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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no safety

Our minds are so complex.  I was thinking just this morning about why people do some of the stupid, and at times horrendous, things they do.  Why do people hurt each other physically and non-physically?  What kind of right-minded individual would initiate violence on another, especially over something petty or contrived?  I’ve written a bit about it in past posts, but the stuff I’m reading currently talks a lot about the “lizard brain“.  Everyone has one.  The part of your brain directly attached to the brain stem is called the amygdala.  Some people call this the lizard brain, or reptilian brain, among other things.  When we’re in a fight or flight situation, this is the first part of our brains that light up on a brain-scanner-thingy (yep, technical jargon).  It even lights up when we merely think about something we determine threatening or fearful.  This is huge.  So, basically, nothing even has to be actually happening in our physical world for this bad boy to hop into action.  When it does activate, our shoulders tend to tighten up, tunnel vision narrows our focus, our heart rate goes up a bit, and a lot of other animal-like natural instincts that may have served us well in the stone age (or if we’re actually in a life-threatening situation), but are totally counterproductive in the drive thru at In-N’-Out Burger.  So, this lizard brain can be a blessing, but it’s mostly a curse in this day and age.

Our brains have evolved a lot since the lizard brain came around.  They’ve grown in mass and we’ve developed the frontal cortex, which lights up when we listen to music we like, or are creating things.  The lizard brain is quiet during those times.  We’re stuck with this lizard brain.  Sure, it could save our lives, so thank goodness we have em’, but more often than not, when we obey it’s command, it gets us in a pickle, almost every time.  The difficult thing about it is it’s automatic.  When we’re stressed, angry, scared, or (trying to keep this as P.G. as possible) sexually aroused, that ole’ lizard brain is going to talk to us first.  It’s a lot like walking around with a loaded gun with no safety.  It would be nice, if when we get up in the morning, to be able to flip a switch to make sure it doesn’t go off unexpectedly and get us fired or kicked out of our mother-in-law’s house or something.  We have to always be aware of it.  Just know that if something comes up in our day (which it will) that when it starts giving us commands, to consciously recognize it, thank it for doing it’s job, and not listen to it.  In Aikido, we build this safety switch, so to say.  There are times during a technique that our partner’s floating rib is soooo exposed, and we could just blast em’, but we don’t, and we take them to the ground fairly safely.  I’ve heard it said that there should always be opportunity for a debilitating strike throughout the technique.  Do we act on the opportunity?  That’s up to us, but in Aikido we mostly practice the option of not taking it while also being well aware that the option is there.

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