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Being Thrown | The art of turning life’s hurls into lessons — Beer vs. Bread
The art of flying: throw yourself at the ground and miss

Being Thrown

by Greg I. Hamilton on December 3, 2012

Today, a brief homage to the virtues of being thrown. I’ll share a journal entry from my fieldwork in Japan studying the martial art of aikido. I was practicing one day with the head sensei, or teacher, named Ikeda (pictured right, working with the club’s captain). In these exercises, I would “attack” him and he would manhandle me to the ground in a pin. Or he would toss me (literally) many feet through the air by manipulating the force of my own attack.

Aikido’s principles of leverage and momentum mean that even a seemingly undersized defender can turn the tables on a much larger, stronger attacker. As “attacker,” I was neither larger (except perhaps in my gangly sort of height) nor stronger in any stretch of the imagination. And facing a “defender” who had been practicing this martial art since 1968, well let’s just say the tables tended to turn pretty dramatically for me on those hard tatami practice mats.

“Ikeda Sensei hailed me and beckoned me to practice with him. He was smiling and encouraging, being frighteningly rough all the while. I really thought he was going to twist my arm off several times (when pinning me, Ikeda Sensei ignored my sign that I’d had enough, twisting my arm until he was satisfied). But each time I’d shake it off and feel fine (if not pumped with adrenaline). The ukemi (the attacker’s rolls which follow a successfully fended off attack) were fun as hell; Ikeda Sensei really knows his stuff. While most of the club is hesitant to really let the American beginner have it, Ikeda Sensei hurled me further and further, faster and faster. And I inevitably ended up on my feet, as surprised as anyone.

“There’s something to be said for the mystique surrounding a martial arts sensei— especially in aikido. It requires remarkable perception, not just of yourself, but of your partner. Ikeda Sensei knew just how far, past my signal to stop, to twist; just how to throw me so I could pull off rolls I’d never tried before.”

(From my field journal for An Ethnography of Aikido, 10/21/93)

my instructor in Japan

The character of the martial arts instructor is endearing, and enduring, in cinema. From Mr. Miyagi to Johnny Mo in the Kill Bill movies, this stoic badass is a fixture in our imaginations. But there is something more than movie magic in an effective sensei. Anthropologist Ruth Benedict figured this out more than 66 years ago in her own field studies of Zen Buddhism in Japan:

“The teacher could not ‘teach’ in the Occidental sense, because nothing a novice learned from any source outside himself was of any importance. The teacher might hold discussions with the novice, but he did not lead him gently into a new intellectual realm. The teacher was considered to be most helpful when he was most rude. If, without warning, the master broke the tea bowl the novice was raising to his lips, or tripped him, or struck his knuckles with a brass rod, the shock might galvanize him into sudden insight. It broke through his complacency.” – The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946)

On and off the mats, I’ve joined plenty of friends who’ve been thrown by people and circumstances in their lives. I’ve seen my share of broken tea bowls and rapped knuckles. Usually this is scary, often it’s painful, always it’s humbling. Those are all pretty commonplace reactions.

Only when it becomes exhilarating, like Ikeda Sensei launching me terrified through the air— when it breaks our complacency— that’s when we fly. For those of us without feathers and wings, sometimes it takes being thrown to fly.

Thanks for reading. Cheers,

Screencaptures by your humble ethnographer

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