Overcoming Obstacles to Practice

Recently a student wrote from Japan where he was on an extended trip. He was taking a calligraphy class and he asked the teacher, "How should I do this brush stroke?" She answered, "Boldly!"
Sunday, February 17, 2008

The calligraphy teacher was using aimaisa. In Japanese, aimaisa means something like "vagueness," or "ambiguity." If the teacher had used descriptive words like "with a downward stroke," or "thin at the top, fat at the bottom," the student would have focused on trying to make his work look correct. She knew that if the student wrote it with the correct feeling, the character would be more correct. By telling him to write "boldly," she was helping him gain a deeper level of understanding based on direct experience.

Beginning students of Kokikai Aikido are often similarly focused on objective aspects of practice. It is natural to want to know where to put our hand or foot for a technique, or what are the etiquette "rules" for various situations. It would be comforting to imagine we could learn from a Kokikai textbook that showed perfect examples of each technique. If we could just memorize all possible techniques, would we achieve mastery? Of course not! The correct practice of Kokikai is more exciting, because we have to make each technique just right for that moment.

I have always found in my own practice that the most growth comes when I move toward practicing based on feeling and responsiveness to others. Most of us have difficulty doing this. The ideas presented here have helped me to understand both why it is necessary and how it can be done.

Try to Find the Correct Feeling

Think of making an apple pie. The basic recipe is easy. But each pie is different depending on the sweetness of the apples, the humidity, the oven...and a great cook knows how to adjust the recipe each time so that every pie is delicious.

The practice of self-defense through Kokikai Aikido involves coordinating our mind and body in order to lead the attacker's mind and body. In other words, there are two (or maybe more!) minds involved. And two (or more!) bodies. Everyone, nage and uke, experienced and inexperienced, moves in the way that is natural for their body. Every attacker is slightly different. Every attack is slightly different. Both uke and nage have a slightly different mindset each time.

Just like an apple pie, every Kokikai technique has a recognizeable form. The basic techniques may be very simple, and we do need to learn the outward form. However, to work toward a "perfect" technique, just like a pie, we have to learn to make it just right for that situation. As students we must work very hard not to rely on externals – how much the wrist is bent, which leg is forward, how far we turn. These elements are important, but only if they help us do technique that feels the best.

his idea applies not only to doing technique, or "nage's side," but to ukemi (attacking/falling) as well. Correct ukemi means having the correct intention and moving in a way that is natural for an attacker to move. There are people we think of as "great uke," because they are fun to watch: they may be flexible, or strong, or both. But someone who is less flexible or strong can be a perfect uke, as long as their intention is correct and their movement is logical. As nage we then have to learn to respond and adjust to each uke. We can't force our uke into cookie-cutter movement that is not natural for that person's body. Maruyama Sensei throws each person correctly no matter how athletic, fast, or flexible they are.

Sensei reminds us of this when he says that we must try to find the correct feeling. This is evident when watching Sensei: We can see that he changes his technique slightly from one throw to the next. Sometimes(!) this is frustrating for students. We try so hard to figure out what is expected of us, what we should look for, what we should do! It is a challenge to try to catch this "correct feeling." It's even more challenging because there are variations in technique that can make a big difference.

When you feel frustrated because you are not sure what you are looking at, try to remember that the strength of a technique is based on the way it feels. Sometimes Sensei says "looks real: fake. Looks fake: real." The best technique may look like not much at all. See if you can find something to look at (maybe posture, or relaxation) that will help you understand more about catching Sensei's feeling.

During every moment of class, from the moment we first bow onto the mat, we can work on getting the best feeling. One mistake many students make is practicing too fast. This encourages stiffness and does not allow the opportunity to be sensitive to how you feel or how your partner feels. Once you are comfortable with doing a technique slowly, then you can start to increase your speed, but always stay aware of how it feels. You may decide to slow down again to try to catch a new idea.

Another mistake beginners often make is to focus on the outcome: whether, or how hard, uke fell, or whether they could overcome uke's resistance. Many instructors discourage resistance in general practice because it encourages nage to stiffen in reaction. Remember that if you practice stiffly and without the correct feeling, you will get better and better...at being stiff and having incorrect feeling. It's far better to slow down and get it right once than to practice incorrectly 1000 times.

It's worth mentioning that it is possible to go too far and focus only on feeling: Sensei cautions us against having "formless" technique. We must balance correct feeling with correct form. Ultimately feeling and form work together.

Keep Beginner's Mind

We can all benefit by practicing with an open mind. Zen Buddhists talk about retaining "beginner's mind." When we come to have even a little experience, we often rest in the belief that we "know something." This mindset is a big obstacle to growth. When we think of ourselves as teachers, it's hard to keep our minds open to learn. Our thinking becomes rigid. Trying to keep "beginner's mind" becomes even more difficult as we gain experience, becoming black belts and having teaching roles. We want to be seen as knowledgeable and worthy of respect. It feels more comfortable to be the one who knows, rather than the one who is learning.

A rigid mind is more than an obstacle to learning: it can be dangerous. We need to stay sensitive to the most subtle changes in a situation that may affect our safety or our ability to defend ourselves. When we rely on what we think we know, it is impossible to be responsive to what is really happening. This is not a good thing when you are under attack!

One of the most wonderful things about Maruyama Sensei is that he keeps this open mind. Even at his level of mastery, he is always testing himself to make sure that Kokikai techniques work in real situations, adding nuances and new ideas, and even tossing techniques out of the curriculum. He knows that in real-life self-defense you can't rely on something just because it has worked in the past. Likewise, all of Sensei's most senior students are constantly learning, from everyone they work with and from every experience they have.

If you want to practice "beginner's mind," begin by learning to recognize when you are thinking about how much you know. If you have an opinion about something, try changing your mind to focus on what you can learn. When you see something you don't agree with, by all means use critical judgement, but then try suspending it! Allow for the possibility of a new idea. Try looking at things a whole new way. And last but not least, think twice (or three times), before you tell others what to do. Concentrate instead on what you need to learn.

Take Responsibility for Your Learning

Everyone comes to class to learn something. Consciously or unconsciously, they place the burden of teaching on their instructor. They believe that there is some set of "correct" techniques that the teacher will "impart" to them. They think that a good teacher will impart the techniques more correctly, and, therefore, if they don't learn it's the teacher's fault. This is 100% incorrect. The person who is responsible for what you learn is you. The teacher can provide help and encouragement but you must give your full attention to correct practice in order to progress.

Sensei provides an amazing example and he is a great teacher. He has taught a lineage of students who are also wonderful teachers. But they all understand that even when we have a great teacher, our learning must come from within. When Sensei says, "Find out for yourself," or asks,"Which is better?" he is encouraging us to take responsibility for our own learning.

When I have a question, whether it's about technique, etiquette, or anything at all, rather than asking someone to give me the answer I try to answer it myself. I do this by watching, listening, comparing, looking at context, and trying to understand others. This has gradually become fundamental to my aikido practice and I practice it at all times.

If you find that you are confused about a technique and your first reaction is to ask someone for help, try instead taking a deep breath. See if relaxing and slowing down helps. Then try looking around the mat. Watch more experienced students. If your partner is doing something that you want to "catch," try learning by observation and by feeling what he or she does. Then see if you can produce that feeling when it's your turn. When you find yourself slipping into a "teaching" mindset, remember that your partner (not you) is responsible for his or her own learning. You don't have to say anything. It's fine for your partner to learn by practicing with you without talking. And it's fine for you to focus on your own learning.

Pay Attention

Paying attention is probably the simplest and yet most challenging thing you can do to improve your aikido practice. It is very difficult to watch attentively. Our minds wander. We have internal discussions. We hear a noise and look, and lose focus. We need to practice paying attention to every detail all the time we are practicing: not just paying attention to the instructor, not just to hand and body positions, but to timing, the way our partner feels, the look on our partner's face, the mental state that it shows.

Paying attention when you are watching the instructor or when you are doing ki development exercises is a first step. Then work on paying attention to your partner during practice. When does she get her balance back? When does she have an opportunity to resist? When does he feel weakest? Pay attention to yourself: When do you have good posture? When do you have bad posture? When are you too far away from uke? When are you using one point? When are you using muscle? A good time to check your skill is when you have the opportunity to ki test someone. Can you tell, just by looking or with the lightest touch, when he is strongest?

Many students seek comfort in the idea that if they just memorize a set of techniques and rules they will achieve mastery. Fortunately, this is not the Kokikai curriculum! Our art, as well as our best self-defense, lies in being adaptable, fluid, and relaxed, responding appropriately to each situation. Since we are moving human beings, rather than rocks or trees, we need to direct our efforts to understanding and connecting with human beings. This is challenging but it is also exciting and amazingly rewarding. It is the reason so many of Sensei's students have continued to practice and grow in Kokikai Aikido for 10, 20 or more than 30 years.

It is my hope that the ideas presented here will help some students to find those same rewards in their aikido practice.