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Tag: peace training
The Caretaker’s Test
The above picture comes from Scott Carlton’s recent 5th kyu test—the first demonstration a person gives to establish their rank as a beginner. The first time they truly come to Aikido’s front door and knock, knock, knock.
At first glance, the photo seems like an innocuous and typical first test snapshot, and yet, it actually captures a puzzling contradiction. Besides having just achieved 5th kyu rank, Scott also became an official, certified, and bona fide Registered Nurse. He passed all his tests and even landed a real nursing job at a local hospital.
So what’s a caregiver doing bending someone’s elbow in a funky direction in order to hold them on the ground? Indeed, what a nurse doing studying martial arts at all? One is devoted to preserving and protecting life through compassion and care. Isn’t the other bent on destruction and victories won by inflicting physical harm to an opponent?
As it turns out, the latter is entirely false…for Aikido, at least. As a martial art, Aikido strives to do exactly what a nurse must do: care for others at all times. Protect and preserve life while offering compassion.
“To injure an opponent is to injure yourself. To control aggression without inflicting injury is Aikido,” O’Sensei once wrote.
More than any particular technique, the primary lesson Aikido’s founder labored to pass on was to love. Love fearlessly. Love all. Cultivate a love so big that it could swallow up an attacker, just as water swallows all it encounters. If you can love someone who intends to do you harm, then you are invincible. You can protect yourself and everyone and anyone else you come into contact with.
It’s a radical, unconventional notion.
Earlier this summer, fellow blogger Nate B. and I saw just how ludicrous this idea sounds to the average person. We were out with friends at a busy outdoor venue. Seating was scarce but a kind couple invited us to join them at their umbrella’d table.
After a while of chatting, Aikido entered the discussion. The couple had heard of it, but were eager to know more from people who actually trained.
I said something like, “It’s a peaceful, nonviolent martial art.”
The husband wrinkled his whole face with skepticism. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
He went on to explain his military background and the various forms of martial training he had received while in service. “Not one was nonviolent or peaceful,” he insisted.
Nate and I did our best to explain Aikido’s emphasis on harmony and how we never push when the attack pushes, or how we blend movements if the attacker pulls. But, it felt a lot like explaining algorithms to a bumble bee—a creature that has flourished and thrived for millennia, easily identifying the fastest nectar routes without any algorithms, thank you very much!
“Is it like karma?” the wife asked.
“Yes!” I said.
She nodded but her eyebrows remained in a knot.
The husband shook his head. “If someone tried to shoot me…I dunno, man. I would destroy them.”
And yet, for those who train, for those like Scott, who dare to knock on Aikido’s door, the felt experience of the oddball notion is unforgettable. Throughout his entire test, Scott demonstrated utmost care for his attackers. Not just because they are also his training mates and pals, week in and week out; but also, because he has felt the difference between shoving and allowing. Between opposing and accepting. Hating and loving.
He, of all people, already understands his role as aikidoka and caretaker are one and the same.
Featured image: “Magician’s Hands” CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; all other images courtesy of the author.
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.
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.
Shall We Dance?
Our dojo recently enjoyed a spectacular, technically spot-on nikyu test—nikyu meaning 2nd rank below black belt shodan. No matter what level someone is going for, Durango Shin-Budo Kai always strives for high standards. Did the candidate know the vocabulary? Did he execute the correct technique? Did she demonstrate poise and focus in the present moment?
The answer to these questions is almost always a resounding YES!
One reason boils down to the extra hours classmates devote to one another for practice outside of class. Senior students (sempai) and peers (kohai) voluntarily help one other with technique tutelage, ukemi, encouragement, and more. The entire DSBK dojo works as a community to ensure the test taker’s demonstration of skill and knowledge is a definitive success.
And yet, despite all the support, every student I have ever seen prep for a test reaches that raw, volatile break point days before the big event. I include myself on the list. I can look back on nearly a decade of practice and recall many a teary meltdown.
I can’t do it! I don’t know any of this! I’m a hack! Clumsy. Sloppy. Hopeless.
The negative self-judgment piles up thicker than autumn’s tree dandruff. The Japanese terms for the techniques, which I swear I once knew, stop making any sense. I could be so frazzled that, if asked, I doubt I could have translated ai, ki, or do.
And the recent test candidate was no exception. Three days ahead of the test, oddities crept into her techniques—extra steps in footwork, incorrect pins, slips and fumbles with handwork, none of which had been there before. The in-class review ended with hot tears and the candidate certain the test would be a complete disaster. Better to cancel the whole thing!
You’ll do great! Don’t worry! This is completely normal.
Everyone chimes in with support and a hug. Far from voicing saccharine attaboys (or attagirls, in this case), we share the truth. The breakdown is normal.
For me, the experience has a lot do with aikido’s ties to budo, or the martial Way. In budo, the trainee experiences an inherent spiritual growth. This inescapable process is called seishin tanren, or spirit forging. Just as the katana has to be heated and hammered, so too does the aikidoka. So we who practice are, in every sense, testing the mettle of the soul’s metal.[i]
After decades of experience, I can say the process is very similar for writers. Each story, be it fiction or nonfiction, demands of me my serious attention, commitment, and integrity. But if the writer ever hopes to complete the story with its purest truth in tact on the page, she must grapple with the Duende.
20th century poet and writer, Frederico García Lorca believed the source of all creative drive stemmed from the struggle with that inner deamon he called the Duende. Where angels may shed light on ideas and the muses gift ingenious form, the Duende draws blood. Only it can. Angels and muses are external entities, but the Duende dwells within.
According to Lorca, the Duende chooses its battle with a creator—writer, artist, musician—the moment that person finds something worthy of creation. (Because I am a writer, I’ll stick with that frame.) The deamon awakes because it smells the potential for death. Specifically, the death of a misconception. Having pierced the false assumption, thereby wounding the writer, the Duende then initiates a miraculous healing. Out of that wound arises the pure, unprecedented, truly original artistic masterpiece.
Naturally, most people are averse to the Duende’s process. Who the heck wants to be cut through the heart? But the brave few who dance with this devil live immortal, their master works persisting against time’s erasure.
Many of us go our whole lives clutching our misconceptions, mistaking them for truths. Burdened thus, we embrace life in clumsy, fumbling motions. Fractured relationships. Timid, low-risk activities. Restricted explorations.
I believe both the writer and the aikidoka tangle with the same Duende. Why not? Both strive for the purest expression of their chosen art forms. The writer tells a perfect story. The aikidoka achieves what O’Sensei highlighted as the goal of budo: agatsu—the defeat of the self. [ii]
But that dance with the daemon leads to a similar break point. The I-quit-I-can’t-do-this moment. And the tears so many of us shed right then are true grief. After all, a misconception has died. It was with us for so long that it seems as though our self has died, but in reality, it was a false self. A guised version covering and restricting our true nature.
And so I applaud that test candidate and every person who seeks to make her art (and her very self and soul) into a pure, unprecedented, and truly original masterpiece.
[i] From The Aikido of Shin-Budo Kai: A Guide to Principles and Practice. Ed. Ralph Bryan. Samashi Press: 2013 (79).
[ii] Also from The Aikido of Shin-Budo Kai (3).
A Choice in the Matter
I could have gone blind the light was so bright. It blazed so abruptly. I didn’t have time to take cover and shield my eyes.
This luminous assault happened a few nights ago in class as we picked apart kata toris, shoulder grabs. Sensei Mark demonstrated some of the atemis, or strikes, available to the person executing the throw (nage). He then showed how these strikes invited realignment between the two bodies involved in the technique; that is, a chance for nage to recalibrate and make sure she is connected to the person being thrown (uke).
Indeed, Sensei revealed an almost infinite number of strike options. Essentially, from the moment uke attacks, reaching for nage’s gi at the shoulder, nage can instantly atemi or strike towards uke’s face. Elsewhere in the technique, nage can strike for uke’s chest, ribcage, gut—wherever.
However, instead of striking, nage directs that same energetic intent squarely on (even through) uke’s center which creates a more robust and unified connection. Two bodies effectively mesh into one and move together harmoniously to resolve the attack.
At this point, Sensei casually paraphrased Saotome Sensei (via George Ledyard Sensei): aikido’s techniques arise from the strike or strikes one chooses not to apply.
Ka-chink! The blinding light bulb clicked on in my head and I was squinny as a mole.
Of course the principle resonates with the unconventional, counter instinctual philosophy of universal love and harmony at the crux of aikido’s discipline. Rather than participating in a fist-fight, the aikidoka initiates a dance. The strike is there not as a fist to the face, but rather as a ghostly, ephemeral, energetic incarnation.
But what really waylaid me was the notion of choice.
Time and again, our practice partners confront us with an attack, some violent intent, and time and again we choose—or try to choose—a skillful, peaceful response. I say “try” because the ape-and-lizard impulses are so ingrained, so ready to disrupt the flowing connection with push-meets-shove or danger-get-the-eff-outta-here reactions. Rather than succumb to these instinctual habits without thinking, we train so that kindness in nonviolence becomes the go-to response.
But there were even more startling choices embedded in Saotome’s tenet. Those of us on the mat had to, at one point, choose to practice aikido in the first place. The realization was so bald, so obvious, and yet so sobering and stark. One day, almost a decade ago, I chose aikido. I had seen it before lots of times (oh, look what a lovely dancing way to do fast tai chi…), but I had other after-work pursuits and activities. Until one day, I chose beyond my normal habit. I chose to practice aikido. I have since realized that this one choice completely altered my life and how I live it.
I could, as I’d always done, strike out against obstacles and shove them aside; I could lash out at others to protect myself; or, I could recalibrate—realign myself with compassion. The choice was all mine.