Reflections for Shodan
“Reflections for Shodan” by Holly Weir. Prepared for the Weekend Seminar: Takin’ It Like A Man: Troubling Gender in The Martial Art of Aikido. Middlebury College, April 10, 2010. [Copyright: H.D. Weir, April 10, 2010.]
A martial art might seem an unlikely place to cultivate feminine values. But for me it has been the perfect place.
Most of my life I have made a mistake. Without being aware of it until I was an adult, I have tried to prove myself in a culture that predominately values male abilities and strengths by trying to prove myself as equal in those areas.
Let me just say that I know the so-called masculine traits are not the exclusive province of men, any more than the so-called feminine qualities are the sole property of women. But the enculturation and generalizations exist, along with the natural inclination to identify with one or the other according to one’s sex. And, I also want to say, that I love the masculine traits. Physical strength, one-pointed intention, stoicism—all usually ascribed to men—are wonderful. Male energy is a great thing.
But, if you’re female, and these things don’t come as easily to you, and if you ignorantly absorb the message that the holders of these traits are somehow better, it’s a problem. So the first part of my mistake was to believe that the masculine traits are inherently better. The second part of my mistake was to try in so many subtle and not-so-subtle subtle ways to prove myself, by proving that I was an equal holder of these traits. And, the third part of my mistake was to not recognize and utilize the strengths of the so-call feminine traits – and, in doing so, reject them. Receptivity, multi-point awareness, softness, open-heartedness – these I pushed to the back.
About 12 years ago, I briefly played with the practice of Tai Chi push hands. Standing face to face with a partner, in contact with the backs of each other’s wrists at chest height, you use a series of weight shifting movements to try to “uproot” your partner, and to prevent them from uprooting you. I held my arm stiffly and with a lot of muscle tension in my shoulders. But, this didn’t work because I couldn’t as easily feel where my partner was shifting. This made me aware that in my body there was an underlying layer of fear. And that my stance in the world had been created by this subtle fear and that stance was either don’t engage, or engage with a show of preemptive strength, which created a hardness. And the truly profound revelation was that this hardness, this presumed strength didn’t make me safer, because it made it difficult to truly be present to what was going on in that moment.
I came to Aikido because it gave me a joyful way to not only explore this revelation, but a way to experience another possibility. That somewhere between non-engagement and hardened false strength was another place: One of open presence – neither collapse nor aggression. Again and again your partner attacks. Again and again, you have the opportunity to stand at the edge of fear and choose — collapse? Aggression? Or open presence? And in those moments that you are able to choose open presence, there is a profound recognition: That this open presence is an expansive, possibility-filled place. It’s a place I want to spend more of my time. It’s why I practice Aikido.
It was not until I started into the rapids of training for black belt that I made a full connection between this fear-based collapse/aggression dichotomy and my life-long masculine-feminine struggle. Because much, if not all, of that underlying subtle fear was the fear that my attempts to “pass” in the world of masculine values would be unmasked. That I would be revealed to be a girl after all! For various reasons that are unimportant here, I have been practicing Aikido a lot longer than most people who take their black belt test. I had reached a certain comfort level with my practice. Aiming toward a shodan removed this level of comfort, and at the same time “ramped” up the level of attacks I was expected to deal with. So once again I found myself being pushed to the edge of discomfort – which is actually a great place to practice. I have had to come face to face with my reaction if I could not make the technique “work”, (thereby not proving myself in the male arena), or when I felt overpowered by physical strength, which can bring up a more basic aggression. Repeatedly, I have had to see if I could find that place of open-presence, of expansive possibility.
Just as Aikido has given me insight into this life-long masculine/feminine conflict within myself, it has given me the gift of a joyful expression of its resolution: Because true Aikido will always be a balancing of the masculine and the feminine. The necessity of being able to enter in is no more critical that the necessity of being able to receive and blend. Physical strength is no match for a grounded, centered response. At last, instead of thinking that aggressive strength must be met with more strength, the visceral understanding that strength met with receptivity can be strength transformed has given me glimpses of an embodied knowledge, far deeper than an intellectual idea. It has proven to me that the traits that I have eschewed for fear of being seen as a weak female need to be embraced. In doing so, I feel more at home within myself, and more at home in the world.