don’t confine your art

It’s so easy to get stuck in ways of doing things that you look back and see that you’ve been doing things a certain way for far too long, for really no reason at all other than that it felt comfortable.  Comfort zones are dangerous and I think we all need to consciously stay away from them.  They’re like black holes or whirlpools that suck you in as soon as you relax.  Staying vigilant is the key, and it’s not easy.  Life should be amazing all the time, and we need to stop settling for anything less.  We should always be improving and growing in all areas of our lives and comfort zones make that virtually impossible.

As soon as you feel like yourself or others start “labeling” you as a certain “type” it’s best to see that and evolve in that particular area.  Don’t be flighty, that’s certainly not good.  I say to “evolve” our comfort areas because we don’t want to run from them.  If we run, we don’t learn anything.  Here’s an example: let’s say people you work with label you as a “loud person”.  It’s so easy to use that as an excuse for your loudness and just continue being.. well.. obnoxious because that’s just “the kind of person you are”.  You could say that you’ve “always been that way” or that you “come from a family of loud people”, or whatever you wish to use as an excuse.  It might not even consciously be an excuse, because you might actually believe yourself, but looking at it objectively, it is most certainly nothing but an excuse to continue being a jackass.  By being stubborn, your ego may feel like “you’re staying true to yourself and just being who you are” when the reality is that the people you work with are losing respect for you one (one-sided) conversation after another.

Another option is to see this and “evolve” this comfortable previous way of being.  Recognize it for what it is and sculpt it into something higher and better.  Maybe use that “loudness” or whatever it may be in ways to make your world better or in a way that helps others.  Be more outspoken on things that matter the most to you, using your loudness where it counts, and work on toning it down when around people who may be put off or offended by this certain quality.  You may think that it’s impossible to do the opposite of said quality, but I guarantee you that if you look at it instead of settling with it or running from it, your life will be so much more interesting.

Have fun with it and try different things out with different people.  I know in my life, there are certain people I am just one way around.  With one person I’m always awkward, with another person I’m always comfortable, with this other person I’m always annoyed, etc.  Lately I’ve been trying to be different around these people, and it’s really interesting.  It sometimes feels like you’re hanging around totally different people, when it’s yourself who’s changed.  The dark side of our personality might view that as pandering to others, but it’s not what this is.  What you’ll be doing here is taking something that previously was “just the way you are” that you pretty much had no control over, and you’re creating art with it.  When I say art, I mean anything that affects others or changes them if even a little bit.

In Aikido, there are some of us who are “softer”, or “more aggressive”, or “martial” with our Aikido.  Maybe we’re very “stiff” or “weak” because “that’s just the way we are”.  We all know what that certain quality our Aikido has that we’d like to change, but we instead make excuses to just keep being that way.  Switch it up!  All you Iwama-style rock solid Aikidoists, try being softer and more flowing with big brush-like motions.  Not just a little bit, but A LOT!  All of you Hombu-style Aikidoists, try making your motions more precise and rock-solid.  Try getting completely out of that deadly comfort zone and evolve your art instead of being confined in it.

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the art of positive change

The old ways of doing things are dying, and I say good riddance.  When I say “the old ways” I mean the industrial, top-down, what’s in it for me approach to life.  As we look around us in the world today, we can clearly see that all of that is broken and is hanging on by a thread.  It used to be that the key to becoming wealthy and successful was that if you could train enough people to do things the way you wanted them to, they could make you a lot more than you’re paying them.  This mindset trickled through to people’s lives, and by and large, it became the status quo way of getting by in life.

The key to security was to work for someone who wielded this power, and if you just did what you were told, you’d retire out with a nice pension and live happily ever after.  This is changing.  The safety nets are going away.  What we have now is a world where we have two choices:  adapt and grow…. or be left behind.  The old way taught us that we needed permission to do good things.  We didn’t want to stick our neck out with a radical idea, because we might get cast out.  If it wasn’t in the handbook, we probably shouldn’t be doing it.

Now we’re in an age where we don’t need permission anymore.  We have all the tools to change the world for the better, one interaction at a time.  Whatever it is we do, whether it’s CEO of a big corporation, or a clerk at a retail store, the name of the game is changing people’s lives, if even a little bit, one interaction at a time.  This is how we become indispensable.  The “For Dummies” follow the textbook/handbook way of doing things is broken.  It turns out that things don’t improve much that way.  We now have to spread our art, whatever that may be.  Art can’t be read in a book or taught in a school.  It’s something that’s incredibly authentic and comes from you and you only.  It’s imprinting the fingerprint of your soul on your world.  This fingerprint can’t be replicated or copied.  If you’re mindset is: “What can I do to get by without getting in trouble or making anyone angry, and if this doesn’t work, how can I gain the upper hand and control this person?”, this has to change to something like: “In this interaction I’m having right now, how can I connect with this person and positively change their world for the better, if even a little bit?”.    Every interaction is different and must be handled differently.  This is where the art comes in.  We have to constantly adapt so we can have a bigger range of interactions.  It’s no fun to just be able to positively relate to one kind of person.  Each case is unique.

Again, the dojo is an ideal place to work on this.  How may times do we go through class and just go through the motions?  I’m just as guilty as anyone of this.  When we go home at night, we don’t even remember who we trained with.  Try something out, and see how it changes your Aikido:  Each time you bow in to somebody, consciously acknowledge them.  It’s easy to do that to people you like to train with, but how about with those you’re not too thrilled to train with.  Especially with them, while bowing in to that person, mean what you say when you say “onegai shimasu”.  Before you start the exercise of doing the technique, look them in the eye and acknowledge them.  Connect with them.  As much as you’re working on the technique, you’re also working WITH THIS OTHER PERSON.  Ease into the exercise a little.  Think to yourself, “Right now is my only opportunity to have an enriching and possibly enlightening experience with this other person, and I plan to put my consciousness into allowing this to happen.”  Make it into more of an authentic and enjoyable experience instead of unconsciously bowing to them quickly, not even looking at them, and rushing right into the technique where you just try to do it better than them.  If you’re taking ukemi, as you go through the fall and stand up, maintain that connection and intensify it each time.  Think of it, the people in the dojo we  respect the most are those who give us that connection.  We don’t really care how “good” of martial artists they are.  Sure, that may be impressive, but we really ENJOY training with those we have that connection with.  What if we had that with everyone in the dojo?  At our job?  On the highway?  In the DMV?  We may actually enjoy life a bit more and spread that to those we interact with.

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First of all, please don’t think that my blog has changed into a Harry Potter fan club.  It’s just that Harry exemplified exactly what I’ll be talking about in this post, especially the facial expression, so bare with me:)  I think it’s so interesting how you can take one basic, little principle of Aikido and, looking at it close enough, see how even the smallest thing relates so intensely to life off the mat.  It doesn’t even have to big a big, core principle like “being centered” or “staying relaxed”.  Core principles such as these obviously relate to everyday life in many ways, and can help us immensely on a daily basis.  I’m talking here about the small things we discover years into our training, or the little details we may be working on to prepare for our next test.

Something I’ve been working on lately in my training is trying not to reach so much.  This applies to both sides of Aikido, the attacker (uke) side and the technique application (nage) side as well.  Being too far out on my toes and really reaching for the grab or the strike left me very vulnerable to injury or a sloppy atemi (strike), so making sure I had my weight centered between my toes and heels as much as possible, the whole way through the attack and the fall, has helped my ukemi drastically.  Same goes with applying the technique, especially when doing a big throw like a kokyu nage or something along those lines, where the end result is projecting uke way out there, I’ve found my weight always being on my toes with my arms reaching waaaay out and almost throwing myself in that same direction.  It looks kinda cool, and I really feel like I’m hucking uke, but I am incredibly vulnerable to a reversal if uke is centered.  Same thing when there’s a strike or grab coming in, and we’re doing Ikkyo or Kotegaishi where the first move is to “grab” the wrist, it’s sooooo tempting to want to focus entirely on the target to be “grabbed” (quotations because we eventually learn that it’s more like a cutting motion to the wrist, not exactly a grab) and really reach out for it.

The fact that most ukes are incredibly accomodating and don’t change their attack half way through, makes it all the more tempting to do this.  Because we train mostly with a prescribed attack and technique, after a while we think this might actually work out like this if it were to actually happen.  The thing is that if someone was actually coming in to grab you or strike and they clearly saw you commit that much to grabbing the wrist, they might just do something else you’re not ready for.  As soon as you commit to doing that action, in this case grabbing the wrist, you have also attacked, and have lost your center, rendering yourself just as open as they are.  I’ve found that keeping my mental presence centered at all times (yeah, I know, easier said than done), Aikido is so much more effortless and safer for both parties when I let the attack come in and support uke through the technique until they land safely and we do it again.  Don’t get me wrong, we don’t want to just stand there staring at the attacker and move last second.  At a certain point of our training, we can move quickly while maintaining this stillness within our balance and psyche and kind of lead the attacker where it’s easiest to support them through the technique, if we’re skilled (or lucky) enough to have this luxury.  But that’s why we train, I suppose.

So this has lead me to believe that “reaching” is bad.  To boil it down, reaching is something that feels powerful to the dumb ego, but in reality is nothing more than a sloppy, greedy, attack.  Well, this totally applies to life off the mat!  How often do we reach for stuff, daily?  We reach to get that thing we want, or we reach while “standing up for ourselves”, or we reach for trying to keep that someone from leaving, or we reach for trying to prove ourselves, or we reach for trying to fit in or be a certain way so people might like us better….  It happens all the time, and 100% of the time, I believe that reaching is bad.  If we just still our minds during the inertia of whatever is going on and deal with what’s coming at us in a calm yet assertive way, things tend to work out much better.  Something that can be so easily downplayed while on the mat is actually very important on a daily basis on and off the mat.  That’s another thing that’s so cool about this art..  We can take something small that we may have heard from someone helping us in class, or even something we notice ourselves, which, at the time, seemed minimal, and we can see how this applies elsewhere.  It could be “Don’t look at the ground while turning” or “Bring your back foot up under your hips after throwing”….anything!  These things all have an off-the-mat equivalent that is very interesting to correlate.

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An intention I’ve been playing around with while training has been unity.  Unity can be achieved on many different levels, all of which we can work on.

Separateness is the opposite of unity, and this is a state of being that I’d, personally, like to consciously grow out of. In the world out there, it seems just about everything is separate and self-defined by its outline. This especially is the case the closer we look at things.  As we zoom in, we see separateness in something that looks whole from further away.  If we look at a rock with a magnifying glass, we might see individual pieces of sand that make up the rock.  Zoom in a little further and you see things from maybe a molecular level and see billions of separate molecules, each doing their own thing.

Zoom back out to the perspective of the naked eye, and it’s still the same rock.

So here we have something which can be seen as divided and whole, all at the same time.  The only difference is perspective.

It seems that when we start out in Aikido, everything is in a state of separation or duality.

Lets take one technique, say shomenuchi iriminage, and at first we’re trying to figure out where the foot goes, and then the hand, while at the same time keeping in balance and moving the hips correctly.

With your training partner in the mix, you have a whole other entity to deal with and as you progress, you’re trying to affect his balance, grab his right wrist with your right hand and move in this direction, all while staying relaxed and breathing fully.

After some practice, this becomes unified and is then performed with less effort and the ability to see the whole movement in one snapshot, neatly labeled with a name of the technique.

So progression goes from duality to non-duality, or unity.  The thing is, it’s all a matter of perception, really.  All the while, we were doing shomenuchi iriminage, it’s just that our perception or focus changed.

At first, we could barely make a step without fumbling over ourselves, while a month later, many different movements came together to create this one technique.  If you take that one technique and combine it with the almost infinite number of other techniques you can do in Aikido, it’s all one Aikido.

From separation to unity as a progression, but all being one.

In Aikido, it’s really easy for some of us to think too much about our practice from the brain’s perspective. The brain is a tool used for separating and disseminating things, which in some cases is quite useful.  When we’re working on unity, it may not be the best tool for this purpose.  We start analyzing our Aikido and questioning ourselves like “Hmm, am I more a hard-style aikidoist or soft-style?  Is my Aikido more creative and spontaneous or textbook basic and an intellectual?  Should I think about what I’m doing or just feel it?  Do I like to have soft feather-like ukemi or fall with a dramatic flare slapping the mat intensely as I go down?”.  Maybe it’s just me that does this, but I have a feeling it may be common.  The question I have is, why do I have to label it and define my Aikido with such strict guidelines?  Why pick one way or the other?  Isn’t this extremely limiting?  Hard/soft, left brain/right brain, creative/intellectual, rigid/flexible, iwama style/hombu style…  Unify.  Get your whole being on the same page.  Do both…all at once..  Look at these as co-workers instead of opposites.  Why do we assume it has to be one way or the other.  We only limit ourselves.  We have the ability to experience all of it.  That’s what’s so great about this art, we can consciously work with this stuff and play with this energy in as many ways as we’d like.

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walk the line

Connection is an interesting thing.  Stepping off the line of an attack too much leads to loss of connection.  I know we’re told a lot to step off the line, and obviously you do need to (or you get hit), but too much off the line makes it really difficult to connect with your partner, and forces you to reach for the technique as opposed to it being sitting there in your lap.  The getting off the line part, I like to think about as a subtle thing, mostly mental but slightly physical.  If you have the guts to stay in there a bit more and not listen to your defense mechanisms all that much, it’ll make your Aikido much tighter and more effortless.  Make an effort to do it.  Take the gift of energy that your partner is providing you and really connect to it.  Don’t run from it or try to dodge it.  Get yourself in the aiki state and join with the attack to make something new out of it.  It’s amazing what comes up if you don’t try to move away from the attack so much.  It’s a fine line.  In real cases, it can be the difference between life or death.  Walk that line in class.  Play with it and see how it goes.  We’re practicing so it’s okay to get a tsuki to the solar plexus every once in a while to tell you when it’s not enough.

The aim for a lot of what we do in Aikido, I believe, is to break down those barriers.  There are many barriers that we need to break down.  First there’s the barrier between you and your partner.  Whether you’re uke or nage, there’s always that mental barrier there where you’re not fully unified with your partner.  You don’t want to fall or you really want to make uke fall.  You’re fighting them.  Even a little bit.  The big barrier though is the barrier within you.  You know you have that perfect aiki-self inside.  We all do.  That perfect aiki-self comes out at certain times and we are shocked at what it does.  Everything is effortless.  You enjoy training with the partner you’re with at the time and there are no struggles involved.  The attacks are very real and committed, but you don’t think much of them.  The faster they come in, the more solid your aikido is.  Your ukemi is so solid that you feel that connection with your partner the whole time, even as you stand up to attack again, you still feel that connectedness.  As you do the technique, your partner knows that you are totally in control and can come in as hard as they want, and you will be there supporting them through their ukemi.  As you go through the repititions of the technique, have an intention to break down those barriers bit by bit.  It goes unsaid that this also applies directly with life away from the mat as well.  When dealing with anyone face to face, whether it be someone you have a natural resistance with or maybe it’s someone you always mesh well with, you can always feel that barrier while dealing with that person.  You can feel it in your center.  Let that go.  Meld with your center first and then it’s automatic that you meld with that person too.
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