Showing posts from 2016


When I meditate, it's pretty hard to keep from getting lost in my thoughts. One thing that helps a lot is to try very hard to just listen.

I imagine that there's some very subtle sound I'm trying to hear, just barely at the limit of my ability to hear it. Sometimes I can become very aware and attentive.

It struck me that this is a great thing to practice in general. So often, when playing music with others, or by myself, I'm generating thoughts, judgments, desires, remembering what just happened. It would be so much better if I could just listen.

In my conversations with others, I've found I do the same thing: I start to generate a reply, or a judgment, or a reference, and suddenly I'm not listening anymore.  I think the analogy extends easily to the martial arts, but in a more metaphoric way, in that I can learn to be more attentive to what is happening with the other person, instead of myself.

It's not easy, but maybe with practice, I'll get better..…

Comparing Kokikai Aikido to Other Martial Arts - A Survey

I've practiced the same martial art, Kokikai Aikido, for over 22 years. Even though I've written elsewhere about how to choose the best martial art, I've never tried another aikido style, or even another martial art. I lucked out and landed in a practice that's perfect for me, with a highly effective curriculum, a world-class founder, amazing senior instructors, and I never saw the need to look elsewhere.
Even so, it's always bothered me that a lot of other martial artists consider aikido to be a "joke." I can't speak for other styles, but there's no question in my mind that Kokikai Aikido is effective. Our founder, Shuji Maruyama Sensei, personifies everything that aikido ever claimed to do or be: small of stature, powerful, effective, without harm to opponent. But he's always been reticent about blowing his own horn or putting video of himself on YouTube, so I can see why most people don't know much about him or his style. So, I asked s…

What's the Best Martial Art?

Which Is Better? Beginners in the martial arts are always asking, questions like: "Can MMA beat aikido?" "Can judo beat capoiera?" I've practiced Kokikai Aikidofor 22 years. Our founder, Shuji Maruyama Sensei, always tells us seek proof: Try things one way, then try them another, and find out for yourself which is better. Of course you can't try every martial art, and you certainly can't try them all for long enough to get really expert, not in this lifetime, anyway. So I thought I'd take a little survey...
But First: Are You Asking the Right Question?After we have some martial arts experience, most of us realize that asking, "Which is the most effective martial art?" is a little meaningless. All have strengths and weaknesses, depending on what you're trying to achieve, and also on your body type, personality, level of dedication, etc.

Think about why you want to practice a martial art in the first place.  If your goal is to kill someon…

Why Meditate?

Recently somebody asked me why I practice mindfulness meditation, and particularly what it has to do with playing music and or martial arts.

When I meditate, I practice being attentive. Or you might say "metacognating": thinking about thinking. When I'm in the habit of noticing my thoughts, my time spent practicing is much more effective. For example:

+   I'm able to better notice when my posture is wrong
+   I can notice my thoughts - more like an observer - and therefore consider whether they might be side tracking or undermining me
+   I can be aware of whether the reason I'm not getting something is because I don't see it, or because I don't hear it, or because I'm playing it too fast, or because I don't really know how it feels in my body to play those notes, or I don't really know the changes or the harmony
For most of us, the myriad thoughts that pass through our minds while we're practicing usually happen way too fast for us to catch…

External Rotation of the Shoulders - It Helps Everything!

In yoga, I learned to externally rotate my shoulders. It has a bunch of benefits for yoga practice, including:
giving you more mobility in the shouldershelping open up tight shoulders opening up the chest for more relaxed breathingtransferring weight bearing from shoulder girdle (lots of small, overstressed muscles) to the lats (big, giant muscles spread over the back)  I got into the habit of thinking about this in yoga, and that got me to thinking about it during my music practice and my aikido practice as well. I can feel the change right away and it's a good one:
When I externally rotate my shoulders, it settles the shoulder blades down over my back, and right away my arms do less work, and all my movement comes from the center of the body. I sit up taller and breathe better.

How to Externally Rotate Your Shoulders
If you learn what this action feels like from a couple of positions, you'll be able to get the right feeling when you're holding or sitting at your instrumen…

Take the Meditation Challenge!

A Challenge and an Experiment
My friend and I are about 10 days into a meditation challenge. We're both meditating every day for 40 days, to see what changes it brings in our lives. It's really great to have a partner, even though he's in another state. It helps me stay on track, probably (sadly) because of my competitive nature. I really don't want to be the one to admit, "Well, no, actually, I didn't meditate today." :-D

My friend is taking an awesome 40-day Mindfulness Daily audio course created by Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield. I'm doing 20 minutes of mindfulness meditation and 10 minutes of aikido breathing.

Getting Scientific: Endpoints and Benchmarking
We're actually not being very scientific at all. But we do have some general "endpoints" we're looking to "measure."
Do we have improvement in mood?Are we more effective in daily life?Are we better musicians/martial artists? Is our practice more effective?
Some reputable

Is Practicing Music Like Learning to Type?

A few minutes ago I was trying to type "Wes Montgomery" into the YouTube search window, and instead of "wes" I typed "west." I guess my fingers are faster than my brain. This happens all the time - especially with word fragments like "tion" and "ing" - I don't have to think about the individual letters, my fingers take over. I've always wondered how those jazz guys blow such complicated stuff so fast. I think this is a huge clue.

Last summer I decided to try out a new instrument, a Quebecois button accordion. It's pretty illogical to play: like a harmonica, the same button plays a different note, depending on whether you are pushing in or pulling out on the bellows. I already have too much on my plate, and I know this, so I decided to approach it like my high school typing class.

Did you ever take typing in high school? It was really boring. But at my high school reunion, a bunch of us agreed it was the most useful class w…

Four Basic Principles for Living

The four basic principles of Kokikai Aikido are:

Keep One Point Relax Progressively Positive Mind Correct Posture These principles underlie every part of the practice of this wonderful art of self-defense. They are also fantastic principles for living everyday life. I tell new students at Rutgers that if they only take one class they can get enduring benefit if they keep these principles in mind.

Here's one way I put them into practice. There are times when I get agitated, angry, or can't stop thinking about something (even though I would like to). First step is to notice that I am agitated, angry, or etc. Then I pick one of the principles and focus on it.

It's amazing how even the "physical" principles, like keeping good posture, or physically relaxing my body, can affect your state of mind.

Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship

I picked up a copy of Salvadore Dali's "50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship" in a bookstore.

That guy who painted the melted clock, as you may know, was a groundbreaking surrealist painter, photographer and filmmaker, You may also know that Dali was famously an eccentric, egoistic self-promoter, famous for quotes like:
"Each morning when I awake, I experience again a supreme pleasure - that of being Salvador Dali"  In the book the artist promised to provide the key that would save modern art "from chaos and laziness." I admit, I was kind of fascinated in what Dali, the self proclaimed greatest artist of all time, offered to teach.

The book is full of Dali's characteristic, flamboyant language. A lot of it seems to make no sense:
"Begin, then, by knowing that according to the Dalinian aesthetic the tulip is a horrid thing next to celluloid" But then there are whole passages of things like how to grind paint. What type of brush to use for cer…

Making Subtle Changes In Direction

I'm a novice violin player. It's pretty difficult for a beginner to get any decent kind of sound out of a violin, so any time I make a step forward, it's usually accompanied by a gratifyingly audible change in my playing.

Lately I've been amazed at how thinking differently about the direction of the bow has made a really dramatic improvement in my sound.

Last summer I took a week's worth of workshops from Andrea Larson at Ashokan Northern Week. One thing she had us practice was, on an upbow, imagining shooting the bow over our shoulders. Normally I think of "drawing" the bow as a sort of rubbing action that involves more downward pressure on the strings. When I use the "shooting" idea, the direction of my effort is more across than down. The incredible thing is that to make this change in my sound, I barely have to do anything - I just have to remember to think about it.

We have a lot of similar ideas in aikido. One example is used in a techniqu…

When the Bell Rings, Get Up

Some time ago I read a really great book called "Thank You and Okay: Diary of an American Zen Failure in Japan" by David Chadwick. It's mostly about him spending time in Japanese monasteries and the culture shock that ensued. Chadwick's writing is simultaneously humble and hilarious, with lots of food for thought.

In the first chapter he describes the difficulty of waking up to the alarm clock at 3:45 for morning zen service. Groggy and warm, the idea of staying in bed was inviting. But he remembered his teacher Shunryu Suzuki's advice:

"When the bell rings, get up."

Short-circuit the grumbling mind, and do.

There's lots of things I know I should do, but I just don't want to get started. Meditation, exercise, practice. (Why do so many of these involve getting up early???)  How to get started? Just start!

Very good advice.

Even so, sometimes I just collapse back into bed.

Kissing with Your Eyes Closed - And Learning By Ear

I grew up learning music by reading it from sheet music. When I attended my first Irish music session, there wasn't a bit of sheet music in sight. I was lost. I couldn't even play the tunes I already knew without the music in front of me.

I've gotten a lot better at it and now I prefer to learn and play music by ear. I've found that when I'm not reading, I can listen better - both to myself and others. When I listen better, I play better.

There's plenty of scientific backing for what pickpockets and magicians have known for ages: focusing on what we see dulls our ability to hear & feel. A recent study at the University of London found that complex visual tasks reduce people's ability to notice a touch. They didn't actually study people kissing. But lots of bloggers drew the obvious conclusion. In another study, the more the subjects focused their attention on a complex visual puzzle, the more they became inattentive to sounds.

If you're a music…

Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter: Artists can Save the World

"You either have to be part of the solution, or you're going to be part of the problem."        - Eldridge Cleaver We all tend to blame others - society, politicians, boss, girlfriend -  for what's wrong in our lives. Sayings like the one above redirect the responsibility back to ourselves. Frankly, though, sayings like this mostly just make me feel guilty. Apart from writing an obscure blog and some charitable donations, I never think of myself as part of any "solution." Teaching aikido and playing music are hardly going to save the world, right?

That's why I was heartened to read this letter from Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. In an open letter, "To the Next Generation of Artists," they offer their thoughts on how we all can work to increase peace and understanding in the world, despite so many trends that are painful and discouraging.

Here are a few beautiful phrases from the letter, but it's really, really worth reading all the way …

Why We Volunteer

Another Kokikai Aikido Winter Camp is over, and afterward I had the inevitable day of rest and a little sadness.

It's quite complex to put together an event like this, and a lot of people worked in beautiful harmony behind the scenes so that Sensei could focus on teaching over 280 participants. As I think about all that effort, there are a few things that come to mind that make it so worth it:

Sensei is amazing. He shows us the incredible potential power that human beings have. And then he teaches us how to do it! The Kokikai Community. Kokikai is a bunch of really amazing people, and as a volunteer, anything we can do to bring them all together in one place, and then practice together, is worthwhile, not just for the volunteers, but for everyone in Kokikai. It Feels Good.
Teachers I know - of various disciplines - have commented that their students are less and less willing to "help out" when asked. I'm sure there are a lot of reasons - life is so complex. But…

In which I Fail at Aikido in Daily Life, or: Bested by a Blue Belt

Trying A New Technique Can Be Bumpy At First 
This year, for our annual Kokikai Aikido Winter Camp, we decided to try selling t-shirts using an online seller. It seemed like the modern thing to do. Instead of guessing what people would want and ending up with leftover shirts, people could go online in advance and pre-order the exact size, style, color they wanted. They'd all get shipped to my house and we'd hand them out at camp. I'd order a few extra for those who like to make spur-of-the-moment purchases but there would be a lot less waste.

My son, Martin, works for an online business printer. He said he knew a cool little startup he had worked with before that had a great website. He set up the campaign and we were all excited...UNTIL...

The promised delivery date came shirts. Not even a tracking number. Luckily I still had over a week's leeway: "Hope for the best, plan for the worst" is my motto.

This very online company had no customer support p…

Plan to Fail

My husband teaches computer science, and he says it surprises his students when he teaches them to expect failure.

He says students are not used to failing. In high school teachers focus on their successes amd they're given lots of encouragement. But when you're doing something you've never done before, you're going to fail and fail until you do it right, and then you'll move on. If you're doing something no one has done before, you'll fail even more before you succeed. In the end, you'll have lots more failures under your belt than successes. In my husband's opinion, if his students are not failing a lot, they're not trying hard enough.

One day I commented to my piano teacher that I was finally starting to enjoy the sound of my own playing. "Don't get too used to that!" he said sardonically.  His explanation described essentially the same idea: if we're working to achieve mastery, we're doing something that most people ca…

Catching "Correct Feeling"

In Kokikai Aikido practice, we're continually trying to catch what Maruyama Sensei calls correct feeling. This feeling combines stillness and readiness; awareness of everything around us and intense focus; strength and deep relaxation.

That paradoxical nature of correct feeling is one of the things that fascinates me most about aikido. I try to catch that feeling when I play music, especially when I improvise. I've spoken to people who engage in other practices, from writing poetry to playing basketball, who completely get this idea.

In one technique we practice, kokyudosa, catching correct feeling is essential. In kokyudosa, two students sit facing each other on their knees. Each extends their arms. Uke (attacker) holds nage's (defender's) wrists. Nage uses correct feeling to push uke backward. Kokyudosa, done correctly, is mind bending. A very small person can toss a big body builder. But if you don't have correct feeling, your uke is like a 4 ton truck: impossib…

Mastery Doesn't Bring Happiness

I once saw a dancer stand on a chair, and reach down and touch the floor with her legs straight. I really, really wanted to be able to do that.

After years of yoga, I now can do that - as long as it's a low chair. It's nice to be able to do. It's good to know I'm flexible. But it hasn't made me any happier.

I try to remind myself that becoming better at something is not going to lead automatically to being happier. After all, every time I get better, I'll just want to try something even harder. (Or - depressingly - as I get older, I'll be striving to do the things I could do just a few years ago.)

I'm not sure where happiness comes from. I know it's a lot harder for some people than others. But I try to remember to find it where I can: in human contact, friendship and love, in the sights and sounds of the world around me, and in appreciating the good things about myself.  Such as, I guess, the fact that I can do a forward bend.