I first met Geri in Seoul in 2006 when she was the ASACS (Adolescent Support and Counseling Services) counselor at Seoul American High School on the Army Base, USAG-Yongsan, and I was teaching at Dongguk, the Korean Buddhist University. Since then, she and her husband Christopher have moved from Okinawa, where she was a Behavioral Health Counselor for the Marines at Camp Foster, to Gulf Breeze, Florida in retirement with yearly visits to their property in Teos, Turkey. Currently, they are living in Florida, south of Pensacola in a beautiful spot on an estuary. Geri said she didn’t know how her life could be any better.
We spoke via Facebook Messenger when she was at home there and I was at home here in Antipolo. Thanks to Geri for the photos..
When you said you wanted to talk about martial arts, I started thinking about my own history and interest in self-improvement through a physical discipline. I was born in 1952, in a small town in Idaho. At that time and place, team sports for girls were limited, so I gravitated toward individual activities. When I was in elementary school, I did about five or six years of dance—jazz, tap and ballet. In the summer, I participated in competitive swimming and diving, along with riding the horses of my friends. At the age of twelve I started downhill skiing, and I skied with the boys because I thought the girls were too slow. I was really competitive—this speaks to why girls should be in sports—and in a town of 1,500 people in the late 50s, there was no outlet for me other than the local ski lift which was 20 minutes away. So, every available Saturday, I would take the school bus up to the lift and I became an excellent skier. In college at Idaho State University, I even took a class from an Austrian who helped me hone my skills. I think that accumulation of experiences set me on the path for individual sports and one-on-one training interactions.
When I attended the University of Oregon, I also took a class in karate, but I didn’t like the style of the class. The guys in the class teased me and said I was trying to make karate into a dance, and I’d go home with bruises up and down my forearms, but I wanted something more than just punches and kicks from a group of testosterone-loaded students.
In addition to all the above, I’ve practiced yoga for twenty years and it always seemed like a natural for me. My first style was Hatha Yoga, and the last, which I picked up during the ten years I lived in Seoul, was called Anna Forrest Yoga. Currently, I have a practice in Kriya Yoga, which is more of an internal discipline.
In Seoul I met Christopher, my husband, and he invited me to learn Aikido. I started practicing, and I really liked it. It’s a very soft style of martial arts without all the punching and kicking. It actually has a feminine quality that uses a circularity of movement which was a natural extension of the circular flowing motions that I had learned through dance. My Grand Master is Nobuo Maekawa and he lives in Kyoto, Japan. His style of Aikido is called Meikaku-kai, which means “Call of the Crane to Brotherhood.” I have progressed up through my Second Degree Nidan Black Belt in this style and am humbled to hold the highest non-Asian female black belt rank within his school.
While Chris and I were in Seoul, we also took the 45-minute train ride out to Incheon once a week to study several ancient styles of Nei Gong with Master Ahn Cheol-gyun, who originally trained in Beijing and was able to teach several styles of T’ai Chi and Qi Gong. Later we just transitioned to training at our house in Seodaemun-gu because by that time, we had built our own dojo in the basement of a large house. The Ta’I Chi style I really like is called Yang style, which is recognizable in the smooth flowing motions which capitalize on the circularity of Yin and Yang.
At the time, our intention was to help soften our style of Aikido, because the softer your technique, the more effective the throws. What I didn’t expect was that these softer styles would affect my style of counseling, to include sitting in the present moment with the client with less analyzing and more interpersonal connection. In working with the adult children of parents with a history of mental illness and addiction, I have observed that many people unconsciously engage in body rigidity and shallow breathing. Martial arts have taught me a lot about focused breathing and learning to be present in my own life. Another example would be an increased ability to connect with someone with an open heart and open mind, which dismantles defensive reactions. With Aikido, throws have a lot to do with personal intention and focus, making the skin-to-skin connection to unify their energy with our own, and thus being able to direct, disarm or disable one’s opponent. It’s never about using one’s muscle power.
I’ve learned a lot from Aikido about using the other person’s energy to move the counseling in the direction that is most beneficial to the client’s well-being. Aikido is more like a dance, and so for me it’s very natural. Morihei Ueshiba, the original founder of Aikido, said that the greatest martial art is love; he used universal principles, emphasizing no more force than is necessary, in order to protect and subdue one’s opponent. I think that speaks to the compassion of the heart which I do believe can be affected by the practice of martial arts. In counseling, my first intention is to engage the client in a way that helps them to feel more relaxed and open to discussing difficult topics.
There’s a method called neuro-linguistic programing (NLP) and this was based on the concept of which of the five senses is most dominant in a person. The therapist observes the client’s facial movements and word choice and decides whether it’s sight or hearing or whatever and then matches their own to fit. This is supposed to create a subconscious sense of common ground which will make it easier for the therapist to move the client in a particular direction.
I’ve believed for many years that it’s crucial for the teacher to meet her students where they are and not where the college catalogue says they should be. Meet them where they are, connect, and bring them along with you.
That also reminds me of Gestalt therapy, developed by Fritz Perls, which emphasizes personal responsibility and focuses upon the individual’s experience in the present moment as well as the therapist-client relationship and the environmental and social contexts of a person’s life.
I practiced Zen meditation for about a year, attending sessions at the International Zen Center in Seoul, although it was difficult to stay with the teachings due to my limited knowledge of Korean. Aikido is all about being in the present moment with focused attention and repetition of techniques to build body memory. (I have laughed at myself when getting a manicure and feeling the body memory kick in, unbeknownst to the person grabbing and rubbing my forearms; it’s a reaction from having done the same throws over and over and over. It builds up the body-mind connection.
Being present is something I’ve struggled with my whole life. Anxiety is about the future and trying to control things you can’t control, while depression is about looking to the rear, being upset about what’s happened in your life or feeling victimized by past events. I have noticed that in the past one of my coping mechanisms was to just “check out” mentally. For example, as a child in school, I’d listen to the teacher talking, and I’d just mentally “go away”. Even sitting in meetings in the 1980s, I could be in a room full of people and then I would tune out and then suddenly come back to awareness, realizing I had missed the whole conversation. Martial arts and meditation have taught me how to be present, and that has been a lifetime of growth for me.
One of the effects that Covid seems to be having on me, with having been confined in time and space, is that I seem to be focusing much, much more on one day at a time, on being here. It’s as if my mind has told itself: Look you don’t have any idea what the future is going to be, so cut it out, just one day at a time. We are right here, right now. We are confined in time and space, so just be here
Yes, and I’ve read that one of the effects of being confined during this last year has been a high prevalence of depression and anxiety in the general population. I find it’s like the universe is saying you should be present. That’s the message I get. I found the past year to be helpful in looking at my own issues. The way our world is structured, there’s so much distraction from the media —TV and entertainment and everything else—I think a lot of people have found it very difficult to look at themselves, which is what meditation teaches. I’ve enjoyed this time because I tend to be an introvert, while I think people who are extroverts have found the isolation to be more difficult.
When I was living in Tagaytay on my volcanic mountain, in many ways I was much more isolated than here because there was no Zoom. I was also not used to an environment that was as rural as this was. Here, I was in lockdown for the first two and a half months without another human. My cats were sick and dying, and for a long time I couldn’t find a veterinarian clinic that was open. That was very difficult, but I came to appreciate the new house so that I felt a little bit like a turtle in its shell.
But getting back to martial arts…
The turtle in the shell is kind of like the seasons in the northern US. There is a drawing-in that happens in the winter, just with the trees and the flowers and everything that draws in. That’s kind of what I saw during this Covid thing. I know everyone says it’s been a year from hell, but it’s been a year of growth for me.
You know, if I had it to do over again, I would insist that my daughters learn martial arts. For me it’s been quite empowering. When I first moved to Seoul in 2006, I was all by myself. I’d lived in Idaho, Oregon, California and Baltimore, and I thought I could adapt well to different cultures. I’d always admired women in history who traveled the world and my female friends who’d been to different countries by themselves.
In Seoul I went through culture shock. I learned the alphabet and sitting on the subway, I’d listen to the announcements of the various stations and sound out the names. I didn’t have anyone to tell me how to look at the culture, so I just absorbed what I saw and experienced it. Being an introvert, I found it hard to go out and explore. It was hard for me to look people in the eye when I was just passing them on the street.
Well, in Seoul some people can be very aggressive on crowded sidewalks—like male office employees at lunch hour, walking five abreast, leaving no room for anyone else. The network culture allows people to ignore those outside their network—they can be treated with all the courtesy due a lamp post.
But once I started to learn martial arts, I did develop a new level of self-confidence or self-efficacy. It allowed me to soften and not be so defensive in the way I passed people on the street. With more self-confidence I didn’t have to be so afraid. I’ve never had to defend myself. I don’t know what would happen if I did, but there is something about martial arts that I think is really good for women.
Yes, I can see that it’s a skill well worth having.
It really is. I learned in Seoul in classes in Anna Forrest Yoga about using my internal ki, or energy. After an hour of holding various yoga poses, we would sit cross-legged on the floor, and the teacher would say, “Pick a place in your body that hurts, and send that energy to that place.” In Aikido, we use our intention and a mental picture of sending that ki, or energy. For example, visualization helps to direct our intention such as seeing our clasped hands as a rope instead of an iron bar which allows the energy to flow easily to and through one’s opponent.
I find it fascinating to work with that internal energy. For me personally, it has helped me to develop a more refined mental control and not allow my mind to jump all over the place. The yoga I’m practicing now, Kriya Yoga, teaches about maya which is delusion or distraction. I’m learning that as a human being I am not the mind or the thoughts and emotions, not the body, and not even the energy body, but that deep still core, the essence of our being. With Aikido, we learn to use our tanjun (abdominals and hips) to direct our ki (energy), so I see the practice of Aikido as a refinement of the basics I learned in Anna Forrest Yoga.
Yeah, sounds good.
Over the past year, I’ve felt a big drive toward enlightenment or self-actualization as described by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: physical (air, water, food, rest, health), security (safety, shelter, stability), social (feeling loved, belonging, inclusion), ego (self-esteem, power, recognition, prestige) and self-actualization (development and creativity). I’ve been greatly influenced by David Hawkins and his Map of Consciousness, as well as various Eastern philosophies such as the writings of the Tao Te Ching which are based on a Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu in the 6th Century B.C.
I’m turning 69 this year and it’s taken me all this time to get here from there, but this has been my path. I’ve added a couple of short video clips which illustrate some of the basic techniques of Aikido, as demonstrated by Grand Master Nubuo Maekawa. The first video is of Grand Master working with my husband Christopher Dickinson (prior to his accident in 2015) and the second video is with another student of Aikido. You can see in the videos that Grand Master has a very soft technique that is powerful, without “breaks & locks.”
I think you’ve had a really interesting path.