How the Body Reveals Habit Nature

I wrote two essays that were published in my book, Water Shed: Aikido Tanka back in 2004.  In re-reading both today, I see how much is still true within that writing.  Often what we’re working on just keeps showing up, doesn’t it?  Maybe in differing guises and in varying strengths, but nevertheless, present.

What brought me to this path of learning through the body, affecting change through the body, and writing with and through the body is meeting a teacher who has an unusual way of seeing and reading the body.  It was through his observations and assessments on the aikido mats that I came to experience aikido as an art of body-centered learning, knowing, and transformation.  I’d always felt it was that way, but none of my teachers had spoken of it in this manner until I met Robert Nadeau Sensei.  A long time ago.

He was teaching an aikido class and I was mirroring (or so I thought) a technique that he had just shown that was really very basic.  My partner was opposite me, both in our hanmi stance, and I was practicing the technique over and over as one does in aikido.  Nadeau Sensei approached and stood in the place of my partner and asked me to do the technique with him.  I did what I’d been doing and he stood back, looked me in the eyes and said: “Yeah, that’s right. I thought I saw that.At which point he slapped my biceps and said: “You don’t need them!  You must think  you have to work very hard to get anything done in your life.”

I was stunned.  What he said resonated deeply.  The simple technique I was attempting to execute was not working because I was using my biceps.  I was fighting rather than accepting.  I was using effort rather than feeling the energy of my partner, accepting it into me, redirecting it.  The technique was not working at all.  The more I allowed myself to relax in my whole body and to drop my attention into my belly rather than tensing in my biceps, the more the technique began to flow, the more responsive my partner became. 

Basil & The Habit of EffortBut this exploration did not end there on the mats.  Once I left the dojo and returned to my daily life I began to notice all the ways of my effort.  In the oddest of circumstances, I was applying effort.  Making pesto, for example, I noted how intense I was being as I plucked the leaves of basil from their stems, as if I were pulling a massive tree up by its roots for all the strained energy I was putting into it.  And I decided to let that go.  I decided that this habit of effort had been around so very long and I really didn’t need it to stick around any longer.  

As I write this I remember how crucial it was to have a teacher who could see what I could not see.  What was so clear to him was deeply embedded in my psyche, invisible to me.  There on the mats I got to see how it wasn’t working.  How he helped me see was twofold:  he whacked me, which I swear woke something up in me (I’m not advocating whacking—it’s just that in this case I think it was needed!); and he said something to me that was both true and also stunned me.  Of course, I had always thought I had to work very hard to get anything done in my life.  I did not know another way.  But in that moment of the whack and his statement, I saw my habit.  Not only did I see it, I felt it and I understood that I was holding onto a belief that I held to be sacrosanct, that I didn’t even see, that I assumed was true.  And it wasn’t.

And then I took that awareness into my life.  I brought it home with me.  I brought it to work with me.  I brought it everywhere.  And I began to see all the ways of my effort.  And I knew that I did not want to keep living this way.  So I started to intervene with this habit.  Over and over again, as on the aikido mats, I practiced doing something else.  I breathed.  I laughed.  I said: “Wow, I’m so serious here with these basil leaves, maybe I could let up on myself a bit and see if the leaves come off the stems just as readily,” which of course they did.  And I could settle within myself more and just pluck away, without strain.  What this allowed, of course, was more space within me, which in turn allowed me to look out the window at the incredible view of fields and mountains and to feel myself landed here, a part of this place I live in.  

This is a good example, I think, of what Richard Strozzi-Heckler names as: “Awareness leads to choice.”  It also attests to the power of a good teacher or coach to help us to see what we cannot.  And also to the power of learning through the body.  That habit of effort had been around for decades and it was only when it showed up in such a clear, distinct and undeniable way—through the body—that I could see it and find ways to shift it.  

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