MIDLIFE comes to me in magnificent ways.
In 2008, when I was 49 going on 50, I entered midlife and marveled at its many tantalizing possibilities. It was a time of integration, a time to make changes.
On a lazy day in March that year, I jotted down new things to do, spontaneous ideas that on later examination might have come from wishful thinking, a sense of adventure or unfinished business. ?Enrol in a fresh college course.? ?Join a choir.? ?Wushu.? ?Ballet.? ?Study new technology.? ?Jazz,? ?Pencak Silat.? ?Aikido.? ?Write a romance novel.? ?Join a poetry writing workshop.? I wrote down these ideas on loose pieces of paper and rolled them up.
As in a lottery, I gathered them inside a cube basket and drew one out. Whatever I picked, I thought, would be destiny?s choice for me, a gift of heaven at a time when I am like a half-moon rising.
?Aikido,? the paper read. I was confounded by my own choice. Why aikido?
It was the farthest idea from my mind, the last that I expected to get. I am not particularly keen about Japanese stuff. I would have loved to go back to ballet, to continue my aborted jazz classes, to return to creative writing. I really wanted to learn wushu because of its affinity to dance, and was excited to study pencak silat because of its similarity to our very own silat martial arts traditions. Joining a choir should be fun and very challenging with my limited voice range. And who does not need to study new technology to be able to cope well with the digital age?
Given the enticing prospects of other alternative choices, should I accept aikido?
Well, maybe I thought, the gods have other plans for me, although heeding this ?divine plan? was a leap into the unknown. I asked around where I could attend an aikido class until I finally found the dojo, or the practice area, that was most accessible to me.
So at the Philippine Heart Center, on a rainy April day in 2008, I observed and tried out aikido. Clad in brown jazz pants and a workout top, I felt like a misfit in a sea of white outfits worn by some 30 aikido practitioners, aged 5 to 55. Most were children and men. Later, I learned that this was the earlier class intended for children, but open to anybody who wished to join. There was a class for adults at around 7 p.m. when all the seasoned aikido members practice. I could join all or any of the two classes every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday plus another class every Saturday night, for P500. Then I was given a two-page handout with a series of strange Japanese terms that, I was assured, I didn?t have to memorize. I smiled to myself, this was truly a gift.
In the beginning, no one among my family and friends knew that I had joined an aikido class. It was just a pact with myself, and I thought it would be easier to withdraw with not much explaining to do if fewer people knew about it. However, the moment sensei Crispin Buenaseda announced my name and welcomed me into the dojo, the warm applause made me feel like I was with a new family.
To become a student once more is exciting: it meant exploring unchartered territory, learning new things, discarding extraneous knowledge, starting from zero. Humility, with a dash of self-deprecating humor, is the key to learning any kinesthetic art form. I often laugh at my own difficulty doing the front roll when I see a five-year old delivering it with bravura and perfection. It is nice to feel like an idiot, unable to put my left or right foot at the exact angle required, whether 90 or 180 degrees in front or behind. Sensei Cris reminds us constantly that accurate placements of hand, foot, or torso are not to be underestimated, since failure to do so can be fatal in real life situations of self-defense.
I marvel at the age-old wisdom inherent in the techniques, like the principle of the unbendable arm and the movement in strong beautiful circles, whether these are centrifugal or centripetal. Watching the black belts move with effortless grace reminds me of all the ninja TV series I watched from childhood. Blessed are those who are born to practice aikido ? those who transform like superheroes on the mats. I know I can never be like them in this lifetime. Still clumsy even after a year of aikido practice, I found comfort in the fact that most of the black belts have been practicing for years, if not decades. Moreover, aikido is not easy because the techniques need precision to be delivered in a seamless and graceful manner.
In martial arts, like in classical dance, grace can only come after years of arduous training for strength, flawless technique and confidence. In short, wisdom only comes with age. In the past two years that I?ve watched ardent aikido practitioners, I?ve come to the conclusion that the people who embrace aikido as a way of life are those with native intelligence, intuition, discipline, diligence, commitment, and a little madness ? because the passion to pursue it borders on the thin line between dedication and addiction.
Discernment about why I was given the gift of aikido came through in the first months of training. It is the extension of life lessons I needed to imbibe. Through routine practices on the mat, I am learning to physicalize the oneness of yin and yang as embodied in the harmony of uke and nage ? the opposite partners in aikido training. Understanding the twin opposites of yin and yang is a lifelong lesson that manifests itself in thousands of ways in daily life. Aikido is but one of the unique ways to understand the dynamic balance within ourselves.
Aikido also teaches me to honor the present through breathing and mindful practice. At the beginning of each aikido session, aikidokas sit still in seiza position, tossing away all mundane concerns by pure breathing ? the key to the eternity of each moment at hand. Emptying the self is important to allow fresh energy to thrive, and to be able to go with the flow of the chi or universal energy. At the time of aikido practice, each aikidoka is allowed to become the essential self, to be true to one?s own nature manifested in the Breath of Life.
Aikido also deepens my understanding of certain paradoxes in life: To be soft and pliant is to be strong; to be tough and unyielding is to be weak. The best way to do aikido is through non-doing; the ideal way to learn aikido is to remember, then to forget. In aikido, as in life, there is grace in every fall. And, throwing someone (out of your life) should be done with care. Finally, less is more.
But of all the myriad things I?ve learned, the greatest is about love. Mushy and corny as this may sound, it?s true.
Aikido?s founder Morihei Ueshiba, or O Sensei (Great Teacher), understood well what Jesus demonstrated to humanity over 2000 years ago: Love your enemies; love your neighbor as you love yourself. In aikido, winning by defeating the enemy is not truly winning. Aikido is supposed to bring people, even adversaries, together in harmony. Unlike other martial arts, it is not about fighting. Thus, we permit the attacker to complete his attack, allow ourselves to empathize with the attacker, and let in love and compassion to be able to understand the attacker?s combative state, which may be a result of his/her psycho-social situation or level of human consciousness.
?If your heart is large enough to envelop your adversaries, you can see right through them and avoid their attacks. And once you envelop them, you will be able to guide them along the path indicated to you by heaven and earth.? That?s Morihei Ueshiba speaking from the heart. On the mat, platitudes like love, peace, and harmony no longer become tired expressions but living principles to be learned subliminally through earnest training.
Two years since I first accepted the challenge presented to me by the Lottery of Fond Beginnings, I still continue to practice aikido with joy as part of the journey to know myself. It has been an exciting way to express love for myself. The basis of all the loves, after all, is love for the self, from which spring all the other kinds of love. This, I believe, is perhaps the most important gain in these wonderful years of midlife. ?
Fudoshin Aikido Dojo. 1022 Arnaiz Avenue (Back of Parksquare 1 & Glorietta Mall), San Lorenzo Village, Makati City. Tel. 843-4410.
Nannette Matilac a.k.a. Rosalie Matilac is a freelance media producer, director, and writer. She is the managing director of the AlunAlun Dance Circle (www.pangalaydance.com), a group of professionals dedicated to preserve a little-known and endangered Philippine dance style called ?pangalay.?