by Owen Lawther
5th Kyu

In Zen the concept of ‘beginners mind’ (shoshin) comes up frequently, be it the teachings of Dogen, Shunryu Suzuki or Tich Naht Hanh. Shortly after starting Aikido, my Teacher (Sensei) lauded the concept in training (keiko): “you must have beginners mind, you must.” Aha! Here was an advantage I had over the high grades. As a novice I authentically possessed a beginner’s mind. That was where the advantage ended.

First Keiko

Upon arrival I feel underprepared and out of place, the others are all dressed in white robes, some with black. I’m dressed in joggers and a t-shirt, introduce myself and say I spoke to Tom on the phone. Someone looks somewhat taken aback – what did I say wrong? Oh yes, somebody interjects, sensei isn’t here tonight. Mats that fit together like Lego make up one large mat, covering most of the floor – I count them, 49. At the front of the hall is an altar of sorts, upon which rests a photo of a Japanese man, a sword, and several other ritualistic-looking things. The students that filter in have two wooden weapons, one clearly a sword, the other resembling a broom handle. Slowly, as more students filter in from the back, they invariably undertake the same action: walk to the edge of the mat, lay down the weapons, take off their flip-flops and step cleanly upon the mat. Once on the mat, they bow toward the Japanese man in the photo. I’m unsure what to do. Thankfully a man comes over and introduces himself and says that I should take a seat and that he’ll get me to join at some point during the night. For now, I observe.

Second Keiko

It is apparent that Japanese terms are used instead of English. I love languages, but Asian languages, with their tonal inflexes and unrecognisable scripts, are difficult. I learn the photo is of O-Sensei, founding father of Aikido. There is a great deal of etiquette in Aikido. Sensei appears tonight and there is a respect and reverence simmering I’ve not yet witnessed. He says nothing to me – he won’t for at least 3 months – but performs techniques seemingly with no effort upon what must be the strongest member of the Keiko and brushes him down with ease. I practice with other beginners at a slow pace, trying to understand just some of the foundations. I create a T-like shape with my feet whilst turning to face an opponent to ensure a ‘small body’ shape.

First Sword Practice

Holding the bokken and jo, for I discover this is what the wooden weapons are called, I feel a responsibility in the fact that I’m about to practice with someone – I don’t want to hit them. Just holding the sword is a practice, the knuckles align with the top of the handle whilst certain parts of the hand maintain the hold. This will take months to grasp. I learn that sword practice (bukiwaza) is fundamental in Aikido. Every movement in hand-combat relates to a sword movement: the two are one and the same. The relative and the worldly.

Keiko at 3 Months

The concept of break falling (ukemi) is introduced and the idea scares me. When you’ve spent a lifetime avoiding falling, doing so with intention is naturally frightful. It’s been years since I’ve done a forward roll! We start at a low height and still I manage to land on my back. I land on my back countless times. After a few more months I manage to do a break fall that feels right. The joy in this small bit of progress encapsulates Aikido progression. I then fall on my back again.

Keiko at 6 Months

There are many pieces of information to absorb yet at the same time the emphasis is on not thinking, being intuitive. Each opponent is built differently, and important in Aikido is the need to adjust the technique depending on stature. Whilst I understand this intellectually, I feel no closer to realising it in my practice. I observe the high grades perform a technique and assure myself I can replicate it, only to forget entirely what was performed.

Sword Practice at 6 Months

It is remarkable how Aikido brings attention upon muscles which you’ve previously used in a limited fashion. Everyone seems to have such strong wrists. This however is not solely from sword practice: there is no need to lift the sword, one pushes with the left hand and the raising act gradually becomes natural, making the repetitive cuts (suburi) somewhat less tiring. My hands hurt from the ringing act upon the completion of a cut.

Keiko at 9 Months

At times I feel like I’m making but no progress, can one still be a beginner after 10 years? Either way, this is not why I’ve chosen the practice: I practice because I practice. Yet there are small improvements, I feel more grounded in my posture, my breath. I remember to protect my head most of the time. I remember small body. Yet each time I feel like I’m getting to grips with certain aspects, I learn of more. The importance of strikes (atemi) cannot be underestimated.

Sword Practice One Year On

The drill routines of Mann Sensei are exhausting and somewhat hypnotic. Perhaps I’ve still not got the technique correct, or perhaps they are just naturally tiring. The bokken and jo techniques are a form of choreography. In neuroplasticity studies, those who perform similar neural tasks - in this case, say dancing - will find it easier to process complex movements. Having not had dancing lessons, this is the justification I give myself for being slow in realising a technique.

Keiko One Year On

Aikido is an art. At tonight’s session, Sensei speaks of foot-work, hips, distance, and more. I try and remember all aspects but when it comes to practice my mind again goes blank: I’m reminded of the fact that I still have authentic beginners mind. Aikido progress is slow, even just understanding the etiquette takes time, but there’s a beauty in the dedication and discipline exhibited by those practicing. It is not all seriousness, there is joy and humour in the practice too. Namely in my case at oneself forgetting the technique endlessly. However, one day perhaps I’ll be complacent and won’t have an authentic beginners mind. I’ll have to remind myself of this teaching. For now, I still have that advantage over the high grades.