Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Center of Gravity

Ever since my son Colin was born in 2010, I’ve had more than one conversation and done a lot of thinking about blending. That is the common joke among Aikido practitioners, and we’ve even had a semi-famous Awase article about it: how to blend with baby. A new parent must relearn everything about themselves— when they eat, how long they sleep, and most importantly, how to physically handle this tiny, frail, messy new human that is so completely dependent. The new parent needs to hone their awareness, so that assessing the situation with the baby at any given time is as unconscious and reflexive as breathing.

Just as with Aikido, everyone will approach their growth as a parent differently, under their own terms. As for me, I actually didn’t see this process as blending at all. It was more like ukemi. Colin was an extraordinarily even-tempered baby, but like any baby, he was an implacable, immovable force. There was no redirecting him. There was no taking control of the situation from him. There was no avoiding, no retreating, no realigning. He needed what he needed, and my job was to give it to him. Resistance was not an option, and though I conceivably could accept his demands in such a way that I stayed on my previous trajectory (in other words, preserving the way I was accustomed to living my life and the person I was before he came into the world), that would only put me right back where I started. The handful of occasions when I attempted this, or resisted and let my aggravation show, would do nothing productive at best and actually frighten him at worst. He had no way of distinguishing “Daddy is sleep-deprived” from “Daddy hates me and is preparing to devour me.”

Instead, I learned to take the fall. What’s the worst thing that could happen to me? I lose a few hours of sleep, and have to focus more on my wife and child than on myself? That doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. I’m fully capable of doing that and coming out the other side unscathed, if I let go and roll with it. In fact, just as I usually rise from the mat after a particularly fast or spectacular fall with a smile on my face, I’m finding I rather enjoy this transformative process.

The blending comes later, I’ve found, at least with the nuts-and-bolts process of raising a child. Colin is two years old now, and has opinions. Many opinions. About a staggering array of things. So, now I get the chance to blend, redirect, distract, and retake the center. I have that useful ukemi experience, too, so the occasional kaeshi waza (temper tantrum becomes acceptance of a new option!) or henka waza (naptime has definitely and unexpectedly arrived; change of plan!) will even appear out of all this blending.

Through this process, I’m finding that blending with baby is a more subtle thing than merely adapting to the needs of a child. It’s adapting to the person I have become while accommodating those needs. As I mentioned, Colin is old enough to understand what is going on around him, accurately express his desires, and ask plenty of questions. One of those questions is often this: “Daddy home?”

All of that work towards building a harmonious relationship with my shiny new nage has had a very nice payoff: the little guy likes me a great deal, almost as much as I like him. So when I’m not home playing and spending time with him, he notices. He wants to know when I’m going to show up.

This is where the blending truly happens: negotiating the one-way trip into being part of a family. I did this once before, when I married and became part of a whole. But as I’ve mentioned, parenting requires much more figurative ukemi, and therefore much more compromise. This is another theme that often shows up in the Aikido community: how does a dedicated student of the art balance budo with work, family, and other life obligations?

My priorities have always been set with family at the top of the list, but having a child reinforces those priorities with resounding finality. A parent who is anything close to a decent, functioning person cannot help but make their son(s) or daughter(s) the most important thing in their life. And so, where does that leave everything else? Work is necessary, since it allows you to provide for yourself and your family. In an economic climate where being a public servant like me means understaffing, increasing workloads, decreasing pay, and demanding schedules, there isn’t much room for negotiation. Becoming a parent also doesn’t erase one’s role as a husband, wife, or significant other. So, what is left for the self? With the scant remaining time and energy the parent of a small child has, how do they choose to improve themselves, or do something they enjoy, or simply find a quiet space in which to recharge?

When new Aikido students are finding their footing on the mat, we teach them to blend, because blending is one of the fundamental concepts of Aikido. The most important aspect of blending, in my opinion, is keeping within one’s own center of gravity. We stress this concept often, as well: balance. Don’t lean too far forward. Don’t retreat too far back. Don’t draw up too far off the ground. Otherwise, it won’t take much to have your feet swept out from under you. Being aware of and in tune with your center of gravity is what gives you a chance to blend with an attacker in the first place.

I have had to rediscover my center of gravity over the past year. For a while, I found myself tense and resistant.

I had a training schedule that I had grown accustomed to!

I don’t want to fall behind, and let down Sensei, or my sempai, or my kohai, or myself!

Aikido is important to me, so I will continue to train as always have, as if nothing has changed!

I was in danger of pushing my weight too far forward, too intent on my own line and not aware of what was beside me or behind me. One little push, one unexpected change, and something would give— my family, my work, my peace of mind. Besides, that mindset is dangerously close to a competitive one. It’s healthy to set a standard for oneself and strive to live up to expectations, but I found myself worrying about very specific things: training day totals, and speed of rank advancement. I don’t do Aikido to compete with others. I can turn on my Xbox if I want to do that.

So the natural reaction to that realization is to heave back in the other direction. Maybe I need a break. Maybe it’s time to quit until Colin gets older. Maybe I’m too spent, too tired, too frazzled, and need to spend what free time I have doing something less demanding. Retreat, lean back, retreat, lean back.

This is not to say that, sometimes, such a reaction may be warranted. People do need a rest, sometimes. I routinely take one when I’m sick or slightly injured. Sometimes life does intervene to the point where one must take an extended break, or even quit Aikido entirely, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But that isn’t where I was, not yet. I was panicking, and rationalizing the act of giving up all of the work I had done as if it were the only alternative. The atemi caught me by surprise, and I was losing my balance.

So I have been working on my stance. And as we all know, sometimes that isn’t as simple as just shifting or taking a single step and then, like magic, you’re perfectly aligned. Often, you have to take more than one step, and make a series of minute adjustments, before you find yourself back in a stable, secure hanmi. I train when I can. I endeavor to be on the mat no less than once a week, when time allows. While on the mat, I keep complete focus, and train as intensely and wholeheartedly as I can, since that time is newly precious. I train off the mat when I can, as well, occasionally physically, usually mentally. I have let go of my anxiety about meeting quotas, fulfilling requirements, and keeping my place in line. If adjustments need to be made, one way or another, then I make them and then examine how tenable the new situation is. No second-guessing, and no over-thinking. I know what my priorities are, and I know how to find my center of gravity.

Perseverance is part of our dojo’s motto, and is represented within our logo. I have found in my time training in Aikido that I progress best when, every year or so, I find something specific to focus on and refine. This coming year, it is this: perseverance. I will persevere in my training, and trust that I will know what that means just as reflexively and unconsciously as I breathe, or as I find my center of gravity again when I feel it slipping away. And by doing this— by blending with baby, and with everything else— I am starting to learn an important lesson that I will one day be able to pass on to Colin, once he is ready to learn it.

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