I just reached over to my calendar and slashed off another day. It’s something I do every day so I remember what day it is, because I never do, but this time was different. Usually, it’s just a ritual I go through. Mark off the day. Woohoo! Another day done, bring on the next! No big deal. Today, it felt like I killed a part of myself when slashing that box. That little box that I so often half-mindedly mark off showed its true colors to me. It screamed at me. Usually it stays quiet as I slash, and the next box presents itself to me in all of its blank glory waiting to be slashed tomorrow. Today, though. Today I realized, at my core, that the blank box I just slashed signifies a day of my life I’ll never get back. That box is dead now, never to return. How many moments did I waste in that day which I seemingly marked off in a fraction of a second, and thinking back, seemed to fly by in reality even faster than that? Waste on indecision, on repetition, on sacrificing myself for others’ opinions, on monotony, on negativity, on anger, on emptiness, on passiveness, on fear? I must be getting older or something, I dunno. Not sure how this relates to Aiki, but I know it does. This story’s been told a million times. Time flies. How we spend it matters. Spend it well.
I’ve come to the conclusion that evil can only exist because good people have surrendered themselves from acting against it, tricking themselves into believing they’re wrong. If every reasonable person in the world didn’t care what bad people thought of them, and had the confidence to speak up and act against it, we’d be way better off.
What inspired me to write this is when my wife came home the other day from a trade show she was working at with her organization. There were a lot of kids and parents attending. She came home absolutely livid at what she witnessed there. There were a few different scenarios she told me about, but I’ll only go into detail about one in particular:
Apparently, there was a grandmother with a leash on her grandkid. GOODNIGHT EVERYBODY! NEED I SAY MORE? Deep breath… Gotta finish the story… Okay, so, she was ‘walking’ this kid and, of course, not paying attention. The kid was leaning forward with all his force trying to run up to a booth that he probably thought was intriguing, you guessed it, his grandmother let go of the leash, and the kid fell flat on his face. Not showing any concern for her kid, the grandmother showed the body language of extreme disgust for her grandkid. I mean, how dare he embarrass her by falling like that, right? To add insult to injury, the kids’ mother, who was walking behind grandma, hoddled up, picked the kid up BY THE LEASH suspending the kid in mid air, and drug the kid along, kicking and screaming. My wife felt horrible for not saying something. She did what I probably would have done too. She stood there, perplexed, not even knowing how to mentally process this gross public display of utter dysfunction.
As I grow older, I see how many problems come from horrible parenting. I will say, I’m not a parent, I’m sure it’s easier said than done, and I won’t go into it too much here. The point is, this kind of behavior is plain wrong. I don’t care who you are. My wife would have been fully justified in saying something. But then there’s the risk of causing a scene, or the parent getting hostile, or whatever. As I said, I probably would have done the same thing in the absurdity of the moment and stood there in disgust with my mouth open in disbelief while not saying anything. Why, though?!!
I am pointing out a huge flaw in good people. We need to be a little more outspoken. There are way too many good people in the world for there to be so many atrocities in it. If every good person called crappy people out on their crappiness, with full confidence and strength, I think the world would be so much better off.
I’m not saying people should have their noses where they don’t belong. I’m not saying we need to interfere with other’s lives in every way, instilling our ‘righteousness’ in them. People who do things like that usually seek out faults in others and are vocal about them from a place of incredible insecurity and hatred. In fact, do-gooders like this who nitpick and interfere in the personal lives of others should be called out on their obnoxiousness. But there’s certain things that are not to be tolerated. I don’t know how to define it in words, but I think we just know when that line has been crossed.
It’s all about conflict, isn’t it? Most reasonable people would rather live simple lives without it. I’m with them. Honestly, though, I think reasonable people need to be empowered to stand in their own strength and just say ‘no’ to certain things. Good people care way too much about what bad people think about them.
That’s where aiki comes in (yep, finally got to it). It’s HOW we handle the situation that counts. How do we do it to where it leads to the best outcome? Irrational people can be really nasty. When cornered, they have the tendency to pull out all the stops and can render your positive resistance invalid by ad hominem attacks, personal insults, witty statements, etc. That’s why we need to know how to say what we say when we school them in front of their friends. It takes clarity of purpose and absolute confidence to fight for good. It takes rational logic and knowing where and when to apply pressure. Taking personal responsibility for the world around us is a huge step in the fight against crappy people.
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.