Life in the Rafters

So, some of you who know me have noticed I’ve been spending a lot of time at the dojo these days. Well, that’s because I moved in. Being uchi-deshi (live-in student) at the dojo has been something I’ve wanted to experience since day 1, but my life hasn’t allowed for the commitment. A few months back, my wife was presented the opportunity to teach in Austria for 8 months through the Fulbright foundation. Being an opportunity we both knew she couldn’t pass up, we decided it was best for her to accept and take advantage of it. So, with her doing that, I decided that I could use all of the free time I’ll now have (love you, babes) to immerse myself in the art of Aikido.

A lot of you know what the uchi-deshi program is, but for those of you who may not, it’s basically an Aikido apprenticeship. For those of us who really want to take our Aikido to the next level, the program is a great way to do that. The reason I gave this post the title that I did is because I sleep, literally, up in the rafters (see above photo for a view out from the sleeping quarters). Living at the dojo requires upkeep and administrative duties which are all part of Aikido training. Not only is an uchi-deshi to train with ki, but also to clean and assist other members of the dojo putting forth the same energy. I will say, coming from a place of complete service to the dojo is definitely a different perspective in which to train. Before, I would come in, focus on what the teacher was showing, train, get a great workout in, bow out, and go home. Now, not only are the uchi-deshi expected to train A LOT, and take falls A LOT, but also to keep an eye out for things such as greeting guests to the dojo, making sure people remove their shoes upon entering, answering phones, helping out with newer students, addressing injuries of others on the mat, assisting with kids classes, etc. After training ends and everyone else goes home, the uchi-deshi are expected to clean up and get the dojo prepared for the next day’s training. Having this constant focus of always thinking where to help is very beneficial to awareness during training and off the mat as well.

So, I’m very excited to have the opportunity to do this. I’m also very fortunate to have a great teacher like Vince Salvatore Sensei to train under. Along with that, I’ve been in a lot of dojo’s, and I must say, we have an incredible student body here in Reno.

The dojo is a very unique place. It’s a safe haven for many. It can be a place to go within or a place to commune with others, whatever we make of it. One thing I believe it is for almost all of us is a place of cleansing and vibrant energy. We know we can come here and leave our hectic lives outside, if even for a short while, and just train. People who come in and watch a class see us bow and clap twice and some are kinda weirded out by the ritual. Obviously, some may see it as a religious thing or an occult ritual. What it really is, as Sensei has said, is on the first clap, we’re leaving our mental baggage outside the dojo, and the second clap brings us into the present moment where we focus on the class.

One can feel the energy of the dojo right away upon entering, I know I did. Let me just say that being in a dojo by yourself when nobody else is around is an incredible experience. Maybe it’s just me, but I enjoy being in churches and places like that well before and after the service when no one else is around. The dojo is kind of like this for me. It takes on a life of it’s own after hours. The walls, the mat, the shomen seem to speak to you. Just the other night before going to bed I stopped and contemplated for a brief while all that I’d gone through in this building. All the times I felt like a complete failure, all the times I’ve felt like I’ve conquered huge inner blocks, all the times I worked until I felt as if I was sweating blood on test preparation and ukemi, all the times of complete stillness in motion, all the times of laughter with great people, the cleansing of my soul and purification that comes from training and insights that have come to me and left in a flash before I could write them down but are still part of my DNA although I don’t consciously know it. Kinda heavy, I know, but it’s true. Pretty sure this experience will bring forth some great inspiration for AikiLiving. It’s great to be here.

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declaration (revised)

This started as my ‘Mission’ page and has been an evolving idea. Now, you can see, I have changed the name of that page to ‘Declaration’ (I like the sound of it better). What started off as a personal Aikido journal has morphed into more than just that, and I thought it was important to take some time to update my intention with AikiLiving for whatever it’s worth.

In today’s world we all need to be artists at what we do, whether it’s bussing tables, driving a cab, being a parent, being a friend, doing road work, or running a business of our own. When I talk about art, I mean the act of affecting others in a positive way, in our own authentic way, if even a little bit.

Merely doing what we’re told and being replaceable parts in a machine isn’t enough these days, nor is it rewarding or fulfilling in any way. There is no safety in mediocrity anymore. We have to put ourselves into what we do, as well as in our daily lives, meeting each challenge in our very own, unique way. Doing this takes courage and insight. It’s definitely not the easy path. There is no instruction manual for art. If there was, it wouldn’t really be art.

We’re living through the death of the factory. Not just the blue collar factory, but the white collar factory as well. As useful as it may have been at one time in our history, we seem to be growing out of that stage of our unfoldment. Paradigm shifts such as these are usually not transitioned to easily and these times can seem downright scary and unpredictable if viewed from the old paradigm. As always in history, there is much opportunity among the chaos if we can keep our center and adapt.

What does this have to do with AikiLiving? ‘Aiki’ is a Japanese term which, loosely translated, means ‘engaging the energy (without clashing)’. This is a very powerful and practical concept and Aiki can be effectively utilised anywhere, really. I do study Aikido, and have for several years, and Aikido is where I draw a lot of my inspiration from. I will say that this is not, per se, an Aikido site. One doesn’t have to know Aikido to apply Aiki principles (although it can help). I am inspired every day by these artists who do this on a daily basis (whether they know they’re artists or not). I’m not necessarily just talking about the painter or writer, but anyone who connects with others in an authentic, meaningful way. People who act on things, start things, and engage life. I don’t claim to be an expert on this. I have my moments, like anybody, but mostly I’m just an observer and am happy to have an outlet to express this inspiration to others and at times hear their stories as well.

AikiLiving is a place where I, and others who may want to join the conversation, can express observations, experiences and stories about all things Aiki. This is pretty vague and open-ended for a reason. Common posts are typically general musings about art, conscious business, relationships, entrepreneurship, conflict resolution, personal growth, Aikido / martial arts training, books, movies, lifestyle, culture, etc. Some posts are just random thoughts about this general subject matter. Negativity is being mass-marketed and my intention is to create a space that highlights growth, improvement, art, and positive interactions and insights.

People are more intimately connected now than they ever have been before. Connecting with others in a positive way is what matters most now. No one is going to give us permission to do this. We need to take initiative now and start changing our world(s) – careers, businesses, environment, families, relationships, etc. – for the better, and we can’t wait for anyone else to tell us it’s okay to do so. Through the experiences expressed here, I hope AikiLiving can help others find their own true potential and enable them to spread their art in their own world.

-Jonas Ellison

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Leading

Customers, whether they consciously think so or not, want to be lead. The tricky thing is that they also need to feel like they are in control at the same time. This is where the art part of business comes in.

When a customer comes into contact with a business, whether it be a store, website, or via telephone, they want their experience to be convenient. Some want to be swept off their feet by customer service, looking for more of an aggressive approach. Some want to be left alone more, and not bothered by customer service, depending more on product placement being easy either in the store or website. They know exactly what they want. Either way, businesses need to lead their consumers the way the consumer wants to be lead, not how they want to lead the consumer.

This can not be done via a script. Being receptive to the vibe of each customer is a great skill, and a necessary one in today’s day and age where consumers have so many choices. It used to be that if you were loud enough and you could produce stuff for cheap, you’d win. This is still the case in some areas, but things are changing fast. If your business upsets someone, they have an almost endless number of other places they can go, and when they get home, they can log in to their Facebook or Twitter account and tell 200 of their friends how horrible their experience was. Things are getting back to small town rules, which is refreshing, but businesses will have to adapt after having it their way for so long. Word of mouth is on steroids now, and if businesses don’t do their sole job of taking care of the customer, they’ll find they won’t be around long.

We can work on this skill of leading in the dojo, it’s a skill we work on all the time. During training, some attackers come in faster and more aggressive, and some come in slower. Some come in fast but sloppy, some come in slow but deliberate. Our Aikido improves tenfold when we feel this. I totally see the parallel to this practice off the mat in the business world. Each attack must be dealt with differently.

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Fail

The way we test is really unique and says a lot about the art of Aikido.

Our first test is the 7th Kyu test after finishing the beginner’s classes. The techniques in the test consist of a few of our stretches, ki exercises, and very basic techniques. What it’s really for is getting us used to getting up there in front of the class at the risk of… failing. Not that anybody has really, technically FAILED a 7th Kyu test that I’ve seen, but what’s interesting is what we naturally do in the days leading up to the test: We stress out about FAILING THE TEST. Others may tell us that we can’t really fail it and we may act like we’re not really worried about it to our training partners…. but we are. Somewhere deep down, maybe at times not so deep down, we think there is a chance we might get up in front of everyone and be ridiculed by our teacher and the class, getting shamed off the mat and laughed out of the dojo. As simple as the exercises in the test may be, it’s amazing how we amplify their difficulty leading up to the test.

As we test, we wrestle our fear of failure in front of people we barely know, most of whom are very good at this crazy art. Even when we make it to higher ranks, we are put in crazy situations during the test, especially during the randori (multiple attackers). Our teacher may ask us to lay down while someone pins each arm, each leg, and three people are waiting for the command to attack so they can come in and try to take our life with a sponge noodle. Why? This would never happen on the ‘street’. Why are there seven people on this randori? If I ever piss seven people off at the same time in real life, I’ve got issues. The reason why is that under the scrutiny of our peers, we exercise our failure muscles. We’re always kept just out of our comfort zone where the risk of failure is imminent. If we don’t take that risk, we don’t advance. Essentially, we are moving up the ranks by failing, not by winning competitions. Through this process we become less fearful of failing.

As in most things with Aikido, this is exactly how it is in life. We advance by failing. If we don’t take the risk of failure and fly in the face of it, we can expect high levels of mediocrity at best (or we’re incredibly lucky).

As with most things with American culture, we grow up from a very young age believing that we succeed by winning. We win the football game. We get straight A’s. We knock the guy out. We win the race. This is great as long as we’re winning. What happens if we stumble? Now what? Some never recover from this and are devastated. Societal pressures don’t make this any easier. This mindset is very hard to sustain.

When studying very successful, innovative, and sometimes world changing people, we observe that they succeed by failing. They’ve had many moments of falling down, dusting themselves off, and getting back up only to risk failing again, and repeating this process until one day they discover the theory of relativity or the pet rock. Taking the risk of failure can be frightening, but history shows that those who stay resilient in the face of failure achieve great things. If that’s the case, can we really call it failing?

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Undercurrent

In Aikido, we’re especially practicing the undercurrent. I’ll explain what I mean by this in a bit, but it’s the reason why, when people see Aikido practice, they sometimes discount it for an unrealistic martial art not practical “on the street”. They may not realize that when we practice the physical techniques, we use these techniques as guidelines for more important principles, and the martial functionality of the physical manifestation of the techniques pale in relation to the non-physical work we’re doing. I just read a great article from Jay Lindholm Sensei from South Austin Aikido that helped me with this. I’ve been pondering this concept for a while, but he put it very well.

Everything we do is about the undercurrent. It’s not what we say, it’s the state of our undercurrent at the time which we’re actually communicating to others. If we have an undercurrent of fear or greed, no matter what we say, we are communicating fear or greed. Even when we’re merely in the same room as someone else and no words are spoken, our undercurrents are communicating. If we don’t like that person, we (and others in the same room) can feel the state of that undercurrent, even if we fake nice. If we’re upset with ourselves or not confident, this comes through in our undercurrent as well. On the flip side of that coin, if we have awareness, confidence, calmness, control, and we carry ourselves well, this also is communicated through our undercurrent. This, I believe, is why O’Sensei didn’t seem to focus his instruction too much on physical technique. This undercurrent is where we’re all united and are constantly communicating with eachother whether we know it or not.

The techniques of Aikido are vessels carrying the principles of Aiki which help us refine our spirit (undercurrent). In Aikido training, I see a big purpose of our training being to purify this undercurrent with Aiki. When we do this, and we keep in mind why we’re doing this, we’ll see just how ‘practical’ this art really is to so many aspects of our lives.

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