dan messisco sensei – an overview

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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.

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