by Lisa Turner
I had it all figured out. I was a brown-white belt, and it was my last chance to early promote: to skip a chunk of training and test early for my next belt. For me, that meant the "danger belt," the both coveted and feared solid brown belt that would grant me the dubious honor of being randomly mauled without warning or provocation.
So I announced to my teachers my request for early promotion. I was confident in my abilities to do so. I knew my kata, I understood the concepts in brown-white. I was quite sure I "got it," had it all figured out.
For the next two weeks, I went to one or two classes or seminars a day, every day. I spent hours defending against stomp-kicks and hook punches, grappling on the ground, wiggling out of chokes. Every day for two weeks I stood in line at the end of class and waited for my red stripe. Every day, they passed me by.
My confidence began to lag, and I became acutely aware of being observed during free response. I found my limbs and torso at odds with my brain. The moment a fist came up or a foot swung out, my defenses, all the kata I knew so well, flew from my brain like wild birds from a cage.
I asked "What am I doing wrong?" My teachers said "You're muscling through the kata. Use your natural power, not muscle."
Oh, okay! I get it! I trotted happily out of the dojo and mulled over "natural power" for the rest of the day. I applied it to my life: to ego-wielding business associates and discourteous drivers and unruly children who knocked over houseplants and glasses of juice. I didn't have to use muscle against these! I just had to use "natural power"!
Yeah, you're right. That was too easy.
So at the next class, during free response, I thought "natural power natural power natural power." The kicks and strikes came. My brain thought "natural power," but my limbs flailed and lashed. After class, I stood in line and waited for my red stripe. They passed me by.
I left the mat, almost in tears, overwhelmed with anger and frustration. I had this all figured out! I had worked so hard! I wailed, barely able to contain myself, "What am I doing wrong?" My teachers said, "You freeze. When you come up against a problem, you get stuck. You stop moving. Then you get mad at the problem."
Holy crap. That, I got. It was like a key in a lock; the tumblers fell into place and the door swung wide. This revelation, of course, wasn't just about my training. It was about my life. Images flashed before my eyes as that graceful truth settled like a cool, silk blanket over deep and difficult events from my past, small annoyances from my daily life. I burst into tears and, at that moment, something inside me came unstuck.
Here's the thing: life isn't tidy. It's not predictable, or controllable. At the end of it all, it's not neatly stacked and bound sheaf of paper; it's a tear-stained journal with dog-eared pages. Neither is life to be mastered, or figured out, or wrestled to the ground. It's to be experienced, to be danced, messy and chaotic and downright ugly as it sometimes is. And it's the same with this path.
My teachers also said "You're trying so hard in free response, you're forgetting to enjoy it." I heard that. For me, the lesson was: just stop. Trying. So. Hard. Stop muscling, and efforting. The point of ninjutsu, really, is to be effortless.
In the next class, as the strikes came, I kept moving. When I got momentarily stuck, I took a deep breath. I quietly and gently started to unravel, edges softening, hardness melting. I felt my natural power—for me, that meant my center, my intuition, my place in space—and I just kept moving. And yes, you're right: those lessons apply to life. Move from your center, without effort; if you get stuck, breath and keep moving.
After class, I stood in line and waited for my red stripe. Which I got.
That was fun, but that wasn't the point. For me, the point was the lessons I got on the way (though I'm mighty excited to be randomly mauled without warning or provocation). And when I am, I think I'll just breath and keep moving.
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