No Thinking on the Mat, Please


(Those of you familiar with Aikido already know this isn’t going to end well.)

Random stuff popped in and out of my mind as we loosened up on the mat; important stuff like how hot it was in the gym, where to get ice cream after class, whether my hurt shoulder was going to hold up. Then out of nowhere came an actual worthwhile thought – that I needed to stop thinking.

I once heard the story in class about the student who wanted to train with a great master and was invited to tea. When they were seated, the master poured tea into the student’s cup, and continued to pour even when the tea reached the rim and spilled over. The student asked him to stop because his cup was full. “Yes, I know,” the master said. “Please come back when your cup is empty.” [1]  In other words, a mind already occupied with other thoughts is not prepared to receive Aikido.

So I cleared my mind and did my best to focus on what was happening at each moment. All went well through our practice of basic movements and breakfalls, and the buki techniques (when a sword strike is headed your way, one tends to pay attention). Then Sensei called me up as Uke to demonstrate a throwing technique.

Definitely not the time to be pondering Moose Tracks vs. Cappuccino Crunch.
Definitely not the time to be pondering Moose Tracks vs. Cappuccino Crunch.

I enjoy being the demo Uke but I’m always a bit apprehensive about it. I don’t know which technique I’m helping demonstrate until Sensei announces it. Then I do my best to follow his lead and hope I don’t screw up too badly. I’m told everyone makes mistakes doing this, but as far as I know I’m the only one who’s been dragged entirely off the mat – twice – before figuring out I was supposed to slide flat. But this time, Sensei announced a 4th Kyu reverse hand throw, and I relaxed a bit. I knew this one. [2]

I remember when triple cones were 59 cents at Baskin-Robbins.
Remember when triple cones were 59 cents at Baskin-Robbins?

I grabbed his wrist and he led me around in a pivot, then raised my arm and ducked under. So far, so good. I then prepared for his next move – which was at least a triple mistake. First and foremost, Uke should never “anticipate” Shite’s move, but stay focused on the moment and follow his lead. Failing that, I also prepared for the wrong move, and turned my attention away from him slightly. So I didn’t see his approaching fist (the next move being an uppercut punch) and thus didn’t block it. I was able to continue the demo and finish class (and I’m fine now), but let’s just say it was a bit challenging to chew my dinner that night.

So even after I’d reminded myself to empty my mind, I started thinking again – and paid the price. The irony is that I go to evening Aikido classes to do just that – to clear away a long, fatiguing day at work and just train, which refreshes my body and mind. But to do that well takes practice, just like any physical technique. This not thinking isn’t easy!


[1] This story is also found in Advanced Aikido by Phong Thong Dang.

[2]  Sensei has also often said you’re headed for trouble when you think, “Oh, I know this one…”

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