Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Playing Like a Champion

Lots of little boys dream of being professional athletes.
Where I grew up, Chicago, we often dreamed of being baseball players,
just not with the hapless Chicago Cubs.

For me, though, the thought of being a professional athlete was often really scary.
I could not imagine standing in front of all those thousands of people and having to perform under that pressure. Even though as a professional speaker, I have done large presentations before (300 - 400 people) I still get the "butterflies". This is NOTHING compared to the feeling of having to sink the tournament winning putt, or score the overtime goal shot to win the Cup.
The pressure must be unbelievable. I have huge respect for those that can bear it.

The worst for me was to watch a batter fall into a slump. That's when you could really see their true character. You knew they didn't know why, but somehow ball and batt wouldn't meet. The last place they probably wanted to be was in the batter's box lining up, but they also know in their hearts that the batter's box was the only place their problem would ever really get solved.

The dojo can be a lot like this. The path is long, and has peaks and valleys. Sometimes we don't know why, and the blind faith in the training is all we have to guide us. Of course, the dojo is the only place these problems can be solved, too. We must keep the courage to continue training and trust that it will all become right over time. Our doubts will be replaced with the quiet confidence of achievement, and knowing, really knowing, that we CAN.

At the best of times, we students support each other and provide companionship along the path.
But never forget, that the answers can only come from your own training. Every part of you, mind, body, and spirit, has to come to an understanding; a Knowing. That can only happen with practice. Words alone will not suffice.

Hang in There. Before you know it you will be hitting home runs again.


"No Mind", not Mindless

Trying to keep an open mind is never easy. It is especially not easy when you are in the dojo. For me, it can be a place of refuge when the rest of my life is out of control; my little laboratory where I can test out what I want to improve in my life. Of course, it is never easy.

We often talk about "no mind" in zen practice. In fact, it even gets hacked up in bubble gum budo movies like "The Last Samurai". The reality is that learning to free our minds is about learning to let go...and this takes practice and repetition to achieve.

My original Zazen teacher used to say that doing zazen was anything but peaceful. He would say that if you do zazen correctly, you sweat from the mental exertion of trying so hard to let go and be "empty". He would say that the kyosaku (the stick used by the teacher to hit people doing zazen) was not just to wake you up and help you focus, but to remind you that the concious effort of trying to let go of distracting thoughts is a fight.

Many times I go into the dojo and get onto the mat trying hard not to think about what we are doing. Trying to let my body just DO what it knows how to do. Some days you get a glimpse of the Truth of Aikido, which is Freedom in Motion. Sometimes, you just suck. Today was the latter. "No Mind" was just "mindless". A total lack of focus. No kime. No zanshin.

Today I was disappointed. I could feel sensei wanting to take the training up a notch. I could feel the intensity, and it is almost a tangible thing. Your partner wants you to push them harder; they want to push you harder. Both of you are trying to get closer to the Truth. But I couldn't hold on. The distractions came and I could not be "in the moment". I could not let go. I just haven't been training enough lately and I disappointed my partner. That disappoints me.

Part of understading the "harmony" of Aiki is the fact that you and your partner are in a constant struggle to discover the Truth about who you are, especially in relation to each other, and in relation to the rest of the people in your lives. Our crucible, the dojo, magnifies our fear, our doubt, our anger, our frustration. It also magnifies our courage, our mercy, and our grace.

I am always sad when I miss a chance to find the magic - the connection to the training partner that brings both people closer to the Truth.

I will be ready next time. I won't let you down. We will find it toegether.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Take the Ukemi you never had

"it looks like it doesn't work" "they are going with it" "it wouldn't work on me" "there's no way they can make someone fly through the air like that"...

All are comments I have overheard from people watching a demo of Aikido. All are wrong, but worth addressing since they speak to the heart of what we are training in the dojo.


Shocked yet? I am NOT kidding. When you employ these techniques for real (meaning when you or your loved ones are under threat of injury), there is no ukemi for the person you do them to. It does not look flowery, graceful, or elegant. It works; they break. The End.

In some of the techniques (shiho nage kuzushi, hiji shime) we feel a gentle taste of what the real aikido must be like: a bone shattering stop to a very sudden drop. For others, we understand that changing the angle, adding atemi, dropping to the mat (like sumi otoshi), or combining sweeps with the movements mean there is no way out for uke. Only an idiot would allow an opponent an escape to a technique. The people who developed modern aikido fought for their lives in real combat - they were not fools. Trust me, it is there for uke's safety in the dojo.

The aikido we see on the mats gives uke a way out so we keep from injuring each other and can continue to train for the real aikido. I am glad to say that for the most part we have avoided injury in the dojo, although we are getting to the stage where it is more likely than before. In the beginning, we are largely incapable of harming ourselves and each other because we have literally no control over our bodies. At the brown belt level we are dangerous for having enough control and knowledge to apply a technique, but lacking the full control to execute it safely. Feeling confident, we end up hurting our training partner or ourselves. Now is the time to be especially careful.

Jiyuwaza is the hardest part of it all. People think even that is the real Aikido, but it is not. It is the closest our training can get, and in many ways extremely beneficial to our being able to do real aikido, but that is not it. If it were it would only be one technique in length and then uke would be unable to continue (if still alive).

So if we are not doing the real aikido, then what is the point?
By our training, we learn to control our bodies, learn to find distance, timing, balance, grace, speed, power, and all of the other characteristics that will help form the foundation of real aikido. Through the jiyuwaza practice we learn to center ourselves, control our fear/anxiety, and expand our sphere of consciousness. We learn to focus ourselves and to free our body. But this is still not the real aikido. It is only the steps to train for the real aikido.

Now, I am the very first one to say that our higher learning and study of martial arts should imbue us with ethical beliefs. That mans NOT breaking people into pieces unless we have no choice. However, let's not forget martial means MARTIAL. These techniques were designed for a purpose, and that purpose is to dispatch opponents swiftly, efficiently, and completely. Seagal-sensei's aikido is closer to what happens when you really use these techniques, which is precisely why I am against ever doing so except under the gravest of circumstances. To indescriminately injure others causes potentially permanent damage to our psyches as well. It is simply not worth doing unless there really is no other way.

So next time you do a technique in the dojo, silently be thankful to shite for putting uke there, and don't forget to take it. And never forget what these techniques are meant to do. We have dangerous stuff here, and dangerous stuff needs to be handled with care and respect.

And next time you watch an aikido demo, marvel at the skills and control of the people, be awed by their ability to safely show you a glimpse of the real aikido, and above all, be glad they don't injure anyone.