Surrounded by snow drifts with an icy river trickling nearby, the assembly under the pavilion swung their swords and gasped for breath. Was the outdoor practice too vigorous? Was hypothermia setting in? None of the above. Actually, we were deliberately hyperventilating. Why?Read More »
Ahhh. There’s nothing like a good sword-slinger movie set in a historic and/or fanciful Asian world. Any Kurosawa film belongs on the list. My favorites include Seven Samurai, Red Beard, and After the Rain. I also love Hero, The Twilight Samurai, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, House of Flying Daggers. And then there’s my very long list of to-be-watched films! Shinobi: Heart Under Blade, the Rurouni Kenshin series, The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi to name a few.Read More »
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
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.
Chogyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1973), 155
Peter Matthiessen, Nine-Headed Dragon River (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1987), 104
Ralph T. Bryan ed., The Aikido of Shin-Budo Kai (Sandia Park: Samashi Press), ix “Shugyo toha taerukoto no nai denaoshi dearu” “Shugyo is the endless accumulation of fresh starts”
(Featured image “Lightning” courtesy of Tom VanNortwick.)
“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.
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.