Saturday, June 28, 2014

Just Shine

Ko - ShineI often feel some conflict when it comes to my ego. Being a musician and practicing aikido both highlight this tension for me.

On the one hand, I understand that humility is good. It's important to recognize the talents and achievements of others. In my study of Buddhist teachings I've even heard that there's something called "no-self" that I'm supposed to be aiming for, where I realize the interconnectedness of all things and lose my ego.

On the other hand, to stand in front of a room full of people and play music, or to teach them self defense, I need a really strong sense of confidence about my ability and who I am.

Of course the martial arts has a strong tradition of respecting and acknowledging those who are more experienced. Even though I have been practicing Kokikai Aikido for more than 20 years, there are many current teachers in Kokikai who had been practicing for 10, 20 or more years when I started. And of course our founder, Shuji Maruyama Sensei, is unquestionably one of the world's foremost martial artists.

In music all it takes is a quick browse on YouTube to find people in any genre who far outclass me. Some of them have more years of experience, training and practice; others are just plain better!

So how can I stay aware and honest about my place in this constellation of talent and ability, and at the same time present what I have to present in a way that's engaging, interesting, worth paying attention to?

When I asked one of my teachers, David Nachman Sensei, about this, he gave me this advice:

"When you stand up in front of others, just shine."

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Start Being In the Moment...Now

I often hear people talk about "being in the moment," the way you might say "I want to learn to play the saxophone" - like an objective you could achieve if you only had a little more time or money, maybe next month after you finish cleaning the garage, or once you retire. "I need to be in the moment more."

I think this would make a great headline in The Onion:

I'm Going to Be In the Moment...Next Week

"Being in the moment" is simpler than you think. It doesn't cost money. It doesn't take time. It's not hard. You don't have to cram your body into yoga pants and sit in the lotus position. You don't have to move to New Jersey, learn Japanese, get a guru, believe in chakras, or even meditate.

Here's all you have to do to be in the moment:

Whatever you are doing right now: pause for a moment and notice that. "I am here, doing this." If you are experiencing strong emotions, you may want to pause and notice your emotions. "I am here, feeling this."

Congratulations. You were just in the moment!

It feels good. Whenever I do it, it feels like I am living my life, instead of constantly riding on a train to get somewhere else.

So, if that felt good...well, do it more!

The challenge is in trying to remember to do it, and trying to stick with it when you don't want to. Because of course nobody wants to be in the moment when the moment doesn't feel so good. Yuk. Run away! And when the moment feels great, we're too busy taking pictures and posting them on Instagram to actually say, "Wow! I'm experiencing this!"

A whole industry of talking, writing and advice-giving, complete with websites, institutions and practices, has arisen to try to help people address that challenge. And many people have been helped by this advice and these systems. But people sometimes confuse all that commentary, all that lifestyle, with actually "being in the moment." 

So don't let the commentary distract you. Remember that "Being in the Moment" is just that.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

What Does Kokikai Mean?

Kokikai - kanji
A Kokikai Aikido student recently asked, "What does 'Kokikai' mean?"

Ko  "light," means "radiant" or "shining" when used as an adjective.
Ki  usually translated as something like "life force," "health," "energy." Often translated into English as..."ki."
Kai  会 "association"

Back when Sensei was trying to come up with a name for his new Aikido school, he was in the car with Dan McDougall Sensei on a dark March evening, heading for class in Princeton. Sensei suddenly said to Dan, "Look at the headlights! What do you call what the lights do?" "Oh, well...shine, Sensei?" "No! Another word! Stronger!" Dan ran through a few similes, and when he hit on "radiant," Sensei said "Exactly! Radiating, like nuclear power!"

This is why we usually translate Kokikai as "School of Radiant Ki."

A word on the character 光 "Ko"

This is an ideogram (another word for an ideogram is kanji) that derives from Chinese.  Sometimes, in Japanese, the "Chinese" reading (onyomi) for a kanji is used - in this case the pronunciation sounds like "koh." Sometimes the "Japanese" reading (kunyomi) is used, which here sounds like "hikari." So, if you use Google translator to translate "light" into Japanese, or "ko" into English, this may explain why you don't get the expected result. 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Having Troubles? Try Simplifying.

Part of the derivation for the formula E=mc2
Part of the derivation for the formula E=mc2
So often in life, simple approaches to a problem are the most effective.

In science, theories that solve problems are often evaluated by the test of "parsimony." Occam's razor states that one should try simpler theories until simplicty can be traded for greater explanatory power.

E=mc2 - pretty simple, right? But it explains a lot.

According to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, is ... 42. Humorous, maybe, but who knows? Maybe it is that simple.

When I'm having difficulty with a knotty problem, I look for ways to simplify my approach. Then, if I can, I keep simplifying. This usually leads to big improvements.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Two Ways to Practice

At an Irish Session in Lambertville, NJ
I've been thinking lately about two ways to practice.

Of course there are many ways to think about practice, but looking at things this way has helped me lately. I'll stick with a music analogy but it's easy to see how this applies to aikido, or to other things.


The goal of technique practice is to learn to do something correctly. Often that "something" is just a small element of the whole.  In this type of practice you usually stop when you make a mistake, fix the mistake, and try again. Or you may continue to work in rhythm without stopping, but you may slow down or simplify in some way until you can "get it right." Getting it right means not just the outer form: playing the notes or doing the correct movements, but the inner as well: remaining relaxed, staying focused, keeping good posture.

Playing Through

By "playing through" I mean playing the entire tune (or a significant section), keeping the beat, and not stopping even when I make a mistake. For example, when I play a jazz or folk tune (32 bars or so), I play it through repeatedly for long enough that I can begin to relax into it.

The goal of playing through is quite different from practicing technique: While of course we want to be as correct as possible, the primary objective is not to stop. Most of have a tendency to stop and think when we run into difficulties, but when playing through, you are training yourself out of this tendency. I actually want to stop focusing each note, each chord, each flub, and hear the piece as a whole.

Benefits of Both Types of Practice

I'm finding that each way of practicing offers different benefits. 

Simply: in technique practice, you're focusing on details. In playing through, you're looking at the big picture. 

In technique practice you're building muscle memory. In playing through, you're making use of that muscle memory so that you can devote your mental capacity to the musicality of your playing. If you're playing with others, you're listening, blending, anticipating what's to come. 

I feel my mind works differently when I'm attentively trying to apply all the elements of my practice to playing in real time, without slowing down to think.

Finding a Balance 

I practice more efficiently, and improve more quickly, when I balance both these types of practice. Since "playing through" is my challenge, I try to allot myself a certain amount of time to doing it, without slipping inadvertently into technique practice. I even use a timer.

Whatever method I'm focused on, I try to do it with attention, listening and observing myself...with compassion!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Another Post About Music and Aikido

In a recent seminar with the fiddle master Bruce Molsky, I became very interested in watching the way his body was engaged in playing the music. It was a kind of connected disconnection that reminded me of something we strive for in aikido practice. I remarked to a friend that Bruce's fingers, hands and arms seemed disconnected from his body, because they seemed to move independently of whatever the rest of his body was doing. My friend argued that his entire body was connected, because what the rest of his body was doing was reacting and emphasizing the music.

This is something that most, if not all, accomplished musicians do: when the playing has become familiar and comfortable enough, it almost happens by itself, and the rest of your body - and consciousness - is available: to emphasize, anticipate, engage, and even dance and sing.

In aikido practice we can see this in the most advanced practitioners. Certainly watching Sensei offers a powerful visual image of how this connected disconnection can work.  While Sensei is throwing a very strong person, his feet may delicately step forward or back, and he can easily talk or even sing (Scarborough Fair is a favorite...). Only part of his body is involved in the underlying throw, and the rest of his body, and consciousness, is available: to emphasize, anticipate, engage, and even dance and sing. 

Why is this helpful? When I am having difficulty finding a visual metaphor with how I want to feel in my aikido practice, I can simply call to mind the experience of watching my favorite musicians.

Monday, June 9, 2014

From Connection - to Detatchment - to Connection

A Zen writer once addressed the criticism that Zen Buddhists are too focused on being detached. A student asked: "Isn't Zen all about being 'one with everything'? So why are Zennies always talking about staying detached?"

The author responded that there was a progression in which the student at first has an unhealthy connection to their emotions and sensations, and has to learn to detach from this connection. But that eventually the student comes back to truly comprehending the unity of everything.

It sounded like a bunch of gobbledygook to me.

The other day my piano teacher started to talk about those moments in playing when you lose your ego, and it's "as if the music is playing you."  I got a little glimmer of what he was talking about, and I even saw the relationship to the idea of being connected vs. being detached.

So, let's see if I can explain it in a way that even I can understand.

Most people are used to letting their sensations and emotions pretty much "run the show": ruling their lives, dictating their actions, reactions, their mood and even their sense of who they are. If I get mad at someone, or am feeling bad about myself, it can color the rest of my day, week, even year. Some of us become so attached to these emotions and sensations that we seek them out almost as if we are addicted. When we're not experiencing them, we daydream about them to the extent that we're seldom even "present" in our own lives. That's the unhealthy part of connection.

The first part of a Buddhist practice is often to learn to notice when our thoughts are carrying us away from what's going on in the present moment. This is usually done as a meditation practice, but that's not the only way. This process can be referred to as "detachment," but it's more a detachment from the constant internal commentary about what's going on, than a detachment of "me" from "the world." Still, it seems like you're detaching yourself from the world, because you're so used to associating your self with all these thoughts about stuff. As you get more accustomed to detachment, it "leaks" into daily life, so that you are able to feel like you are less ruled by your emotions and desire for pleasurable sensations, and have more independence and ability to act.

Return to Connection
After a bunch of time at this practice of "detachment," (so the theory goes,) you end up interacting with the world around you in a way that is not so mediated by internal commentary or desires. That is to say, you interact with the world more directly. So it's kind of a paradox: that you practice detaching what's actually happening, from your reactions to what's happening - and you end up becoming more connected to what's happening, and being "one with everything"!

As for getting to the point where you lose your ego and "the music is playing you"...well, I have an intellectual understanding, but I'm not there yet.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Taking on New Challenges

At the age of 36 I decided to try training in the martial arts.

There was an aikido class offered at my local Y.  I loved it. I loved the fact that even a small person could throw someone big.  I loved the underlying principles. I was in great shape, I loved doing my part to become a better uke, learning to fall safely, no matter how hard I was thrown.

I was, and continue to be, very inspired by the founder of my aikido school, Shuji Maruyama Sensei. He often talks about the fact that Kokikai Aikido gives us a path that helps us continue to grow throughout our lifetimes. When the Olympics are taking place or during baseball playoff season, he often points to the short careers of athletes: most sports don't have world-class competitors who are over 40, or even over 30.

At some point when he was in his mid-sixties, Sensei made a comment that, "At my age, most people are retired and sitting around in a rocking chair!" Then we watched him fold a 280-lb. guy into a piece of origami with no apparent effort. Years later, he is still going strong - even getting better.

At the age of 54 I decided to learn to play the violin.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Seeking Perfection

When I practice piano, I'm working on doing something better. It might be improvising within a certain scale, or keeping my left hand rock solid, or improvising according to a particular concept, or even just having good posture and relaxing my face. But invariably I mess up. I get out of time, I tense up, I play a note outside the scale. This is a source of endless frustration!!!! Can't I ever get it right? Even once???

I realized that my problem was in seeking perfection.

I've worked for a long time to let go of the idea of perfection in my meditation. I know that the practice of meditation is in coming back from my "flights of fancy": back to the breath, back to my body. The progress comes in that returning, and is not measured by the length of time I can remain "thought free," or in some perfect state.

Self-measurement, in my music practice, was defined at an early age, in piano lessons where I was assigned a piece and told to learn to play it as written - without mistakes. Therefore, "without mistakes" became my yardstick, in piano as in many other areas of my life.

I wonder what would change if I stopped trying to play without mistakes. What if, instead, I gave myself brownie points for awareness? That way, both "staying on the beat" and "coming back to the beat" would have the same value, instead of one being "good" and the other being "mistake." Maybe, instead of constantly chastising myself I would be giving myself much more positive feedback.

I'll give it a try.