“Open-ended and Hopeful” by Mary Stein

Recently I spent time with a friend who had become fascinated by Dante’s Inferno. He described some of the memorable characters that Dante writes of meeting on his visit to Hell—characters who were stuck for eternity in the misery of physical and emotional attitudes they had created for themselves in life. My friend mentioned one in particular, Farinata, whose body is shown rising just halfway out of his tomb—stiff, erect, pridefully aristocratic, fiercely contemptuous of hell itself. It was one of those striking physical images that linger on. Later I remembered a figure from the underworld of the ancient Greeks—Tantalus, last seen grasping desperately for the figs and pomegranates that eternally elude his grasp.

My own attitudes and gestures in aikido and elsewhere came to mind, and I thought about how we get a chance while on the mat to observe and endure our habits and attitudes, at the same time that we explore the new possibilities that aikido offers. There’s a hopeful open-ended feeling about the way this art keeps showing me my conditioning. On the mat there’s a chance for the kind of revelation that invites reconsideration and possible change–or at least the chance to lay down some new neural paths before a gesture gets completely fixed.

Grabs—katate-dori, kata-dori, etc.—when the hand reaches out to take hold of my partner’s wrist or shoulder—can show me where I am in myself just now. Depending on the person I’m grabbing, all that stuff about graciously “giving my energy” to nage can fly right out the window . Particularly if my partner is somebody I think of as bigger and stronger than I am, I’m likely to find myself leaning forward and/or pulling back, pressing down, gripping, insisting on holding on. If my partner turns to join me in tenkan, he can easily break my grip, even if he is only interested in connecting and extending.

And then I can remember another way I have practiced, maybe only yesterday. There’s room to see the way I am just now, to accept it and give it space. And there’s also room to remember an ideal that aikido has shown me—that there’s another way, without tensely grasping, without clutching, to reach out and hold the other.

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

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