Getting Here, Being Here

I recently had a wonderful conversation about the mindset of martial arts with a college professor. He is particularly qualified to speak on the subject. His doctorate is in Sports Psychology. He is Japanese, with a Japanese teacher’s license, and he is an experienced kendo competitor.

We sat on my couch, enjoying a drink and good company in the afternoon sunlight, and talked about healthy competition. He asked me two questions. First, why do I practice aikido? Second, why do I get unmotivated to practice? I practice because I love the art. I slack off when I get too focused on me or my own achievement.

I asked him his mental approach to a kendo competition.  I was asking about his pre-game routine. His pump-up jam or meditation. His answer wasn’t what I expected. Japanese athletes train to approach their competitors with respect before the match because without the opponent, there would be no competition. At the end of the match, they bow in respect–win or lose–because without the opponent, there would be no competition. The concept was so foreign, I didn’t even think of that as pre-game preparation.

As we compared Japanese and American approaches to competition, we circled around the topic of motivation. Sport can’t only be about winning. Winning is a moment. Just as losing is a moment. That can’t be everything. Wins and losses lead to team and athlete growth.

From there, our discussion led us to the mindset of martial arts training as distinct from sport training. Why do we learn to hold a wooden sword and learn how to hit with it and be hit with it? Why learn to strike and block rather than do sports that are more traditional play? Although people have different motivators, my friend and I share the same core perspective: Training isn’t to win. It isn’t to dominate or be the best.

We train to be in this moment. Whether we are facing an opponent in the ring or chatting at a barbecue, we try to be present. Ready. Awake to what is going on. Mindfulness is bringing all your awareness to where you are. On the mat and off. Present and aware. We train to connect to what is happening around us. And, maybe more importantly and more difficult, is to connect to the people around us.

It all comes back to motivation. In sports, we train to be in the moment, to be alert and ready to play. We don pads and special shoes, bend into special stances, do special exercises that serve the game. Then we play, aiming to win while the clock winds down and the points rack up. And then, whatever the outcome, we wind down for the post game.

In martial arts we train to change the baseline, to create a new normal. We don pads and special clothes, bend into special stances, and do special exercises that train the body and mind to permanently change. We practice throws and strikes and falls to prepare for potential future threats. We practice reacting to threats, to violence, so that we change our reactions. However, there is no post game, just progress.

We slouched on my couch in the afternoon sunlight, neither of us worried about our posture. Neither of us was ready to jump up and smack someone. Yet our martial training shaped the moment and our respect for each other. We were present. As awake and aware as we could be to each other and the world around us.

Practice Watered Down

“Don’t change the kata,” Sensei Mark reminds the class.

We stand in pairs down the mat, like characters in a Jane Austen novel about to dance a quadrille or cotillion; only we are equipped with swords, not witty repartee. We are struggling with the day’s weapons instruction. Specifically, we cannot comprehend the correct and proper way to hajiki age (powerfully strike the opponent’s blade horizontally).

In bokkendo (training with the wooden sword called a bokken, in lieu of a real katana), the swordspeople have an arsenal of attacks, blocks, counterattacks, and counter-blocks at their disposal. According to today’s lesson, I should be able to deflect any kind of attack with a hajiki age. I can alternatively employ an uchi otoshi (a powerful downward strike on the attacker’s bokken), or a nuki, a maki, and so on.

With polite and obliging practice partners, I and my classmates have no trouble rehearsing the hajikis.

Hajiki-whack! Win with my blade inches from my partner’s temple.

Hajiki-whack! Win again.

Hajiki-whack! Win!

This form of practice instills the mechanics. It drills the motions into the body, hopefully automating them for future applications. But then we play with hypotheticals. What if the opponent is no longer polite? What if the opponent wants to win as much as I do?

Hajiki-whack! Wi–what the…??

Basic Newtonian physics enable my partner to win. Because every action has an equal but opposite reaction, my partner rolls the force and momentum of my sideways hajiki into a spiral and wins with his blade inches from my sternum.

The class is frustrated. Hajiki ages do not seem to work against any and all attacks. Maybe if we alter the footwork…? Perhaps, if we play with the pacing…? What if we just trick the opponent and beat him to the punch…? Some students insist a hajiki must only exist for very particular and specific strikes–obviously not the ones we are receiving from our partners right now.

Sensei shakes his head to that theory. “These katas have been practiced for thousands of years. They have to work or else they would have been changed already.”

He reviews the basic principles and the basic form again. He demonstrates the hajiki age with precision and clarity. He encourages his demo partner to misbehave, be sneaky, do whatever she wants to win. She obliges, but no matter what she does with her bokken, Sensei executes a smashing hajiki and wins.

We are sent back to our partners for another round, once again urged not to change the kata; change ourselves instead. Adapt ourselves to the form.

“Assume the kata is perfect,” Sensei encourages us over the bwack-bwack of wooden blades slapping. “Adjust your form until it works no matter what the attacker does.”

While my partner and I take turns hacking and jabbing at each other, I begin to visualize symbols of perfection. The Fibonacci sequence fills my imagination with its perfect spiral that simultaneously contracts and expands infinitely. The insides of seashells, the heads of cauliflower, the fat plate of seeds on a sunflower’s face, a hawk’s circular upward climb into the stratosphere, ocean waves, a fly’s compound eye–essentially, my thoughts are inundated with everything in nature possessing innately balanced form and perfect composition.

How can Aikido–or, in this instance the weapon work we practice to bolster our Aikido–become a Fibonacci spiral? To me, Aikido is made of so much flow. It is like water. All churn, pour, and gush. Water doesn’t naturally take the shape of the seashell, it grinds it into shimmering powder.

By the time class ends, my hajikis are still flash-flood messy.

Impossible! I brood all the way home. Water is too free, too wild, too vast to ever Fibonacci.

I share a distracted hello with the neighbors as they haul out hoses and sprinklers. Green coils ribbon across their winter-thirsted lawn. I am an automaton in the shower because I am so consumed with Sensei’s impossible instructions.

I head out to lunch with friends. The server sets artisan glassware on the table. The glasses have more curvaceous hips than the Colorado River. The server sloshes water into each glass then scurries away, leaving us to examine menus.

I am not reading the menu. Instead, I fixate on the condensation beading the outside of the glass while the water hugs the bizarre innards, just as it hugged the garden hose next door or the pipes in my house. In the glass, the water is so clear, so glasslike. Hydrogen and oxygen become silicon and potash. Seamlessly.

“That’s it!” I shout and am met with astonished eyebrow bridges around the table. “Water doesn’t have to destroy the Fibonacci spiral. It can fill it. That’s how a wild, unwieldy thing attains perfect form. That’s how you don’t change the kata. You change yourself.”

My friends nod then suggest moving to an indoor table–one where the sun cannot further cook my wits. I wave them off with a laugh then take a long, quenching drink.


Image credits: “KKDH_07_04-13_02” CC BY-NC 2.0; “frustration” CC BY-NC 2.0; “shell” PD; “water abstract art blue surreal” CC; featured image “water spiral” PD.