Falling for It

“My ex-wife chose the paint colors,” Trebb explains as we set food and silverware on the dining table.

He must have seen me eyeing the odd pastel yellow, blue, and green. Although the yellow leans too close to chalk and not close enough to daffodil, the overall color scheme is as charming as Easter candy or baby’s clothes. Definitely not a bachelor’s portion of the color wheel.

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The Wrestler’s Vessel: A father and son give thanks for family, respect, and Aikido

Jerry and Nate face off on the mats. Jerry offers his torso as a target. Nate surges forward, his fist a torpedo gunning for his father’s gut. Jerry pivots, deflecting the punch. At the same time, he catches hold of Nate’s fist and positions his hands to apply a brilliant wrist lock called kote gaeshi. But then, as Jerry pivots again to apply the compressive bend, the flow of the technique stutter-stops. Nate regains his balance and a slight tussle ensues between the two men.

“You can’t force it, dad,” Nate grins.

Jerry pays close attention in class.

Jerry exhales a guilty laugh. A smile curves under his beard. “Wrestler’s instincts,” he apologizes. A former state championship wrestler, Jerry was Nate’s wrestling coach for many years.

Nate guides Jerry through the felt experiences of tense force and relaxed energy. Jerry listens with rapt attention and asks many questions.  Both their voices are characteristically deep and resonant, yet soft and subdued. If their voices were instruments, Jerry’s would be a tuba; Nate’s a trombone.

They repeat the attack and this time, father successfully slams son to the mat. In fact, Jerry takes Nate’s balance so effectively, Nate laughs all the way down.

“When he teaches me stuff, I just love it!” Jerry beams.

Because Nate began his training over a year before Jerry, he is ranked a couple kyus (levels) above his dad. He wears a hakama and sits ahead of his dad when, according to standard tradition, students line up to bow in at the beginning and end of class. It’s a strange reversal of the familial hierarchy.

“It was a little awkward at first,” Nate says, recalling when Jerry joined the dojo. “Suddenly I had this uke [practice partner] with thirty years of relationship to manage.”

Jerry confesses that before he took up Aikido at Durango Shin-Budo Kai with Nate, he and his wife seriously discussed how the father/son dynamic might change. In the end, Jerry felt it would be healthy to have a space where the son’s expertise could expand beyond the dad’s.

Nate (left) watches over dad Jerry’s Aikido (far right).

“I had to kinda rise in myself to lead,” Nate explains. As his father’s senpai (senior student), he had to take responsibility of that leadership role in order to keep his father safe and help him grow through the training.

Nate’s internal rise was immediately evident to his dad. At that time, Jerry and Nate worked together as teachers at Bayfield High School. When they passed each other in the hallways, Jerry observed how his son’s posture changed. He stood taller and walked with poise and balance. While carpooling, Jerry listened as Nate rattled off what he’d learned on the mat.

Likewise, Nate discovered all-new facets to his father soon after Jerry joined the dojo. “It’s interesting to watch him learn techniques, get coached, and make the effort to adapt and change,” he says. “It’s also interesting to watch him test and see how he deals with that stress. Watching him engage with that process…I’ve never seen that side of him.”

Both men point out that while they enjoy seeing each other in new lights, the mutually respectful relationship they bring to the dojo has been an ongoing work-in-progress reaching all the way back to their wrestling days. Nate took on wrestling because he felt intense pressure to follow in his dad’s colossal wake. For his part, Jerry thought Nate loved the sport as much as he did and was shocked to discover Nate hated every tangled, tussled minute of the training and competitions. Nonetheless, they worked through the schism with grace.

According to Jerry, a longtime pastor, “I think Aikido, in many ways, reframes the [biblical] concept of grace.” He goes on to explain how learning the fundamental principles of seeking your opponent’s agreement or seeing the world from your opponent’s perspective helped him extend grace not only to disgruntled students, but also to his own son as they worked out their adult relationship. “I intentionally worked to become an adult friend with my children.”

Nate concurs, noting, “We share the core value of respect. If we get irritated with each other or something’s not going right, that underlying respect helps work through the kinks.”

With Jerry preparing to relocate to Austin, Texas to be nearer to grandchildren, he and Nate now relish their time in class. The looming separation makes them intensely grateful for what Aikido contributes to their ever-evolving dynamic.

As Nate sees it, Aikido reinforces integrity, a word he links back to his childhood upbringing in the church. He says, “The biblical idea of integrity comes from ceramics and pottery.”

He goes on to explain how a potter can form a vessel from clay, then bake—or fire—it before glazing and firing it again. If, after the first firing, a potter notices any cracks in the vessel, he can either trash it and begin anew, or glaze over the structural weaknesses and move on. “The idea of integrity means starting over. For me, that’s what Aikido is. It’s not about being perfect. It’s about going back, finding the gaps, and starting over.”

***

Now that we’re all poised on the holiday doorstep, ready to start over with yet another New Year, the entire Durango Shin-Budo Kai organization offers thanks to the wider community for its ongoing support. We are especially thankful for guidance from the Community Foundation Serving Southwest Colorado, and we owe a mighty thank-you to Mountain Middle School, its students, and families for giving us the bright and beautiful space to practice. This natural rhythm of give and accept—extend and receive, inhale and exhale—is fundamental to Aikido and to all healthy connections.

Other families enjoy training together at DSBK. Laurel (left) and her dad Nathan tested together this Fall.

We understand that in this outstanding region, we all enjoy a bounty of exceptional charitable organizations and life-altering nonprofits. We appreciate your consideration as you make your year-end donations and thankful contributions to your local, regional, and national networks.

Founded in 2003, DSBK Aikido is a registered 501c3 educational non-profit committed to the embodied practice of Aikido as a means to increasing the peace and harmony for each practitioner, as well as for the whole community and beyond. As always, we will seek additional ways to extend our contributions to the community in the coming years. To that end, none of our teachers are paid, ensuring all funds go toward rent, insurance, and aikido outreach events and efforts in the community. For information about how to give, please visit our Patronage page.

Happy Holidays!

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.

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

Slice!
Hajiki-whack! Win again.

Chop!
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?

Jab!
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.

Conditioned responses: living on autopilot

Lightning-fast reflexes make my favorite action hero look so cool on the movie screen. I’ve always wanted to be like THAT guy!

Until very recently, I always believed that conditioned responses in aikido, and in life, were a good thing. Certainly, muscle memory has an appropriate place in the dojo, and in life.

But almost 18 months into my aikido training, I’m beginning to recognize some of the ways that conditioned responses in my life are acting as barriers to my happiness. Becoming impatient. Losing my temper. Wanting to “correct” others or change things in my exterior world in order to preserve my concept of comfort and safety.

Rather than urging me to simply memorize techniques “automatically” then forget them, my sempai remind me time and time again to do something very different: return to the present moment. They tell me that in this fresh, ever unfolding present exists the only “place” I can ever respond to what is actually happening right now. They tell me this is related to body-mind unification.

“The Founder realized that it was necessary to unify mind, body, and ki. From that individual integration, one had to link oneself to the universe as a whole, and manifest the tremendous power of the life force. Ultimately, that harmonization (between ki, mind, and body) will result in true enlightenment. This is the purpose of Aikido.” (schoolforthemind.com)

 

Katate kosa tori kokyu nage tobi komi is the technique we are practicing. Uke attacks with a cross-hand grab to my wrist.

Will I pattern this kokyu nage on my memories of past kokyu nages I have initiated, with the expectation that since it worked before, all I have to do is repeat the same precise movement and I’m guaranteed success now?

Or will I connect as deeply as possible with uke and respond to the attack that is actually taking place now? To the pressure of her grasp on my wrist? To her posture? To the present extension of her ki?

In this way, I am learning to recognize my conditioned responses before they actually take over and run their course as I shift into auto pilot yet again. Taking a breath and pausing before saying the words, “I know.” Keeping my mouth closed and hesitating before responding to someone with indignation. Noticing anger and frustration as they arise, and simply experiencing the sensations involved without making a sound with my voice.

Which begs the question, how much of my life have I been living on “auto pilot” mode? Disengaged from the present moment? And can that actually be called “living” at all?

How often can I interrupt automaticity in the next 60 minutes? How often can I recognize urges… desires… fears… before conditioned responses take over and dictate my behavior?

How can I become more present on the mat and off, so that I might bring the full spectrum of my being to the moment?

As a beginner, the best I can come up with right now is to keep practicing a return to right now. Again and again.

The Quitting Habit

“Is there nothing that stops you?”

This friendly question came from a fellow classmate as we both arrived to the dojo for class. His question roused me from my trance–mindlessly stuffing my coat, scarf, and shoes into a wooden cubby. I asked him to repeat the question.

“Is there nothing that stops you from coming to class? You’re always here,” he elaborated while unlacing his shoes.

It wasn’t a criticism. I realized it was praise. A compliment. Admiration from someone whose schedule demanded more than mine in terms of work and family commitments. To be sure, I missed classes to take a vacation, go camping, or visit family in another state; but on the whole, my attendance generally hovered around 95%.

I smiled. “Well, I am always happy when I am here.”

“Me too,” he grinned, then hurried off to wrap up in gi and hakama.

But the question stayed with me for days. I easily recalled stretches of time in my aikido career when blowing off class became a hobby in and of itself. I’d fill my tote bag with all the gear. I’d tie up my hair. And all the while, I’d pile up the reasons not to go.

I was tired. 

It had been a long day.

It had been a crappy day.

It had been a sunny day.

At last, I would empty the tote bag and plop on the couch. The next time class rolled around, I repeated the process. Entire months passed and my absences stacked up.

Could I blame the situation on a bad dojo with crummy participants or a lousy instructor? Heck no! I adored my fellow students. I adored my sensei’s lessons and his keen ability to peel back the infinite layers surrounding every step of every technique. I laughed joyously in class. So why was I dodging the practice and all its splendid treasures?

I didn’t know it at the time, but have since found out that my absences boiled down to habit. In the human brain, habits form faster than Napa Valley fires. Charles Duhigg provides a lucid explanation in his book, The Power of Habit:

“Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit…” (17-18).

Chunking is another term for the process of globbing repeated actions together into an automatic, even automated performance. Driving a car and brushing teeth are two routines chunked into habits. Consider how strenuous life would be if you had to relearn these and other common tasks every time!

Essentially, when the right triggers arise, the brain thinks: oh, this is that thing you do all the time. You know how to do that. I’m out! Laterzzz! And then it kicks on the autopilot. Duhigg explains, “When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks” (20).

Unfortunately, the brain doesn’t necessarily distinguish between good habits and bad habits. It simply connects patterns with programming and leaves you performing. Going through the motions. Like a windup toy. A robot.

Years ago, I established the habit of prepping to ditch aikido. I taught myself the technique of not going. I taught myself how to quit.

So how do you break a bad habit once it has formed? First, you have to bring awareness to the habit and know it’s a habit. See it unfold. Then, you are in a position to work with the brain’s neuroplastic abilities — that is, its ability to constantly rewire. In her book, Small Move, Big Change, Caroline Arnold outlines a basic methodology for getting the brain to adopt changes. They key, according to Arnold, is to start small.

For example, if you have a habit of overeating or mindless snacking, don’t alter your entire diet or ransack all the junk from your kitchen cabinets. That introduces too much change and the brain will rebel, big time! Instead, identify one problem food or eating behavior and work with it. Next, set a time for that new action to occur (every Wednesday at 9 o’clock, for example.) Allow that time to trigger the behavior so that, eventually, you do it without thinking.

And what do we call a thing we do without thinking? That’s right: a habit! Only now, it’s a good habit.

Duhigg cites behavioral researchers who refer to these small changes as small wins, or keystone habits. Just as a wolf is a keystone species positively impacting the health and wellness of all other species in its habitat, so too does a keystone habit promote a mental and bodily biome of other positive habits. One small win sets in motion forces that favor and allow for another small win, which in turn triggers another.

“Small wins,” Duhigg says, “fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach” (112).

How do I sustain such a regular attendance at aikido now? It’s a habit. I have the routine down pat. I quit quitting when I stopped thinking about quitting. On nights I have aikido, I don’t think about it at all. Suddenly, I am there, cramming my coat, scarf, and shoes in a cubby. It’s probably the most important technique I’ve ever mastered.