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.


Dave Shevitz said...

A nice first post, Abhijit. :)

I would even go a step further to say that not only are our training partners our teachers, but our students as well. Students, as you and I know very well, tend to push you to learn techniques and concepts better than before. They think of things differently from you. And, becuase they don't have as much history with the art, are willing to question things that we either (a) take for granted or (b) not think about anymore.

What I enjoy most now about training is that I never get an opportunity to rest. There is never a chance to say: "I'm done. I've accomplished what I set out to do." We are always challenged, always struggling, always learning. And this gets to continue for the rest of our lives.

Joseph said...

Abhijit! This is truly an amazing post. You have captured several of Sensei's key ideas and explained them as lucidly as I have ever heard. Bravo! I hope we have an opportunity to train together in San Francisco!