Wednesday, September 21, 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 listening.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

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 some of my fellow students to give their comparative viewpoints...

The (Highly Informal) Survey:

I realize that I only surveyed students of one style of one martial art, and they're bound to be slanted to the martial art they ended up staying with. Please don't take offense if you practice a different martial art!!! I do think the factors they considered in making their choice, especially after many years of practice, are pretty interesting, no matter what martial art you practice.

The Question: Do you have personal experience practicing in more than one martial art or aikido style? Why did you stick with Kokikai Aikido? 

The Answers (edited for brevity):

Rick: I wanted to learn internal energy development to aid my tae kwon do practice but stayed because as I got older and a little slower had more trouble entering defenses. Kokikai Aikido taught me to wait, allow my opponent to come to me and the setups were automatically there. I am going on

David:   I studied a different style of aikido for about 5 years and then stopped for about 15 years. I then decided to study Kokikai, mostly because the dojo was close to my house (in Tempe, AZ), and I was impressed by the teachers there. The reasons for staying are somewhat more complex, but suffice it to say that at my age, I can still do Kokikai. I don't think I could say the same had I stayed with my previous style.

Debbie: Karate made me strong. But Aikido taught me that you can see things from a different perspective, and that really changes how you react to a threatening situation.

Nancy: I've recently been visiting practice groups for other aikido styles because there are no Kokikai dojo where I live now. I noticed that practicing in these other classes didn't look like fun to me. Also, after years of training Kokikai Aikido under Maruyama Sensei my eye is trained to see that there are a lot of weak spots, and places where the techniques don't look natural or logical. I'm so glad to have studied under Sensei and the other teachers I've had! Choosing the right teacher is really important!

Frank: I trained in tae kwon do (TKD) for 7 years before coming to Kokikai Aikido, which I've been practicing for the last 20 years. I was fortunate to have found dedicated lifelong master martial artists as teachers in both arts; ones that innovate and are intimate with the subtleties of their arts. That is RARE.

I practiced in TKD in the better part of my 20s, when I was at my most athletic. I learned a lot about striking and generating power, correct technique involving relaxed strength combined with smooth movement, clean footwork and acceleration. I had a lot of fun. Sustained some injuries, broken bones, nose, ribs, deep bruises. In any competitive encounter no matter how good you are, you will get hit and it doesn't take much to sustain a serious injury especially from a strong attack. Good fighters that are quick and strike with power and precision end things quickly.

With that experience I came to Kokikai. 20 years later, I'm still here, very grateful for my teachers and for the fellowship of the community of respectful, helpful, experienced, mature, lifelong practitioners - also rare. I'm grateful for ukemi; learning to get thrown, fall down and get up gracefully is sometimes completely overlooked as the backbone of good practice. It's health-giving, literally and metaphorically, and a priceless skill on and off the mat. Finally I'm grateful for the 4 basic principles of Kokikai Aikido, which are personified most dramatically in Sensei. I feel blessed and lucky to have found a practice that is always challenging my understanding ability and limits both as a student and teacher.

Jason: In kung fu there was a lot more focus on strengthening and conditioning the body with push-ups, crunches and squats. In aikido, practicing things like relaxing under pressure and avoiding resistance helped me outside the dojo way more than repeatedly executing 12 different types of punches and kicks.

Christopher:  Compared to other styles of aikido, Kokikai stressed correct feeling almost from the very start. It made it harder to learn at first, but I believe I got a deeper understanding of aikido much earlier than I would have otherwise.

Dave:  I have some experience with jiu jitsu and judo. One style of jiu jitsu I did for about a year was great if you want to learn how to lay out an attacker. What I like about aikido is almost the pacifist approach to self-defense. If I really wanted to defend myself and didn't care about the welfare of an attacker, I'd practice something like krav maga. Or just get a gun...

Bill: I studied a Korean art that seemed to have a lot of techniques, but after a while there wasn't a sense that it grew. It just got to a point of changing the katas but no new technique or improved way of doing things...Kokikai keeps growing and improving.

Debora: I practiced a Japanese hard style karate for 25 years before coming to Kokikai Aikido. I knew what I wanted in a style and visited several aikido schools before committing to Kokikai. A healthy organization with good leadership is essential. Another quality I looked for was respectful treatment of both instructors and students. Finally, I was looking for a style that taught effective self-defense. This is not because I felt the need to be safe, as I had accomplished that fairly well in karate. It was more because I understood how challenging it is to do what all aikido styles claim to do, which is to make technique more powerful without resorting to muscle power. Kokikai Aikido, under Sensei's leadership, is always evolving into something better. This quality is rare and the main reason why I have remained for many years.

Abhijit: I started with a different style of aikido, and practiced for about a year before switching to Kokikai. Kokikai has an explicit feedback system, through ki testing and appropriate resistance, that helped me improve both myself and my technique. The principles also helped me evaluate the technique I saw. Previously I felt I was being told not to resist - follow the lead, take the fall when you are "supposed" to.  I was never sure whether I was actually doing things in ways that worked or that my partner was always being nice to me.  In Kokikai, there was no way I could resist! I also felt the techniques taught wouldn't work for smaller people (the instructor was a big guy). In Kokikai, that's certainly not the case! [The founder of Kokikai weighs under 130 lbs.] Kokikai principles have helped me continue to learn and grow and find some new nuance every time I practice. It's always been fascinating, and continues to be "magical" for over 20 years.

Samantha: I practiced aikido and capoeira in college. I see a lot of value in both and the approach to technique is fairly similar. One major thing in favor of Kokikai is the strong international organization - it means that even people working to practice in more isolated areas have the chance to keep their technique fresh by attending annual camps and seminars. I felt that, compared to aikido, the culture of capoeira was more competitive and strength-oriented. I always felt as though aikido marries well with my physical abilities and limitations, and it was always very easy to see how to leverage those differences to my advantage. The Kokikai Aikido community is so welcoming of different physicalities that I felt much more at home.

More about How to Choose a Martial Art

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 Aikido for 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 someone, a gun is very effective, and a four year old can use it with no training. Most of us train in a martial art for other reasons: maybe because of the way it affects our bodies - giving us the ability to do things we couldn't do before - and our minds - changing the way we react, especially to stressful situations. For example, if you want to be a trained killer without needing a weapons permit, keep in mind that you will have the mind of a trained killer, as well as the body. When you meet someone at a wedding reception, do you really want your first thought to be how easy it would be to knock them out, or break their knees?

It may be better to choose a style that's a good fit for you than to choose "the one that can beat everyone." Also, the quality of your teacher is at least as important as the style you choose.
Link to Survey Results

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

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 them. When I practice paying attention with mindfulness meditation,  I can apply that to learning and therefore learn more effectively. 

Monday, September 5, 2016

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 shoulders
  • helping open up tight shoulders 
  • opening up the chest for more relaxed breathing
  • transferring 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 instrument, or on the mat, or hanging out with friends trying to look relaxed and cool! If you're like me, it isn't something you'll just do once a day and be all set. You'll have to keep reminding yourself...a lot.

Method 1: Standing
Stand with your legs wide, and open your arms to the side with your palms down.  Now simply rotate your palms upward. Rather than just turning your wrist, let that action extend all the way up your arm to your shoulders. The movement you feel in your shoulders is external rotation. The front muscles of your shoulders lengthen, the front of the rib cage opens, and the shoulder blades settle down over the back of the rib cage.

Method 2: "Child's Pose"
You can also try to get the same feeling by sitting on your knees, and bending forward at the waist with your arms outstretched, palms on the floor (like you are prostrating to the absolute ruler!) Now draw the outer arms down and towards each other so that the inner creases of the elbows are facing more toward the ceiling. Feel what happens to the shoulders.

Most of us have habitually tight shoulders from sitting and drawing the front of the shoulders together so you may not feel much movement at first.

This movement of externally rotating the shoulders has been key in my transformation from a habitually hunched, shoulders forward, neck forward posture, to an upright, chest open, back long posture in my daily life. It's taken a long time but I recommend it. It changes everything!

Friday, September 2, 2016

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 studies have shown that meditation has "great promise for treating depression." Tim Ferriss, author of The Four-Hour Work Week, uses meditation to alleviate his depression symptoms. (OK, he also uses psychedelics for the same purpose... ) Others claim that it helps you become more effective in daily life. When I learned TM back in the 70's, I was told I'd get everything I wanted, as my consciousness became more aligned with the universe. (OK, some TM practitioners also believe they can levitate and see the future...)  I am hoping that the daily breathing will help my singing, (but I'm not really measuring that. How do you measure that?).

Technology Helps!
I have to say, we're mostly using fairly subjective, anecdotal evidence to support our findings. But we are being a teeny, tiny bit scientific. We're using Daylio, an Android app that lets you track mood, and add simple diary notations without having to type anything - you just select the icons. (You can customize the icons and add description if you want). It even reminds you if you didn't make an entry.

Results? Soon. Watch this Space.
I'll let you know how it goes - check back at the end of September.

Monday, August 29, 2016

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 we took.

th th th th th th th th ght ght ght ght ght ght ght
feet fret get greet feet fret get greet

The trick is to do something that's repetitive, while challenging your brain just enough to keep it engaged.

I bought a notebook, and in it I wrote the tunes as I learned them. I would take a tune and break it down into little phrases. I would highlight the phrases that I thought sounded like common melody fragments - things I might hear in some other tune. At first it was just two notes at a time - then three or four. I would notice these fragments repeating in different parts of the tune, sometimes starting on the same note, but sometimes on different notes. Then I would just play those little fragments over and over at a speed that was...possible.. until my fingers played them without thinking.

This was a real experiment on my part. I can't say that I will write a scholarly paper on it or write the next book on how to learn the button accordion fast, but I have learned quite a few tunes, and it was much less frustrating than I expected.

Now I am working on translating this idea to other aspects of my practice...

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Four Basic Principles for Living

The four basic principles of Kokikai Aikido are:

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.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Hunger is the Best Sauce

Lately I've been trying to balance my desire to improve as a musician with being mindful and appreciating my current level of ability. It's human nature to want more. It's hard to step off the treadmill of responsibility and self-deprecation and practice to pause and appreciate the music I'm making right now.

This reminds me of how I relate to hunger. My Aikido Sensei likes to say, “Hunger is the best sauce." When I'm hungry and begin to eat, the food tastes so good! There's nothing like that first bite! After that, though, I keep eating without engaging with the taste of the food. I just think, "More," usually without realizing that the food has stopped tasting the same.

Nothing changed about the food. My body's just suggesting that I don't need any more. If I would only listen instead of always thinking ahead.

Maybe you think this metaphor's a bit of a stretch. But I think trying to be satisfied with where you're at as an artist is definitely as elusive as mindfully tasting every bite of my food...

Thursday, June 23, 2016

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 certain effects. What type of brush strokes to use. Like this one:
"Since the colors which have much body are those which most require to be gummed in order that they may adhere to the paper after they have been applied, use must also be made of gummed water, which is prepared in the following manner..." 
It took me a while to hone in on Dali's essential idea, which is that, while passion, intent and vision are essential to the artist, without technique these are nothing.
"Modern painters having almost totally lost the technical tradition of the ancients, we can no longer do what we want to do. We can only do 'whatever comes out of us.'" 
Therefore, he insists on meticulous attention to the details of the craft at the same time that he embraces an "unknown element" that includes luck, inspiration and an almost lunatic ability to reach for the impossible. 

Magic Craftsmanship.

As a martial arts teacher and as a musician, I try to encourage people, to point out the small successes to keep them motivated on the long road to mastery.  But all students of any discipline need to face the fact that if we really want to improve, we're going to have to spend a lot of time on the minutiae, the details, the repetition. That work can be daunting. It takes a lot of time. Not hours. Years.

Oddly, it's just when we are faced with this fact that so many of us decide we just don't have the "special talent," the "genius," the "natural ability." We focus on the neighbor's 10-year-old son the guitar prodigy. But I absolutely promise that if you dig a little deeper into that story you'll hear about how the kid spends all his waking hours playing guitar.

So, when I find myself thinking I just don't have the "special talent," I remember Dali, and keep practicing my brush strokes.

Friday, May 6, 2016

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 technique called ryo kata tori tenchi nage or "heaven and earth throw." The attacker grabs both wrists, and the defender's response involves directing one arm down (toward the earth - chi) and the other hand up (toward heaven - ten).

We often tell students to think of the heaven hand as coming up and over, like you are pouring a cup of tea over the attacker's shoulder. When students grasp this idea, they're almost always able to feel the subtle change in the way this affects their attacker's body, taking their balance and making them much easier to throw.

I love this stuff - life is cool.

Friday, April 29, 2016

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.

Friday, April 22, 2016

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 musician and you want to play more musically, try closing your eyes when you play. When you can hear yourself better, it's natural to play better.

Application to Martial Arts Training

A lot of judo schools use the blindfold extensively in training. The blindfold helps the student to focus on the other senses like touch and hearing, instead of relying on what they see. This seems like a great training idea. We have had many blind and legally-blind students in Kokikai Aikido, several of whom have tested for black belt.

I imagine most of us instinctively rely too much on visual cues when practicing aikido. I'm looking for ways to help students get out of that habit.

Friday, April 15, 2016

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 through. (I just printed it to hang above my desk).
  • Focus your energy on becoming the best human you can be.
  • We encourage you to dispel repetition in all of its negative forms and consequences. 
  • Strive to create new actions both musically and with the pathway of your life. 
  • Never conform.
  • The unknown necessitates a moment-to-moment improvisation or creative process that is unparalleled in potential and fulfillment.
  • Be courageous and do not lose your sense of exhilaration and reverence for this wonderful world around you.
  • Every moment is an opportunity. You, as a human being, have no limits; therefore infinite possibilities exist in any circumstance.
  • You matter, your actions matter, your art matters.
  • We can never have peace if we cannot understand the pain in each other’s hearts. The more we interact, the more we will come to realize that our humanity transcends all differences.
  • Art in any form is a medium for dialogue, which is a powerful tool.
  • Yes, you are enough. Yes, you matter. Yes, you should keep going.
  • Living with creative integrity can bring forth benefits never imagined.
  • We hope that you live in a state of constant wonder.
  • All that exists is a product of someone’s imagination; treasure and nurture yours and you’ll always find yourself on the precipice of discovery.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Why We Volunteer

Another Kokikai Aikido Winter Camp is over, and afterward I had the inevitable day of rest and a little sadness.
Announcements, Kokikai Aikido Winter Camp 2016

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:

  1. Sensei.
    Sensei is amazing. He shows us the incredible potential power that human beings have. And then he teaches us how to do it! 
  2. 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. 
  3. 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 I sense that students tend to see their instructors, including martial arts instructors, as "service providers" and consider themselves to be "customers." Once they've paid for their "service," their obligation is over. Yet, when everyone works together for a common goal, it leaves us with a lasting good feeling that we don't get when we just purchase a service.

Friday, April 1, 2016

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 phone number, just email and chat. The chat representative was unable to give me much information, other than "They're still printing, I'll try to find out what's going on and get back to you." A day later, after no response, I contacted them through chat again with the same result. I explained nicely that I was already a day past the promised delivery date and really needed these 80 t shirts for an event, etc. Couldn't I get an answer right away?

I was told again there was nothing they could do but wait. I offered options (Express shipping? Print a partial order? Speak to a supervisor?) and met a wall of "sorry, no." Sensing that I had somehow upset this person, I insisted that it was not the representative's fault, but that I was really going to need an answer. Although frustrated, I pulled out my best "aikido-in-daily-life" communication skills, and was told I could either cancel my order or wait an indefinite amount of time for the shirts.

I quickly checked and found out that a local company could just barely rush order the shirts in time, so I cancelled the online order. I IM'ed Martin in complete frustration.

Outdone by a Blue Belt 

Martin wrote back, "Hold on, I'm contacting them..."

15 minutes later he had the following information: The shirts are shipping today by expedited shipping. You are getting a full refund for the cost of the shirts because you had such a bad experience.

How did he do that? After all, he's only a blue belt!

I looked at transcripts of Martin's chats and compared them to mine. I think he was successful because he used two good, solid aikido ideas and he used them more effectively than I did:

1. He put himself in the rep's position. (His experience as a customer service rep helped)
2. He didn't let his emotions affect his actions. (He had less at stake in the outcome than I did, which made it easier, but still no excuse for me!) 

He was also way, way, more incredibly nice and friendly. I thought I was being pretty nice, but written communication strips more of the emotion from our interactions than we oldsters realize.

I guess there is always room for improvement in aikido technique, whether on the mat or in daily life...

Friday, March 25, 2016

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 can't do.  And we're going to fail a LOT. When we do succeed, we'll just move on to the next thing, and fail at that until we do it right. Then we'll move on again.

If you're not failing a lot, you're not trying hard enough.

Somehow that makes me feel better about my failures.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Building a Strong Foundation

By Saffron Blaze - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
Sensei has said that practicing Kokikai Aikido helps build a strong foundation in our lives. When a building has a strong foundation, even though it's invisible, it supports the structure that's built above the ground.

If the foundation isn't strong, the building will fall.
If we do have a strong foundation, then our lives can be a fuller expression of who we are.

Concepts like this are, for me, what elevate the practice of Kokikai Aikido far above the level of a "hobby," "physical exercise" or "activity."

Sunday, February 14, 2016

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: impossible to move.

To help students achieve correct feeling, aikido instructors use all kinds of Zen-like metaphors. Somehow these mind pictures can help jolt us - even if only momentarily - out of everyday thinking and the mind/body habits that we've acquired over a lifetime .

I did a little survey, and here are a few of the great metaphors that people gave me. They fall into a few general categories. Maybe they'll be useful to you! Let me know!

Technique Ideas
Relax your arms and use your center (one point) to push out.
Let your arms relax like you're sitting in a chair, but don't let them collapse.
You're holding a beach ball in front of you;
Open your eyes!
Practice by pushing a wall. When the wall is gone, your partner will seem like nothing.
Push from the back of your body, not the front.

The Wave
Imagine two people catching a wave.
It's impossible to push through a strong wave. Catch the wave and ride it to shore.
You don't lift your arms.They are being pushed up by the water.

Reach to Get Something You Really Want
You're holding a big box. Hand the box to someone sitting behind uke, as if uke were not there.
You are carrying an armload of heavy pipe. Put them all in uke's lap.
Uke is a gnat blocking your path to the wall behind him/her.
There is a hundred dollar bill (cup of hot chocolate/glass of lemonade/ buttefly/child in danger) behind your partner. Get. It.

Think/Don't Think
Don't think Schwarzenegger - think Buddha.
Imagine that you're a train, one point is the engine, and your arms are the cow catcher
Think, "I don't care. I can push him over."
Imagine ki (or water) flowing down your thighs and around and out through your toes (so your knees stay on the mat)
Let uke support the weight of your arms and move from one point as if they weren't even there.
Imagine that a rod of steel is going through your back and 3 feet into the earth.
Focus on uke's state. (Don't get too caught up on your own internal or external state).
Imagine that you already took uke's balance, even before you start.
Imagine you are are sitting on a cloud.
You have "noodle" arms.

Thanks to Alon, Barbara, Brian, Bryan, Cathy, Cecelia, Carol, Colin, David, Deb, Heather, Jan, Kirk, Nahks, Nancy, Samantha and Ray for your input!

Thursday, February 11, 2016

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.