In 1972 I was attending a theatre conference and leading a movement workshop in San Francisco, which was not far from the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, a place I’d wanted to visit for years. It’s gorgeous, with hot springs, ocean, and fascinating-sounding courses, but I didn’t want to take any of the many advertised workshops that focused on consciousness raising, unfinished business, vulnerability, etc. using the techniques of Fritz Perls, Carl Jung, Carl Rogers, Sigmund Freud, and others. I wasn’t interested in becoming more vulnerable in front of a group of strangers who would disappear after the workshop, leaving me to deal with the emotional consequences. When a weekend course in Aikido at the Esalen Institute was advertised, the timing was perfect. I could go after the convention and workshop ended.
As part of creating and teaching movement for actors I’d attended courses in circus skills, stage combat, and some martial arts but I was particularly captivated by Aikido, a Japanese marital art that uses opponents’ energy, strength and momentum against themselves. No hitting, kicking, punching, swatting—no violence of any kind. Although acting students wouldn’t have much opportunity to use Aikido in a play, I thought the practice had metaphorical possibility. In playing a part where a woman is faced with an angry, threatening man, perhaps the practice of Aikido could inform the way she reacted, stepping aside to let his energy do him in. At the very least, I’d be learning a new physical skill and that appealed to me.
When I walked into the registration area of Esalen where people were anxiously seeking, asking, talking, gesturing . . . I felt like an outsider, that I shouldn’t have come. I told myself this was just nerves, I had every right to be here, having paid for the workshop, room and board. As I stood in line, a woman asked what course I was taking. “Aikido,” I answered.
She frowned. “Why would you sign up for that? It doesn’t have much to do with becoming more conscious.” I stared at the woman, unable to think of a retort. I didn’t care what course she was taking, and was looking forward to the Aikido workshop, but she wasn’t the only one. Everywhere I went people responded similarly when they asked what course I was taking, seemingly searching for some undefinable answer, which left me feeling unsettled and out of place.
That night I decided to go for a swim. The sign said bathing suits optional. Although I’ve done a lot of skinny dipping, I didn’t feel like doing what everyone else was doing just to fit in so I wore a suit. Judging by the negative comments, optional was only for the sign. Ignoring the others, I dove into the water and swam, soothed by the gentle ocean waves. It seemed that being at Esalen was forcing me to make choices based on what I wanted rather than what others thought I should do—or be.
In the morning I walked to the Aikido room. I was early but the door was open. A tall man was moving gracefully, his eyes closed. “Come in. Join me,” he said in a deep, welcoming voice. Somewhat embarrassed at being noticed, I took off my sandals and positioned myself behind him, slightly to his right. I don’t know how long we moved together, his eyes remained closed, but at some point other students arrived. Sensing their presence, he invited them to join us.
When he opened his eyes, he smiled, welcomed the group, talked a little about Aikido, formed us into pairs, gave us brief instructions, and then we began. At one point he murmured to me. “You’re trying too hard. Let go of wanting to ‘get it right.’ Think of your energy as water flowing freely—no obstructions.”
All my life I’ve tried to “get it right,” to avoid abuse, to be liked, to achieve a goal, always with stress and anxiety, never ease. As the session continued, I felt less tense, as calm as I could ever remember being, yet at the same time, paid attention to the form and content we were learning. His teaching was different from other martial arts teachers. He spoke sparingly, in a soft voice, never correcting, only suggesting. He exuded serenity and caring. I could feel the energy in the room shift in a way that’s hard to describe. It felt as if all of us were letting go of expectations, of “getting it right,” yet moving with relaxed energy. He had created an oasis of calm without any obvious effort. At the end of the morning, without instruction, he invited us to form a circle. Again, without instruction, we bowed to him and then to each other. He bowed to us and left the room. I felt new and clear and internally spacious.
The woman with whom I’d been partnered asked if I’d like to join her for a little walk before lunch. She led me to a place at the edge of the cliff when the underwater plants swayed to the rhythm of the water’s movement and the sun sparkled on the ocean’s surface. We stood in silence for a few minutes. “I came here to figure out who I am,” she said. “You’d think at my age I’d know.”
I didn’t ask how old she was. I guessed she was in her mid-40’s, like me. Although I knew who I was as a mother, wife, and professor, I often wondered who I was/would be without the outer roles. “Something happened to me in the workshop,” she said. I asked her to tell me if she felt comfortable doing so. “After we’d been moving for a while, I began to have a new sense of me—not as a lawyer, wife, mother, daughter . . . but an undefinable me. It’s a strange and wonderful feeling. Do you think it can last after the weekend is over? I like who I am right now.”
What she said described my experience as well. “I think the power of the workshop for me won’t be the Aikido movement, although I’m enjoying it immensely. Somehow, his way of teaching is so quieting and spare, it’s allowing me to stop worrying about doing what’s right and to let go of expectations. It’s as if I’m connecting with my true self—maybe for the first time. Now I know what it feels like. Who knows if it will last? At least I know something now I didn’t know before.”
She took my hand in hers and said, “I think the gift of the workshop is that now we know we can be who we are no matter what others think we should be. It might not last, but if we felt it once, we can feel it again.” Both of us experienced such a surge of joy and energy we ran to lunch, eager to see if we could be who we were, regardless of the anxious, searching, seeking, distracted energy all around us.
The sense of being authentic deepened as the sessions continued. Each time I entered the room it was like moving into a world without judgment, comment, negativity—just ease and grace. After the second day I hardly noticed the chaotic energy swirling around me when I left the workshop. I was moving from an internal sense of being centered, of being who I wanted to be. I told myself to remember what it felt like when I returned to my “real” life.
My internal calm was quickly challenged by the life to which I returned, but the memory of the Aikido teacher—his grace and ease and serenity—became a touchstone in times of stress.
How susceptible are you to the comments and energy of people around you? How do you know the difference between your authentic self and your public persona?
Life tales from a woman different living in The City Different.