Shall We Dance?

Our dojo recently enjoyed a spectacular, technically spot-on nikyu test—nikyu meaning 2nd rank below black belt shodan. No matter what level someone is going for, Durango Shin-Budo Kai always strives for high standards. Did the candidate know the vocabulary? Did he execute the correct technique? Did she demonstrate poise and focus in the present moment?

The answer to these questions is almost always a resounding YES!

One reason boils down to the extra hours classmates devote to one another for practice outside of class. Senior students (sempai) and peers (kohai) voluntarily help one other with technique tutelage, ukemi, encouragement, and more. The entire DSBK dojo works as a community to ensure the test taker’s demonstration of skill and knowledge is a definitive success.

From my shodan test in 2015.

And yet, despite all the support, every student I have ever seen prep for a test reaches that raw, volatile break point days before the big event. I include myself on the list. I can look back on nearly a decade of practice and recall many a teary meltdown.

I can’t do it! I don’t know any of this! I’m a hack! Clumsy. Sloppy. Hopeless.

 The negative self-judgment piles up thicker than autumn’s tree dandruff. The Japanese terms for the techniques, which I swear I once knew, stop making any sense. I could be so frazzled that, if asked, I doubt I could have translated ai, ki, or do.

And the recent test candidate was no exception. Three days ahead of the test, oddities crept into her techniques—extra steps in footwork, incorrect pins, slips and fumbles with handwork, none of which had been there before. The in-class review ended with hot tears and the candidate certain the test would be a complete disaster. Better to cancel the whole thing!

You’ll do great! Don’t worry! This is completely normal.

 Everyone chimes in with support and a hug. Far from voicing saccharine attaboys (or attagirls, in this case), we share the truth. The breakdown is normal.

But why?

“Katana” by Mark Vegas. Image CC.

For me, the experience has a lot do with aikido’s ties to budo, or the martial Way. In budo, the trainee experiences an inherent spiritual growth. This inescapable process is called seishin tanren, or spirit forging. Just as the katana has to be heated and hammered, so too does the aikidoka. So we who practice are, in every sense, testing the mettle of the soul’s metal.[i]

After decades of experience, I can say the process is very similar for writers. Each story, be it fiction or nonfiction, demands of me my serious attention, commitment, and integrity. But if the writer ever hopes to complete the story with its purest truth in tact on the page, she must grapple with the Duende.

20th century poet and writer, Frederico García Lorca believed the source of all creative drive stemmed from the struggle with that inner deamon he called the Duende. Where angels may shed light on ideas and the muses gift ingenious form, the Duende draws blood. Only it can. Angels and muses are external entities, but the Duende dwells within.

According to Lorca, the Duende chooses its battle with a creator—writer, artist, musician—the moment that person finds something worthy of creation. (Because I am a writer, I’ll stick with that frame.) The deamon awakes because it smells the potential for death. Specifically, the death of a misconception. Having pierced the false assumption, thereby wounding the writer, the Duende then initiates a miraculous healing. Out of that wound arises the pure, unprecedented, truly original artistic masterpiece.

Naturally, most people are averse to the Duende’s process. Who the heck wants to be cut through the heart? But the brave few who dance with this devil live immortal, their master works persisting against time’s erasure.

Many of us go our whole lives clutching our misconceptions, mistaking them for truths. Burdened thus, we embrace life in clumsy, fumbling motions. Fractured relationships. Timid, low-risk activities. Restricted explorations.

I believe both the writer and the aikidoka tangle with the same Duende. Why not? Both strive for the purest expression of their chosen art forms. The writer tells a perfect story. The aikidoka achieves what O’Sensei highlighted as the goal of budo: agatsu—the defeat of the self. [ii]

But that dance with the daemon leads to a similar break point. The I-quit-I-can’t-do-this moment. And the tears so many of us shed right then are true grief. After all, a misconception has died. It was with us for so long that it seems as though our self has died, but in reality, it was a false self. A guised version covering and restricting our true nature.

And so I applaud that test candidate and every person who seeks to make her art (and her very self and soul) into a pure, unprecedented, and truly original masterpiece.

[i] From The Aikido of Shin-Budo Kai: A Guide to Principles and Practice. Ed. Ralph Bryan. Samashi Press: 2013 (79).

[ii] Also from The Aikido of Shin-Budo Kai (3).

Jenny Mason is an award-winning writer and devoted aikidoka. By day she authors children's books, magazine articles, and even promotional content for local businesses. By night, she rolls, pins, and swirls on the dojo mat. She started training in 2007 and is currently ranked shodan.