Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Aikido versus Tae Kwon Do

It was a weekend of camping with several families and many children. Both inside and outside time for scheduled events, there was plenty of time to watch children in the wild, interacting with each other naturally without some of the usual constraints and controls present in suburbia.

One evening, as dusk settled and the parents sat around the campfire, the children ran, played, and roughhoused. At one point, I looked over my shoulder and saw a new variation on tug-of-war: a pair of boys were running around picking an arbitrary third kid to use as a rope! Everybody was having fun and no one was getting hurt, so my attention returned to the fire.

As I sat and talked to another dad, my daughter approached and interrupted politely:

Daddy, the boys were running around grabbing other kids and pulling their arms. So-and-so grabbed my arm and I did that twisty thing with the elbow? Is that OK?

Katatekosadori Ikkyo, tenkan variation. She caught the cross-arm grab before it evolved into morotedori (two hands grabbing one wrist) and before the second boy grabbed her other arm (futari-gake).

Did you hurt him?

NO, Daddy! But he did have a really surprised look on his face! Then he went away.

My ten year old daughter, you may know from earlier stories, studies Aikido.

The next day we saw another scene with kids at play, but this time two young brothers became frustrated with one another. Again, it seemed fairly typical---something for the kids to work through on their own---right up until we saw what happened next: The older boy (seven years old) performed a forward lunge kick to his younger brother's chest (maegeri), knocking him back a few steps before the younger brother retaliated with a two-handed push to his brother's chest (ryokatatori). Their mother heard the yelling and jumped in to separate them.

The older sibling studies Tae Kwon Do.

If you searched the Internet for "Aikido versus Tae Kwon Do" (or Aikido versus Anything Else, for that matter) you were likely looking for something else, perhaps the typical "Who would win in a fight, Superman or Batman?" discussion or video. I will speculate that my examples are actually more typical of "Aikido versus Tae Kwon Do" in the real world.

Yes, I understand that comparison is hardly scientific: The kids are different ages and different sexes, the circumstances were different (surprise in play versus anger and frustration), there are different teachers, different families, and so forth; however, there is a point that we cannot overlook: When we perform hundreds and thousands of repetitions of one technique or another, we are conditioning how we will respond when surprised or when under stress when our "thinking brain" is absent. This response, by the way, is not necessarily limited to physical techniques; it may extend to a general attitude. We are imprinting general behavioral patterns of response.

Aikido typically conditions a completely different response than does Tae Kwon Do.

Yes, we can agree that most martial arts are Paths that lead to the peak of the same mountain; however, those paths can be very different and very far apart near the base---when we are beginners. If in addition to being beginners the students are also children, the parents should have additional concerns.

Different arts can all infuse a child with discipline, self-confidence, physical fitness, an ability to defend one's self and others, and so forth. Sending a child off to military school will likely accomplish those same goals. The question then remains: If you want to impart those qualities to your children, which path is the right path for you and yours? When your children are surprised in horseplay or frustrated in an argument and the thinking mind dissolves, how will you want your child to respond?

Sunday, July 8, 2007


Physics, chemistry, biology, math, English, ... I had a full and complicated course load. In spite of an earlier run with college and then four years in the Army, I still did not really know what I wanted to be when I grew up, so I kept my options open, taking what amounted to a full pre-med course load. This time through, maybe I would settle down somewhere out in the country as a veterinarian...

I excelled in the coursework, but admittedly an "A" in some classes amounted to more work than in others. Rote memorization always required extra effort, for instance, and keeping an adequate level of interest in some topics was simply harder than others.

Satori comes in a flash, I am told, sometimes with the well-placed and well-timed whack of a stick...

"Have you ever considered becoming a mathematician?"

Well, of course not. Why would I? Math is simply a requirement for every program that is heavy on the sciences. Otherwise I probably would not be in this class in the first place. I would find a way to test out of it if I did not need the credit hours...

"Just stop for a second and take a look at yourself."

I came to math class between the others, exhausted. I would leave my books, notebooks, and everything else behind, bringing only myself to class. If there were any questions that I could not answer immediately, I could generally work out the details in a few minutes. I naturally understood the different theorems and formulas; rather than memorizing them for tests, I would take a few minutes to derive them on the fly, leaving tell-tale notes in the margins of my papers.

Math class was where I came to relax.

"You have a gift for this."

So what? What does it mean to have a gift for something that is so easy?

Wait a minute... Oh!

And there was the epiphany.

Somehow I had developed the belief that the Path that I was supposed to pursue was going to be the most difficult Path that I could successfully navigate given my talents and skills. Somehow, an easy Path had no value---it would be a waste of my talent.

How could I have been so blind to the obvious?

I was a mathematician for a while, though later I left that Path for a more general technical problem solver where the mathematical way of thinking serves well. It was not time wasted, nor was that lesson forgotten.

It was just one minor brush with Enlightenment, however minor... I am hopeful there will be more.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Who am I?

When I was young, my parents told me I could be anything I wanted to be.

Though that may have been true to some reasonable extent, the comment was hardly helpful. Freedom to choose is a burden. So I looked to and listened to those who went before me, people I respected, for insight.

As a promising student with some ability to explain what I know, teachers and parents of troubled students saw in me a teacher.

As a student of general sciences and arts who came to math class to relax, one professor suggested I might be a mathematician.

While a student of mathematics, I once wrote a letter to the editor for the university's newspaper. A mathematics professor and role model read it, then suggested I might truly be a writer.

At the end of a summer internship program in mathematics, I presented complex findings before colleagues and a distinguished collection of interested professional mathematicians. My style was lighthearted, leading more than one to suggest that I might always have a future in stand-up comedy.

Having taken on difficult personalities and settled complex arguments, it was suggested by a friend that I should be a diplomat.

With a penchant for conflict and argument, many have told me I should be a lawyer.

The examples continue today...

Rarely did anyone else's label for me stick, and presumably there are not enough years for me in this lifetime to pursue each person's suggestion regarding what I might become. Still there is the nagging question: How is it that on my arrival at each state, an ambassador from the inner circle is there to suggest that I am in the wrong place or on the wrong Path?

Who am I? Perhaps in the present I am your reflection. Depending upon the day, your mood, or maybe even the alignment of the stars, you see in me either what is missing in you or what you believe are your favorite aspects of your self. I am what you love, what you admire, or what you disdain, what you hate. I am a kindred spirit, a friend, a facilitator, an obstacle, a necessary evil, or even an adversary. Looking back, perhaps you see in me your own past, imagining me walking your Path toward your present. Looking forward perhaps you see yourself on my Path, standing in my place in your future.

If I am your reflection, then surely you are mine as well. Then in each of you I have seen my own doubt where there should have been none. Perhaps you were telling me that I was more than you had expected, but what I heard was that I was less.

For whatever the reason from within you, you were inspired to comment; and, for whatever the reason, I was open to consider it. Regardless, somehow at that moment our energies had blended and all were affected. A butterfly had flapped its wings...

"I hear what I want to hear." The words of my grandmother, who obstinately resisted adoption of hearing aids early on, seem oddly apropos. More accurately though: "I hear what I need to hear."

Who am I? Thankfully, things are becoming clearer over time.

I am not any one of those things; I am in one way or another all those things and more. I am simply me.

You and I are like drops of water, made of the same stuff, essentially indistinguishable whether within a cloud, as raindrops, or within a lake. In the end, evaporating from the lake, we will not be remembered as mist that took the form of a raindrops and fell into the lake; rather, we will be remembered as the energy that spreads as waves through the lake as a result---how for a moment the lake was different than either the moment just before or the moment just afterward as a result of our time within it.

Fudoshin: Immovable Mind

Everybody begins with a clean slate---zero points. Over time, you will have the opportunity to earn points through tests, quizzes, explaining questions at the board, doing extra-credit work, and so forth. There will be no shortage of points, and anyone who wants to do more work will have the opportunity. When the semester ends, we will close the books, tally the points, and assign the grades. Any questions?

The baffled looks are not unexpected. Neither are the ensuing questions.

Some people will drop the class right away. Some will wait for the final day to drop. Some will panic and some will complain to the department chair. Some will stick it out.

In the end though, however unorthodox, the method is sound. Statistically, the same number of people will drop such a class as any other. The grade distribution will be the same in the end as the intelligent and the motivated will statistically separate from the slackers and those who cannot grasp the material. The cumulative points for a class will form the usual bell curve that becomes more obvious over time as more points become available. In the end, it becomes trivial for the instructor to assign the grades.

During the course of the class, no student knows exactly where he stands. The teacher may reveal where each student stands relative to the others, but at no point before the final exam is one's position final. A lead student who rests on his laurels can easily fall behind a mediocre student who is absolutely committed to working practice problems day and night to accumulate points.

In this case, the instructor constructs a game (in the sense of mathematical game theory) that exploits human nature---and that indeed can be useful in "awakening" a student. However, a student who is already confident in his place and abilities---a student who is already "awake"---cannot be affected by such a game; moreover, such a game is not necessary for such a student---whatever the final grade.

How do you perform when you are off-balanced? Lacking information? Working in a vacuum? Are you always worried about how you are viewed by others, or how you rate in comparison to others? Do you find yourself often looking for validation?

If you realize that your Path is your own, that your place on the Path is simply where you are, and if you do your best to progress, can anyone you encounter along that Path unbalance you?

Sunday, July 1, 2007

A Ronin's Story, Part 5: Teaching

At the end of class, as we sat in seiza, I had a realization. And so I asked:

Who was tested here today?

In fact, I set out that morning only to assess their readiness, not to "test" anyone, so there was no announcement that this was what had occurred. After the members speculated a bit, I gave them my answer:

I was.

In the past, I've always thought of teaching as a secondary activity. When I explained tough exercises to my friends in grade school, it was part of being a friend. When I taught RF theory to fellow soldiers operating different radio equipment, it was sharing my extra knowledge from ham radio studies with my peers so we could better accomplish our missions. When I tutored junior students in intensive foreign language studies, it benefited my own understanding. When I tutored fellow undergraduates, it was part of keeping food on the table for my family. When I taught undergraduate classes as a graduate student, it was part of my duties. When I occasionally led Aikido classes as a 2nd or 1st kyu, it was in support of my instructor who allowed me to train when I had no money. When I shared my knowledge about techniques and technologies with my peers on the job, it was helping interns to learn. When I taught night classes at the community college, it was so I could help make ends meet. When I coached friends on the intricacies of standing up businesses, it was just about being a friend. When we homeschool our children, we are simply doing what we believe is best for our children.

Currently, I am also an Aikido instructor---and once again, teaching is out of necessity. I wanted very much both to increase our dojo's ranks and to bring our group's Aikido to our homeschool community, but between those thoughts and the implementation a little over two months later, I was asked to leave the local dojo. At least until someday when we might affiliate with a larger organization with senior instructors who can help us, I am the club's de facto teacher for over twenty students.

Standing alone, I set initial testing requirements based upon my past experience and other groups curricula. This past Friday, a little over three months since our club's first meeting, four of our members demonstrated that they had met these requirements.

I cannot count the number of tests I've created, administered, graded, or supported over the years. I've tested 50 or more people at a time in different environments, but the testing of these four students was profoundly different; it was fundamentally more meaningful to me in many ways: They are my first Aikido students, this was their first Aikido test, and these are the first students I alone have had the privilege to promote.

It was not my intention to do this alone; however, having accepted this Path, I am learning more than I could have expected about many things, especially myself.

I will continue to flesh out those thoughts over time, though for today I am left with this: Is it possible that all of my life I have walked the Path of a teacher and called it anything but? Is it likely that I routinely find myself in the role of teacher if that is not a natural state for me?

It may be time to reexamine my Path from a different perspective.