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 and...no 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...