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.