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.