Thursday, December 20, 2012

Morihei Ueshiba, the Early Days

Thanks to Andrew for finding this. I believe O'Sensei (Morihei Ueshiba) is doing Aiki-Jujitsu rather than Aikido. Well worth the watch.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Uke and Defensive "Going With"

I remember years ago when I was first introduced to Aikido that I thought the techniques seemed very staged. This is what uke does; this is what nage does in response; now, to be a good uke, you have to do this while nage does a technique to you. In short, go with.

I imagine that "going with" a technique is a part of any martial art's training. When I studied Kenpo, I remember that we wanted to react as if we had felt the full power of a punch or kick. So, we would exaggerate the effect. This simulation helped the other student learn the proper motion involved with cause and effect. That way, the technique became more natural and applicable to a real situation.

Aikido seemed over the top, though. When I first started, I was told how to move as an uke. The problem for me was that it didn't seem "natural." My inclination was to end up with "this" foot forward, rather than "that" foot, which was the proper one for the technique. It seemed bizarre.  Moreover, it seemed kind of fake. I figured to make Aikido work, I would have to find those gems hidden amidst the rocks and integrate them into what I already knew. And I found many gems. Indeed, I found enough of them that I knew this was the art I ultimately wanted to study.

Back then, I only studied for about three to five months before I had to drop the class. It took me thirteen years to find another Aikido instructor. I've been studying it here for a bit less than two years now. Upon arrival, I had the same impression. My job as uke was to help nage to learn the technique, so I went with, and then some. I tried to give the right amount of energy, and I tried to position myself appropriately for the technique to "work." That has changed, though.

As I work with people trying out the art for the first time, I remember what it was like to be moved in my earliest days. I remember some techniques making me to think, "wow, this could end up in face plant quickly. Even the other day when I was briefly loaded up for a hip throw (which wasn't finished), I remember feeling the "oh, shit!" moment as my body wasn't quite sure how to respond.

Is uke "faking" a response? Well, I've come to realize it depends upon what uke is trying to do. If uke is just trying to go through a technique for the purposes of training nage, then I'd say somewhat yes, at least at our lower levels. But if uke is trying to learn how to defend against nage's techniques, then going with will create positioning to open up new possibilities for response. While it might be more natural for me to move with "this" foot forward, putting "this" foot forward may actually put me in greater danger (remember the face plant?). If, however, I move to put "that" foot forward, I may be better able to roll away before being damaged, or to realign my center upon nage for a possible reversal. A while back, Justin had mentioned that at a certain level it becomes harder to tell who is uke and who is nage. I feel like I'm starting to get a glimpse into what that means.

So, with the proper intent, "going with" ceases to be merely about going through the motions (or "faking it").  It isn't just about helping out nage. It's also about training your body to help yourself. Learning how to flow with the energy to reclaim your center is an important part of self-defense. Being uke isn't the opposite of being nage. It's the other side of the same coin.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

What do you bring to the party?

Expectations are risky; they are often the source of misunderstandings, assumptions and unfulfilled wishes which later become the harbingers of resentment. But I was reflecting the other day on what I expect of my Aikido students, and what they may rightly expect of me.

I see Aikido as a dynamic event that is like a party in which each person brings a critical component - themselves. Each person is a critical player, and creates a unique event by being there, by being fully present.

As the teacher, I try hard to bring the "Ai," the harmony, by creating peace within the club, within the training hall, and to keep the peace between those training. For this reason, when the dojo was built, I took special care in the mundane aspects of such things as the paint on the walls, the softness of the dojo floor, and the lighting - the subtleties of our surroundings which affect our sense of being.

From my students, I ask for the "ki." I ask them to come to class with positive energy, enthusiasm, a desire to let go of their outside world and connect with others also traveling on a profound journey. It is a journey where they are able to focus on themselves, their own inner balance, and to cultivate the ability to call up that calm balance at will. This is not to say they dismiss their outside problems, or ignore them; but they leave them at the door, like a coat hung on a hook. I promise them their problems will be there waiting for them when they leave, but by leaving their troubles, for 2 hours, and letting go of them, they will be that much better able to deal with them effectively. People need an escape, a place of sanctuary to clear their minds, so that they can return afresh to life's daily assaults, if they want to deal effectively and efficiently with those assaults, and not simply be constantly reacting (and over-reacting) to every barrage of life, like a ricocheting pinball in an arcade game.

Finally, I explain to my students that our aikido federation was chosen carefully, as a group of people I believed could show us the "Do," or the Way. Joining a Federation was never a matter of identity politics, promotions, or promotional concerns; it was a premonition that, as I got to know our sensei and his senior students, I found myself wanting to emulate them, believing that I needed to go where they were, think like they think, to be like them - to be like these people I had come so much to admire. I believed if I followed their path in Aikido, I could achieve a better life. It was more than doing Aikido "techniques," more than "doing Aikido" - for me, it was about "living" Aikido.

I bring the Ai, students bring the Ki, and our sensei shows the Do. Anyone up for a party?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Harmonizing with Words Amidst Conflict

Conflict. It's everywhere. It can be as extreme as bullets flying, or it can be a low key as a few harsh words. Regardless of the scale, it always begins somewhere. Then it escalates as emotions start to spiral out of control. Next thing you know, someone pops.

I work as a online forum moderator. Dealing with conflict is a part of the job. It's not a bad part; I actually like it. It's a headache going through the process, but when it's done I find we are usually better off than when we started. Over the years, I have developed my own approach. I find it interesting how much it reflects what I learn in Aikido. In many respects, the principles are the same.

Connect with the other: The most important part of conflict management is trying to understand where the other person is coming from. Listen, and listen deeply. While doing so, suspend judgement.

Connect with yourself: Know where you are coming from, which includes your bias and where you are emotionally. A strong sense of self will keep you from being pulled in by the other's emotional whirlwind.

Draw the other into your center: When communicating your perspective, make sure to use "I" messages. Tell them "I see this" or "I feel that."  Avoid "you" messages.  When emotions start to flare, the fight or flight reaction kicks in. As you tell others what you see and feel, it draws them out of their own perspective. This pulls them out of their emotions and into rational thought. Effectively you are moving them from their center of power into yours.

Do not fight force with force, but accept it: An angry person can use hostile language. The temptation is to return the favor. However, rather than pushing back, receive the energy. The person before you is giving part of her or himself to you. Consider this a gift, rather than a threat.

Move into the void: In conflict, two forces of stability exist: them and you. Both would rather prefer their own foundation. The void is where neither of you are. That is precisely where you need to go, together. When the two of you go on a journey where neither of you have been, you are entering a new world of creative solutions. You don't necessarily know where you will go next, but the mutual sense of vulnerability becomes a tie that binds.

Nurture malice and transform it into compassion: Fights end with winners and losers. Whenever someone enters into conflict, they need to win because the only other option is to lose. This fear of loss is what keeps conflict going. Angry energy, once accepted, can be transformed. Once another has seen our point of view and considered with us creative possibilities, they have the option of letting go of the anger. But, they can only do that if they feel safe. That's why it's important to walk into conflict without seeing the other as something to be dominated.  In conflict, it takes two to tango.  If your desire is not to win, then the other cannot lose. Once the other realizes that, it becomes okay to let go of the negative emotions.

Intent matters: Perhaps this is the most important one of them all. If someone tries to draw you into conflict and you desire to dominate and feel powerful, then the situation will indeed become critical. If, however, you see the situation as an unfortunate side effect of an inability to work together, then you have an opportunity before you. If you see the other as an enemy, then an enemy that person will remain.  If however, you see before you another who struggles with fear while feeling threatened, then your entire posture changes. When our intent is such that we seek to truly connect with another, we can begin to identify with that person. When we identify with another, that which becomes possible is love.  Love does not seek to win; it seeks to flow and flourish. As we allow it to do so, new possibilities emerge and new life is found.

Those are only a few of the principles that translate from Aikido to conflict management. As I reflect here, my point isn't to draw out all of the similarities. I'll let someone else do that.  Rather, the point is to try to look at Aikido principles in a more holistic way. Yes, they are strong foundations for powerful technique on the mats. But, they can be more than that, if we allow them to. For me, Aikido isn't just about centering, imbalancing, and locking. It's about living. When I practice Aikido, I do so in order to participate in a more creative, harmonizing love. That's my intent, anyway.

Aikido as Divine Liturgy

Founder of Aikido
Morihei Ueshiba (O Sensei)
For half my life (about 20 years) I've been fascinated with the martial art Aikido (which can be translated as "the way of the spirit of harmony").  I was introduced to it in my mid-20s.  At first, it confused me.  I thought martial arts were about taping into one's inner animal, unleashing it, and overpowering one's opponent, thus winning the fight.  Aikido turned all of that on its head.  In class, I heard things like, "You want to take care of your uke (the person you are throwing)," and "Don't do that, because you could hurt someone.  Do this instead."  I was confused, yet enthralled.

I only studied the art a few months before life changes made it too difficult for me to attend any longer.  But it was enough to for me to realize that this was the art I wanted to study.  So I didn't study anything else until I found a class in my area a little more than a year ago.   It has been a great joy to return to the martial art I love most.  

When practicing Aikido, techniques begin with an "uke" attacking a "nage".  In contrast to many arts, the nage's mindset is not one of defensiveness toward an enemy.  Even though uke's attack is (theoretically) that of malice, nage perceives the relationship as one of mutuality and partnership.  When the attack comes in with its malicious energy, the nage accepts the energy as a gift by absorbing it in some way (or at least not impeding it).  The nage then blends her energy with the aggressive energy, thus redirecting it into her center to make it her own.  Once the energy is her own, her concern for the well-being of her aggressor cleanses the energy of malice.  After her perspective and intent have transformed the energy into that of compassion, she returns it back to her uke, her own life-giving gift to him.  

Of course, my life has taken many turns since I first encountered Aikido, one of them being ordination.  Those years of experience have led me to look at this martial art differently. In the early days, I thought of Aikido as merely a non-violent martial art.  Now, I look at it as a magnificent form of liturgy.  

Liturgy, when done well, is far more than "mere ritual."  It is about participating ritualistically in a story of becoming.  In basic Presbyterian liturgy, we begin with an opening call to worship in which the leader calls out to the people, and the people respond.  It's story that begins with a divine word that creates, in this case, a people.  But then we have the confession of sin and assurance of pardon, through which we act out the fall and restoration.  Having been restored, we now listen to the Word of God (the scripture and sermon) with new ears, ears informed by the experience of our fallen/renewed lives.  Having heard our calling, we are then sent out into the world as expressions of the grace that we have received.  

Attentive liturgy has a shaping effect upon our lives.  When we intentionally participate in a story repeatedly, that story helps to shape how we see things and how we respond to them.  Christian liturgy is a story of redemption, a story in which the power of divine love draws in the darkness to itself and transforms it, sending it out again as new light.  Or, to put it another way, it is a story of transforming malice into compassion, of transforming sin into grace. 

What does it mean to become more "human"?  What would the world look like if we were to transcend our bestial drive to survive and the ensuing need to conquer?  It seems that a worship service that relays our calling to become agents who redeem malice through compassion and a martial art that nurtures an attitude of caring for one's neighbors are both wrestling with the same question.  As they wrestle, they tell their stories.  And in their ends, they present new visions of human possibility in which we can all participate.  Whether I partake of cup or twirl people around me, I experience both as liturgical expressions of the Divine. 

Originally posted by author on Evolving Christian Faith Network.