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? 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

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

"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 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.

Friday, October 30, 2009

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.

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

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

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.