So, I’ve written about the lizard brain before, along with a host of others. I’m a bit obsessed with it, actually. I love studying people, and I think it’s so interesting to see how people react to things. Anyways, the lizard brain explains a lot about the human condition. BUT (dramatic pause) there’s yet another brain we have to deal with, people. Yep, I’m not sure what to call it yet, but maybe the ‘snail brain’ would be best. Allow me to explain.
So, something disconcerting happens, we’re stressed, threatened, angry, or whatever the case may be. We have two distinctions to make here:
– Scenario A: Am I facing ‘fake’ fear (speaking in front of people, having that difficult but necessary conversation, etc.)? Or….
– Scenario B: Am I facing immediate danger (a midget coming at me with a machete, a shark, a whitetail deer, an angry bird, the IRS, etc.)?
Once we designate this, if what we’re facing is ‘fake fear’, the answer is obvious. Do what the lizard brain tells you NOT to do. Get up there and speak, have that uncomfy conversation, work on those abs, don’t hit that snooze button AGAIN, put the calzone down, whatever. Hear it out, do the opposite, and you win.
The SNAIL BRAIN comes into play during scenario B. When we’re actually threatened with immediate danger, our lizard brain is activated. We know it immediately. We’re taken over by a kind of force that makes our heart beat faster, zooms our sight into tunnel vision, and clenches our fists. We’re in survival mode, baby! HOWEVER, and here’s the kicker, the question I ask is if the lizard brain is so ‘automatic’, why do we usually lock up, slow down, and freeze rather than ‘automatically’ move into appropriate action? It’s like the lizard brain sets us into survival mode, which is good in this case, and then this snail brain (which is like the brain WITHIN the lizard brain) activates and we are relegated to the state of a helpless… well… snail. We can’t think, we can’t act, all we can do is stop and slither around.
Maybe the lizard brain isn’t so bad in this case? Maybe it’s getting a bad rap? Maybe it takes clarity of mind to not only ignore it, as in Scenario A, but to actually LISTEN TO IT and do what it says here in Scenario B? To properly align and unify with whatever energy you happen to be dealing with, appropriately, is aiki. Achieve perfect aiki. Squash the snail. Control your lizard. Be well.
I left something out of my last post which I took from the Dan Messisco seminar that I attended a couple weeks back. During the warm ups for the class, Dan had us do rolls very slowly and had us concentrate on having complete control of our bodies throughout the whole movement. Usually during falls, we let momentum take over. Only problem with that is that we’re then at the mercy of the momentum. It’s really a great practice to feel like you’re consciously controlling every fraction of movement to the point where you can change or reverse direction at any time (it’s also a great workout for your lower body and core). During the training, Dan took it even farther to perform each technique with independent movement. He went on to explain that this was a good example of grace. Grace is apparent in a great athlete or dancer where they are living under the same laws of nature as all of us, but they move through the world, from what it seems, independent of those laws. They are obviously not independent of them (this would be impossible, of course), but are actually in absolute harmony with these laws and have tested and pushed the limits of just how much control they actually have within the boundaries of them, and are not at the mercy of them. By working on complete body awareness, Aikido can be a great practice for this.
Think of it this way. Super basic. Go find a table. Rest your hand on the table and fully relax your arm and hand. Now, if someone were to come along and kick that table out from underneath your hand, you’d lose control of your hand and arm and it would fall. Now rest your hand on the table and have the awareness of that action being independent of the table. Your hand is where it is because you want it to be and if the table was kicked out, your hand and arm would remain in the same position. You can practice this when walking. At any moment of any step, you should have complete control and be able to change direction or stop completely. Of course, there is only so much ‘control’ we can have over our bodies since they do have to conform with these laws of nature (momentum, gravity, inertia, etc), but we are way too dependent of them and controlled by them. Especially with ukemi, when we’re taking falls, we get chucked around and lose control completely. We forget we’re still doing Aikido. That changes when we consciously take control of our movement even when taking fast ukemi. I noticed it made my Aikido super balanced and strong when training with this intention. It’s, of course, slow at first. But as you train in this way, I can imagine, if you get really fast at this, your Aikido would be insane. I can’t wait to start playing with this. Our dojo is very basics focused, and I think it would be very powerful to apply this concept to the basics.
We can also take this into incredibly stressful situations in our day to day lives. It’s easy to get caught up in the inertia of the conversation and get swept away by the intensity of the moment, losing ourselves completely. I experienced this recently when dealing with a difficult customer service ‘situation’ at work where my emotions were totally commanding what I was saying. It’s the same feeling as taking ukemi for someone who is just chucking you at a point that’s just way out of your comfort zone. But I stopped and brought awareness back to my body. Here I am, right here. I can move, think, talk, and act completely independent of this abnoxious asshole on the phone right now. He was controlling my mind, dog-gone it! (Yep, I think ‘dog-gone it’ was the term I used too). Now I’m in complete control. I can now take this conversation wherever I want and am not at the whim of his next reptilian brain induced vocal spasm. Yippee! Be independent. Take control. Now.
It’s been a while since I’ve written my last post. It’s also been a while since I’ve trained in the dojo. Honestly, I’ve been incredibly busy with life lately. I hope to get back into it soon, but for the time being, I’ll take what I can get. This past weekend, I was able to make it over to Sacramento, CA to train with an old friend and mentor of mine, Dan Messisco, who put on a seminar at Two Rivers Budo. He gave a three day seminar, and although I was only able to attend one day, it was well worth the trip. I figured I’d devote a post specifically to what I got from it.
Just a little background on how I discovered Dan Sensei, it was about six years ago, and I drove over to Modesto, CA to visit some friends. Training pretty intensely at the time at our dojo in Reno, I figured I’d stop in to the local dojo in Modesto to keep sharp since I was out of town for a few days (back in the days when being away from training for a few days seemed like eternity). Dan Sensei was there teaching classes at the time, and after meeting him the first time, I felt at home. As I bowed into class, I watched in amazement how easily he dealt with quite strong grabs and attacks from his students. Coming from an Iwama-Style based dojo, I immediately felt skeptical and questioned the validity of this man’s Aikido. I couldn’t wait to be called up for ukemi so I could really see if this stuff was for real or not. The moment finally came after about 15 minutes of class, and I was called up for Ukemi. I came in with a series of strong, albeit respectful, attacks, and really tried to ‘test’ him a little. Needless to say, my ‘testing’ made it about as far as, well, the mat space where he stood and ended right about there. I felt as if I was attacking a whirlpool or something. Not a freight train or a brick wall, which I’ve experienced before with others on several occasions, but something more liquid, fluid, and harder to grasp. I wasn’t overpowered or overmuscled, I was un-powered and un-muscled. I was literally sucked into, what felt like, a vortex of energy and then felt as if I was being supported through the fall. Whatever my lizard brain was looking to latch onto and attack was simply not there, and going to the ground turned out to be the only option. After being called up that one time, I then REALLY started watching and listening to what he was saying. He went into explaining Aikido in a way I’d never heard it explained before but innately knew to be true. After that first trip, I then made three or four more trips to train with him. Dan has moved to Michigan since then, and travels the world putting on seminars for his growing following.
Here’s a few points Dan explains and demonstrates in his Aikido. The principles don’t really change much with him, but could take a lifetime to master:
– You can’t ‘Aikido’ anyone. Aikido is a state we are in. O’Sensei used to always talk about how he was in the ‘center of the universe’. Aikido is a practice to work on realizing this. Not a bad mission statement, heh? Once you step outside of yourself and get mesmerized in the attack or attacker, you’ve stepped into their world where you’re fighting over territory. ‘Taking balance’, ‘harmonizing with uke’, ‘feeling your partner’s center’, and all phrases commonly used in Aikido which talk about dealing with the other guy are martially sound principles, and may be necessary for the basics, but from what Dan says, keep us stuck in the fight/struggle mentality. This doesn’t seem possible. How can you not consider the attacker when they’re coming after you? Dan doesn’t say it’s easy, he just says that it’s the mindset to strive for. Taking ukemi for him, it’s apparent he has achieved this state. I felt no sense of ‘manipulation’ or ‘control’ from him when I attacked, which I usually feel when training with others. Again, hard to believe or comprehend, but true.
-Dan explains that Aikido wasn’t really designed to be a ‘technically superior martial art”. He explained it like this: O’Sensei never claimed to be, nor did anyone else claim him to be, the greatest Daito Ryu (old style martial art – pretty hardcore – which O’Sensei trained in before the epiphany of Aikido came to him) teacher. Now, I haven’t verified this historically, but from all of the stuff I’ve read about Aikido up to this point, I agree. I’ve never heard this claim. Dan doesn’t discount the fact that O’Sensei was a badass, it’s just that O’Sensei transcended the realm of the martial when he developed Aikido, which rose above it, and instead of being a technically unstoppable fighting system, became a way of changing the world to being a more peaceful place (starting, of course, with your world). This makes sense to me and I think back to all the times I’ve trained with the intention of making my technique ‘martially sound’ and ‘un-counterable’. How foolish. No matter how ‘hard’ we train, it’s all prescripted and staged, I’m sorry. I’ve had people grab my arm sooo hard that I couldn’t do an Aikido technique. At the time, I felt my Aikido to be inferior because I couldn’t do, say, Ikkyo from that strong of a grab. Thinking back, I could do something else, flail around, or if I was more studied in other martial arts, who knows, maybe I could do a flying crane triangle choke drunken monkey kick, I don’t know. But look at the realm we’re in here. We may as well study jujitsu or judo, right? Not that there’s anything wrong with these other arts, but I think, as Aikidoists, we should work on Aiki. Just saying. It just shows me how our fear-obsessed minds transfer back to the fighting mentality so easily and automatically. We need to get over that in our training (and, I’d argue, as a species in general) and it may take many many years, but as Aikidoists, we can start now, and we have the tools which O’Sensei gave us to do just that. If we want to learn how to fight, there’s many better arts to study IMHO. Sorry, I’m ranting, back to Dan.
– Interesting story on how Dan came to this train of thought in Aikido: He was watching old videos of O’Sensei. Training in Japan for many years, he knew there was just something strikingly different about O’Sensei, but couldn’t quite pinpoint it. Then it came to him. With all of the other incredibly talented Aikido teachers, if you were to take uke out of the frame, there was still a ‘ghost’ uke there. You would still be able to tell that this teacher was doing something to somebody even if that somebody wasn’t in the frame. With O’Sensei, if you took uke out of the frame, you’d just see an old man gracefully gliding around the mat, from what looked like, on his own. Every technique of his was just a self-sustained ‘pose’ in itself. Uke seemed to fly around him trying to attack. This is where the whole ‘you can’t Aikido anyone’ principle of Dan’s came from. When I heard this explained at first, I watched a few videos of O’Sensei. He’s right. That’s exactly what I saw from the videos. Of course, my rational mind kicks in and says, “Bullshit! If someone was attacking you, you couldn’t just ignore them and dance around! You’d get pummeled!” Dan’s not saying to not be aware of anybody else and allow yourself to get blindsided. Your body knows how to move. If your awareness is acute enough, and you’re really in this ‘aiki-state’ which Dan teaches and demonstrates, you’re fine. The way Dan explains it, the reason uke attacks in the first place is because he or she wants to. They want to connect with you (albeit, violently) but this puts you in charge if you can maintain the feeling of never stepping outside your own consciousness into their world and staying in the center of the universe, which is where you really are. Doesn’t make sense to the brain, but I fully believe it, because I experienced it. It’s the same in nature. Ever notice that most times, when you go to pet a cat (not me, because I’m deathly allergic, but I’ve observed this), they often times run away. It’s when you’re sitting there comfortably in peace that they want to come over and hang out with you. There it is. Aiki consciousness in a nutshell. Can we maintain this during an attack or heated conversation? That’s why we practice, and I think, a worthwhile goal of practice, much better, personally speaking, than learning the ultimate fighting technique. I don’t plan on entering the octagon soon, but for those who do, MMA it out, people.
– You don’t need to be grounded. In fact, Dan does crazy exercises on the treadmill that isolate him from the ground as much as possible. He claims he’s cleared out whole sections of the gym at times when he gets on the treadmill and, without holding the handrails, turns sideways, different directions, squats up and down, etc. If you rely on the ground as your ally, which a lot of us do with our ‘hanmi’, and you come across someone else who can ground better than you, you lose. Dan suggests we work on connecting with the universe (easy, right?). I’d take sides with the universe before I took the side of the ground any day. To demonstrate this, Dan will have you grab on as hard as you can and ground yourself as much as physically possible. Then he’ll take one foot off the ground, stand on his toes, etc., effectively de-grounding himself, achieve this aiki-state (he always wears socks, “not to be cool,” as he says, but to add the extra challenge to training of being slightly slippery so he doesn’t rely on grounding), and before you know it, the ground which you previously thought had your back, becomes absolutely no help at all.
Needless to say, training with Dan was great as always. Of course, as most things Aikido, reading these points don’t do them justice. Feeling them and experiencing them is the only real way to fully understand what he’s demonstrating. If you ever get a chance to train with him, I highly recommend it, and look forward to training with him again. Here’s a video of Dan. Enjoy.
If you happen to train in Aikido, do you see your practice as a ‘striving for’ the ‘perfect’ aikido to be reached at a later time? This is, I’m sure, not unique to Aikido, but to other activities and practices as well. I’ve held this ideal many times when training, but when I think of it, I believe it’s the wrong way to go about it.
Aiki is based on your natural movements and consciousness. Notice I say ‘natural’, not ‘normal’, there is a difference. Try thinking about viewing aikido training as a celebration or enjoyment of the aiki state, which you already have, through the wonderful movements of the art. It’s more of a ‘remembering’ than a ‘learning’ in some ways. Now, if I could just train some more, maybe I’ll remember it too!
What is ‘it’, you might ask. Only through experience can we tell. I think everyone has experienced perfect ‘aiki’ at one time or another, even if they don’t train in the art. The snowboarder hitting that jump perfectly, flying through the air, and landing soft as a feather. The father connecting, without words, to his daughter. The zen practitioner, achieving that all encompassing experience of no-mind. The taxi cab driver having that perfect day where all of the interactions with his customers are enriching as he weaves in and out of traffic perfectly getting everyone to their destination safely and on time. The common thing present in all of these scenarios is that incredible presence of being that we in aikido call ‘aiki’, but is called many different names by many different people.
The more unachievable you make it, the more unachievable it is. I think we should go with the mindset that it’s only natural to experience it. Make it light and fun, not heavy and tryingly difficult to experience. It’s who we are. Enjoy this ‘aiki’ state that you already have. Celebrate it.
There’s a certain ‘zone’ or ‘bubble’ when confronted physically which sets off bells and alarms in your awareness that says the other person is invading your space. Not just in all-out attacks, either. This can happen when someone walks to close to you, especially behind you. In aikido, it seems we’re not exactly fighting someone, keeping them out of our space. We’re engulfing everything in our awareness, including the ‘attacker’, and harmonizing with the situation. Keep in mind, ‘harmonizing’ doesn’t mean ‘submitting’. Easy, right?
Knocking down that wall between us and the ‘attacker’ may be essential in being able to do this. Realizing the oneness of yourself and your attacker should help you relax when closing distance with no fear and relaxfully (yep, made that word up) rendering the attack useless. If, when the distance is broken, you freak out, its a lot tougher. Picture in your mind holding two separate magnets, one in each hand. If we try to put them together with the north poles together, they resist, and the closer you put them, the more they fight to stay apart. When we flip one over and put the north and south poles together, they meld easily. What we’re doing is flipping that magnet over in our mind where we attract, not repel. Unite the opposites (attacker and defender). Setting up boundaries naturally repel. This leads to conflict. When we see the attacker as separate, we build a boundary in our minds which creates a mentally-constructed battle. You and the ‘attacker’ are one thing (the negative and positive poles of the magnet). You’re one experience playing out. Recognize the unity of the situation.
Think of the feeling you’d feel if a stranger breaks into your house. The adrenaline rushes as you reach for your gun, baseball bat, spatula, or fly swatter. Your heart’s racing. There’s a stranger in the house. All control is lost and your lizard brain is in full activation mode.
Or, if you’re aiki-psycho enough, you can hear the guy break in. You go to welcome him in with a smile not fearing him, and as he attacks, you maintain that welcoming calm but acute awareness. That wall of resistance the attacker feeds off of is not there and he realizes he’s dealing with a different animal here. Nothing to attack. No feedback for the lizard brain. As most things aikido, easier said than done, but yet another lofty goal of aiki-training. Break down the boundaries in your mind.