Wednesday, December 14, 2011

"I Reach Out from the Inside"

... but the outside is inside, too, no?

Yeah, that's delirious Zen-speak. You guys know what I mean, right? [Wink and secret handshake go here.]

I've been sick and at home for a few days, away from the office, away from the dojo and zendo, even away from the coffee shops. It's left a notable vacuum in my routine and interactions, including both the pleasant and the irritating. "Part of me misses them all," I reminisce as I swallow another NyQuil tablet...

Suddenly, I wake up in a familiar but alien land. All other things being equal, once the shock passees, do you suppose I would instinctively seek out something like an office, a dojo, a zendo, a coffee shop, and so forth? Would you further speculate that I would seek out both those pleasant and irritating interactions I've come to expect?

Those things I seek never existed in this new place... So, where are all of these things I'm looking for?

There is a reasonable, self-help-ish type of answer to the question: All of that stuff is in your head--that is, your brain, the stuff between your ears, or maybe even distributed elsewhere throughout body. Your habits, your recollections, your perceptions--all of these are just a skewed overlay above the physical world, our reality. If we see through or see beyond our concepts, ideas, and so on, we can finally see reality clearly. Now it makes sense, right?

I wouldn't be so sure if I were you...

If you go off beyond the horizons of time and space to where all the Zen masters, the gurus, the Buddhas, God Almighty and you all concur with one mind that this is truth, you have arrived in Hell's innermost circle and surrounded yourself with the most perverse of demons feasting on your flesh...

Fortunately, from there the actual truth is within your reach.

Find the answer beyond their answer. I have faith in you.

... just don't get stuck looking for the video with that guy holding the boombox along the way.

Disclaimer: No NyQuil was consumed in the production of this delusion.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

No Rhyme and No Reason

Traditionally, I use this space to sort through my own thinking. Since my exploration gravitates toward the practices of Zen and Aikido, it's natural that my writing reflects any insights--however minor--I find there in the overlap. Going back through the posts, two things are fairly clear:

  • I want to find the unity of these two studies, using Zen to deepen Aikido practice, using Aikido to deepen Zen practice, going deeper and deeper; and,
  • I want to show how those insights might be useful--whether inside or outside of either study--to Everyday Life.
There really is no rhyme or reason for the activity except perhaps to understand myself through my own "karma"--through my own habits, likes, dislikes, and the unique circumstances of this life (including language and diction). Consider that one culmination of the activity itself is the words that I have placed on the screen for me to read, using my karma--my living in this particular time and place where blogging is possible--to show me my own mind in reflection.

It is a curious cycle, no? Two activities which are outwardly very different sit in juxtaposition, one very physical requiring some mental dexterity and one almost entirely mental but occasionally taxing the body: Could they possibly be the same? As long as there is doubt, there is room to explore, finding deeper and deeper insights, continuously generating new blog posts and experiments for the dojo...

We will get this mind and body unified eventually... one way or another.

* * *

It is said that there was once a (mostly) congenial debate between two schools of Zen: a doctrinal school, focusing upon study of the scriptures, and the other patriarchal, focusing on the study of the koans. The debate went on and on, each side questioning and answering from within its own frame of reference, maybe saying the same thing, maybe saying something different, maybe being understood, maybe not--who knows? But I imagine they had to stop for lunch or a bathroom break eventually...

Anyway, once a student came to Master Pa-Lung and asked: 
Are the patriarchal teachings and doctrinal teachings the same or different?
Master Pa-Lung replied:
When a chicken is cold, it climbs up into the tree; when a duck is cold, it goes under the water.
It may seem as if the Master answered the question almost reasonably, but I am not so sure he answered the question we believe he was asked. We followed the Master's trail to the fork in the road, but now there are no footprints in any direction!

So, where do you go from here?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Has your Greatest Problem already been Solved?

Have you ever considered that the biggest problem in your life--the one haunting your every waking moment, the one defying every attempt to escape--has already been solved?

Let's go back a few thousand years to this classic bit wisdom of from Ecclesiastes (1:9, NIV):
What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.
If you're in a bad situation, reading those lines might make you feel worse. Maybe we read "This sucks, it's always sucked, and--guess what?--it's going to suck again." Trust me: I understand... and really, I know you do too. We all know that when we're in a bad mood, we see more of it all around us. We are prone to look at the flip side of whatever pithy quotes our chipper friends offer, even recasting the friend as an annoyance. We'll argue to maintain our point of view. We'll even make winning the argument more important than solving the problem. Maybe we're just not done exploring the problem...

But really, is it even remotely possible that there is a message of hope in that verse? If so, would it not be worth exploring, even if just for a little bit?

Read the verse: this thing your suffering with? It's appeared time and time again in one form or another. It's also been resolved, time and time again and in any number of ways. Sometimes maybe that means the problem is eradicated once and for all; sometimes it means a mechanism has evolved--or is ready to evolve--to handle it.

Just like "nature abhors a vacuum," nature is not too pleased with accumulation either. When something appears frequently enough, the way to deal with it evolves as well. By "something," I don't necessarily mean something tangible--your problem qualifies as a something--and by "deal with it," I really mean "transform it." That problem that you're holding on to? Somewhere there's probably a person or a system that's starving to help because you're not feeding it.

So, have you two met?

Sometimes you really don't know that there are options available. Sometimes you don't know all of the options. Sometimes you know the options but resist them. Sometimes you believe you have no other options.... In the end though, time continues to march and the problem evolves or resolves. Even if you move to release the problem's hold on you through extraordinary means, we know the problem only transforms and continues on like a wave...

Let's focus on the two pieces here that you can control, whatever the circumstances: belief (or, attachment) and resistance. Can you imagine a tree that resisted falling so as not to inconvenience the forest floor? Resistance and attachment come hand-in-hand; we don't have to consciously know our attachments, but they are evident when we resist. Resistance--your conscious attention to some kind of exertion--is your call. It's not right or wrong, per se--the system is ready for you either way--but if it doesn't matter, perhaps it's not necessary to resist at all? Releasing resistance is ultimately releasing a belief... so, okay, maybe there was really only one thing you could control after all :-)

If we needed to choose beliefs to hold, perhaps it would be better to choose the likes of faith, hope, and charity. Know that things will be better even if the path is unknown, know that there are people who can help, and--given the choice--be willing to err on the side of helping others. Trust that in the end the right things will happen, the right people and relationships will be in your life, and so forth. See what comes, what goes, and what remains when you are effortlessly you.

With a subtle doubt in your belief that all is lost, you create an opening to find solutions. Believing that a solution must exist, you can set off to engage the world and find it. Without resistance associated with trying to maintain an existing situation, saving face, saving relationships, and so forth, you can freely state your need.

Still, one day your body will die. As for how you live along the way as you "wake up" in all of these precarious situations? That's entirely your choice... and maybe you can pick up some of the wisdom mentioned elsewhere in Ecclesiastes as a result :-)

Friday, December 9, 2011

Job Seeker Zen

Why did I spot this quote in my Google+ timeline last night?
"A job seeker is a masterless slave." ~Steve Pavlina (blog)

Career, job hunting, work-life balance, difficult workplace situations, making ends meet, ... These are actively on my mind these days. We know from our studies that when an idea takes root in the mind like this, we begin to see it all around us. Throughout the day our different observations, conversations, and so forth each bump up against everything from our habits to our beliefs and onward to whatever else we are holding in our heads, regardless of whether we are conscious of them. Before we know it, it's the topic of the day in Zen class; it's shared conversation with friends over lunch; it's taking note of the economic and unemployment reports; and it's spotting serendipitous nuggets like Steve's quote resonating with us. Suddenly you see that everybody else was in the same boat with you all along? Maybe the problem was worse than you thought... Before you know it, you are giving an instinctive response from within your capabilities and circumstances, perhaps writing a blog post about the phenomenon itself. ;-)

Now if life were moving along as expected, would I have noticed Steve's post at all? It may have been in the timeline, sure, but would I have really seen it? The mind is continuously inundated with sensory input and thought, but most of it arguably goes unnoticed. Just consider for example that even when your eyes are closed, there is still seeing happening even if it's only the back of your eyelids. So, what is it when something as simple as a short Google+ post hooks your conscious attention? What circumstances were ripening inside me, ready for an encounter with such a random trigger? How much pressure must have been building to have me change course from my regularly scheduled day and write this essay in response?

Pause and consider:

  • Did I have any choice in how I responded?
  • What does my response show about my mind?
  • How would a different mind have responded?
  • Can you change your mind?

For the jobseeker, those are particularly poignant questions. After all, is this not the nature of the interview process itself? Have you ever considered what happens if an interviewer senses desperation in your responses--that is, when you are more focused upon needing a job--the scarcity or lack-- rather than evaluating the job in front of you? How are your answers received?

Steve has written about an exercise I believe he calls "manifesting pennies." In short form, we do this: Absolutely know that there is spare change lying on the sidewalks in plain sight, review the sensation of how happy we would be to find some of those coins, release those very thoughts trusting that they will take care of themselves, and then set off on a carefree walk. Over time, we undoubtedly begin to spot the spare change. Each successful find brings joy and reinforces the belief, spurring on the activity. Occasionally we may hit a dry spell and question whether the experiment is working, but we don't get stuck in that doubt; we revisit the belief and the feelings and try again another time.

Now, if we secretly hold the suspicion that the experiment will not work but set out to debunk it, will we be more likely to be happy finding a coin or proving ourselves right in finding no coin? Either way, the function--confirmation bias--is the same: Both people will get busy with their beliefs and tend toward eventually having a jar that confirms their beliefs.

Consider a different potential problem: Suppose I fail to let thoughts about that penny quest go before setting off on my walk? If during my walk my mind is focused upon the details of the experiment, when will my mind have time to scan for coins? Can it really do both? (Remember the desperate interviewer?) Is it necessary to consciously direct the search for coins with thought, or is being open to finding coins sufficient? Can't we just trust the body and mind to do the search without supervision? When my mind is locked onto a thought or pattern that is taking away from the "idle cycle" tasks at hand, how can I release the thought and get back to business?

Just like Steve's quote, I can only take note of a coin on the street because my mind was "tuned" to recognize it. It would not have been any more there or less there either way--meaning my belief did not cause it to appear in any mundane sense; however, it would not have been there in any esoteric sense unless I was predisposed to see it. The quote hooked my conscious attention. I "manifested" Steve and his quote when I gave them meaning.

We should see that faith in the "manifesting pennies" exercise creates a change in mind which in turn spurs a change in physical habit. It may take some training to adopt the new programing, but it is doable. When not otherwise distracted, your mind will have your eyes scanning the sidewalk for shiny things in hope of a find (or a failure to find, depending on your disposition). You may even change your habits further to take longer or more frequent walks than you otherwise would. In essence, incorporating the new belief and everything associated with it fundamentally puts the auto-piloted aspects of your life on a new course in potentially unpredictable ways. After all, you might miss a potential mate's gaze if your eyes are watching the ground; similarly, people who might otherwise engage you might think you too strange if you suddenly break a conversation to pick up a penny. Then again, you might find someone who appreciates your thriftiness or your pragmatism! There is no way to tell...

Now, can we extrapolate and see how all of this this might apply to the job seeker? Did you see the parallels?

The worthwhile Zen masters and the personal development specialists alike make a deep study of these functions and share their insights, giving others the opportunity to free themselves with their examples. While all of this is a concern for me, expect to see more posts delving deeper into the study and the applications. I'm working now to take our insights from our Zen and martial studies and to make them applicable to the job hunt, giving job seekers different tools and perspectives to shake free of past problems and to put success back in motion.

Do you have a story or some insight to share? Would you like to learn more? Comment on this post or email with interest and inquiries!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Irimi, Kuzushi, and a Dragon in a Pink Dress

Someone states emphatically:
Kuzushi is achieved through irimi. That is to say, I must always enter to connect to my partner's balance structure before I can perform waza. (AikiWeb)
In perhaps over-simplistic terms, irimi is a very direct entry to seize control of a situation, overwhelming an attacker; kuzushi is off-balancing; and waza is the application of technique. In essence, in the situation of attack, the defender responds in a way to overwhelm the attacker, off-balancing him and creating an opening to apply a technique.

The poster is concurring with another fellow who dismisses the principles such as leading into a circular path without first taking such action as fantasy.

Keep your eye on the ball now, Reader. Are we following this fellow's argument? Does it make sense?
How about if we reconsider the assertion in a less martial, more marital example?

If find yourself as the focus of another's attention--call it an "attack" if you like--then the there is already a connection in place. Irimi occurred when something about you--an idea, an emotion, your perfume, your bank account, whatever--entered the attacker's mind--and do note that you may or may not have had any direct involvement in that. And the kuzushi? That occurred when the attacker surrendered to whatever it was that held his attention--his attachment--resulting in some physical effect.

So, a question: Must irimi precede kuzushi? Is a fellow randy because a girl is dishy, or vice versa? Consider how we may juxtapose me having bad day with your nose being a suitable target for my fist. These are cases of dependent arising--types of balanced equivalences, or balanced equations--we can't have a cause without an effect and vice versa.

We can chat more about that another time. For now, let's return to our martial example: Suppose I suddenly find myself in a situation where I need to irimi. Could it be that noticing the situation itself was an irimi that caught my attention? That my need to respond in a particular way to the circumstances was my own off-balancing (kuzushi)? What is seizing control here if not your simple, practiced response to your own perception of a vacuum of control? Are you not simply falling into a hole you dug for yourself? How can you escape this cycle?

So, some homework questions for you. Tell me:
  • What happens to the dance if the dragon stops chasing the ball? 
  • How can the dragon cease pursuit without becoming the ball? 
  • What becomes of the dragon when he discovers there was no ball at all?

Go ahead, show me your waza!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Dojo Storm

A fellow steps into a message board thread and asks, "Suppose a guy and some of his friends walk into your dojo and occupy it, preventing your group's practice. What would you do?" Given the venue, the implied question is "How will you reclaim your dojo with your peaceful practice of Aikido?"

A few people responded predictably, playing into this fellow's hands. Responses were challenged by his friends, asserting that those responses were inadequate, in violation of Aikido principles, or faulty in some other way. The respondents regrouped and reconsidered, and their refinements were similarly and summarily dismissed.

It wasn't clear that anyone in the situation--to include the questioner--was aware of what was occurring... but when it is presented like this, perhaps you believe that you can see it? Go ahead: try to explain it in your own words to me here. Expose what I expect is your ignorance and subject yourself to my staff. We are all waiting...

Pay attention! This is not a trivial matter at all; rather, it is at the core of each and every one of our Sword Mountain practices. Do you make a distinction between hoodlums raiding your dojo, a live blade tracing across your throat, a training partner grabbing your wrist, or a Zen master asking for your understanding? Do you know the one thing that simultaneously puts a traffic jam in motion, answers the unending stream of a toddler's Why?'s, survives the blade cutting you in two, and watches a single cherry blossom fall in the middle of a blizzard? If so, tell me. Answer now from your own center!

When our practice is dead on the vine, we go through the motions, losing sight of the true dojo, the true zendo, our true selves, and our ultimate opponent. But this is precisely your opportunity to resurrect. Take one clean step from the mud and tar in the direction of your choice. Leave no trace. Let no wind move you...

... not even this one.

Friday, November 4, 2011


In retrospect, my writing here has been true to the website's tagline, "Integrating Aikido, Zen, and Daily Life;" as for the "Daily Life" portion, though, I may have modeled my approach a bit too closely to what I used to see in my old math textbooks:

The proof of this theorem is left as an exercise for the reader.

... which in turn takes me back to my university days and to the allegory of "Pure Mathematics" and "Applied Mathematics."

Once upon a time, I am told, Applied Mathematics was considered the pinacle of mathematical studies. To receive a degree in Applied Mathematics meant that not only had you mastered the abstract and esoteric theory of Pure Mathematics, but you also transcended it: You knew how to make practical use of it in everyday life--or at least with the physicists.

At some point, the story continues, there was a schism: Pure Math and Applied Math became two different paths. Understanding all there was to know about Pure Math was no longer a gate to Applied Math; rather, at the end of n years of successful pursuit in your studies (for some n in the natural numbers), you would receive your degree certifying your attainment in one path or the other. The two were declared equal in the eyes of The Administration.

As we know from our studies, there is can be no equality without distinction--except perhaps with an identity property wherein something is axiomatically declared to be equal to itself... Anyway, the mathematicians turned on one another. The Pure Mathematicians became the mystics, the alchemists, and the starving artists of mathematics, poo-pooing the unwashed, heathen sell-outs, their brethren Applied Mathematicians. Yes, the Applied Mathematicians new a few tricks and some slight of hand, but they didn't know why or how those tricks worked... They knew some theorems, sure, but they didn't know the proofs! They were idiots and morons, tarnishing the reputation of their art. God save us all if people get the wrong idea about Our Truth!

How did the Morlocks respond to such criticism from the Eloi? Who knows... Really, why even ask? What kind of response could you expect from them anyway, even if they could understand the question at all and hear you from up in their godless penthouses... err, down in their dank caves?

So, what's the point?

Maybe it's enough that when they're graduate students, they both smell the same?

What? It's the truth! It's also that simple. No? Okay, how about this: One day years and years ago, my business card said "Mathematician" and my family was hungry. The sun set on a Friday evening. When the sun rose on the following Monday morning, my business card say "Systems Engineer" and my family was full. I'm not a mathematician in disguise, nor am I a systems engineer pretender. What I was during that weekend in between, though, I do not recall--and I probably wouldn't tell you if I did.

The view from the other shore looks a lot like this one; not even the address on the business card is different. As for me, I don't live in either place, but I'm happy to visit both indefinitely.

Still, it might be time to try on a new business card as there are definitive applications to the theory. Watch for more of the practical aspects of the studies coming into the light with fewer "Zen and Aikido are This but not That" constraints.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Throwing Yourself

I visited AikiWeb last night and found a thread centered on one of the quintessential issues of Aikido: The Complicit Uke. My own experience finds that you can't go many years in practice--what with new students coming and going, attending seminars, and so forth--without encountering that uke who may be just a little too helpful, who makes you look just a little too good. Granted, if you're testing and an uke is going to be randomly assigned you'd prefer this uke to that resistant one--but still...

A lot of discussion and criticism of the art are rooted in this issue. So, what is the right answer? What's nage to do when he encounters that overly helpful uke who is running on autopilot with a "big throw goes here" pre-programmed?

In our own studies at Sword Mountain, we would say that nage is already halfway to the ground... What matters now is how he responds next.

Beyond the mechanics of the jujitsu techniques, why does Aikido--or any martial art for that matter--work? What are we really studying here?

The moment you notice uke is not performing properly? That is your true opponent. That is the attack that you must handle. Everything before that moment you knew how to handle; with hundreds or thousands of repetitions of the form and variations under your belt, you can deal with the wrist grab and execute the technique with your eyes closed--you can see it through with you on autopilot. But then something goes awry... "This isn't right!" There is the true wrist grab... There is you, off-balanced. So, what will you do? How will you respond?

With the foundation set, we consider similar puzzles in a physical form when we study henka waza (changing techniques) and kaeshi waza (technique reversals). At the root of both practices is an immediate awakening from within your circumstances to an opportunity. Henka waza happens within the role of nage, sometimes beginning with the realization that "this technique is not working." Nage forcing ikkyo" becomes "Nage trying kotegaeshi," for instance. Kaeshi waza happens when roles reverse; for instance, "Uke about to be thrown with kotegaeshi" dies and is reborn as "Nage responds to a strange morotedori with iriminage." In either case, the success or failure of the transformation--as with the original technique--relies upon disrupting your adversary's expectation, a true off-balancing. In a truly free practice (jiyu waza) without fixed roles of uke and nage, the exchanges can become quite "Spy vs Spy"...

But let's step back one step further: Is this not the foundation of all of our Aikido techniques? A person accustomed to punching people in the nose is familiar with a handful of ordinary responses. The martial artist, however, presents the unexpected response. For some arts, this is simply moving faster, striking harder, being conditioned to the pain, and so forth--all fine, and all shattering the attacker's expected outcome. The same can be said of Aikido: the entering, the pivoting, the blending, the kiai, the atemi, and so forth right through meeting the adversary with a confident smile--all of this is our practice of off-balancing the attacker on every plane of body, mind, and spirit, disrupting the expected. Uke meets you on your ground, not his, and you are free to continually shift the ground...

As beginners in a particular art and style, we practice our ideal forms. In the beginning, they are not an integral part of us. With practice though, they become like breathing. We transmit these forms to the next generations of students. "Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera." If we only do this, we are only developing new habituated responses to situations--or, "changing our karma." That's not a bad thing, per se, but it is what it is: just new habits. Now should you encounter new situations, including physical agression, it's the adversary's habits versus your own, and the outcome one way or another is practically predestined...

... unless we realize this, and incorporate that realization into our practice as well.

Realizing that things are not going according to plan--not according to your expectations--is an opportunity to awaken. Seeing that things are going according to plan? Same thing. Seeing during an exchange that uke is being too helpful is a hiccup in your habitual flow. That disruption is as real and as effective as an atemi to your nose! For a moment, it's taken your mind, off-balancing you. Now what? How will you respond?

Before you answer, one last point: Uke may or may not have been complicit in this "attack" against you at all. All that is for certain is this: your expected response from uke, your noticing the violation, and all of the associated thoughts and feelings associated with that violation are all completely independent of uke's action--they are all within you. Now, what will be the source of your response?

Stay awake! Don't get stuck!

Masakatsu Agatsu Katsuhayabi!

Monday, October 24, 2011

New Initiatives

Spread the Word: Zen and Martial Arts

Several years ago, while in very intensive Zen study, I began reexamining my Aikido through Zen lenses and vice versa. Each one naturally informed the other. Part of the examination's growth can be found on this website; part is still emerging, particularly as I've begun opening up my integrated practice to all comers. The result, as with everything in life, is a work in progress; still, some key tie-ins between the topics are recurring and clearly important to me--perhaps they'll be important to you as well, whatever your practices and whatever your objectives.

I've started cataloguing those Zen topics, those Aikido practices and techniques, and the links I see between them, and I am considering how best to deliver them. Whether that's to continue on course writing and working with visitors locally, travelling about a bit delivering weekend seminars, enriching this space with recordings and videos, or something in between, I do not know. I'll follow my gut, which will hopefully be informed with your feedback here, on Facebook and Twitter (find my links on the right), or in person.

There are two things in particular I've realized over time regarding this type of work, though: First, it's not something that can be forced. Second, I can only do so much on my own. Combined, we find one interpretation of Zen's "nothing is left undone" teaching: If it's important enough for me to want to spread this work and it's important enough for others to want to receive it, everything will come together to make that happen.

So, I'd appreciate it if you helped me reach the right ears: Who should I see? Who do you think might benefit?

Whether in place or on the move, I look forward to our exchanges. In each new encounter--particularly given the variety of styles--I am challenged and given an opportunity to reflect and to improve. Our encounters improve my practice; I hope the same for you.

Challenge the Word: Koan Intensives

Related to all of that is the Zen aspect alone. Our Zen practice, like our martial practice, is rooted in the adversarial. This is not to say we are "combative" in the sense of competition, winners, and losers; rather, we perfect ourselves individually and each other within challenging encounters. Our practice can also be characterized as somewhat nomadic: Once rooted in the practice, students are encouraged to work with different teachers, engaging in exchanges with different schools' practitioners.

Particularly when limited to electronic exchanges, the test of skills and understanding comes through koan exchanges... but the same is also true in person. Whatever the school's tradition and whatever the school's practices, koan exchange reveals the heart and the understanding of a practitioner in that moment. Even those practitioners who "just sit" should be able to demonstrate clearly how their practice frees them from the "wheel of life."

Sword Mountain and Baltimore Zen are looking for individuals who wish to take up this matter with intensity, and we are looking for those individuals and organizations who would sponsor their practice.

This is not a trivial matter. Not everyone is cut out for this practice. Not everyone will excel in it. Not everyone would be selected to be sent out to represent the teachings. But it is time that we begin this work.

Are you ready, or will you help?

Help with Words: Counsel & Consult

Sword Mountain and Baltimore Zen have always been available to help individuals discover certain truths, to find your "true self." As our teachers tell us, though, it's the work of all sages to alleviate suffering, whatever the guise, meeting it wherever it stands. If we are conditioned to restrict this practice in to the sick, the impoverished, the homeless, and so forth, we are ourselves attached to form and thus set ourselves up to exclude the burdens everyone else faces. If we divide society into two, we are ourselves in conflict. How then can we help one another?

To meet you where you stand may mean an appointment in your boardroom to discuss a business problem or over privately over coffee to discuss a personal matter rather than an early morning hour or so in silence on a cushion with us--it's hard to say if you wonder but you do not ask.

So ask. Perhaps we can help one another.

Rashomon Jiyuwaza

Ryotedori jiyuwaza: fixed attack, free response. Uke seizes your wrists, but unlike those preceding or expected, this grab is stiff. You will not be permitted to move, and Uke will adjust to maintain this hold without being thrown. What is your response? A little struggle to the left, a little to the right. A little push, a little pull. Maybe a twist? A body shift? A drop? A sutemi attempt?

Suddenly, your Aikido is challenged and you are failing. Perhaps you pull something out with a "There it is!" from Uke? Congratulations? Perhaps, perhaps not.

Let's reexamine through a Zen lens: What happened here?

Nage is working within a framework, a context, a collection of rules, interpretations, assumptions, expectations, and so forth. So is Uke. Yet, these contexts need not necessarily be matched. Realistically, how would they be? Even if the teacher does set the context, can we assume the contexts of Uke and Nage match that of the instructor perfectly, let alone match the other's? What if the instructor asserts no context, leaving a vacuum? What will emerge?

In our example, did Nage break the Aikido context by giving other than a "pure" ryotedori attack--in this case, a ryotedori plus "I'm going to test you" attack? Did Uke get drawn out of a "proper" Aikido context and into Nage's context by struggling to make some technique from the repertoire of named techniques work? Did Nage expect Uke to limit his response options to the same while he worked to hold Uke in place?

So, the above is a somewhat fictionalized view of our practice last Thursday. The only facts were that (1) four of us with vastly different styles and experience got together and enjoyed a few rounds of friendly jiyuwaza, and that (2) I took some extra time past the point to catching my breath to observe the dynamic caricatured above. What I saw was something of a dojo Rashomon plot: the hard stylist, the soft stylist, the non-aikidoist, and I may each have walked away with a personal interpretation of the practice. Not everyone was privy to all of the information: The hard stylist wondered in retrospect if it was okay to take the practice in a different direction; the non-aikidoist looked for a nod from me to see if I would allow the type of response that he knows well from outside Aikido; and so forth.

We had the unique opportunity to explore an undefined space where the only true boundaries were self-imposed limitations. Thankfully they included safety and respect for one another, but even those were not explicitly stated. More than styles and skill levels came together in this encounter. Hopefully we'll have the opportunity to review our recollections of the practice and to see if anyone noticed when and where the true enemies appeared...

Masakatsu Agatsu Katsuhayabi!

I do look forward to more with this crew, though this one encounter was valuable beyond measure!

Care to join us? Check practice details in the sidebar.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Get Out of Bed!

It's one of those mornings when I can't get out of bed. Someone else's alarm clock woke me up too early, so I lie here... I could get an early start, or maybe I could go back to sleep. I should get out of bed... Have to pee, but the bathroom is over there and it's so warm under these covers... Toothbrush is by the sink, get this taste out of my mouth... What's waiting at the office, I wonder? Did a reply come from that email? My back is sore; it's going to sting if I move... Ugh, have to go downstairs to make my coffee.

Still in bed.

Well, actually I'm no longer there, that first cup of coffee is long gone, and the other issues in between were resolved; still, I wonder: when did I leave there and how did I arrive here? What happened in between?

At some point, I must have figured it out. So, tell me, do you know how to get out of bed?

You'd better come to practice... Details are on the right.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Walking Meditation

Barefoot, circling a well-explored path, slowly, deliberately. Pay full attention to every aspect of one foot descending, making contact with the ground at a single point and then onward toward fully joining, solidly rooting you to the ground.

With full attention to the rear foot now, watch it similarly as it enters the sky.

Again. Again. Again.

It can be so complicated, so easy to stumble, so difficult to perfect... Yet, before you came to this place, it was time to leave for practice; and when you went home to dinner afterward, you left this place behind--effortlessly.

Walking in circles is not even a single step from the central truth of this practice... but can you take a step from the top of the 100-foot pole without it?

We will consider the practice as well as applications in class...

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Years Later

Ten years ago, my wife, my four-year-old daughter, and my one-year-old son--still crawling--had an offer in on a house. Its price was, as was the convention, about three times my government salary, which was just barely adequate to support my stay-at-home, homeschooling family. By the end of the year, the house would be ours, and our one car's head gasket would blow. I would take on teaching at the local community college to help make ends meet and to make payments a second used car.

Nine years ago exactly, I formed a company on paper. Eight years ago it was on contract. Seven years ago I was taking my family for a weeklong vacation--the type of thing we had never done in years of military and government pay--driving a fancy car, and we were browsing larger houses in the area. Six years ago, it was clear that respecting the doubt to buy larger was a sensible choice.

Four years ago around this time, we'd just received my son's diagnosis of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. He was still walking and climbing the steps, albeit with some difficulty. I was working for a group with questionable ethics and was content to lose my job at the end of the year.

Two years ago around this time, I was in Baltimore with my son, visiting and speaking with their firemen who would be working the MDA's Fill the Boot campaign. On the drive home, I called my wife. She had received notice of the bank's intent to foreclose.

Three days ago, a large tree in the backyard toppled on the house's roof. The two bathrooms upstairs were crushed and the tree lay over the roof covering my son's bed, the stairwell, and the front door. Tomorrow we have a previously scheduled appointment to hear about household medical equipment for my son, necessary upgrades given that he cannot walk. We drive the same two used cars, the fancy one long gone. The contract I currently work is scheduled for recompete.

Around this time maybe twenty-five years ago, I stood on the WTC observation deck overlooking the city. Twenty-one years ago joining the Army as a linguist, I had no idea I'd be learning Arabic when Desert Storm broke out. Around this time fourteen years ago, after working a project in this industry as a mathematician, I confessed to my wife and toddler daughter--who was just learning to crawl--that I didn't think that this work was the right path for me. I had no idea where I would be or how I would be involved ten years ago and then subsequently.

Today I am still here, but I am not the same.

While a "War on Terror" or "Unrest in the Middle-East" have served as a touchstone or backdrop for almost my entire, post-"Evil Empire" career, they--like the car, the house, and anything else--ultimately had little to do with the transformation itself. Whatever the backdrop, there was just the living and the choices.

So many choices, individually and collectively, led us all to this moment. Without conscious, awakened action, certain paths were probably predictable. Even with the momentum of habit, beginning right now we can all move in a new direction. For me, it starts here, listening to the rain falling on the tarp above where my bathroom and roof were.

What's next? I have some thoughts...

Monday, September 5, 2011

Another Year

I've received the automated notice that--unless I intervene--on 14 September, the domain will be renewed and my credit card will be charged accordingly, allowing for yet another year of opportunities to finally say something meaningful.

I can tell you that, from an occasional peek at the statistics, I may be the site's primary reader; still, there are a few who pay attention or find me in search against my advice to the contrary. A few of those will engage in a conversation or drop by for discussion. A few of those will stay for some practice. One way or another, though, everything is changed--if for no other reason than I am changed.

Ultimately, is Aikido or Zen practice, or anything else in life, any different from this?

Ninindori: Today, I stand still and open my arms. My recollections of my past seize my left; visions of my future seize my right. Am I still free? Aikido and Zen. Mind and Body. I do not know...

The instructor shatters the silence: "Hajime!!!"


* * *

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Place of Practice

In all aspects of our practice, our place of practice--that which surrounds us--directly reflects every aspect of our true selves.

When we are helpless within our circumstances or if we are only observers of our circumstances, it is revealed in our environment. We see what we like; we see what we do not. We see our preferences; we see our aversions. We find ourselves weighing the cost of making change against the benefit that might be gained. All of this is seeing ourselves.

Sometimes, though, this seeing contains blindspots.  Never separate from our environment, this seeing in the last example includes the belief that we are helpless or the belief that we are only acting as observers; moreover, it continues to feedback into shaping the environment as circumstances change. This can be a paralyzing trap that the environment reveals perfectly, even if we miss it.

When the power of our practice concentrates and expands--"Keep One-Point," "Extend Ki"--the places of our practice reflect it effortlessly. This in turn is seen by all when they encounter themselves in this place and see themselves in its reflection.

Now, look around: What does this space say about you and the power of your practice? Is your energy seen here? Do you see what is missing in your reflection?

Be free in all circumstances, yes, but do not believe you are separate from them.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Cassandra's Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Having lived in the R&D world for so long where forward thinking is the norm, it becomes quite a challenge to interact with people who are stuck in the "Here & Now."  Whether it's the business folks watching the short-termed indicators or the people in their daily operations who don't have the luxury to imagine another way, they more often than not see the R&D fellow as outside their Here & Now.

Of course, the R&D team has a Here & Now as well: it just happens to be creating the Then & Out There.

Are they really different? Consider: The R&D team's reality is a vision, and they work daily toward its creation.  The Operations team's reality happens to be a vision too--a vision of how things are--and they work daily toward maintaining it. 

The visions of either team are arguably impermanent--today's operations are not necessarily sustainable, nor are all R&D futures attainable--but it is the vision that drives each and is the lens through which all changes are seen.

Simple enough, yes?

Now to Cassandra and her Complex (Wikipedia): In short, you have a vision of what will be, but no one believes you--and yes, it's all about you, naturally.  The few R&D folks who have the opportunity to live among the daily operations contingent have undoubtedly seen this one appear in the meetings and on the floor:  You're "thinking big" they have "a job to do"--notwithstanding that it's your job to think big, of course, or that if you have your way they won't be doing that job--at least in that way--for long!  In the end, there are two visions competing.  Sometimes there is successful negotiation and migration, a phasing in; other times, one of the visions must kill the other.  With only probabilities of future earnings or utility to defend itself,  R&D is often the loser.

Funny thing though:  Even if it's killed in the boardroom today, the R&D vision is often later realized anyway.  How?  Sometimes unsustainable operations and inevitable technology developments meet right where they're predicted--go figure!  Unfortunately, sometimes that's long after the team that made the recommendations was thanked and dismissed.

It's true, by the way: I personally do have a good deal of "I told you so"'s on my resume...

Speaking of which, back to Cassandra:  What if, over time, your "Here & Now" incorporates the habit of being disbelieved or misunderstood and later proven right?  If that is your vision, won't you work toward creating and then maintaining it?

If you gave Cassandra the prediction that she was in fact a spot-on prophet who was eventually going to be proven right, but added that she was habitually finding and focusing on those people who would not believe her, repeating this pattern, would she believe you or would she suffer tragic consequences, to include your "I told you so!"?

... or would that "self-fulfilling prophecy" be something she would have to discover for herself?

What vision would you have to hold, what habits would you have to develop, to become a successful "Prophet of Industry" ... or anything else that suits you?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Technique of Meditation

I have seen the “action-oriented” folks shun meditation--shikantaza, or “just sitting”--even among those who like to think of Aikido as “meditation in motion.” That is too bad. It is sad to see a martial artist who discounts one the most important techniques available...

We spend so much time in Aikidio, like in other arts, practicing and perfecting forms--the named techniques. These techniques are not fundamentally natural responses to our circumstances until they are fully integrated, ultimately ceasing to be techniques at all--at least in the “I’m doing ikkyo / I’m practicing ikkyo / I’m trying to make ikkyo work”-sense. Until then, practice is a great effort of doing.

How is simply being still any different? Have you tried it?

Over years of practicing the basic ikkyo--well after we are effective with it--do we not continue to gain more and more subtle insight into the technique? Increased sensitivity and finesse? Do we think that meditation would be different?

Beginners often mistake meditation for “doing nothing” whereas the practice of the martial art to them is “doing something.” It takes understanding a bit beyond this explanation to realize fully that the two are both still “doing” and that the noticing itself is a reflection of the effort itself. In this context, when we say something is “effortless,” we do not necessarily mean without force or without encountering resistance; it does not mean you will not sweat or feel pain. Instead, once comfortably integrated, you are not swayed by those things--you can do what needs to be done effortlessly--without internal resistance or distraction.  When the effort is gone, so is the doing.

There is were mastery lies.

In a sense, we are all slaves to our circumstances. When our bodies need oxygen, we inhale; when saturated with carbon dioxide, we exhale. When we’re punched in the nose, it hurts. When we’re tripped, we fall. What we can do though, even if only in limited ways, is to reconfigure our conditioned, habitual responses to our circumstances in a way of our own choosing. The martial practice itself is such an effort, conditioning different physical responses to different stimuli, expanding our capacity to operate under stress and duress. However, have you considered the added technique of not responding at all? Have you considered how much effort it takes to not respond if you’ve not fully integrated it as an option?

Meditation practice is multifaceted and integral to our practice at Sword Mountain. Our Aikido classes already incorporate meditation as part of the martial training. For the non-martially inclined and for those who see the value in the extra practice, we will soon be offering a combination of morning and evening meditation sessions to open and close our days. If interested in joining us, please contact us with your needs and watch this site for schedule updates.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Studying Aikido *and* Other Martial Arts?

There is a longstanding question in Aikido circles asking whether it is appropriate to study another martial art while studying Aikido.  Whether the source of the question is a want to correct perceived deficiencies in the art, or whether there's simply an opportunity to train with another teacher who is doing something different, or whether it's something in between, the answer can ultimately be clearly found within the Aikido practice itself right in front of your eyes...

... if you know where to look.

Year after year, practice after practice, technique after technique, repetition after repetition, the Aikido student alternates between the practice of Uke and the practice of Nage again and again and again.  If the practice of Aikido was only that of Nage--the performing of the throws and pins--and the role of Uke was simply that of a dumb attacker making mistakes to be exploited or that of an actor making Nage look good on the mats, then yes, it is easy to say that another art interferes with progress in Aikido.

But is Aikido strictly the art of the Nage?

It is certainly a draw, particularly to those of the "martial effectiveness" core, to think "I want to learn to throw someone like that!" Even among longtime practitioners, who hasn't completely overlooked the skilled Uke upon seeing the flawless execution of a new technique or variation?  It is tempting to see the art of the Uke as ancillary, a practice in deliberately doing things wrong, giving up one's center, being off-balanced, and so forth.  With extreme separation in the roles, learning to be an Uke is perhaps the incidental cost of learning to be Nage.

Whether there is this bias toward being Nage or whether at the other extreme there is a concerted effort to perfect the role of Uke, we are not yet performing Aikido.  Rather, we are studying two separate arts that are diametrically opposed...

... and certainly you cannot perfect being Nage while being Uke, right?  And how could you perfect your ukemi while being Nage?

Is the question so different than asking "How can you perfect Aikido while studying Karate?"

Somehow, though, through practice after practice, we do begin to master both the roles of Uke and Nage on the way toward perfecting our Aikido.  How?

What we are learning, the Aikido itself, in no small part lies in the awareness of when we are centered and when we are off-balanced, when we are leading and when we are being led.  It is in feeling the intention impulse that precedes an attack and in feeling the impulse that precedes a defense.  The Aikido study leads us to understand that it is the ability to fluidly move between controlling and yielding that moves us toward a desired outcome harmoniously.  

The opposed constructs of "Uke" and "Nage" are teaching tools, creating an imbalance to study it.  When you assume and hold the form of Uke, you perform like this; when you assume and hold the form of Nage, you perform like that--two completely separate arts in conflict.  Ultimately, though, the roles of Uke and Nage dissolve and the realization of the Aikido practice begins.

[Inspired by the AikiWeb thread, Learning from Other Arts.]

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Morning Vision

* * *

Traced a path form there to here
Across land
Around the wind
Beneath the water's surface
to the fire gate.
Pieces of you left scattered behind;
You will burn as you cross through.


Tree swallowed ash.
Wind dispersed smoke
Ancient toad watched from beneath the falling leaves.

* * *

Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Cycle of Generosity

Spiritual practices assume many forms.  Any two practices may appear externally contradictory.  Any one practice may appear internally inconsistent.  Still, embodying any correct practice fully gives one the opportunity for the same realization in every aspect of life.

The opportunity to offer classes at the Baltimore Zen Center is ultimately rooted in generosity.  My own Aikido training began so many years ago as a penniless, married, military veteran attending college; my sensei offered me second-hand uniforms and gave me the opportunity to clean the dojo in exchange for my training.  My deep Zen training began when different aspects of my life were simultaneously crumbling; a Korean Buddhist monk offered his teaching in exchange for nothing at all.  Friends and family ensured that we had food, utilities, and a home as we encountered extraordinary challenges.

It is only fitting that as these two teachings are fused, they should be offered in the same spirit in which they were received.

The price of this teaching is your utmost generosity--and nothing more.

Of course, this price is very steep.  Developing the clarity of Zen or the awareness of Aikido is an extraordinary effort in developing sensitivity.  So too is the practice of generosity.  To be continuously on watch for what needs to be done and to be selfless in the satisfying of those needs--this is an insurmountable obstacle for many today.  The effects of this failing are visible everywhere.

So long as the monk can pay his mortgage, the dharma hall is available to us.  So long as the electric bill is paid, the fans or the heaters will run.  As long as there is a donation of water or food, we will be sustained in our practice.  As long as the mats and cushions are maintained our beginners will have some comfort as they develop into our training partners.  As long as we are generous with our energy with our partners, our mutual practices will flourish.  If we create a comfortable place, we will have this place to relax and share after our effort.  If the students give of their time to come together, a teacher will give of himself to join them where they are.  Finally, so long as we see the benefit to ourselves and to our peers, our practice of generosity ensures that we work to make this available to everyone.

Money, food, water, time, talent, effort, expertise, muscle power, and so on: these are what we have at our disposal.  These are our karma, and these are all of the ingredients necessary to create something wonderful to benefit everyone from it.  The obstacles to manifesting this vision are precisely the same as those which block the progress of dedicated Zen and Aikido practitioners:  distraction by one's own wonder if you should.  Nothing is perfected in this way...

Nearly twenty years ago, I inhaled.  No one asked why.  No one held the air hostage.  Nearly twenty years later, I exhale.  I don't ultimately know how you will use what you learn from your practice with us.  I do know that that it will become a part of you.  I know that this effort today will be part of your perfect, spontaneous response to your circumstances as you encounter them.  I also know that the entire universe is transformed through this great effort.

Chasing the result of an effort--giving money at the register and leaving with a gallon of milk---this is a very limited view, very far from the teaching.  Finding the connection between this and that is not the point, nor does it lead to your perfection.  There is so much more on a scale we cannot imagine---but seeing it is available through practice.  And thus this will be the cornerstone of our practice:  It is not a contract---not a promise of any sort---but faith in that when these elements and desires are brought together in this spirit, what should happen most certainly will occur.

Bird flies.  Feather falls.

* * *

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Out of Nowhere: Tues & Thurs 6:30-8:00pm at Baltimore Zen Center

"Who's next?!"

Aikido & Zen Practice
Tuesdays & Thursdays 6:30 - 8:00 p.m.
The Baltimore Zen Center
913 Reece Road, Severn, MD 21144

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Sushi for Lunch?

So, many of you who know my son also know Sushi the Badger, a tangible manifestation of one of his many "imaginary" friends.  Sushi is part of the family--sometimes a very annoying part, especially while we all sit in traffic during a rush-hour drive to the hospital--but it's a voice and a friend.  What's a dad to do?

As we sat in the Clinical Lab--a euphemism for "Don't tell him he's going to get stuck again"--well past the onset of lunchtime hunger but before our next stop at Radiology, Sushi was there to keep my son company in his wheelchair.  We're used to Sushi's noise and antics, but I was taken aback by the grunting screams that followed from the other side of the room!  Sushi had caught the eye of a young deformed girl in a wheelchair, on a respirator.  There were no words, only this strange cackle of sorts as one eye occasionally swept by and made contact with my son and his doll...

... and once they knew they had an audience, they both performed.  Jumps, backflips, twists, dancing, waving, ...  The girl was thrilled, and so were both the girl's nurse and her mother.

So was I.

Everyday is like this, reminding me that there's no way of knowing, reminding me to trust, reminding me to simply do my best as I understand it--but days visiting Children's Hospital are all of this under a microscope.  There are full ranges of experience from suffering and facing death through bliss from a saved life, and all see each other in the hallways, the cafeteria, and the clinics' waiting rooms.  Everybody there struggling for a parking place has a story of some sort or another.  Somebody there is undoubtedly worse of than you--and undoubtedly you are that somebody to somebody else.

Human spirit and compassion.  Sobering reminders reframing perspective.  Ecstatic reminders that, at any time and under any circumstances, witting or not, anyone might be your salvation and you might be that for another.

I have my days wherein I wish everyone I encountered experienced military life so they would understand that we can pull together, drop egos, move in one direction, and get things done.  On other days I wish people would take the time to expand their lives like this, through a little volunteer work or other activities, spending time outside of their limited worlds, finding true perspective in the full human condition.  In the end, though, it requires no effort at all--all of this life really does simply unfold on its own.

Alas, as above, so below... Tomorrow, back to the cubicle.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

"Flap Your Arms Harder!"

I came across a group of people standing in a desert, all flapping their arms up and down at their sides, so I paused to watch... After some time, some began to give sideways glances toward one of their own.  He seemed to notice, but was somehow unfazed--he simply kept flapping obliviously. In time though, the others grew into a fury.  There were some words I could not hear, and soon enough the one stopped flapping his arms and walked off alone toward the horizon. I approached the group. "Excuse me, but what happened here?"
"He wasn't flapping hard enough.  This group will never fly with folks like that holding us back..." I nodded in acknowledgement and turned to walk away. "Maybe we just need more people flapping... If you see anyone, will you send them our way?" I waved, not looking back, and I followed the path of the fellow who left.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Broken Heart Sutra

Blowing through sacred space in disrepair, jasmine scented smoke and thoughts of what could be.  Exotic flowers are absent from the garden.  Work to do litters the temple.  A crumbled stupa was erected though the efforts of not-doing as the hands of those present were elsewhere.  Observe the ghosts, circling an unlit flame.  Depleted of purpose, ki drained.  The birds' songs are no longer heard over the traffic.  Airplanes pass behind overcast skies.  This is perfection in the absence of truth.  It is almost worthy of a tear. 

Mourn the loss, but see what will appear when the spirit returns to this place.

Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha.

* * *

[Cross-posted from Inexhaustible Things.]

The Broken Heart Sutra

Blowing through sacred space in disrepair, jasmine scented smoke and thoughts of what could be.  Exotic flowers are absent from the garden.  Work to do litters the temple.  A crumbled stupa was erected though the efforts of not-doing as the hands of those present were elsewhere.  Observe the ghosts, circling an unlit flame.  Depleted of purpose, ki drained.  The birds' songs are no longer heard over the traffic.  Airplanes pass behind overcast skies.  This is perfection in the absence of truth.  It is almost worthy of a tear.

Mourn the loss, but see what will appear when the spirit returns to this place.

Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha.

* * *

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Letting Go

Invariably, first Aikido techniques begin with the simple, static wrist-grab.

Maybe someday that wrist-grab start will evolve to a more dynamic reaching-in-to-grab, and then maybe on to the lunge punch, or even on to a wrist-grab-then-punch combination?  Really, there are no limits, and over time you'll likely experience them all...

... but first, there is the simple, static wrist-grab.

It seems almost silly--or maybe "unrealistic"--to start like this--but in retrospect, the essence of Aikido is all in there.  Uke's intention is crystal clear: Don't let go.  Granted, there may be a touch of "Be strong and don't let him move" or "Be flexible but stay connected" added depending upon the Uke, but either way, Nage has this to work with.

Now, we've mentioned a favorite and key experiment here before:  Suppose in the above picture, Nage (the defender) strikes boldly at Uke's face.  We see that in almost every case, even though Uke may attempt to block with his free hand, invariably he will not let go of Nage's wrist.  Though he's dealing with what arises instinctually, Uke's original intention is not lost.

Lots of great Aikido--and even improbable Aikido, such as the sometimes controversial kokyunage "breath throws," "timing throws," or even the "touchless throws"--is rooted in this bit of "Applied Zen"...  Arguably, here is where Aikido separates a bit from the underlying purely physical jiujitsu techniques.

Now that aside, at sometime during the first week of a new Aikidoka's practice, the above attack will likely lead to this defense--the kotegaeshi, or wrist-turning-out throw.  What I would like you to notice for now is that, at some point, "Uke is grabbing Nage" has been transformed into "Nage is grabbing Uke."

Some people never get this point--even after studying kaeshi waza (reversals), so here it is:  At this point in the technique, the tables are turned--Nage is now performing a grabbing attack on Uke...

... and the rules from our first experiment about grabbing do apply.

The problem with grabbing, you see, is that we're not always cognizant enough to let go.  After all, as everything else going on is overwhelming us, we are not even necessarily cognizant of the fact that we are grabbing at all!

Interestingly enough, there are some Aikido schools which focus almost exclusively on this aspect of the art.  They are naturally considered "soft styles" and are sometimes criticized as being ineffective for defense.  And there is cause to agree:  If we begin so far away from the underlying physical jiujitsu with its focus upon balance, timing, leverage, and so forth, and work strictly with guiding Uke's intention, it may take a very (very) long time to develop defensive proficiency--assuming you care about that, of course.  Consider what we see to the right: Ikkyo--another "week one" technique achievable from that same wrist-grab--has Nage grabbing Uke's wrist and elbow in this picture.  With a bent to avoid "blocking Nage's ki," some schools will practice guiding Uke into this position without grabbing him at all.

One hand guiding the wrist, the other guiding the elbow, all subject to change with changing circumstances:  In some sense, this is the Gold Standard--what we all strive through diligent practice to accomplish---an end state.  Now, whether we start here and correct ourselves as we inadvertently drop down to raw jiujitsu to finish a technique, or whether we start with the raw jiujitsu and forcing and strive to separate from the forcing, is largely a matter of preference--neither here nor there.

However, there is a problem...  Do you see it?

If you practice diligently to not grab your opponent, do you suppose that in the heat of the moment that you will realize that you can?

Yes, the experiment actually does work both ways:  It is possible to inadvertently cling to not clinging.  Moreover, when overwhelmed, you will not realize it.

Now with that point made, we should be fair:  That Gold Standard is the same for either path, and it does include spontaneous and appropriate response to any circumstances.  Sometimes that means grab and sometimes it means do not grab--the circumstances will guide you.  The training, however, gives the practitioner the ability to remain cognizant throughout increasingly overwhelming circumstances and sensitive to changes, remaining free to alter course.

This is to say that, at an intermediate level for instance, you don't have to be married to forcing that ikkyo technique to work---you can change techniques (henka waza).  At a more advanced level, if you're grabbing someone's wrist and he throws a punch at your face, letting go will be an easy option.

And at an even higher level of practice, letting your face be hit would be an option as well if you felt that would serve your greater purpose.  That is, we can let go of "winning," "succeeding," or even living if that is what is ultimately required.

For practical purposes, however, we will accept an avoidance of the later as a sensible constraint, but strive to make it possible.  In the Zen aspects of our study, though, we prepare to take one final, decisive step through this wall:  After we let go of holding on, we let go of letting go.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Diner Zen: Mondays 8-9pm in Ellicott City, MD

Join me at the Double T Diner in Ellicott City, MD (map), on Mondays from 8-9 p.m. for coffee, snacks, and friendly discussion with people interested in Zen and Aikido.

While practice in either art can range from the somewhat public to the deeply personal and private, how it manifests is seen in every moment of our daily lives and interactions.  Whatever the topic of conversation, however mundane or esoteric, the practices are present.  This is the public face of a private journey.

... plus, they have a wide selection of dinners and desserts!

The next classes that we will form will focus on creating a closely-knit family of practitioners with similar objectives, whatever their backgrounds.  For people interested in becoming paying dojo "customers," well, this probably is not for you.  If you'e looking for something a little different, though, take an opportunity to meet the family--and vice versa.

Who knows how many will show on any given day?  Best send a note if you intend on joining me so I can make sure we have table space and so I can tell you how to identify us.

For those on Facebook, here is a link to tomorrow's first invite in their format.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

More Better Practicing

The practice of patience, loving kindness, sympathetic joy, abstinence, virtue ...  What are these things?

Is it possible to practice patience, for example, when nothing is bothering you? Or is "practicing patience" the thought which counter-balances "not doing what is instinctual" when circumstances collide with your intent?

Zen meditators sit.  For longer and longer periods, they sit.  A pain arises slowly, but the meditator does not move... The pain increases and the thought to resist grows louder, but still there is no movement.  The want to shift the body grows stronger, but the meditator adds the thought not to disturb his peers into the balance. The need to stretch the joint intensifies, but not wanting the teacher to see his discomfort weighs in.  The tortured practitioner's attention intensifies, moving between the pain and the thought, the pain and the thought, justification and excuse...  Finally, a break or a surrender---either way, there is mental and physical relief.

Was it a "bad sit"?  Was he dealing with pain?  Was he perfecting his form?  Was he chasing thought?

... or was he sitting?  ... and then not sitting?  ... or neither?

We experience the physical sensation, the emotions, the thoughts---but aren't those all just the traces of "just sitting"?  If we surrender to the itch and scratch it, are we still sitting?  How about if we follow the thoughts instead?

We see the trace, and we mistake that for who we are.  But if you are not that, then what are you?  Can you see your reflection in the sum of your pain and your thought and see that you are "just sitting" even though the thought of sitting never crossed your mind?

Then what of the rest of the day?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Of Course You're Right!

We constantly work to make sense of the world around us. So, today the world is flat and leeches are balancing the humors?  Cool.  Pursuing this theory or that, scrying more deeply into all that is around you, you'll see the evidence you seek and you'll be tempted deeper into the puzzle.  You take another step--but from where?  Is what you see next anything more than an extension of today's understanding?

Wanting to know, wanting to understand, wanting to be right or justified, how could it be otherwise?  After all, even when you discover how wrong you were, well, look at how right you are now! How wise and open minded you are to adopt a new, enlightened view!

These days I'm looking at a complex puzzle, made complex perhaps only by the human dynamic.  Looking for the problems, I see the problems.  Why is this like this and that like that?  I look deeper.  Problems on top of problems.  Fascinating patterns of problems.  Beautiful arrangements of misaligned ideas and beliefs, stresses and tensions, all in precarious balance resulting in the only current state and trajectory that is possible.  It truly is a wonder...

And how very tempting it is for me to go further and to explore more, to gain deeper understanding, to see more of the dynamic, to make greater sense of what is happening... but toward what end?  The exploration is, in some sense, only a diversion---a trap like any other.  Studying how others find themselves in their situations can happen with a blindness toward the equivalence of your own.

The difference between "fixing a problem" and "moving toward a solution" might only be semantics, but the choice of words or point of view is powerful in directing our energy.  A great leap forward does not happen from where you are, I think. Rather, it's a fait accompli, perhaps just beyond thought, and we catch up to it in time.  

Thursday, January 27, 2011

More than a Tree?

Heavy, wet snow finally took some limbs I couldn't reach with the telescoping pruning saw late last year. Somehow, the kids simple swing is still holding on. When was the last time a child sat on it? I don't know, but we've told them not to because of the weak limb.

The husband of the former owner of the house died pruning this tree, we were told by a sentimental neighbor. At one point, the tree was so unruly that it was topped, and has long since resumed its posture. Standing between the front of our house and the western horizon, it is the house's cooling shade from spring through autumn---and morning shade for our neighbors across the street. Of course, every fall it swamps the lawn with shed leaves and branches that we are still cleaning up in spring. Is it odd that we don't think about that while we're burning the fallen limbs in the fire pit in the fall. Since nothing grows beneath it, there's no lawn to maintain; but, the rains rolling through erode the hill on which the house sits. Perhaps the roots hold together what remains, but perhaps someday they'll encroach upon the pipes and foundation. Any impulsive thoughts to remove the tree are easily countered by the expense and homeowner association paperwork process that have to be readied beforehand.

This is a perfectly precarious balance: with a determined thought in either direction, this tree stands or falls with all of the pros and cons that result; but absent a compelling desire, the consequences either way are clear.

Such a big deal, this old tree, so much more than the its limbs are attached to it by so many people, weighing it down... So many different things beside its roots are keeping it standing, perfectly balanced, ready to fall.

What isn't like this?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Chasing Results

I don't remember exactly what it was like watching my kids discover their fingers and toes--beyond sucking thumbs, seeing the hands and somehow realizing that they control them, and seeing the feet as something foreign then grabbing them for a taste.. Not long afterward, babies reach out and grab things that are not the babies themselves. Later, crying brings Mommy to the rescue and squealing makes Daddy have a funny face. And so it goes... Off in that way, maybe they will reminisce about their own kids doing the same.

Is there ultimately anything that is not like this, responding to what we sense or think? If there is, can you tell me what it is without it being in response to my question?

So I heard a generous teacher say that he is bothered by a selfish student. The student takes, takes, takes while the teacher gives, gives, gives. Whenever he looks for his own understanding, the teacher never sees its reflection. What is happening here? What is his complaint? What is my response?

Perhaps someday he will "evolve" and consider the long view. Who knows how a student may someday be affected by the teacher? Perhaps eventually, unnoticed, the student will develop the right view. But doing this today so that someday he might do that? Is this any different?

Is there no escape?

I don't know what he may have told Jos├ęphine about reason for his every breath, but I once heard that each of us today has likely inhaled air that Napoleon had exhaled. I can't say for certain, but I doubt he mentioned me.

Can you break that feedback loop? Would it be wrong to try because I asked?

What if you succeeded? Perhaps then you could tell me the meaning underlying these words:

If there's a reason I breathe, I don't know what it is.