“Just Passing Through” by Mary Stein

The other morning, as we began to practice, James suggested that we just meet the shomenuchi strike to the head and simply move beyond it. Demonstrating, he raised his arm at the same time as the attacker did, moved forward to meet the strike, and then walked past him, departing the scene. So we tried that for awhile, just striking and passing each other like the proverbial ships in the night.

As I tried walking away like that, the whole “have-to-do-something about it” situation became clear, then dropped away. It came home to me once again that aikido, with its side-steps and slides and turns, gives me flexibility of response—indeed the opportunity to choose not to engage at all; I can just leave. There are many issues to ponder here, of course. Much of the time it may be that I can’t just walk away but need to engage in a situation. If that’s the case, aikido gives me a model of receiving, blending and moving with my partner in a new direction. And yet even then it seems to useful to be aware of the tensions tied up in needing to “do something about it,” which that exercise of just walking away from an encounter made clear.

It has taken me many years to rehearse this sort of thing with a family member who is a Christian of the fundamentalist persuasion. Early in our relationship I discovered that I was listed in his church’s Sunday bulletin as being in spiritual peril and in need of the congregation’s prayers. I couldn’t get my head around that sort of description, and for years I fell into arguments with him about his insistence on a literal interpretation of the Bible. Gradually I realized that not only did he not listen to my rebuttals, but I wasn’t listening to him very well either: I was too busy being indignant about his opinions and perhaps a bit dogmatic myself.

Over the years things have changed between us. There haven’t been any big victories, but I’ve learned to recognize when my body is tightening up at his opinions, much as I’ve learned to watch for that in meeting an attack on the mat. When something in me tensely insists that I “should” do something about the situation, I’ve learned (sometimes, anyway) that this only brings on more tension.

The answers aren’t all in words, and there’s more to both of us than our opinions, which come and go and change. Over the years we’ve both learned to look outside the box of stuff we’ll never agree on and see what else is there. I’ve come to realize how much he cares about people, particularly his students at the school where he teaches, and as a teacher I can find common ground with him on that. He practices tai chi, so he knows about being centered, and aikido has taught me something about that. He makes a powerful chicken soup which he brings me when I have the flu, and I try to do something special for his birthday.

Both my relative and I have learned to recognize better the difference between what is essential, arising from the heart, and what are extraneous opinions, gestures and poses—like that imitative foot-dangle I find myself doing in unthinking imitation of a teacher, or like the verbal formulations both of us still sometimes fall into. Aikido has helped, with its way of showing what is essential and non-essential, within the larger framework of two people moving together—or moving apart, for that matter, realizing that they don’t always have to engage.

Mary Stein practices aikido at Suginami Aikikai in San Francisco. Her book The Gift of Danger will be published by North Atlantic Books August 25.


  1. Half my family is Mormon. They’ll get me with a post-mortem baptism and deal with my belief system in the afterlife. Confident in that prospect, they’re pretty easy to get along with.

    As for the shomen uchi issue. I like starting with a arms-crossed-over-head block. Good shomen uchi practice for uke. Not bad practice for nage, either. Getting hit isn’t necessarily the end of life as we know it. After taking a few hits, it becomes pretty apparent when to drop the arms and enter.

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