How the Sea Changed my Aikido

It seems funny to write this.  Not because I don’t feel a fundamental shift but for the fact that it was something so simple.

So, let me give some context.  I’ve never spent a lot of time in water that wasn’t a pool or not fresh water.  I remember swimming in Hawaii and Florida when I was a kid.  It was kinda fun but I didn’t have a lot of interest in getting something esoteric from it.  I think the last time I swam in the sea was in 1980.

So fast forward to now.  I’ve re-entered the atmosphere of my regular life, and have been back to Aikido after a break of about 3 weeks.  I was sick, then took my son to Shasta and then went to Hawaii.  My Aikido feels different.  As a matter of fact a lot of me feels different. For now I will limit this to my Aikido.

When I was in Hawaii, I went snorkeling for the first time.  I’ve never done that before and I have some serious issues with water, especially water that has swells and creatures that can eat me.  But my friend Jim took me out.  He was very good with me and although I was scared, I quickly found that the salt water kept me buoyant, and once I figured out the mask and snorkel, it was easy to relax and swim.  The life that unfolds under 20 feet of water is truly amazing.  I went out 3 times the week I was there.  The first time was really helpful.  I figured out the mask, breathing, and there was hardly any swell.  One of my fears aside from getting eaten was that a wave would come over me, my snorkel would be submerged and I would suck up a bunch of water in my lungs.  But that didn’t happen, and I enjoyed myself thoroughly.

The second time, we went t a beach and Jim took me out again.  We went maybe a hundred yards out, and then came back in.  I really enjoyed going out there, it was early in the morning and there were hardly any waves.  I went out two other times, though and each time I went, I went farther out and the swell got higher.  But rather than fear, I found myself thoroughly enjoying myself.  In Aikido, we learn to read the energy of our attacker and we blend with the energy.  I found myself doing the same thing, feeling/anticipating the energy of a swell and riding it, while I sat in a spot and watched a school of fish or the interaction with the other citizens down below.  The third time I went out, I was surprised and a bit scared at how far I had swam out and thought it best to turn around and come back.  But it felt really good to be out there, feeling the ocean, being relaxed and present near the beautiful reefs.

This may not be a big deal to most folks.  There are some people who surf, or swim regularly, but it was a big deal to me.  Feeling the swell of the ocean, seeing the illustrious life down below, it made something shift for me in my Aikido.

Now, I’ve been back on the mat for a week.  I can feel that swell still, so do my partners.  As they come to grab my wrist, I start to move into a technique, but the movement is different.  I feel the energy of the ocean, subtle, strong, the ebb and flow.  I copy the swell with my movement.  I feel the connection to my partners when they grab, I keep that connection as if we are both riding a wave.  When I perform a technique, there seems to be new level softness and support I give my partners.  I am more sensitive to their fall.

To say that the ocean influenced me is not quite correct.  I feel that the ocean, or the very minuscule part of the ocean I swam in gave me a bit of herself.  She gave me a bit of her softness, strength and grace that I can carry back home to the Aikido mat.  I can feel that there is shift. I can feel the swell, ebb and flow.  It’s such a beautiful thing.

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Starting my meditation practice

I’m finding that my meditation practice is as important as any work out. I wanted to share my thoughts about it and what some of what it’s doing for me. First, thank you to @leobabauta, a member of fitocracy.com for posting an excellent article on how to meditate: http://zenhabits.net/meditate/

I have made a gentle practice of this, starting for 2 minutes a day. On Tuesday, 5/1. I hit my second straight week.  At that point I doubled the amount of time I spend in meditation from 2 minutes to 4 minutes.  I will work incrementally till I get to the 15 minute mark.  The point right now for me is to build up a good habit of this.

I’ve not delved in deeply about the MANY vast meditation techniques, but am trying to go by instinct and a small bit about what I’ve read.  The closest thing I can relate to about “what” this is, is that it derives from a zen form of mindfulness meditation.   I say derives from because for my crude level of understanding, what I do is as close to what I understand mindfulness meditation to be.

The practice is fairly simple.  I sit cross legged and give soft focus to the floor in front of me.  I give focus to the carpet pattern or beige rug depending on where I am meditating and start to become mindful of the creaks of the house, the birds outside, the cars starting or pulling in, footsteps outside, people talking, whatever sounds that are happening at the time.  I focus on the inhale and exhale of breath.  When I catch myself thinking about what I’m going to do 5 or 10 minutes or 2 hours or 3 days from then, I try and draw attention back to the sounds outside and inside, breath, what my body feels at the time.  I try and relax into myself, feel the totality of the body, the inside of myself, my toes to head to hands to heart.  This is a lofty goal for 2, 4 or 10 minutes but this is the practice.  I guess I could call it “presence practice” as well.

There are some interesting similarities to exercise but there are some vast differences.  The similarities for this or any thing else we want to become proficient at are consistency to build up a good habit, practice to become skillful, and endurance to practice of a sustained amount of time.  However, unlike other things that we do, sports, learning a skill or craft, martial arts, there is nothing to actually “do”.  The emphasis is to in fact “not do”.  It is simply to be and accept.   The simplicity of the practice is also it’s most profound.

There are some interesting things I find are happening even now as it’s only been 2 and a half weeks in.  I am trying to not be as multitasking at work.  I am focusing on one task at a time.  My business problems will still be there to solve whether I answer a question within 15 minutes or 2 hours.  If there is an emergency then someone will call me.  So I focus at the task at hand.

I just completed a 5 century work out today.  I was happy to see my progress.  A “century” is 100 reps, and I broke that up into the following 5 sets: 20 kneeling pushups, 20 sit ups, 20 kettlebell/bodyweight squats, 20 kettlebell curls, and 20 kettlebell swings.  I would rest 2 / 3 minutes between sets and continue, moving each exercise up in position and dropping the first one of the last set to the last position.

What I found myself focusing on during the last sets was not the 18 or 15 more exercises I had to do after I finished the one I currently was on, but the one I had to do NOW.  The others would have their chance to be done but they could not be done until I got the one done now.  I was surprised at how effective that was.  Those would wait for me when I got there, they weren’t going anywhere, but I didn’t have to worry myself if I was going to finish the 18th, 19th or 20th.  I just had to worry about the one right in front of me.

I’m grateful that I’ve started this practice.  I am happy to see that even in such a short time incremental change is happening in my life.   We strive for progress, not perfection and I can make the choice to be happy right now.

Mastugatsu agatsu katsuhayabi – True victory is victory over one’s self, right here right now! – O Sensei Ueshiba Morehei

Interesting Variation on “Chop Wood Carry Water”

I recently looked through my posts and noticed that I had a draft post that i started writing in 2009, shortly after my friend Linda Eskin took her 6th kyu test (LInda is now 2nd kyu).  It had to do with a conversation between her and myself.  The context was right after her test and the question was essentially “well now what do I do?”

I had a nice online conversation today with Linda Eskin. She is a friend on twitter and facebook and she just took her 6th kyu test today. you can view it here: http://www.aikiweb.com/blogs/my-path-17246/6th-kyu-exam-video-3632

linda eskin 10:40 PM
Aaughh… Yeah. That’s the hard part.
mark anthony de souza 10:40 PM
you’ve heard the story about chop wood/carry water?
linda eskin 10:40 PM
I’m really good at knowing how things are “supposed” to be.
41:09
I know the book title… not sure about the story. Short enough to share?
mark anthony de souza 10:42 PM
sure… basically, a young monk asks what types of things he needs to do whilee he works on attaining enlightenment. The abbot says, “chop wood, carry water.” He asks the abbot, “well what about after I attain it?” The abbot responds, “chop wood, carry water.”
linda eskin 10:43 PM
Love it.
43:31
Feed donkeys, water trees, around here.
mark anthony de souza 10:43 PM
so… you will do shiho nage as 6th kyu. You will do shiho nage as 1st kyu. You will also do it when you are 4th dan, or shihan.
linda eskin 10:43 PM
Yep.
mark anthony de souza 10:44 PM
it may change, it may improve, it may give you insight to other techniques, but there’s never going to be a time where you aren’t going to do it as you go about your practice.
45:21
so, the “long way to go”… i would hope you have a long way to go. If you don’t have a long way to go, then your time is coming up.

This is relevant to me today for a couple of reasons.  Last month I took my shodan test and kind of had that same “so now what do I do?” question.  We trained hard the prior couple of months both physically and mentally to take our tests and then… it was over.  “So now what do I do?”  The answer is simply, train.  Katate tori ikkyo, ryote dori tenshi nage, taino henko, kokyo dosa.  Train.  Train in the spirit of Aiki.  Train softly, train hard, help those less experienced, learn from those more experienced, learn from those less experienced, help those more experienced.  So I got that.  And I can do that.  And I’m happy to do that.

Unfortunately, the reason I wanted to finish writing this is not for the above reason.  I said I had “a couple of reasons”.  Reason number 2… well, kinda sucks.  Over the weekend I hurt my knee.  I don’t know how I did it but it started really bothering my Saturday after morning class.  We didn’t do anything two strenuous.  It was a light weapons class.  But somewhere between class, Target and Pier 1, my knee got blown out.  This is the same kind of pain I felt when my knee was at my worst.  This was the same pain I had that made me hobble instead of walk.

The significance of this is kind of tragic.  I worked really hard for a year, (yep… it was a year since March of 2011) to overcome pretty much the same type of pain I’m now experiencing.  Physical therapy, stretching, exercises that I was told to perform everyday.  I got to the point where I was virtually pain free for the last 2 or 3 months.  I was able to take my test, and felt that I performed gracefully.  Sensei told me that of the things he liked watching, was my knee work, Probably not because I moved like a big stocky gazelle, but more because he knew what I went through and saw the progress I made.

But, that all got erased.  The wood that I chopped fell off and rolled hither and thither to the bottom of the hill, and the water I carried, well… spilled as I dropped the wood.  This was a big pile too.  And I had a lot of water… So, I guess I have two choices. I can belly ache about this, or I can simply rest a couple of days, and then start all over again.   I think that the point being is I can choose.  I can choose to be attached to my helplessness, or I can choose to say that this is something that happened and I will need to address it.  So, stretching, physical therapy exercises, being easy on myself.

So this is kind of how I process.  I have two ideals I put forth.  Venting/writing/processing about this, putting this out there for the world (or the 2 or 3 readers… cmon, who do I think I am… ) to read, kind of holds me accountable in a sense.  But more so, it just let’s me examine my thoughts in a public and open way.

I’m not quite sure what I am going to do.  I know the choices laid out in front of me.  Yesterday I chose to wallow.  Today, I’m choosing to write/process/write/process.  I think that that is ok.  I think that it’s ok to realize that I have choices.  Yesterday, not so much.  Today, maybe a little bit more so.  Tomorrow?  Hopefully, one day I’ll get to the point where  I can not look at something and say, “this is good” or “this is bad”.  One day I would like to get to where I can simply say “this happened and I need to do something about it.”  I’m not there yet.  But by understanding my choices I am closer.  So, progress, not perfection is a good thing.

You can be attached for as long as you choose to be…

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of attending the last two hours of a seminar given by Dan Messisco Sensei. Dan Messisco has a very unique, flowing and relaxed style of Aikido and was wonderful to watch and be instructed by.  There were a lot of things that he said at the seminar but the thing that is sticking with me, the thought that’s growing with me is something very profound he said about uke’s role.  Here is a 5 minute clip of Sensei Messisco from the seminar:

He mentioned that good Aikido should happen to where as uke attacks, he is caught up in nages response and attached to nage for as long as he chooses to be caught up in the attack.  From a practical perspective, he is saying that as we train and we take on the role of uke, we still need to practice good Aikido.  We need to be mindful of moving from center in a balanced way.  This way, we help our partners by offering them a good attack, but we always have a choice of moving.  On the mat this opens us up to interesting ukemi but it also opens us up to the notion of kaeshi waza (counter techniques.  It also gives us the choice to disengage from our entanglement if we choose to.

The thing I appreciate most is the notion that we always have a choice to disengage.  I can think of many times where I’ve not made that choice but instead chose to attach myself to ill begotten things: an argument, jockeying for position at work, digging my heels in and pressing an issue.  But we have a choice. I really appreciate that Sensei Messisco can express this so well on the mat and through our practice of Aikido this notion helps me realize the choices we have are exactly that: choices to be happy or not to be happy.

Aiki

The atoms that make up your body were once forged inside stars, and the causes of even the smallest event are virtually infinite and connected with the whole in incomprehensible ways.”   – Eckhart Tolle

I wanted to spend some time thinking about my shodan test today.  Early this morning I went and grabbed some breakfast and dusted off “The Secret Teachings of Aikido” to read while I ate.

Although this book has some incredible insight about the philosophy of Aikido from O Sensei’s perspective, I didn’t have to read much to get exactly what I needed.  The title of the first chapter actually fed me exactly what I needed.  “Aikido is the study of the spirit.”

When we are new to Aikido, we learn our fundamentals: how to roll, how to fall, where our hand goes, where our feet go.  These fundamentals lead us to do great physical things on the mat.  But hopefully as we grow in the art, we come to learn that Aikido is not just physical.  it is in fact the study of the spirit.  We start see Aikido not as a system of movements for self defense but as the guiding principles that we can use to live as human beings.

In the second paragraph of this book, O Sensei says, “We must rely on the battle cry ‘Masukatsu agatsu katshuhayabi‘ (True victory is self victory, a victory right here, right now.)” 1.  If this was a simple system of throws and joint locks, why would he say that?  He answers in the next few sentences, “That spirit enables us to become one with the universe and its operation and allows us to develop the inner and outer realms of existence -such knowledge reverberates throughout the whole body, removing all obstacles and purufying our faculties.  Realize that the source of the univers and the souce of your own life are the same, and do not underestimate the power of the concept of Masakatsu agatsu katsuhayabi.  Rely on the supreme power of takemusu no bu no a-un (valorous, creative living from start to finish) to create spiritual techniques and walk along the way.”  2.

I have had some great teachers and I do not take for granted any of it.  I needed to learn how to move and get in touch with movement and my body.  I needed to learn how to perform techniques consistently from a variety of attacks and I needed to learn how to do so in a calm manner.  But as even before I started preparing for my shodan test, Aikido started to be much more than a “system of self defense.”  I am starting to scratch the surface of how connecting with the universe is what we all are meant to be.

This sounds much more abstract than it really is.  “Connect to the universe” by acknowledging others.  Connect to the universe by trying to do good for the simple reason that we are all one.  Connect to the universe because each one of us understands joy, sorrow, happiness, fear, pain, ecstasy and dispair.  Connect to the universe in as big or as small as you are able.

O Sensei thought it important enough to refer to takemusu no bu no a-un as a “supreme power”.  The simple truth of this is, at any given moment, we have the potential to do good, to practice creative and valorous living.  We can do this indeed “from start to end”.   This is the power of Aikido as I am starting to understand it.  It does not have anything to do with “street effectiveness”, swagger, or ego.  It is the exact absence of these elements that true practice can bring about.  With that, I begin my serious practice of Aikido.

“Shodan” means new or beginner.  It is indeed a milestone in my journey, and one that I have prepared for with my other dojo mates, Aldo and Nancy, and I am ready and looking forward to testing tomorrow.  Our teacher, Bob Noha Sensei talked to us about the significance of the title of “shodan”.  He said that the first degree black belt, “shodan” should not be thought of in fact as “1st” as in 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc.  In the japanese language, 1st is in fact “ichi”, 2 is ni, 3 is san, 4 is yon, etc.  So while we have nidan, sandan, yondan, then the first degree should be called “ichidan”.  But it is not.  It is called shodan.  Shodan, literally means beginning degree, or new degree.  It designates us not as experts but rather as beginners of serious study in our art.

One of the first things I learned on the Aikido mat, something that I have learned and kept close from my very first Aikido teacher, Cress Forrester:  Cress taught the beginning Aikido class at San Francisco State University and back in the late 80s I was very fortunate to train under her as my first Aikido teacher.  Cress had a unique way of interpreting the Japanese characters of Ai Ki and Do.  Conventionally, we interprete as “Ai” – Harmony, “Ki” – Energy and “Do” – the Way, to get “The Way of Harmonious Energy.”  Cress, instead interpreted “Ai” as Love.  So that for her, her practice became the “Way of Loving Energy.”  I have kept that close since the start of my Aikido and I still do today.   So, I am ready to begin.  I am ready to continue my study of Aikido in all that I do.  I am ready to try to open my heart and soul to the wonders of the universe as small or as big as it wants to reveal itself to me just a little bit more each day.  I am ready to express my respectful heart.

1, 2 – Ueshiba, Morihei. The Secret Teachings of Aikido. New York: Kodansha International, 2007. Print.

The First Precept

On a Saturday morning Aikido class a few years ago, Sensei brought in the book by Gichin Funakoshi, “The Twenty Guiding Principles of Karate”.  He read us the first precept in full:

“karate-do begins and ends with rei”

“Along with judo and kendo, karate-do is a representative Japanese martial art.  And with it’s fellow martial arts, karate-do should begin as it should end-with rei.”

“Rei is often defined as “respect,” but it actually means much more.  Rei encompasses both an attitude of respect or others and a sens of self-esteem.  When those who honor themselves, transfer that feeling of esteem-that is, respect to others, their action is nothing less than an expression of rei.”

“It is said that ‘without rei there is disorder,’ and also that ‘the difference between men and animals lies in rei’  Combat methods that lack rei are not martial arts but merely contemptible violence.  Physical power without rei is no more than brute strength, and for human beings it is without value.”

“It should also be noted that although a person’s deportment may be correct, without a sincere and reverent heart they do not possess true rei.  True rei is the outward expression of a respectful heart.”

“All martial arts begin and end with rei.  Unless they  are practiced with a feeling of reverence and respect, they are simply forms of violence.  For this reason martial arts must maintain rei from beginning to end.”

These words are both beautiful and eloquent.  I read this and re-read this now with my Shodan test less than a month away.

A friend recently asked me how my preparation was going.  I answered with:

There are a few things I need to brush up on technically, but my main preparation is more about what I want to present back to Sensei and our dojo. For my last test i emphasized consistency with each technique and connection with my partner. I’ve been thinking about what Aikido means to me and the things I have to work on off the mat: not digging my heels in, giving, and rather than escalating an issue, softening one.

So, how do I express this on the mat in test format? How do I greet a strike or a grab with softness? How do I protect my partner as I protect myself? I think that answering these questions will be what I try to express for my test.

I think that these are good goals, but if I were to boil it down, there is one sentence in the first precept that really speaks to me, “True rei is the outward expression of a respectful heart.”

So, more than anything, past technique, past competence, past expression, my goal for my test is to outwardly express my respectful heart.  That’s a truly high goal to shoot for and it means many things.  But it’s something that I can focus on and answer with a simple yes or no.  “Do my actions express my respect of others and respect to myself?”

So, with that, “rei”.

Training Away From Home

When I tested for 1st Kyu a couple of years ago, I was presented with an interesting problem.  My friend, Mentor and uke, Sasun, that I selected to be my test partner, could not participate.  His back went out.  So rather than testing with him and benefiting from the familiarity I built up through the training period leading up to my test, my partners were my fellow students. Sensei would call them up and I would perform techniques from my test.  Tall, short, limber, stiffer, more adept at rolling or not.  I was ok with that, and I thought that I did well adapting to the different body types, levels and abilities.

Now, training for my shodan test, I have a different problem.  I am away from my home dojo and do not have the benefit of classes with my Sensei, Bob Noha, who is currently working with the other two shodan candidates as our school goes into test preparation mode for our upcoming exams in the spring.

So, I have been thinking about why this is a problem.  And I’ve also been thinking why it isn’t.  Sensei told a story about a buddy of his who had just started kendo.  Shortly after he started a very high ranking kendo master was conducting a seminar.  His friend signed up and thought that he would sneak into the location where the seminar was early to secretly observe the kendo master and see what he could learn and how this high ranking fellow prepared.  He wanted to know at the master’s level, what esoteric movements and intricate sword strikes he would use to prepare for his seminar.  Surprisingly, the kendo master did the basic strike, shomen uchi, over and over again.  It was the basis for all other strikes and all other movements.  The first strike you learn.  And he was there, over, and over and over.

Aikido is based on universal principles.  They are based on physics, energy and spirit.  These principles work wether I am at my home dojo, whether I am practicing at a seminar or where I’m currently training now in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  There are technical aspects of my exam that I will certainly need to brush up on, but my main goal right now in solving the “problem” of being away from my home dojo is to move on the mat in accordance to the Aiki principles as taught by O Sensei.  Move from center, get off the line, turn, enter.  My arms and hands will follow and I will have faith in my training, Sensei, and training partners that this will carry me through.