Don’t Confine Your Art

It’s so easy to get stuck in ways of doing things that you look back and see that you’ve been doing things a certain way for far too long, for really no reason at all other than that it felt comfortable.  Comfort zones are dangerous and I think we all need to consciously stay away from them.  They’re like black holes or whirlpools that suck you in as soon as you relax.  Staying vigilant is the key, and it’s not easy.  Life should be amazing all the time, and we need to stop settling for anything less.  We should always be improving and growing in all areas of our lives and comfort zones make that virtually impossible.

As soon as you feel like yourself or others start “labeling” you as a certain “type” it’s best to see that and evolve in that particular area.  Don’t be flighty, that’s certainly not good.  I say to “evolve” our comfort areas because we don’t want to run from them.  If we run, we don’t learn anything.  Here’s an example: let’s say people you work with label you as a “loud person”.  It’s so easy to use that as an excuse for your loudness and just continue being.. well.. obnoxious because that’s just “the kind of person you are”.  You could say that you’ve “always been that way” or that you “come from a family of loud people”, or whatever you wish to use as an excuse.  It might not even consciously be an excuse, because you might actually believe yourself, but looking at it objectively, it is most certainly nothing but an excuse to continue being a jackass.  By being stubborn, your ego may feel like “you’re staying true to yourself and just being who you are” when the reality is that the people you work with are losing respect for you one (one-sided) conversation after another.

Another option is to see this and “evolve” this comfortable previous way of being.  Recognize it for what it is and sculpt it into something higher and better.  Maybe use that “loudness” or whatever it may be in ways to make your world better or in a way that helps others.  Be more outspoken on things that matter the most to you, using your loudness where it counts, and work on toning it down when around people who may be put off or offended by this certain quality.  You may think that it’s impossible to do the opposite of said quality, but I guarantee you that if you look at it instead of settling with it or running from it, your life will be so much more interesting.

Have fun with it and try different things out with different people.  I know in my life, there are certain people I am just one way around.  With one person I’m always awkward, with another person I’m always comfortable, with this other person I’m always annoyed, etc.  Lately I’ve been trying to be different around these people, and it’s really interesting.  It sometimes feels like you’re hanging around totally different people, when it’s yourself who’s changed.  The dark side of our personality might view that as pandering to others, but it’s not what this is.  What you’ll be doing here is taking something that previously was “just the way you are” that you pretty much had no control over, and you’re creating art with it.  When I say art, I mean anything that affects others or changes them if even a little bit.

In Aikido, there are some of us who are “softer”, or “more aggressive”, or “martial” with our Aikido.  Maybe we’re very “stiff” or “weak” because “that’s just the way we are”.  We all know what that certain quality our Aikido has that we’d like to change, but we instead make excuses to just keep being that way.  Switch it up!  All you Iwama-style rock solid Aikidoists, try being softer and more flowing with big brush-like motions.  Not just a little bit, but A LOT!  All of you Hombu-style Aikidoists, try making your motions more precise and rock-solid.  Try getting completely out of that deadly comfort zone and evolve your art instead of being confined in it.


The Art of Positive Change

The old ways of doing things are dying, and I say good riddance.  When I say “the old ways” I mean the industrial, top-down, what’s in it for me approach to life.  As we look around us in the world today, we can clearly see that all of that is broken and is hanging on by a thread.  It used to be that the key to becoming wealthy and successful was that if you could train enough people to do things the way you wanted them to, they could make you a lot more than you’re paying them.  This mindset trickled through to people’s lives, and by and large, it became the status quo way of getting by in life.

The key to security was to work for someone who wielded this power, and if you just did what you were told, you’d retire out with a nice pension and live happily ever after.  This is changing.  The safety nets are going away.  What we have now is a world where we have two choices:  adapt and grow…. or be left behind.  The old way taught us that we needed permission to do good things.  We didn’t want to stick our neck out with a radical idea, because we might get cast out.  If it wasn’t in the handbook, we probably shouldn’t be doing it.

Now we’re in an age where we don’t need permission anymore.  We have all the tools to change the world for the better, one interaction at a time.  Whatever it is we do, whether it’s CEO of a big corporation, or a clerk at a retail store, the name of the game is changing people’s lives, if even a little bit, one interaction at a time.  This is how we become indispensable.  The “For Dummies” follow the textbook/handbook way of doing things is broken.  It turns out that things don’t improve much that way.  We now have to spread our art, whatever that may be.  Art can’t be read in a book or taught in a school.  It’s something that’s incredibly authentic and comes from you and you only.  It’s imprinting the fingerprint of your soul on your world.  This fingerprint can’t be replicated or copied.  If you’re mindset is: “What can I do to get by without getting in trouble or making anyone angry, and if this doesn’t work, how can I gain the upper hand and control this person?”, this has to change to something like: “In this interaction I’m having right now, how can I connect with this person and positively change their world for the better, if even a little bit?”.    Every interaction is different and must be handled differently.  This is where the art comes in.  We have to constantly adapt so we can have a bigger range of interactions.  It’s no fun to just be able to positively relate to one kind of person.  Each case is unique.

Again, the dojo is an ideal place to work on this.  How may times do we go through class and just go through the motions?  I’m just as guilty as anyone of this.  When we go home at night, we don’t even remember who we trained with.  Try something out, and see how it changes your Aikido:  Each time you bow in to somebody, consciously acknowledge them.  It’s easy to do that to people you like to train with, but how about with those you’re not too thrilled to train with.  Especially with them, while bowing in to that person, mean what you say when you say “onegai shimasu”.  Before you start the exercise of doing the technique, look them in the eye and acknowledge them.  Connect with them.  As much as you’re working on the technique, you’re also working WITH THIS OTHER PERSON.  Ease into the exercise a little.  Think to yourself, “Right now is my only opportunity to have an enriching and possibly enlightening experience with this other person, and I plan to put my consciousness into allowing this to happen.”  Make it into more of an authentic and enjoyable experience instead of unconsciously bowing to them quickly, not even looking at them, and rushing right into the technique where you just try to do it better than them.  If you’re taking ukemi, as you go through the fall and stand up, maintain that connection and intensify it each time.  Think of it, the people in the dojo we  respect the most are those who give us that connection.  We don’t really care how “good” of martial artists they are.  Sure, that may be impressive, but we really ENJOY training with those we have that connection with.  What if we had that with everyone in the dojo?  At our job?  On the highway?  In the DMV?  We may actually enjoy life a bit more and spread that to those we interact with.


Reaching

First of all, please don’t think that my blog has changed into a Harry Potter fan club.  It’s just that Harry exemplified exactly what I’ll be talking about in this post, especially the facial expression, so bare with me:)  I think it’s so interesting how you can take one basic, little principle of Aikido and, looking at it close enough, see how even the smallest thing relates so intensely to life off the mat.  It doesn’t even have to big a big, core principle like “being centered” or “staying relaxed”.  Core principles such as these obviously relate to everyday life in many ways, and can help us immensely on a daily basis.  I’m talking here about the small things we discover years into our training, or the little details we may be working on to prepare for our next test.

Something I’ve been working on lately in my training is trying not to reach so much.  This applies to both sides of Aikido, the attacker (uke) side and the technique application (nage) side as well.  Being too far out on my toes and really reaching for the grab or the strike left me very vulnerable to injury or a sloppy atemi (strike), so making sure I had my weight centered between my toes and heels as much as possible, the whole way through the attack and the fall, has helped my ukemi drastically.  Same goes with applying the technique, especially when doing a big throw like a kokyu nage or something along those lines, where the end result is projecting uke way out there, I’ve found my weight always being on my toes with my arms reaching waaaay out and almost throwing myself in that same direction.  It looks kinda cool, and I really feel like I’m hucking uke, but I am incredibly vulnerable to a reversal if uke is centered.  Same thing when there’s a strike or grab coming in, and we’re doing Ikkyo or Kotegaishi where the first move is to “grab” the wrist, it’s sooooo tempting to want to focus entirely on the target to be “grabbed” (quotations because we eventually learn that it’s more like a cutting motion to the wrist, not exactly a grab) and really reach out for it.

The fact that most ukes are incredibly accomodating and don’t change their attack half way through, makes it all the more tempting to do this.  Because we train mostly with a prescribed attack and technique, after a while we think this might actually work out like this if it were to actually happen.  The thing is that if someone was actually coming in to grab you or strike and they clearly saw you commit that much to grabbing the wrist, they might just do something else you’re not ready for.  As soon as you commit to doing that action, in this case grabbing the wrist, you have also attacked, and have lost your center, rendering yourself just as open as they are.  I’ve found that keeping my mental presence centered at all times (yeah, I know, easier said than done), Aikido is so much more effortless and safer for both parties when I let the attack come in and support uke through the technique until they land safely and we do it again.  Don’t get me wrong, we don’t want to just stand there staring at the attacker and move last second.  At a certain point of our training, we can move quickly while maintaining this stillness within our balance and psyche and kind of lead the attacker where it’s easiest to support them through the technique, if we’re skilled (or lucky) enough to have this luxury.  But that’s why we train, I suppose.

So this has lead me to believe that “reaching” is bad.  To boil it down, reaching is something that feels powerful to the dumb ego, but in reality is nothing more than a sloppy, greedy, attack.  Well, this totally applies to life off the mat!  How often do we reach for stuff, daily?  We reach to get that thing we want, or we reach while “standing up for ourselves”, or we reach for trying to keep that someone from leaving, or we reach for trying to prove ourselves, or we reach for trying to fit in or be a certain way so people might like us better….  It happens all the time, and 100% of the time, I believe that reaching is bad.  If we just still our minds during the inertia of whatever is going on and deal with what’s coming at us in a calm yet assertive way, things tend to work out much better.  Something that can be so easily downplayed while on the mat is actually very important on a daily basis on and off the mat.  That’s another thing that’s so cool about this art..  We can take something small that we may have heard from someone helping us in class, or even something we notice ourselves, which, at the time, seemed minimal, and we can see how this applies elsewhere.  It could be “Don’t look at the ground while turning” or “Bring your back foot up under your hips after throwing”….anything!  These things all have an off-the-mat equivalent that is very interesting to correlate.


Relax and Grow Into Your Power

Before I signed up for my first Aikido class (and was hooked indefinitely), I was a staunch gym-goer.  For about three years,  I’d head to the gym 4-6 days a week and lift weights for hours.  Growing up a scrawny kid, this was cool, I thought, feeling my muscles getting bigger every week as I grunted through another strenuous workout only to be ridiculously sore and tight the next day.  The soreness and tightness felt great though, and I saw it as a sign of strength.  My ego was really comfortable with this version of my self….and then I started doing Aikido.

I felt, at the beginning of my Aikido career, that my coordination was pretty good, but everyone would tell me,”You’re too tight, relax.”, especially when I was taking falls. I noticed others perform the Aikido technique on me in a very relaxed manner as I came in with (what I thought) was a very strong grab or strike.   I especially felt this with Sensei, and he would just hammer me,”You’re too tight,” “Relax!, you’re too tense, let that go.”  I remember it being incredibly frustrating, this whole new concept of being relaxed that, in some weird way, was very strong.  My ego didn’t understand it, but experientially through training, I felt it.  The more I worked out and lifted weights to get stronger, the worse my Aikido got.  I couldn’t figure it out!  In the past, lifting weights IMPROVED whatever physical activity I did.  Or did it?  Aikido started showing me I may have had this all wrong.

After a few weeks of this, I stopped lifting weights and, low and behold, my Aikido started to improve.  I was more relaxed, more fluid.  I was able to feel where my training partner’s force was.  My ukemi had become less painful and loud, and I felt more of a connectedness through the fall as opposed to falling out of chaos or a sense of defeat.

In the style of Aikido our dojo trains in, the first level of training is called Kihon.  This teaches us the basics of the art and is seen as the foundation of everything.  Kihon is performed mainly in static, stop-start fashion.  Each technique is broken down into several “power positions” and we are acclimating our body to these new Aikido techniques and moving in this new way.  It’s kind of like learning how to walk.

The second level of training is Ki-No-Nagare, or in-motion (pardon the translations here) where we take the technique into a fluid movement.  The above mentioned power-positions are melded into one movement and our Aikido becomes more relaxed, but things happen faster.  We step out of the comfort zone of being able to study the body mechanics and start working on studying motion and energy a little more.

The third level, we call Takemusu Aiki, which is the most creative and individualized level of Aikido.  This is where we make our own out of the art and are leaving the brain a little bit while accessing something higher than thought.  We start experimenting with and studying intention.  Anything is possible here and there are no rules and no “right way” to do the technique.

What I now look back on and see is that in order to progress through these levels of Aikido, it’s vital for us to let go of the kind of “strength” our ego is used to, and to build a new “Aiki strength” which is more powerful than anything.  Most of this training is directed towards our mind and state of beingness that, if receptive enough, is transformed and evolved through the art.  It opens our lives up to many more possibilities than if we were to still be relying on the ego, physical strength, and willpower that we may have been relying on before.  Instead of fighting a world to get what we want, we let go of that line of thinking and adopt the creative, harmonious, and all-encompassing state of being that will make the world better for everyone we come into contact with.  I’d say this is a pretty good objective of training in Aikido.


Acceptance

Something I noticed while training the other night was that one huge obstacle to great Aikido is resistance.  To those who’ve trained for any length of time, this statement seems obvious, but as obvious as it is, how often are we resisting things on the mat?  I’ve often heard the quote,”What you resist, persists.”, and that really makes sense the more you ponder it, especially during Aikido training.  What re-spurred my interest in this particular topic was, the other night, when Sensei told us that most injuries during ukemi (falling) happen when fear creeps in and we resist the technique.  He’s really been working on ukemi with us, and he was demonstrating how when you stay in the technique and really connect your center with it, instead of bailing out in fear, it makes your ukemi that much better.  Although he was talking about ukemi, I’ve experienced that that same thing applies to applying the technique as well.  What we resist, persists.

I’ve done it many times.  The couple times I’ve been injured while training, the common denominator has been resistance.  Aikido provides great training for the releasing of resistance,  especially when you’re taking ukemi for upper-level Aikidoists.  It’s a frightening (at first) but exhilarating practice to fully relax and face the technique.  No matter how fast they’re going, relax, and turn right into the technique.  Observe the motion as it’s happening and take full participation in it.  Those thoughts running through your head, filled with whatever fear or resistance they may be, must be released in order to get the most out of this.  When you do, you’ll find that there was really nothing to fear in the first place.  As humans, we usually have drastically overblown perceptions of what ‘may’ happen, and they’re usually brutal and frightening.  Well, as you perform this exercise, you prove to yourself that those perceptions are b.s., and when you fully immerse yourself in the technique, you easily replace those insane thoughts with new, empowering ones, taking you to the next level.

Even on the ‘throwing’ side, when your partner’s coming in with an attack that’s fully committed and faster than you’re comfortable with, recognize the naturally occurring resistant and fearful thought(s).  See it and let it go.  Fully accept the attack and welcome it.  Fully accept your fear and consciously let it go.  It’s amazing how much you’ll relax and how better you’ll start moving.

And, as usual, we can apply this off the mat as well.  When you think about it, it’s amazing how much we are in a state of resistance throughout our day.  See that, feel the resistance, and replace that thought with acceptance.  You can’t let something go unless you’re first holding it in your hand.  Embrace it, go into it with a smile if you prefer, and you’ll come out the other side stronger than you were and will have found that you transcended what you were resisting to begin with.


Peaceful Aggressiveness

I’ve always been a little uneasy with (what I thought was) aggressiveness.  While growing up, I had several close family members who were proud of their “aggressiveness” and witnessed a few incidents that were quite ugly which I attributed to this trait.  My negative experience with it led me to install the belief in my consciousness that being “aggressive” was a bad thing.  After seeing what I saw, and being treated like I was at times while growing up, I vowed to never be like that, and continued my life being a fairly passive person.

Whenever thoughts of “aggressiveness” arose, I would squelch them as quickly as possible (suppress, I guess, would be another term for squelch), and the “aggressiveness” would spring up quite unexpectedly at random times as completely irrational temper tantrums that were completely uncharacteristic of me and were usually taken out on myself more than others.  This behavior resulted in a strengthening of the belief that “aggression” was bad, because of the guilt and embarrassment I’d experience after blowing up.

Lately I’ve been working on restructuring my beliefs-  beliefs that I’ve taken for granted my whole life and which have attributed to my life experiences thus far.  It’s amazing how many little beliefs we adopt from various experiences, which slip into our consciousness unnoticed, and we take as ‘just the way things are’.  I have to say that it doesn’t have to be the way things are, and most of these beliefs are extremely self-limiting.  No time is better than now to take an honest look at these beliefs and see them for what they are.  For me, a good visual to help with this process is to look at these beliefs as furniture in a room which can easily be rearranged, kept in place, refurbished, or discarded altogether.  The important thing is to be in control of THEM, not the other way around.  First, we have to be conscious of them, and then we can do what we wish to them.

Getting back to my above mentioned belief about “aggressiveness”, I realize it has been a very limiting belief of mine for much of my life.  Bringing aggressiveness to light, I’ve really been studying it, especially in my Aikido practice.

What I’ve experienced off the mat and on is that suppressed aggressiveness leads to irrational violence.  Aggressiveness is a very natural thing and, if experienced naturally, can be a catalyst to peaceful resolution.  It is a natural kind of communication in social orders and is used as a way to let another person know that in your terms they have transgressed, and therefore is naturally used as a method of preventing violence – not of causing it.  Yet it’s easy to confuse violence with aggression, not understanding aggression’s creative activity or its purpose, if you will, as a method of communication to prevent violence.

What I was doing, and I think a lot of people do, is deliberately make great effort to restrain the communicative elements of aggression while ignoring its many positive values, until its natural power becomes dammed up, finally exploding into violence.  Violence is a distortion of aggression.

The event of birth is an aggressive action – the thrust outward of a self from within a body into a new environment.  Any creative idea is aggressive.  Violence is not aggressive.  It is instead a passive surrender to emotion which is not understood or evaluated, only feared, and at the same time sought.

Violence is basically an overwhelmingly surrender, with a great degree of suicidal emotion, the antithesis of creativity.  For example, both killer and victim in a war are caught up in the same kind of passion, but I don’t see it as aggressive.  It is the desire for destruction made up of feelings of despair caused by a sense of powerlessness, not of power.  Aggressiveness leads to action, to creativity, and to life.  It does not lead to destruction, violence, or annihilation.

This is something that I’ve found very empowering and can aptly apply it to my Aikido practice.  There’s not many places that are better suited to practice reaction to fear than the dojo.  I find the environment of the randori (multiple attacker) to be the best training grounds for this.  A lot of people either react in the fight or flight manner, neither of which are Aiki-esque.  Try creative aggressiveness.  This may be what part of irimi (entering) is all about.  Go right into the fear, aggressively but creatively, and create something new – like a peaceful resolution – out of the interaction.


Unity

An intention I’ve been playing around with while training has been unity.  Unity can be achieved on many different levels, all of which we can work on.  Separateness is the opposite of unity, and this is a state of being that I’d, personally, like to consciously grow out of.  In the world out there, it seems just about everything is separate and self-defined by its outline.  This especially is the case the closer we look at things.  As we zoom in, we see separateness in something that looks whole from further away.  If we look at a rock with a magnifying glass, we might see individual pieces of sand that make up the rock.  Zoom in a little further and you see things from maybe a molecular level and see billions of separate molecules, each doing their own thing.  Zoom back out to the perspective of the naked eye, and it’s still the same rock.  So here we have something which can be seen as divided and whole, all at the same time.  The only difference is perspective.

It seems that when we start out in Aikido, everything is in a state of separation or duality.  Lets take one technique, say shomenuchi iriminage, and at first we’re trying to figure out where the foot goes, and then the hand, while at the same time keeping in balance and moving the hips correctly.  With your training partner in the mix, you have a whole other entity to deal with and as you progress, you’re trying to affect his balance, grab his right wrist with your right hand and move in this direction, all while staying relaxed and breathing fully.  After some practice, this becomes unified and is then performed with less effort and the ability to see the whole movement in one snapshot, neatly labeled with a name of the technique.  So progression goes from duality to non-duality, or unity.  The thing is, is that it’s all a matter of perception, really.  All the while, we were doing shomenuchi iriminage, it’s just that our perception or focus changed.  At first, we could barely make a step without fumbling over ourselves, while a month later, many different movements came together to create this one technique.  If you take that one technique and combine it with the almost infinite number of other techniques you can do in Aikido, it’s all one Aikido.  From separation to unity as a progression, but all being one.

In Aikido, it’s really easy for some of us to think too much about our practice from the brain’s perspective.  The brain is a tool used for separating and disseminating things, which in some cases is quite useful.  When we’re working on unity, it may not be the best tool for this purpose.  We start analyzing our Aikido and questioning ourselves like “Hmm, am I more a hard-style aikidoist or soft-style?  Is my Aikido more creative and spontaneous or textbook basic and an intellectual?  Should I think about what I’m doing or just feel it?  Do I like to have soft feather-like ukemi or fall with a dramatic flare slapping the mat intensely as I go down?”.  Maybe it’s just me that does this, but I have a feeling it may be common.  The question I have is, why do I have to label it and define my Aikido with such strict guidelines?  Why pick one way or the other?  Isn’t this extremely limiting?  Hard/soft, left brain/right brain, creative/intellectual, rigid/flexible, iwama style/hombu style…  Unify.  Get your whole being on the same page.  Do both…all at once..  Look at these as co-workers instead of opposites.  Why do we assume it has to be one way or the other.  We only limit ourselves.  We have the ability to experience all of it.  That’s what’s so great about this art, we can consciously work with this stuff and play with this energy in as many ways as we’d like.