Fear on the Mat

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“Yes, we are definitely afraid of being attacked, particularly when we are new to the training, but there is so much more: fear of someone’s strength, fear of someone’s anger, fear of looking bad, fear of comparison, fear of not being able to keep up, fear of failing in the technique, fear of appearing weak—everyone can fill in their own personal list of devils.”—Jerry Zimmerman

Squibs & Blurbs

By Jerry Zimmerman

Author and teacher (Jerry and Hal).

Author and teacher (Jerry and Hal).

Jerry Zimmerman

TEANECK New Jersey—(Weekly Hubris)—October 2016—Hal grabbed my wrist and I froze.

I was afraid.

Hal is my Aikido teacher, my friend, and my mentor. We were on the mat during a class in a seminar. We were working on a throw that I knew well, that I do well, and that I teach to my students all the time. But I couldn’t move Hal at all.

It didn’t work because there was a little scrap of thought in my mind that said this might not actually work on Hal, that I wasn’t going to be able to effortlessly do what I always do because, hey, this is my TEACHER! I was afraid that I would fail.

Hal has been my teacher for almost 30 years, and being training partners was not an unusual moment for the two of us. As I advanced in my own training and understanding, I would seek out Hal as a partner whenever we were both in a seminar together.

Then Hal said what he always says at this particular moment in our training: “Relax!”

And, after many years of being in this very situation, I was finally seasoned enough to take in his demanding instruction and to follow it: I relaxed. 

Ta-da! I easily threw my teacher. I was thrilled.

The author throws . . . a whole Nelson.

The author throws . . . a whole Nelson.

This same confrontation happens all the time in my own dojo and in everyone’s dojo. I watch my advanced students training, executing beautifully effective techniques against their attacking partners and then, when I decide to step in and have a turn at grabbing or striking them, I usually hear, “Uh-oh.”  I always say, “Don’t do anything different, it’s just me!” but it almost never helps.

This is such an important moment and such a clear lesson: when you are anxious, you are fearful and your body instinctively tightens up in response and you can no longer be the naturally relaxed human that you hope to be.

No matter what kinds of exercises or self-defense techniques we are working on in our classes, the underlying goal is to be more present in the situation, and the more tense you are the less you are here in the moment: you are run by your fears and anxieties instead, and in a very different place.

What is particularly enlightening in these moments is to discover the infinite types of large and small fears that kidnap our attention while practicing even a very simple movement on the mat. Yes, we are definitely afraid of being attacked, particularly when we are new to the training, but there is so much more: fear of someone’s strength, fear of someone’s anger, fear of looking bad, fear of comparison, fear of not being able to keep up, fear of failing in the technique, fear of appearing weak—everyone can fill in their own personal list of devils.

When we train, we practice certain moves over and over again, embedding them in our bodies, to be recalled in an instant when needed. But even with such deep muscle-memory training, when we are forcefully attacked, our bodies go back to their most primal response of “fight or flight” and we become tense, ready for either action.

More advanced Aikido training begins to change us. After many, many repetitions, our bodies and minds begin to understand that we are not in danger but, rather, we are safe and in control of the situation. Our minds have a different response to threats and our bodies’ chemistry has begun to react in a new way. The trust in ourselves supplants our fear.

And when we let go of our fear, we can relax! These are watershed moments: when we are relaxed, we can move effortlessly fast and can defeat the strongest opponents with soft and precise techniques. Someone wants to attack me and I easily and even joyfully dispatch them with no fighting or anger involved. Holy Surprised Opponent, Batman!

Brad’s hands, at close quarters.

Brad’s hands, at close quarters.

You may be thinking at this point, “Really? You win a fight by not fighting? That can’t be true.”

It is true, and . . . it takes a long time, a lot of work, and faith in the process. It is difficult to override your body’s basic DNA, but it can be done and then it becomes a powerful new norm for you, not constant, but consistent enough for you to know that you have radically changed on the mat and in your life. 

The experience of acting without fear becomes addictive, with ramifications in everything that you do. In fact, one day, you might even find yourself attacked hard by your teacher and, before he can remind you to do you-know-what, he’ll find himself suddenly and happily flat-out on the floor.

Ta-da!

Photo Credits:

Image 1, Hoboken Aikikai; Image 2, Ken Freiberg; Image 3, Aikido North Jersey.

About Jerry Zimmerman

Jerry Zimmerman was born and bred in Pennsylvania, artified and expanded at the Syracuse School of Art, citified and globalized in New York City . . . and is now mesmerized and budo-ized in lovely Teaneck, New Jersey. In love with art and artists, color, line, form, fun, and Dada, Jerry is a looong-time freelance illustrator, an art teacher in New York’s finest art schools, and a full-time Aikido Sensei in his own martial arts school. With his feet probably and it-is-to-be-hoped on the ground, and his head possibly and oft-times in the wind, he is amused by the images he finds floating through his mind and hands. Author Photo: David Zimand

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2 Responses to Fear on the Mat

  1. Diana says:

    Wonderful, Jerry. Good to have you back. I missed you and really like the Aikido philosophy though I’ve never done it. A good lesson.

  2. jerry says:

    Hi Diana…

    You’re very sweet – I guess I missed my monthly dose of extreme angst!

    It seems that aikido has not only permeated and uplifted my life but has completely taken over all my writing. My training on the mat is more and more a precise study lab for that other life … the one out there outside the dojo!

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