Contributed by Jessica E. Levin
Photos contributed by Mary K. McNeil
Before dawn on October 7, 2004, I ventured north to catch the Anacortes ferry with a friend from my dojo. It was the first day of The Pacific Northwest Autumn Aikido Retreat. Lattes steaming in our hands, we reflected on how much effort had gone into making the camp a reality. A friend of ours waited ahead of us in line. Her borrowed white van was packed with audio equipment, calligraphy for the shomen, and decorations for the Saturday night fête. With much of the work behind us, I had a moment to honor the evolution of our efforts.
Aikido Northshore and Two Cranes Aikido Dojos collaborated to create this training event. I sensed my teacher Kimberly Richardson's excitement as she spoke of uniting two of her most influential teachers to inspire 150 students who would travel from as far as Boston, Chicago and San Diego. The last time Mary and Ikeda Senseis had shared the mat together years earlier as students at Hombu Dojo in Tokyo, Japan. On the first night of camp, Ikeda Sensei recalled: "While training at Hombu Dojo I met many different students from around the world, but I can't forget Mary Heiny Sensei's s strong training spirit. More than 36 years later we get together again. I'm so delighted."
Driving off the ferry into the tranquil island town of Friday Harbor, we stopped for breakfast, then continued on to the Exposition center to set up the training space. As part of the team that organized the mats, I attest to the effort and creativity demanded in shaping an inviting space. On hands and knees, we pieced together the varied gymnastic and tatami mats, wiped them down, and taped every seams with the cases of packing tape that someone on the mat committee had thought to bring.
As we bowed in for class on Thursday night, a palpable sense of anticipation and appreciation filled the huge building. The organizational details and pragmatic concerns about meal cards, transportation and video equipment evaporated with four claps that signaled the beginning of practice. We began to train, encouraging the energetic spirals out of our centers and into uke's. The collective energy generated a transformation of the space. What had been an empty room with a cold expanse of cement floor became a dojo: home to earnest training, deep inquiry and inspired teaching. Each fall and turn, along with the Senseis teachings, charged the space with vibrancy. Mary Sensei explained: "What I'm examining these days is elongation, a quality of uplifting. When I sink into the earth my partner rises up. It's a natural process." That same evening, after a delicious dinner of fresh seared halibut, we felt a quality of uplifting when the magnificent Taiko drummer, Anne Yamane, and her group Northwest Taiko beat their drums.
Because San Juan Island Fall Camp was the first four-day seminar I attended, I was curious to experience how people of different lineages would interact and learn from each other. Here was an opportunity to train with new partners and experiment with unfamiliar ways of looking at practice. Ikeda Sensei explained: "how do you really know unless you examine the details; unless you look deeply for yourself. We have to look deeper than strictly the outside of things. What is important is what is inside. We have to be curious and always look anew."
As Mary Sensei and Ikeda Sensei offered their distinct but related teachings, I studied the movements with an open mind. Each time I trained with a new partner, I expanded my understanding, not only of the technique that had been demonstrated, but also of how I reacted to ever changing physical feedback. One way worked with one uke, but with the next partner, I lost my extension and ma ai. When I practice with conviction, balance, and inquiry, I affirm what I know, and expose myself to what I don't know.
At times the depth of both Senseis' knowledge felt overwhelming. In order to see the infinitesimal spirals of Ikeda Sensei and the infinite lines of Mary Heiny Sensei, I generated images in my mind like the spiraling of subatomic particles and the asymptote of an exponential curve. Their vision and intimacy with the art encouraged me to experiment with the non-physical and recognize the necessity of perceiving intent. How can I feel what's happening before the movement begins? How do I focus on what's happening energetically? Am I open to the unity of mind and body?
It is through these explorations that I feel most connected to myself and to O Sensei. My imagination invites me to approach a teaching and play with it, misunderstand it, reevaluate it, and search for diverse ways to engage with the beauty and difficulty of touching someone's center. By immersing ourselves in these acts of learning, we honor our practice and our teachers. Mary Sensei illustrated: "One of the things that delights me is that there is always something new to learn. Having curiosity is one of the things that helps open our hearts and evolve our Aikido practice." When these individual processes combine, dynamic things unfold. The Pacific Northwest Autumn Camp is a testament to the power of our collective imagination.
Since boarding the ferry back to Seattle, I have found myself summoning the images and recalling the sensory information that I gathered in those four days. How do I incorporate Ikeda Sensei's teaching of putting my weight on uke's tailbone? How do I feel gratitude towards my partner? Back on the mat at Two Cranes, both the successes and failures resurface, integrating themselves into the ever-expanding movement vocabulary that I cultivate in my training. Looking ahead to next year's camp, I imagine how we can evolve it, and anticipate how it will evolve us.
*Jessica Levin is a brown belt student and children's instructor at Two Cranes Aikido in Seattle, Washington.