Isogaba maware. 急がば回れ. When in a hurry, take the roundabout route.
by Kara L. Stewart
(This essay was written as a requirement for Nidan (second-degree black belt) test, November 2012.)
“You’re on a plateau,” said Blevins Sensei, as we stood outside the dojo before class one Friday night. “Yeah, it’s not a straight line and you’re making some progress because you’re a diligent student, but it’s still a plateau.”
He added, “You need to figure out how to move beyond where you are to get to your next level.”
This was not the answer I’d expected when I asked for my Sensei’s thoughts on how I could have more presence on the mat and bring my Aikido closer to his level. Even though I’ve only been practicing a fraction of the time he has, that is the goal I have: that my Aikido be as strong, clean, correct, and powerful as his. I want to carry on his lineage and share with others what he has shown me these past several years.
Plus, since I got a late start in my practice, I have this continual voice whispering that life is short and I don’t have a lot of time. I want to improve as quickly as I can because I may not have the luxury of decades of hard practice ahead of me. So every class, that’s my mindset—to do all I can to bring my Aikido to higher levels. That’s why I asked the question in the first place.
As I drove home after class that night, I examined my thoughts and feelings about what he’d shared with me. His answer had surprised me—or maybe it surprised my ego, which in turn surprised me; I thought I’d done a lot of ego polishing the past few years.
But honestly, I thought he’d acknowledge my hard work in every class and recognize my focus and intensity, and then give me concrete pointers on specific techniques and how to better use my lower center to my advantage.
But that isn’t what he said. Like all great teachers, he didn’t let me off the hook. Instead, he shone a light on reality and opened the door. It was decision time. It was up to me.
Was I going to listen, really listen, to what he’d just shared with me and choose the hard path—to consciously make changes and move out of my comfort zone (considering that my practice has never been comfortable) and continue up the mountain? Or would I choose the same path, accepting good enough as good enough, and be satisfied with getting the same results?
As I started thinking about how to move beyond this plateau, it occurred to me that plateaus are a symptom of a larger issue. There can be countless reasons for a plateau. Not training frequently enough, hard enough, or intensely enough are just a few reasons for plateaus, as well as taking a lazy or lackadaisical approach to training—such as just showing up and going through the motions, being content to drift toward improvement rather than work consciously toward it, or believing that one is proficient already and there’s nothing to improve.
The problem I was having, however, was reconciling the typical causes of plateaus with my perception of my practice. I rarely missed class, so it wasn’t lack of frequency. I left most every class with my gi drenched in sweat, so it wasn’t a lack of intensity. And I focused so hard most classes I felt my head would explode, so it wasn’t a lack of dedication.
So if I believed I wasn’t slacking off and felt I left it all on the mat, what on earth could I change? If I thought I was already doing all I could to consciously push myself toward improvement, what could I do differently?
I felt frustration rising inside me, although I knew that frustration had zero place in my practice and would only hinder progress. Still I wrestled with my perception of how I practiced and the seeming unfairness that doing everything I knew to bring a sharp uptick to my progress just wasn’t working…at least not as quickly as I wanted it to work.
Ok. Time to breathe.
I trust implicitly my Sensei’s advice and input, so I accepted the reality that I was on a plateau. I could see that there had been gradual upward progress because of the hours I spent on the mat, but it was still a plateau. I owned that. Now, what could I do to move beyond it?
After a few minutes of thought, I had my answer. I would do the only thing I knew how to do: practice even harder. While I thought I was at my highest limit of intensity, I knew there must be another layer of intensity I could access. There always is.
Through all my years as a student, from kindergarten through graduate school, studying hard was something I knew how to do. I knew how to push through the pain, how to suck it up and focus on the long-term goal, how not to give in to the agony of the moment. No surprise, then, that I brought this approach to my Aikido practice. It was my default, my go-to solution for most any challenge.
I asked my Sempai Les-san for help with my ukemi, because Aikidoka with the best ukemi have the best techniques, as Blevins Sensei has shown us. Les-san threw me in breakfalls after every class for months, increasing the difficulty of the throws over time.
And I focused even harder in class. I don’t think I smiled very much. After all, my practice was the most important thing to me, and I was going to do everything I could think of to gain another leap of improvement like I’d experienced before.
I saw some positive changes. My ukemi was improving and I felt my martial spirit was synching up on the outside with what I felt on the inside. But the harder and harder I pushed, the more I had to squelch the feeling of frustration that the resulting progress was not matching up with the level of effort I felt I was expending.
My ego consoled me by saying that of course progress now would be incremental instead of measured by feet or yards, and of course now progress would be smaller and take longer to see, but I knew this was just my ego making excuses to make me feel better.
For a few more months, I pushed. I made progress, but not enough to satisfy me. I pushed more.
Until one day, about six months later, I…simply…stopped…pushing. Like Forest Gump when he came to the end of his cross-country jog, it was simply time to stop running. Forest stopped, turned around, and walked off in the opposite direction. I thought that might be a good idea, too.
The day I stopped pushing, I realized something. My push for improvement meant that I was so busy mentally and so loud internally that I had little chance to hear the tips that Sensei was offering or to feel his technique through my ukemi when he was working with me. I recognized that while I thought I was listening with utmost intent, my mind was too loud to truly take it in.
I was also pushing in other areas of my life, juggling my full-time job with my freelance business and home-improvement projects. All this translated to little sleep and, now that I look back, chronic exhaustion.
It dawned on me that by continuing to push for improvement, I was forcing something that could not be forced. I was essentially the kid in the front row of class, shouting the wrong answer, louder and louder, over and over, with the belief that shouting would make it the right answer. Instead of quieting down, listening to the question, and giving a thoughtful response, I’d been living Einstein’s definition of insanity—doing the same thing over and over in class and expecting a different outcome—and I hadn’t even noticed.
When I stopped pushing, I began listening to the voice that gently suggested that if shouting the wrong answer wasn’t making it correct, and if pushing wasn’t creating progress, then maybe something else might work better. Perhaps a completely different approach would have a better outcome. After all, as I’d seen, more of the same certainly wasn’t getting me where I wanted to be in my Aikido.
So I did my best to try an opposite approach. Instead of relying on my brain, I started listening to my body—feeling Aikido instead of thinking it. When I started staying in my body, things started to click. Letting go of pushing toward an outcome seemed to create space for changes to enter in.
They were small changes at first, but noticeable. The quieter I was mentally, the better I heard Sensei’s instruction and felt the nuances of his techniques. And the more rested I was, the quieter I could be.
During class, when my center went back up to my head and my brain engaged, I found that I’d miss things, forget things, or hear incorrectly. I challenged myself to stay as present as long as possible in each class, and continually let go of the default to try harder when something wasn’t going the way I perceived it should go.
By now, I’ve seen enough changes to know that this approach is working for me. It’s the route that will help me improve and allow my Aikido to go as far as it can. But it’s also a conscious (and more difficult) choice to stay present instead of defaulting back to a too-busy, too-loud mind. It’s something I’m now aware of all the time.
I also have learned that this tendency to push as a reaction to challenge was installed in me a very long time ago and I have to be on the lookout lest it reappear. During the next plateau, I’ll know that a different outcome will require a different approach, not shouting more of the same incorrect answer.
During this struggle, I shared with a friend my self-protective approach to life: to paddle hard to keep my boat upright in the rough seas of life. He had a different outlook, though, and I like his a lot better. Maybe you don’t have to paddle all the time, he suggested. Sometimes it’s OK to simply float down the river, working with the current and blending with where it’s taking you instead of constantly paddling against it. In short… not pushing.
So now before class, I take a few minutes and sit. I let go of the day, let go of expectations and outcomes, let go of what I learned in yesterday’s class. Then I bow in and do my best to stay present, stay quiet, stay centered, ready to listen and receive what Sensei is presenting. When my brain wants to kick in, I come back to center, again and again. When I stay in my body, I start seeing instead of looking and listening instead of hearing. I start paying attention—really paying attention—to the small details that result in the bigger picture coming into focus.
And of course, I still practice as hard as I can and my gi is still soaked at the end of most classes, but somehow letting go of the pushing has allowed space for more layers of learning. I also know that there are many miles to go on this journey, and I will never “get there,” but that’s part of the joy of practice and continuing to learn, layer by layer.
Thank you, Sensei, for helping me clear my cache so I could start seeing with fresh eyes and listening with an open mind, working with what presents itself right here, right now, on this tatami.