“Turn off your mind Relax and float downstream It is not dying It is not dying”
I was 13 and the sound coming through my AM radio was like nothing I’d ever heard. Some Indian drone instrument crescendoed to an in-your-face repeating drum riff pounding like a cart with a missing wheel careening down a cobblestone hill chased by a flock of electric seagulls. Strange snatches of orchestral dream music, backwards guitars, buzz saws, and ‘what-the-hell-is-that-sound-anyway?’ came randomly into the mix, then vanished away, until finally fading into the strains of an untuned piano in an English music hall.
In my teens I was a pacifist. I registered for the draft when I turned 18. But it was a stalling tactic. The Vietnam War raged and I had decided I would escape to Canada rather than fight in a war I didn’t believe in. I applied for conscientious objector status. My father had served in World War II and he believed it was important for America to fight the spread of communism. He didn’t agree with my anti-war beliefs, but he wrote a letter to the draft board supporting my request to be classified a conscientious objector anyway.
As time went by, I began to question whether pacifism could always be effective. Martin Luther King’s pacifist approach, appealing to the humanity and morality of all Americans, led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Gandhi’s brave pacifism, resisting the British by absorbing violence no matter the cost to self, had a lot to do with India gaining its independence.
But what about the Nazis? The question, asked so often that it has become cliché, is valid: “Could pacifism have stopped the Nazis?” It seems unlikely.
My father died when I was 44. Shortly after his death, I had a dream about him. In the dream, I told him that of course America had to enter the war to stop the Nazis.
“War is never justified,” he said.
We had swapped places.
There has been much criticism of Gandhi’s letter to Hitler, which begins, “Dear Friend,” and goes on to compare British Imperialism to Nazism. I think the criticism is wrong. Gandhi was appealing to Hitler’s better nature and not condoning his acts, which in the same letter he called “monstrous and unbecoming of human dignity”. Gandhi believed that even Hitler had a moral side he could appeal to. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. Gandhi’s appeal did nothing to stop Hitler. What was required to stop the Nazis, apparently, was a great deal of violence.
What hope is there for humanity if our only option is using violence to oppose violence?
As he witnessed the first detonation of an atom bomb, Robert Oppenheimer, head of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, quoted the Bhagavad-Gita, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
70 years after this first test of an atomic bomb, I visited the Bradbury Science Museum at the Los Alamos Laboratory. There were technical displays of physics and chemistry, and displays of the history of Los Alamos, which was a boys’ ranch school before the scientists arrived and vacated the residents.
I saw replicas of Little Boy and Fat Man, the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I watched videos presenting the ongoing development of nuclear weapons told with a benevolent, even cheerful, slant. I found myself wondering, “Just who is being naive here? How can this lead to anything besides the destruction of worlds?”
Oddly, the place had a guest book. Before signing my name, I quoted from a song by Sting:
“How can I save my little boy
From Oppenheimer’s deadly toy?”
The desire to overcome violence is no longer a Pollyannish dream, but an existential necessity. If humans are to survive, we have to find a solution to our violent nature.
Soon after I began practicing aikido, I realized that it is a third way, a path different from either pacifism or violence.
Unlike pacifism, aikido recognizes that aggression and violence are inherent in humanity, are components of our evolutionary success. Aikido recognizes our warrior nature and embraces it, and uses the tactics of aggression to neutralize aggression.
The other day, when I was handing out jo (wooden staffs) in kids’ class, a boy of 9 asked, “If aikido is nonviolent, why do we practice with weapons?”
It was a question I’d often asked myself. Why do we learn these weapon kata (choreographed forms)?
I knew several answers: we are preserving the traditions of the samurai; the movements we practice in empty-hand aikido are amplified in the movements done with staff or sword; it’s another way to learn to focus the mind, to remain in the present; kata are fun to learn…
“That’s a great question,” I told him. “There’s a Japanese concept called ‘katsujinken’. It means ‘the life-giving sword’. How can a sword give life? It could protect your family from the bad guys. Or you could use it to cut up vegetables for dinner. But these are just a couple of my answers. You should think about it and decide for yourself why we use weapons as a means to promote nonviolence.”
The gospel song goes:
Let Us Beat Our Swords Into Ploughshares by Mark Garten
Gonna lay down my sword and shield
Down by the riverside, down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
Gonna lay down my sword and shield
Down by the riverside
And study war no more
It’s important for us to recognize the breadth that humans encompass. We can be unspeakably cruel and selflessly compassionate.
Aikido teaches us to see from the point of view of our enemy, to blend with his attack and redirect it to a mutually benevolent conclusion, to protect our attacker as well as ourselves, to use the techniques of aggression to neutralize aggression.
Instead of beating our swords into plowshares, we’re making them out of wood and studying the tactics and the mentality of aggression in order to overcome it.
How do we translate the lessons of aikido to the national stage? Another difficult question. I feel that, after all these years, I am only just beginning to understand how to use aikido in my interpersonal relationships.
Could the philosophy of aikido have been used to resist the Nazis? I don’t have an answer yet. But I think that the answer may come if we keep asking the question. O-Sensei named his art “aikido” in 1942. The philosophy of aikido arose out of the destruction of World War II and it came from Japan, the Nazi’s most powerful ally. It was an attempt to take the culture of the samurai and turn it in a new direction, away from aggression and into the service of peaceful resolution.
As I was writing this, the phrase “fierce compassion” came to me. I thought I had made it up, but a google search showed me that the words had already been put together by others. In a dharma talk by Cheri Maples1 , she relates the concept of fierce compassion to “truly understanding our interconnection with others.”*
It occurs to me that what O-Sensei was doing through aikido was turning from the local to the universal, changing the focus of the samurai from the protection of their liege lord to the protection of all beings.
As a result, aikido brings us the teaching of fierce compassion, a path that just may save us from our destructive selves.
One Tuesday evening in August, 1992, I left work after a 12-hour shift, climbed onto my motorcycle, and headed for the dojo. My 4th kyu test was two days away. On the way across town, a storm came raging in from the north, and I drove into a huge downpour. I found myself stuck in bumper to bumper freeway traffic. The rain was so piercing on uncovered flesh that I stopped under an overpass to see if it was hailing. No, it was just rain, gushing from the sky in an impossible deluge. I waited in vain for it to let up, then decided to take my chances and squeezed back into the soggy traffic.
I arrived late at the dojo, drenched—cartoon drenched—pulling off my boots and pouring water out of them. I slipped into a dazed state.
In class, my wife Adele asked a question about kote-gaeshi, and our teacher went into a long demonstration, showing every variation of this technique known to man. I wanted to raise my hand, and, as in the Far Side comic, ask, “Sensei, may I be excused? My brain is full.”
Something had happened to me in the storm. I had slipped into a detached, dull state of mind, and I seemed to be stuck there.
When I got home, I opened my motorcycle seat. In the compartment below, I had stashed Peter Matthiessen’s “Nine-Headed Dragon River.”
Inside the cover, the frontispiece—a purple and gold page depicting a dragon—was wet. The rain had soaked through the front of the book and the purple had bled onto several pages, staining them indigo. I fanned the pages open to dry them, and my eyes fell upon this:
“In this very breath that we take now lies the secret that all great teachers try to tell us, what one lama refers to as, ‘the precision and openness and intelligence of the present’.1 The purpose of meditation practice is not enlightenment; it is to pay attention even at unextraordinary times, to be of the present, nothing-but-the-present, to bear this mindfulness of now into each event of ordinary life”.2
I closed the book. There seemed to be a thin film separating me from the present moment.
The next two days were odd. I couldn’t rouse myself from the befuddlement that had come over me in the rain storm. I felt like I was sleepwalking.
From the beginning, Adele and I took aikido shinsa as matters of great import. As our 5th kyu test—the first test in our curriculum—had approached, we trained diligently. We were fortunate to be aided by the extremely talented Franco Acquaro, then a shodan (1st degree black belt). Franco was in town from Hawaii for an extended stay. His brother lived in Austin and had started aikido at about the same time we had. We were testing together, and Franco, wanting his brother to do well, took us all on as his personal project.
We jumped at the chance to take private lessons from such a gifted martial artist, and that first test had gone well for all of us.
Adele and I worked hard preparing for our next test, 4th kyu. Our passion for aikido made us a little impetuous. Lacking a mat at our house, we had taken to tossing each other onto our water bed—until after one lively throw we heard a great crack and saw that we had broken the bed’s base.
We both wanted to show that we were worthy of this art that we loved so much, to show that we had made some progress in embodying its principles. But now, with the test two days away, I found myself in a mental fog, and I couldn’t snap out of it.
I carried this state of mind all the way through the test. Adele did well, but I was sloppy and unbalanced.
The examination ended with a bokken kata (wooden sword form) that finishes
Emile Swain by Dan Gradings
with a flamboyant spin where the sword extends straight out at shoulder height and you turn a full 360 degrees and then another 5/8 of a turn, stepping back and raising the sword over your head, then pausing dramatically before sheathing it. My whirl wavered like a wobbling top at the end of its spin.
After the test, in his comments in front of the class, our sensei praised me. I knew that he was trying to offer me encouragement, but his words only made me feel worse. I wished that he had spoken truthfully about my performance, or even that he had said, “You can do better than that. You’ll have to take the test again.”
I’ve come to see that the primary goal of aikido is not to learn self defense through a martial art or to develop grace in movement—though it teaches both of these—but to cultivate a state of mind and a way of being in the world.
Why had I, before my 4th kyu test, been unable to rouse myself from my stupor? For the same reason that we are all unable to snap ourselves out of our normal day-to-day dream state. It takes practice to remain in the present.
In Shin Budo Kai, we practice a form of meditation, of sitting and watching the breath. But what’s even better is that we get to stand up and move around, to train in the “precision and openness and intelligence of the present” while having fun throwing each other about.
Peter Matthiessen had given me the clue: “to pay attention even at unextraordinary times.”
I see now that my problem was that I kept trying to change my mental state. Wanting things to be other than they are pulls us away from being-in-the-moment and perpetuates dullness. I was trying to get out of a dazed state of mind when I should have embraced it.
I think this is what Imaizumi Sensei meant when he spoke of “the endless accumulation of fresh starts”3. Ironically, at any moment we can choose to create a better outcome, not by trying to make things different, but by paying the closest attention to what is.
In my early years of aikido, connection was not emphasized. I first conceived of connection as something to break away from. Someone grabs your wrist, and well, you’re trying to escape, right? Make them let go!
It was a long time before it occurred to me that one of the principle things we are practicing is connection.
When I first began to experiment with connection, I understood it on a purely tactical level. When someone grabs me, I want him to hold on. I’ve got him right where I want him! He has committed to an attack, and I encourage him not to let go so I can guide him to a peaceful resolution (face down on the mat, safely entangled in an air-tight pin).
Soon I began to sense a deeper purpose for connection. I started to notice that when uke grabs my wrist, I can learn a lot. Through the grip I can feel the direction and intensity of the attack, the attacker’s intention, where the tenseness resides in his body, and where he is out of balance. If I’m sensitive enough, I can feel all the way down to the soles of his feet. It’s rather mysterious, but it’s not that hard to do.
But there is another level of connection that can happen even before physical contact. Lately I have been practicing extending a form of awareness that connects to uke from across the room. It’s a non-verbal observation. I liken it to listening to instrumental music with full attention. The analytical mind is disengaged and a different kind of perception is employed. If I imagine that my center is connecting to uke’s, as she approaches I gather a great deal of subtle information. I see her posture and sense her balance, her intent, the direction and speed of her attack. I begin to sense intuitively how to move in order to unbalance and lead her.
Mark Sensei sometimes talks about the difference between timing and connection. Timing your reaction to a quick attack such as mune tsuki (a stomach punch) is impossible—or, at best, unreliable. If, instead of timing, you use connection with uke, you will find that you have plenty of time. When I first heard this, it sounded a little woo-woo to me.
But it’s true. If I’m not trying to time someone’s attack, but I’m practicing connection, then we move as one, and it no longer feels like a reaction relying on pinpoint accuracy in timing. Perhaps it can be explained by noting that when we’re connected, I’m observing uke’s whole body while focusing on their center, and not having my attention trapped by that quickly approaching fist.
Recently in Steve Sensei’s ki class, only aikido students—those of us who train in the “falling down and getting up” portion of the art—showed up. We took the opportunity to practice some initial aikido moves, such as ryote mochi tenkan, where uke’s two hands grab nage’s forearm, and nage pivots on his front foot while raising his held arm. It’s edifying to practice slowly with an uke who is neither “locking down” with tension to prevent your moving nor just going along with you, but is instead practicing the same principles that you, the nage, is practicing. When uke is centered and extending ki, he provides an immediate feedback loop to nage.
Ryote mochi can be a difficult hold to deal with. Uke has the advantage of two hands gripping your arm, and he can apply a lot of leverage. There are helpful ways to think about executing this move, such as “not encountering uke’s strength,” or “pivoting around the space between uke’s hands,” or “moving where uke isn’t.” Some aikidoka will advise, “Just scratch your head,” revealing that all that’s keeping you from moving is having your mind stuck on the place where your arm is being held, and once you move your attention away from the point of struggle, it’s easy to move.
In this ki class we threw away those “tricks” and worked on connection. An uke held my arm in a ryote mochi grip, and I practiced responding with connection. This begins with a certain increase in pressure, moving in to make maximum contact with all the places where uke’s hands hold me, and through that connection trying to feel all the way to uke’s center. As I searched for real connection, I would try this and that, attempting to feel my way into that mysterious place. Then something almost magical would happen. When I was almost but not quite fully connected with uke, she could keep me from moving, but then I would make some very subtle change—in angle, or pressure, or just intention—and suddenly I could move uke without effort. And what had changed was something in uke’s neurology. Suddenly she no longer wanted to resist.
Taking uke’s role, I felt it from the other side. I held my partner’s arm, giving feedback to what I was feeling. It was—no, no, not quite… and then, Oh! Some slight but extraordinary change happened and suddenly I wanted to move with her. Even though we both were aware of what nage was attempting to do, and I was doing my best to resist her movement, there was a moment when she slipped into real connection and my resistance turned into compliance. Despite what I had been trying to do, I suddenly found myself wanting to move together with her.
When I feel true connection, I am always surprised. It’s always different from what I thought it would be. I can’t get to connection without trying to, but when I connect it’s always different from what I was trying.
Anyone who has practiced aikido for awhile has had the experience of unexpectedly doing a very powerful throw when it seemed that you were doing almost nothing. I remember when it first happened to me. A dojo mate came running at me in a katate kosa tori (crosshand) grab, and I began an ikkyo irimi throw and effortlessly sent him airborne across the room. “Oh!” I realized, “It’s much less than I thought it was.” I had stumbled upon a moment of true relaxation—and connection.
And some of us have had an experience that always seems to happen at a seminar practicing with a senpai of much higher rank who has not yet learned to abandon his ego. You happen to execute a move in which you toss him around like a rag doll, and he gets up saying. “I could have resisted that.” You just smile and nod, thinking, “Why didn’t you?”
And the answer is the crux of the biscuit. Your senpai began by trying to test you and resist the throw, but at some point he stopped wanting to resist, and what had caused this change of heart?
I suspect that most people who practice a martial art have been asked a similar question. “Have you ever had to use tae kwon do—kenpo—kung fu—brazilian jujitsu—kick boxing—sumo wrestling—northwestern wounded praying mantis style…?”
What we’re really being asked is, “Can you give me the salacious details of a fight where you triumphed because of your martial prowess?”
Those of us who follow Chekhov’s dramatic advice know that if a martial art appears in the first act, it must be used by the third.
I am always initially taken aback by the question, “Have you ever had to use aikido?” I find myself thinking, “I use it all the time. I’m using it right now. Isn’t it obvious?” Then I realize that the question is, “Have you ever used the techniques of aikido in a fight?”
Not if I can help it…
Very early in my practice, I began to realize that aikido had given me the gift of an expanded awareness, along with a trust in my intuition. I can’t say exactly how, but the practice of the art made me more aware of my surroundings, and more confident. I also realized that my upbringing had taught me that it was wrong to feel suspicious of others. But other people’s intentions are not always good. The repetitive practice of “controlled attack/blending with/resolving the attack” taught me not only a method of protecting myself, but instilled the intuition to read the intentions of others.
My wife Adele and I had been practicing for about a year when we took a trip to Rome. My mother-in-law warned us about the gypsy children fleecing the tourists. (But she had also warned us about the Rastafarians in Jamaica, and I found the ganja smokers to be among the gentlest humans on the planet).
We arrived in Italy, befuddled after an all night flight from Austin, took a train into the city, and came up into the morning light across the street from the Colosseum, carrying all our luggage. Immediately a German tourist walked by and a crowd of kids in gypsy dress—bright, colorful dresses, scarves, balloon sleeves, and lace—descended upon her. A little girl thrust an open newspaper into the tourist’s face while the others went into her pockets and yanked at the camera strap on her shoulder. An Italian man stepped forward and chased them off. The woman walked away angrily, with no thanks offered to her rescuer.
A few days later, we were walking down the street, on our way to a small church that housed Michelangelo’s Moses. I noticed a group of children coming toward us, but they were dressed as Italian school kids, not in the colorful gypsy style, so I paid no attention. Instead, I looked up toward an ancient building’s top story, admiring the angels in the architecture. Suddenly I heard Adele shout “No!” Surprised, I came back to the scene before me, and saw a little girl a couple steps away, beginning to raise a newspaper toward my face. Adele stood beside me in hanmi, one arm raised before her, holding a folded map. (I thought of photographs of O-Sensei armed only with a Japanese fan, defeating a swordsman). I also stopped in the hanmi posture we had learned in aikido—one foot naturally in front of the other—and raised my hands out just above waist level.
The newspaper dropped. The stream of kids planning to rob me parted and flowed around us, hurrying on down the street. They were looking to attack someone oblivious of his surroundings, and the simple act of awareness was enough to protect us and cause them to go elsewhere.
Over the years I’ve had several incidents where I have seen trouble coming and just gone the other way. I’m confident that it’s been my aikido practice that has developed in me the awareness of my circumstances and the trust in my intuition that has prevented me from walking into danger I might not have otherwise perceived.
The closest I have come to actual physical conflict since I started practicing aikido came a few years ago. Adele had a blacksmith shop in a spot a couple miles from downtown Austin. The land sloped downward right off of a busy street, making it a good hiding place for nefarious after-dark activities. Every morning Adele would walk the grounds, picking up all sorts of nasty litter including hypodermic needles, used condoms… She also acted as a Mother Theresa of the Felines, spaying and neutering, then twice a day feeding an expanding orphanage of stray cats.
One morning when she was out of town, I went to her shop to feed the strays. I was out in the yard picking up the previous night’s detritus when I saw a guy walking up the street drinking from a bottle wrapped in a paper bag. Just as he walked by a garbage bin, he threw the bottle down on the street. “Hey!” I shouted. “Pick up your trash! There’s a trash can right there!”
The man turned, and I saw he was not the old derelict I had assumed him to be, but a buff, strapping 20-something who was now walking straight toward me, flexing his muscles, and staring intently.
“Crap!” I thought. “I didn’t want to get into a fight over this.”
But my training took over. I stood in hanmi, one foot in front of the other, weight slightly forward, breathing calmly, relaxed, extending ki. I watched him approach me with a fierce expression. Remarkably, I wasn’t thinking about what I was going to do. I just waited. When he was about five feet away, he suddenly smiled, stuck out his hand, and said, “Thanks, man. Thanks for calling me on that. I shouldn’t have thrown that down.”
I was greatly relieved, happy for a peaceful resolution. I’m convinced that if I had shown either aggression or fear, things would have turned out much differently.
And, okay, there was one situation where I actually “used aikido.” A friend of mine from work played in a death metal band. I went to hear him play at a club one night. In front of the bandstand was a mosh pit where young men slammed into each other. Not wanting to take part in the action, I stood a good ten feet back from the swarm of grappling bodies. In the middle of a strange heavy metal version of “Ring of Fire,” someone pushed me hard from behind. Without a thought, I spun around, grabbed his wrist and elbow, and bent him forward into the beginnings of an ikkyo throw. It surprised us both. My friends all looked at me with “what are you doing?” expressions as the guy I held down was saying, “Wait, man, wait… Let me up.” “Okay,” I said. “Just don’t shove me.”
After a Shin Budo Kai seminar in Albuquerque, we gathered in a ballroom to celebrate Imaizumi Sensei’s 50th anniversary in aikido. Sensei agreed to take questions from the attendees. Index cards were passed around, and several people wrote down their queries. Someone handed in the inevitable question. Imaizumi picked up the card and read aloud, “Does aikido work as a practical martial art?” He looked out at his gathered students, and said, “I’ve lived in New York for 30 years and no one has ever attacked me with a sword.”
I smiled broadly at his response. It was one of those Zen answers that either goes over your head or hits you right between the eyes, knocking you clean into enlightenment.
What I took from his comment is that what we’re practicing is much deeper than a practical martial art. The practice bestows grace in movement, relaxation, clarity, confidence, and a way to resolve conflict. At its best, it leads to a complete transformation of the self. (I wrote and erased that last sentence twice before I wrote it again, thinking of my own still-existent shortcomings. The transformation is an ongoing process. I’m still walking the path.)
So, in answer to the question “Have you ever had to use aikido?” my answer is yes, I use what I have learned from aikido all the time. If it were only useful in the rare instances when you were attacked, practicing it would hardly be worth the trouble.
O-Sensei with Fan
And, by the way, if you ever decide to attack someone with a sword on the streets of Manhattan, Imazumi Sensei is probably the last person you should choose.
Recently Mark Sensei slipped us a dual koan to ponder: Uke is irrelevant/Throw it all away
“Uke is irrelevant” originated from a video produced by Warren W., 6th dan, from New York Shin Budo Kai.
After Mark Sensei’s koan challenge, the emails flew concerning the irrelevancy of the uke. A great deal of insight, poetry, and even a Monty Python video came down the email thread. I was impressed with the wisdom, cleverness, and humor of my dojo mates.
The comments followed two contrasting, even contradictory, interpretations of the phrase “uke is irrelevant,” along the lines of:
1) If your aikido is done well, it doesn’t matter what your attacker does, so uke is irrelevant.
2) The core of aikido is blending and becoming one with your attacker, so uke is extremely relevant.
A perfect koan.
I chose to stay out of the irrelevancy fray and take “Throw it all away” as the object for meditation.
“Throw it all away” comes from the second principle of four formulated by Koichi Tohei Sensei, usually translated into English as “Relax completely.” What he said in Japanese is “Zenshin no chikara o kanzen ni nuku”
Zenshin – whole self
Chikara – power
Kanzen ni nuku – throw it all away
Roughly translated, this means to take the power of everything that you are and have ever been, physically, mentally, and spiritually, and throw it all away.
(Tohei’s rule condensed into “Relax completely” may have lost a little in translation).
But what does this actually mean? How are you supposed to “throw it all away?”
I contend that “throwing it all away” is not something to begin with, but a state to experience once you are down the road a little way in your journey.
In other words, you can’t throw it all away until you have an “it” to let go of.
In Austin, I practiced aikido with a sax player who called himself a “jazz Nazi”. One night after class, he invited me to come hear his band, which was playing at a local hipster coffee shop. “We play free jazz,” he informed me.
I love many kinds of music, from Beethoven’s symphonies to Bob Dylan’s surreal poetic diatribes. (I do draw the line at polkas, however). I have listened to a bit of free jazz, but I must confess it’s not my favorite form of music.
After class, I headed over to the coffee shop where I was greeted with an outrageous cacophony of sound. As I listened, I was somewhat perplexed. This was different from the free jazz I had heard before. Slowly it dawned on me that “throwing it all away”–throwing away the rules of melody and harmony and rhythm—means one thing when you just do it out of ignorance, and something totally different after you’ve spent years studying music theory, playing scales, learning chord progressions…
You can just “move freely” and dance like a Deadhead, or you can spend years studying the subtleties of dance and then “throw it all away” and move spontaneously. The results are quite different.
I’ve encountered students in aikido who just want to “flow with the ki” and resist learning the finer points of each technique. For me, the constant refinement of technique is the door into moving freely. Only after you have subliminally learned, after hours and hours of practice, the subtle way that ki moves, are you ready to throw it all away and move freely.