All Tied Up – Musubi part 2

In my last post I discussed two Japanese words–awase and musubi— are slightly different concepts of connecting with a partner’s energy. I focused on musubi, which means “knot.” As uke (attacker, receiver of the technique), I can feel when my attack gets tied to what nage (thrower) is doing, either by a slight loss of balance that causes a bit of a lean onto nage or by joint locks.

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Agatsu: Victory of Self (or “Can You Fold That Hakama?”)

Since the day I started training in aikido 2 1/2 years ago, I have admired everyone in a hakama and wondered what it would be like to wear one. Standing on the sidelines, I would watch carefully as my sempai casually tied their hakama in magical and mysterious ways. And at the end of class I would hang out on the fringes, listening and watching as they chatted and folded their hakama into amazing little squares with elaborately knotted straps. What would it be like to graduate into that club? Would I ever truly learn to do what they were doing?

Fast forward a couple of years and here I am at 3rd kyu, practicing in a hakama of my very own. In spite of excellent instruction and guidance from several of my sempai, it has taken a solid four months to learn to tie my hakama in a way that consistently stays on my body for the duration of class. Sometimes after class I still get tangled up when trying to untie my hakama straps. This has been offering me opportunities for growth, like learning to be more patient and compassionate with myself.

photo: bujutsu.ru

It almost sounds funny to me that learning to put on and take off my hakama has taken on significance in my aikido training. But it’s true.

Even more powerful are the lessons I’ve been encountering while learning to fold my hakama. It’s still a work in progress, and I’m not surprised I’m still folding while everyone else is picking up the mats and putting things away. The interesting part for me has been getting a clear look at my inner dialogue and emotional response to being the last one folding.

As people were picking up the mats around me one evening, I felt that familiar pressure mounting within, and that trusted old unhealthy self-talk kicking up. “You’re too slow. You’re inconveniencing others. You’re not quick enough. You’re not good enough.” I remember picking up my half-folded hakama and retreating to the rear of the dojo in shame, finding an empty table upon which to finish my task so I wouldn’t be in the way of those putting away the mats.

Mark Sensei walked by and asked what I was doing, and I told him I’m too slow. He pointed out that it probably wouldn’t have taken that much longer to finish folding on the mat.

Over the following weeks, it has become increasingly clear that I was touching upon a lack of self-confidence and self-worth. Somehow I believed that I didn’t deserve to take a few moments to finish up folding my hakama, even if it meant that someone might have to wait a couple minutes more to put away the mat I was folding on. I was falling into my well-worn and quite unhealthy “people pleasing” pattern yet again.

Upon deeper reflection I saw a common thread emerging. These same habitual, unconscious emotional patterns were driving my fear of executing basic throws and pins with confidence. I didn’t want to risk anyone becoming upset or unhappy with me if I was unskillful. As a result, I would cautiously tiptoe into techniques and pins, almost in an obsequious way, so that everyone around me knew that my intentions were pure. I didn’t want to hurt anyone, and feared the possibility of being punished for making a mistake.

In an attempt to keep myself emotionally safe, I was hiding. Playing small. Avoiding risk in our dojo; an arena where safety, mutual respect, and support had been established and demonstrated to me for more than two years. I came to realize that in those moments of shame and embarrassment, I was operating on auto pilot, allowing old patterns to drive the bus in even the safest and most supportive of contexts.

All of this, from the simple act of folding my hakama.

Imaizumi Shihan reminds us that proper folding requires practice and patience. (Photo by Sky Yudron. Durango, Colorado, October 2018)

A few months have gone by since that evening I scurried off the mat. I’m still the last one folding, but I’m noticing more inner joy in the process. And just the other night, as all the other mats were put away and I found myself confronted with the pressure to avoid my inner discomfort, I relaxed and continued folding on the final mat to be put away.

Some of my sempai friends teased me good-naturedly. I grinned, feeling a strong sense of kinship and belonging. I folded my hakama just a little bit better than I had last time. I finished, stood up, and put the final mat away. And as I walked to the back of the dojo to thank my teachers, sempai, and kohei for class that night, I felt a sense of calm joy. Without fanfare, I had turned a corner in my training.

Ai’s Wide Shut

“It’s like we’re psychic,” Holly marvels.

“How did you know what I was thinking?” I ask.

We repeat the experiment. She shuts her eyes. I grab her wrist and we pause there a moment. Then I focus on her shoulder—specifically the bunched fabric of her gi top. I think about grabbing it with my free hand.

Before the thought can fully materialize, Holly steps back, defensively removing her shoulder beyond my reach. I did not move. I did not flinch. I only thought about attacking.

“Why did you move?” I ask her.

She says she felt her shoulder at risk. Almost a tingling sensation mixed with a sense of anxiety or concern.

We take turns as the “blind victim.” I close my eyes and she grabs my wrist. After a moment, I sense what I can only describe as danger clouding around my shoulder. I step back and remove it from that danger zone.

“That’s remarkable!” Holly exclaims. “As soon as I thought about shoving your shoulder, you moved it.”

Other aikidoka on the practice mats are having similar experiences. Mystified laughter erupts regularly in the dojo. Sensei patrols the experiment which he devised. He reminds us of its dual purpose. First, the blind test is designed to break up our tendency to go through the motions. We know each other so well, practicing so many hours together every week. Naturally, we get into the habit of performing the techniques.

By closing our eyes, we cannot perform. We can only extend awareness and deeply feel. This sensory experience is crucial to Sensei’s other goal, which is to give us a chance to feel what it is to know the other person’s mind. It’s one of the fundamental ki principles passed down from Tohei Sense and it hangs in a frame at the front of the room. It’s a concept that enables us to experience the “ai” or harmony of ai-ki-do.

Holly and I decide to alter the experiment. We’ve gone after each other’s shoulders several times. Perhaps that explains the supposed telepathy. We will, instead, think about attacking other, random and undisclosed targets. In other words, we’ll run a double-blind study.

I close my eyes and Holly grabs my wrist. She mentally, visually focuses on a bodily target. I sense my abdomen is in danger, so I pivot away, putting my free hand up to defend my trunk. Holly discloses that she had just imagined poking me in the gut. When I think about pinching Holly’s nose, she retracts her face, pivoting away to protect it. Every trial we run amazes us. The “blind victim” can sense the attack before it even happens.

How is this possible?

Do the electrical signals firing from my brain and out across my nerves pass to Holly via my connection to her wrist?

We run the experiment again, only this time, the attacker will not grab the victim. My ability to sense her intended attack takes longer, but I can still accurately detect what part of my body she targets. Holly experiences the same lag time. Somehow, signals pass through the air like radio waves. Without physically touching, we both experience a sense of “ai” and we are stunned. Humbled.

Holly delights in the equality of our mutual perceptiveness. That she, a brand new student with less than a month’s training, can match sensory awareness with someone who has trained for over a decade is reassuring.

To me, it suggests that Tohei’s fundamental ki principles run deep. Somewhere, without training, people developed an ability to know and understand the Other, the foreign, the supposed stranger. Despite what we see playing out in the national and international arenas, people are actually more connected and more capable of harmony than we realize.

 

Photo credits: featured image “Art Prize – The Eyes Have It” by Caribb CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; “Wellness” CC0; “Attempt to use human brain to receive radio waves” PD.

Immovable Mind

To injure an opponent is to injure yourself. To control aggression without inflicting injury is the Art of Peace. – Morihei Ueshiba

A good stance and posture reflect a proper state of mind. – Morihei Ueshiba

I always admired the heroes in old Westerns. The townsfolk are under threat and the sheriff, gunfighter, farmer has every reason to ride away. But something galvanizes him to action. Instead of running, he stands, fearlessly facing death. And he fights the lawless, the greedy. He stands straight and fights from his conviction.

Fudoshin translates as immovable mind or steadfast mind. I think it relates to the English word “conviction.” An immovable mind isn’t stubborn, but tenacious. It isn’t calcified, it is oriented. Fudoshin may be best understood by what it protects the warrior from. Fudoshin protects from the four sicknesses of the mind: anger, doubt, fear, and surprise (zen-buddhism.net).

I find it interesting that the “sicknesses” are all reactionary emotions. When a dog snarls and I am startled and become afraid, I lose my composure. When someone is angry at me and I respond in anger, usually my reactions are off center and focus on attacking the person rather than moving toward an outcome.

Mushin (empty mind) and Fudoshin go hand-in-hand. I do not just empty my mind of conscious thought, but also anger, doubt, fear, and surprise. Empty all that out, and then explore how much easier it is to observe. How much easier it becomes to move without doubt or fear.

When I started aikido, others taught me how to stand, how to step, how to slide, how to lift my arm. I was confused. I doubted myself. I got irritated . I got worried I looked foolish. I probably did. My balance was easy to disturb. My mind moved all over.

Now I’m becoming more aware of how my mental state affects my posture and movement. Often tenseness, leaning, and imbalance reflect my state of mind.

I have been reflecting on fudoshin and conviction for over a month (which is why this post is so late). I still haven’t reached any conclusions on what my conviction ought to be in regards to violence, what principle I will not move from. But the question itself is valuable. And, by degrees, doubts and fears fade.

 

Quotes from https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Morihei_Ueshiba

Image from Nate Brush

Mushin

Coordination is a central idea in my training right now. Body coordination. Mind and body coordinating together.
Right now I am thinking a lot about mental coordination within myself. We talk about being “single minded,” usually in our focus on some activity. But all too often my mind bifurcates into conflicting thoughts.
Some of the central concepts of aikido are mental principles. I’ve mentioned shoshin (Beginner’s Mind). The other mental principles are zanshin (Remaining Mind), mushin (Mind-without-Mind), and fudoshin (Immovable Mind).
Mushin, No-mind or mind-without-mind, is odd to the Western mind. It is paradoxical to think about no-mindedness. But a curious beginner’s mind allows a person to experience it.
Every practice we begin with breathing. We settle into position, being aware of our posture, our bodies, our surroundings. Sensei says “Mokuso,” and we breathe. When thoughts enter our head, we acknowledge them and let them go. Worries from the day pop into our awareness and we let them go.
 
Mokuso means stilling or silencing thinking. We breathe to focus on breathing. Thoughts settle and still. Before aikido I was aware of my endless cycle of thought, analysis, worry, looking forward, looking back. But I struggled to interrupt the cycle. Until breathing trained me to create room for the cycle to get disrupted.
For me, letting go of thought is analogous to physically relaxing. Thoughts are like little bits of mental tension in mental posture. Thoughts cramp mental movement. Thoughts create resistance and bumps.
When I physically relax during practice, I become more perceptive of the physical interaction with my partner. The more perceptive I become, the more I become aware of the nuance of the physical dynamics.
Mokuso stills my body and mind, releasing unconscious mental and physical tension. The more I approach mushin, the more perceptive my mind becomes and the more aware I become of my surroundings. The more I become part of my surroundings.
One of my most vivid aikido memories is from my first year of practice. We were breathing before practice and, like a switch flipped, I became aware of sounds several rooms away. I could hear the clock on the wall.
It wasn’t ESP or enlightenment. It was my own barriers falling away. The mental effort of thinking suddenly stopped. And then my mind had the capacity to wake up to what was already happening.
This is a very beginner understanding, and maybe mistaken, but as Mind has less-mind, it becomes more present, relaxed and perceptive. Mushin, like relaxing completely, is not floppiness or lethargy. It is freedom to move with what is without timing or response.
Image: “Blue Bowl” by Pat Joyce is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Practicing Aikido in the Present Moment

I didn’t know it would feel like this.

It’s been two years now that I’ve been practicing aikido, and while there have been ups and downs, generally speaking it has been a relatively low-stress situation.

Now my 3rd kyu test is days away, and I feel as if I’ve stepped into a pressure cooker and there’s no way out except to go straight through. I feel like I’m in the womb, the labor pains are ramping up, and no matter what I do, the pressure is rising.

I notice a variety of conflicting internal responses to this upcoming initiation. On one hand, the desire to dive more deeply into practice; to run through all techniques and weapons katas five times a day. On the other hand, the desire to run upstairs, crawl under my bed and hide.

It seems as though I work to refine one technique only to discover that my execution of another technique has new flaws. Like trying to shore up one side of the sand castle while the waves just keep right on eroding what I thought I’d achieved. And the harder I try with my intellect to grab on to information and hold it firmly in my grasp, the more my smoothness falls apart.

This morning I remembered something that Mark Sensei talks about all the time: returning to the present moment again and again, such that every moment is meditation. As I practiced my weapons katas in the park, I focused on surrendering my intellectual need to remain “in control” of every movement and returning to the flow of the present moment.

And it dawned on me: What if I were to live in the moment during my 3rd kyu weapons demonstration? If the present moment is the only place where ease and joy reside, why not go THERE?

A neighbor walking his dogs walked up and paid me a compliment for my intense focus and dedication over the past weeks. Someone in a car shouted something at me as they drove by. Neither took my center. My practice took on an entirely new flavor. I was dancing. It was joyful and fun.

I didn’t know it would feel like this.

 

(featured image credit: pocket mindfulness. https://www.pocketmindfulness.com/live-in-the-present-moment/)