Wednesday, May 31, 2006

It Is What It Is

The other day I heard from my college friend Rob. What a great surprise. I remember the first day that I joined the fencing class at Colle of DuPage, and we became instant friends. That led to a wonderful time in my life from 87-90 or so, with a lot of discussions about everything and the occassional spontaneous camping trip thrown in for good measure.

He asked me, "what is Ki?" Yikes. After being involved in the martial arts in one way or another for almost all of my life (all of it that meant anything, anyway), had I found the answer yet? At the same time, the answer to this elusive goal is something that most of us have in the back of our mind all along this journey, and the answer changes as we change.

As well, this question speaks to the nature of we martial artists as spiritual beings, and underpins the close relationship to Buddhism and Shinto in our training. Hollywood movies attempt to make a lot out of this, whether it is the insidious Star Wars saga with its "May the Force be with You" or the Karate Kid series "wax on, wax off".

For a preface, I would say that any traditional zen master confronted with such a queston would be likely to give the student a whack with the kyosaku (the "stick of awakening" used during zazen training) not just because even they might not know the answer, but also since the question is even more important than the answer, and trying to put it into words could not do it justice.

However, here's my personal view. You need not agree with it or believe it. Even I may not believe it next time I read this.

KI refers to several things. Here I want to look at two broad topics:

1) the force of life
2) faith or conviction

An example of the first of the above two points: I am amazed at the grip my newborn second son Ray has, even though he is only 10 days old. He cries with a singular sense of purpose, much more loudly than I could if I were his size, and it is pure and without prejudice.

Life wants only to live, and this driving force is KI. It is what causes fish to swim upstream, birds to migrate thousands of miles, and trees to grow in even the most hostile of conditions. It is at once a beautiful and desperate thing, and involves the instinctive hope of any living thing to surivive and prosper. What we feel here is the most primal of all our basic natures, and animals are great examples of KI.

It is for this purpose that man-made things do not have KI. Quite simply, there is no life force in things which were never alive (although I must confess I like the romantic idea of Japanese swords and other ancient things having KI). We are also made acutely aware of this force when people die. It is as if the light leaves their body and what has held their molecules in the same place for so long just lets go and then the light goes out.

We are all born with KI, which is in us until we die. This is our common starting point and our connection to the natural world around us. A deep awareness of this through meditation can help develop our "connected feeling" (the AI in Aikido) but everyone has KI regardless of whether they know/acknowledge it or not. Considering our KI as our "soul" gives a Christian connotation which is not really appropriate, and also hints at Buddhist discussion about such things as whether animals have souls/Buddha natures, which is more academic than is necessary here, it is enough to say that since they are alive they have KI.

An example of the second part is during certain classes when I finally stop thinking and analyzing and just let my body move as it has been taught. This purity in motion, rare as it is for me, is when I let my faith in my techniques, my training, and myself take over.

This is really where we have an opportunity to develop KI.
When we extend our KI in class, or in our life, what we are doing is extending our faith and conviction in the moment at hand. This is faith and conviction in ourselves, in our cause, and in our technique. We TRUST. That is also KI. We let go and allow what is to be, to be.
Our training should help us to have this happen more and more often, until it becomes our natural state of being. That is, always letting go, and allowing ourselves to be connected to the natural world around us and, more importantly, not resisting that connection but instead rejoicing in it.

I have mentioned in other posts about "right action in the right moment without hesitation", and I believe this is a central concept to KI development, and the instinctive, decisive action it helps develop deepens our connection to our life force (as above). Humans are unique among the Earth's creatures in that we are self-aware (and may be the only living things on Earth that are so). This means that we can be concious of these things, and can actively seek to deepen our connection. So saying, we can develop our KI, at least inasmuch as we can make better use of the Ki we have been given.

Rob mentioned to me that he is "in tune with his body", to which I would say that strength of the body is surely important, but even more important is to be in tune with the world around us, since that is a power greater than our own.

I am setting the stage for a larger post about martial arts and religion which I owe this blog, but for now I want to get this out as a starting point.

I want to know what YOU think. Maybe we can find the answer together.



Monday, May 08, 2006

"You will Want That Time Back Someday"

I suppose each of us has his or her own reasons for starting the long road of training in the Martial Arts. The great part is that over time, we realize benefits we did not foresee. In my case, self defense was the initial motivator, but I quickly found the spiritual side of the training to be a good guide for the rest of my life as well.

In my early teens, for some reason, I become obsessed with my own mortality, and wanted to overcome my fear of death, to be able to have "right action in the right moment without hesistation" which can only come from living without fear. Over time I learned that this is much more about not being afraid of Life than it is about not being afraid of Death. By this, I mean not being afraid to take chances and reach for your dreams; not being afraid of failing as often as it takes to reach your goals.

After several years of training, and some of my own close brushes with death, I was convinced that I had overcome such fears and was free to act. That is, I was no longer afraid of dying. The truth is, though, that at that age (20 or so), I had nothing to lose that I put a high value on. The rest of my life had yet to unfold. With nothing to lose, throwing away one's life no longer seems like such a noble gesture. Rather, it was just the angst and wasteful stupidity of youth.

Now, at nearly 40, my life has become rich beyond my wildest expectations. I have a wonderful family, many friends, and a challenging job. I have been able to take part in the happiness and success of those around me, and actually play a vital part in their lives, which is what I really wanted. Am I still unafraid to die? Could I let go if I had to??

I have to say YES, if I had to, I believe I could still give up my life (of course, one never knows until that exact moment). The very fact that I can say YES now is much more important now than it was when I believed it at 20. I have so much to lose now, and so much to let go of in such a case. The only things I will have are the belief that I have lived my life well and fully, without regret, and the desire to leave one final legacy for those I have known, which is the lesson on how to die with dignity when the time comes.

When I think of the heroes on United 93 (now a movie), I imagine what a man thinks about before he puts his life on the line. How does he decide to let go? What message does he send to those he leaves behind? Can he really have dignity in those last final moments? Those brave people defined the word HERO for me, and many of them had to let go of an awful lot to be free to have right action in the right moment without hesitation.

That brings me to the point of this post. All of us will end up wishing we have more time. We don't. That moment will come when it comes, and training in the Martial Arts is not about making us want to throw our lives away at the earliest opportunity. Rather, it is about experiencing a richness of life so great that we use our lives to the best possible result, and be willing to accept that finality when the time comes (and it will for us all) and face it with dignity and without regret.

I have seen lots of people engage in self-destructive behaviors of a wide variety (and have been guilty of many myself). Now that my life is good, I would like those extra minutes/days/weeks I wasted back. I can't have them. They are gone. I have only now, and the unknown future ahead of me, to do the best I can until the inevitable happens.

My advice here is simple: when you smoke that cigarette, slam that shot, or use drugs (and the list of self-destructive behaviors is longer than I can list here) just remember...YOU WILL WANT THAT TIME BACK SOMEDAY...unfortunately, you can't have it again. It's gone.

Make today count. Please.


Tuesday, May 02, 2006

How to Build a Technique

Here's a little metaphor I often consider...

We can consider techniques on many, many levels (the actual definition of "technique" is hard to make precise). One way that makes sense to me is to liken building my technique to building a house or other building.

The very first place is the foundation. Without a strong foundation, even house will fall in the slightest bad weather. This means that we train the kihon dosa until our legs and hips are strong, and out stance solid. This dachi is the foundation for all technique and under any circumstances, your feet should always return to kamae in order to maintain balance.

Usually, we find that when doing Jiyuwaza, once we start to lose the proper footwork of 180 degree turns and irimi of the hips, the rest of the techniques collapse. We begin to tilt or lean forward, and lose all the power. The loss of shisei is a direct result of the loss of dachi and no technique can manifest when that happens.

So it is important to consider how to make that foundation strong, and to always spend time in practice on the kihon dosa to give muscle memory to the movement of the feet and hips. Once this happens strongly and without the body rising up (actually the feeling should be one of sinking, not rising or floating) then we can begin to let the techniques manifest more fully and we will not get tired or lose kamae so easily.

Later, with a strong foundation, we can build a house of any size or shape. In particular, we can think of "zoning", a concept often used in JKD training, to divide angles of attack into different zones or quadrants. Western fencing also does this (and may be where Bruce Lee got it). Responding to zones is a lot easier than responding to specific attacks. We can also consider movement inside/outside of uke, high/medium/low zones for response, and other tactical elements, none of which work if the foundation of mobility is not strong.

Every martial art fundamentally needs the foundation of mobility in order to be effective, and Yoshinkan is no different. Please take time to work on this. It makes a big, big difference.