Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Place of Practice

In all aspects of our practice, our place of practice--that which surrounds us--directly reflects every aspect of our true selves.

When we are helpless within our circumstances or if we are only observers of our circumstances, it is revealed in our environment. We see what we like; we see what we do not. We see our preferences; we see our aversions. We find ourselves weighing the cost of making change against the benefit that might be gained. All of this is seeing ourselves.

Sometimes, though, this seeing contains blindspots.  Never separate from our environment, this seeing in the last example includes the belief that we are helpless or the belief that we are only acting as observers; moreover, it continues to feedback into shaping the environment as circumstances change. This can be a paralyzing trap that the environment reveals perfectly, even if we miss it.

When the power of our practice concentrates and expands--"Keep One-Point," "Extend Ki"--the places of our practice reflect it effortlessly. This in turn is seen by all when they encounter themselves in this place and see themselves in its reflection.

Now, look around: What does this space say about you and the power of your practice? Is your energy seen here? Do you see what is missing in your reflection?

Be free in all circumstances, yes, but do not believe you are separate from them.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Technique of Meditation

I have seen the “action-oriented” folks shun meditation--shikantaza, or “just sitting”--even among those who like to think of Aikido as “meditation in motion.” That is too bad. It is sad to see a martial artist who discounts one the most important techniques available...

We spend so much time in Aikidio, like in other arts, practicing and perfecting forms--the named techniques. These techniques are not fundamentally natural responses to our circumstances until they are fully integrated, ultimately ceasing to be techniques at all--at least in the “I’m doing ikkyo / I’m practicing ikkyo / I’m trying to make ikkyo work”-sense. Until then, practice is a great effort of doing.

How is simply being still any different? Have you tried it?

Over years of practicing the basic ikkyo--well after we are effective with it--do we not continue to gain more and more subtle insight into the technique? Increased sensitivity and finesse? Do we think that meditation would be different?

Beginners often mistake meditation for “doing nothing” whereas the practice of the martial art to them is “doing something.” It takes understanding a bit beyond this explanation to realize fully that the two are both still “doing” and that the noticing itself is a reflection of the effort itself. In this context, when we say something is “effortless,” we do not necessarily mean without force or without encountering resistance; it does not mean you will not sweat or feel pain. Instead, once comfortably integrated, you are not swayed by those things--you can do what needs to be done effortlessly--without internal resistance or distraction.  When the effort is gone, so is the doing.

There is were mastery lies.

In a sense, we are all slaves to our circumstances. When our bodies need oxygen, we inhale; when saturated with carbon dioxide, we exhale. When we’re punched in the nose, it hurts. When we’re tripped, we fall. What we can do though, even if only in limited ways, is to reconfigure our conditioned, habitual responses to our circumstances in a way of our own choosing. The martial practice itself is such an effort, conditioning different physical responses to different stimuli, expanding our capacity to operate under stress and duress. However, have you considered the added technique of not responding at all? Have you considered how much effort it takes to not respond if you’ve not fully integrated it as an option?

Meditation practice is multifaceted and integral to our practice at Sword Mountain. Our Aikido classes already incorporate meditation as part of the martial training. For the non-martially inclined and for those who see the value in the extra practice, we will soon be offering a combination of morning and evening meditation sessions to open and close our days. If interested in joining us, please contact us with your needs and watch this site for schedule updates.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Studying Aikido *and* Other Martial Arts?

There is a longstanding question in Aikido circles asking whether it is appropriate to study another martial art while studying Aikido.  Whether the source of the question is a want to correct perceived deficiencies in the art, or whether there's simply an opportunity to train with another teacher who is doing something different, or whether it's something in between, the answer can ultimately be clearly found within the Aikido practice itself right in front of your eyes...

... if you know where to look.

Year after year, practice after practice, technique after technique, repetition after repetition, the Aikido student alternates between the practice of Uke and the practice of Nage again and again and again.  If the practice of Aikido was only that of Nage--the performing of the throws and pins--and the role of Uke was simply that of a dumb attacker making mistakes to be exploited or that of an actor making Nage look good on the mats, then yes, it is easy to say that another art interferes with progress in Aikido.

But is Aikido strictly the art of the Nage?

It is certainly a draw, particularly to those of the "martial effectiveness" core, to think "I want to learn to throw someone like that!" Even among longtime practitioners, who hasn't completely overlooked the skilled Uke upon seeing the flawless execution of a new technique or variation?  It is tempting to see the art of the Uke as ancillary, a practice in deliberately doing things wrong, giving up one's center, being off-balanced, and so forth.  With extreme separation in the roles, learning to be an Uke is perhaps the incidental cost of learning to be Nage.

Whether there is this bias toward being Nage or whether at the other extreme there is a concerted effort to perfect the role of Uke, we are not yet performing Aikido.  Rather, we are studying two separate arts that are diametrically opposed...

... and certainly you cannot perfect being Nage while being Uke, right?  And how could you perfect your ukemi while being Nage?

Is the question so different than asking "How can you perfect Aikido while studying Karate?"

Somehow, though, through practice after practice, we do begin to master both the roles of Uke and Nage on the way toward perfecting our Aikido.  How?

What we are learning, the Aikido itself, in no small part lies in the awareness of when we are centered and when we are off-balanced, when we are leading and when we are being led.  It is in feeling the intention impulse that precedes an attack and in feeling the impulse that precedes a defense.  The Aikido study leads us to understand that it is the ability to fluidly move between controlling and yielding that moves us toward a desired outcome harmoniously.  

The opposed constructs of "Uke" and "Nage" are teaching tools, creating an imbalance to study it.  When you assume and hold the form of Uke, you perform like this; when you assume and hold the form of Nage, you perform like that--two completely separate arts in conflict.  Ultimately, though, the roles of Uke and Nage dissolve and the realization of the Aikido practice begins.

[Inspired by the AikiWeb thread, Learning from Other Arts.]