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!