Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Simple Ideas, Challenging Practice

Recently after an aikido seminar, a bunch of us convened at a local restaurant with Sensei. As I was chatting with someone next to me I looked up, and Sensei met my eye across the table.

"Judy, what do you think of Sensei this time?"

 I laughed and said, "Sensei, you're even more amazing than before!" (First principle of ethical speech: Is it true? Yes. He was definitely more amazing.)

Somewhat tongue in cheek, since the answer is the point of all his teaching, I asked him, "Sensei, how do you do it?"

He pulled up his sleeve to show me (for probably the 100th time) the way he can keep his forearm and biceps totally slack and soft. And he said, (for probably the 1,000,000th time,) "Judy: the secret is, I never use muscle!"

A friend of mine once lamented, "Why is it you have to be in therapy for years before you hear the thing the therapist has been telling you ever since the first day?"

Looking back over my posts for the last year or so, I realize there's nothing that groundbreaking here. What I wish I could express is that while the ideas are simple, in order to make them work, we have to practice them! Usually we say to ourselves, "Yes, I see," but the practice itself takes effort and attention that many of us don't expend.

If I've done just a little to encourage, motivate, or even goad, one or two people to renew that attention, I will feel great.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Admitting Mistakes Opens the Door to Change

At this time of year everyone's thinking about how to "be better" next year. Here's my thought:

So many of us want so badly to be better at something (musicians, aikidoka, life partners, parents...) but if we can't look at our mistakes straightforwardly, we can never identify the steps needed to change.

If we want to change, the most important step is to admit we made a mistake.

I think it's hard for us to admit mistakes because deep down most of us think we suck. If we admit to a mistake, it just proves the fact.

But this doesn't make sense, does it? If I think I'm bad, I should be happy to improve, right? For some reason, though, admitting a particular mistake is much more challenging than carrying the subconscious burden of "not measuring up."

It doesn't matter if it's realizing I'm having a hard time with a particular set of chord changes, or admitting that I actually do text while I drive and it's dangerous. Owning our failings doesn't make us suck more! It's exactly the opposite! Once we own them we're more than half way to fixing them!

Friday, December 26, 2014

Five Tests for Ethical Speech

Some years ago I made a commitment to speak the truth, in other words, not to lie. Since then I have been working to refine my speech, so that, more than simply speaking truly, I speak in a way that is good for myself and others, i.e. ethically.

I came across these five tests for ethical speech in a talk by the Buddhist scholar and teacher, Gil Fronsdal.

They're posted above my desk. I try (!) not to open my mouth unless my speech meets all five tests. I'm afraid most of the time I end up administering the test after the fact...

Five Tests for Ethical Speech
Is it True?
Is it Kind?
Is it Useful?
Is it Timely?
Does it Create Concord?

For me, the last test is the toughest.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Creating More With Less

I recently attended a violin workshop with the renowned Irish fiddler, Kevin Burke (who's actually English and lives in Oregon). He was talking about adding rhythm to the music with certain notes that are repeated on the beat. Below is a snippet from Walsh's Hornpipe. Even if you don't read music, you can see that the same note is repeated rhythmically. (I made those notes red.) When you listen Kevin play it, (it's very the first tune on this video,) those notes really stand out.
How to Make More with Less

Kevin said that to give this tune more rhythm, you have to play these repeated notes more lightly. He said that most people make the mistake of playing them heavily, and then they sense the tune doesn't have enough of a rhythmic feel, so they play them even more heavily, and so on and so on.

Man, does that sound like aikido.

Friday, December 19, 2014

My Sneaky Scheme

Have you ever had this happen? You try to persuade someone of something, and they just won't listen. but three days later they read it in the news and it's as if they came up with the idea themselves - they tell you about their great idea. It's frustrating! But it's understandable. Sometimes we have a hard time grasping a new idea when it's presented "straight on." It's like it has to come at us from a different angle, and then we have to absorb it as our own.

I think it's like that with my practice. I have to absorb new ideas, think about them, and make them my own.

Sometimes I write about aikido and sometimes I write about music. Most of the time I think the concepts I write about relate to both, (though I don't always mention it). You may wonder, "What audience is she writing for, that practices aikido and music? That can't be more than 100 people on the planet!"

Here's my sneaky scheme: Both music and aikido are are disciplines whose practitioners struggle to balance discipline with creativity and joy; finding a way to make something that is very difficult look and feel effortless.

My hope is that someone may read a concept relating to music, and start to ponder how it relates to aikido, (or vice versa). Eventually that person will absorb it as their own idea.

Maybe I'll meet up with you one day and you'll tell me about your great idea! I would love that!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Why I Don't Sexualize Interactions on the Mat: A Personal Account

Long before I was an aikido teacher, I made a decision to remove sexuality from my interactions on the mat.

It happened because I found myself inappropriately attracted to another student, and the way I acted as a result bothered me. I'm not sure that the change was obvious to anyone but myself, but for me the benefits were immediate and far-reaching.
  • I stopped unconsciously judging other students by whether they were attractive. I could more clearly see all their human qualities, including their aikido ability. I'm embarrassed to admit that until then, I gravitated toward people who were attractive or attracted to me. Now I have a much wider range of potential friendships and interactions.
  • When I stopped flirting - either overtly or subtly, I stopped being concerned whether what I was doing looked good or was impressive. I started paying more attention to others:  what they needed, what they heard, what they did.
  • I started to develop much more close friendships with women. 
I'm pretty sure I have become a better aikidoist, teacher, and person for taking this step. 

Friday, December 12, 2014

Is it OK to Sleep with your Students?

What's the Attraction?

When I first started aikido we used to go out after class and stay out pretty late. A client, hearing about this, said, "Oh, aikido? You have to watch out for those aikido people..." He said where he was from (San Francisco), aikido instructors were notorious for having affairs with their students. I started wondering: why would aikido teachers have this special reputation?

Any teacher is in danger of "falling into" sexual relationships with students of the opposite sex*: students look up to teachers, teachers enjoy the adulation, and so it goes. But I think there's a reason why aikido has a "reputation."

First: aikido is so cool! When you're start taking aikido you realize you're developing a kind of power you never imagined. It's awe-inspiring. And there's your teacher, who has that power. It's really easy to confuse that great feeling with a sexual attraction.

Second: most of the teachers are men, and so are most of the students. So, many aikido teachers aren't used to having sexually attractive students. When a male teacher does have a female student who's attracted/attractive, he's likely to be blindsided: if you're not really prepared for what happens when you introduce sexual attraction into the student/teacher relationship you can find yourself behaving differently without even realizing it. On the other hand, a hypothetical female teacher who's mostly-male students are pretty much always getting crushes is likely to be a little more immune.

So What? Why Shouldn't I Sleep With Students?

Some instructors have said: "As long as we're both consenting adults, if we choose to date or sleep with people who are our students, why not?"
  • As an instructor I would rather my students understand that the great feeling they get when practicing aikido doesn't come from me, but from the practice of aikido. That's better for me and for them.
  • Aikido involves a lot of close contact. I want all of my students, male and female, to know for certain that when we have close contact on the mat, there is nothing but aikido behind it. As one female friend says, "When it feels creepy, it is creepy." Aikido shouldn't feel creepy.
  • Some students come to self-defense classes because they have had a bad experience - maybe they were even sexually assaulted. As a teacher I don't want to know or guess which students they are. Sometimes those people are confused about appropriate boundaries (i.e. when to say "no." or "enough.") They're asking you to be part of the solution. Do you really want to become part of the problem instead?
  • If you date someone who's your student and then you break up, you've just lost a student. If that student had any friends on the mat, you'll probably lose them, too.
  • I've seen the negative effect on the rest of the dojo when one of the instructors is sleeping with a student. Even if the instructor doesn't show that student special consideration, everyone believes he's doing so. Typically the instructor is blind to this. Do you want to cause negative feelings in your dojo? Do you want to be blind to what's going on among your students?
  • I've known instructors who thought they had found Ms. Right. And then they broke up, and thought they found Ms. Right again. The teacher thought he was acting sincerely, but the other students felt he was using the mat as a trolling ground and it made them uncomfortable.
  • In my style (Kokikai Aikido), most of the places we practice are YMCAs or college recreation departments that have strict sexual harassment policies. Instructors can get into very serious legal situations when a relationship with a student goes sour, or even if there wasn't a relationship but something was implied. If this happens, even if you're not guilty as charged, it can be impossible to prove who did what to who. The school or the Y is unlikely to provide your legal defense. Better to stay clean as a whistle.

We Were Made For Each Other!

Having said all this, I know some strong, long-lasting couples that started as aikido student/teacher romances. But the odds were not in favor of those couples. One of my teachers advised: If you think you've really found Mr. or Ms. Right, prove it: get out of the student/teacher relationship. Maybe the student can practice elsewhere, or practice on a different night, under a different teacher, or even suspend aikido practice, until you're sure the relationship is solid. This way you can avoid confusion about what's causing the attraction.

*I apologize for writing with the assumption that the teacher is male and the student is female and that the attraction is heterosexual. It's true of most of the situations I've come across, but these issues are not limited to male teachers/female students or to heterosexual relationships.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Four Minute Mile - Shattering Psychological Barriers

In 1954, Roger Bannister ran a mile in less than four minutes. It was hailed as an "epic human achievement." The world record of 4:01.4 seconds had held for over 10 years, and some wondered if it was humanly possible to break that 4-minute barrier. Yet six weeks later Bannister's record was broken by John Landy. Today, running a mile in four minutes is considered the standard for all male professional middle distance runners.

Whether we realize it or not, we all struggle with barriers in our practice. To what extent are these barriers purely psychological?

Shuji Maruyama Sensei, is a role model for me in this way. In his lifelong practice of aikido, he has not been constrained by concepts of what "should" be possible. He does things that shouldn't be possible, and makes them look so easy that it takes an effort to recognize how remarkable they are. Sensei is slight in stature, and yet he throws big, strong martial artists - people he has trained to resist him and others - sometimes throwing them to the ground from a standstill, sometimes even lifting them up so their bodies are horizontal before they fall. Often, quite high-ranked students will try to do the same thing and can't. This isn't a reflection of their lack of ability, but rather an indication of how extraordinary Sensei's ability is.

The jazz pianist Chick Corea demonstrates similar qualities. Like Sensei, Chick has been called a "pioneer." His biography is full of "firsts" and superlatives. Yet Chick makes this amazing music seem easy. I found out first-hand how hard it was:  I thought I'd try to transcribe a relatively simple tune, Celia, so I loaded Chick's version into my "slowdowner" app. I didn't expect to be able to reproduce the whole thing, but thought I could get the hang of the "head" or main part of the tune. After more than an hour I was only halfway through the introduction.

Often I think something is impossible for me, simply because I don't know anyone like me who has done it, or I don't know what path to take to do it. There may be a lot of hard, focused work involved, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's impossible. Maybe the question I should ask isn't, "Can I do it?" but, "How much do I want it?" If I assume it can be done, then I just have to find out how.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

What's Next?

One of my biggest challenges in playing piano is remembering to think ahead. When I don't, it usually ends badly. I have a habit of going on autopilot. I'll be playing everything smoothly, my left hand is right on with the rhythm, my fingers are moving by themselves, and my mind drifts. Then here comes that unusual chord and...Crash! Or, I'm improvising and I'm in the groove, and I start listening and drifting, til I realize I'm repeating my ideas. I think, "OK, what now? "Crash!

I have put a post-it on my music stand. It says, "Think Ahead."

We all go on autopilot when we get comfortable at something. It's a natural that when we become competent at something we stop devoting so much attention to it. But in order to be creative, I need some things to be on autopilot and yet at the same time I need to be consciously aware and ready for what's next.

I wondered how to practice this.

I know I need to practice it a lot. My aikido sensei often says "Habit is second nature," and I need to make this second nature - turn a bad habit into a good one. I thought if I practiced the concept, not necessarily while practicing music, it might feed back into my music practice.

My first thought was: Can I practice being more conscious while driving, kind of a relaxed readiness? Now I try to do this for a little bit during every commute.

My next thought was aikido. For a while I had been dissatisfied with the quality of my demonstrations. In Kokikai, at times a student may be called up to demonstrate self-defense against any attack. The experience has some similarities to improvising. You have to be relaxed and open-minded. You don't know what's going to happen next and you're not going to have time to think when it does. Yet when the attack comes, your mind can't be so open that it's blank. You have to have some ideas at the ready. Of course, one doesn't get called up to demonstrate that often, so preparation has to be mostly by visualization and imagination. The best aikido demonstrations, just like the best musical improvisations, always combine beautiful, powerful and relaxed technique with some unexpected element: a throw you seldom see, or executed in an unusual way, or something else that demonstrates a perfect presence of mind.

Recently I was called on to do an aikido demonstration, and I think I'm seeing the fruits of my effort. I don't know if it was the driving practice, the post-it on my piano, the aikido visualization or all three, but things are definitely getting better!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Excuse Me, But You're Doing It Wrong....7 (no- 9!) Reasons NOT To Correct Your Partner in Aikido

In Aikido practice, I often see a less experienced student "correct" an experienced student. I'm sure these people genuinely feel they're offering something of value. But it's inappropriate, incorrect and detrimental to your own progress to correct people who've been practicing longer than you.

A while ago someone asked Cecelia Ricciotti (7th dan), "What do I do if I'm working with someone who has more experience, and they just plain out-and-out are doing it wrong?" "Well," she said, "You have to make a decision: Do you want to take on the role of teacher? Or do you want to continue to be a student?"

7 Reasons Not To Correct Your (More Experienced) Partner In Aikido
  • Respecting each other is one of the most important parts of our practice. You demonstrate respect for someone who has more training than you by listening to what they have to teach you. Especially if you disagree with them, it's a great opportunity to practice finding a way to respect where they are coming from.
  • You may think you "know" something that your partner doesn't know. But you will actually learn more by listening and watching than by talking. This has been my experience many, many times.
  • We all have a habit of talking too much during our practice. Practice not talking. Listen with your ears and your body. Maybe your partner will, too. 
  • Your partner is likely to react negatively to a "suggestion" from someone with less experience. They may avoid working with you in future. They may even mention their experience to others. Is that what you want?
  • A more experienced partner may want to go slowly, or want you to resist less, or may hesitate and ask you to do something again. This doesn't mean they don't know what to do. They may be exploring a nuance in the technique, or some other important thought. If you're quiet, you may get the benefit of this idea once they work it out!  
  • Sometimes your partner actually is wrong. They may even be doing the wrong technique. It happens. So what? You may learn something even though you're doing the "wrong" thing. Maybe all you'll learn is that you have the ability to choose to say nothing.
  • If you're a black belt and you're working with another black belt you don't know, you may not know which of you has more experience. How lovely! You can practice together without one of you having to take on the role of teacher. 
Curbing my desire to correct others who are more experienced is not about getting hung up on rank. It's about practicing humility. I want to learn Kokikai Aikido. Especially since I do teach aikido students, I have to make sure I "continue to be a student" whenever I can. When I do, it makes it easier to listen and easier to learn.

Post script: Cecelia kindly added the following (bringing the total to nine!):

  • Things that people work out for themselves have more value than things that are told or given to them. There's no harm in allowing a partner figure out what's wrong for themselves. 
  • Practicing with someone silently is waaaaay more fun that discussing the technique.
Thanks, Cecelia, as always, for your advice!

Monday, December 1, 2014

Clearing the Path of Resistance

Weirdly, sometimes when you stop fighting back, It's easier to get what you want

In Kokikai Aikido we often say that when practicing, the more you encounter resistance, the more you have to relax. When an attacker feels you resisting, they fight you even harder, hold you even tighter. 

Your own resistance acts like brambles clogging a path. They cling and slow you down. To get where you want to go, you have to clear them away. 

It takes a big leap of faith to believe that we can really defeat an attacker by using less muscle. We say we believe it, but when the time comes to do it, our brains just seem wired to the idea that tensing our muscles will work.

An aikido technique comes to mind. Called ryote tori kokyunage saio undo, it starts with the attacker grabbing one arm with both hands. As you can imagine, it's very hard to move your arm when someone is grabbing it with two hands. I'm not tall or particularly athletic. In addition to being female and over 50, I weigh about 128 lbs. But if I can find a way to release the tension in my forearm and upper arm, I can move even a big, strong person holding on with both muscular arms, without them being able to stop me.

I like to practice slowly so I can feel exactly where and when I'm introducing tension. Uke (attacker) can really help by moderating the attack to provide just enough resistance for nage (person being attacked) to learn where they are going wrong.

Letting Go of Tension in Daily Life

We can use this idea of letting go of tension when we encounter resistance in daily life. It has many of the same effects as in aikido: helping us overcome resistance, especially when dealing with conflict with other people. When particular interactions are troubling me, I find I have to consider them in as much detail as possible, being honest about my feelings, and wondering when I could introduce less tension or resistance at each point.

As with aikido practice, it takes a real commitment to honesty, openness, and mental flexibility to let go of ideas like "winning," "being right," "asserting control," or "being well-thought of." But when I do, I often find I can clear the path and move more easily in the direction I want to go.