Declaring a Dojo

IMG_4950 copyThe term, “dojo” literally means a “place to wake up” or a “place of the way”. Dojos are traditional Japanese training halls where mastery of a chosen path is pursued. A “do” is a way or a path. There are dojos in Japan for learning many disciplines from flower arranging to Zen meditation, calligraphy to the martial arts. Dojos are a place to not only practice and master an art they are a place to broaden moral, ethical and spiritual horizons. Traditionally the martial arts dojo was a place where the Samurai of ancient Japan developed their “budo”, the warrior’s way. Here they would ground their practice in meaning by codes of ethics, the protection of their community and connection with Nature. They honed their spirit through the arts of conflict.

Wherever there are relationships there are conflicts. Conflicts show up in the process of change as our resistance to change. Facing and eventually embracing our resistance directly puts us fact to fact with what we need. Reacting to or ignoring conflict distract us from what life is trying to show us. The dojo is a traditional place to train in self-mastery. It is were we learn to face our own resistances with dignity, integrity, honesty and empathy.

My first dojo was a judo school in NJ. My parents enrolled me when I was in junior high school right after they caught wind that I had been in an afterschool fight. Mr. Shimimoto was a well-regarded judo instructor. He welcomed me into his dojo with a warm smile. He emanated a dignity and integrity that invited respect and my attention without any affect or forcefulness. In the 4 years I trained with him, I never saw him raise his voice or reprimand someone in a demeaning way, and yet his presence was commanding. His dojo was well lit, clean and unadorned. Fresh flowers were always at the front of the dojo and trophies lined the shelves in the outer greeting room. The respectful etiquette and attitude required were clearly visible in the dojo. Each night we’d all train vigorously throwing, flipping, tripping, pinning one another and then bowing to appreciate and honor our partners each time. After every session I would come home drenched in sweat and happily collapse into a hot tub. The more I trained, the less interesting the after school fights became. The intentions of honor and respect that Mr. Shimimoto brought to his dojo were qualities that became imbued in my own practice.

The first dojo I opened was at a rec center with some old wrestling matts, florescent lights in a bare room. Add some flowers and a candle in the front of the dojo, with a declared intention of Aikido training and we were good to go. Dojos come in all shapes and sizes. When I met my Aikido sensei, Reverend Lawrence Koichi Barrish his dojo was a modified garage at his home. Thirty years later his dojo out mountains by the rushing river is the main Shinto shrine in the US. As a senior Shinto Priest, the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America which he built, is the dojo of all dojos. Enshrined within is the spirit of Morihei Ueshiba No Mikoto (the Kami), the founder of Aikido. Whether it is a garage or a magnificent shrine with live deities, training takes on the intention that the dojo is imbued with.

IMGP0874Drawing from that tradition, wherever I teach my trainings, I declare our training place a dojo. Speaking is an action. Declaring something is a creative act and a first step towards creating possibilities that you are choosing to participate in. Declaring and creating an intentional space to train in provides the environment for doing it well. In the ritual of my marriage there was a moment within the ceremonious setting when Judith and I declared ourselves husband and wife. Everything changed from that moment on. A declaration articulates a vision that when grounded in passion, understanding and commitment invites possibilities, collaboration and others to a cause. Declarations create new and unchartered narratives to live in. Along with these new waters come new practices and attitudes. Change can be difficult, especially inner change. Creating an intentional space for this to unfold safely and with care helps to stay the course. A dojo is where ever you declare it to be.


The intention of the dojos I declare is learn how to “conflict well” and from that well to drink deeply. Practicing to conflict well means to practice staying centered and present in moments of conflict in order to feel its messages and give what is needed: not too much not to little. Creating a safe and respectful container for the practices to unfold with a mutual intention and commitment facilitates deep learning.

We do best when we reach out and teach ourselves. When this happens with other people, learning is accelerated.

A dojo is where ever you declare it to be

My wife Judith is a woman of many talents. One of her most exceptional gifts is through what she calls, Connective Food Practices. IMG_0547A big name for something quite simple and profound. Every detail of the food that Judith prepares for others (lucky me) is created within her kitchen. Food is her’ “do” and her kitchen dojo is shaped and ordered to manifest the most powerful budo, Love. She will make sure the vegetables are organic, most often picked for freshness out of our gardens. Meat, eggs and dairy are local and raised with care. She will make sure to cut the cucumbers at the right angle for beauty and flavor. She’ll chiffonade the kale making sure it is just thin enough to have the best texture and shape. She might walk outside to pinch off a bay leaf or two to bring out the flavor in the sauce. She will make sure the colors of the food and table are aesthetically enjoyable. Every aspect of the meal is imbued with and transmits the love care, time and energy put into its preparation. When it is our turn to cook in the rotation of dinners in our community, nobody misses a meal from our home. Some things are unexplainable, but over time when they happen enough, we just accept them as true. What I accept is that when something like a meal prepared by Judith is served and eaten, magic follows. Conversations are enlivened, the atmosphere takes on a welcoming texture, and ideas begin to fly and the next thing you know we are all planning to build a sauna together, planning a group retreat, envisioning future possibilities. Magic. Houdini said “Magic is Practice.

Practices imbued with intention, manifest what that intention is and in time bring us to places we might never have known.

We learn through deliberate, recurring practice that over time enable us to take new actions. A dojo is a place to learn about our selves. We can approach the dojo as a metaphor for our bodies. How we are with others tells us a great deal about how we are with our selves. How we treat others show us a lot about how we treat ourselves. There’s an old Jewish saying,” you get honor by giving it”. Honorable ways begins with ourselves. Our bodies are a temple. Our body is a dojo. When we train with others it’s important to keep this in mind. In all my classes and training one of the first things I do is to declare a dojo.

A dojo is wherever you declare it to be. In your own trainings whether you are alone or with others, intentionally create the space most conducive with what you want to learn. Orient the space. Where is the front? Bring flowers or objects that lend meaning. Enter and leave it with gratitude and reverence.

Anyone can declare a dojo. In my dojos I have articulated guidelines for training. The guidelines apply to individual or group practice. I have distilled guidelines for intentions to train with from conversations with others and where I have some mastery; aikido, as a Goldsmith, in Somatic Consensus. Here are the basics that I find that apply to all of them:

  • Enter the dojo as a metaphor for our inner world
  • Cultivate qualities of the heart: Courage, Care and Gratitude
  • Muster your curiosity
  •  We are always free to begin again
  • Leave self-condemnation at the door
  • There is always room for improvement and do your best
  • Practice staying present to what is alive in you
  • Train with the values you wish to embody
  • Cultivate a spirit that honors all
  • Forgiveness is always available
  • Give your judgments only the light of your attention
  • You cannot do anything wrong in the dojo, you can always do it better.
  • Just do your best.
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