On The Beam

For many years I studied Aikido, a defensive martial art based the premise that all attacks inherently take their attacker off balance, if only slightly. The job of the Aikidoist when attacked is to remain balanced, or within his or her center, and guide the attacker to a place where neither party can be harmed. It’s a very Seattle kind of martial art. Aikido was founded my Morihei Ueshiba, a ferociously skilled martial artist who was referred to as Ōsensei by his students, which means “great teacher.” My favorite story about Ueshiba was this: One day a student turned to him and said, “Osensei, I watch you train, and you are always on balance. I train and train, but I am always going off center. How do you do it?”

“No, no,” replied the sensei. “I am also off balance frequently. I am just very quick to back in balance.”

So quick, apparently, that it appeared he never left his center to begin with. I feel like this is the lesson I am trying to learn in my writing, in my marriage, with my children, at the grocery store—everywhere all the time. In writing, my center and balance is the story I am trying to hear and tell. Like a gymnast crossing a balance beam, I am in a constant state of rebalancing, of finding the story.

The trouble begins when I wonder why I am off balance, why I have lost the thread of the story. There is no meaningful answer to this question. That is, pouring my attention into why I am not hearing the story is like the gymnast crying out “Why?” every time she wobbles left or right. A better use of my attention would be to search for the center of the story again.

There are days when you are on that story so fully you require almost no effort in telling it. These days are productive, but not instructive. The best days, in many ways, are the ones where you begin far away from the center of your story and must bring yourself patiently and steadily back into balance. This journey is largely the journey of your entire life. To fear the distance between where you are and where you must be is to fear life itself. We will spend most of our lives off balance, but if we are kind to ourselves we understand the unique joy not in always being on center but, like the stories we discover, in finding ourselves over and over again.

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