Tag Archives: martial arts

The Most Dangerous Idea in History

In the modern world we often throw around the word meme to mean some comic image, video or idea that has become associated with a concept, but the word has a different origin.

“an element of a culture or system of behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means.”

This usage was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book “The selfish gene“. Like genes, memes are replicated by one process or another, sometimes with mutations. Like genes, memes are subject to a form of “evolutionary pressure”, a survival of the fittest.

So memes are not just ideas, but ideas can be seen as memes. I’ll likely use the words a bit interchangeably for convenience, however, in this article. The best ideas or memes, can survive for centuries or millennia, as Dawkins himself noted:

“But if you contribute to the world’s culture, if you have a good idea…it may live on, intact, long after your genes have dissolved in the common pool. Socrates may or may not have a gene or two alive in the world today, as G.C. Williams has remarked, but who cares? The meme-complexes of Socrates, Leonardo, Copernicus and Marconi are still going strong.”

In effect, memes can be more immortal and long-lasting then genes. And the transmission can be more direct as well. You may not descend from Socrates, Newton or Curie, whatever benefit that may or may not give you, but you can easily open a book and have those memes transmitted to you directly (or more likely through one or two intermediaries) very efficiently.

This is a very important feature of humanity, perhaps its most important: the ability of a human to learn from more than just its immediate family or peer group, however valuable that interaction is.

Some people have explored the viral nature of memes, and in this sense, we can easily understand that in terms of the common usage of a word in social media.

Of course, some memes are millennia old, have virally spread and are just plain wrong. The popular meme that humans have five senses is wrong. So memes can survive selection pressure despite error. Of course, the pressure may be more intense and effective if the consequences are more significant.

I contend that the most dangerous idea in history is one of a family of related ideas on this theme:

It is bad / wrong / sinful / wicked to question / doubt.

This is a very widespread meme indeed, and a successful one therefore in terms of its own survival. It exists in various strengths and in various contexts. And it doesn’t seem especially dangerous; it’s an innocuous statement.

So what’s the problem? Well, there are two aspects to this.

Firstly, it knocks out your mental immune system. This idea is almost parasitic because it reinforces itself with circular logic. Once it is in place, it prevents or inhibits its own eviction. After all, one has to challenge the idea to reject it, and the mind the idea resides in has already accepted that this is unacceptable.

People that have been taught this as part of their philosophy, ethics or morality, will of course tend to pass it on as a necessary element in those systems, and one can see why.

Because the second aspect is that, this idea rarely comes on its own. The really big problem with this idea is that explicitly or implicitly it tends to actually be found in this form:

It is bad / wrong / sinful / wicked to question / doubt [X].

And then X is or can be the problem. In other words, this is a mental virus that often comes with an associated payload. Like a two-part drug.

For convenience, let’s call X the “payload“, the idea or collection of ideas that hitches a ride with the “immunosuppressant“, the idea that one must not question the payload.

It’s the other part of the coupling that makes the first part dangerous.

Maybe the payload is trivial, like somebody learning a martial art who has essentially been told not to question anything in what they are being taught. In such cases the immunosuppressant challenge could cause poor form or technique never to really be corrected, or not to be open to improvement from ideas from others.

Surprisingly one can find the immunosuppressant quite easily in class rooms, where groups of students have been told that they have to accomplish a task by certain means are exhorted not to think about why. Or sometimes they are so frightened out of asking questions that they pick up the immunosuppressant meme all by themselves. This can damage their ability to discern good ideas from bad.

If the payload is something more serious, such as having significant ethical or moral content then it might still be a relatively minor problem. For example if the payload is ethically benign such as some variation on the Golden Rule, then few issues arise, since the immunosuppressant defeating aspect is reinforcing a behaviour (payload) that is ethically non damaging or even perhaps, life enhancing.

But, if the payload contains many ethically or morally dubious aspects, then you have real problems, because these ideas and behaviours simply cannot be challenged from outside that mind. If the person swallowing the two part pill has accepted the immunosuppressant wholeheartedly then almost nothing can be done to recover that mind’s proper function. It’s trivially easy to see this at work in the world, where people of a given faith can’t even accept that adherents of different strands of that faith are worthy of respect, or in extreme cases, life itself.

In most cases the payload is complex, comprising both good and bad ideas; in these cases the immunosuppressant is the main reason preventing people from discerning which bits to hang on to and which bits to discard. Fortunately, for many the immunosuppressant isn’t full strength, and they quietly, and quite sensibly work out which parts of the payload to discard, but often with no fanfare. They are sometimes still ashamed to state that they do this or don’t even admit it to themselves.

But we shouldn’t be embarrassed to say that parts of a payload are good and parts should be rejected. For instance, most people of faith, from the Abrahamic tradition, quietly reject parts of the payload, let’s take this one:

“If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”

I mean, there’s no getting around it. It’s perfectly clear, in the payload, and it’s equally clear to most 21st century people that this is wrong. Wrong. Illegal. Murder. Ludicrous even. But still many lovely and kind people will try and apologise for this, quoting nicer parts of the payload, rather than just admitting that this is wrong, often because the immunosuppressant part of the pill says we have to not question any aspects of the payload.

And then we are surprised when people kill each other around the world based on the differences in their ideas, even if those differences are trivial, and pose absolutely no threat whatsoever.

But why should we be surprised? The answer is all too obvious.

Horrifically, in many cases, they have been explicitly told to do these things. It’s there in writing. And the immunosuppressant is strongly in place. It’s no good saying that the payload has lots of nice bits in it too. That’s great. That’s wonderful, but the payload will only become better when people are able to admit that parts of it are just plain wrong, and need to be rejected. For this to happen, the immunosuppressant has to be removed. At this point their natural mental immune response comes back to life. It is then possible for peers to influence people for the best. It is easier and possible to learn from the positive examples of others.

If we want to rid ourselves of some of the worst most horrific memes of our past, we need to admit that this is a possibility, and this is why doubt and questioning isn’t a sin, or an error, but the most basic principle of mental hygiene.

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates

Resistance in Aikido

If you spend a little bit of time on-line looking at what other martial arts practitioners have to say about aikido, one of the thing you note is that people with little or no experience whatsoever about aikido still have plenty to say about it.

The most common comments is that aikido has no sparring and doesn’t train against opponents offering resistance.

Let me first take the latter point. What others assert here is that in aikido dojos people don’t train to execute a technique against someone actively resisting it.

The is a little bit true, a little bit false, and a whole lot completely missing the point.

What people see as training against no resistance is the stage when beginners are learning a technique and need to understand its shape. At this stage the uke, the attacker, who ideally will be a more senior student will indeed sometimes help the other person complete the technique.

This is not dissimilar to early training in other martial arts where people punch thin air, or cut it with bokken.

However, as the student progresses you can expect the uke to be much less of a push over, literally and metaphorically – at least in most dojos. People don’t just fall over when the technique is wrong, there may indeed be some resistance. There will be a touch here and there that could have been a counter strike. How much of this resistance there should be is a point of real controversy. It is possible to find dojos who think it should always be none, and others who think it should be immense and unrelenting.

In the main there is a recognition that it does not demonstrate skill to prevent a technique that you know is coming, and so it’s poor form to do so for its own sake when people are first learning a technique.

For some people this demonstrates the inefficacy of aikido, but it’s no different than suggesting that a person in another art, knowing that a kick to the head is coming, can easily avoid or counter that.

The Way of Harmony

But the main point here is what ai ki do means – the way of harmony with ki of your attacker, or the energy of your attacker. In other words, when an opponent resists, they resist a specific thing. The whole point of aikido is not to force your technique against your opponent’s energy. Yes, you may be able to force it on. But that is not aikido. There are also tricks of the trade that can make a technique work even when it’s probably stupid to apply it, but these should be reserved for moments when you find yourself in the equivalent of having your heels on a cliff edge with tigers below.

So what should an aikidoka do, when they begin technique A and their opponent resists it? Pretty much anything other than A.  When you watch someone do aikido badly, you can see this tension all the time, the nage, the defender, has a plan to do technique A. The painful bit is that if A is not possible, the longer it takes nage to work this out, and move on, the movement between attacker and defender jams up, it is actually a point of real vulnerability, not strength for the nage.

So aikido is about learning that the instant A becomes untenable, you let go of it, and move to B, C, and so on. The more someone resists a specific thing, the more vulnerable they become to its opposite.

So coming back to the lack of “sparring”. This is actually also untrue, this kind of practice does occur in many dojos – it’s usually a different kind of sparring – and it’s valuable if controlled, but real aikido happens all the time when the initial technique goes wrong, the challenge is to realise that trying to push through resistance is completely the wrong approach.

How Effective Is Aikido?

I based this on a response I made to the same question on Quora. But it’s a question I get asked a lot. Along with the somewhat related “how often do you need to use aikido?” which I address below.

It’s very popular for people (often who have never studied aikido) to tell other people that it takes years for aikido to be “effective” or that it is never effective. Sometimes aikidoka say this themselves. This may even be true. It’s as likely for any martial art. It certainly will be true if you believe it.

Often people hint that a short time in another martial art is effective. This may be believed of aikido too of course. However I’ve written before about the dangerous arrogance of assuming that a few hours (or indeed even years) in any given martial art confers some sort of invincibility on you. A high ranked martial artist I knew, with Dan grades in many martial arts, got effectively taken out at a bus stop because he literally didn’t see the attack coming.

But what do you mean by effective? Is it effective at maiming other people? Is it effective at killing other people? Is it effective for defending yourself in a fight? Is it effective at getting you jailed? Is it effective at stopping fights? Is it effective in your daily life? There are lots of ways of looking at this.

Usually people are asking how effective it would be in some cage based gladiatorial contest, but how often is that likely to happen outside your choice, outside finding yourself in a bad Star Trek episode stripped to the waist and compelled to fight your friends and colleagues? This doesn’t reflect the lives of most people or the situations they might find themselves in.

An argument from anecdote, but an interesting one. I had the pleasure of training in aikido with an 80 something year old English gentleman called Harold. He had begun aikido in his 50s when he was working as a bus conductor in London. He told me that in his job before starting aikido he had frequently gone to the upper deck to check tickets to find people who had long since passed their stop or otherwise had not paid. Occasionally a tussle would ensue. He wondered what would happen after he started training in aikido the next time such a tussle happened, but the interesting thing is that no tussles ever occurred again.

Who knows why? Likely his posture, his lack of fearful response or more harmonious manner. I have directly experienced these things successfully defusing what seemed an inevitable fight.

This is also interesting when people ask me and “have you ever had to use aikido?” to which the answer is, all the time, and not necessarily in the way you think. It has worked well, most of the time, but not always. Much to learn, I still have. Martial arts – at least real ones – are about a lot more than just self defence.

Effectiveness doesn’t necessarily mean winning a fight. It doesn’t necessarily mean picking a striking response to a situation that will quite likely get you arrested. It can sometimes just mean a different stance, a different approach so that fights don’t happen at all.

The Art of Fighting Without Fighting

Martial arts are full of clichés. But as with all clichés it doesn’t mean they aren’t fundamentally true. Even proponents of striking martial arts will often say the greatest skill is not to fight at all. It is the most effective way.

We live in the 21st century in an age full of laws. It’s time to reflect upon what effectiveness means in that context. The purpose of training in a martial art is to make the responses part of your innate instinctive reaction. If your instinctive reaction to a minor bit of aggravation over a spilled drink is to punch or kick someone I would suggest that is not very effective. You will likely get in a severe fight and be more likely to be badly injured and / or arrested. Note this doesn’t mean I’m criticising other martial arts, merely observing that the issue of effectiveness is more complex than it first appears.

P.S. Harold was in his 80s when he was still training, he has passed away now. You’ll know an effective real martial art because older people still do it. If it’s a young person’s game only then what use will it be when you are older?

Fear is the Path to the Dark Side

When I was in primary school we had some swimming lessons, and at one point someone asked us to swim a length to decide which “stream” we would be in.

At this stage I enjoyed swimming and was reasonably OK as a swimmer. I was so determined to get in the better stream that I hammered down the pool in a fury of froth. I got to the end in short order and was promptly put in the lower stream. I was there for a while till they started showing us some ways to swim better and when they saw me swim the length like that asked why I hadn’t done it like that in the first place as I was plainly capable. I’d been afraid of messing it up.

I was reminded of this by an incident tonight. This is an article written for some of my aikido students, but the transferability of many of the principles is obvious.

I was preparing a class of aikido students for a Kyu Grading that is coming up, I have previously set out some thoughts about grading. They wanted to look at a couple of techniques, tenchi nage and shiho nage for those interested but this isn’t the point of this post. About 50 minutes into the class I decided to sit in seiza at the side of the mats and just call out techniques and observe. And suddenly I realised that despite frequently imploring people to relax I was looking around the room and seeing many people grimace and struggle, trying to push through techniques with speed and force. We all (even those not doing martial arts) have this problem to some degree or another, and I am certainly not immune.

What was the issue? Well, I guessed at the core of it all was fear, fear of losing, fear of being seen not to be able to do the technique, fear of being beaten by the other person. This is an entirely natural response to a conflict or simple tense situation, and in a few weeks these people would be getting themselves nice and tense in a grading.

Fear Escalates Conflict

It’s an easy loop to get into, you get a bit concerned that something isn’t working, so you focus harder, put in more “power and speed”, and paradoxically, it works even less well so you put in more “power and speed” and so on. Except from the sidelines it’s clear that what you are watching is at best a mockery of the intended technique. And it certainly isn’t ai-ki-do, since ai-ki means harmony with the other person’s energy.

It’s curious, in an attempt to demonstrate an aikido technique you have great sensible people demonstrating a complete lack of aiki. You might think that would be important in an aikido grading, and you’d be correct.

Stepping out of Victory and Defeat

So we all sat down at the side of the mats to talk about this. A few years ago our teacher and friend Alan Ruddock died, and recently our teacher and friend Henry Kono died. It maybe helps to remind us that there is no such thing as absolute victory for any of us, but there doesn’t need to be a defeat either, especially when we can find the resolve to let go of fear and step out of the conflict.

And so in a physical confrontation, or indeed a non physical one, sometimes extraordinary things happen when you let go of the fear and even very surprisingly perhaps, step out of conflict.

This maybe sounds very passive. Perhaps defeatist. It might even sound weak – you step out of the conflict to avoid defeat. But it’s more profound than that.

Between Passivity and Agression

First of all, I like to say that aikido occupies the midpoint between passivity and aggression, let’s call that assertiveness – a nice observation I first saw explicitly made by Allen Baird – though he wasn’t talking about aikido as such.

handshake

 

 

So we aren’t talking about disengaging from the other person. Very far from it. The analogy I normally use in class is a handshake. When you shake someone’s hand you extend yourself out towards that person – pushing into them is, well, odd, but so is holding back and failing to put your hand out in a friendly way. We stay with the other person, we just don’t insist in dominating them by imposing our chosen outcome, and when something doesn’t work, we have to let go of the fear and change what we are doing to something else.

O-Sensei set some training rules (which were later tweaked, but I prefer the originals) and one of these was:

“Training should always be conducted in a pleasant and joyful atmosphere.”

The great news is that after our chat, my class went back to training, and I saw smiles on their faces, enjoyment, but most of all, I saw effective techniques occurring around the room. It was really great to see how good they were, as well as enjoying a pleasant safe atmosphere in the class.

And I believe it shows real bravery to admit the possibility of vulnerability, to admit that what we set out to do might “fail”. It’s hard to let go of those labels.

This is also a reminder why it can be useful in aikido to have no pre-conceived plan, no road map to a “victory”. If you don’t have a plan you can’t be attached to it, and it’s hard for the other person to counter it if even you don’t plan out what you intend to do to them, but just flow with them.

True Victory is Self Victory

We aren’t trying to beat the other person, but to stay engaged with them until matters resolve themselves and to protect ourself, and quite likely them, in the process. The person we are competing with is ourself –  that’s where it usually gets really tricky.

 

 

Grading in the Martial Arts

dan-kanjiLast week Donal and I got involved in answering some questions about grading from folks in our aikido club. I thought I would put some of my thoughts here. Other people’s thoughts will vary and I’d welcome other perspectives in the comments.

These are perspectives on grading in Japanese martial arts, but particularly aikido. They of course have analogues in other martial arts and even other human endeavours. But they may not. Most Japanese martial arts have black belt or Dan grades, and white or other coloured belts or Kyu grades leading to that point.

In a lot of cases when people are wondering about grading, they are wondering about the path to the first “black belt” grade or shodan, so that will be my main perspective, but many comments are general.

So, here are some thoughts that may or may not be useful.

It’s all made up

First thing is first. All martial arts are man made systems and someone appointed themselves in charge. Those people then graded other people and are often above the grading system themselves, or are 10th Dan. From a certain point onwards there are conventions obeyed, mainly that people can grade only to a certain level beneath them or in committee. People will have a certain lineage that you can consider. So how seriously people take it, is a matter of perspective. The same is true for legitimacy. You will have to make your own mind up, sorry.

This isn’t intended to be insulting or offensive. The same is true of just about every system, they are man made, their authority is derived from a mixture of tradition and peer review. You will have to decide if it matters to you if your grade is recorded in a particular dojo in Japan.

Get grades from someone you respect

As a result, I think it’s important that you grade from someone whose technical form, philosophy and personality you respect. Or if not, you can ask your own questions about the legitimacy of your grade.

Grade doesn’t matter, except when it does

Grade is fundamentally unimportant, but nevertheless grading can be a useful process to guide and measure learning and progression. If you don’t care about grade, there’s no problem with that as such. Sometimes grade is necessary – it is often impossible to arrange insurance cover for training when the instructor is not at least a shodan.

However, gradings absolutely can guide and accelerate your learning, as well as measuring it.

You may reach a point where your own feeling about your own progress needs no external guidance or validation, which is great, in many ways.

EDIT: So I got some good feedback from some people that I should warn readers that lots of martial arts people take their grades very seriously and expect it to alter the way you interact with them both on and sometimes even off the mats. This is very true. Be cautious. I’m also not suggesting you shouldn’t respect the grades of others, far from it. I’m trying to suggest in this section that you should be cautious about taking your own grade too seriously.

Grade doesn’t change you, except when it does

When you finally get shodan you will have to come to terms with just how much you don’t know, and the fact that you are the same person you were the day before. This is true for all grades. Grades can improve you only as a side effect, as you have actively learned to obtain them, or that they allow you to move forwards again.

They can also change you for the worse, if you think they are about dominance over others, or they make you less aware of your own learning, or otherwise complacent.

Shodan (black belt) does not mean expert

Most people outside the martial arts, and quite a few inside, think that the first black best grade, shodan, means “expert”. Not only is this not true, it is far from true. All other Dan grades come from the Japanese numbering system, nidan (2nd Dan), sandan (3rd Dan) and so on. Instead of ichidan (literally 1st degree), the word used for the first black belt grade is shodan, which means “beginner’s degree” or “beginner’s step”.

This is really important, you shouldn’t see shodan as some sort of unattainable level only possible for experts. It’s intended as a foundational level at which point your basics are sorted out, the stabiliser wheels can come off and your journey really begins anew.

Here is the embarrassing truth, the Japanese describe Dan graded students collectively as yudansha, which more or less means, “those that have dan grades”, wheras kyu graded students are mudansha, “those that do not have dan grades”. So it is expected that most serious students will progress to Dan grades.

You don’t need to start with amazing intrinsic skill, you don’t need to be really smart, you don’t need to be amazingly young or fit, you need to be consistent and focused and actively learning.

Not everyone will get Dan grades by any means, but that is mainly because people don’t want to, don’t think they can, or miss some of the points I suggest here (and probably many others too).

The process is often uneven between people

The personal journey and battle of each individual is different, so you will often see curious decisions in terms of allocation of grade. You have to trust the person doing it to have the right motives, see above.

I once read in a great essay, I wish I could find it, someone saying that shodan (the 1st black belt grade) stretches from 3rd Kyu to 3rd Dan. I.e. there are shodans with questionable technical competence, and others who are exceptional. Obviously there isn’t a 0.99 Dan or 1.25 Dan, but the process has to try and accommodate the different levels of achievement seen.

This wikipedia article also makes the same point.

The process is often uneven between arts

Different arts will have different expectations for shodan. The “syllabus” requirements for a shodan in Iaido are smaller than many arts, and practised in many clubs every single class. You may need careful attention over many months or more in other arts even to see the whole syllabus. On the other hand, Iaido may require written theory tests for Dan grades which can be rare in other arts.

This has consequences, see more below.

It shouldn’t be about ego

It’s not really supposed to be about you feeling awesome, but of course people legitimately feel a sense of achievement upon obtaining a grade, but then it should be settling back down to work, remember, shodan means you have dragged yourself onto the first step.

Try and obtain grades to compete against yourself, not others. On the other hand, some people will shy away from grading from a less obvious pride; they are afraid to fail. This is not a good reason not to grade.

Masakatsu agatsu : 正勝吾勝 : “true victory is self victory” was a favourite expression of Morihei Ueshiba Sensei.

It’s not up to your instructors

I can’t say this enough. It’s not up to your instructors to get you to any given grade. It’s up to you. Yes, you need competent instruction, or most people do, but you have to walk the path. That’s what the do means in aikido or iaido or whatever.

Learning and teaching in the martial arts is much the same as in other endeavours. Someone will do a lot of teaching, but you have to do a lot of learning. It usually goes in both ways, but one direction is more prominent. By being active learners, you also help your instructors to learn themselves. Remember they are students too.

In any case, the point is, it is up to you, if you want to achieve a certain grade you need to work actively towards that goal.

Understand the syllabus

This seems obvious, but you should be looking at your organisation’s grading syllabus and actively ticking things off, become aware of what you know, and retain that, and start identifying what you don’t know. This can be where grading really improves progress rather than measuring it, it provides a signpost as to where your attention should be. This is not to say you should ignore other instruction, but when the class covers something you know you need for your next grade, it’s time to really focus.

For aikidoka in Aiki No Michi dojos, the syllabus is here. Print it out, make it yours. Ask your instructors questions relentlessly, help to improve them too.

Ask questions, take notes

Keep asking your instructors questions, and you may find it useful to put things down in a notebook, take photographs or videos. Please ask permission in those latter cases and don’t distribute these without permission.

Take Correction

It’s a bad sign when you are not corrected by your instructor. It may mean you have reached a point where she or he finds it hard to correct you, or it may be they consider it pointless. Listen to correction and try hard to genuinely work to fix your problems.

The frustrating thing for both students and instructors is that your problems may persist for a long time, you may keep hearing the same advice. Sometimes it takes quite a while for the penny to drop fully, but try with sincerity.

But think for yourself

If you meet an instructor who tells you never to think for yourself, it is probably a good idea to run for the hills. Be respectful, but never stop thinking. You are also your own instructor.

Correct Yourself

It is not for nothing that Alan Ruddock Sensei picked these words for his Aiki No Michi‘s grading book:

“I want considerate people to listen to the voice of Aikido. It is not for correcting others, it is for correcting your own mind.” – Morehei Ueshiba Sensei

This phrase is worthy of deep contemplation. In many ways it reflects the whole essence of aikido, concentrate on sorting out your own problems rather than those of other people.

Be wary of instructing others when you are not teaching the class. If you are training with someone more junior, and if your dojo and instructor is happy with this then be willing and open to kindly and compassionately help if asked, or even politely offer. But you should always concentrate on your own problems.

Be watchful and mindful of your own practice. Remember, it is your responsibility to improve, with the help of your instructor and other senior (and junior) students. Even when training with students who are junior in technical skill, be mindful of what your errors are.

But don’t show it in your face. Save it for a conversation afterwards. Wincing when you make an error is a terrible thing in the martial arts. Why tell your opponent you have messed up? They may not know.

Your training becomes your practice

What you repeat, and what you try to do, becomes your ingrained practice. This is the point of course. Don’t be lazy, don’t be easy on yourself.

And therefore, be mindful not to stop techniques to request another go, always try to keep going or do something else except where this would risk injury to you or others.

You have to train to be as you wish to be, diligent, and mindful, upright and vibrant. Fake it till you make it – a dangerous expression, but the point is you can learn to be confident and calm.

Zanshin and Reiho do not come later

Regardless of your stage of technical ability things like zanshin, the awareness of things around you, should be practised from day one. This is true for etiquette; you may not know all the fancy Japanese words and gestures, but sincerity is more important than accuracy.

You will need some Japanese vocabulary

Having said that, you will need to get your head around the Japanese language used in class or gradings. Start soon.

It’s not all about the body

Martial arts are physical, but they are also mental, it is the way that your mind works that will shine through the movements of your body. Working towards calm and assured practice is for me, the hallmark of the difference between 1st Kyu and 1st Dan. Both should know all the relevant techniques, the shodan should show greater composure under pressure, and deal with errors gracefully.

Having said that, it can be vital to understanding to feel and not just to see, since sight can be deceptive. Ask your instructor to throw you to feel what is going on.

It will take as long as it takes, but…

When people spot a black belt on you they often ask how long you have been training, what they often mean to ask is how long will it take them to get a belt like that.

The time it takes varies from person to person and art to art. But one thing is for sure, if you don’t start walking along the path actively and with mindfulness, it will take you a lot longer, or more likely it will never happen, especially if you have already decided at some level within you that you aren’t capable.

Much has been written about how working to get grades faster makes it take longer. Yes, that can be true, as I wrote in this older article, you cannot be unrealistic either. You can’t be in the present while your mind is always on future grades. As in so many things it is about balance, after reading Allen Baird’s book, his use of language helped me come to a realisation how important the middle point of assertiveness is, between passivity and aggression to aikido practice. This is true for grading as well.

Practice

We are all students, those who teach and those who do not. We are all practising to improve. You need to do so with dedication, patience and motivation. Build momentum, keep improving. Polish all the impurities away.

It doesn’t matter how much you do everything else suggested here, if you don’t practice. Remember that practice isn’t just in the dojo with formal instruction. You can practice exercises at home. Even iaidoka can practice body movements without a sword while the kettle is boiling, you can practice zanshin and body movement all day long.

These are just some thoughts, I hope that they may help you. Just remember your instructors are on the same journey, help them to help you, and train with sincerity and mindfulness.

Remember these are my opinions, you should interpret them with care and speak to your own instructors.

 

 

Aikido and the problem of grabbing, or playing with shopping trolleys

Aikido is a martial art which is famous, or perhaps infamous, for being taught initially by the attacker (uke) grabbing the defender (nage). Really this is artificial; one cannot afford to wait to be grabbed before acting, but it does form a useful start in understanding the interplay of force and energy between the two.

But perhaps an unappreciated problem is the consequences of nage grabbing uke. There are lots of times that this is essential; for instance when working with pins or weapons, but as with everything we need to be mindful of the pitfalls.

The “Grabbing too quickly” problem

Grabbing too quickly
Grabbing too quickly

There are techniques like ikkyo (let’s say as a response to shomen uchi) where grabbing the opponent is an essential part of the recipe. But even here grabbing can have its problems. If for instance you grab uke’s arm immediately it can.

  • Raise your elbow away from your body exposing the (vulnerable) side of your body.
  • Cause your hand to end up so that it is not between you and your opponent and offers minimal protection.
  • Consequently end up with a sloped posture which compromises your whole technique
Note the poor position of the wrist, the lack of protection from Uke, leading also to poor posture.
Note the poor position of the wrist, the lack of protection from Uke, leading also to poor posture.

The easiest way to avoid this problem is to resist the urge to grab, wait for the attacker’s arm to be delivered to your open palm; keep your hands so that they are a barrier between you and the attacker but allow rotation of their arm until the technique ends on the floor.

Not everyone thinks this hand positioning is a problem.

The “Push and Pull” problem

Often a person grabs someone else in the first place in an effort to control them; to keep them at bay or bring them closer to attack them. In aikido, trying to “control” the attacker is somewhere between unwise and anathema. The whole point of aikido is that it is hard to control another person and easier to control yourself by moving you. If you look again at the photograph just above, another reason why people end up in this position is that they see it as desirable. They can push on one side of the arm and pull on the other, using leverage to move the attacker. That’s bio-mechanically true, but perhaps problematic in terms of good technique.

A useful training perspectives is to be found with a super market trolley. When you are next shopping get a nice big, but empty trolley and be observant of the placement of your hands to move it. You will likely end up with one hand pushing and the other pulling a lot. Your hands may look something like the grip above. This is effective, especially when the trolley is empty.

When the trolley starts to fill you will feel increasing strain in this way of moving the trolley, potentially even into your lower back. In order to apply leverage you need a solid stance to use the reaction forces from the ground to apply force into the trolley’s movement.

By contrast, as the trolley fills up, you can still easily walk around it and move it with you. If you have both your hands facing away from you against the bar of the trolley, you will have to move in this way in order to move the trolley effectively.

IMGP7519So, back to ikkyo, if we don’t grab the arm at the top, but wait for it, then when the grip becomes natural the hands end up differently positioned. Now both hands are between ourselves and the attacker’s limb. This is safer in the sense that it defines your personal space and evens up your posture. But the biggest difference is that the technique will no longer be achievable by simple leverage on the arm. You will have to complete the technique by moving you.

This is not to say that other approaches are not possible, or even correct, simply that this way promotes awareness of how much you are cheating. If the attacker is relatively small in comparison to you, you can manipulate him or her as an empty trolley. But if they are much bigger this approach is unlikely to work.

The “Owning Uke” problem

Above all the problem of grabbing may be the possessive instinct. You have decided to control the attacker. That means that you have decided to own them and make them your problem. You may also find when you grab someone you tend to pull them towards you – maybe only a centimetre but that small distance can make a big difference. A skilled attacker can take that space from you and you will not get it back.

In general, however, grabbing the attacker makes techniques slower, and in the context of multiple attackers even an extra fraction of a second can make a huge difference.

Gozo Shioda sensei once said that the control techniques (pins and locks) didn’t work but his books give much guidance on their execution. My personal feeling is that he may have meant they are foolish techniques to try from a “cold start”. Nage waza (throwing techniques) are faster and tend to at least tire the attacker more. If a pin “happens” naturally and without forward planning it is more likely to be successful, especially if the urge to push and pull can be overcome.

Other Training Exercises

Henry Kono sensei has developed a number of useful exercises which are helpful for overcoming the grabbing problem.

One of these is for nage (the defender) and uke (the attacker) to practice throws with palm to palm contact and no grabbing. This requires generosity and common sense on both sides. But the idea is simple: if nage attempts to move too quickly, without the grab, the connection will simply break. Too slow a movement will be felt as heaviness in the contact.

This can be made more visible, audible and enjoyable with the use of balloons. Place a balloon between uke and nage’s open palms. Nage moving too fast causes the balloon to drop, too slow will cause it to pop. Squeaking rubber is also likely a sign of attempted manipulation.

And once you’ve done all this the trick is to the throw or technique with the normal grab but the very same feeling and sensitivity. If you work out how to do this flawlessly, please let me know, but at least you have experienced the fun of aikido and balloons, which is a reward in itself.

Thanks to Ludovic Le Berre and Mark McDermott for help with the illustrative photos above.

A review and response to “The First Jedi”

A few months ago, Allen Baird wrote to me courteously to tell me he had written a book about some experiences running a Jedi Course at Queen’s University, that I was tangentially involved in. I discovered the book was available about a week ago, and obtained the Kindle copy and read it over a few days. This is partly a review of the book as I see it, and some ideas the book triggered me to discuss.

TL,DR?

The book “The First Jedi“, due to its title, runs the risk that the course did of instant derision and dismissal, but that would be a mistake. This is not some sort of fanboy gushing excess, but some quite serious content lurking under a whimsical title. It contains significant quantities of psychology and philosophy than can be applied to daily life, delivered in a vehicle of story telling based in real events surrounding his training courses in Northern Ireland and alluding to the “jedi / sith” archetypes from the Star Wars universe. Big ideas in a sugar coated pop culture shell if you will. You don’t have to be a geek to read it, or to fully get that dynamic, but I would imagine it helps to fully get it. It is both funny, educational and serious in appropriate measure, and I imagine most people will very much enjoy it.

Still Here?

Allen runs his own training, writing and coaching consultancy business alongside his partner Dawn. Some years ago he ran a “Jedi Training Course” as a one day event at Queen’s University, Belfast. Again, note that this whimsical title belies some serious content. This is a tactic I fully approve of, and one I have used myself. My own talk titles tend to be a bit whimsical too. There’s plenty of dry stuffy, self-important nonsense already. The world doesn’t need more. Allen relates the story of running this course, and the media frenzy the title caused within the book. He also manages to get across much of the material.

As I mentioned before, you don’t need any detailed knowledge of the Star Wars universe to get this. I think Allen would be the first to acknowledge that plenty of people know more detail about that universe than him. Indeed, checking again, I find he describes himself in the book as a “Minor Star Wars fan”. This is a vehicle, a metaphor. And of course it’s exploring the fact that the Star Wars universe did not grow in a vacuum. You can find likely inspiration for its ideas littered all around in classical philosophy, and sometimes religion too.

Allen approached me for some help in bringing a martial arts element to his successor course. He covers his initial meeting with me in his book, and I’ll perhaps decline to comment on that overmuch. I wasn’t put off by the whacky title, because I bought into the usefulness of the underlying material, and I could see the linkages to aikido very clearly. Plus, I was supportive of his ideas to bring people to continuing education who would otherwise not think twice about it. I may have been more enthused, but cautious, than he realised ;-).

The book is semi-autobiographical in the sense that the plot is based upon real events, but with some added fictional aspects. Early on in the book Allen talks about a technique called the “Gollum Effect” to describe how one can have a conversation between the two halves of the brain. Largely you could describe this book is being delivered by that conceit. There are two characters who give a “jedi” and “sith” perspective on the events and concepts being discussed. One voice is the largely factual voice of Allen – to what extent this aspect is fictionalised I cannot tell – while the other is presumably largely fictional. I could say that I cannot tell to what extent this other character represents factual thoughts and feelings too, if at all.

Having established this groundwork, the main portion of the book explores the course, its genesis and construction, which is both amusing and interesting. A fair amount of time is given to the media treatment of the course, and this is worthwhile and amusing, though it does inevitably lead to some minor amount of repetitive information being conveyed. I think this has been done to help anchor the book in the evidence of the original course being a real entity. He links this in nicely with the Jedi census phenomenon in the UK, which aside from the humour of it, reveals some underlying attachment to these ideas at some level. Star Wars, like it or not, is a major cultural influence, resonating with other more ancient ideas from both Western and Eastern thought.

Sensitivity and Flow

The book then moves on to the initial course, and submerges the reader in it. You get the course itself for free with the price of the book. It talks about the idea of the Highly Sensitive Person, and the psychological idea of Flow which is integral to education and which I have delivered talks on myself. This idea of flow is, incidentally, alive and well in aikido (and other martial arts no doubt) where it is often described as “moving meditation”.

Assertiveness

Here again we move into territory that underlines why aikido was an excellent choice to convey the concepts of the course. Assertiveness, as an important part of every day life, is a vital part of aikido, and obtains a good treatment in the book.

As an aside, and response, I will note that Aikido is often described as a defensive martial art. I think that’s fair. However, many will conflate the ideas of defence and passivity. In fact, to become an excellent aikidoka, one has to learn that point of assertiveness that is beautifully described in the book as lying between aggressiveness and passivity. Neither of these latter states will help in aikido, one’s mind must remain clear and free of aggression (since otherwise, neglecting any other aspects than the physical for the moment, the adrenal response will rob the body of fine control and the mind’s ability to see the whole situation clearly), while passivity will rapidly end in disaster. You must enthusiastically meet your opponent with neither reticence or an urge to dominate them.

Synchronicity

Allen next explores the Jungian idea of synchonicity exploring how the mind has a tendency to conflate events that are not causally linked. I’ve explored this a little in another long article on perception and especially how it can link to the martial arts.

He discusses practical ways to overcome fear. He misses, I feel, a golden opportunity to link in another great Sci-Fi franchise, covering the Bene Gesserit litany against fear. Perhaps the Bene Gesserit training course will be next. The similarities of idea are huge, and possibly even more aligned to Allen’s content.

This material reminded me somewhat of ideas I have taught in aikido classes to deal with pain. When pain is inflicted upon you, there are two aspects, the physical underlying pain, about which you can do little, but there is also an overlay – the mental expectation of pain. Learning to relax into that can greatly reduce the amount of apparent pain felt.

Control over one’s mental state, and attempting to overcome adrenal response, is a big part of aikido for me. While aikido is not Chinese in origin, Chinese martial arts masters have described aikido as an internal martial art for that reason, and I agree with them. The late Alan Ruddock describes in detail in his memoirs how the ancient story of Monkey is a parable about how the various aspects of one’s mind can be brought into harmony, even if control is too strong a word. The Star Wars generation may know this story better from its TV series, which might just occasionally have been light on philosophy and heavy on action. The book is well worth a read (both Alan’s Memoirs and Monkey incidentally).

Fear turns to Anger

It would be hard to talk about the Jedi/Sith dichotomy and not write about anger. Allen treats it well, working in some Aristotelian Ethics which is hugely pertinent to life, and reinforcing the importance of assertiveness as a midpoint. I cannot recall if this is the point where he also introduces a bit of Stoic philosophy, perhaps the school of Roman thought that resonates with me most. Marcus Aurelius, one of my favourite philosophers gets a pertinent mention. You can read his meditations at a browser over lunch time.

Mindfulness

And so we come to mindfulness. To me, this is the concept most obviously born out of Buddhist philosophy. Buddhism is in many ways more of a philosophical system than a religion as we often describe it, but in any case, there is no need to consider the whole cosmology and religion to cherry pick some its good ideas. Though, in passing, when I first watched the Phantom Menace, I was very taken with the idea that Qui-Gon Jinn was somewhat based, in name and concept, on the Bodhisattva Guanyin.

References to Jedi being exponents of compassion reinforces the feeling that some Buddhism is behind the scenes. I have written before about the apparent dichotomy of compassion in a martial setting.

Anyway, mindfulness brings us back to those ideas of Monkey, and Meditation (whether in movement or not). I think the book implicitly emphasises a truth often overlooked by the want-to-be-spiritual; that mindfulness can be practised as you sit in the lotus position in a silent dark room, but it doesn’t really matter a damn if your thinking all goes to pot as soon as the outside world becomes disturbed. One can practice mindfulness anywhere. Indeed, it’s the only practice worth doing in my opinion. (Much to learn, I still have).

For some more thoughts about this in the martial arts, you can look at my article on the concept of fudoshin.

Shadows and Darkness

The book explores, the again, Jungian idea of our Shadow selves, and the extent to which our failure to acknowledge the truth about them can lead to greater problems.

It also explores the ideas of attachment, which is one of the bits of Buddhist philosophy I think is the most interesting and emotionally understand poorly. I would be interested to chat to Allen about this bit some time.

The Sequel

Allen then deals with his attempt to produce a more ambitious version of the course, along with Rory O’Connor and myself. Rory to bring some thoughts about the “Force” into it (or at least real-world parallels) and myself to bring some aikido and potentially some kumi-tachi work too (sword to sword). This isn’t as weird as it sounds since many of these ideas are present in both physical and “normal” interactions and confrontations between people, and sometimes some people can learn through the body more effectively. I roped in John Donaldson, a far superior swordsman to myself, and also something of a Star Wars fan. This was years before John would take to dressing up as a storm trooper or the best Captain Jack Sparrow this side of the Atlantic. Possibly Allen’s second course would have been more successful otherwise.

We did a certain amount of planning for this new version of the course, and everything was good to go, but it was not to be. Things did not proceed as we had foreseen. Allen talks about this and wraps the story to an interesting conclusion, taking the Jedi / Sith conversation to its final conclusion and bringing a nice sense of closure to the proceedings.

But of course, I won’t give away the ending, you’ll have to read the book!

Aikido in Dead Straight Lines

There’s been an elephant in the room on my blog for quite a while now, and it has prevented me completing a number of articles that I have had in draft for some time.

A bit over a year ago, my friend and mentor, Alan Ruddock died. I’ve been trying to articulate what that meant for me, and what I thought about Alan, but I have repeatedly failed. This doesn’t fully resolve that issue, but at least I can put down some thoughts about Alan here now, or at least about Aikido

Disclaimer: this post probably badly needs some photos, and I’ll try to retro-fit that at some point.

I was kindly asked to present an hour at this year’s Galway Aikido Summer School, where Alan Ruddock and Henry Kono traditionally taught together for many years. This year Henry continued with his excellent classes in the morning and other instructors that knew Alan took an hour each in the afternoon. I confess I was a bit daunted by some of the others teaching in these slots, particularly the inestimable Lorcan Gogan of PSAC, with whom I shared a session. When I said to him I would have to follow that, he simply replied “Hey, I had to follow Henry!”. A fair point. But I did find myself more reticent than usual in my teaching style.

I chose to try and present some thoughts that have arisen from Alan talking about his “dead straight line”. That is that Aikido is often thought of as being circular in nature but Alan was keen to stress it was not at its heart.

In Aikido, we often see uke (the attacker) whirled around nage (the defender) in circles. There are beautiful diagrams about this, and allusion to circles everywhere. Our own club is called the Belfast Aikido Circle. So it’s impossible to deny circles don’t appear. Indeed, there are semi-physical, semi-mystical links to squares and triangles too.

But what Alan meant, in my opinion, (all disclaimers apply) is that you always behaved as if you were operating in a dead straight line.

Aristotle believed that objects, in a perfect (celestial) environment travel in perfect circles, but many centuries later, Newton thought otherwise.

A body will continue in its state of rest, or uniform motion in a straight line, unless acted upon by a resultant force.

is better known as Newton’s First Law of Motion. In Aikido terms its consequences are simple, if an attacker comes along a straight line, and is subsequently diverted off that straight line, Force, and Energy has been added by someone. Not in some kind of mystical sense of the use of these words you might see in other places, but in their elementary definitions in Physics. So the Force has been added, the big question then is by whom, followed up by why, and an analysis of the consequences.

Let’s look at the question of “whom” first. In a previous article, I wrote at some length about the spectator problem in Aikido. Sitting at the side lines you can never know for sure just who is doing what to whom. You can see the nage’s hands rise, move or turn, but you cannot know, from outside, whether this is nage initiating these things, or a reaction to uke’s movements and attack.

In fact, we can take it a step further than this and say that at best only the two involved can fully know, since it is entirely possible that neither of them will fully know either. In other words, the problem of “whom” is a really knotty one; it’s altogether possible that no-one knows.

In theory, at the beginning of a “technique” the nage first moves to a position of safety from the immediate attack and then “blends” with the attack. Even this is an over simplification since nage can be more proactive, but let’s set that side for a moment. This moment of initial blending is pivotal. Alan used to tell a story about O-Sensei coming to watch a class of aikido at the Hombu dojo, and after watching, smiling, for some time, he announced “you are all doing a wonderful job, after having your heads cut off.” The analysis of this could be that, especially when facing an armed attack, even if the blend if a bit out, there may be more than a bit of you missing by the time you start your technique.

Aiki means the harmony of ki, or energy, so your blend is the moment where you, and your attacked end in a position of aiki, where both your energies are pointed in the same direction. If the uke’s energy was directed at you in a dead straight line, as it often is, then in theory, you should both be pointing in the same dead straight line.

But this is often not the case. You can immediately see deviation from the straight line. Why is this? From Newton, the answer is obvious, one or both person(s) have put extra force into the situation.

This may have been uke, who immediately realising things are not going as planned, starts to react and often turns towards nage to strike them; this being the case nage has to move off the original straight line too to provide space for uke, and to keep the aiki principle, continuing to move with the uke. If that’s all it is then this is fine. The force and energy being contributed by nage are minimal, it is necessary and sufficient.

But all too often, the honest truth is that as nage, we anticipate the move from uke, or worse don’t even think about it, and just start whirling them around us. It may not be immediately clear why this is a Bad Thing. There are two reasons; one is that the aiki principle has been immediately broken, you are no longer in harmony with the attacker but attempting to direct them. The second is why the aiki principle itself matters; when you inject force and energy into the situation a skilled opponent can make use of it. In fact that’s practically the central principle of aikido. Probably 90% of the time, particularly in training, your opponent may not even notice, so we all get away with it, and we probably never learn.

So here are some thoughts on training to enforce honesty on this.

Try and do some techniques along a straight line on the mats. You’ll need your uke to be initially very well behaved. Don’t even think of it as an attack, imagine that you meet a friend at the gates of a park. You see them as they approach and you walk backwards, then sideways, then alongside them as you extend your hand to shake hands with them. They key here is not to make it a conflict. This is astoundingly easy to do when you aren’t worrying about having your head punched; just practice the naturalness of this first.

Then, as you walk along your straight line, just allow your hand to rise across the line, the analogy I used as if you are pointing at a squirrel in a tree. It’s a simple, gentle irimi-nage that requires a compliant sensible uke who just has to keep walking straight, even into the “throw”.

It’s a silly exercise, and you can play with greatly shortening it, but the big deal is, practising doing the throw along a straight line.

The next phase is to allow your uke to, once every so often (and without prior warning), lifting their free hand and turning to – well – lovingly caress your face shall we say? This changes the dynamic, the uke wants to move off the straight line, and so you have to as well. But the key of this exercise is:

  1. do you actually pull them off the line on occasions where they do not turn;
  2. can you really convince yourself you don’t move off the line with a little extra force?

It may be a useful exercise.

Another example worthy of note is Shomen Uchi, Ikkyo (tenkan). Or that when your opponent tries to strike your forehead, you turn, contact their arm and bring it, and the uke to the ground.

Traditionally this is often done by grabbing the arm as it descends and whirling your uke around you. There can be real consequences to this because their other fist is being whirled around you too. There are other problems too: you can have a tendency to pull the arm so closely into your space that uke can merely step behind you and topple you over their leg. It isn’t a nice fall. It also provides, ironically, a slow descent of uke into the ground, since you provide them with a lot of implicit support.

So try, from the moment of Shomen Uchi contact where your hands meet, to step to the side, and without gripping contact the arm with both hands (the other hand at the elbow). Let your uke continue on their straight line straight forward and downwards. Potentially this is a hard fall, you are providing no force or breaking but just allowing them to sail majestically (potentially teeth first) into the mat. Some care needs be taken with this initially! It is most important that you do not push them down, just act as a ratchet so as they descend they cannot rise.

Again, in real life uke will often start heading towards you early on, trying to recover their balance, and also because in aikido, the tendency for uke and nage to start running around in circles is ever present, and once again, that’s fine, the issue is not to interfere with this, but also not to seek to amplify it by hauling them around.

At an early stage you may find it useful not to grab their wrist; this can, in any case, cause all sorts of postural problems, and once you grab something the urge to pull it in is not far behind.

A suitable training for this can be found at your local Supermarket. Find yourself an empty trolley, and as you move it around, you will probably grip it with both hands and pull in one while you push out the other. If you are really mindful to your body you may notice muscles in your abdomen and spine taking the strain. But then fill the trolley to the brim, you will rapidly discover that this trick is not so easy. It’s also not so wise, your muscles will shriek in protest at you, and if you do this kind of thing with a large opponent you will likely both be unable to move them, and injure yourself trying.

These are some simple thoughts on the Dead Straight Line that Alan used to talk about. There should always be a delicate positive pressure in that straight line in front of you, so that as things move and the gap appears there you will be immediately slot yourself into it. It is the spike in O-sensei’s “Ki” calligraphy; it is the imaginary sword held in front of you that tells you always where you want to go.

Your curved movements are still a succession of Dead Straight Lines.

There is a nice, and relatively elementary parallel from Einstein‘s General Theory of Relativity. The curved paths that objects like planets make, as commented on by Aristotle appear circular and curved, but actually they are Dead Straight Lines (geodesics) through curved space-time. When the Moon travels around the Earth, it does so in a series of Dead Straight Lines so that it keeps missing the Earth and it perpetually falls towards it. If you do decide to have uke orbit around you, then this is the same principle you need to prevent them spiralling into you, complete with their body weaponry.

But anyway, try playing with Dead Straight Line. I hope you will find it rewarding.

Fudoshin

I wrote this essay almost eight years ago. I’m just republishing it in a web format.

In many eastern religions, and indeed their occidental counterparts, great emphasis is placed in reaching states of personal enlightenment or self-improvement. In Zen, this is often approached from several angles (See D.T. Suzuki [2]), but perhaps the most well known is that of zazen meditation. In this practice the mind is encouraged to have no attachments, it may move freely, neither forced to consider thoughts, not forced to leave them.

This state of mind could be described by the word mushin meaning literally “no mind”. In this state the mind is truly focused on the present moment, not anticipating the future and not pondering on the past. The martial arts of Japan have long been looked upon as an alternative, or perhaps at least parallel, means of progressing to this goal. In Budo this can be thought of as a form of meditation in motion, always acting in the present.

This prevents fearful anticipation of the future and also misinterpreting such future events. Although the idea of a budo is that of a way without destination, this goal of mushin should be constantly striven for. Perhaps an intermediary goal is that of fudoshin. This means “immovable mind” although this translation fails to carry the positive implications in this word. For me this means that the mind is immovable by outside influence, or to put it another way the mind can only be “moved” when one desires it.

As the beginner knows nothing about either his body posture
or the positioning of his sword, neither does his mind stop any-
where within him. If a man strikes at him with the sword, he
simply meets the attack without anything in mind.
As he studies various things and is taught the diverse ways of
how to take a stance, the manner of grasping his sword and how where to put his mind, his mind stops in many places. Now if he wants to strike at an opponent, he is extraordinarily discomforted.
Later, as days pass and time piles up, in accordance with his
practice, neither the postures of his body nor the ways of grasping the sword are weighed in his mind. His mind simply becomes as it was in the beginning when he knew nothing and had yet to be taught anything at all.

extract from the Unfettered Mind, Takuan Soho

So here in “The Mysterious Record of Immovable Wisdom”, a letter written by the famous monk Takuan Soho to the equally famous swordsman Yagyu Munenori, Soho advises that a person with no martial experience may be better off than those who embark upon such a path. The person with no such training at least behaves naturally, even if possibly foolishly.

Their mind may be affected by many outside influences, but at least they themselves do not cause it to “freeze”.

When one begins training in a martial way, one often begins by learning basic skills and body movements and then, of course, waza. When attempting to refine performance of a kata or waza, one’s mind may focus on the future – in the hope of attaining the perfect form – or it may focus on the past, in the recollections of past successes or failures.

Unfortunately these moments of locked focus, the states of “fushin” or frozen mind, however brief cause the body which is forever locked in the present to be deprived of command. In severe cases then, fushin is manifested by the locking in position of the whole body.

How then can we move towards this state of fudoshin, and thus ultimately to mushin? At this stage in my journey it seems that the following are true, whether during the execution of a kata, waza or a more free action.

  • One most resist the urge to anticipate the future except by observing the present. It follows that ultimately waza should not be “selected” but eventually will arise without conscious thought (mushin).
  • One must avoid lingering in the past. Recollections of past encounters and their success or failure are false as the past moment will never truly match the present.
  • One should not let your eyes and mind become locked on the opponents eyes, their weapon, fist or any other point. Gaze should take it the whole person as well and the mind should observe all things.

     

    Some teachers say that you should always stare at the
    enemy’s weapons, or at his eyes, or at his feet. This is not
    a good idea because it fixes your spirit in place and is easily
    read by an experienced fighter.

    – extract from the Book of
    Five Rings – Minamoto Musashi

  • Forced aggression may cause the mind to focus too greatly on the future desire for victory and thus ironically deprive the body of the mind in the present to help obtain it. One should not delay the cut, or throw, but neither should one rush it in too great a desire to bring the future more quickly. Indeed it seems from the books “Zen and the art of archery” (see [1]) and the “Unfettered mind” (see [4]) that we wish to obtain a state in which the cut happens because it is natural or the throw happens because nothing else can happen.
  • Such considerations occur outside the dojo when considering our progress along the Way or in other matters. Of course we must always strive to improve and progress, but if we are too desperate we risk placing our mind in the future and not the here and now. Similarly we must have the patience and some tolerance about our state of current imperfection. Focusing too much on the failures of the past denies us the chance to observe ourselves in the present to make us better in the future.

These comments are of course, immensely subjective. However these thoughts map my current way of thinking a short way into a long journey and at this time it seems the best way for me to continue to refine myself.

References

[1] Herrigel, Eugen: Zen in the Art of Archery, Arkana 1988.
[2] Suzuki, D.T.: Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings of D.T. Suzuki, Double-day 1996.
[3] Musashi, Minamoto: The Martial Artist’s Book of Five Rings, (trans. Stephen F. Kaufman), Tuttle 1994.
[4] Soho, Takuan: The Unfettered Mind, (trans. William Scott Wilson) Kodansha 1995.

Compassion in the Martial Arts

I recently had a conversation with some people who wondered if there could be any place for compassion in the martial arts in general, and certainly in Iaido, or Japanese swordsmanship in particular.

It may be useful to start by considering the idea of Bushido, or “the Way of the Warrior”. A lot of people have heard about Bushido, but often through a very distorted perspective. This is not least because the ideas have been smeared by the inexcusable behaviour of some Japanese in the Second World War. These individuals were not, by the way, samurai. That class had long since been dissolved in the Meiji Restoration.

The closest analogous concept for us in the West is that of Chivalry and the word has similar linguistic roots. Now, we do not believe that Christian knights always behaved in a way that was above reproach, do we? Certainly not, but we do not throw out the baby with the bath water. The legend of Arthur is a romanticised and idealised idea of chivalry but one that has inspired many to better conduct.

Bushido lists seven virtues (some say the seven folds in a hakama represent these), which I will borrow the listing of from wikipedia rather than mess with the kanji myself:

Do you find any of this list surprising? It might temper your view of how a warrior might see himself. Perhaps you did not expect respect and benevolence to make such a list.

I think it’s a nice list to consider with a martial art like aikido which is a modern budo that seeks to avoid gratuitous damage to the “opponent”. For the practitioners of such an art, it provides a compass for our behaviour. I constantly emphasise the importance of compassion in aikido when I teach, and strive to embody it in practice. There are actually pragmatic and selfish reasons why this behaviour is martially more effective; you do not damage joints you need to effect control; you do not provoke responses you need to contain and so on. Some might argue if compassion with self-interest is still compassion. The concept of cause and effect, or karma provides a strong incentive for acting appropriately, isn’t it a bonus that it is not merely “right” but also effective?

But the sword is not a weapon designed to control or subdue but to kill. There is a Japanese word katsujinken, the sword that gives life. What can that mean? It can have many meanings. It could mean to not use the sword when not necessary, to fight without fighting.

Compassion requires the love of others. I feel I have long understood that. It has taken me longer to realise it also implies the love of one’s self, and I still struggle with the consequences of that. Compassion can manifest itself in many ways. Exercising compassion may require hard and apparently brutal choices to avoid greater suffering caused by another path. Such choices can be be traumatic for the one who acts as well as to those whom it appears to affect the most. Reconsider the list of seven virtues in that context if you will. The samurai were required to take quick, just decisions, and see them through, with all that entailed.

To assist another as they commit Seppuku was (it is now illegal in Japan) an act of respect, benevolence and compassion. There are many stories of samurai acting as seconds for both their closest friends, and their defeated enemies to shorten their suffering. To regretfully, but decisively take a life to protect one’s own can be an act of compassion (to one’s self), and in many cases as an act to protect the lives of many innocent others.

A final thought from the modern era. If you found yourself in a hijacked plane post 2001, with the split second opportunity and means to kill the hijacker, would it not be a compassionate act to swiftly and decisively kill that person before they could take any action to kill so many others? Might it not even be an act of compassion towards that person and their family?

If you seek mastery of the sword, seek first sincerity of the heart, for the former is but a reflection of the latter.

Iwakura Yoshinori