Hello everyone! I want to share an experience that I recently had in Aikido that related directly and very heavily with my faith, but it requires a bit of background information to make sense in context. As such, please bear with me and read to the end of this update (I also have some big news later in it)!
Back in January, I took my nidan (or second degree black belt) test in Aikido. In our association, it takes many years to be ready for such a test; I had been training around 12 to 13 years at the point I took mine. Testing is done at national headquarters in front of the Chief Instructor of our association (Toyoda Sensei) and several other high-ranking individuals. The test itself involves using Aikido self-defense techniques against whatever attacker they pick at the time (they’ll pick several different ones to execute different attacks) at full speed—showing not only clean techniques but a large variety and an ability to adapt to the strength, speed, and size of whoever is attacking you. It also involves disarming an armed attacker from several different attacks, defending oneself on one’s knees against multiple standing (unarmed) attackers, and defending oneself against multiple standing attackers (while standing oneself) at the very end. They usually last between 25 and 45 minutes and has very few, if any, pauses to catch one’s breath.
The day of my test, I had a lightly injured knee and wrist (I found out later that I had some slight ligament and tendon tears; they have since healed), but I wasn’t really nervous in my mind or heart. However, the morning of my test I could tell that either my subconscious or my body was nervous, because I awoke early and tense in my cot, unable to go back to sleep. I headed out to a nearby 24-hour restaurant (around 5AM local time) and sat down, ordering a good full breakfast as my body would need resources later in the day. At the table, I began my daily prayer/centering/meditation time after placing my order. It took initial effort, but as I prayed I began to relax into awareness of God’s presence more and more. During my prayer, I felt that I needed to be in my ‘Sabbath’ mindset and very present in each moment during the day as it occurred, so I started attempting that.
By way of explanation, my “Sabbath’ mindset is the attitude and perspective that I seek to embody during my weekly Sabbath. It is way of thinking that tries to be relaxed and unworried, appreciating all of the little things around me that I frequently ignore or miss in the busy-ness of a regular work day. For instance, I daily eat eggs and often have a coffee in the morning, but I’m usually multi-tasking by thinking about the day, talking with Tella (my wife), doing dishes while the eggs are cooking, etc. During my Sabbath, I try to relax and just enjoy the little things—the smell of the coffee as it brews, the heat of it in the mug in my hands, the cool little wisps of steam rising off it. I also really love the taste of coffee, so I enjoy it, and I thank God for all of the little things I’m often unaware of and the little ways He blesses me daily. It’s attempting to embody that perspective and thankfulness over the course of the day.
As I sought to do this the day of my exam, I had a lot of things that I was able to appreciate. It also opened up some conversation options and opportunities to love others/serve the Kingdom of God that I might have missed; for instance, at a cultural event that morning we were making mochi (pounded rice desserts), and I was able to chat with a new intern at the Japanese cultural center for nearly an hour about her life, goals, dreams, and faith. I was also able to share some of mine and get into a decent faith discussion, too. It may or may not have had a lasting impact on her in any way (I don’t know that it did), but it is an opportunity that I would have completely missed if I had been inwardly focused on the exam and stressing out about the future that was a few hours away yet. As I was aware of this, I reflected that sometimes stress and worry seek to steal our ‘present’ now in addition to affecting us at the actual moment we’re worried about, and that as a Christian I shouldn’t allow that. There’s a reason the Bible says to ‘worry not about anything’ but instead ‘pray in everything’. It turns a potential for darkness to steal our ability to serve God and be at peace in the now into an opportunity to sink into God and His peace and connect to Him as we deal with it and grow. What a blessing, huh?
Anyway, I was able to better and better be in the now and in peace—seeking to find opportunities to love others (I had a chance to call my wife and listen to what was happening with her, help make things run smoother in our group, and do other things because I was just in the now).
As the moment approached and we were in our second hour of practice on the mats at the dojo, I felt stress begin to rise and I prayed. As I did, something internally changed. I usually have several perspectives that I know intellectually aren’t true but that emotionally I cannot help but feel. Some of these include feeling like my Aikido does not work the same at national headquarters as it does elsewhere, feeling that the Aikido at national headquarters is somehow different and much better than my own (even though they’ve taught me mine and it’s very similar), feeling stressed about being evaluated by my superiors and unable to be free in my true Aikido, but instead being stuck in a performance mode that is self-evaluating and strategizing and trying to look as good as I can. All of these things heavily get in the way of being free on the mat and of demonstrating where I really am—there’s also a fear that I’ll be unable to demonstrate where I really am. As these things began to rise within me and I prayed, it was kind of like the peace of our dojo (training location in Hays) fell into this place. I feel God’s presence heavily at the dojo at home (partly because I pray there often as do others, which lends a peace to the place, partly because it has students I love and care about in it, partly because when I practice there I’m trying to embody Christ and Aikido principles in everything). As my peace from home seemed to invade Tenshinkan (the national headquarters training hall), I felt like I was finally able to be myself there—that it was just another location, and more importantly that my usual spiritual connection that I have to God that can be disrupted when I am putting all of my energy to performing correctly (which makes me perform incorrectly) was strong and intact for the first time ever in Tenshinkan. As I prepared to test, I felt close to God without worry breaking that—I felt the ability to listen to others and be aware of others and love others like I often do in my ministry work. As the test began, I was free to be the actual me—connected to my very core in Christ—and in the moment that was in front of me (the one person attacking me) not worried about my endurance, stamina, strategy, variety, performance, or even the test itself overall. I just listened spiritually to the person in front of me, stayed connected to myself, and was free to be my usual Aikido/Christian self. It was excellent.
It was also strange, because at the end I had no idea how I’d done overall. Usually I am gauging my performance as I go—in this instance, I just was (or one could say I just was me). I noted when things didn’t go as I wished, but I adapted and moved on leaving it behind. I noted when things went well, but when they were in the past they were already done, and they had not hold on me in the present. It was very disconcerting to have no idea of how I did at the end and also to have a ton of excess energy. In the little sprints in the test I’d become fatigued, but my training style recently had lent to a very large overarching stamina (as long as I get just a short recovery break—a minute or two at most), so though I’d been exhausted in a couple of sections, overall I still felt like I could go for quite awhile.
Standing there in that place, I let go of the reflections that I had no control over and tried to calm my physically exhausted body while moving back into the present and being connected to God and those around me (near the end, I had lost connection a bit—just due to physical exhaustion, not due to stress as would usually have been the case).
It doesn’t leave with a big triumphant moment or crazy testimonial—except that I was truly free during that test. Technically there are things that I may or may not have liked, but it may always be my favorite test because of how free I was under what is often tremendous pressure. That state of freedom is what truly embodying Aikido is all about, and it’s what truly embodying CHRIST is all about. We may not be physically attacked in life frequently, but life itself hits us with stresses, pain, bad situations, and ‘attacks’ all the time. I find when I am able to be free in Christ like I was on the mat, those negative things lose their power to impact me as much and an opportunity arises for God to turn the situation to good in some way (my growth or the growth of others, or the chance to see a window to love someone else). I wanted to share this story to encourage you all—please pray and see where you may be letting worry or stresses or circumstances hold you down, and please ask God to help you let go and turn those things over to Him so you can be free—both for yourself (it is much more peaceful even if things still hurt) and for the Kingdom (it’s one of the MAIN PLACES we can grow in and help love others/help them grow). I know that I’m still praying that I can accomplish that myself!
Speaking of which, I received a chance to practice embodying those same principles again a couple weeks later when I found out that I had been accepted to be a live-in Aikido student of Kobayashi Shihan (one of the older living students—80 years old—of the founder of Aikido). He’s very impressive—not only is he still technically astute at 80—he throws his students and takes falls from his students—but he very much embodies doing Aikido with joy and life and energy (which is a very big passion of mine, if you can’t tell). It’s a rare opportunity that not everyone gets, and in addition I had the chance to do it with less expense than is usual due to some other circumstance. Coupled with the fact that he may retire any year and that it may be my only chance to train under him (and that I could potentially make it work at this point in life but probably could not later), it was quite an impressive opportunity. As such, Tella and I had been praying over it heavily for some months before I applied in October. You see, if I was accepted (not many people get to train under him that way), I essentially must accept it—so the application itself was really about praying over whether to do it or not as my acceptance would mean I was doing it. Then the news came that I had been accepted!
This left me just a few short weeks to outsource all of my ministry work, dojo work, and work at The Gamers Guild for a 7-week trip that would have me mostly living East of Tokyo and travelling between Aikido schools to train under him (between 20-30 hours a week of training, sometimes more, in addition to likely 40-60 hours of cleaning, cultural classes, other classes and duties, etc.). The stress of outsourcing all of my work was tremendous, so I had to re-embody the principles that I’d been learning—especially this last week as I neared my departure date and things kept piling onto each other more and more (such as the need to do my taxes now instead of in March when I usually would). There are several times that I succeeded and a few that I at least partially failed, but I was able to keep training at resting, centering into God’s peace and the Holy Spirit in the now, keeping Kingdom priorities top over the urgent, and living as I prepared. Ultimately, I was able to leave Hays with most everything that was critical done and the rest do-able over the Internet during the very early part of my stay. I’m typing this now from an airplane that has departed the U.S. and is on its way to Narita airport in Japan (though I’ll likely edit this and actually send it out once I land and have wifi access, and my epically awesome, loving wife will be helping by printing off physical copies and mailing them to you).
As I embark on this journey, I wanted to ask you, my ministry supporters, to please pray for me and especially for Tella, Not only is this the longest that we’ve been physically apart in marriage, but it also is extra work for her and (in a nontraditional sense) a sabbatical for me. It’s also a growth opportunity for everyone whom I’ve left behind in charge of various dojo, ministry, and Guild tasks (and I hope and pray that they do get to grow while I’m gone—much of my preparations involved setting things up so they could take over for a time and so that they’d have the best chance of growing and gaining from doing so while I was gone). Please pray that Tella and I have peace, hear the Holy Spirit, and grow and advance Kingdom ministry wherever we are at and that those who are behind grow and advance Kingdom ministry, too (whether they realize they are or not). I’d also request prayer for clarity for both of us—part of the idea of this trip now is that we both will be in prayer to better hear God’s voice and direction when it comes to some larger ministry and life decisions we have to make. In 9 years of ministry, I have not had such a long break from having to handle the day-to-day. Though I will be VERY busy in Japan, I will also be separated from much of what is going on back home and able to pray, listen, and reflect more clearly. I’ll also have a lot of reflection time due to all the cleaning and duties involved in living here (when I’m able to mentally focus on praying and listening). Please pray that this time is fruitful for God’s work and for us, and thank you for your support in prayer, and for some of you in financially supporting the ministry.
If you want to follow my journey while I’m here, you can read my updates at this website (uchideshiexperience.blogspot.com). I will be posting some of my experiences and reflections on it (along with photos of life in Japan). The main point of that website is to keep Tella updated and connected with me as I journey over here and she is the main audience, but I’m also fine with friends, family, and those I love (or whomever they feel the desire to share it with) also joining in and reading them, if they wish. Though they are written for just a few people, I’m fine with God using them however He does.
One final small note—if any of you has free storage available or know of someone who does, one of the homeless guys who is connected to our ministry is looking to store some items there. Keep in mind that it may be very long term but that it also would help him out.
Thanks again for your prayers, and remember to stay free and open in Christ to Kingdom opportunities that may be right in front of you. Don’t let stress steal your present, but live in peace and joy in the moment, loving others and serving with Christ in the Kingdom. I love you all, but He loves you even more and better; thanks for being connected to me and all believers through Him!