Answers and Questions

(This post was written by Paul Norris, a senior student at Vermont Aikido.)

The people we learn the most from in our lives aren’t necessarily the ones who teach us facts, or even a set of skills – how to ride a bike, study for a test, cook an edible dinner.  They’re the people who help us find ways to achieve more in our lives, reach goals that require art: to discover the ability to navigate a relationship, or to age gracefully, or to care about other people’s feelings and understand our own.  But these aren’t arts you can learn by memorizing steps; and that means that learning them isn’t about someone showing you how to do it, as much as it is about being inspired, to explore it and learn for yourself.

In aikidō, your sensei teaches you specific techniques.  More than that, your sensei offers you their life in aikidō, everything they’ve learned: about what works and what doesn’t, how to learn aikidō and how to practice it.  In our dojō, our sensei tells us over and over that the important thing isn’t the answer, it’s the question.  He shows us techniques and we try to execute them, following his example; but we never really succeed, or at least I don’t.

In the most recent class I attended, sensei offered me feedback on my technique.  He described it in terms of being insincere: doing things because I’m supposed to.  “Tenkan, check.  Face forward, check.”  But he was clear that unless nage is sincere, unless nage actually wants to connect with uke, then just checking things off a list won’t work.  It’s insincere, and (at least this is how it felt to me, so I think this is what he meant) mechanical, and not effective, because it’s not actually aikidō.

So what would be sincere?  How do I do that, if the best I can do in my practice is to be insincere?  Maybe I have to admit that I don’t really care about uke, not yet.  I know I’m supposed to; but right now I just want uke to not overpower me.  And the only way I can imagine accomplishing that would be to triumph over uke, make them fall down instead.  Be right, and have them be wrong: that’s my answer.

And that means admitting that I don’t have the right question yet.  Because my answer doesn’t let me do anything except check items off a list, and try to make uke fall down, and hope I don’t get overpowered first, or hurt or humiliated.  Even though I know that’s not what I’m here to learn – but right now that’s all I know how to do.

Because everything sensei offers us, in all the classes he teaches, isn’t an answer: it’s part of the question.  It doesn’t tell me how to get past the point I’m stuck at: of trying to make uke stop threatening me, keep them from making me lose my center.  I know it’s not up to them to stop doing that: it’s up to me to keep my center.  But I don’t know how to act on that knowledge.  It’s an answer, and I don’t understand the question behind it yet.

But I’m starting to think that maybe that’s the question I need to ask: who do I need to be, to not be afraid of uke?  To not be afraid of connecting?

 

Oh Crap, This Isn’t Working

(This post was written by Paul Norris, a senior student at Vermont Aikido.)

So there you are, doing a technique, one you’ve done, oh, a couple of hundred times before. And for whatever reason, it doesn’t work.

Fortunately your advanced level of training allows you to promptly and efficiently take the necessary steps. First of all, it must be your uke’s fault. That goes without saying: if your uke had just attacked correctly, given you a committed attack, been more flexible, then everything would be fine. It must be their fault.

Sometimes I can stay stuck there for quite awhile. The worst-case scenario is when uke really is doing something unusual. A good uke can make your technique look powerful and effective; just so, an uncooperative uke, or an unexpected response to your technique, can stop you in your tracks. How are you supposed to deal with that?

Well, you could change the technique. Which, you tell yourself, is what you’d do in real life. If they’re not actually giving you the right attack, you certainly wouldn’t bother using this technique: you’d do something else, much more effective. Many people will simply abandon the technique they’re supposedly practicing, and go with a technique that’s more likely to work for this particular attack.

Not me. No, I use a simple but inevitably embarrassing approach known as “muscling the hell out of your uke.” Resist me, will you?  Take that, and that, and that. Fortunately, because I am pretty wimpy, I rarely injure my ukes permanently, at least as far as I’ve heard. However, common though this approach may be, it’s not actually the most effective way to learn aikidō.

And it’s not like sensei hasn’t explained how to deal with this exact situation. When you get stuck, correct your balance and posture and extension. He demonstrates: from bending forward over his uke like a bookkeeper examining a column of numbers under bad lighting, he straightens up, his weight settles back in his heels, he extends his arms. Just like that, uke shifts magically from a strong balanced position to a weak unstable stance where they can barely hold themselves up. Oh, I can do that!

I proceed to practice the technique with renewed vigor and confidence. And when I get stuck, I check my balance and posture and extension, which are all hopelessly not what they need to be. I take a deep breath and correct everything. And just like that, nothing happens at all!  Except that I have to muscle uke a little more vigorously to make them fall down.

The basic problem here is, aikidō isn’t magic. No matter what I tell myself, no matter how many superstitious gestures I make – breathing in, breathing out, holding my breath, closing my eyes, going faster and faster as if I can outrun my mistakes, slowing things down until uke is falling asleep on their feet – the fact is, I can always screw things up.

That’s what I’m here for, is to find out how I screw things up. The dream that something will magically enable me to do the technique perfectly is just that: a dream.

I’m here to learn. Screwing up is my job. I just wish I weren’t so good at it.

Combat Effectiveness

(This post was written by Paul Norris,  a senior student at Vermont Aikido.)

Aikidō can be a bewildering combination of inspiring ideas, exhilarating practice, and intensely frustratingly slow progress.  This is often explicitly acknowledged by aikidō instructors.  It’s pretty common to be told that if you’re looking for a combat art, aikidō probably isn’t going to be your first choice.  Karate, tae kwon do, kung fu or jūjutsu are more likely to be useful to a beginner attempting to keep someone from punching them.  When I was studying karate, our sensei told us about a student who learned a simple overhead block, went to his car in the parking lot after class, was confronted by someone trying to brain him with a baseball bat, and saved his own life using the block he’d just learned. Nice.

The equivalent story for aikidō seems to be that with a minimum of training, you’re more likely to be able to fall down without hurting yourself, or run away when you see trouble developing.  Certainly worthwhile achievements, but probably not what your typical beginning martial artist is looking for.  And it’s rather disconcerting to hear your sensei describe the technique he just demonstrated as an “exercise,” or specifically label it “Hollywood.”

Rank tests themselves aren’t necessarily realistic.  After all, how likely is it that I’d know what attack to expect?  Randori is more like the real world: not in the sense that it’s what would happen if I were attacked by several people at once (they probably wouldn’t wait their turn to attack, let alone politely forgo kicking me or grabbing me by the hair), but because I have maybe a second to focus on an uke’s attack and begin a hopefully-effective response.

My karate instructor, who had training in aikidō, once told us, “If you try to use nikyo on someone with an arm like a baby gorilla’s leg, it’s not going to work.  So first you kick him in the family jewels, and then you do nikyo on him.”  Is that aikidō?  Apparently some people would say so.

So is aikidō a combat art at all?  You might argue that it has to be, or what’s the point of it?  But some would say it’s not, and describe it as a watered-down version of daito-ryu jūjutsu.  These debates can be great fun; but are they relevant to those of us who don’t expect to engage in (or survive) realistic combat?

Personally, I’m getting to be an old man.  If it comes to hand-to-hand combat, I don’t think I’d bet on myself.  Some people might say that’s who aikidō is for: people who wouldn’t survive hand-to-hand combat, who are just looking for aerobic exercise.  Is aikidō only for the old and weak, or does it need to be effective in a combat setting?  Or can it be multi-faceted, a resource available to everyone?

Maybe the best way to think about combat effectiveness is that aikidō requires you to learn from what you do and what actually happens.  If you think your technique is effective and it’s not, or if you need uke to cooperate in order for your techniques to work, if you think you’re centered and balanced and you aren’t, then you’re stuck: you can’t progress.  Beyond that, maybe it’s up to you where aikidō takes you.

What Is Aikido?

(This post was written by Paul Norris, a senior student at Vermont Aikido.)

There are probably as many different answers to this question as there are Aikidō practitioners. Not that Aikidō is something vague or unclear. It’s a concrete, practical approach to dealing with physical conflict and self-defense. Of course, different teachers have different perspectives on the best way to learn and practice Aikidō. Even the shihan who were direct students of O-Sensei teach slightly different forms, depending on when they studied with him: Aikidō changed over O-Sensei’s own lifetime.

But O-Sensei was not just concerned with the physical discipline of Aikidō. As quoted in The Art of Peace (a collection of O-Sensei’s writings, translated by John Stevens), “The real way of a warrior is to prevent slaughter – it is the art of peace, the power of love.”

From this perspective, Aikidō is a path towards harmony. The physical act of practice and training provides a concrete example of our natural tendency to feel threatened when we’re challenged, to tense up in stressful or difficult situations, to want to overpower our opponent. Training in Aikidō challenges us to let go of these responses.

Aikidō provides a model for how to resolve conflict. I can use this model in my everyday life, looking for ways to be centered and balanced even when I come into conflict with other people. Rather than fighting back if someone pressures me, tries to guilt-trip or intimidate me, I can turn if I’m pushed and enter if I’m pulled, waiting for the right moment to act. And in turn, I can bring those experiences of social and personal challenges back to my training: recognizing my emotional response to conflict and working to address it in my practice.

Training in Aikidō is about being centered, not getting thrown off-balance; so it can change how I think of my interactions with other people. Staying centered and balanced can only happen if I can get past feeling threatened. Thus, without necessarily realizing it, in my training I’m gradually developing the ability to see beyond my experience of other people as my enemies, threats to be counter-attacked.

But in order to let go of feeling that I’m in conflict with other people, I need to learn how their goals and my goals might actually be in harmony.  Even if they believe I’m their enemy, even if they’re actively trying to attack me, I need to find another way to experience our interaction, to think of us in relationship with each other. Rather than being trapped in a zero-sum winner-take-all conflict, I have to find a way to learn that the two of us are coöperating. By looking for that possibility, by finding a way to be balanced and centered in the midst of our interaction, I’m also learning to understand the other person better, and gradually feel empathy for them. I’m practicing being connected to them, part of them: loving them.

Only when that happens can I let go of needing to win. And only then can I be free of having to choose between caring for myself and caring for others.

Aikido as Metaphor

(This post was written by Paul Norris, a senior student at Vermont Aikido.)

One meaning of the word Aikidō is “the way of harmony”: finding the possibility of peace in the midst of conflict, using your attacker’s energy to undo their attack and protect you both.

In Aikidō, we work with wrist grabs, overhead strikes and strikes to the neck, punches to the solar plexus or the head; with multiple attackers and attacks with knives, swords and staves.  But we don’t address defenses against being cut off in traffic by some lunatic in an SUV, getting flamed online, or set up to fail by a control-freak boss; against being sued, having your identity stolen, or a close friend or relative going berserk on you in the middle of a restaurant. Let alone having your heart broken by a serial monogamist with commitment issues, or raising a teenager.

So does learning Aikidō, or any martial art, really cover the self-defense skills we need in our day-to-day lives?

No.

And it’s not supposed to. Martial arts are body training, learning how to be in your own body in an effective way. You can do that through conflict, being prepared to fight others to defend yourself; or through harmony. Aikidō is about harmony: very gradually, and often without understanding exactly what’s happening, changing from someone at the mercy of other people and your own emotions and reactions, into someone different. Someone who is capable of maintaining balance with others and within yourself; someone who can avoid contributing to hatred and conflict by returning good instead of evil, without becoming a victim: a force for harmony in the world.

As this happens, Aikidō will have an effect on your life, whether you notice it or not. But the possibility of learning from that connection is a valuable opportunity.

Aikidō helps me connect my body with my mind, my feelings, my life. When I’m practicing a technique and it brings up issues around safety or trust or aggressiveness or inadequacy, that’s a direct connection to the things I’m trying to learn how to deal with in my life. Paying attention to that connection will deepen my learning, inside the dōjō and in my life.  Everything I do in training that creates new physical experiences for me – a sense of balance or presence, centeredness or fluidity or flexibility – creates new possibilities. If I notice that happening, I can nurture it and find ways to explore it in my life.

More than that, Aikidō gives me a way to learn. I can bring the attitude of training to my everyday difficulties, and make my life my practice: using the (relatively) patient acceptance of the process of learning, even though I know I’m doing it wrong for now, to hold myself open to new possibilities. I’m traveling the path of harmony, in all its different forms: beginning with body training, and letting new feelings and thoughts, a new reality, grow from that. By trusting myself, the same way I have to learn to trust my body in the training.

On Connection, pt. 2

(This post was written by a senior student at Vermont Aikido.)

I have been on the mat for sixteen years, and as I sit down to contemplate an aspect of the Art of Peace that I would like to share today, I contemplate what is it that I have learned over the years that has been most meaningful for my life.

I come back to one the thing: connection, and the healing power of connection. I come to understand that connection is a basic human need, and that all suffering is really the experience of disconnection. It may be a broken connection, it may be a failed connection, it may be a connection not yet made. When we break connection, we suffer. We may cause suffering, but to cause suffering is to suffer ourselves.

As a species, we yearn for connection, we seek it, and we hurt when it fails. This may not necessarily be a connection to another person, though I think that is paramount for most of us. For some, it may be a connection to the divine, found in oneself, in the stars, in the mountains. This person goes off into solitude, to commune. In Aikido, we learn that connection to the divine and connection to the other are one and the same; indeed, to connect to the divine, one must connect to the other and when one disconnects from the other, one also disconnects from the divine.

On the mat, a technique ensues because a confrontation has been created; we are attacked by someone whose suffering we cannot fathom. Only a suffering person would try to hurt another. In fact, their attack is an attempt to connect, an attempt to be healed, albeit in an unskilled way that is unlikely to achieve this worthy goal.

But rather than reject this unskilled attempt at connection, we choose compassion and love. We choose to accept this attempt, to embrace it, and show our partner that they can have the connection they seek without being destructive. Both physically and spiritually, to redirect and neutralize an attack one must accept it into oneself with love and compassion. It is in fact the offering of this compassion that neutralizes the attack.

What if we could do this every day in our daily lives? What if we could lovingly accept each person’s attempt to connect, however it is expressed, take it into ourselves, experience it as an opportunity to enrich our own lives, through the richness this wonderful person has to offer us? Do we not have so much to offer one another, and do we not deprive ourselves when we reject the attempt of another to connect? What if we could see in each interaction the reaching out of another, a call for love and compassion, and offer it up generously?
What kind of world we have then? And how rich would our lives be?

On Connection: Aikido and Crisis Work

(This post was written by a senior student at Vermont Aikido.)

I am a crisis outreach worker as well as an Aikido practitioner. I work on a team, and we go into the homes of people experiencing mental health crises. Our job is to work with them to help them get through their crisis at home so that they don’t have to go to the hospital. I do my best to take my Aikido off the mat and into the homes of the people I work with.

First and foremost, Aikido is about connection, spiritual and physical. When uke grabs nage’s hand, for example, and nage extends in order to carry out an effective neutralization of the attack, she is creating a bridge to the person’s center – both the hara, or center of gravity three fingers below the navel; and the spiritual or energetic center, where a place of peace resides in all of us. In this way, uke feels that while their intent to initiate conflict has been thwarted, they are protected and cared for by their partner, and have been saved from cutting their connection to the divine through violence. Uke attacks because they are in great distress and suffering in some way. Our loving redirection through connection helps alleviate this suffering.

In much the same way, effective crisis work is about connection. When I meet with someone in great distress I see my job as meeting them where they are, so that first and foremost they know that they are not alone. I have seen severely suicidal people emerge from this place of pain in the space of an hour, just through the sense that someone is with them, and committed to connecting to them as a human being.

In Aikido, if you stay connected, spiritually, emotionally and physically, a transformation will happen. Conflict will be transformed into love.

In crisis work a transformation can also happen: a sense of hope and well-being can emerge from despair through authentic connection to another.

 

My Observations From The Santa Cruz Seminar of 2014

(This post was written by Aaron Ward Sensei, chief instructor at Vermont Aikido.)

There are things that, after years of training in Aikido, I see in a different light; things that in the past I may have overlooked entirely. These may be something as straightforward as the running of a seminar. Without a doubt, this year’s Santa Cruz seminar was one of the best organized and executed seminars that I have had the good fortune to attend. That in itself was a great accomplishment for the Santa Cruz dojo, but it’s not what I want to write about. What I would like to write about is the concept of giri, which loosely translates to “duty,” “responsibility” and “obligation.” For all too many people in the West, terms like duty, responsibility and obligation mean only one thing: a burden that has to be grudgingly undertaken. Something that we have to endure.

The value of giri is not what we have to do, but what we get to do or are allowed to do. The realization that every task reflects on you, your sensei, and your dojo. Knowing that a job is only done well if it is done with the proper spirit. My observation of the 2014 Santa Cruz seminar showed a dojo with members that live the reality of giri, undergoing their tasks in a wholehearted and joyous manner.

O-Sensei said, “Always practice the art of peace in a vibrant and joyful manner.” The truest form of Aikido is based in giri.  A great deal of credit has to be given to the students of Aikido Santa Cruz, but my experience is that giri flows downhill: the people who have the deepest understanding of giri get this understanding from their sensei. Just as a student’s good basics can be attributed to their sensei, so can their understanding of giri. So Linda Holiday Sensei deserves a great deal of credit for the success of the seminar along with her students. Their giri led to a seminar that has left a lasting impression on me, not just as a person but the way I practice and study Aikido.

 

From “The Art of Peace”

“The Art of Peace is medicine for a sick world. We want to cure the world of sickness and violence, malcontent, and discord- this is the Way of Harmony.  There is evil and disorder in the world because people have forgotten that all things emanate from one source.  Return to that source and leave behind all self-centered thoughts, petty desires, and anger.  Those who are possessed by nothing possess everything.”

Gratitude

(This post was written by a senior student at Vermont Aikido.)

“Eliminate the desire to throw and replace it with gratitude.”
-Anno Sensei

I recently attended a seminar at Aikido of Santa Cruz taught by Motomichi Anno Sensei. Anno Sensei was a direct student of O-Sensei and has been training for sixty years.

Over the course of the seminar, he repeatedly told us that Aikido was not about throwing your partner, but about expressing gratitude. He asked us to express gratitude as we trained. I did not fully understand what he meant, but endeavored to do what he asked, and trusted that the experience would perhaps provide me with a glimmer.

When Anno Sensei demonstrated practicing with gratitude, I saw an open being, full of love and devoted to harmony, and connected, not just to his uke, but to all of us. I could see in his movement the expression of a loving universe. I realized that this was not just how I wanted to practice, but how I wanted to live.

The first thing I noticed was that when I bowed to a fellow Aikidoka on the mat,  respectfully asking them if they would train with me, I saw my partner as a human being. I noticed their smile, the light in their eyes, their openness, and their beauty. I noticed their intention of good will; I realized that this was someone I wanted to train with, that a connection with them would enrich my life and provide spiritual sustenance. Then began the physical practice, when one of us approached or attacked. The attack was a hand grab, called “katatadori,” moving into a breath throw, or “kokyunage.” I grabbed first, and noticed that my intention did not match up with the word “attack.” Rather than attempt to overcome my partner, I grabbed with the desire to connect with him. I grabbed to show my gratitude that he would practice with me, that he would share his spirit generously and unreservedly in the few moments we had together.

Then it was my turn to throw, to be “nage.” I felt no desire to overcome my partner or even to throw him; only a desire to be open, to help him, and to take care of him as he connected to me with his grab.

There is much that I have to be grateful for, including the privilege and honor of living in this world, among human beings who are striving to be the best they can be in the face of sometimes insurmountable odds. I am grateful to O-Sensei for giving us the Art of Peace, and the tools to create a more harmonious world. I am grateful to Anno Sensei for so generously passing on the teachings of O-Sensei and being a beacon of light for us. I am grateful for my own Sensei, Aaron Ward, for his dedication to our dojo, and for choosing to take personal responsibility for the development of each individual who steps on the mat. Perhaps most of all, I am grateful to the members of my dojo for practicing with such joy and generosity, and for inspiring me to be the best person that I can be, every day. May this gratitude find expression in my practice.