we’re only human

I work in an environment where, at times, we get a high-maintenance customer or two.  I love the challenge though.  At work, when a customer comes in bent out of shape, it seems natural to try to place myself on a throne of authority and make the goal of the interaction to be the first one to assume that power and win.  Being the one “who works there” I naturally feel like I need to hold my ground against this rude intruder in dorky pants (yep, I work at a golf course) and be in the right, reigning victorious over the customer as he vehemently apologizes, realizes he’s way out of line, and leaves shamefully…

Okay, we all know that assuming this stance almost never leads to this result.  It usually escalates to the embarrassing point where the customer makes a scene and never comes back, with the end result being a lost customer(s) and a ruined day.

This is especially difficult when dealing with customers/people who are older than you (which, in my line of work, is usually the case).  Almost impossible.

Instead, lately (not that customers blow up on me all that often, thankfully, but they more often come to me with some minor frustration or confusion about various things), I’ve tried shedding the cloak of authority which is really a fear induced go-to state, and sinking down into my humanness which we both have in common.

Here we can both relate and easily resolve the issue.  After all, we’re both human, right?

I mean, I’ve been confused/frustrated/stupid at times.  It’s getting into this mental state that’s the hard part.  Finding our humanity and seeing where this person’s frustrations stem from is the direction we should take which, once attained, will have a better chance of leading to a resolved conflict.

Turn as in tai no henko and look in the same direction (ideally without allowing any openings) as that person.  This is the moment of musubi or blending with them.

Nobody’s surrendering here.

From here, redirection can happen and we can work something out, if need be, because most of the time, this is all the customer/co-worker/family member/telemarketer was trying to achieve anyways.

In the dojo, while doing the technique, we should try to see the reality that: we’re both humans here, in a very human interaction.  This tends to bring us out of our aloofness and into harmony with the reality of the conflict.

It can also help us be more alert knowing that from this very human place, we should be prepared for anything.  Out of the dojo, the attacker may have a knife, gun, bouquet of flowers, pacemaker, banana peel, or who knows what.  That smooth kotegaishi we have successfully pulled off 1000 times in class becomes more of a raw thing that may potentially go in another unpredictable direction at any time when we train with this intention.

Sometimes it’s fun to do Aikido from a higher place and feel like we’re shedding our human flesh for a while, moving more like a wave or an electrical current.

Sometimes we feel like we’re moving in pure intention and energy, and our movement feels, how could I say, “cloudy” more than solid and physical.

On the flip side of this though, it’s really interesting to get really embedded in our humanness.  Sometimes, especially in the metaphysical realm which Aikido walks the line of, it’s almost discouraged to come from this human place.

We’re encouraged to bring our mind to different places and to get out of the fight/flight mode of being.  I think this is great, even necessary, when we first start our training, because I think, especially us westerners, live most of our lives from a lower-level human place.  The thing is that we don’t realize our humanness because we’re consumed by it.

If not aware of something, it’s hard to separate yourself from it and work with it.  It’s when we can see it, feel it, and are aware and conscious of it that we can re-experience it in a way that is to our benefit.

Getting out of this initial phase of our lives (well, a lot of us anyways) a bit, and experiencing different states of being is the great thing about this art, and is one of the many gifts it gives us.  We can experiment with these.   However, it does us nor anyone else any good if we stay there and don’t bring those gifts back to our humanity.

It’s great to really get deep into our humanness while being aware of it.  It really is a gift to be human and its really empowering to be okay with it, experience it fully, and realize how great it is.  From here, we can mold it and rearrange it in whatever way is best for us.

I’ve heard “Aikido” defined as “meeting the energy”.  This can mean many things, I guess, but it does relate to what I’m saying here.  When we die, all that’s left is a lump of flesh and bone.  This, I don’t believe, is “us”.  What makes “us” humans is the life energy that moves and gives life to that flesh, or – our humanness.  It’s interesting to sink into that part of ourselves and connect with each other on that very human level.

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can’t buy me aiki

A great thing about Aikido is that you can’t “buy” great Aikido.  I happen to work in the golf industry, and what infuriates me is that people will drop $5k, no problem, for all of the top of the line equipment, etc., in order to “buy” a great golf game.  They spend thousands of dollars on golf lessons and don’t practice between sessions.  I know golf requires equipment, but take something like exercise as an example, if you just did body weight exercise with no fancy “shake-weights” (you know you wish you came up with that idea..) or special equipment of any kind, there’s plenty of clothing, supplements, and special routines that people pay a lot of money for to try to “buy” a great body.

I love Aikido because it’s raw.  You can’t buy special Aikido training tools in order to become a better Aikidoist (not yet, anyways, *gulp*).  It’s all about the soul, dedication, and practice you put into it.  A big reason why is that Aikido is an inside thing, really.  There’s only so much you can do on the physical plane of the art, most of it comes from feel and experimentation and has a lot to do with where your mind’s at.  In our mass-marketing society here in America, I think it’s very easy to fall into this trap of trying to buy a skill.  I’m a big fan of having a lot of choices in the marketplace, but it can be overwhelming at times.  Think of any kind of venture whether it be a new sport, card game, video game, fashion style, exercise, music, drawing, painting, architecture, cooking, etc., and you can go online right now and find a million “how to” manuals, training aids, and “for Dummies” books for it all.

When starting something new, fear jumps in and tells us not to start until we’re extremely comfortable doing so.  “Are you sure you’re ready?”, it says, in the back of our minds.  “You know what, try buying this DVD, watch it first, and then you’ll definitely be ready…  Look how good these people on the cover are at it, why not see how they do it first before just jumping on in?”, it suggests.  How many times do we follow those orders?  Following those orders are what those marketers are banking on.  The lower part of ourselves doesn’t like growing.  It’s scared of “failure” and is quite comfortable where it’s at.  It’s easy to watch a video or read a book on a subject that is deemed “difficult”.  Growing would mean death for this part of ourselves.

In Aikido, there are a few training books out there.  There are even a few DVD’s you can buy (I bought a LOT of them when I first started training), but compared to other martial arts and things like it, there’s not that many.  Why is that?  Maybe it’s just because Aikido isn’t that big right now, but I really think that it’s because Aikido needs to be experienced to be learned.  O’Sensei was very clear about this and the leading teachers in the art are as well (I guess the idea rolls downhill).  O’Sensei didn’t show “perfect technique” or a technical system that was claimed to be unbeatable.  He didn’t make it easily appealing to the lizard brain.  He came at it from another angle.  Watching videos of O’Sensei without understanding Aikido, it looks almost fake.  How can that possibly work?  A typical insomniac surfing the web for the next best “fighting system” with the intention to show off and impress their friends would skip right by it.

Aikido’s magic has to be felt in order to be believed.  Experiencing aiki is what creates passionate users.  Aikido plays hard to get.  I don’t think people even think they can pick this art up fast when they see it for the first time,  especially after they train in their first couple of classes, and if they did think so initially, it’s usually dispelled after the first class or two.  There’s no false sense of easy mastery that is put out there to the mass consumer by this art.  Something has to click in the student’s consciousness in order to want to pursue this art.  This click usually is triggered at a different location in the psyche than, say, when we’re buying the Ultimate Cage Fighter system or something.  There’s usually no delusions of grandeur in the egotistical sense when first picking up this art (unless, like a lot of us, we get our inspiration from Steven Seagal movies).  But even then, the first time we step into a dojo, those delusions are squelched by the atmosphere of most Aikido dojo’s.

We can learn a lot from this, though.  This carries over to any new undertaking.  You can’t buy the skill.  There are no shortcuts to mastery.  Four payments of $9.95 isn’t going to cut it for proficiency in any endeavor.  Start by doing.  Get your hands dirty.  Studying is okay.  It’s good to withdraw at times to reflect and study what we’re doing.  Real moments of growth are accomplished by digging in and doing the work.  Putting ourselves out there in front of everybody and failing a few times is necessary to real, lasting growth.

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arrogance through comfort

Some people are so impressed with themselves that they don’t ever change and grow.  I’m sure we all know these people who are, a lot of times, big fish in a small pond type people and who are very comfortable in their surroundings.

It’s the bully at school, the biggest guy at the local bar, the know-it-all jackass at work, the “darkest” artist at the coffeeshop, the “holiest” person at church, and the list goes on… you get the idea.

In their most comfortable environment, these people may be very intimidating and hard to get close to.  A lower part of ourselves is so easily drawn to their aura if we’re not watching, and we sometimes do things that are very self-defeating in order to get in their circle.

After a while it may work.  We’ve made it!  We can actually talk with this person, and even though they’re complete asses, it’s cool.  Hey, they wouldn’t be as cool as they are if they weren’t like that, and it’s worth taking some psychological (in some cases, physical) abuse just to be in their circle.

Until the day we notice (usually after being away for some time) how sad and limited their situation really is.  We might move away for a few years, experience life at different venues, come back, and… they’re still there.  They may have tried to move away, but “That place just sucked,” they may tell us.

But we realize that their circle of minions didn’t move with them.  Without their circle, they were scared.  Scared to open up with different people and create new relationships.  Scared because their tactics may not have worked with these strangers in another place.  Going home at night and not knowing who they are without their crew.

Keep in mind that in the above statement, I’m talking about the very extreme cases of these types.  You may have known a few of them throughout your life.

Take this type a few notches down, and we see people who are not as obnoxious, but still limited by their self-aggrandizement in a lot of ways.

I think a lot of us fall into this trap at different times.  We find something we’re good at, or a place we’re comfortable in, and we obtain an inflated sense of self during said activity.

We get addicted to it.  We get comfortable.

The ego games then start.  Maybe another person starts coming to that place who we think is better than us, and we immediately start comparing.  The lizard brain speaks first and loudest, and the survival instincts start kicking in.  “Geez, I have to step up my game to maintain my level of respect here,” or,”I can’t get too friendly with this person or they’ll take it as weakness,” or we start gossiping about this person to our close friends and build allies.

It’s ridiculous!

It can happen anywhere, at work, at home, at the family’s house during the holidays, family reunions, at the gym, etc.  Anywhere we frequent kind of a lot and have the potential to socialize with others can be a place where we can fall into this trap.  It can happen on many levels from being just a little too comfortable and stuck in your ways, to being completely obnoxious.

Yes folks, I hate to tell you, the Aikido world, surprisingly, has several of these people in its population.  Think about it, it’s the perfect environment for it.  Usually, people who train Aikido are quite reasonable and somewhat friendly and because it’s a non-competitive art, these people aren’t easily challenged.  It takes a good sensei to keep the environment clean of this kind of attitude, and is probably one of their biggest challenges.  The more extreme cases usually train in one dojo forever, and are usually seen in their popularity bubble training with people (mainly kohei) who have always been impressed by them, and even if they aren’t anymore, they have to act like it or else they think it may damage the relationship and be very uncomfortable at said dojo.  This may work fine for some for a while, but if this power is abused, dojo-cred goes down and they start losing respectable training partners.  The dynamics of the dojo are very interesting and kind of resemble the marketplace.  If you hurt someone once, it may be an accident.  If you gain a reputation of hurting people, people will begin not wanting to train with you.

Again, the above description fits the more extreme advocates of this.  Personally, I’ve been guilty at times of training with the same people for too long.  It’s really cool to train with someone we really get along with, but the light really hits our technique when training at another dojo or seminar.  It’s a very uncomfortable situation, especially if their style of Aikido is different than ours.  It’s so easy to get angry at these people who may feel like they’re resisting our technique or blocking us out.  Is this the case, or is it just that our friends in our home dojo are just taking courtesy falls for us in order to keep the peace?

Let me be clear and say that there’s nothing wrong with having friends in the dojo and having certain people who we’re comfortable training with.  There’s also no reason to always try to obnoxiously resist our partner’s technique to challenge them.  I’m just suggesting that we keep our training honest.  Humility in training is very important.  We should never feel like we’re the best, most powerful aikidoist on the mat.  Every interaction should come from a place of mutual respect and experimentation with growth of both, or all, parties being the goal.  If we go to the dojo to train with a few of our buddies because we get an ego high from it, pretty soon, those buddies will be gone and our aikido will be crap, especially when visiting another dojo.  I experienced this in the beginning of my training.  Being young and kind of athletic, I felt like I was really getting the hang of this thing, and then I went to a Saito sensei seminar, and was smacked upside the head with a reality check.

When at work, try getting out of your area and help other departments out a little.  Have lunch with different people, connect with those who it’s not comfortable to do so.  At the family reunion, try talking with the drunk, obnoxious husband of your second cousin you’ve never seen.  Have fun with it.  Ignore the lower part of ourselves that is scared to do so.  Recognize it, set it aside, and connect with that person.  This is one of my personal goals to do this more often.  I was a painfully shy kid, and am still that way in a lot of environments.  All that is fear, not humility.  True humility is being able to connect and experience.

In the dojo, we should maintain humility and always look to grow mutually with our training partners.  Reconnect with them every day and feel that every time we train is the first time.

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it’s the juice

What, exactly, is ki? Ever since I started reading about Aikido, many years before I started actually training in a dojo, the books I’ve read have said that it’s very difficult to translate the Japanese word ki into English. It’s mostly equated to energy and the Japanese symbol for ki resembles steam rising from rice as it cooks. Still, us westerners are always looking for cut-and-dry definitions and labels for things, and I happen to fall victim to that mentality. The name of the art Aikido implies working with ki – yet how often do we actually consciously do this?

I’ve touched on this before, but when starting Aikido, we learn the technical aspects of the different techniques. We then take that into more flowing movement, and then finally make our own out of it. I know, easier said than done. Personally speaking, it’s so hard to step out of the technical part of Aikido. When a technique doesn’t work right, what’s the first thing I do? I usually ask myself, “What am I doing wrong here? Where should I step or move my hand to make this technique work better?” This is okay on some levels, but it’s so easy to completely overlook what it is we’re there to do, which is to work in the way of harmonious ki (yes, loosely translated of course).

The thing is, you can’t really teach ki. Ki is something that has to be felt and experienced on our own for it to be applied. After training for a while, I really do see how it’s so difficult to explain the meaning of ki. Teachers can teach physical things such as body movements and motion. In Aikido, these things are very important and are the ground floor and foundation of the art. From here, it’s our responsibility to mix those movements with our ki, thereby getting the full experience of it.

Ki, to me, is the juice of the movement. It’s the underlying intention, direction, and life behind the technique. Without this, all you have is sloppy Jujutsu (thanks Dan Messisco Sensei for that term). Vince Sensei said it so well when we were working with our Black Belt material this last week when he told us to make it “sexier”. A few of us were working together and getting really stuck in what we were doing and getting way too cerebral when he came by and told us this. I think his intention for saying this was to have us make it more alive. The way to do this is by extending ki. Staying stuck in the technical parts of this beautiful art is very limiting at a certain level, and it’s great to let that go for a while (although it’s good to revisit the basic technical part of it at times as well), and work on putting ki, or life, into our technique.

We can see ki in all great artists, and I believe it’s what makes them artists. Look at the world-class chef for example. What are they doing? They’re preparing a meal. At the base, technical level they are preparing a meal. Wait… I can do that! What’s the difference between me preparing a meal and, say, Makoto? Makoto is a good friend of mine and is the head sushi chef at what I honestly believe is the best sushi restaurant in the US, which is Samurai Sushi located in South Lake Tahoe. I’m totally biased, but I’ve been to sushi in Chicago, San Francisco, and several other places, and I’ve never seen an artist like Makoto. Don’t get all riled up, I’m sure they’re out there, but I haven’t had the honor of meeting them yet. Anyways, not only does he make good sushi, but he puts his life into it. He lives right across the street from the restaurant and cures (again, please excuse my lack of technical jargon) the fish himself. When I go there and eat, I make sure to sit at the bar as close as possible to where he’s stationed at, and I am enthralled watching him prepare sushi. It’s ingrained into his consciousness. The fluidity of movement and relaxed, but fast pace in which he prepares the dishes is absolutely amazing. There’s no waste and his area is always clean. I would cut my finger off within a week of even trying to do what he does with that knife. Is making sushi hard to do? Maybe, maybe not. If he gave me all of his recipes, and I stood there and made the same dishes he does, I’m pretty sure we’d be out of business in a couple of weeks… if we were lucky. The ki he puts into his art is amazing. He’s past the stage of copying and learning, and is on the path of creating. If I came in there and duplicated the technical aspects of what he does, it would be an absolute failure. Why? My ki’s not there. His is. He has put his life into his art of making great sushi for people and creates the atmosphere to go along with it. People would be able to tell that I wasn’t authentic after a while.

Now, if I truly wanted to give myself over to the art of sushi making, and I took on an apprenticeship from Makoto, and I put enough of my ki into the art, after some time, I may be able to be great at it. There’s a lot we can learn from great teachers. At first we have to look at technical things involving any new undertaking, this is the only way to start. We have to emulate a lot for a while to get the hang of things. If my ki was really into the whole sushi making thing, I could probably even get really good at preparing the dishes the way he does. That’s just the first step though. We can’t stop there (well, we can, but we wouldn’t have gotten much out of it). We have to take it to the next step from learning to the level of making it our own, all the while adding our ki, or life, to it for it to be authentic.

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flip the lizard brain

Every once in a while, in our dojo, Vince Sensei is kind enough to host some of the world’s best Aikidoists for a weekend seminar.  This past weekend, we were fortunate enough to have Mary Heiny as our guest teacher.  Here is not the place to go into Heiny Sensei’s history, if you’re not familiar with who she is, there’s various other resources available online to give you her history, and I highly recommend you check it out.  What’s so special about Mary Heiny is that she has been training in the art of Aikido since 1965 and has the incredible experience of witnessing the Aikido of O’Sensei-the founder of Aikido, directly, as well as training directly under some of O’Sensei’s top students.  This lady has ridiculous experience in this art, and her Aikido proves it.  I’m not sure how to say this without taking the risk of offending someone, but I mean no disrespect to say that Heiny Sensei is not an incredible, towering, physical specimen.  Standing a little over five feet tall and, doing some quick math, figuring she is over 60 years of age, Heiny Sensei would not be someone you’d be frightened of if you crossed paths with her in a dark alley.  I, along with many others in our dojo, was fortunate enough to take some ukemi/falls from her this past weekend, and the experience was amazing.  The attack I came in with was a grab, and I felt that she had embodied the center of the mat, dojo, and universe at that time, and I was this little piece of nothingness as I fell to the mat.  The thing is, it didn’t feel like I was “thrown” at all.  Pound for pound (and those of you who know me know I am not a towering physical specimen myself) I could easily overpower this woman.  She had tapped into something above the realm of physical strength in order to do that.  This wasn’t something like, “Well, she just got lucky and got my balance where I wasn’t expecting it and pulled off the throw.” or, “She totally pulled an illegal move and cheated to throw me.”… She absolutely had my center before physical contact was even made, and without having enough time to consciously realize it, I wanted, somehow, to go to the mat.  The thing my lizard brain (which I’ll touch on in a sec) was aiming for was not there.  The resistance that I was seeking was not there to meet me.  It was so strange to be thrown by a force that was so light, soft, and comforting, in an odd way, instead of feeling like I had been defeated.  This is aiki, and it’s why I show up.

What was really interesting about having her teach is listening to what she had to say.  She spoke her art just as well as she physically demonstrated it.  What really got me is when she said that we as humans are capable of so much nobility.  Referencing the people of Japan and the incredible cooperation and resolve they’ve been using to work through their crisis with, she stated how people are capable of so much more.

Enter the lizard brain.  I’m certainly not an expert in the topic of the lizard brain, but I have been researcing it quite a bit lately, and I’ve found it quite interesting and see that overriding it is one of the main aims of Aikido.  The Lizard brain is the brain that all wild animals have, and is what makes them wild.  It is the brain (and part of the human brain) evolved and responsible for fear, anger, revenge, and reproduction.  If you’re an animal with a good one of those, you won’t last long.  When a human is put on a brain scanner (pardon the lack of technical lingo), and shown pictures of sharks and other fear-inducing images, the part of your brain located right above the brain stem will light up first.  It’s in charge.  If shown something like a beautiful piece of art, it’s really quiet, and another part of the brain is lit up.  Again, google it, check it out for yourself, it’s scientific knowledge now, and we can see that the lizard brain is in charge of survival, fear, fight and flight.  Over time, humans have developed other parts of the brain which are activated during moments of love, creativity, and happiness.  The problem is that the lizard brain usually is activated first.  This is the reason for the old adage of, when you want to write someone an angry letter, write it first, and then wait a couple days before sending it.  It’s why you can lose it on somebody and feel completely justified for doing so, and then later feel like hell for it.  Our lizard brain is the thing that’s writing the letter.  Our lizard brain is the thing that’s telling your wife she’s a pain in the ass (not that I’d ever do that, of course).  From what I’ve read from O’Sensei’s writings and from hearing Mary Heiny speak and experiencing it through her technique this weekend is that this is what Aikido is all about.  Heiny sensei told us that a huge aim of Aikido is to have as much care for the person who is attacking you as you do for yourself and to let their misguided actions take them to the mat, you’re merely just assisting them.  This is not a direct quote, but I hope I captured the gist of it.  O’ Sensei wrote:

“To injure an opponent is to injure yourself.  To control aggression without inflicting injury is the Art of Peace.”

How bout’ this for the mission statement of your martial art?  There are many other things O’Sensei said that went right along with this one as far as conflict goes.  In Aikido, the attacker is viewed as someone who needs to be protected from themselves more than anything else.  If you have the bases covered of protecting yourself, you can work on protecting the attacker.  What’s the first reaction that comes to you when you’re being verbally challenged at work, cut off in traffic, picked on, served a steak that’s too well-done, or physically attacked?  More than likely it’s a fear-based survival instinct stemming from the lizard brain.  I think we need to use these reactions to grow.  When feeling these reactions, and you know it’s happening, although it feels great at the time to follow through with what the lizard brain is telling you to do, stop dead in your tracks and do the opposite.  Instead of hitting that mother*****r as hard as you can, stop, and connect with that person.  Instead of yelling back at your wife, stop, walk over to her, and give her the biggest embrace you’ve given her in a long time letting her know how much you really love her.  You can’t fake this though, and the intention behind it can’t be to win or to manipulate.  Instead of going off on the waiter, let him off the hook.  Connect with him and, verbally as well as non-verbally (remember, you can’t fake this) let him know that you understand that as much as your evening may have been interrupted by the order being off, it makes his evening twice as hard by dealing with it.  Coming from a guy who has been in that server’s shoes, trust me, he didn’t want this to happen.  His evening just became more difficult, and his livelihood depends on him not doing this.  Give him a break.  Sorry, anyone who’s been a server understands how we sometimes have flashbacks to those nights.  Anyways, take notice of the lizard brain’s reaction, and really try to do the opposite.  Now, there may be a few instances where the lizard brain may save your life.  Come to think of it, though, maybe not.  What do you think?  I’d like to end this blog post with another quote from O’Sensei:

“The Art of Peace begins with you.  Work on yourself and your appointed task in the Art of Peace.  Everyone has a spirit that can be refined, a body that can be trained in some manner, a suitable path to follow.  You are here for no other purpose than to realize your inner divinity and manifest your innate enlightenment.  Foster peace in your own life and then apply the Art to all that you encounter.”  Flip the lizard brain on it’s head and foster peace through your art into your life.

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