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Showing posts from November, 2012

After the Laundry, the Laundry

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“Living with a busy family, I often feel just like one of the Tibetan monks I once saw making an intricately designed sand mandala. For months, they bent over the ground, arranging the sand grain by grain, and once their beautiful creation was complete, they cheerfully destroyed it in the ultimate celebration of impermanence. While I don’t create ceremonial mandalas, I do wash the dishes. And when I come back to the sink later, dirty dishes have appeared again. I fold and put away a basketful of laundry, and in no time, the basket is full again. Even my yoga mat is a reminder of impermanence. Just this morning, it was stretched out on the floor, filled up with my movements, and now it leans against the wall, empty and forlorn. As the Buddha said, impermanence is the nature of the human condition. This is a truth we know in our minds but tend to resist in our hearts. Change happens all around us, all the time, yet we long for the predictable, the consistent. We want the reassurance th…

On Approaching Difficulties

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Recently I heard this quote by Jack Kornfield:
"Our difficulties require our most compassionate attention. Just as lead can be transformed into gold in alchemy, when we place our leaden difficulties, whether of body, heart or mind, into the center of our practice, they can become lightened for us, illuminated. This task is usually not what we want but what we have to do. No amount of meditation, yoga, diet and reflection will make our problems go away, but we can transform our difficulties into our practice until little by little they guide us on our way."   (from A Path With Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of a Spiritual Life) It is interesting to reflect on the idea that our difficulties will not go away. Most of us engage in some kind of activity, whether it's an exercise program, or a demanding spiritual practice, with the underlying hope that it will ease or remove some difficulty. It's frustrating to find that even when we do let go of one prob…

Being There

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From an article by Robert D. Kaplan in The Atlantic:
"Road-warrior hell: I get off a 15-hour flight from North America and turn on my BlackBerry at some Asian airport. Instead of focusing on the immediate environment and the ride into town, I am engrossed in the several dozen e-mails that piled up while I was en route, a third of which require a serious response, and one or two of which relay worrying news. As if that isn’t enough of a distraction: throughout all my journeys, because of the 12-hour time difference, each morning in Asia begins with a slew of e-mails from the East Coast, again requiring responses, again relaying crises to deal with. Wherever we are, we are all always available, and everybody knows it. The media tell us how lucky we are to live in the Information Age. I believe we have created a hell on Earth for ourselves." The author believes that in order to truly experience someplace new, we have to stop multitasking. How about "in order to truly expe…

Keep One Point

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I've been slowly but surely writing of a series posts devoted to each of the four basic principles of Kokikai Aikido. One of these is Keep One Point to Develop Calmness.

We spend about 90 minutes in each aikido class, and most students practice once or twice a week - only a small proportion of the of hours we are awake each week. It may be plenty of time to spend doing a demanding physical exercise, but we need to spend more time working on the underlying principles for them to become second nature in our bodies. Fortunately, all of the basic principles are easily practiced at any time, not just in class. We can easily practice finding and keeping One Point while off the mat, and test the results when we're back on the mat.

What Is One Point?
One Point is a concept closely related to your center of balance. Centuries ago martial artists discovered that if the mind is focused on keeping this point low, one becomes stronger and harder to move. In Kokikai, we first learn to feel …

I Can

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Of the four principles of Kokikai Aikido, the one I have most difficulty explaining is Positive Mind. It's hard to grasp how changing your mind can affect your physical ability. Scientists concluded way back in the 19th century that the structure of the brain is fixed after childhood, and the idea is so normative in our culture that we don't even realize it's a belief; it's just the way it is. As an instructor I'm aware that I risk my students thinking of me as a flaky New Age thinker by proposing Positive Mind as an essential part of our practice.

It is helpful when I can back up my assertions with scientific results.

Recently in a class at the YWCA Princeton, Maruyama Sensei said that thinking "I Can" has a physical effect on the brain, helping make your brain more organized. He may have been referring to a recent study from a group of Japanese researchers showing that praise following motor training directly facilitates the consolidation of skills. Th…

I Can't Wait...

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"I can't wait til I'm done practicing..."
"I can't wait till warmups are over and we start technique..."
"I can't wait till this cold goes away..."

How many times do I find myself thinking this phrase, "I can't wait"?

"I can't wait" is a pretty insidious little phrase. It creeps into my thoughts without me really noticing I'm thinking it. When I do become aware of it, I try to take a few seconds and notice something around me, so that I can be where I am and appreciate just being alive, living, breathing. It's not easy when you're going through something unpleasant, whether it's just a few days without power or internet or something worse.

It seems like it would be much more pleasant to "sleep through" the boring and ugly parts of life, and only wake up during the fun parts. But the habit of sleeping through life isn't so easily dropped: if we don't practice staying awake durin…

Half Power vs. Full Power

Last week I attended a class with Kokikai Aikido founder Shuji Maruyama Sensei. I'm still absorbing some of the ideas Sensei gave us to improve our practice. This particular idea sounds like it's specific to aikido technique, but I think it applies to people who don't practice aikido, too.

We practice an exercise called zengo undo, where we raise our arms as if to respond to an overhead attack, and then turn 180 degrees and do the same - as if we had attackers both in front and behind. The challenge of the exercise is to remain centered and calm while changing directions very quickly.

Sensei's point was that when we turn from one direction to the other, we need to shift our focus 100%. If we are still thinking about what just happened, or anticipating what's about to happen, we have only half of our power.

This sounds very simple, but it's difficult to practice in aikido.

It's even harder to practice in daily life.

Downset, not Upset

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Last week I attended a class at Princeton Kokikai Aikido with Shuji Maruyama Sensei, the founder of Kokikai Aikido. He said that when we practice aikido we should focus on being "downset," not "upset."  "Downset" isn't in any English or Japanese dictionaries, but it's a fantastic idea.

We become upset when encountering something threatening, unusual or uncomfortable. But what happens if we try to become "downset" instead?

What is "downset?"

In Kokikai we focus on these four basic principles to develop greater strength and control:

Keep One Point to Develop Calmness
Relax Progressively
Correct Posture (in Everything)
Develop Your Positive Mind

The more you use all four principles together, the more you can be "downset."

It's worth mentioning that "downset" doesn't refer to being heavy or unable to move, in fact, you should have more control of whether you move or don't move.

When we practice aikid…

Practicing Correctly

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I'm always working at getting students to practice correctly. I try to help them understand that "correct" encompasses, in the case of aikido, not just footwork, or the technical, "this hand palm up, that hand palm down" elements, but also, "with your shoulders relaxed, with awareness of your center, with complete presence." If you accept that being relaxed is stronger, then you need to make sure to practice that way. If you don't, your aikido won't improve. And then you will not respond in the strongest way when there is an attack.

About three days ago I was forced to face this lesson myself at the piano. When I practice, in addition to making sure I'm playing the right notes, I try to listen for things like tone, evenness and musicality. I also try to be aware of my body: posture, relaxed wrists, etc. At the same time, for a couple of years I've been plagued with problems with my left shoulder. It continually tenses as I play, and I…

Feature - Benefit

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I work in marketing. One of the maxims of marketing is that advertising the benefits of a product is more effective than promoting features. In other words, don't just say how many dB of noise reduction your headphones provide. Let me know I won't have to listen to the babies crying on my flight to Florida.
Yoga and aikido teachers can help our students by teaching in this way. We could think of what we are doing as promoting a "product," and that we want our customers to get the most benefit. In some ways it's more challenging for us than for someone selling a smartphone, because simply "making the purchase," or showing up for class isn't enough for our "customers" to get optimum benefit. They have to do the practice in a way that engages the mind and body together.
We can help our students by giving them a reason to practice correctly.  Make a habit of giving the benefit of doing whatever you're asking them to do. There are many way…

What If...

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What if, just for a moment, you imagined that everyone in the world was actually part of you? Maybe some part of your psyche, that you had perhaps neglected or forgotten, to a greater or lesser degree. Let yourself explore this thought, ranging over the people in your life, the ones you care for and the ones you don't, the ones you know better and less well, the ones you find approachable or difficult, weird, stupid, wise, frightening, thinking of them as a part of yourself, therefore worthy of your forgiveness and compassion.
If, as in this little thought experiment, we approached all other humans as if they were a neglected part of ourselves, think how the world would change!

The True Source of Happiness

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This was posted yesterday on the Dalai Lama's Facebook page:
"There are two kinds of happiness - the temporary pleasure derived primarily from material comfort alone and another more enduring comfort that results from the thorough transformation and development of the mind. We can see in our own lives that the latter form of happiness is superior because when our mental state is calm and happy, we can easily put up with minor pains and physical discomforts. On the other hand, when our mind is restless and upset, the most comfortable physical facilities do not make us happy."
This is helpful to reflect on, living as I do in New Jersey as the region has been rocked by the effects of Hurricane Sandy. It is difficult right now to find respite from the focus on loss. Loss surrounds us, from the loss if a place of cherished memories, to the loss of power, to losing work, homes, livelihoods, and even, (thankfully, rarely), family members or friends. With the focus on loss come…