Thursday, February 23, 2012

Have You Seen my Hakama?! Practical Arts in Columbia, Maryland

The Aikido uniform is quite stylish, wouldn't you say? Except for the sneakers, what is pictured here is fairly standard for the yudansha: a judo-knit gi (suitable for grappling), a belt (black, white, or something else in the rainbow), the hakama (Aikido's signature fancy pants), and a collection of wooden weapons (a jo staff poses with that fellow in the picture while bokken and tanto are off camera waiting their turn).

Aikido in particular is one of those martial arts that has espoused and enjoys something of a highbrow reputation. Although O-Sensei, the art's founder, may have indicated that he wanted the art to be for everyone, that the perfect place for practice is precisely where you are, and other wise things, we cannot deny that there is a certain elitism held by many many in the larger community. Part of this elitism, however, seems to be that the instructor should suffer for his or her art--that is, nothing so dirty as money should not be associated with the transmission of O-Sensei's sacred teachings. If the person up front leaves anyone with the appearance that he is a professional instructor, he is tainted, and his Aikido school is likened to the evil Karate McDojos and their Black Belt Factories.

However, if money is off on the periphery of the teaching itself, in items like uniforms, equipment, books, DVDs, ... well perhaps that is honorable. In that picture, the gi is good quality, up around $100; the hakama is in the BuJin line, around $200; the staff is white oak, imported from Japan, around $60; and the black belt is quality material and construction, around $40--more if it was embroidered with some fancy kanji. Wow!

You know, though, I don't see many people in these parts dressed like that... What do you figure a bag full of those clothes like that would be worth to you?

Maybe we'll find out: This morning someone smashed the window to my car, popped the console, glove box, and trunk, and one of the only things missing was a gym bag with that outfit in it. For me, that's a $300-$400 loss, plus time off work for the paperwork and to replace the window (another $300). I wonder what the thief is going to think of his score when he unzips that bag...

What's that garb worth to anyone who doesn't practice Aikido?

And what is it really worth to me...

Now, if I told a story of an Aikido machine preying on the snobs with an unusual affinity for Japanese, catering toward social misfits who want to shun their own cultures and live as a samurai, and I threw in details of bizarre pricing, details of how it's sometimes the elite teachers in the community themselves who do the import and sales of their own line of aikido equipment and pour you the Kool Aid, I might have a come-as-you-are True Aikido practice--just as O-Sensei intended it to be--attracting the more practically-minded crew all ready to start in the park tomorrow morning!

Wear the clothes you'll be wearing when you encounter the threat. Learn to pivot and fall on the types of ground where you'll fight. It's not that we can't afford heating or the air conditioning, but rather that enduring the elements will not distract you from your task. Bonus, by the way, if the students want to ensure that their instructor can feed himself and his family, not minding paying for his time, skills, and dedication. That's a piece of this culture, you see, and we operate within it.

Now, for the Zen-indoctrinated or those who really do understand taking Aikido out of the dojo and integrating it into your daily life, you'll at least recognize the tongue-in-cheek handling if not the koan itself. How do we deal with these situations? Zen teaches this. Aikido teaches this. They teach more than that, but this is a start.

So, who would like to study some Practical Aikido and Practical Zen in the Columbia, Maryland, area? Who would like to help get me back into uniform for when we have to represent ourselves with our uppity peers? After all, if this is becoming the type of city where hoodlums will steal your hakama, then we'd best become the folks who don't need the hakama (Zen) as well as the folks who can deal with the hoodlums (Aikido), no?

Email with your interest.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Pulling the Chosen Thread

[I started to write a response to a comment to the last post, but thought it might better serve as a new post. You be the judge.]

In a larger sense, I think it's more important to see that choice is in play.

It's cold here this morning. When cold air hits me, the thought arises, "It's cold!" I can think about putting on a sweater or I can just get up and do it; I can think about moving someplace warm, or I can just start walking south. In the former cases, someone could assert that I'm attached to the thinking; in the later cases, someone could assert that I have an aversion to the physical sensation.

A martial artist might see the problems with both. If the thought becomes overwhelming, I may become incapacitated trying to find your strategy, unable to act. If the physical sensation becomes overwhelming, I might be cowering in the corner trying to avoid being struck. We can't reasonably say that either case is other than correct functioning given the circumstances, but we can say that neither case is a good example of a skilled martial artist's response.

... but the benchmark of "skilled martial artist" is just another objective mode of functioning--a chosen view of the situation, with emphasis on the choice, no?

When possible, it may make for a more "internally" peaceful existence to not be driven by either the thought or the sensation. This is to say that for any frame of reference, there may well be things outside our control that will generate thoughts and sensations as we encounter them. Does it make sense to always have an automatic or a fixed response to the circumstances? Does it make sense to hold only one perspective?

Consider this situation: I am sitting at my desk, and I am cold. I know I can pause and put on warmer clothes. In the back of my mind, I also know I should be getting ready to go to work. I haven't put on the coffee, I haven't taken out the dog, and I know that I'll have to stay at the office later than anticipated sometime this week as a result of missing the opportunity to go in earlier today. These thoughts and sensations might not have arisen if I had different work, it wasn't Monday morning, if I lived somewhere warmer or had the heat turned up higher, or if I hadn't seen Rick's reply to my last post.

That I am typing this message at 8 A.M. shows you something about me if for no other reason than this: Given whatever you are holding in your mind, even subconsciously, it is simply impossible to do other than what is most important to you. I am not getting ready for work right now because writing this is more important. An hour later or a few degrees colder and the balance may change, but the truth that I am doing what is most important does not change.

[You can claim that's not true and set out to prove it, but you can only do that if you are blind to the fact that it's most important to you to prove me wrong... and here is where we often get stuck: We're sometimes blind to what drives us, we're sometimes ignorant to our choices, and we're sometimes attached to the form that a solution will take. We can save those for another post.]

The last excursion aside, let's look at this situation again. Making the point is more important than being cold or being late. That allows me to use "my being cold" and "my being late" as tools to relay some understanding. In a different frame of mind, I might bitch about "my being cold" and "my being late" to generate sympathy, to convey irritation, to excuse myself from conversation, or anything else--but the expression is still a reflection of the mind and we're still doing what is most important right now. This is key: When my intention is focused is to make this point, everything in my field of awareness within my experience and within the entire universe is here to support that objective. My ability to flex time a bit at the office, the internet access and computer, this desk and keyboard, my being cold and my being late, and even my heartbeat and my breathing are supporting this effort. "Make the point" is sufficient for the spirit; I can trust my mind and body to do the rest with what they have available given the circumstances.

Now, whether taking the time to read this was the most important thing or a distraction is entirely up to you.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Wrong Place?

So let's consider a follow-on situation: What happens when you find yourself in the wrong job?

Day in and day out, you face the traffic going, the traffic returning, and everything in between. Friday is a day of celebration and Sunday is a sobering reminder. Everything in between--every customer, every piece of paperwork, every meeting, every hour--is instantly recognized as yet another piece of evidence that you are, in fact, in the wrong place.

You can sit in this place indefinitely, collecting evidence proving your truth that this is in fact the wrong place for you--that is completely up to you. After all, you have your reasons.

You do have your reasons... don't you?

I found myself such a situation once: Though I knew that the job was not right for me, I took it and I convinced myself that I was maintaining that job in order to maintain my family. The situation devolved: In time I started to see that my holding that job was negatively impacting my family, which in turn naturally reinforced my belief that I was in the wrong job. Holding the family together was a rationalization of sorts, an interpretation of my circumstances through the lens of what was actually important to me--proving I was right about being wrong.

That was "Keep one point" in action, the epitome of a focus that transcends consciousness. Moreover, that was absolutely effortless! Dealing with day-to-day events as I encountered them, I never had to consciously maintain the underlying belief, regardless of any hardships or suffering experienced along the way. I simply moved toward my truth--and sometimes it was painful.

If you "woke up" at this very moment within these circumstances, with everything around you in a collapse as epic as any country-western song could describe, and maybe with no more than a second to live amidst the blaring horn of a Mack truck about to run you down, you really could spend that last moment setting a smile in motion... though you would see that a terrified scream would be just as pure.

All but the final lesson that Zen training has to offer may be found in this one example. If that makes sense, then perhaps it's all but the final two. Still, you have always held the key to your freedom--and, if it's your choice, you can even use it to understand that freedom itself. If it only takes the seeding and effortless care for the belief "I am wrong" to set the universe in motion, hurtling toward an individual's ruin, then what could you do with a different seed? And how would your existence change clinging to no belief at all?

What do you really want to accomplish? What do you truly want to understand? Return to the office tomorrow morning with this new perspective, then be open to what it has to tell you. In time, even the rush hour traffic will reveal your truth.

Now, would you like to know how to begin?

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Lights, Camera, ...

I don't know how many years ago it was when I first felt the internal friction of being "typecast." Someone is clearly scrutinizing your suitability to play a particular role in a play of his or her own authoring. It may be a comedy, a drama, a romance, a tragedy, or anything else. The opening may be for a hero, a villain, a lover, a best supporting actor, an extra, or even for someone who will simply die well when run through in Act III. Now none of this is necessarily bad, per se, particularly if you want to play that role! After all, you may have been waiting all your life to have just the perfect playwright apply for the job of making you a star...

The most clear reflection of all of this for me was the job hunt, where it's the labor categories and billets on one side of the hall, the resumes and suits on the other, and the dance has already begun. Over the years and with all of the accumulated experience, I became something more complicated--though I might prefer to say "nuanced" if it was my choice--as the labor categories became more simplified and restrictive. The machine was looking for cogs, and I was not a cog. Yes, if the lighting was right and you tilted your head and squinted just so, you might see a cog--but I was not a cog, and eventually you'd realize that--if for no other reason than I would tell you so. After all, that's what "I am not a cog!" does--it transmits that message constantly...

Switching metaphors one more time, the next link in the "square peg versus round hole" chain would have me trying to explain that, not only am I not a square peg, but I'm not even a peg at all! It is, after all, a valuable realization to see that what you are is not defined by anyone else, no? And maybe it wouldn't hurt for you to realize that I'm even more than what you're asking for... but here's the issue: a not-a-peg doesn't satisfy a round hole either.

So now you're an actor again--a starving one at that--now playing the role of the uncompromising, "authentic" human being... which is to say you are playing the role of someone who is not acting. This is quite the dilemma! We have to ask: Is there any role can you possibly adopt to free yourself of being an actor? 

See if you remember studying this line when you wake up in your next role.

... aaaaaaand Scene!

Friday, February 10, 2012


"What is the point of training in a martial art that has you entering into practice with the intention of falling down?"

It's not an exact quote, but it's close enough, revealing the questioner's mind clearly: Dominance and victory in physical conflict is paramount. That's what he's come to learn. He has no idea that it's his subservience to this need that brought him here in the first place.

I'm sure his spouse nods accomodatingly at the dinner table as he brags about his exploits. "Yes, Dear... Now can you show me how you use that skill to effortlessly lift that trash bag? Amazing!"

Someone who must dominate is easily led by one who will "submit." Therefore, proper aikido practice exercises discipline over the yang as well as the yin within each of us.