Do you have to be a good fighter to be a good martial artist?

My friend Lawrence Tan of Tandao Kung Fu posed the following question on Facebook:

Question: Do you have to be a good fighter to be a good martial artist?

I think that this is a good question to ask.  I’ve thought about this question a bit today since he asked it and I think that it is worth it for me to answer.  In trying to answer this, two other questions came up.  “Why do I train?” And “what is the definition of a good fighter?”

So, Why do I train?  I train to explore movement in a martial context.  I use the mat as my laboratory of learning how to address conflict in my life, how to be able to perform a technique, take a fall, work hard, build community, enjoy interaction, sharpen my awareness, teach and learn both junior and senior members of my dojo, relate my martial experience of timing, rhythm, performance, awareness, to my other passion: my guitar.  I train to be better at life.  I train to live fully, in the moment, with joy and happiness for me and those around me.

Our founder,  Morehei Ueshiba O Sensei proclaimed “Matsugatsu agatsu katsuhayabi”, True victory is victory over one’s self, right here right now.  this is an ideal I try to live with everyday.  The more I train, the closer I get to this ideal.  I realize that I am human.  I can be an ass, I will get mad, and be irrational.  But I can also view my path and see that the longer I’ve trained, the less prone I am to letting my anger get the best of me.   I ultimately train for progress along this path, not perfection.

On the subject of what makes a good fighter, Well, there are the obvious things.  For the physical and obvious mano e mano, “two men enter, one man leaves”, it would be speed, strength, agility, passion, and the ability to draw from a huge arsenal of techniques.  But there are many ways to define a fight, and those not so obvious definitions of how we use the word “fight” that I factor in in answering this question.  We fight for causes, for actions, for rights, for acceptance, love and tolerance.

Many of us that train in martial arts will not get into a physical altercation, but we have much fight in our lives to win everyday.  Sometimes the fight is against our own initial reaction to flip someone the bird.  Sometimes the fight is to sit with our emotions and be present over the loss of a loved one, where we may want to give in to alcohol, drugs or other destructive habits that would consume us in our grief.

So, after a bit of thought, I would say, in answer to the question, “Do you need to be a good fighter to be a good martial artist?” I would say yes, absolutely.  But I think that we should think about the elements of the fight, and maybe expand our definition to include ALL of the things we fight for and fight against.


O Sensei’s Calligraphy

2013-06-01 12.28.45On June 1st I caught the Saturday morning classes of a weekend seminar at Sophia University led by Robert Frager Shihan, a direct student of O Sensei.  The two hours that I spent there was very lucrative.  Sensei Frager is an energetic, joyful and very knowledgeable Aikido teacher and it was a sincere honor to have been instructed by him.

The university houses Morehei Ueshiba O Sensei’s calligraphy of “AI KI DO” (pictured on the left) at the head of the dojo.  The first time I saw it was almost a year ago when I took my shodan (1st degree black belt) test. I was very moved having seen it and wanted to spend a little time writing about what the characters say to me, personally, as an Aikido practitioner.

I  became interested in studying more about the movement of brush on paper since I had the opportunity of training under Sensei Neil Segal several times while out in the midwest, and more recently, having having taken a seminar under Sensei Ryoichi Kinoshita, who is a direct student of Seiseki Abe.  Abe Sensei, who passed in 2011, was O Sensei’s calligraphy teacher, and passed on a wealth of knowledge to both Sensei’s Kinoshita and Segal.  It was Sensei Segal who told me that when we watch O Sensei perform waza (technique) we can see his ki energy flow through him as he moves, but when he is done, there is no evidence of ki.  It was only able to be seen in the moment.  However, what O Sensei left us in the form of his calligraphy shows his ki movement and it stays on the page, it is there for us to study, enjoy and experience O Sensei’s energy as we see the black ink on white paper.  We can see the movement on the page and picture O Sensei using his brush as sure as he would use a ken, jo or empty hand techniques.

So I wanted to take a little time to look at the characters from O Sensei’s calligraphy and reflect.  Some of my thoughts are from anecdotal conversations, some are from how I process what I’ve learned from a vast array of teachers as applied to the characters.  With the utmost respect to my Sensei and all the teachers that I’ve learned from, I’m willing to put aside my understanding of technique in a conventional sense so that I can speak my thoughts.  With that:

2013-06-01 12.28.52“AI” – What I first notice about this character are the two diagonal strokes at the top of the character.  There is almost perfect symmetry in both these strokes.  They are painted so solidly and at almost perfect 45 degree angles.  You can see the application of the diagonal sword strike known as “yokoman uchi”.

The strokes are different.  You can see that there is a slight tapering off at the right side that the left side does not have.  The stroke on the left is much straighter than the one on the right.  Yet they are both complimentary to each other, forming the shape of the top two sides of a triangle that look in perfect harmony with the other strokes underneath.

In Aikido, we practice techniques from attacks on both our left and right sides.  We can expect a natural difference to our techniques done from attacks on our left vs the attacks that come from our right.  O Sensei’s first two strokes show this very clearly.  Two strokes, both perfect, yet different.  If we are lucky, our right side can teach our left side about movement and vice verse.   This is the single most important thing that I believe I can learn from this character.

2013-06-01 12.29.00“KI” – My old teacher Sensei Steve Gengo once talked about this character.  He said that the bottom portion of this character is fire that heats up a pot.  The top of this character is the swirling steam rising from the pot as it boils.  If you were to take a 3D view of this character and look directly down from the top, you would see the spiraling of the steam up from the boiling pot.

O Sensei performed a practice we now come to call “circle and center”.  He would do this every morning, with a jo or a fan and hold it pointing straight up, then move the item up in a circular motion, spiraling up and then down.  This movement forms the basis and the fundamental movement of Aikido:  Circular spiraling energy.

You can see the spiral at the top of the character and you can see it below.  If you look at the bottom part of the character, you can actually see the spiraling stroke (circle) that wraps around the straight stroke (center).  O Sensei started every class with these movements.  He gave great importance to these movements and we can see this clearly in this character.

2013-06-01 12.29.11“DO” – Again we see the spiral in the middle stroke.  I’ve heard that this portion of the character represents a ladder, and as “DO” translates loosely to “the way”, a ladder is significant of the upward climb as you integrate “do” into your life.

If this is the case, then I find it interesting and not a coincidence that this stroke, normally portrayed as a ladder, shows something that is much harder to climb.  This portrays our upward climb and integration of “The way of harmonizing energy” or “Aikido” as a much more difficult practice.  Or maybe not more difficult, but perhaps not so straight forward.   In our dojo we practice aspects of Aikido as a vehicle to become less entangled.  We can see that this spiraling stroke can be demonstrative of the entanglement we have in our lives, and the life long pursuit of removing entanglement from our lives.

The last thing I notice about this character is the horizontal stroke at the bottom of this character.  We see a stroke going from left to right in a horizontal yet curving stroke.  We see this in much of our practice.  We see this movement as we practice sumi otoshi, we see this movement in the earth hand of tenshi nage, we see this movement in iai as we draw and strike in one decisive move.  O Sensei gives us  a clear demonstration that as we practice the ascetic qualities of Aikido, ascending the ladder of “the way”, we must marry the spiritual aspects of our art with the physical aspects of technique.  We cannot have one without the other.  This stroke, with concise and precise movement, is a clear reminder of the physical aspect of our art and that the spiritual aspect is married to the physical.

At the seminar this weekend Sensei Frager talked about this.  He likened the physical world with the horizontal and the spiritual world with the vertical.  He talked about the need to balance the push and pull of the physical with the rise and fall of the spiritual.  It was very helpful to hear this, and after review of these three characters, it moves me to start working on my Aikido practice from this perspective.  O Sensei’s gift of his calligraphy serves as an excellent source of study to help me with this.

3 times a week, no more, no less

IMG_8394-640pxI started back at the gym on May 7th with my mantra “3 times a week, no more no less” and I completed 4 weeks without breaking my schedule. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday. No more, no less. Now I’m at the end of the month and I’m going to start a new mantra: “Just a little more.” Last year, I trained for my shodan test in Aikido and ended up taking my test twice, once in March and then again in June.

This year, I’m training to simply keep up with my son going down the path to Pololu Valley or on the trek to Kiholo Bay. What ever the reason, I’m glad I’m back. I am glad that I don’t have as much pain as I did in the later months of last year. I’m glad that I’m taking my training in a slow and mindful way, keeping my back, shoulders and knees in focus as I exercise.

For a few months I was not sure I could do this again. It was hard for me to walk without pain, hard for me to sit at my desk, hard for me to roll around on the Aikido mat, hard for me to do anything but be on my back, and even that was hard.

But I’m feeling better, and the short, half hour sessions at my gym 3x a week are starting to help. I was able to get up and down on rocks at the tide pools yesterday in Moss Beach to take pictures. So, I’m glad that I’m on the road to feeling better and being active again.

For June, my mantra:  Just a little more may mean one extra day, moving a half hour session to 45 minutes 2x a week, getting to all 3 Aikido classes in a week, but I’ll do “just a little more.”  A long time ago, when I was affiliated with a support group, they had a saying, “We aim for progress and not perfection.”  I think this is a good thing to adopt to aid my mantra for the month of June.  So, with that, good bye May, hello June, I will apply myself “Just a little more.”


Throw Far, Son

I see you line yourself up inside the circle.  You are focused, your face full of intent.  You hold the discus and spin it back and forth between both hands.  You square up, wind up, unwind, step, step and hurl.  The discus flies.  You do this again and again.  I don’t know your sport.  I may have watched it a couple of times in the olympics but never really concentrated on it, till now.

You would tell me, “dad you don’t have to come to my meets.  It’s not a big deal.”  I made the mistake of believing you, till now.  It is a big deal.  I am sorry that I was not there before.  I am here now though.  You are poetry and grace and beauty in motion, son.  There is nothing that you can do to make me prouder or love you more.  You are whole and perfect as you are.  But that said, I love watching you excel.  I love watching the beauty of your perfect and impeccable form.  I love seeing you have such a mixture of smoothness, precision and such raw power that allows you to fly that discus free and to the far reaches of the field.

I asked you what was after this meet.  You told me that the North Coast Section will be held this next week.  You are going.  You placed in the top 5.  I asked you what was after that.  You told me this, “State is after this, but I know I won’t be going to that.”  Let me tell you something.  You do not know this.  you do not know and won’t know until this next meet.  And until you don’t know, until you hear the call of the ref saying that your distance was not far enough, you don’t know.  There are so many variables.  A gust of wind, perfect form, or just brute strength and intention could put you over the top.  Please do not count yourself out until you know.

I will be there for you on Friday.  I will be there with my camera and iPhone taking pictures and video.  I will be rooting for you.  I will love you whether you came in last or first.  I will be proud of you and hold my head up simply because you are a great and amazing kid.  I will love you as I’ve loved you since you were in your mother’s tummy.

Now, throw far, son.  I am with you, your school is behind you, your friends are behind you, we want you to succeed.  Throw far, son.

New Years, 2013

All is quiet on New Year’s Day
A world in white gets underway
I want to be with you
Be with you night and day
Nothing changes on New Year’s Day
On New Year’s Day
– U2

2012 was a topsy turvy year for me. There was a lot of good, and there was some loss and some chaos as well. I am grateful for all of it though. I am grateful for the vantage point I have, today, right now, sitting in my bed, typing this post. I am optimistic about the future and what it holds for me and am happy for such abundance of good in my life.

This last year, I achieved the rank of shodan in Aikido. As a small boy, I wanted to “do karate” and often ran around my house in my night robe, belt wrapped around it like an obi, doing karate chops to imaginary opponents. I was fascinated with martial arts. My grandfather brought me to a karate tournament at the Cow Palace in San Francisco in 1969 or ’70 and that spurred my interest. After many starts and stops I was able to finally get consistent in my Aikido practice and test successfully for shodan with two of my other dojo mates, Aldo and Nancy. We tested twice, even, because Sensei broke from his teacher and affiliated with another Aikido organization. The first time we tested in March, we did not have the proper paperwork to have our belt ranks officially recognized by the main governing Aikido body in Japan. So we tested again in June under Hiroshi Kato Sensei from Japan and that made it official. Sadly, I was only to meet Kato Sensei the one time. He passed in December of 2012.

I lost love in 2012. I met Leah in 2009 on Twitter of all places. We quickly found that so much between the two of us and we decided to meet. This was no small task. Leah lives in Iowa. We found us drawn to each other. It was uncanny, beautiful, and wondrous. We spent almost 3 years together, but because of some things that happened early on, and because I couldn’t get over these things. We parted. It wasn’t my choice. This was probably the hardest thing I had to deal with all year.

My son played excellent football in 2012. I got to see him most of the season this year and I was so happy to be able to be there. He is an awesome football player. He walks with confidence, plays hard and plays well. He supports his team, motivates them and gets motivated by them. I am sure that these are qualities that he will have for the rest of his life, cultivated on the football field, refined through life’s lessons.

in 2012 I experienced Hawaii. I was blessed to have a friend that lived there and kept asking me to come out. He said to me a few years ago, “Many years ago a friend told me to come out and visit him when I lived on the mainland. I kept on telling him I would but never did. I don’t want you to make the same mistake as I did.” I am so happy that I listened to him. I was devastated from my break up and Jim’s offer could not have come at a more perfect time. I remember at one point in my trip writing a facebook status that said simply, “I can’t stop smiling.” Hawaii refreshed my heart and soul. The sheer beauty of the island, the water, and the camaraderie of my friend Jim really helped to give me a huge reset.

In 2012 I built an altar. Well, I designed an altar. It is a wooden hanging piece that my practice sword sits on, and my calligraphy rests against. My friend Richard from my Aikido school helped me with this and did a lot of the work joining the sides of the frame. He also helped me take my design and make it real, mentoring me through the small project. This may seem like an odd thing to put into my list of things that are memorable to me, but it really isn’t. This came at a time when I really needed a friend, and really wanted to be able to erect something to acknowledge my milestone achievement of achieving shodan. This was shortly after Leah and I broke up so this was also much needed therapy and catharsis for me.

In 2012 my work world got crazy. My team lead went on maternity leave for three months in late August. My coworker and I were left to tend the farm while she was gone and, well… it went kind of bat shit crazy. But I got through it. I’ve always appreciated her but the time she spent away gave me even more of an appreciation for what she does.

In 2012 I bought my son his first car. His mom and I watched him learn to drive, get his license, and now we get to see him pull up and drive off in his 2000 Subaru Outback. It’s a weird milestone to see. I’m filled with cheer and dread. But if Steven is anything, he is very responsible. So this is an awesome thing to see. My son is growing up.

Lastly, but certainly not least, I found love in 2012. I’ve known Ro for 5 or 6 years now. I’ve worked, talked, joked, laughed with her. She was involved for the longest time with her man, and I was with Leah as well. But in the early summer of 2012 we found each of us alone. We had dinner shortly before I left for Hawaii and then again, when I came back. By our second dinner it was apparent that we have more things in common than we knew what to do with and, well… sparks just flew. We’ve been together since then and haven’t looked back. We ended 2012 and started 2013 together in Jenner and, well, the world is our oyster. It’s funny how we can know someone for so long, and then, when opportunity presents itself, we can look at someone at just a slightly different angle, and see the world in them.

I am looking forward to this next year. There is a lot to do and a lot to live for. I will look forward to creating, conversing, being healthy, happy, and enjoying all the things that we can and should enjoy here. Happy New Year!

In Chinese, the word for crisis is…

…well, crisis.  There is an interesting article here that points out the common misconception we’ve had in our time that the Chinese characters for crisis is “danger and opportunity”.  It’s just crisis.  How could it not be. Crisis is crisis.  I imagine that this would be the same in French, Arabic, English, Ethiopian and Chinese.

So, that said, my body is having a bit of a crisis right now.  My lower back has steadily become more painful, my left calf is continually cramping, my right shoulder has had some sharp pains.  These all started coming to a painful head about a week ago and it’s been hard to move, hard to get to work, hard to deal with the day to day.  I have been hoping that the work I’ve been doing stretching and foam rolling would help but it hasn’t.  Today, I’ve gone to my first ever chiropractic visit.  But I’m good.  I’ve had pain and have had to make some decisions about Aikido and my work out regimin, but I’m good.  And I’m happy with the decisions I’ve made.  Those decisions, by the way, are:

  • Getting off the mat.  I’ll do this and then evaluate my ability to get back on in the new year.
  • Stop going to the gym.  I love my gym but I need to work at a much slower pace to rehab.  The circuit that we use is not conducive to the slower pace I need.
  • Stretch… a lot.
  • Start a yoga practice.  Yoga will help me build core, gain flexibility and, being an embodied practice, will still give me that mind, body, spirit integration that my Aikido gives me.
  • Go to my Sensei’s Energy Awareness class.  Our aikido teacher started this class and holds it every friday.  He started it specifically for one of his students who, in his 90s (yes, in his 90s!) could not practice Aikido anymore but still wanted to get the benefit of Sensei’s teachings.  This class is held on Saturday mornings from 9:30 to 10:15.  I’m glad that we have this available to us and I will look forward to gaining a different insight.
  • Rediscover my T’ai Chi practice.  I will look forward to moving chi through out my body and getting the healing benefit of T’ai Chi.
  • Think about a different way of exercising.  I have to let go of the squats, rows, impact exercises and think more in terms of core exercises, lighter weights, rehabilitative exercises for my shoulder with resistance bands, and range of motion movements.

So… I’m ok.  I think that naming crisis as crisis is a good thing.  It’s not scary.  it’s something that happens.  This is a fairly minor crisis compared to the myriad of things that can and do happen to us in our lives.  The “opportunity” is separate.  Opportunity is different than crisis.  It lies in our actions.  Pema Chodron talks about the little things that we can use to practice how we can act when faced with burdens, so the fact that this is a minor crisis allows me to see how I can formulate a solution and prepare myself for the bigger things that I’m sure are right around the corner.

What Little We Can Do

I came home today and picked up my son to get a couple things from the store.  When i walked in there was a mother with her son holding up a sign, asking for donations.  I make it a habit not to give money to homeless or people asking for donations but I’ve also started making a habit that, if I see someone in need, I’ll pick up a little something extra at the grocery store, some fruit, etc, to give to someone.  Today, I thought that for the price of two beers on tap (i’m making a guess because i don’t drink anymore) I could feed her and her son.   I found a rotisserie chicken at the deli and put it in my cart.  I paid for my groceries and started walking out.

As I’m walking out, some man was giving this woman a piece of his mind.  The usual, “In America we work for a living, don’t pretend you don’t understand English.” bullshit.  I smiled to her, gave her the chicken and wished her a good night.  He didn’t turn his attention away  from her and spent a few more moments telling her basically what a shitty person she was for having to burden people with her sign.  We could still hear him as we got to the car but by the time we go to our car he started walking away.  By the time we started to pull out we saw him get into his fucking gas guzzling big ass Chevy truck.

A part of me feels like I failed this woman. I had a choice to go back and tell him to back the fuck off.  I didn’t.  A part of me feels that to have gone back from my car to this conflict would have been to have made it my own.  After I type these few words, I think that I did the right thing.  I hope that she and her son is enjoying her simple dinner.  I hope that others would view this simple act of kindness and maybe do he same.

I’m not posting this to pat myself on the back.  I remember in the movie The Constant Gardener, one of the things that was said was that you can’t make a difference in all lives, but you can make a difference in one.  So, I’m making a simple challenge to myself.  Nothing extravagant, and nothing I will do everyday, but a couple times a week.. sure.  If I see someone in need, with a sign, rather than think about how I shouldn’t give them money, I could:

  • Pick up a couple of extra pieces of fruit
  • By a can of tuna
  • Split your sandwich
  • Grab an extra 1 dollar burger at mcdonalds
  • Get a second cup of coffee

Then hand it to that person and wish them a good day.   Think about the little luxuries we have,  a beer, coffee,  trip to the fast food joint.  What small thing can we do?  Times are kind of fucked right now.  We don’t have to be radical in our approach to touch lives.  Just a little kind.