“Beginner’s Lessons” by Mary Stein

The other day while we were warming up at morning practice, the conversation turned to the gloomy economic situation. One of us was out of work, another couldn’t sell his house; anyone with an IRA account had seen it leak thousands. Somebody remarked on the poignancy of hindsight, of seeing too late how a situation might have been handled differently, how one might have noticed something in time, but hadn’t. The atmosphere of the dojo suddenly filled with wistful should-haves, could-have-beens, and ought-to-have beens. Then the warm-up was over and we got down to practice. As blows were aimed and struck, there was the clear recognition that our interests lay in responding to what was needed, just then. We quieted down, and the should-haves evaporated.

When I first started aikido, I had plenty of “should-haves.” I’d think or even say, “Oh, I ought to have done it that way,” and I’d stop the technique and start over. “Try not to stop,“ a senior student advised me. “Just keep going and something will appear.” That seemed like a scary step at the very brink of the unknown, but I took the advice as best I could and was grateful to begin to kick my growing habit of hesitation. The advice “to keep going” pushed me toward watching what actually was happening, and I began to get a bodily sensation of how self-criticism slowed me down and blunted the energetic edge of my movements. “In a real attack, you’d already be dead,” I was told.

A few days later, we’re at practice again, and Ted, a young man who’s been coming for a few weeks, is there. Everything is still new for him, every move a challenge as he tries to handle the complications of where to put his feet and his hands in kotegaeshi or shihonage. He’s frequently “wrong,” and you can read on his face his distress at the challenges crowding him as he is advised on how to move the right side of his body and then tries to apply the lesson on the left. After a while Jimmy Friedman remarks, “People think that when they make a mistake they aren’t learning. But it’s really the opposite of that.”

I’ve been practicing with Ted, not quite able to clarify the technique for him, and feeling that I should have been able to do that better. Jimmy’s words direct me to my own situation. My feet may be in the right place, but I’m holding my breath, just a little, and there’s a tightness in my chest. It’s the lesson in self-awareness that the eternal beginner in me is always in need of. It won’t make me rich, but it cuts right through the “should-haves.”

Mary Stein practices at Suginami Aikikai in San Francisco.


  1. Mortality is inevitable. There are things that are possible, and things which are not. We can take responsibility for the possible and must endure that over which we have no control. Traditional martial arts started with the concept of non-attachment. Yes when we practice a technique, we have to concern ourselves with it. In a free-style, the techniques have to flow without thought. Someday you’re going to lose. Lose your life. Non-attachment applies there too, actually first and last. Getting over regrets about your job, house, IRA are all part of practice, too.

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