Saturday, March 24, 2007

"Mind like water"

We were reminded by Sensei repeatedly at Camp that even when you're waiting your turn in a group session, to be aware of what is going on and being "on". We often have a tendency to drift and not be in the moment when we are not directly involved. How many times do we daydream our way through meetings and seminars, not really focusing on what is being said and discussed? How many times do we blank out words said, deeming them irrelevant and not interesting, even though we are part of the greater conversation? Camp provided a cautionary tale to these habits. Sensei came by Ki testing people while they were waiting in line for their turn, and to our chagrin most failed the test. We were not "in the moment", not paying attention to our teachers at the time -- the pair performing the technique of the moment.

Recently I re-read some books on Zen meditation that I hadn't looked at for a few years. Once again I read about being in the moment, of progressing towards "mushin", the clear mind. Mushin is often translated as empty mind, but I was dissuaded from this translation by a blogger who made the point that empty is really dead; what we are looking for is like the still clear waters of a lake, where we can distinctly see the bottom. If a stone drops in the lake, the water ripples in proportion to the stone and then slowly becomes still again. Mushin is also often translated as "mind like water", but this is unclear without the context of the lake. What we are looking for is not an empty, dead mind but a highly reactive mind open to appropriate action when necessary, without blinders or prejudices or preconceptions.

Let me come back to why this is relevant. When we are waiting in line, we assume that no attack is coming and so we turn "off" -- a preconception. When we practice, we know which attack is coming and so we turn "on" after the attack starts -- again a preconception. Maybe a more loaded word here is prejudice. We are prejudicing ourselves in each of the above scenarios. This too is artifact, albeit mental. This is also detrimental to our progress. Apropos of my previous entry, such artifacts need to be peeled away. Always be "on", be aware, and you won't have to change when stimulated. This is crucial to getting to the "best possible feeling". You can remain in the same mental state and deal with the stimulus appropriately --- true "mind like water".

Friday, March 23, 2007

Peeling away the layers

Recently I attended Kokikai Aikido's annual winter camp in Lawrenceville, NJ. It was an opportunity to reconnect with fellow aikidoka whom I had come to know and respect over my 13 years of practice. It was also a fantastic opportunity to see Sensei Maruyama again amaze us with his calmness and power and gentleness. It was also an opportunity to converse with old friends, acquaintances and teachers about how Sensei's message translated for each of them. It also stimulated my own thinking about how I interpreted Kokikai Aikido. After camp, my old buddy Dave wrote a blog about his experiences at winter camp, which further stimulated thoughts. This blog will be my first attempt to systematically articulate my thoughts, which are a reflection of my opinions only, good or bad, right or wrong.

Sensei talked a lot about having "ones' best feeling". This feeling is a manifestation of following Kokikai's principles about relaxation, centering, positive mind and attitude. However, it is really difficult to demonstrate in the abstract and is only evidenced, in aikido, by movement and by the ease with which an attacker is neutralized. After several years of practice I would like to think that I have progressed towards this goal, but it feels like I have so much further to go.

It got me thinking about the process of progressing towards this goal. Do we need to learn new technique, or new methods, or re-invent the wheel? I reflected on my past practice and realized that today I actually try less and am more successful in neutralizing attacks than I was 5 years ago. What a revealation!!! Do LESS! It's not about learning new things but giving up old unproductive habits. My senior teachers have interpreted Sensei's message of getting the 'best feeling" as removing "impurities" from oneself; using just enough effort to achieve the goal ("minimum effort for maximum effect"); "Forget!"; "Relax"; don't fight but just move. Shows how difficult Sensei's message is to verbalize. However, the process seems clear. We have to remove artifact from ourselves that hinder our ability to be effective, and ultimately, by peeling way the layers of artifact that we have ensconced ourselves with over a lifetime, we arrive at the pith, the essence of ourselves. This nascent essence is powerful, strong and natural, and the husk of artifacts that we have covered ourselves with make us less powerful, less effective, less natural. We have to get out of the way of ourselves.

Now comes the hard part...identifying the next layer to peel away. In the beginning (when we start aikido) the world in front of us is so new that we don't recognize it for something that will reveal a fundamental self. We have to learn new things as a path to unlearning old things. We start by getting our feet in the right places, our arms in the right places, and with a lot of cooperation we make our first tentative steps. As we progress up the ranks we slowly realize that what we're doing can be better only by stopping something we are doing. For a big guy the first realization comes when you aren't able to muscle through a technique; it's too easy to resist. That, for me, was the first layer. Only later did I realize that this aspect is in many layers, and I need to remove even more layers today to truly not muscle through a technique. As I progressed other layers became evident...relaxing, moving with rhythm, finding the right time to move, maintaining my intention, staying calm. These layers first appeared in their crudest forms, like the thick outer layers of an onion. With time, they reappear as more subtle variations, like thinner skin. Progress is in identifying and removing these successively thinner and thinner layers, representing deeper and more subtle manifestations of artifact. They also become much harder to identify unless you test yourself against your brethren, under watchful eyes. Only through the resistance, cooperation and (verbal and non-verbal) advice of our partners can we find the next layer to peel away. All of our partners are thus our teachers.