On and off the mat I have been wondering about intimacy. I see people, including myself, struggling with it on a daily basis and I have been asking myself: what, really, is intimacy? And how does it appear on the mat?
I guess intimacy comes in many shapes and forms. There is the physical and emotional intensity of lovers. There is the unconditional bond between parent and child. And there is the easy familiarity of old friends who have seen the best and worst of one another.
So what is common to these three examples? Or better said: how to define intimacy? If I may offer a suggestion – far from final – I would say: intimacy is the connection that occurs when two people fully see and bless one another.
To me, the words ‘see’ and ‘bless’ are crucial. By seeing I mean that we truly notice the other as they are. Not what we think they are or ought to be, but as they appear in this world with their gifts and shadows alike.
The blessing bit is important, too. Blessing means showing people that everything we notice about them is good, worthy and loveable. It’s an odd notion, perhaps, because we’re used to forcing our opinions and beliefs unto others. But enforcing our own views is, in a way, a subtle act of violence.
When you see and bless someone, you send them messages like ‘you belong’, ‘you have something to contribute’, and ‘you are loveable’. Wouldn’t you want others to approach you like that? In my opinion, it is the basis of healthier and happier relationships.
There is something else. While there is a need for someone seeing and blessing another, that other person has to be able to do two things: show themselves and receive that blessing. Some, perhaps most, people find it hard to do both.
Just consider when and how we keep parts of ourselves hidden from the outside world, or, even, from ourselves. Anything from what we really think and feel, to our beliefs, preferences and desires. When, growing up, people react negatively to these parts of us, we eventually learn to hide them.
This hiding is the source of much suffering. It costs tremendous energy and leads to unhealthy behavior (e.g. depression and addiction), and prevents us from living our life fully and joyfully. Learning how to fully be and show ourselves is something each of us has to tackle at some point.
In addition to showing ourselves, there is the issue of receiving the blessing of another. Sounds simpler than it is, and you will know what I mean if you consider how uncomfortable most people get when they receive even the simplest of compliments.
We all know what happens. We blush, feel upset and try our hardest to convince someone of the opposite of their compliment. It’s as if part of us tells us we are not worthy, not loveable and not competent.
And so it’s no small feat to gracefully receive someone’s blessing – without ego and discomfort. It requires us to know and love ourselves as we are, to be comfortable in our own bodies and to feel safe to open up emotionally to others.
In a recent interview, the Pulitzer Prize winning poet Mary Oliver, now 76, was asked what she had done with her life. She said: “What I have done is learn to love and learn to be loved. And that didn’t come easy.”
I think Aikido is a very intimate Budo. There is the obvious intimacy of physical contact, the constant grabbing, holding and throwing of sweaty bodies. Some beginners find this uncomfortable, find it hard to touch their partner of even stand close to them. It’s simply too intimate.
Aikido is also intimate in that it’s readily apparent where someone is in their development. We can bullshit our way through life – wear fancy clothes, use smart arguments, hide behind money and titles – but all of this fails on the mat. You move and your teacher knows.
There is another, deeper intimacy that develops over time. It occurs when uke and tori stop focusing on parts and start paying attention to the whole. By parts I mean a hand grabbing, a foot moving, the balance of our posture or any other detail that fully captures our attention.
When we first learn techniques, our attention is naturally narrow and we become self-absorbed. There is so much to do – the hand moves here, the feet do this, the hips need to turn that way. And every uke moves differently, which changes the whole game. It’s very complex and overwhelming at times.
But as we practice, our technique becomes less cognitive and more spontaneous and embodied. We know how our body moves, we feel more centered, we have a rough, overall sense of what we’re (supposed to be) doing.
As this happens, we can free our attention and focus on the relationship between uke and tori. We become aware of the wholeness of the movement, connect rather than grab, feel rather than understand, react in the moment rather than strategise.
This is the source of a deeper connection, a more mature form of intimacy. It’s when we allow ourselves to be present and centered and to practice ukemi without fear. It also means we can accept our partner’s attack in any shape or form, without mental or physical stress.
Personally, I think this kind of intimacy is one of the things that Aikido can teach us. And, as Mary Oliver said, it doesn’t come easy. But I think it’s worth it, just like a real, mature and intimate relationship is one of the most valuable things we can have in life.