to Boulder, Colorado and train with Sensei Hiroshi Ikeda.

I received this information with mixed feelings. Entering into my fear of loneliness had shown me that a solitary life was not near as terrifying as I had imagined. Lonely, yes, but like anything, you get used to it. The desert, both within and without me, revealed many simple pleasures and reaped many small rewards, and it certainly wasn’t complicated. Like the cobalt sky above, I felt clearer about who I was. By practicing saying no when I meant no, I could now trust saying yes. I was learning how to keep and protect my center, like tiny life-sustaining springs I found hidden in the dry wrinkles of desert. But could I maintain my clarity and trust and center while being in the lush confusion of a relationship? I wasn’t at all sure. I recognized that I was being asked to enter into another fear, and I decided to accept the task. Having worked so hard to awaken the voices of my intuition, I didn’t want to deny their counsel. And I am a warrior by nature; I couldn’t resist the challenge. 

So in 1982 I moved to Boulder to train in Ikeda’s fast-paced and rigorous dojo.  Although I often came home with bruises and minor injuries, I was sure the training was doing me a lot of good in that familiar calculus of “no pain, no gain.” But then I met Henry, the man who would become my husband. When I began to be touched by him, softly, without any notion of pain or gain, I became confused about hard training. In subtle ways, I began to resist it, avoid it. I didn’t always bow into to the biggest, toughest guy. I was relieved when I trained with Ikeda’s wife who was trying to get pregnant at the time, and who therefore was training more gently. I began to ask what seemed to be blasphemous questions. If Aikido was about peaceful reconciliation, why did it sometimes feel so brutal? If Aikido was about harmony, why did it feel so contentious, even violent? I felt boxed into a corner, as if I had to choose between lovers—one who was hard and demanding, and one who was gentle and all-embracing.

One evening, Henry came to the dojo to watch me train. For some reason, perhaps because Ikeda sensed that my enthusiasm for hard training was waning, he called on me to uke for him. When Ikeda picked a student to uke for him, you could count on him wiping up the mat with your body for the entire class. He expected his ukes to come at him with everything they had, every time, and it seemed to me that Ikeda threw his ukes down with everything he had, every time. To uke for Ikeda or any advanced instructor carried a certain mystique, as if the master’s skill or knowledge or power were transmitted directly to the uke, even if only for a moment. To keep the transmission going, students would compete with each other to have the honor of training with the uke at the same fast and furious pace; however, this also meant that there was no down time for the uke.

I remember that in that particular class Ikeda demonstrated koshinages, or hip throws. You’ve probably seen some version of koshinage in a martial arts movie. The nage levers his or her hips underneath the attacking uke and tosses the uke off into a dramatic, foundation-shacking high fall. It’s especially effective when you see a smaller person easily throw a big lunk, kind of like slamming a sack of potatoes on the ground. Ikeda was famous for his quick and deadly koshinages. Wham. Get up. Attack him again. Wham. Get up. Attack him again, it didn’t really matter how. Wham. After six, seven, eight of these throws, one after the other in quick succession, I could barely catch my breath, my thighs felt like lumpy pulp, and I could only imagine the rainbow of colors I’d be seeing on my skin later that night. Henry told me later that he could barely control an impulse to jump up from his seat and onto the mat and demand that Ikeda quit manhandling me.

As it turned out, Henry didn’t have to. Not long after that class, I made my choice between hard lover and soft; I chose being touched gently and stopped training altogether.

I don’t want to give the impression that this choice was easy. Anyone who has signed onto the contract of “no pain, no gain” and put in countless hours of hard training knows that tearing up that contract invites an onslaught of internal criticism. In my case, it released a relentless torrent of self-accusatory voices that threatened to expose me as a coward, dilettante, fraud, wuss, and general all-around loser. Although I had taken a hiatus from formal training before when I went to Darwin, this break felt more fundamental, absolute. If I couldn’t make it as a black belt in Ikeda’s dojo, maybe my black belt wasn’t so black. This accusation was serious, and it scared and troubled me.

Ah, another fear to enter. This one took a while, but over time I realized that my fear wasn’t just about facing the condemning charge of fraudulence; this was about allowing myself to become a maverick, possibly an innovator. By breaking with tradition and questioning the rules, especially the “no pain, no gain” rule, I could possibly adapt Aikido to who I needed to be and what I needed to teach. I could take Aikido “off the mat” and let it breathe, change, evolve.[4] The seeds contained in the heart of the problem wanted to sprout and take root, and I let them.

Taking Aikido off the mat reminded me of what I most valued in the art: how the principles serve as a metaphor for life. I soon found myself teaching back-yard “Aikido in daily life” classes. Rather than teaching technique as an end unto itself, I taught my students how to dance with fear and enter into it, how to cultivate their centers and sink their roots deep into the ground, and how to extend their ki into every creative endeavor they chose. We studied how to welcome pressure and embrace conflict. Technique was only a convenient way to get at the marrow of each underlying principle. Becoming a martial artist was no longer the goal. Something else was happening, something that felt more profound and practical. Aikido became a laboratory, a playground to re-member the body, kindle the spirit, engage the mind, reconcile the heart.

In the next few years I married Henry, we moved to Darwin where I continued my sculpture apprenticeship with my uncle Gordon Newell[5], and then left the California deserts so Henry could return to college. I eventually returned to formal Aikido practice, but this time around it was on my terms. I knew better than to naively sign onto “no pain, no gain,” which seemed to me then to be a recipe for allowing and inflicting abuse. In 1993, twelve years after my first black belt test, I finally tested for nidan—a second-degree black belt. Why did I wait so long while most of my fellow shodans had taken their nidan tests as soon as they could? As mentioned earlier, part of that time I had stopped formal training; my Aikido practice was strictly off the mat. During our Darwin years, Aikido was behind every swing of the hammer onto the chisel, every twilight walk, every conflict we newlyweds had to iron out. For many of those years, Henry and I had been trying to conceive a baby; therefore, inflicting hard, percussive pounding on the mat was obviously ill-advised for me. And for much of that time, I had to sift through other people’s agendas to discover what was right for me. Although many of those agendas were well-intentioned, hearing someone else tell me “Kathy, you should test” wasn’t enough to change my internal light to green. I had to wait until I heard that quiet, wise voice inside say “yes, it’s time.”

Even so, the training process for nidan was grueling, and many times I brought to the mat doubt, fear, and tears. On the long drive home on the freeway, sometimes I’d unwisely drink at least two beers, and when I came in the kitchen and saw the dishes unwashed, I’d pick a fight with Henry. It didn’t seem fair that I was trying so hard and punishing myself so much, only to come home and see Henry seemingly letting himself off the hook so easily. We both still had much to learn about avoiding the pitfalls of miscommunication, resentment and blame so common in marriages. We both still had much to gain from practicing Aikido principles within our marriage. Even though that internal green light felt feeble at times, eventually I took my nidan test, and I passed it, even if it wasn’t my finest hour. I can barely stand to watch the video; it looks more like a heavy weight boxing match than the elegance and power I had hoped for in my mind.

Now it’s 2013, twenty years since that nidan test.  In those years, I’ve started up many Aikido classes, both formal and informal. Each student has taught me, shaped, me, and given me a great gift. I’ve also stepped off the mat many times. Actually, I strongly recommend it. While the difference between on the mat and off the mat has become less distinct over the years, the connection has become even more vital. We bring what we learn on the mat into our lives, and we bring what we learn in our lives onto the mat. It’s a two-way gift. It’s what evolves Aikido, molds it to our time and unique predicaments.

Aikido is not restricted to the mat; it is not restricted at all. If we truly practice irimi in our lives—to enter courageously into our fears, needs, passions, problems, and truths—then we embrace the heart of Aikido and find the seeds we need to solve any problem.  

[1] Although it might seem illogical to discuss the hardest principle of Aikido first before discussing any of the other more basic principles, I do so for two reasons: first, irimi lies at the core of Aikido practice, so you might as well know right now what you’re getting into. Second, I believe that many of us have already practiced irimi many times in our lives when we have been challenged to face our deepest fears; the practice is difficult but it will not be unfamiliar.

[2] I will discuss more about the concept of off the line in the chapter on “Circle, Square and Triangle.”

[3] This story is the subject of my memoir Seeing Into Stone: A Sculptor’s Journey.

[4] Traditionalists will no doubt chafe at this idea of allowing Aikido to change and evolve. They will wince at the Americanization of Aikido and wish to keep it pure and protected from pop culture. To some degree I can empathize because I was gung ho on the traditionalist road at one point. But no longer. Being a ronin is way more fun.

[5] The subject of my memoir Seeing Into Stone: A Sculptor’s Journey

1 comments on “Irimi: The eye of the hurricane
  1. kate says:

    I’m already engaged in the process! I would begin with a more powerful statement.” Aikido is a lifelong process”. Then, expound on the core concept. Just a thought.

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