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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choices – a story by kyle weiss

“…I have discovered even if you are a self-made man, you can unmake, and even re-make yourself just the same with no ill-consequences—in fact, quite the opposite.”

This is something I said to myself very recently, and in particular, about my Aikido.  Allow me to explain the significance of this statement to myself.

Aikido for me has been a journey much like other journeys I have embarked upon.  Being a very unintentionally unique individual, I approach many things in a vastly different way that most, and this has proven both difficult, unavoidable and a saving grace to my path in life.

I took a long break from any training in Aikido, a time to reflect upon specific interests in my life and to “reset my brain” a little.  I discovered sometimes there’s a seemingly vast and permanent frustration with many things in life, and so if there’s a mistake that is perceived as unchangeable, a bleak outlook can develop.  More interestingly, I discovered often I am so close to what I build,  good or not,  it is difficult to see accomplishments or opportunities to change.

When one trains in Aikido, as most of the people reading this do, perfection is something of a hurdle we all must deal with, as we’re trying to do it properly rather than improperly.  We all have degrees of satisfaction we feel when we train, and how we view ourselves when we do.  I, for example, am my own worst critic.  I am exploring how and when this debilitates me and when it helps me.   It is a complex habit to adopt, and a harder one in which to work with.

Outside the dojo, I discovered that something foundational which we may have been doing for a long, long time that we may not understand or like, can benefit hugely by simply doing the exact opposite of what we feel we were doing “wrong.”  This requires trusting yourself, not an easy thing to do for many people.  It is indeed risky, from enduring outside criticism to being actually painful or damaging.  This is where the trust is essential.

I, again for the sake of example, have a few times recently, said this:  “If you are doing something wrong, or want to change, what makes you think you know what you’re doing enough to make a decision?”  In addition, it occurred to me in the same thought, “You trust another person more than you trust yourself.”   Yikes.  Good point, self.  I’m glad we had this talk.  Suddenly, my inner self didn’t know what to do when I suddenly recognized the problem, and experimented with the opposite.  If it manages to work, I assumed I would stop trusting myself, because of the blame I may have had leading myself down that “bad path” in the first place.  Just like my efforts, it is the exact opposite:  I am suddenly seeing my efforts and self as reality, my doing, my design, and now I can do something about it.   That is absolutely liberating and wonderful.

Experimentation is essential when I don’t have an answer, but when I do have the urge to theorize and observe.  In Aikido, we have good people to help us along in our training.  We don’t have to train alone, in fact, it’s quite impossible.  I have tossed aside fears of trying something different in training, even if it is not necessarily known or foundational.   I have trained in ways with people in my dojo where they didn’t even realize they were helping me, because no words were exchanged, I simply asked for something with my practice and received it by achieving it.  In respect and in fair trade to my partner, I gave them my full attention and maybe they have used the opportunity to train with me to achieve something similar…something personal.    There are no words to describe it, everything just seems to fall into place.  My fear becomes my focus, my anxiety becomes my power, my hesitation becomes movement.

In “real life,” we don’t always have a partner, but you can always partner up with yourself.  There is no limitation to how much you can apply what an art like Aikido can teach you, beyond the body, beyond the mind.  Often times, I find my largest opponent isn’t “that dangerous guy on the street,” it is the choices I make, the attitude I have, and the foundations I lay down for myself.

This is how I discovered I can rebuild who I am or even when I think all is lost, and all has been abandoned by logical mind, heart and spirit.   We train to go with the flow, and I’ve discovered there’s always a choice.

Suddenly, our closest ally, our best training partner, the one we have the choice to be connected to, is ourselves.

–   Kyle Weiss is currently 3rd Kyu at Aikido of Reno.  Check his blog postings out at www.burncards.com

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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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