Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Blizzard 2009

Starting Friday 18 December night and continuing through early Sunday, we were buried with approximately 2' of powdery snow.  Though the main roads were handled earlier, the plow did not find us until Sunday night.

A few pictures of snow accumulating in the back yard over the fire pit, table, and chair, as well as some sledding Tuesday afternoon in the front yard.  Sis is a great help for her brother!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Eliza, is that you?

ELIZA was an early computer program mimicing a session with therapist.  Rudimentary natural language processing on their end meant that you could have some fun on yours.

CyberCoders seems to have the edge on ELIZA for the job hunt.  I've complained in the past that it was clear no person was looking at your resume before the machine scanned it for keywords and emailed you a job description.  Inquiries or complaints via email reply were universally ignored.  I eventually set up an email filter simply to delete anything from them.

Loosening my rules as job hunt pressures increase, I deleted that rule and naturally started receiving some of the same silliness.  Today, though, I received two potential (but not very good) fits.  Replying to each with an attached resume, ostensibly to two different recruiters, I asked for information and openned the opportunity for them to offer me other positions that might be better fits.  Some time later, but just minutes apart, I received identical fill-in-the-blank form responses from each.

ELIZA could be either fun or frustrating, but in the end you had to note that any reaction at all was fruitless---after all, there's no one on the other side.

Well, CyberCoders is in business and I am not.  Maybe someday it would be fun to put my own ELIZA for job hunters out there to compete!  Better yet, maybe someday someone will get the whole selling a service aspect of headhunting down to something actually meaningful.

Nothing but fun!

In the meantime, there are actual people making calls and sending emails.  We'll see how it goes.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Think Positively?

I started to address this yesterday, but I had to pause---the point confounded me a bit:  I noticed a purported Zen Buddhist blogger giving the advice that, when you question another's motives, you are better served by assuming the best if for no other reason than that you will personally feel better.

This is very popular council in the "self-help / feel good" circles, but it is also very problematic and contrary to Zen practice.

Suppose instead of "assume the best" the author gave the advice "assume the worst."  Would the reader celebrate his advice?  If the cycle of assuming the worst in the face of every question of motive generates a negative personality, we would shun this advice, would we not?  We would not want to set up a cycle of behavior that reinforces negative emotions, would we?

But the Zen practitioner sees that "assume the best" and "assume the worst" are equally delusory.

When a common objective of Zen practice is to see clearly,  why would we accept advice to ignore what is in front of us in favor of what we will create in our own thoughts?  And why would we not scrutinize advice that deepens attached, pleasure-seeking behavior?

Sometimes we are in situations where we feel bad.  Sometimes we are in situations where we feel good.  This is not a problem.  But, here you are in your current situation.  Are you in control of yourself in spite of your circumstances, or are your circumstances in control of you?

So, how should you respond when the question of motive arises?  The first koan in our Zen tradition considers a similar question:

Mount Sumeru

A student asks Master Yun-Men, "Not even a thought has arisen; is there still a sin or not?"

Without hesitation, the master responded, "Mount Sumeru!"

Why did the master answer this way?

Can you catch the sense of this koan?  What are your thoughts?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Ignoring or Denying Thought?

In Aikido class today, I gave a fairly brief introduction to Patriarchal Zen practice so that interested students could begin their own exploration and find for themselves the relevance to our martial arts practice.  A student, in an effort to summarize, asked roughly if the practice was about practicing ignoring thought.

In an effort to centralize my hybrid Aikido & Zen studies, I've been posting my thoughts and responses on the Sword Mountain Aikido & Zen website.  You can find my first-draft answer to this question here.

Please feel free to visit and comment!

Ignoring or Denying Thought? A Note to a Student

You asked a good question that I did not get to address:  In essence, is Zen practice about ignoring trapping questions or even realizing that the subject of the question is not real?

The answer is non-trivial.  To investigate this, you should consider this question from two points of view, your own and the questioner's.

  • From your own, ask: If I ignore a thought, where does it go?
  • From another's, ask: Is ignoring a question not itself an answer?

Once an something becomes part of your consciousness, you have no choice but to respond.  So, how does one properly respond?  Zen looks for precisely the same thing that Aikido does:

clear, spontaneous, and appropriate response to your circumstances that restores harmony.

That statement, though, has many land mines, and in my view is almost universally misunderstood.  My goal for my Aikido teaching, besides training an effective martial art, would be to find a person or two who could clearly see the meaning this, perhaps even better than I can.

The first koan I was given was very succinct:

A student asks Master Yun-Men, "Not even a thought has arisen; is there still a sin or not?"  Master Yun-Men replied, "Mount Sumeru!"  Why did the master answer this way?

If you see why Master Yun-Men answered the student this way, you will also see why this study is relevant to  Aikido practice.

I am happy to help to whatever extent I can and to point you to others where I cannot.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The "Guided Missile" Attack

While the defender is learning a new technique, his execution is naturally rough at best.  To give the defender an opportunity to study his own movement at a slower speed, the attacker will sometimes compensate with a bit of "acting," moving at less than full speed and full power.

Naturally, the goal is that this interaction will build over time toward fluency in the face of full speed and full power.  In the meantime, however, there is the phenomenon whereby the attacker will continuously adjust his slow-motion punch, for instance, following the defender's movement quite unnaturally so as to land the strike.  Here, I often find myself cautioning the the students:

No guided missile attacks!!!

... but I have come to reconsider whether my advice is actually counter-productive.

Where Does it Come From?

Consider:  Following the defender does in fact represent the attacker's pure intent to find his target.  After all, no one instructed the students to chase their opponents with a punches, for instance, so we really have no choice to consider this movement somehow natural and pure.  This purity of intention is precisely the root of the often discussed "fully committed attack" and is something we wish to cultivate at least through the intermediate stages of practice, giving the defender the opportunity to practice the principles and techniques of handling this energy.

As practice moves through intermediate stages into the advanced practice, the defender must learn to deal with the less-than-fully-committed attack (such as feints and combination attacks) and recovery from failed techniques (including changing techniques).  Here, the defender must be sensitive to the attacker's intention and energy as well as to changing conditions in order to practice operating "freely."  Also at the higher levels, the attacker should learn not to follow his physical attack with his mind.  As noted in an earlier post, the archer need not "follow" his arrow downrange to see if it lands; rather, he should ready his next arrow or moving from the area.  Launching even a powerful attack need not be more than an impulse on the attacker's part, allowing him to observe and to make adjustments from a centered state.  At this stage, the attacker should become sensitive to the defender's attempts to manipulate him and should learn to take advantage of them (such as with countering techniques).

Leading Ki

The "guided missile" is perhaps the simplest and most explicit example we have of the principle of "leading ki."  If, for instance, we see an attacker reaching to grab your shoulder, and if the attacker is actually intent upon grabbing your shoulder, your pivoting your body back away from the grasp so that your shoulder stays just ahead of the attacker's grasp will likely draw the attacker off balance into the circular motion of your pivot.  There is the "guided missile" in a more realistic attack, and it is precisely the affect we are practicing to create.  We would not correct the beginning or intermediate student for pursuing the shoulder, would we?

Naturally, there is a balance to be struck between practice and realism.  Consider that if the defender pivots too quickly, placing his shoulder obviously out of reach, the attacker would be hard pressed to follow; instead, he may realistically select a different target and reengage---no guided missile occurs.  Here, we may laugh if the attacker does continue to pursue that particular shoulder as the defender pivots around and around and around, but for training beginners, we can discern the value of such apparent silliness.

So, what about the munetsuki "lunge punch" or shomenuchi "downward strike" that tracks the opponent?  Well, in fact they do, just not as dramatically as when performed in slow motion.  The strikes are not essentially different than the grabbing attacks except in the amount of power present and perhaps in the intent (perhaps to harm rather than to control, for example).  As the speed and power develop, the attacker will simply not be so able to follow so directly.

It is an interesting phenomenon that students and teachers alike should consider.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Signs You Knew Better?

I'm sitting in the library, on the Internet, looking for work.  I took my coffee with me this morning in a travel mug given to me by the company that last laid me off.  It reads:

From Science to Solutions
Technology Research Integration and Business Unit

We were TRIBU: "Technology Research and Integration" Business Unit.

Check the last line on that travel mug again...  "Feel free to carry them in customer spaces!"


So, disclaimer: SAIC is a very big corporation with many, many business units and certainly hires good people and does good work.  Still, ...

Six-Count Jo Kata Meditation?

The Iwama-style of Aikido has a fairly simple six-count kata for the jo.  So simple in basic form, beginners love it and are delighted to discover that these six moves are embedded in the same style's 31-count jo kata---the six moves beginning at movement 13.

In essence:
  1. Thrust to Uke's center.
  2. Block above.
  3. Strike downward at Uke's head from above.
  4. Slide back to your rear left corner, drawing the staff down behind you as if holding a broom.
  5. Step in and strike at Uke's calf.
  6. Slide back to your rear right corner, flipping the staff to parry a thrust downward.
  7. And now you're set to begin again with Step 1.
As in the last post, you might ask, "Is that all there is?"  Naturally, you can find as much as you willing to search for.

Certainly the description above is very naive and not designed to teach you the kata; it's just to show you six steps and nothing more. There can be incredible nuance to the movements: how to handle the weapon just so, your posture, your balance and shifting of weight, how to pivot and turn properly, and so forth.  We can introduce an imaginary opponent, or an actual opponent, to give meaning and timing to the movements; or, even a solid object such as a tree to give the feel of striking a solid object versus striking air.  The blocking movements evolve; they are not just blocks, but rather making contact with and guiding an incoming attack.  The robotic, by-the-numbers "one-two-three" performance will smooth into continuous motion.

And, in time, conscious thought leaves the process.  The body knows the movements.  We can now perform the kata unconsciously, mindlessly, stringing one set of six movements after another until we wear ourselves out.  But this is not necessarily meditation yet.  Where is the mind while the body performs this kata ritual?

Let's consider this same kata differently:
  1. See an opening at Uke's side; thrust through it.
  2. See Uke's head is unprotected; cut downward at it.
  3. See Uke's leg is in range; do a sweeping strike at it.

Center.  High.  Low.  Center.  High.  Low.  Center.  High.  Low. ...  Consciously identify the targets and, without hesitation, take them.  The evasions, blocking, parrying, and so forth?  You transition through them on the way to your targets.  Launch the attacks like releasing an arrow: your body knows how to perform the strike; your mind does not have to follow it to the destination.  Launch the attack and reset your mind, coming back to center, ready for the next target.

Practicing in this way, remaining conscious and aware of Uke and our other circumstances, we work on integrating the mind and the body.  Sense the opening and take it.  Sense the danger and evade it.  Continue with your mission; move toward your intent.

Commit the individual basic methods of striking, blocking,  parrying, to "muscle memory," yes, but learn how to transition smoothly between them.  From this position, how can I find that target?  This begins to develop "fluency" with the weapon.  In time, improvisation appears and is no longer considered an "error" in performing a kata's form.

Kata is no longer a rote practice, but is alive.

Now it is a true martial practice.  Now it is a Zen practice as well.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


How powerful you are
To convince yourself of your
Own powerlessness!

The evidence of whatever you believe is all around you.  You cannot help but find it.  You will create its truth or die trying.

The truth does not depend upon your belief.  So, now what?

"Is that all there is?" Don't know.

For some Aikido students, the study of the art becomes a lifelong endeavor.  It turns out that I am one such person.

After a few years of practice, it occurred to me that my breathing was not quite right while practicing, so I dedicated the next year of practice to watching my  breath during techniques.  The rest of the practice was routine, but my attention was on improving this aspect.  There was a period of several months where I consciously explored feeling better balanced during practice.  Every so often, I appreciate spending a few weeks exploring softness in execution.  I may dedicate a few sessions at a time to the spirit of irimi in execution.

And for the last few years, I have been working on teaching beginners as well as integrating my Zen practice into my Aikido.

There is no end to the possibilities.

It is easy to conclude that Aikido has infinite depth, and certainly it would not be wrong to say so, but what is the real lesson here?

What happens once we believe there is more?  What happens when we believe that that there is no more?  In the most limited sense, either belief may affect whether or not we attend class tonight.  Expanding ever so slightly, how we approach the next class in no small way is affected.  How our training partners, students, and instructors experience that session is also affected.  And so it goes.

Holding a belief sets a course for exploration.  We inherently seek the evidence that our beliefs are correct. Whether the beliefs are ultimately true or not is irrelevant; the magic is what happens once we believe.  We have this spotlight and we point it where we choose.  Don't just see what happens when we point it; look at the pointing itself!  There is the magic.

But is it necessary to believe?  What happens if we replace believing not with disbelief, but rather with not knowing?  Will we fail to function?  Will Aikido cease being Aikido if we do not hold ideas like "Aikido is this, not that"?  Will we fail to learn or fail to acquire skill?  To the contrary, we will find ourselves exactly where we are, open to all possibilities.

Should we then believe that holding no belief is better than holding a belief?  This question is most certainly a trap.  How can we resolve it?

Don't know...

Recognize that it is not essential to have an answer.  Just practice.

[Inspired by Ron Ragusa's post, "One Hundred and Forty-Seven."]

Friday, November 13, 2009

"Leave your problems at the door, they'll be waiting for you when class is over."

An AikiWeb thread asks what others think about these words on a sign at a dojo.  It is hard to imagine that there could be argument about something so simple, but AikiWeb is known for such debate. It is also true that some interesting points of view were revealed, including those considering the goal of integrating on-the-mats Aikido practice with off-the-mats daily life.  Some cited the possible use of Aikido practice as an escape from other responsibilities, and some suggested that the poor state of mind that you bring to your practice is a part of you to be worked out on the mats with everything else.

There is much to consider---including several questions of what I like to call "Applied Zen"---but, to get started, here is my first contribution to that thread:

If a bokken (image from Wikipedia) is swinging at your head, you'd be hard pressed to argue that you couldn't move because you're behind on the bills. Handling the attack does not deny the bills.

Similarly, your maiming the attacker because you had a bad day is also unjustified. A vigorous practice can positively transmute a shitty day into a wonderful evening, but there's no need to imagine your boss' face on uke as part of the process.

The ability to remain fluid is very important. Part of this is is developing the ability to realize quickly when you are stuck and to shift yourself quickly from that state. This "stuck" comes in different flavors between "attachment" (e.g., can't let go of a bad day, focusing on uke's grasp, focusing on uke's blade, etc.) and "aversion" (e.g., escaping life by going to practice, avoiding that technique because you're not good on that side, etc.), but the result is the same: you're out of "center."

The sign is a tripwire, a reminder. Changing clothes, bowing in, and so forth are other reminders: "This is where and when we practice Aikido."

What are your thoughts?

Monday, November 9, 2009

Birthday Wishes?

I've already been cautioned about wishing for more wishes, so let's
try a different angle, an experiment of sorts: What if *my* birthday
wish this year is that *your* wish comes true...

That your dream would be held in someone else's intentions -- that
could be pretty powerful, don't you think? Is it worth searching your
soul and drumming up a little faith that it just might be work?
So, what would it be?

You've got until I see a few candles and am instructed to blow them
out to let me know, so don't delay! Post openly, post anonymously, or
send me a private message - your choice. Get on it!

Friday, November 6, 2009

"Dolly Parton's Resume"

It's no secret.  Everybody knows.  It's public knowledge.  No matter how much I try to dress myself down, though, there they are:  I have longstanding credentials in the defense / intelligence sector, and I have held a security clearance in the past.

But it has been a long time coming---arguably since I started down that path---that I knew that that was not the right place for me.  I stuck with it, though, and explored it from every possible angle---as a soldier in the Army, as a civilian government employee, as a commercial contract employee, and even as an independent contractor---and still I had the lingering feeling that this path was simply not for me.  In exploring this space, I was an Arabic linguist, a mathematician, a computer scientist, software and systems engineers, a telecomms guy, as a worker and as a manager---and, again, I had the lingering feeling that this path was simply not for me.

And so, when the next round of nonsense occurred at the office and the next radical changes occurred at home, I declared that I was done.  Period.  I am going to find a better way.

Now, all of the time I spent trying to find a way to love what I was doing, but ultimately learning how much I disliked it and why I was doing it?  That time just made me increasingly attractive to the people I don't want to be in bed with anymore.  And that sharpens my dislike.  And that attracts more of these situations.  And that sharpens my dislike.  And that attracts more of these situations.  And ...


This is not to say that I am imagining the strong undertow that would pull me out to sea.  In fact, just this past week I was persuasively invited up to an office suite to check out their etchings---which, naturally, turned out to be classified.  How could it have been otherwise?!  In my view, I'd been duped.  I allowed myself to believe that I was being heard during the 40-minute phone interview a week earlier wherein I was very clear about my intentions.  And there I found myself, in their space, hopeful...  And then there it was:  The Expected Proposition.

But even this, my description of the encounter, shows my state of aggravation bleeding through.  In fact, what was offered was something more akin to this:  "We heard you say you do not want to do classified work anymore.  How about you hold a clearance, work closely with them in a classified advisor capacity, and direct mostly-unclassified technical work on their behalf?"  I am sure they thought they were being helpful in some way while doing their best to sell me on the idea, but clouded with what they wanted to see they did not hear me clearly either. 

How do you escape this pattern?

Dolly Parton has great legs.

Expecting to see ... obstacles? ... you will see only obstacles and perhaps you will miss the opportunities.  Staying clear and on course is a challenge, but you must know that that is where the solution will appear.

In the meantime:

Hey, Tech Companies with something to offer the Intelligence Community!!!  Do you know what is more attractive and more profitable than providing cleared bodies?  Selling them software tools that they can use!!!  Do you know what they need?  Do you know what would give your product an edge?  Do you know how to get them in?  Do you want to?

Hey, Any Company!!!  I bet you're stuck in a rut that you don't even know you have.  Do you really know how you are seen?  Have you really considered your alternatives?  How would you know if you did?  It's an interesting question, don't you think?  What do customers, providers, and employees really see when they interact with you?  Do you know?  Are you sure?

Do you see a guy who can help?

Or, do you see a previously-cleared body you think you could dust off and bill out.

Let me know.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Great Faith, Doubt, and Effort in Training

Linda Eskin presents some good insight in her blog post, Grab My Wrist - Your Teacher is Always Right.  It is indeed very constructive and natural advice to the teacher that if your students don't understand something, presume that it is your fault; similarly, it is very constructive and natural advice to the student to presume that the teacher is right.

I will only add that, over time, both points of view must be merged and released.

It can be said that on any path,  there are three key elements necessary to progress:

Great Faith
Great Doubt
Great Effort

You must have some faith in the the effort you are making, that it will produce the results you are seeking in spite of the constant doubt you must hold in continually examining and questioning what you currently hold as true as you experience more along the way.

The student should not surrender doubt in placing faith in his instructor's methods, nor should the instructor surrender faith in doubting his methods when facing a student who does not understand.  Both student and teacher require balance in faith and doubt as they make the great effort every practice session.

Naturally, you should not have blind faith even in this post!  You should doubt it and check it against your own experiences as they arise to see if it makes sense.  Keep what makes sense and discard the rest.

Zen River Crossing

Came to cross the river
Realized, "Already there..."
Where did the raft go?

No, no essay---just the not-quite-a-haiku.

Friday, October 30, 2009

New at Sword Mountain - Ikkyo vs. Not-Ikkyo: Intention in Aikido

Just a heads-up to readers here that new Aikido and Zen material is posted to the Sword Mountain Aikido and Zen blog. The latest installment, "Ikkyo versus Not-Ikkyo: Intention in Aikido" describes my own failure in teaching a technique and how that is a personal point of practice for me.

Read and comment!

Ikkyo versus Not-Ikkyo: Intention in Aikido

Techniques in Aikido?

When an instructor sets out to demonstrate an Aikido technique, essentially he is not doing Aikido.

Ridiculous?  Well, yes and no.  If we think of Aikido as a martial art that has movements like this and techniques like that, then naturally "doing Aikido" includes "doing techniques."  Indeed, the basic practice of Aikdio has participants working in pairs, taking turns performing a particular defenses against a particular attacks.  From this point of view, the student would like to know that each particular technique is effective, and the teacher should be able to demonstrate its effectiveness.  To prove effectiveness, naturally the technique should work under adverse conditions including heavy resistance, yes?

Actually, no...

Take a Step Back: Intention

Suppose one person's intention of "I must do the ikkyo technique" encounters another's "I will not allow the ikkyo technique to be done to me"---Ikkyo versus Not-Ikkyo.  Before you know it, a wrestling match is underway---the manifestation of the two intentions in opposition.  One must prove he can; one must prove the other can't.  This opposition is completely contrary to the higher practice of Aikido.

Over time, the student practices many, many defenses against each attack with endless repetition.  But why so many?  After all, if you could make that ikkyo work under any circumstances, you would never need another technique, right?

Ah...  So, it turns out that the best defense against the famous not-ikkyo attack is generally not the ikkyo defense itself.  As a matter of fact, in some styles, there are several techniques that essentially begin from a position that may be described as "ikkyo failing," including nikkyo, sankyo, and kotegaeshi...

But, taking one step further, one may ascertain that not-ikkyo is really not a particularly threatening attack and probably requires no defense at all!

But, in an actual interaction, when in the midst of ikkyo you find resistance to ikkyo, you should naturally adapt.  Remaining sensitive to the changing circumstances and finding the appropriate response to a physical threat is the realm of Aikido practice.  "Getting stuck" trying to make a technique work is a failure in Aikido practice.

So, Who Needs Ikkyo?

Is this absolution for your ikkyo that never seems to work?  No, of course it is not.  Within your encounter, you have available to you whatever physical techniques, principles, movements, and so forth, that you have practiced under similarly stressful conditions.  If a poor ikkyo is in your bag of possibilities, you are naturally at a loss.  Conversely, if more, better practiced techniques are in your bag, you are in a better position.  However, the practice of not getting stuck itself does not require a large number of techniques; rather, sincere practice that includes watching for these details, including learning to sense when you are stuck, is enough.

So, We Cooperate Then? No!

So, woe to the nage (defender) who needs to practice his ikkyo while his uke (attacker) is intent upon practicing not-ikkyo.  Uke must be corrected to note that this is not the time for this type of interaction.  And woe also to the nage whose uke holds the cooperative intention "his ikkyo will happen!" After all, when should it be the attacker's intention to cause a particular technique to happen?  In neither case will nage have the opportunity to practice the technique properly.

Ideally, uke need only hold an intention such as "control (or harm) nage," or more specifically "control nage by first grabbing his wrist" (designating the attack), to begin the exchange.  The exchange, then, however chaotic, will flow from and be bound by these intentions.

It can be tricky to navigate...

So, from where did this thought come?

Last night I had the pleasure to demonstrate Aikido's versions of ikkyo, nikyo, and sankyo, to a handful of friends with varied martial backgrounds and competitive spirits.  Picking a competitive martial artist friend about 100 pounds heavier than I to demonstrate a finer point of ikkyo, I met his evil grin and his not-ikkyo...

... and I failed quite miserably!

The failure was allowing myself, the de facto instructor, to be drawn in, attempting to force the ikkyo against another's not-ikkyo, first for the sake of instruction, and then as a battle of physical strength.

Hopefully I did not leave anyone with a bad impression of Aikido.  At least I found a reminder of what I am personally practicing in the Zen-based investigation of the art.  There is where I need to work.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Do you only develop rote skills in your martial practice?

Thought does not move the body.

Yell at your hand and demand that it move! Does it? Of course not... Yet, assuming you do not lack certain ordinary functionality, you can and do move your hand at will, without thought and without concentration.  What is it exactly that does this?

And what can possibly interfere with it?

What sensory perception is your left foot providing you right now? Without calling your attention to your foot, you may not have even consciously been aware that it was there; but, now that it is, what do you feel? How about your right hand? What does it feel? And when you brought your attention to your hand, what became of your foot? Bring your attention to your your left hand. What does it feel? What is 9 x 6? When you did the math, what happened to your hand?

In the middle of the night, walking on a dimly lit path, a thin wavy shadow on the ground catches your attention. Seeing a snake, you momentarily seize. Realizing it is only a stick, you gather your composure and continue on. What is it that made a snake out of a stick, and what made the body respond as it did?

In your own martial arts practice, are you simply learning rote mechanical skills, or are you also challenged to consider things a bit more deeply? Can you imagine the difference such practice would have on your training?

What might "integrating mind and body" really mean in practice?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Aikido: Uke, Nage, & Mushin - Still active!

Just a pointer to new readers that the old thread is very slow, but still active.  There's a focus of my personal practice discussed in there, so naturally I'd like to keep the conversation going!

If you're interested in the place where martial arts and Zen practice meet, revisit the thread:

Inexhaustible Things: Aikido: Uke, Nage, and Mushin

and keep tabs on Sword Mountain Aikido and Zen,  where we're working to explore these connections more deeply in practice.

For those martial artists in the Severn, MD 21144 area, Baltimore Zen Center will be running a seminar on the connections between the Tae Kown Do and Zen practices this Saturday 17 October! Visit the BZC website for details.

A Reference Thread for Aikido and Zen

It is not strictly necessary that martial artists study the duality of their study with Zen, nor that Zen students study the duality of their practice with the martial arts.  Until it is thoroughly understood why this is so, though, the student who enjoys the dual practices of finding one's self both in thought and in physical motion may have some advantage.

The link below is to a discussion that started with a question or two on AikiWeb and moved to my personal blog. It is viewed often, but we are really fortunate when someone is inspired to question or comment on the thread.  As time passes, my understanding deepens and I make the opportunity to test the understanding in class.  It is a fun process, integrating Aikido and Zen studies, and it is the root of what we are trying to accomplish at Sword Mountain Aikido and Zen!

Pay a visit to the thread.  What are your thoughts?

Inexhaustible Things: Aikido: Uke, Nage, and Mushin

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Sword Mountain Aikido and Zen

Just a note to readers here that much of my future Aikido and Zen postings will appear at the new website, Sword Mountain Aikido and Zen.

Many of my local friends and I are challenged by schedule and the commute to my home base at the Baltimore Zen Center, particularly when faced with work, homeschooling, and family responsibilities.  To extend the reach, making Aikido and Zen more accessible to the locals, I'm inviting any interested friends to join me in my own practices in Columbia, Maryland.

If you're interested in learning more, wherever you are, view the new blog and send an email!

Who is in Control?

O-Sensei said that Aikido was to be practiced joyously, yet there is no question that discipline as a necessity in any martial arts practice.  Are the points of view at odds?  It is only a light paradox at best, since---particularly in Aikido---we understand that we are training to remain calm and relaxed under extreme duress.  It becomes the instructor's job to balance the forces within the class, or perhaps to take advantage of whatever energy is present that day and to use it as part of the day's lesson.

The Situation

Today was a bit unusual:  There was a mixture of rowdy goofiness and frustrated tension among the students.  Some, in particular, were enjoying the impact of their silly behavior upon the others' frustration.  From the outside, it was clear seeing the goofiness spreading among some of the students, and it was also clear seeing the frustrated responses that at least once ended with a scream, "Knock it off!"

It all led to an interesting discussion before bowing out at the end of class.

An Appropriate Response

Aikido and Zen both seek the spontaneous and appropriate response to deal with immediate circumstances.  "Appropriate" may take any number of meanings, but it is often misunderstood in the context of popular Aikido notions of love and harmony and peaceful conflict resolution.  In the future we will discuss in more detail what we mean by an "appropriate response," but for now it is sufficient to say that an appropriate response in either practice is one that simply comes from your "center."  What does thiis mean? It is not burdened, conditioned, limited, or driven by thoughts, concepts, culture, assumptions, or anything else; rather, it is an immediate and pure response to what you are given.  Moreover, in order to achieve this, you must first have seen clearly what you are given, not superimposing thoughts, concepts, culture, assumptions, or anything else over what you experienced directly.

So, who was right and who was wrong?  In fact, it was the student who yelled "Knock it off!" who received the brunt of today's lecture.

It was already understood that the students who were acting up had lost their bearing---they were not centered, but rather were acting from positions of escalating antics, feeding on each other's enjoyment as well as the others' frustration.  What was not immediately clear was how the angry student's response was equally not clear.  While his response may have seemed justified or deemed allowable, in fact it was not a clean response; he was acting not from his center, but from a position of anger and frustration.  He had lost his bearing just as much as the others.

Is this distinction important?  Yes, it is very important, both in martial arts and in everyday life.  Consider this:  If you can be baited, your actions can be manipulated.

So, Who is in Control?

So, in any given situation, however pleasant or unpleasant and however extreme or mundane, is it you who is in control of yourself, or is it the situation that is in control of you?  Does your anger get the better of you, or can you realize that you are angry and choose an alternative course of action in response?

In Aikido, we drill different jujitsu techniques again and again and again until we internalize them, until we are able to perform them without thought.  But this in itself is not our Aikido practice.  Applying these learned techniques under extreme stress is also not our complete practice.  Rather, practicing to remain cognizant and in control of ourselves before, during, and after such a physically threatening encounter, fluidly applying and adapting those techniques and principles that we have already internalized in order to resolve the situation: this is our higher practice.

Then, if we lose ourselves in the moment, we are at least trained to defend ourselves.  In the best case, however, we are doing all of that and more: we are practicing a highly physical and engaged form of Zen practice.  We are looking to see who is in control.  This is our goal of our integrated practice.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Aikido at Sword Mountain

Aikido is a modern martial art originating in Japan with roots in the koryu combative arts. For some, what distinguishes Aikido from other martial arts are flowing, graceful movements ending with fabulous throws or pins; for others, what distinguishes Aikido from other popular martial arts is its explicit philosophy, which, depending upon who explains it, may include love, harmony, protection, non-competition, and so on.

In a simplified sense, Aikido's founder, Uyeshiba Morihei, found his understanding of the universe's workings in Oomoto Kyo, a religion with Shinto roots, and saw Aikido as an expression of those principles. However, Oomoto Kyo is quite esoteric; even most of the founder's earliest Japanese students, today regarded as master instructors, reportedly did not understand what must have sounded to them to be mystical babbling.

But even in the earliest days of Aikido, there is evidence that some first generation students of the founder thought it reasonable to substitute the more mainstream, more accessible Zen practice for Oomoto Kyo practice. Today, in some Aikido lineages, Zen studies are offered as an adjunct to Aikido practice, and vice versa – you are free to pick and choose what suits you.

At Sword Mountain, we are working to tightly couple our Patriarchal Zen koan and meditation studies with our Aikido teaching so that they are mutually supportive and so that each is seen as a clear manifestation of what we are ultimately studying. We continually return to the Aikido founder's purpose masakatsu agatsu katsuhayabi – true victory is victory over oneself right now – and the founder's objective, takemusu – the spontaneous generation of an appropriate response (martial, in this case) to your situation – in our practice. We consider the name of the art itself, “the Way (Do) of Harmony / Love / Joining (Ai) with Ki,” and consider what it means to us as students of both Zen and Aikido.

If you are interested in joining our Aikido practice, please contact us. Beginners through advanced Aikido practitioners from any style who share an open mind for Zen practice are welcome to join us.

Zen: Don't Suffer Alone

We all live charmed lives, right up until we don't. Eventually, we all face personal trials – that is the nature of life itself. Different people deal with them in different ways. It's really quite natural to feel alone, overwhelmed, even helpless sometimes. It's natural to believe that no one can understand your grief.

The feelings are real – there is no denying that you feel them – but what is the source of those feelings, and what is the effect of rehashing this internal grief-filled dialog with yourself? What are you not accomplishing while you are dwelling in this dark place?

What is the path out of this suffering?

Zen practice cuts directly to the heart of suffering. It's a practice that can have some immediate results, sometimes just from having a trusted, uninvolved third-party opening your eyes to a different point of view. More importantly, though, longer-termed, consistent practice deepens your understanding and mental balance. As you come to understand the nature of suffering and come to understand yourself, you come to experience greater freedom in your life, whatever your circumstances.

We offer non-religious, non-denominational Zen practice tailored to our fellow American laity. What does that mean? We're ordinary folks, just like you: We live in the world with our hopes, dreams, families, jobs, bills, and all of the other problems, just like you. If we haven't lived it ourselves, we probably know someone who has. We don't present dogma or doctrine, nor do we relish in ceremony. We are not offering you a religion to join, nor are we asking you to turn from your current faith if you have one; if anything, Zen practice helps many to appreciate their current faith more deeply and with new understanding. Our primary teaching is through meditation and simple conversation over a pot of tea (or, a cup of coffee, or even a beer) and koan (kong-an) practice rather than “just sitting,” study of sutras, chanting, or other practices.  The bit of quiet to settle the mind plus the koan meditations are a wonderful way to ground yourself and face the day.

So, don't suffer alone.  Contact us.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Zen and Aikido: An Exercise

First, a Technique

We begin with your opponent, the uke, standing in front of you, grabbing your arms at the elbows, pushing slightly. Your job is to slide off-line to the left with your left foot---whether entering forward or retreating back---and then pivot on the ball of your left foot so that your right leg swings around behind you, turning you 180-degrees. If you can do this while raising uke's right elbow---the one grabbing your left arm---while simultaneously lowering uke's left arm, your opponent will lose his balance and be thrown.

In the Aikido parlance, this is a "pivot throw," one of any number of kokyunage techniques---also known as "timing throws," or "breath throws"---that seemingly rely more upon finesse than any other principles to throw your opponent.  These are the techniques that you cannot "make work;" they are not forced so much as they simply happen by virtue of the circumstances, which in this case are uke's push and your pivoting out of the way, essentially allowing uke to fall on his own accord.  In a sense, uke throws himself with minimal guidance from you.

Fundamentally, these kokyunage techniques happen because you do not provide your opponent with the reaction---in this case, the resistance to his push---that he expects.

So, how do we teach a technique that should just happen?  In Aikido, we traditionally do this beginning with a contrivance: Uke knows in advance that he will be thrown with this technique and willingly gives his energy to create the attack without attempting to resist or to counter your defense; this allows you the opportunity to practice.

Here, martial arts "realists" are very critical: "That technique will never work. What if I do this?"

The Experiment

After practicing this one technique for a bit, we change the instructions:  We begin the same way, with your opponent grasping your elbows; this time, however, you grasp your opponent's elbows as well.  Now your orders: "See who can throw who first.  Begin!"

As you might expect, a lot of fun chaos ensues.  Classmates jockey for advantage, whirl each other about, push and pull, and so forth.  One or both eventually fall, and they get up and begin again. You may conclude that the realists were right: that pivot throw technique for the most part did not work...

... but who said to use that technique or to make it work?

The Zen in the Martial Art

Let's do a very quick analysis from the coarse to the fine:

  • Beginning with the intention to throw and not to be thrown, the nature of the interaction changes from the outset.  This was no longer, "I was pushed, so naturally I pivoted;" this was "I must defeat you."  There was palatable tension between each pair---playful, friendly tension, but tension nonetheless.  The habitual tendency to meet resistance with resistance and to "lock horns" was clearly evident, and this is contrary to traditional Aikido teaching of relaxation in the face of conflict.
  • The assumption that we must use the last technique and make it work---and the assumption parallel assumption that your opponent will be trying to use this same technique on you---naturally foiled any successful outcome more often than not. It cannot be overstated: making a technique work (in the sense of forcing a technique) is not the province of Aikido.
  • Why did everyone inevitably hold on to his opponent's elbows throughout the interaction, even while being swung about?  Yes, it was the starting position, but recall that the successful throw did not require the defender to grab.  Interestingly enough, the students did not maintain the grabs because they thought they had to; rather, more focused on the game, their minds were essentially not free to consider releasing the grip! When the mind is focused over here, it is not tracking what's going on over there.
  • Finally, when the circumstances were right, the technique did just happen.

After discussing these points, we resumed the same practice with a new objective: Become an observer in the interaction.  See if you can notice when you have locked horns with your opponent.  See if you can notice when you are stuck in the interaction, and see if you can recover and fix it.  See if you can feel when something is not working and then change it.  See how you respond when you are pushed or when you are pulled.  What is your natural reaction?  Can you notice it and change it on the fly?  Also take the time to explore your partner's reactions---what happens when you push or pull?  Are you actually aware that, except perhaps for your elbows themselves, your entire body is available to you? And are you aware that, when your opponent is grabbing your elbows, his own hands are not immediately available to harm you, and that if you keep his mind occupied or off-balanced, he might not be able to let go?

It would be nice to say that this miraculous insight resulted in perfect Aikido, but of course that was not the case.  The quality of the practice did change toward better Aikido, though, and that is a good thing.

Some Notes

I explain very simplistically---and perhaps erroneously---that Aikido is a layer above jujitsu techniques.  We have whatever physical techniques (and underlying principles) that we can master under stress at our disposal.  Using them freely---"with mind and body integrated," as some would say---to generate spontaneous and appropriate responses to physical encounters is part of the deeper Aikido practice itself.  Deeply realizing---and not in an intellectual sense---that mind and body were never separated in the first place, and manifesting this realization in daily life, is a goal of the Way (the "do" in Aikido) itself.

The parallels to how Zen practitioners work in meditation are unmistakable.

And as always, this is the focus of my own study as well as my teaching.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Baltimore FD Fills the Boot for MDA!

Joby and I spent all day Tuesday with the brave firefighters of Baltimore City. For Joby, it was a chance to meet the big city's firefighters and to see trucks and other equipment; for the firefighters, it was a chance to meet Joby and his family.

For over 70 continuous years---including the last 50+ years of Jerry Lewis' MDA Labor Day Telethon---the Baltimore Fire Department has actively participated in Muscular Dystrophy Association's "Fill the Boot" campaign to raise funds for Jerry's Kids. In this event, whatever the weather, on-shift or off, firefighters work the intersections, the streets, the bars, the homes, and so forth, asking you to toss your spare change or better into their boots for Jerry's Kids. When the calls come in, they take off to do their jobs; when done, they return to their corners---amazing!

But is it really worth it to stand about in the summer heat, sweating, tired, essentially begging for spare change? What difference can a boot-full of change and singles make? MDA's National office prepared a video that the MDA representative showed to the assembled troops. I don't know if the data is from last year or earlier, but in the end, firefighters nationwide collected and donated over $27 million to the MDA during the telethon!

Now, what does that mean for the families? That is what Joby and I were there to tell them...

This was not an easy day. MDA has already helped us tremendously in just these two years since my son's diagnosis. To light a fire under these firefighters, so to speak, who are quite accustomed to seeing tragedy, it was up to us to connect with them very deeply, share our story, inspiring them to do their best in this brief effort. To share so deeply and completely about things such as the progression of a deadly disease that affects your child, job loss, loss of insurance, family stress, the types of doctors and specialists we see, the bills we face, and so forth, is draining...

... But it was also very important.

My speech was impromptu for each of the four appointments, but there was certain commonality. As usual, though, my closing message remained the same: Be generous, with this or any other cause that you support. Give not out of a sense of guilt, but from a place of joy! Enjoy the giving; have fun in the fundraiser! And then know that it is for a good and worthy cause, and that MDA takes the product of your joy to handle the sadness and grief of those in need.

Within the next few days when I am more recovered, I hope to post the content here. In the meantime, when the firemen approach you at a stoplight, don't drop your head or turn away... Do what you can.

And watch the telethon this weekend! Donate there to the cause, or push the "Donate" button on this blog to give to Joby directly. Every penny counts here, too.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

MDA Fundrasing

Every year, business people, community leaders, and others are voluntarily arrested and "locked-up." While in custody, they make calls to raise bail money, dollars that are donated to the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA). It's a fun day for everyone, and this year my son will be making an appearance at the local lock-up, Jordan's Steakhouse in Ellicott City, MD 21403, to remind the good folks what this event is all about!

To give the effort that meaning that a large organization simply cannot, local families are given the opportunity to write a letter explaining what the organization means to them.

Below is my own.

Be generous with this, but if not with this then with any other cause that you support. Give not from guilt or fear, but give from joy, and give from your heart.

Dear Jailbird,

When I was young, the MDA Telethon was a nuisance that interrupted my regularly scheduled television programs. Later in life, I tried not to make eye contact when walking by as people intercepted asking me if I would be willing to contribute to "Jerry's Kids." More recently, I would hope a quick "No, not today, thank you," would pass without challenge when the Safeway cashier would ask if I'd like to contribute to support MDA.

Just two years ago in July, though, as my wife and I were making arrangements for his seventh birthday party, the phone call came confirming our worst fear: My own son is one of Jerry's Kids.

At age 40, 15 years into my marriage, I learned my 7-year-old son is not likely to live past his early 30s. Joby has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (MDA link).

It is cliche, but it is true: there are no words that adequately describe how a family is affected. Every expectation for a normal life is shattered in an instant. But in that instant, too, our family grew: Standing prominently alongside the neurologists, the physical medicine specialists and therapists, the cardiologists and the pulmonary specialists, the geneticists, the nurses, and all the others---and with equal stature---are the MDA representatives, working for the children and for their families, doing whatever it takes to help in every way.

You have undoubtedly seen the list of all of what the MDA does---fighting for the cure on every front all while ensuring the best quality of life possible for these children and their families. They were all just nice words until I personally lost my job and my health insurance, and my wife and I realized the terror that I could not provide for my son's care. The MDA stepped in and removed that burden right away.

We thought that we were alone; we learned that we were not. That is the MDA.

This is not written to saddle you with our own pain and suffering; to the contrary, I want nothing less than for you to have fun and joy in this fund-raising event!!! Enjoy this game knowing that the MDA will do the rest for us. Know that the cause is good, that the dollars are well-spent, and that your effort truly has deep meaning to the affected children and to their families.

You have our undying gratitude as well as our smiles!

On behalf of my family as well as MDA (Maryland, Washington DC, and National)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Aikido: "Something doesn't feel right..."

"Sensei, something doesn't feel right. Can you show us what we're doing wrong?"

Day in and day out, they come to class three times per week for a bit over two years. These were the words I was waiting for!

Alternating roles as attacker and defender, the pair was apparently able to complete the technique, but they understood that something was not quite right...

What Could be Wrong?

The outward forms, the physical techniques themselves, are not my own primary focus as their teacher; rather, there are the principles---the sensitivity to the changing circumstances and conditions, the connection between the attacker and defender, realization of your own self and your role in the encounter, and so forth---that are present within the martial interaction, which are my ultimate focus. Yes, the context---the physical combat---is very important, of course, and you must train to be successful there; but, can you remain conscious enough during each encounter to realize when you are "doing Aikido" versus when you are not? When you are wrestling, horns locked, versus when you are in control of yourself?

Yes, that statement was not an error. Ultimately, you may "win" or "lose" the physical encounter---Aikido does not skirt reality in this respect; however, how that win or loss occurs is a very important matter. If during the encounter you become so committed to making a particular technique work that you force it, you have lost yourself whether or not you ultimately throw or pin your partner---you've lost the Aikido. If you act out of pride, anger, or even folly to win a laugh, the result is the same: you've lost yourself whether or not you win the encounter. If you "must win," or you "must not lose"? Same thing.

I teach over time that the greatest first step toward really learning Aikido is recognizing that feeling when you are have fallen from a relaxed, somewhat effortless state, into wrestling. It takes time to reach even this point within the context of a very physical, sometimes painful encounter: The framework---some tangible martial techniques themselves---have to be internalized and have to be functional in an encounter even when that special feeling of "Aikido is happening" is not present. Once internalized such that performance does not rely upon conscious attention and thought, we can free the mind to shape and adjust the encounter by shaping and adjusting our response. Techniques---the forms---fall away; the principles become the tools that are available to us. In this state, we can begin to observe our own minds---checking where our attention is, checking what our intention is---and we can begin to recognize when we are actually performing Aikido. Moreover, we begin to recognize when those with whom we interact are actually present (or, "centered") or trapped in a chain of thought and action. Here is where we can begin to master ourselves regardless of our circumstances, and here is where we can begin to bring others to this same realization.

... and one sign that the student is reaching this level may well be the utterance, "Something doesn't feel right..."

How wonderful for us all!!! I have a few students who are now ready to begin!

Integrating Mind & Body

As an aside, the self-defense aspects are not ancillary on this particular path. It is often heard in Aikido circles that this martial art is concerned with "integrating the mind and body." For this to be true, it is sensible to assume that both mind and body need be present in the training. In general, my body can do its thing regardless of whether my mind wanders about. Similarly, focusing the mind on something does not guarantee I will stop breathing, for instance, or even trip when walking a simple path---things I know well. Sometimes the body can lead the mind ("I'm hungry!"), interrupting the work of the mind; sometimes the mind can lead the body ("Let's see if they have a book about Aikido on the shelves..."); but, the body can generally do what the body knows how to do without much active input from the mind, and vice versa.

If I am walking down the block, though, and I become captivated by a passing pretty girl, I may well walk into a telephone pole---an unfavorable outcome of mind and body not integrated.

If we pick an activity that the body understands, we can use it as a platform to investigate the interaction of mind and body. If we begin with a martial art but ignore the reality of a physical encounter, we are at best training our mind alone---we are not training our mind to remain present when our body is stressed as when we are under physical attack. Similarly, if we only train physically, ignoring the mind's role, when under even just verbal attack, the body may interpret conditions of attack and respond as it has been trained---physically. By training them together, we create the conditions to practice recognizing different kinds of "assaults"---or, stimuli---to our person that stress us, and to respond spontaneously and appropriately without being caught up and swept away in the encounter.

If we train to maintain this consciousness during extreme duress, we hope we may carry over this awareness to the more mundane activities---or, from a different perspective, we may see the formerly mundane everyday life activities now with as much acuity as we experience when under physical attack!

There are, of course, less physically stressful paths to learning these skills. Activities such as kyudo (archery), shodo (calligraphy), chado (tea ceremony), and ikebena (flower arranging) from Japanese heritage do the same work on the individual---bringing full presence to the physical activity in which you are engaged. Even one popular Zen practice of shikantaza (a "just sitting" form of Zen meditation) gives the practitioner the opportunity to practice with the mind while performing an activity requiring no mastery of fancy pins and throws---just sitting down! Doing the dishes and vacuuming may not have fancy titles, but they can be practiced similarly. Each can be surprisingly complicated to perform with mind and body integrated. Each is a practice in being present in what you are doing in your daily life, however seemingly exalted or mundane.

Not one is an exercise in being present in pretending to do something else...

... though, yes: being fully present in the conscious act of pretending is a loophole we can discuss another day.

The body is not here while the mind is there and the body is not there while the mind is here; they are together. Whatever one may call the activity you are doing, be fully engaged.

Aikido at the Baltimore Zen Center

While I introduce these more esoteric concepts slowly to my youngsters in my homeschool Aikido class, I am working to start an Aikido practice group at the Baltimore Zen Center (913 Reece Road, Severn, MD 21144) that explores this particular aspect of Aikido in the context of Zen studies. We are currently meeting MWF 7-9 p.m. at a price of $75 per month to help support the activity and the center. We invite people who would like to make this the primary focus of their Aikido training as well as people who would like to practice with us as an adjunct to their current training (in Aikido or any other martial art) to contact us for details. We are also interested in connecting with people elsewhere with similar focus or an interest in this activity. Again, feel free to contact us!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

MDA Camp Canceled / The Story "Maybe"

For those keeping up here rather than elsewhere, we received our next rude jolt from the Universe Friday evening.

We were sitting at the pool with friends while our kids splashed about when at 7 P.M., my wife's phone and my phone began ringing in sequence with numbers we didn't recognize. Checking the voicemail, it was the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) office in Maryland. My wife returned the call and relayed the message to me:

"Camp is canceled."

... that is, the MDA Summer Camp, our son's first, the one that was to start on Sunday.

Muscular dystrophy patients, particularly the older ones, are prone to respiratory problems as the cardio-pulmonary muscles deteriorate. The Swine Flu epidemic, we were told, had already affected several of the camps that had occurred across the nation, sending campers to the hospital for care. The MDA made the call to cancel the remaining camps to avoid endangering additional campers.

We were all devastated.

We only received my son's diagnosis just under two years ago. Naturally, we knew something was off, but to us he was normal. We moved through the first year of sadness like rocks through a tumbler, somewhat damaged, somewhat polished; yet, as his life increasingly deviates in form from that of other boys his age, we see forward a bit beyond his focus.

We were invited to apply last year to the MDA Summer Camp program, but declined. With him still very active and with us having some cash in hand, we wanted the time together---there would be time for the camps later. This year, though, the choice was harder. My son has only a few peer friends and his physical activities are increasingly limited; he reaches out for more contact and play, and loves the different activities associated with any camping adventure...

... but, was I ready to give my son such a glimpse into his own future?

It does not take a Zen master's insight to see the error in my thinking, but this issue is very real---and very common---to parents, and simply knowing this truth is not enough to clear the apprehension.

Unemployed for far too long, money and insurance are issues to us. The application itself was a bit overwhelming. What we would have to accomplish before the deadline seemed insurmountable at the eleventh hour. The stress even in considering it given every other issue was terrible. We put off one or two calls from the MDA, which was waiting for our decision. We were initially wait-listed, so this was something we did not have to consider---fate made the choice---but then the slot opened and we had to decide on our own. My wife handed me her phone one morning; the MDA representative was on the line... I took the call, ostensibly to tell her that we would decline, but ended up to agreeing to send our son.

The MDA knows our fears; after all, they have been working with parents in our position for many, many years. She told me very clearly what I already knew beneath my fear: in my words, the child does not yet suffer from the parent's disease; he does not see himself as handicapped. He knows he has limitations, of course, and he knows that he is different, but he does not handicap himself. Just as importantly, though, the MDA Camps and counsellors have broad experience in handling these situations, the parents and the kids.

We did the paperwork, engaging MDA and Children's Hospital in DC for their help, and we were approved for the camp---and we gave my son the celebratory news! He made a paper chain, tearing one link away each day in the countdown, and chatted incessantly about the coming adventure with everyone. We attended a "meet the counselors" event, and met wonderful people and fellow campers. The excitement continued to build: there would be horseback riding, Harley Davidson sidecar rides, swimming, arts & crafts, dancing, firehouses competing for the best meal made for the kids, ... Anyone would be envious!

As our own submission was delayed, so to was the notice of our application's acceptance---as well as the camp packing list. The free camp would not be entirely free to us... The packing list for a full week away is quite extensive. We lacked several items and had delayed buying new things while money is short. We scrambled to decide what was really necessary, to find the money, and to make some purchases...

... and then we received the news.

... and now we're trying to have a fun week with the boy at home.

These roller coasters are emotionally trying and exhausting, creating all sorts of friction when people are most vulnerable. Through it all, though, there is something to learn: What is the source of all of the feelings of elation and devastation?

There is an old story found in the Zen tradition known by some as "Maybe."

There was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.

“Maybe,” the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.

“Maybe,” replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.

“Maybe,” answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.

“Maybe,” said the farmer.


The story, of course, has no end.

Why do things unfold as they do? It is, of course, a mystery. How such an unfolding affects us, though, is where our work lies.

[The "Maybe" story has variants; the edition above was found here: http://www.renegadezen.com/zen-stories/maybe.]

Friday, June 19, 2009

Children's Hospital Visit

We had a full day in the hospital as our son was in for full work-ups in cardiology and pulmonary departments. As usual, nothing went as planned, but that's not to say it was a terrible day.

Children's Hospital truly is an amazing place to visit, with so many levels of humanity operating simultaneously right in front of you. There are the ordinary people on the job, taking their breaks for lunch, walking between here and there in the halls. There are families most assuredly in despair with news of their children's prognosis. There are the old hats, people who are further along on the path with their children and their long-termed issues. There are kids on the mend. The hospital has all of the hustle of walking in a city, and there is also the bureaucracy and paperwork involved in trying to accomplish anything...

What is truly amazing, though are those professionals who interact directly with the children...

There really are no words.

And it is true: When we have encountered any difficulties with the administrative folks who may lose themselves temporarily serving the system rather than the people, we have found incredible support both from unique champions close to the professional staff as well as, in our case, from members of the Muscular Dystrophy Association who are present at the hospital. We can't thank them enough.

Next week, our son is off to his first MDA Summer Camp, a full week packed with enough activities to make even me jealous!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Aikido: Uke, Nage, and Mushin

The following is a bit ugly and unpolished, though hopefully useful in draft form. The short essay is part of an on-going discussion between Ron Ragusa and me on AikiWeb. Most recently, we are considering the roles of uke and nage---are they two sides of the same coin?---and we are questioning whether it is necessary to "hold" the state of mushin. Here are my latest thoughts:

Before there can be "just aikido," there is "learning aikido," which generally includes principles and techniques as well as the roles of uke and nage.

In "learning aikido," it is useful to experience "completely centered" and "completely committed" as two extremes of the "placement" of attention / intention---or "ki." I might call the absence of any particular intention or any particular attention to something---such as an adversary's wrist or weapon---mushin, or "completely centered;" and, I might call the laser-like focus upon something---such as "I will grab his wrist!"---"completely committed."

I believe that one type of valuable uke-nage interaction is for uke to practice being completely committed and for nage to practice being completely centered. Practicing in this extreme way, at whatever speed, is often perceived to be ridiculous from the self-defense or martial point of view; however, from the perspective of learning what it is to have mind and body integrated, learning what it is to be led (or, to have "ki led") versus what it is to be "centered," this is very valuable training.

In never practicing this way, we may never sense the full range of the continuum of attention / intention; however, in only practicing this way, we are subject to an equally terrible error: We may develop the habit either of always yielding / being led, or always remaining firm, seeing only the extremes, unable to handle situations in between.

In training we eventually experience what one might consider a third state: distraction. Whether distraction occurs by virtue of something "real" to the encounter such as the momentary blinding by a bright light," or by virtue of something "not real" to the encounter, such as wondering what is for dinner, we should see it for what it is, something essentially no different than focusing upon your adversary's grip or trying to make that technique work, knocking you from your centered (or focused) state most unproductively. Here again, though, if we can recognize the affects of distraction upon our state of mind and body, we can learn to use distraction to our advantage as well as not to be hindered by it.

As we progress from "learning aikido" toward "just aikido," I believe the roles of uke and nage naturally (and, hopefully) tend to dissolve in advanced practice. More time for both players is spent in mushin, attachment to distractions as well as to outcomes of launched attacks and defenses is relaxed, and focused intent becomes more of an impulse rather than sustained effort. This is not to say that attacks or defenses are necessarily less powerful; rather, like shooting an arrow, we are at the ready, and when an opening is noted, the arrow is let loose with only an impulse. Like this, the body is set into motion and immediately returns to its centered state, ready to adjust the action, to deal with a counter, or to launch the next blow. Every action, then, is generated from the centered state; this is mind and body integrated without resistance. Releasing focus upon performing a particular technique---once there is physical competence with that technique, of course---as nage, and feeling when your opponent is off-balanced in performing a technique upon you as uke, this is the foundation for being sensitive to changing conditions, which in turn is the root of changing technique (henka waza) and reversal (kaeshi waza) practices on the mats---as well as the prevention of the same.

Consider an example: I am not persisting with the Ikkyo technique, simply because I am doing Ikkyo---I am not doing anything. I launched what you might call "Ikkyo" (if you were forced to classify it) and returned to center; the body knows the rest from practice, and it is open to what happens next through relaxed mushin. To say, "I am doing Ikkyo," or forcing an interaction to resemble a model Ikkyo, or driving on toward completing a model Ikkyo past when the interaction calls for it or past it being an appropriate response, are all actions rooted in thought, concepts, and ideas, rather than the the situation and your center. Mushin is long gone; seasoned practitioners know the resulting difference in feeling.

The question has also been raised regarding whether mushin is something to be pursued or whether it is something that appears quite naturally when necessary. The active pursuit of being centered is in itself an off-balancing activity by definition---after all, we are focused upon the activity; however, in much the way that medicines are poisons to what they cure, there are focused practices to bring about centeredness. Does mushin naturally appear when needed? Insomuch as mushin is related to that "everything was moving in slow motion"-type experience we feel under extreme circumstances, I suppose it does; however, we should consider these points:

(1) Does mushin's appearance guarantee action, let alone an appropriate action? The clarity to see something falling and to grab it---is this mushin or simply instinct? What if the falling object was a hot pan from the stove? Can we improve the appropriateness of our responses with practice?

(2) Is there value in maintaining mushin under other-than-extreme circumstances? Arguably, most people spend most of the time distracted by some combination of their own senses and their own thoughts---sleep walking, so to speak. Is there value in practicing to maintain centered awareness under more ordinary circumstances?

It is hard to imagine an answer other than "yes" to either question.

But this discourse is very cloudy in itself. Let's consider a different way of responding: If you asked me, "Are the roles of uke and nage the same or different?" and I responded, "I hate when my partner throws himself," would you appreciate the meaning now given the above?

Friday, May 1, 2009

Aikido, Zen, and the Clear Response

Why do you say what you say, why do you do what you do, and what does it mean to do either for "the right reasons"? In Aikido and Zen, we study these issues critically... and still sometimes we make mistakes.

A case and point is made in my latest posting on the Baltimore Zen Center's blog here: Aikido, Zen, and the Clear Response

Feel free to read and comment!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

What is the Meaning of Rank?

If it was asked as a question in koan exchange, it would be hard to beat this picture's response. Perhaps the response has even more value in that the question was not even asked!

Three times per week, my daughter attends Aikido class with me. It's simply what she does. She enjoys the physical activity, and she enjoys the company of her friends. Class begins, class progresses, and class ends; then, the day continues.

Why does she do it? Does she care about what anyone else thinks about her practice or how anyone else judges her techniques? You be the judge.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

OT: The Job Hunt

I have uncountably many stories from different job hunts over the years---I'm sure everyone does---but sometimes I am so dumbstruck that I have to share. After applying for a specific position through a staffing firm's website and hearing nothing in reply, I finally received the following note:

Hello Joseph,
As we all know, times are tough right now and we are constantly striving to build new and viable contract relationships with different companies. Our records show you recently submitted an application to us through our database. As we look for opportunities that fit your skill set, could you please provide us with any companies where you have applied recently? This will aid us in finding more opportunities to better serve you. If you have found an opportunity, please let us know any human resource contact information to help us with new sales leads.

Thank you.

What could I do? Well, reply, of course:

Hi, [Name]-

In these competitive times, I am certainly trying to ensure my capabilities are widely represented to potentially interested companies and organizations. Duplication of that effort is, naturally, counter-productive and potentially an affront to hiring agents. Toward that end, would you mind providing me with all of [Staffing Firm]'s existing contracts and contacts so that I can better enable my own search by focusing elsewhere?

I appreciate your help. Best regards!

I know that every contact is potentially an opportunity, potentially a test, and potentially anything else; however, we all must, in the end, cut through the nonsense and respond only as ourselves without being entangled by the dance. Assume that I've either offended the fellow or that I've demonstrated my savvy in deflecting his request and showing my understanding of the value of proprietary information---who knows?

If there is a reply, I'll let you know!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

A Zen Parenting Moment

Rather than duplicating the post here, feel free to visit "A Zen Moment in Parenting" on the Baltimore Zen Center's site.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Show me Your True Face: Zen & the Internet

[Cross-posted from the Baltimore Zen Center's site. Visit and comment!]

When you speak, what is speaking? When you listen, what is hearing?

Does your eye see? A corpse has eyes, yet what does it see?

When friends, family, or lovers communicate with a level of familiarity or intimacy, what is they are sharing? Ultimately, there is a mind-to-mind sharing of the intimacy itself. The intimacy is manifest on every level within the expression, and in turn it is perceived through the other's senses. Juxtapose this with a dealing with an aggressive salesman. When you interact with the salesman, are you talking to the real person, or are you talking to the person's want to make a sale? Do you not perceive this in the person's appearance, actions, voice, and so forth? All of the senses reassemble what they perceive and reintegrate into "salesman."

This process is not perfect, of course. If either the transmitter or the receiver is not operating properly, the message is garbled. For instance, "salesman" can easily be misinterpreted as "sensitive friend" if that is what you hope to see. Similarly, in spite of your best intentions and efforts, if you have doubt in your efforts, the doubt is transmitted.

This is a non-trivial concern for students of Zen. Your everyday life is ultimately an expression of your state of mind. Similarly, how you perceive everything around you is skewed by your state of mind. It is easy to become trapped by what and how you perceive.

What has proven to be an interesting exercise is to examine what happens when, one by one, we delete the senses and continue communicating. With fewer checks to gauge our understanding, will we go awry? Consider email as an example: Even though we can use as many words as we like, how many arguments arise from misinterpreting email? Lacking the visible cues such as body language as well as even the audible tone of the words as they were meant to be spoken, the transmission is garbled. Inevitably, we blame the medium if and when the misunderstanding is brought to light.

But is this reasonable? What is actually the source of misinterpretation? Who provides---or, "projects"---the interpretation that is not matching? Where there may have been room for doubt in the meaning, why would one assume what was meant instead of asking for clarification?

No matter how in tune we are with our senses, a clouded mind will take the inputs and misinterpret them. Sometimes, all we can actually do to increase the odds of clear transmission is to work to perfect our own state of mind.

Twitter (link) is a popular internet service that allows the individual to shout a message of no more than 140 characters into the ether. If no one is listening for it, and no one searches for it, it may never be heard. Occasionally though, perhaps through direct contact or through searching for key words, you may be found, and someone may subscribe to your announcements---perhaps even respond. A new social dynamic is created.

The communication channel is certainly limited, though. There is little that can actually be transmitted in 140 characters. Subtle gestures and tone may be reduced to including a smiley-faced emoticon or the like, presuming the two or three characters can be spared. If you are going to become familiar with another person's mind through this medium, you must adapt your own.

The other day, I encountered a twitter user who announced the following (paraphrased) policy: "If you do not have a picture, I will not follow you." In fact, in Twitter, you can chose a picture (or "avatar") that will show up with every one of your messages. It allows for ease of identification of messages of from any particular person or entity---for instance, a business may use it's logo. You can select any picture of anything (subject to copyright law, I suppose), to stand beside your communications. In this light, what does this person's policy---"If I do not have a snapshot of who you are, I am not interested in listening to what you have to say?"---mean?

If someone is a sailor and chats about all things sailing, would it not be more interesting to see a picture of his boat---a clear picture of what is his mind? What do we expect to see in a still picture of someone's face? Is that face who he really is? Is the value of his mind anchored to the appearance of his face? Ultimately, we ask how attached to the senses are we when we share our minds?

Naturally, there is comfort in retrofitting new technologies to our old ways, but in reality, this is illusory.

People who embrace these technologies fully and without attachment to old ways inevitably do not have these issues. Perhaps there is hope for Zen understanding in the newer generations...

"Show me your true face, from before your parents were born!"

Monday, February 16, 2009

Introducing the Baltimore Zen Center's Blog

The Baltimore Zen Center, together with their unusual cast of characters, has been something of a second home for me over the past year or so. I'll probably be writing for them as well from time to time, so if you watch here, you might want to watch there, too: Baltimore Zen. If you're a Twitter fan, follow us there as well: BaltimoreZen.

Spread the word!