Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Happiest Person in the Room

On one unforgettable occasion, Maruyama Sensei was visiting Rutgers dojo. In our new location we had to walk the gauntlet of the weight training room to get to the practice space. Thirty-odd young men were lifting huge metal plates on various machines and sweating profusely. Three or four of us trouped through in our gi, feeling rather small in the presence of all that unadulterated muscle. I muttered something about how Sensei was still the strongest man in the room. Sensei immediately said, "Don't say I'm the strongest, say I'm the happiest man in the room!"

That point comes back to me often. Sensei often says that having money, a girlfriend, a job, will make us happy of course, but the practice of aikido will help us become more happy even without money, without a girl (or boy) friend, without a job.

Recently, because some trees fell in a storm, our house had no power for eight days. When it was turned on again we found that the hot water, the heating system, the garage door opener, the stove and several small appliances had been destroyed by the power surge. To me it was an inconvenience, certainly, a good story to tell, and in some ways interesting to see how being without power made me more aware of my environment. But we have no small children, we have wood stoves, a gas range, showers at work, homeowners' insurance. Yet as I've told people this story,  I can tell by the shocked expressions that many would have found it far more stressful than I did.

I'm no saint. Things upset me. But I do wonder if practicing aikido, especially under Sensei, has something to do with the fact that, even when I'm under stress, I still feel like the happiest person in the room.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Dark Matter

In an earlier post, I wondered, "Is ki real?" Is ki an actual thing, or is it just a concept?

I teach aikido to college students. So I hesitate to write about science as if I know anything, because I know I will be challenged! But I offer this:

Only a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum is visible to the human eye. We are all familiar with ultraviolet and infrared rays or waves and the ways in which they can be used: gamma rays, X-rays, infrared heat lamps, microwaves, and radio. Infrared light was only discovered by humans in 1800 and ultraviolet in 1901. But animals such as bees and snakes have sensed these parts of the spectrum for eons. How might a snake's ability to find prey or a bee's ability to find nectar have been described or understood before we had instruments to perceive these wavelengths?

Dark matter is a discovery that has only recently become known to non-scientists. Only 50 years ago, in popular culture at least, dark matter was the stuff of science fiction; in many ways it still is. As with infrared and ultraviolet light, its existence was originally postulated to explain observed behavior. We have since developed instruments that allow us to "see" and measure infrared and ultraviolet light, but we have nothing that will allow us to directly measure dark matter. Its existence can only be inferred based on the motions of galaxies and other astronomical "objects." Yet dark matter is estimated to account for 83% of the matter in the universe (maybe).  Astrophysicists seem to be overwhelmingly in agreement that dark matter's behavior is very strange, yet that something like it must exist.

So, given an awareness of the limitations of human understanding of how the universe is fabricated, does the existence of ki seem so impossible?

Thanks to Max Strom for inspiring this post.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Bridge

Last night I had a dream of a world gone awry. It started with a newspaper report showing multiple cars driving off a bridge that had collapsed. When I went to the scene (arriving instantly in my dream, of course,) I saw car after car going over the edge into the water. Many people saw the problem, but no one was trying to warn the drivers. The rest of the dream had more scenes of people unwilling to help each other even when all it would take was holding out a hand.

When I awoke I thought hazily about this quality of empathy that was missing from the people in the dream. Empathy is something all humans - and perhaps many animals - share. We would try to help someone in danger without thinking, even if there were no direct gain. A psychopath, a person without empathy, has a mental disorder. Although psychopaths seem to make excellent business leaders, the idea of a world full of them is what makes zombie movies so scary.

The concept that people are connected is not a theory. It is not just a part of our humanity, it is our humanity. If you are not sure, imagine a world without empathy.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

What is Ki?

The concept of Ki, or lifeforce, exists in many cultures. In Chinese it's Chi or Qi, in Sanskrit, Prana. In western culture, while we may say someone has a soul that is distinct from their physical body, the soul is connected to the individual. Ki, as it is understood in Japanese culture, is a universal force that permeates everything. Individuals may manifest more or less ki, but it is a connecting force between everyone and everything.

In Japan, ki is an everyday concept that's found in many common phrases. For example the phrase "O ki o tsuke te," which means "take care," literally means, "apply ki."  "O genki desu?" the most common way to say "How are you?" means, literally, "Do you have ki?"  "Ii kimochi," a phrase heard often, particularly in popular songs, means "(What a) good feeling." "Ii" means "good" and "kimochi" literally means having, or holding ki.

Sensei often says that practical application of the four basic principles "equals ki," but he doesn't talk much about ki itself. This may be because he feels that the concept is more foreign to westerners, and I have to say I agree that it is. Even now, after 17 years of practice in Kokikai Aikido, I still struggle with the question: "Is ki real?"

I have experienced the effects. I can touch someone and immediately know where their balance is, where they are stiff, where they are relaxed, but surely that's just sensitivity and experience, not ki. Some days I feel absolutely brimming with life and happiness, and when I walk down the street, guys drive by in delivery vans and wave and wink at me, and frowny-faced youmg men in low-slung pants and do-rags say, "Hey, how ya doin'?" (FYI I am gray haired and pretty ordinary-looking). Is that ki, or is it just because of my posture and smile? Leon Brooks Sensei walks into the dojo and everyone sits up straighter. He counts as we do our ki exercises at the beginning of class and everyone in the room becomes more energized and alive. Is that ki? Is ki real?

Well, I don't know. And I don't think it matters if I know. If the concept helps me practice, then I'll use it.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Kokikai Sangha

At the start of Kokikai Winter Camp some years ago I greeted David Nachman Sensei. I told him I was becoming more dedicated to Buddhist meditation, but I was having difficulty with the lack of a sangha. "This is your sangha!" he answered, gesturing to the 200+ people beginning to fill the gym.

This reminded me of a time I was asked to deliver a copy of a group photo to Maruyama Sensei. The photo had been taken at the previous winter's Kokikai Aikido camp. There were about 230 people in the photo, all sitting formally in lines, arranged with Sensei in the center. He zeroed in on their faces, all smiling, relaxed, happy. "If you didn't know," he said, "what kind of group would you say this is?"

I wasn't expecting the question and had no idea how to reply. "What kind of group?" he persisted, "College reunion?" 

We both agreed, no. "Family?" "No." "Religion?" Even religion, no. It was impossible for me to place my finger on the relationship between the people in the picture and compare it to another group. It was only later that I was introduced to the concept of sangha.  

A sangha describes this group perfectly.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Power of Teaching

When you think of the Buddha, you think of the young man who was born in Kapilvastu, who practiced many years in the forest and who went around India to live the teaching. But that is only a portion of the Buddha, because the moment when the Buddha began to build the sangha, he begin to transfer himself to the sangha and many disciples, monastic and lay, they continue the Buddha. You have to see the Buddha in the sangha. You have to be able to see the Buddha in the dharma (teaching). If you have not seen the dharma and the sangha, you have not seen the Buddha. The dharma is available in the here and the now. The sangha is also available in the here and the now. You do not have to go to India in order to see the Buddha. If you believe that Buddha is a god, and can bestow on us the things we want, then that is not the Buddha. 

The Buddha is a human being who has a deep capacity of understanding and of loving and of having maha karuna, great compassion, maha maitri, great love, maha prajna, great understanding. He can perform miracles. 

Understanding people is a miracle, and it is described that the Buddha is one who understands the world well. Lukadidu, it means understanding the world. Because he understands the world deeply, that is why he can offer the kind of teaching that can help heal the world. The miracle of understanding and the miracle of teaching are very important miracles that the Buddha can perform.

When you give a teaching that can transform people who heal you, that is a miracle. The Buddha described it as the greatest miracle of all miracles. And there were disciples of the Buddha who were capable of doing that during the time of the Buddha. They already continued the Buddha in the time of the Buddha. And in our time, there are those of us who can do the same. By their practice, by their teaching, they can heal; they can help people liberate themselves from their suffering. So the miracle continues. 

From a talk by Thich Nhat Hanh

Friday, October 21, 2011


In Buddhist practice, the "three jewels" represent the foundation of practice. These three jewels are the Buddha (or teacher), the dharma (the teaching), and the sangha (the community of practice). It's interesting that not only the teacher and the teaching, but the people around you are considered not just important but essential!

This community of practice might also be described as "spiritual friends," or people who share the same goals of practice. If we look around, we can see that, whether they call it by this name or not, many groups understand the importance of "sangha" in supporting others along a particular path, particularly a difficult one: AA, mental health professionals, even Jenny Craig!

Here's a quote from the Upaddha Sutra:
Venerable Ananda said to the Blessed One, "This is half of the holy life, Lord, admirable friendship." The Buddha replied, "Admirable friendship is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk [or anyone else] has admirable people as friends...[s]he can be expected to develop and pursue the Noble Eightfold Path.
We tend to focus on individuals when thinking about the people with whom we practice, rather than thinking of them (and ourselves) as a community. It's good to remember that these "admirable people," whatever their foibles and individual character traits, are nevertheless engaged on the same journey. As the Buddha said, their very presence supports us on the path.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Judging vs. Living

If I am judging this moment, I am not living it.If I am living it, I am not judging it.
 Judging is head centered, living is heart centered.
 Judging springs from doubt and insecurity. Living springs from love and contentment. 
And each moment I choose again, as my choice a moment ago is no longer relevant. 
-Michael Jeffreys

Sunday, October 16, 2011

What Are Your Three Things?

Over the last few years I've had the privilege of taking several yoga classes with Max Strom. He's a great teacher and I think one reason is his knack for coming up with memorable concepts. One of these is to keep in mind your "Three Things."

Max spoke of a student who he described as "all over the place." This student had trouble focusing, and as a result he was distracted by every external stimulus and seemed unable to listen to verbal cues. Max decided to give him just three things to work on, but they would be three things that would work in every pose. From then on, every time he walked by this student, he'd say, "Remember your three things." This gave the student something that he could grasp to bring his attention back to his own body in the pose. Gradually the student progressed to the point that Max would just have to catch his eye occasionally and hold up three fingers.

Most of us could benefit from introducing this kind of concept into our yoga, meditation, aikido or anything that we practice with heartfelt intention.

In yoga at this point my three things might be:
  • Reach the feet into the floor
  • Inwardly rotate the legs
  • Knit the ribs in
At an earlier time they might have been:
  • Come back to your breath
  • Relax your shoulders
  • Relax your face
In aikido:
  • Find your center 
  • Relax your face 
  • Keep your ribs up and over 

As a teacher it's great to work with your students in this way. I think it's helpful for any student to identify two or three areas of challenge and address those areas consistently for a few weeks or even months. It can:
  • Help them filter out or prioritize the many incoming instructions, which can be particularly confusing for a beginner
  • Help them develop better internal focus and avoid external distractions
  • Foster the idea that they can be their own teachers by giving them something to think about even when you are not there
  • Last but not least, give the signal that you're paying attention to them and that you care about their progress
I think most of us as teachers tend to react to what we see at any particular moment and give instruction based on that, rather than thinking of our students in a more wholistic way. Or we may be aware of the long-term needs of our students but be ineffective at communicating them. It's good for instructors to train ourselves to be more perceptive to students' overall needs, and to refine our comments to a limited number of important areas. Asking, "What are your three things?" can benefit both student and instructor.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

5 (+1) Ways To Become A Better Teacher

In my other life I work in interactive marketing and I'm told that if you write lists in your blog, you get more "hits." I am tempted to joke about how I know how to avoid being hit, but instead, here's my list of 5 Ways to Become a Better Teacher - with one BONUS way!

These tips were developed with yoga and aikido in mind, because that's what I teach. But who knows, they might be useful for teaching sports, music lessons, even physics! 

#1 Develop Confidence in your voice and in your demeanor.
If you're having trouble with this, start with your voice and your demeanor will follow.

#2 Watch Your Students.
I'm always amazed at how many teachers get so wrapped up in what they are saying and thinking that they miss the very confused looks their students are giving them, or the fact that their students are doing some thing totally different than what they were asked to do. You can learn a lot about the quality of your teaching by watching your students. And certainly you can help them more.

#3 Give each student One Thing to think about.
I think this was the first thing I learned as a teacher, back when I was 16 and a friend asked me to give her guitar lessons. I had no idea what I was doing, but if I could come up with one thing to say, I was teaching and she was learning! From the student's perspective, when you're trying to learn something difficult, it's a lot easier if you can focus on one area. If you can get better at that one thing, you become more confident, and a student with confidence will learn better. Not only that, but as teachers, working to find the one thing that will improve a student's practice is excellent for developing our own powers of perception.

#4 Explain the Benefits of what you are teaching for the student's practice.
When you give a little reason why, it gives them a reason to keep doing it. This sounds obvious, and yet many of us fall into bad habits: "Bend the wrist," "Push into the balls of the feet," "Extend farther," "Don't overextend." All these instructions need to have some context so that the student can begin to feel the results for themselves. Ultimately you want them to be their own teachers, not just automatons following your instructions.

#5 Find a way to relate what they are learning to Daily Life.
In the long term, if your students feel that what they are learning from you has benefits off the mat, they will keep coming back to this practice for their whole lives.

BONUS WAY to Become a Better Teacher
This one's worth all the rest!

#6 Slow Down.
In aikido, students (and instructors) often want to practice at "street speed," thinking it's more realistic and therefore a better way to practice. In yoga, some teachers have a tendency to go from pose to pose without pausing. And, unless guided to do otherwise, students will often jam themselves into poses rather than finding them gradually. 

Unless we practice slowly, the mind has no time to process the very delicate feelings of the body that are involved in doing the technique or asana correctly. When we are moving slowly, we listen to the instructions and try to make them happen in our bodies. But as soon as we speed up, we go back to old habits.

Maruyama Sensei is fond of saying that if you practice junk 1000 times it's still junk. The best way to make sure you're not practicing junk is to practice slowly. 

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Mona Lisa Smile

In his book "Peace is Every Step," Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

"When I see someone smile, I know immediately that he or she is dwelling in awareness. This half-smile, how many artists have labored to bring it to the lips of countless statues and paintings?..Mona Lisa's smile is light, just a hint of a smile. Yet even a smile like that is enough to relax all the muscles in our face, to banish all worries and fatigue. A tiny bud of a smile on our lips nourishes awareness and calms us miraculously. It returns to us the peace we thought we had lost."

Remembering to bring this small smile to the face can do wonders, not only for our own mental state, but also for the way we treat others. But how much harder is it to retain this relaxed, calm state when engaging in self-defense?

I remember about 10 years ago watching Maruyama Sensei experimenting with this half-smile. I would see him in quiet moments at the side of the mat, smiling a little more, a little less, until he had the perfect relaxed smile. It was at that time that he began to throw people with this same relaxed face, so that even the most dynamic throws looked absolutely effortless. I have looked at hundreds of photographs and video frames of Sensei throwing uke in every situation, and (unless he chooses to look otherwise), his face always looks absolutely calm and relaxed.

I realized just how extraordinary this was when I saw photos of myself during an aikido demonstration. I had worked hard to prepare my mind, and at the time I thought I was at my most relaxed. My face showed the truth.

So, I have something to aim for. What would life be without hopes and dreams?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

I'd Rather Be...Here, Now

Recently I made up a few of these stickers. I put one on my car. I'm hoping that that next time I'm in traffic, whoever is stuck behind me will be reminded to stay present.

I have a few extras; if you'd like one, please let me know. Or you can make your own using Graphicsland (or a lot of other similar sites). One request if you do: please make extras and give them away!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Gently and Friendly

I work for a marketing company, and one of our clients is owned by a Japanese firm. The Japanese owners recently introduced a new marketing tagline: "Gently and Friendly." The American division decided that this tagline, although it might be suitable for Japanese audiences, did not convey the way that they were driving, aggressive and technology-focused, and so they are using a different tagline.

I was thinking about this issue on the way home from teaching the first aikido class of the semester. Maybe this "tagline" would not be suitable for most martial arts, because it doesn't convey the driving, aggressive, "win at all costs" attitude that they want to portray. But perhaps "gently and friendly" would work for Kokikai Aikido?

Don't get me wrong, I don't think we need a tagline!  But it's fun to think through the idea... So,"gently" might represent the way we use less effort, staying as relaxed as possible.  "Friendly" could refer to the result, which is that nage (the person who is defending) always retains control of the situation, having the ability to suit the throw to the strength of the attacker (throwing both smaller and larger people exactly as hard as they need to be thrown) and to the situation (for example so that our training, while remaining realistic, doesn't have to be a bruise-fest). Sometimes Sensei jokingly says, "Aikido is love and harmony," (as he effortlessly tosses some weight-lifting 3rd degree black belt to the ground from a standstill).  Maybe that's "gently and friendly!"

"Gently and friendly" stayed on my mind as I practiced yoga, and realized that it applied here as well. In yoga we don't usually practice with partners, so I used the idea of being gentle and friendly to myself throughout my practice.

In fact, the more I think about it, "Gently and Friendly" would make a pretty decent bumper sticker.

Thursday, September 15, 2011


Attention is precious. Our attention is like food that supports our purpose. There are significant consequences to how we focus our attention. If our attention is turned toward the purpose of being kind, being less greedy, being present for someone, our attention will feed that purpose.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


I ran into a friend yesterday who is going through a painful divorce. It was difficult to see him this way. Once a champion bodybuilder, he had lost weight, his thoughts were scattered, he looked and sounded defeated. He was so wrapped up in his anger that he was unable to experience or appreciate anything else: not the caring of the friends who were offering support or the helpful advice that they were giving him, not the delicious food, or the lovely summer day. It sounded like he had been in this state for months, and it may be many months, or years, before he is able to resolve the things that are making him unhappy.

Maruyama Sensei has said that in the context of fighting, "being angry is like having your eyes closed." My friend is in a fight and the outcome is vital to him, yet he is holding onto his anger as if it will save him even though the opposite is true.

Why do we hold on to our emotions as if they were weapons? I don't have the answer. I just know that my emotions do not represent reality; many times they obscure it. And I know that reality is precious: it's all we have!

Whenever I find myself battered by unpleasant emotions, if I can step back just one step, if I can open my eyes just one bit, I'm on the path to more equanimity and understanding. When the emotions are strong, this can be very, very difficult to do: more difficult than lifting heavy weights, daily sparring practice, or a three-hour workout. But it does get easier, and the rewards are great. After all, don't you think that you could solve your problems better if you had more equanimity and understanding? 

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Float Like a Butterfly...

Shuji Maruyama Sensei has been characterized as being "like a cross between a butterfly and a piece of heavy farm equipment." When Rick Berry said this at a dinner celebrating Sensei's 35th anniversary in the U.S., it really struck me and has stuck with me these last 10 years. I was thus very surprised to see Thich Nhat Hanh described as "a cross between a cloud, a snail, and a piece of heavy machinery - a true religious presence." (by Richard Baker, in the introduction to Nhat Hanh's Peace is Every Step)

Each of these great teachers has reached a profound level of understanding about the capability of human beings. But Maruyama Sensei teaches Kokikai Aikido, a martial art, and Thich Nhat Hanh teaches Zen Buddhism, a way of peace and individual transformation.

Isn't this interesting?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Instructing the Instructor

Recently I attended a yoga class during which one of the students corrected the instructor. I'm sure she had the best of intentions. She is another teacher in the same studio, she has more experience, and she did it in a whisper where she thought others couldn't hear. Nevertheless, it was inappropriate.

As we gain experience in yoga, aikido or any "internal" practice, we inevitably face this impulse to "teach." Sometimes the urge is very strong. A little voice tells us that we are being helpful, that the instructor will benefit from our experience and knowledge. Unfortunately this is not the case. It doesn't help the instructor in question, nor his students, and it doesn't help us either.

First, consider how it feels for the instructor who is "corrected" by a student, especially by one with more experience. He may already be nervous with this person in the class. Now his fears are confirmed. His confidence is weakened, he may have difficulty regaining his focus, and the flow of the class may suffer.

The students are unlikely to miss what has happened, no matter how quietly it's done. How do students react when they see their instructor is being corrected? They lose confidence that they are being well-taught. Their focus, which should be on listening to the instructions and trying to translate them into their own actions, now drifts to the teacher and the question of his ability. In the long term, if it's not discouraged this behavior can spread, contributing to a culture in the studio or practice group in which no teacher is respected, and all teaching comes into question.

The most compelling reason for me to resist the urge to "teach," however, is that resisting it is better for my practice. When I fall into focusing on what the instructor "should" be doing, it's evidence that my attention has wandered. I'm no longer paying attention to how my body feels, where I am relaxed or tense, where I am sourcing my power.

In internal arts like aikido, yoga, tai chi or qi gong, it's the coordination of mind and body that brings growth and progress. One of the most important goals of practice is to bring the attention of the mind to bear on what we are doing with our bodies. Certainly I often fall short of that goal. The mind strays: this is its nature. But when I become aware that I'm critiquing the teacher, I can use this awareness as a sign to point my attention back to my practice.

I can think of only two situations in which it might be acceptable to interrupt a martial arts or yoga instructor with a correction. One is on the very rare occasion when the teaching puts someone in imminent danger. The second is if there is a mutually-understood teacher-student relationship between you and the instructor. Even then, your critique is better expressed in a quiet moment after class.

Monday, September 5, 2011

On Bringing About World Peace

"Peace must first be developed within an individual. And I believe that love, compassion and altruisim are the fundamental basis for peace. Once these qualities are developed within an individual, he or she is then able to create na atmosphere of peace and harmony. This atmosphere can be expanded and extended from the individual to his family, from the family to the community and eventually to the whole world."

H.H. the Dalai Lama
from the Foreword to Peace is Every Step, by Thich Nhat Hanh

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

No Parking, Except for Bob

This morning I was flying back from a trip to the Seattle area. Going through airport security there was a Catholic priest (or someone wearing Catholic priest regalia), who had a phenomenal amount of carry on baggage. Far too much for him to handle himself: hee had a roll aboard, a cardboard box wrapped for shipping and two large shopping bags. He was being assisted by a woman wearing a stewardess uniform. She had crew stickers on her bag but was not flying as crew. (Both were in the check in line with us as well). She helped him get into the first class security line and then to jump to the front of the security, as they bumped around with all these bags, dropping them and forcing everyone to make room.

I wondered if I was being filmed for candid camera, or perhaps they were reenacting "Catch Me If You Can." The experience left me with a lingering discomfort, however, that went beyond the idea of a 'man of the cloth' expecting special treatment.

Everyone wants to feel special. We all want the best parking space, to go first in line at Universal Studios, to get the roomy seats on the airplane. But there is something very precious about American culture that I believe is based on the idea that we try to give everyone equal access. You may say that only applies to 'big picture' stuff like education, voting, food, jobs, housing. But the things we do in our daily lives: waiting on lines, sitting in restaurants, buying tickets, affect our attitudes to the big picture stuff. And I see a trend toward more people trying to get privileges, and fewer people worrying about equal access.

Ok that's all I have time for, they're calling my flight.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Cloud Gazing

When I was a kid I used to lie in the grass under a tree and stare up at the clouds. I would just watch the clouds floating slowly by, gradually changing their shapes. Occasionally I would notice a cloud that looked like a familiar object, and I would name it, "dragon," "ship," but mostly my mind just floated like the clouds, with thoughts coming in and flowing out just as freely. It was incredibly relaxing. I think most of us have very few moments of relaxation like that in our lives.

What has happened to us? Life has given us so many experiences that whenever we have a thought, however random, it leads to another thought, and another, until we are carried far away from where we started. A lifetime's experience gives us many things to think about, many ideas to connect to. It's particularly unsettling to pay attention to the train of thought and realize how often it leads to self-criticism.

This idea is particularly appropriate in a practice, whether it be aikido, yoga, music, sports, or any other dedicated practice. Particularly as we practice longer and consider ourselves "experienced," the things we know can actually prevent us from seeing what "is." "This is how my body wants to move," is followed by, "I wish I were stronger," and then, "I should be practicing this more often," or "I'm just a weakling," and suddenly we are no longer paying attention.

To improve in our practice, we need to allow the mind to work freely, allowing ideas to flow in and out, just like clouds, without becoming attached to the train of thought. "Oh, this is how my body wants to move," is just a matter of interest, with no association, no emotion attached. "Oh, I just felt proud of myself/angry at myself for doing that," is just an observation, as if you were observing an interesting flower. It takes a lot of focus and compassion with oneself, to allow the succeeding thoughts to just float away like clouds.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Sometimes Things Are Not What They Seem.

Here's a little story that shows that things are not always as they outwardly appear. 

This situation arose recently while I was teaching an aikido class. I was generally keeping an eye on the room while I conferred with my co-instructor. I noticed Andy and Raul were looking towards me, not practicing. I walked over. "What's up?"

Andy: "We're having some trouble with the shomenuchi attack." (Shomenuchi is a strike to the top of the head, based on a traditional sword strike.)

Me: "What do you mean? You don't know how to attack shomenuchi?" 

Andy:  "Apparently not..."

Suddenly I realized:  Andy wears a white belt; he has practiced regularly for several years, but in another style of aikido. Raul is a blue belt who was wearing street clothes because he had just returned after a year away and didn't have his uniform. Each one thought the other was the beginner. Each one was asserting his point of view as correct.

After a little explanation to both parties, (apparently the shomenuchi attack is different in Andy's school,) the situation was resolved. 

I should say that both of these men are wonderful human beings and dedicated to their practice. Here they offered quite a beautiful vignette of how conflict can arise: each one was momentarily invested in asserting his identity (I know I look like a white belt, but.../I know I am only wearing street clothes but...). Neither was able to soften and widen his perspective to see the real situation. Thank you both!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Basho and Musashi

I once read a story about the Musashi, and Basho. This story must be apocryphal as they did not live at the same time, but I think of it often in relation to martial arts practice. Musashi was a samurai with a deep interest in Zen Buddhism, and Basho was a poet with a samurai background - both were also known as great travelers.

So, according to the story they met on their travels, and they sat down to talk and rest. As they sat in the forest, they saw a mamushi, or Japanese pit viper, sliding toward them. Neither moved. The viper approached Musashi, and, somehow sensing danger, stopped and changed directions. When the viper approached Basho, however, it slithered over his feet as if he were part of the forest floor.

Sometimes the objective is achieved by not having a fighting attitude.

Monday, April 25, 2011

I love your smile...

Have you ever caught sight of your face in the mirror and noticed that your face looked tight and kind of...frowny? Everyone has heard the benefits of smiling:

1. It's less work (This is the one that's quoted all the time. It's probably not technically true that it takes fewer muscles to smile, but it sounds good!)

2. Smiling actually changes your mood and makes you feel better. There's lots of research on this.

3. People respond better to you when you smile. Good telephone salespeople will tell you that smiling on the phone makes people respond better - but the best research is to try it.

4. Smiling is good for your health. Research has linked smiling to everything from lowered blood pressure and a healthier immune system to longevity, and more likelihood of finding a life-partner.

5. It makes you more attractive. There's lots of research on this, too, but it's so obvious you wonder why anyone wasted the research money.

6. Smiling will keep your face looking younger for longer: tightening the mouth makes wrinkles around the mouth, and eventually those wrinkles will become permanent.

Of course, a fake smile is definitely more work than a habitual frown. So what can we do?

Rather than faking a smile, work on relaxing your face.

Most of us (in American culture) are used to expressing our emotions in our faces. If we are thinking or concentrating, we furrow our brows and tighten our mouths in something that looks like a frown. Last year I saw a photo of some friends and I playing music: every person in the group was "frowning"  - yet we were doing something we loved! 

Here's some ways to help you relax your face:
  • When you exercise or do yoga, make relaxing your face a part of your practice
  • You can practice relaxing your face during any activity, including driving, gardening, knitting, reading, playing golf or playing Sudoku
  • Keep a small mirror around, maybe on your desk or in your kitchen.  Just seeing the mirror itself can help remind you to relax your face
  • A photo of something that reminds you to relax will work just as well: maybe it's someone you love, or maybe it's a great photo of you
It takes a lot of mental focus to relax the facial muscles. It also takes time, not just a day or a week or a month, to erase the habits of a lifetime. But the benefits are amazing. Which of the reasons above will give you the incentive you need to start relaxing your face?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Frequently Asked Questions in Aikido

At dinner after the seminar I taught in New York this weekend, the subject came up as it often does: What's the best way to respond when working with someone who you think is doing a technique wrong?

In answering this, there are several considerations:
  • Is the person doing something dangerous, or are they hurting you?
  • Is this person of a higher, lower, or equal rank to you?
  • Do you want to demonstrate your knowledge, or do you sincerely want to learn?
First: if your partner is doing something dangerous or you are being hurt, you have to let them know immediately. This can be done in a manner that won't evoke a "fighting spirit" - for example, "I have been injured there, so I have to be careful on that side," or "I'm kind of unsure of this technique, can we do it slower?" or, (one of my favorites), "My old bones can't respond as quickly as I used to, so maybe don't lay on the nikkyo quite so fast!" I tend to use self-deprecating humor, because it can help my partner be more willing to listen.

Second: rank makes a difference in how you discuss whether a technique is "wrong." Most of the time when people ask this question they are contemplating "correcting" someone of higher rank, so we can assume that's the case.

Third: I always keep in mind something Cecelia Ricciotti has said: you have to decide if you want to be a student or a teacher, because in this situation you can't be both.

Unless I am the designated instructor of a class, my goal is to learn. I am an aikido sponge. I have learned from all kinds of people:  large, small, young, old, stiff, athletic, difficult, friendly.  Every time I work with a partner, my goal is to come away having learned something. If a higher-ranking partner is open to learning, the spirit is much more fun: we learn together, without either of us assuming the role of teacher. 

Consider this: if you believe someone is "doing a technique wrong,"  why do you feel that you need to correct them? Do you feel a need for them to acknowledge your ability? What does that say about you? Is it possible to let people take responsibility for their own learning? Would it be so terrible if they continue to do it "wrong"?

When I work with a partner who is focused on demonstrating his or her knowledge, it's hard not to form a negative impression of that person. I still work to learn from them, but maybe not what they think they are "teaching" me! I am saddened that they seem to be wasting their time on the mat. There is so much to learn in Kokikai! We are all so fortunate to be Sensei's students, and that's a much more productive focus for our practice.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Women's Kokikai Seminar at Aikido Kokikai of NYC

Yesterday I taught a seminar for women students at Aikido Kokikai of NYC. It was wonderful to work with these strong women who are so enthusiastic about their practice! I felt honored to teach them.

We worked on ways that women can become more responsive and strong partners so they can feel comfortable working with partners of any size and strength.

We also talked about ways to make our aikido practice "our own," for example by finding metaphors and ways to visualize ideas in practice that are more feminine. (My first idea for a feminine metaphor was the fembots from Austin Powers, but we decided this might be too racy for some. OK, it's just a joke, but they did have to have great posture in order to be able to aim correctly!)

Posture was another topic of the seminar, and all of us experienced how small changes in posture can make a big difference in our ability to respond to an attack.

It was fun to practice with a group of women, although essentially I didn't feel there was any difference in teaching aikido for women vs. teaching men. There are certainly no "secret techniques" for women!

So, many thanks to all who put this together, and I hope to see you all again soon on the mat! 

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Teacher as Performer

Last night I attended a fantastic concert given by Zakir Hussain and Niladri Kumar. Later I tried to put a finger on what made the performance so electrifying. It wasn't just that these two are amazing virtuosi and very exciting to watch. It was their ability to connect to the audience and to each other that gave them the ability almost to stop time.  This is not always the case -  I have gone to see world famous jazz musicians whose performances left me cold. Sometimes it seemed the musicians were showing technical expertise but not connecting with the audience. Other times I sensed a negative, competitive edge among the players.

I can't count the number of times I've heard Maruyama Sensei talk about how important it is for an aikido teacher to be exciting, captivating, fascinating. A critique he sometimes makes of students' demonstrations and tests is that they're not interesting to watch. He chooses his ukes (attackers) not just by how strong, fast, flexible they are but how exciting they are for those who observe: do they look fierce, dangerous, frightening?

It is said that those who can't do, teach. This has not been my experience: I've had many great teachers who were also fantastic practitioners. However, great teachers also work on their teaching itself: honing and molding what they will say, how they will say it, what metaphors and examples they'll use, and, if the teaching has a physical component, how they will best convey this to their students. Most importantly, the greatest teachers understand that there's a performance component to what they do: they must engage with their students in order for learning to take place.

Friday, March 11, 2011


Several years ago I visited Japan for the third Kokikai Aikido International Convention. Because of the language barrier I wasn’t able to talk to very many of Maruyama Sensei’s Japanese students in depth. However, I did spend some time talking to Shuji Ozeki, founder of Kokikai Australia, who speaks English fluently. Ozeki Sensei has practiced Kokikai Aikido for over 25 years. He now lives in Seki, Japan and runs the Ozeki School of Japanese Cuisine.  We immediately slipped into a discussion about the core of Sensei’s teaching, and whether it was different for Japanese or American students. Ozeki Sensei was effusive about the way that Sensei’s teaching has greatly benefited his own life and benefits others by encouraging all human beings to respect one another.

with Shuji Ozeki at Kokikai Aikido
International Convention
Ozeki Sensei explained to me the Japanese phrase, “Ichi go, ichi e.” I had purchased this calligraphy at a temple in Kyoto. I have heard it interpreted in various ways. Maybe I intuited Ozeki Sensei’s interest in Zen Buddhism when I asked him to explain it, but I also wanted to hear a Kokikai perspective. He said that literally, it means, "one try, one chance," or, "one try, one moment." But its deeper meaning is that you have to experience each moment, because each moment is unique and precious. He likened it to our practice, which we do “kotsu, kotsu, kotsu” or step by step by step, not focusing on the goal but on this moment.

This is not easy for me. When I plant flower bulbs, I want to see them grow right away! I want to rocket to the moon! I try to keep in mind my conversation with Ozeki Sensei: "kotsu-kotsu."

Monday, March 7, 2011

Paying Attention

Paying attention is probably the simplest and yet most challenging thing you can do to improve your aikido practice. It is very difficult to watch attentively. Our minds wander. We have internal discussions. We hear a noise and look, and lose focus. We need to practice paying attention to every detail all the time we are practicing: not just paying attention to the instructor, not just to hand and body positions, but to timing, the way our partner feels, the look on our partner’s face, the mental state that this look signals.

Paying attention when you are watching the instructor or when you are practicing ki development exercises is a first step. Then work on paying attention to your partner during practice. When does she get her balance back? When does she have an opportunity to resist? When does he feel weakest? Pay attention to yourself: When do you have good posture? When do you have bad posture? When are you too far away from uke? When are you using one point? When are you using muscle? A good time to check your skill is when you have the opportunity to ki test someone. Can you tell, just by looking or with the lightest touch, when he is strongest?

Many students seek comfort in the idea that if they just memorize a set of techniques and rules they will achieve mastery. Fortunately, this is not the Kokikai curriculum! Our art, as well as our best self-defense, lies in being adaptable, fluid, and relaxed, responding appropriately to each situation. Since we are working with human beings as partners, rather than rocks or trees, we need to direct our efforts to understanding and connecting with these human beings. This is challenging but it is also exciting and amazingly rewarding. It is the reason so many of Maruyama Sensei’s students have continued to practice and grow in Kokikai Aikido for 10, 20 or more than 30 years.

This is the final post in a series that was originally published as an article about Kokikai Aikido.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Taking Responsibility for Your Practice

Everyone comes to class to learn something. Consciously or unconsciously, they place the burden of teaching on their instructor. In aikido, for example, many students believe that there is some set of “correct” techniques that the teacher will “impart” to them. They think that a good teacher will impart the techniques more correctly, and, therefore, if they don’t learn it’s the teacher’s fault. This is 100% incorrect. The person who is responsible for what you learn is you. The instructor can provide help and encouragement but you must give your full attention to your practice in order to progress.

Maruyama Sensei provides an amazing example and he is a great teacher. He has taught a lineage of students who are also wonderful teachers. But they all understand that even when we have a great teacher, our learning must come from within. When Sensei says, “Find out for yourself,” or asks, “Which is better?” he is encouraging us to take responsibility for our own learning.

When I have a question, whether it’s about technique, etiquette, or anything at all, rather than asking someone to give me the answer, I try to answer it myself.  I do this by watching, listening, comparing, looking at context, and trying to understand others. This has gradually become fundamental to my aikido practice and to almost everything else I do.

If, in the course of your aikido training, you find that you are confused about a technique and your first reaction is to ask someone for help, try instead taking a deep breath. See if relaxing and slowing down helps. Then try looking around the mat. Watch more experienced students. If your partner is doing something that you want to “catch,” try learning by observation and by feeling what he or she does. Then see if you can produce that feeling when it’s your turn.

This approach can also help us when we feel the impulse to teach a training partner. Remember that your partner (not you) is responsible for his or her own learning. You don’t have to say anything, even if your partner is doing something wrong (unless you feel that it's unsafe for you). It’s fine for your partner to learn by practicing with you, without talking. And it’s fine for you to focus on your own learning.

This post is part of a series that was originally published as an article about Kokikai Aikido. Some of the ideas may apply to other martial arts, yoga, mindfulness practice, or life in general.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Maintaining Beginner's Mind

We can all benefit by practicing with an open mind. This idea can apply to martial arts practice, other internal arts such as tai chi or yoga, or even music, art, or computer programming.

Zen Buddhists talk about retaining "beginner’s mind." The problem is, when we come to have even a little experience, we tend to rest in the belief that we "know something." This mindset is a big obstacle to growth. When we think of ourselves as teachers, it’s hard to keep our minds open to learning something new. Our thinking becomes rigid. Trying to keep this “beginner’s mind” becomes even more difficult as we gain experience, becoming black belts and having teaching roles. We want to be seen as knowledgeable and worthy of respect. It feels more comfortable to be the one who knows, rather than the one who is learning.

But a rigid mind is more than an obstacle to learning: it can be dangerous in a self-defense situation. In a situation that may affect our safety, or the safety of our family, we need to stay sensitive to the most subtle changes in the situation. When we rely on what we think we know, it is impossible to be responsive to what is really happening. This is not a good thing when you are under attack!

One of the most wonderful things about Maruyama Sensei is that he keeps this open mind. Even at his advanced level of mastery, he is always testing himself to make sure that Kokikai techniques work in real situations, adding nuances and new ideas, and even tossing techniques out of the curriculum. He knows that in real-life self-defense you can’t rely on something just because it has worked in the past. Likewise, all of Sensei’s most senior students are constantly learning, from everyone they work with and from every experience they have.

If you want to practice "beginner’s mind," begin by learning to recognize when you are thinking about how much you know. If you already have an opinion about something, try changing your mind to focus on what you can learn. When you see something you don’t agree with, by all means use critical judgement, but then try suspending it!  Allow for the possibility of a new idea. Try looking at things a whole new way. And last but not least, think twice (or three times), before you tell others what to do. Concentrate instead on what you need to learn.

This post is part of a series that was originally published as an article about Kokikai Aikido. Here's the first post.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Finding the Correct Feeling in Aikido

From the moment we first bow onto the mat in a Kokikai Aikido class, we can work on finding the best feeling.  One mistake many students make is practicing too fast. This encourages stiffness and does not allow the opportunity to be sensitive to how you feel or how your partner feels. Once you're comfortable with practicing a technique slowly, then you can start to increase your speed, but always stay aware of how it feels. You may decide to slow down again to try to catch a new idea, or to regain your best feeling.

Another mistake beginners often make is to focus on the outcome. It's easy to pay most attention to whether, or how hard, your attacker fell, or whether you could overcome his or her resistance. Remember that if you practice stiffly and without the correct feeling, you will get better and better…at being stiff and having incorrect feeling. In order to help their students practice with correct feeling, some instructors discourage resistance in general practice.

If you practice slowly and correctly, then when you have to defend yourself in real life at street speed, you will do so as quickly as necessary, and correctly. If you practice fast, and incorrectly, when you have to defend yourself in real life...well...what do you think will happen?

It’s worth mentioning that it is possible to go too far and focus only on feeling: Maruyama Sensei cautions us against having “formless” technique. We must balance correct feeling with correct form. Ultimately feeling and form work together.

This post is part of a series that's based on an article I wrote about Kokikai Aikido. Here's the first post

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Correct Aikido Technique: Like Making an Apple Pie

Think of making an apple pie. The basic recipe is easy. But each pie is different depending on the sweetness of the apples, the humidity, the oven, etc. etc…A great cook knows how to adjust the recipe each time so that every pie is delicious.

The practice of self-defense through Kokikai Aikido involves coordinating our mind and body in order to lead the attacker’s mind and body. In other words, there are two (or maybe more!) minds involved. And two (or more!) bodies. Everyone, nage and uke, experienced and inexperienced, moves in the way that is natural for their body. Every attacker, every attack is slightly different. Both uke and nage have a slightly different mindset each time.

Just like an apple pie, every Kokikai technique has a recognizeable form. The basic techniques may be simple. However, to work toward a “perfect” technique, just like a pie, we have to learn to make it just right for that situation. As students we must work very hard not to rely on external aspects – how much the wrist is bent, which leg is forward, how far we turn. These elements are important, but only if they help us do technique that feels the best.

This idea applies not only to doing technique, or “nage’s side,” but to ukemi (attacking/falling) as well. Correct ukemi means having the correct intention and moving in a way that is natural for an attacker to move. There are people we think of as “great uke,” because they are fun to watch: they may be flexible, or strong, or both. But someone who is less flexible or strong can be a perfect uke, as long as their intention is correct and their movement is logical. As nage we then have to learn to respond and adjust to each uke. We can’t force our uke into cookie-cutter movement that is not natural for that person’s body. Maruyama Sensei throws each person correctly no matter how athletic or unathletic, flexible or inflexible they are.

Sensei reminds us of this when he says that we must try to find the correct feeling. This is evident when watching Sensei: We can see that he changes his technique slightly from one throw to the next. Sometimes (!) this is frustrating for students. We try so hard to figure out what is expected of us, what we should look for, what we should do! It's a challenge to try to catch this “correct feeling.” It’s even more challenging because there are variations in technique that can make a big difference.

When you feel frustrated because you are not sure what you are looking at, try to remember that the strength of a technique is based on the way it feels. Sometimes Sensei says “looks real: fake. Looks fake: real.” The best technique may look like not much at all. Try changing how you watch. See if you can find something to look at (maybe nage's posture, or how relaxed the hands are) that will help you understand more about catching Sensei’s feeling.

Sensei has often used the metaphor of an apple to talk about technique: a beautiful looking apple may turn out to be made of plastic: inedible. A real apple may look the same, but it's edible - even delicious. It's hard to avoid focusing on what technique looks like, and concentrate on correct feeling. Maybe we can learn something from apples and apple pie.

This post is part of a series that's based on an article I wrote about Kokikai Aikido. Here's the first post

Friday, February 25, 2011

Overcoming Obstacles to Practice

This is the first post in a series. It was originally written as an article about Kokikai Aikido, but the ideas could apply, more or less, to meditation, yoga, or, well, life.

Recently an aikido student wrote from Japan where he was on an extended trip. He was taking a calligraphy class and he asked the teacher, “How should I do this brush stroke?”  She answered, “Boldly!”

The calligraphy teacher was using aimaisa. In Japanese, aimaisa means something like “vagueness,” or “ambiguity.” If the teacher had used descriptive words like “with a downward stroke,” or “thin at the top, fat at the bottom,” the student would have focused on trying to make his work look correct. She knew that if the student wrote it with the correct feeling, the character would be more correct. By telling him to write “boldly,” she was helping him gain a deeper level of understanding based on direct experience.

Beginning students of Kokikai Aikido are often similarly focused on objective aspects of practice. It is natural to want to know where to put our hand or foot for a technique, or what are the etiquette “rules” for various situations. It would be comforting to imagine we could learn from a Kokikai textbook that showed perfect examples of each technique. If we could just memorize all possible techniques, would we achieve mastery? Of course not! In real life, the best self-defense is what works for a particular situation.

I have always found in my own practice that the most growth comes when I move toward practicing based on feeling and responsiveness to others. Most of us have difficulty doing this. The ideas that I will present in the next few posts have helped me to understand both why this is necessary and how it can be done.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The picture of myself

A thought, which is that as a musician, I am like that really flexible woman in my yoga class. She doesn't have to work hard at the flexibility part, because she is naturally flexible and therefore most of her poses "look good." But when it comes to the strength part, she at a loss, because she has never had to work at looking like those pictures of yoga poses, and so she doesn't know how to approach the part that requires effort and attention. However, for the yoga to be really beneficial for her, she needs to address this aspect of the practice.

As a musician, I have a good "ear." Sometimes when I am improvising, just like the flexible lady, certain things come easily to me. But when it comes to the hard work (keeping a rock solid rhythm, practicing the chord changes so I can do them without flubs) I have a hard time, because I have never had to work hard in order to sound what I think is "decent." When I record myself and play it back, my self image (sounding "decent") is shattered.  I realize that if I really want to sound decent, I have to address these issues and do some work that may feel uncomfortable.

Do we miss out on something when we have a picture of ourselves, or an impression, or self image, and we are not willing to examine that self image, maybe even dismantle it a little? If you have a goal, are you limiting your ability to reach that goal because you're not willing to let go of that self image?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

On Common Sense

This is an article I wrote for the Kokikai Web site a few years ago. It's been removed from that site so I thought I'd repost it here...

On Common Sense

When I began teaching aikido at a university dojo, Maruyama Sensei told me that I needed to give special attention to teaching university students. “You need to talk more.” he said. “Make sure they understand common sense.” Sensei seldom says anything lightly and I have since given much thought to these words. The more I consider it, the more I realize that thinking about common sense can illuminate our practice.

“Common sense” sounds like something everyone should be able to understand without an explanation. Yet what one person may call common sense may seem senseless to another. Common practices of etiquette provide many examples. Much of our modern etiquette derives from practices that were originally common sense ideas. I was told by a history teacher that friendly knights would raise their visors on encountering each other to identify themselves, and that this led to the practice of taking off one's hat when being introduced. Thus a principle of etiquette was distilled from a way to be safe.[1] Many etiquette "rules" become so internalized that we assume they are universal, as your grandmother does when she says, "Surely you are not going to wear that baseball cap at the dinner table?" Similarly, proper etiquette to an American, such as shaking hands on meeting, may be very uncomfortable for someone who is Japanese. We even continue to practice many rules of etiquette despite the fact that they make absolutely no sense. Even athiests say “Bless you!” when someone sneezes.

When new students come into the aikido dojo they are confronted by a set of rules and etiquette for practice, and they can be forgiven for thinking that some of them don't make sense. Many of these rules have to do with hygiene or safety, such as keeping your fingernails clean or respecting your partner's level of ability. These seem fairly simple to understand. Both inside and outside the dojo it is common courtesy not to have offensive body odor, and not to endanger others or cause them to get sick. New students often have greater difficulty embracing etiquette practices based on respect:  bowing, the way we address the instructor, or the procedure we follow when late to class. These practice rules may differ from martial art to martial art or between styles of aikido, and they are certainly different from the etiquette used outside the dojo, and so to a new student they can seem as arbitrary as saying "Bless you!" The rules are not arbitrary. Maruyama Sensei pays a great deal of attention to our practice rules.

If these rules are not arbitrary, then what is their purpose? Does it matter if we know?

Sensei once told me that etiquette is “like oil for the engine.” It helps the engine to run by reducing friction.[2] In martial arts practice we must be extremely attentive to issues of etiquette, because we encounter more friction than in daily life!  The first thing that beginners often assume is that any etiquette practice they don't understand is "some Japanese cultural thing." There is something to be said for understanding these rules from the perspective of Japanese culture. Sociologists refer to Japan as a “high context” culture and the U.S. as a “low context” culture. In high context cultures a lot of communication takes place through “things not said.” In low context cultures people mean what they say, (or at least they think they do,) in any case people place highest value on explicit communication through words. If someone doesn't understand something in a low context culture, they ask questions. In a high context culture they would find out the answer by looking around them, seeing how people interact, understanding from the context. To a Japanese person, an American asking, "Why do we have to do this?" or "What should I do now?" may seem to have no common sense because "everyone knows" that words cannot really provide the answer. If we embrace this attitude, it can help us to sharpen our awareness and to become less dependent on our minds as we progress toward better mind-body coordination.

Maruyama Sensei says that we should respect our instructors because when we become instructors our students will respect us, and the cycle will continue. Sensei also has said that we should respect our instructors, each other and all human beings.[3] This is not just something we should do out of altruism. In respecting others we benefit ourselves as well. When someone else acts respectfully toward us it increases our positive mind. But treating others with respect also immediately brings positive mind to our own practice. Positive mind is a fundamental principle of Kokikai Aikido practice. Therefore treating everyone with respect becomes essential to achieving our goals in aikido:  by practicing respect we increase positive mind, by increasing positive mind we develop greater ki power, and we can become stronger both in self-defense and in our personal lives. The more we can embrace all human beings in our circle of respect, the more powerful we can become. This may sound esoteric. It is not. Many people practice all of the outward signs of respect while inwardly they are much more selective. It can require a great deal of effort to find ways to respect someone for whom you don't have a natural affinity or who you find personally challenging in some way. Some might imagine that it is even counterproductive to self-defense. It is the opposite. One of the wonderful paradoxes in aikido practice is this: as we have deeper and truer respect for others we can become better at self-defense; respecting others helps us to become more calm, more correct, more focused, stronger and more powerful.

Once we understand the importance of respect to our own practice it can change the way we look at all principles of etiquette. For example, we can view bowing as a way to remind ourselves how important it is to practice respect. Helping with dojo duties or wearing a clean gi are not abstract matters of good citizenship but are ways to respect others and increase our positive mind. This has helped me also as an instructor: I was uncomfortable with the idea of students bowing to me and addressing me as "sensei" until I was able to view at it as beneficial to their aikido practice. Asking my students to behave with respect towards me does not seem selfish in that light. When beginning students find themselves wondering why things are done a certain way, they may find it less frustrating if they simply remember that these are Maruyama Sensei's wishes. Respecting them is a way of respecting Sensei, and is a part of practice which will contribute to growth.

We need to be particularly conscious of all of the rules of etiquette when we interact with Maruyama Sensei. Respect for Sensei is important, but Sensei's health and hygiene are important, too. Sensei travels around the world teaching and practicing Kokikai Aikido and he is in physical contact with many people. Some people think that it shows toughness, spirit and dedication to come to class while sick. But this enthusiasm must be tempered with the awareness that if Sensei becomes sick all of his students suffer. Because Sensei has so many responsibilities to others, our interactions with Sensei can have an effect on many other people. It is common sense that we should treat Sensei with special consideration.

The longer I practice Kokikai Aikido the more I realize that it is based on common sense ideas. Proper etiquette is only one example of this. Still, however much ideas and words can help to shine a light on our practice, they are not a substitute for practice. The best way to learn, as Sensei says, is to "find out for yourself."

[1] Another history teacher said that it was just to keep your hat from falling off when you bow. This is also common sense.
[2] I think everyone who has had the opportunity to drive for Sensei cherishes at least one of his "driving metaphors" –I hope someone will collect them one day…
[3] This echoes the order of bowing after testing; we bow to the instructor, to each other and to everyone watching.

Friday, February 18, 2011


Leon Brooks Sensei (L) - Shuji Maruyama Sensei (R)
Maruyama Sensei has pushed Brooks Sensei's bokken
aside and is completing the thrust.
This is a lovely word I read today. It made me think about several things at once.

The first was: the way we react to thoughts that arise during meditation. The mind has been likened to wild horses because of the difficulty of "reining in" these thoughts. A better way to bring about equipoise is the practice of noticing the thoughts and then gently guiding the attention back to the breath or other focus point.

The second thing I thought of was: a sword technique we practice in aikido. Please bear with me while I describe it - it's a simple practice but hard to explain in words.

Two people face each other holding bokken (wooden practice swords). The swords are held diagonally across the body and the opponents' swords are crossed, with each person applying some pressure. This is in effect a standstill. But theoretically one person could push the other's sword aside and thrust forward. For someone defending against this attack, the key is to maintain relaxation and focus. The defender doesn't actively resist the sideways thrust, but, by maintaining relaxed attention, s/he can quickly return to a strong defensive stance before the attacker can recover from his own sideways push enough to complete the attack.

My mind related these two ideas because in this example the defender allows the sideways push (the thoughts) but maintains attention, relaxation and focus. This robs the attack (thought) of its power: it happens, but so what? It changes nothing. Equipoise.

Both these practices, meditation - an inwardly-focused practice - and Kokikai Aikido - which is practiced with partners or groups - have helped me to maintain "equipoise" in situations I encounter every day. For example, I've often been in the middle of a difficult "discussion" with someone, when I can see that they are sidetracking the discussion into another area where we might argue endlessly with no result. In the past I didn't even recognize that this was happening. Nowadays I can retain more equilibrium, keep a bigger picture view, and I can calmly bring the discussion back to the subject at hand. In the end the other person may agree with me, or I may come to understand their point of view, but at least I don't get deflected from the point of the discussion.

Equipoise. It can help you become better at arguments : )