Theoretical Learning

August 1, 2009

Below is a reworked but messier draft…

Theory can give a thing a semblance of order and structure. It simplifies. The pieces in the theory can then be more thoroughly identified and become bite-sized and comprehensible. The pieces make sense relative to each other i.e. they’re internally coherent. The organization and the simplicity enable the student to examine and understand more deeply. In short, a theory can be a tool that helps look at the thing in question.

  1. It can be like a map that helps you go into new territory, although it may not account for everything you encounter and it may even be inaccurate (e.g., outdated) in some ways.
  2. It can be like a sporty car tire that helps you go faster and have more control, although it may make for a bumpier ride, restrict what surfaces you can go on, and wear out faster than a regular tire.
  3. It can be like a hammer that pounds in nails, although it is not meant to drive screws or cut wood.

Theory and Value. (“Value” could be thought of here as synonymous with “criteria” and “priority”.) By the very act of simplifying, a theory omits some details and includes others. By such discriminating and emphasizing, the aspects of a situation, and accordingly of courses of action, that are pointed out to a person using a theory will vary. The more accepting a person is of a theory, the more they will accept its emphases. The more one accepts, or takes in, certain things as being important or not important, that person is internalizing a sense of value.

At first glance, this could be taken as possibly occurring in a cold, unfeeling way. If I’m gradually internalizing a particular sense of distance, for example, not only am I paying attention to distance, I’m also gaining a sense of what distance is more comfortable, what is too close. The emotional content is often too easily dismissed. When someone hits their target, there is a probably a feeling, like “Yes!” rather than a Terminator-like distant awareness that a target was hit. When someone is about to hit their target, there is also probably a feeling, an urge, also. Although through self-mastery and mastery of skills, we strive to reduce the degree to which our feelings stand in our way, without any urges or motivation we will not excel or hone ourselves, but stay in a state or level where no particular “specialness” (e.g., concentrating, being curious, etc.) is necessary. (Of course a relevant paradox here is that at the highest levels of self-mastery one can be “usual” (‘heijoushin’) yet act in very refined ways. Yet the recognized process is that one eventually, gradually, ultimately attains a “usual” state, which is to say one is not that way from the beginning nor forces his way there too early.)

There is a dynamic, not static and unchanging, relationship between progress (i.e., increasing one’s capacity to realize the theory) and an individual’s grasp of a theory. As they both improve, they affect each other. In the beginning, when a person is putting a theory into action, they may be very limited in the range of situations they’re able to realize the theory. Depending on whether or how much a person can act freely in a situation, their valuation of all the aspects of the situation will surely vary accordingly. That person will perceive, notice, appreciate, dismiss, fear, avoid, embrace, wait, become harried, become defensive, etc. about the situation and its aspects depending on how he can (or feels he can) act relative to that situation. If a person perceives a possible situation to be hopeless or pointless, or pleasurable and safe, that perception is based on that person’s current sense of value. If you perceive someone as rageful and not listening, you may look down on them, stay away from them, not care or want to comfort them, perceive no conversation as being possible, etc. Regardless of whether you identify your values as respectful, caring, curious, compassionate, etc. if you perceive the situation as impossible for you to act on those values, then in reality (i.e., the effect, the consequences, etc.) it is virtually the same as if you did not have those values. And whether or how much you can act on your values depends on how you have developed your capacity to act until that point. And your capacity to act is closely related to how you see and assess situations, and how you form your expectations of situations.

Also, a theory as compared with a tool can define what “good/poor use” is. If we get a hammer and everything starts to look like a nail, then we use the hammer to fix things, say a stuck doorknob, and we may not mind leaving dents and dings in things. And we assess situations as changeable, doable, “can’t be helped just live with it”, “everything’s fine and if you’re bothered or hurt then it’s you’re problem”, etc. depending on the way we see the world as we conceptualize it – and conceptualizing the world and how we can be or act in it is what a theory influences us in doing. If we have a hammer and encounter something like a pillow or sponge, then we may perceive that there’s no job to be done at all because we’ve “developed” to the point of judging jobs that really really don’t fit a hammer as not doable.

Critiquing a theory. Just as there can be presumed no theory that fits reality without any adjustment, assimilation, or ‘filling in the gaps’, there is no one reason why a theory doesn’t “work”. One individual may struggle to progress as a particular theory prescribes “progress”, but ultimately progress in another direction. Another may struggle to progress in general. Is the tool very difficult to learn how to use? Both of the above may be “reading” the theory accurately or faithfully. Yet others may find themselves going in similar directions due to prematurely, inaccurately, or shallowly interpreting or assimilating the theory. Does the tool, say a hammer, influence you to identify and neglect jobs, say seeing everything as nails or not nails? So there are any number of reasons as there are individuals for the implementation of a theory to go awry.

Another thought is that a theory may fit poorly with reality. While this may be the case, there is often another (mis)judgment often made: that a theory doesn’t fit reality when in fact it is very deep or complex and the depth and understanding required by the individual is accordingly extreme. Many people give up on aikido and conceive a personal interpretation of its implementation after a premature assimilation. Many people form pseudo-religious beliefs based on a premature grasp of actual religion or even actual science. When there are a great many people around who are examples of the theory “not working”, we may assess that the theory is bad. But in fact it may just be a case of seeing a very widespread, common tendency among humans to do that same thing – in this case, to prematurely assimilate a theory and possibly use it for something other than what it was originally meant.

To take religion as an example, there are many functions and manifestations. One is to use it for a way to create and maintain a certain order or social organization. Another is to, as an individual, find meaning and efficiency in one’s life; by finding “peace” and “purpose/meaning” a person doesn’t expend excessive amounts of their energy and time on this earth worrying, fighting needless battles, etc. Certainly these aren’t the only functions but with even just these two examples we can see potential overlap. An individual may find meaning in creating social order and harmony through religion, for instance. However, another individual may find meaning or peace in creating a social order by oppressing or controlling others; if we see many examples of this, we may judge that religion in general is at fault or is a risky tool for humankind to use because it can be misused.

We may see a specific theory or religion as having ‘too many’ failed or bad examples and judge it not to ‘work’. We may also see a specific religion and find its orientation very much a ‘stretch’, foreign or bizarre, and thereby not be interested in what it puts into order and helps to navigate, let alone how well or poorly it navigates it.

There is possibly an American take on this, at this point. We in this culture tend to desire rationality and order. A tool is either good or bad. If it’s not, then it’s completely relative. It seems to be difficult for people in this culture to see it as ‘good in most cases’. Hence most people’s views on theories such as aikido or religion tend to be very personalized or very generalized. That is, we have a conception of “this is how I and my group implement it” and, often times simultaneously, “these (ways a, b, c, etc.) are how others implement it” as opposed to “this is how people generally implement it and here is how my group and I specifically do so, but in general we are all doing the same thing.” This latter approach seems to be held by many to some degree but it begins to fall apart at a relatively shallow level. For instance, we may say, “People doing aikido generally are seeking some sort of peace and thriving, but the way those people over there do it is either a very different understanding of peace and thriving or at the least I can’t see myself implementing the theory as they do.”

Objections to learning/acting from theory as opposed to practical experience seem to be a mix of several components:

  1. “Does the theory try to …” This wording reflects a confusion around personifying the theory, and also mixing up the originator, or original intention, of the theory and the proponents/users of the theory. Does the map try to account for every rock in a forest, every bench in a city? Does the sporty tire try to drive on all surfaces? The question is better phrased, “Is it meant to do such and such?”
  2. There can be a distinction between what the theory describes and what it prescribes. Does having a map mean you’ll get to where you want to go? That there are no cars, construction sites, or pot holes to watch out for?
  3. Related is the matter of, how much do we expect the user to adapt his behavior so that the theory is useful? And how much do we expect him to think on his own, to be able to fill in the blanks?  If one street name described on a map is changed from when the map was made, is the rest of the map thrown out of whack? And how much would we expect to be reasonable for someone reading the map to be thrown off? If a sporty tire was designed to fit well-paved, smooth roads, would we assign responsibility to the person who chose to buy it or the people who maintain the roads, if the local roads were not well-paved? If someone who’s never seen a hammer or nail before receives a hammer and pot of stew that needed stirring …
  4. Another related matter is, what if the user uses the theory poorly or for some other purpose than originally intended? Do we blame how much of a “gap” the theory left for the user to have to figure out? Do we assess how much effort the user made in figuring out how the theory should and could be used before they made their own interpretation? Do we go and find out what the originator of the theory intended the use to be? How much effort do we make to put ourselves in the originator’s shoes? If we see many people using the theory in one way, particularly poorly, do we rely on their apparent assimilation and use, or do we find out for ourselves? If we see others riding around with sporty tires and putting up with heavy vibration, do we accept that that’s what we should put up with also?

A theory that doesn’t stir up objections probably does not deal with something that is complex or has many exceptions, and is clear earlier about what its scope is. Unfortunately, human beings exhibit a yearning for simplifying complex or inexplicable matters, and therefore give much attention and feeling (e.g., hope, skepticism, suspicion, longing) to such theories.

A person who prefers not to learn or act from theory, and instead prefers practical experience, probably does not like the task of filling in the blanks (“reading the manual” before taking action), figuring out what the originator of the theory was thinking, or relying on a “manual” or “troubleshooting guide” instead of figuring it out on his own. Such a person may also know that putting a theory into action requires some kind of figuring out anyway, so why waste time on potentially irrelevant details and levels of detail.

– that is, does the tool actually do the job well? and does it do the job it is presumed to do? Another objection is how the tool can influence which jobs the user perceives. If I have a hammer, maybe I only look around for nails, maybe everything starts to look like nails. If I have a car with off-road tires, maybe I’m looking more often at dirt paths and overlooking paved roads. So I might start doing some jobs poorly because I try to use a tool that isn’t the best fit. Accordingly I may gradually see less and less how it isn’t a best fit – that in fact it works just fine. I reckon that most of the time the blame gets cast on the theory or the very idea of learning from theory. Other times the blame goes to the teacher of the theory. Fewer times, blame may be associated with the student and his/her ability to figure out how the rubber meets the road.

The proponents of a theory, both teachers and enthusiastic students, will at some point prescribe how the rubber should meet the road. By prescribing, not describing, the person gains an expectation that the world will happen according to the theory and not the other way around. If the expectation is strong or stubborn, it reflects an attitude by which the person does not want to be disappointed, contradicted, etc. – in any case, this is a tangent about how the expectation is held by the individual.  The expectation itself is a reflection of the proponent’s grasp of the nature of the road, what can be expected to happen when they meet, etc. This entails emphasizing and dismissing different aspects as important or not (e.g. does it matter if the tire makes noise against the road, does the tire need to be on specific rims, etc.). “How the rubber meets the road” is also related to presumptions regarding the theory. Is the theory meant to encompass all cars and surfaces? Does a proponent of the theory presume it to do so? Does the person presume the theory to be a formula or recipe that will somehow fit all of the possible variations of circumstances? Or that the circumstances are not so complex or variable that the theory couldn’t account for them?

This is problematic when the proponents are seeing the situation very inaccurately/skewed and rubber wouldn’t meet the road well in reality. So the theory might be very much in an imaginary world, out of touch with reality, regardless of how internally coherent it is. It is also problematic when the rubber meets the road in reality only if the rest of reality would fit with the theory (i.e., the theory is extremely limited to specific situations in reality). With respect to theories involving people, it is indicative when the proponents of the theory, in order for the theory to be valid, need to have a lot of “bad guys” and people who “don’t get it”, and excuses in general. And it’s not that having excuses and exceptions  is nonsensical or delusional, or invalidate the theory. In the case of tires, we could say that road noise actually doesn’t matter if we’re talking about an off-road tire. In the case of people, there may actually be people who are exceptions, such as people under the influence of drugs, people hearing and reacting to sounds that aren’t there, etc.

In my own experience, I try to notice when my learning of a theory starts to demand changes in my sensibilities and values. One of the main, common changes demanded is regarding the situations that fit the theory. For example, I may learn counseling skills, which usually are in the form of talk therapy. However, the things that I learn, such as giving voice to one’s experiences and feelings,  may not work with people who do not describe their own internal experiences well, whether due to lack of vocabulary or lack of awareness, or both. So does the counseling I know only work with aware and educated people? Does counseling work with only certain people? And if I wanted to counsel unaware and uneducated people with my current capacities, would I have to give them vocabulary lessons and awareness training first? And if they didn’t want to do those lessons and training, would I dismiss them or tell them that their problem is lack of motivation as evidenced by not wanting to take my lessons and training? In the end, if I made these demands (because my theory doesn’t meet the proverbial road) I wouldn’t put my theory to use unless reality, or the “outside world”, fit the client. What would “counseling” mean to me, then?

In the context of aikido, the rubber can meet the road in several ways. One way is the cliche topic of “does it work in a fight?”. Would I demand that my opponent attack only in specific, “aikido-type” ways? And if they didn’t accommodate me, I wouldn’t put my “aikido skills” to use but instead hit them or run away? What would my grasp of “aikido skills” be, then?

Instead of dismissing the theory, I might revisit my grasp of the theory, as well as how the theory has been presented to me by my teachers. The best example is when my teachers demonstrate to me what is clearly the theory meeting the proverbial road. Depending on how they perceive what they are doing, they might say it’s the theory at work or that it’s just how they do it. In other words, depending on how the teacher frames it to me, the student, I might see them teaching me via theory or the practical application.

In cases where it’s framed as the theory, there might very well be (to the student anyway) a big gap between what the theory is saying, apparently, and how it functions in reality. How to bridge this gap? I think it depends on both the skill of the teacher’s teaching and the student’s learning. Both of these are related to a sense of value. Specifically, more than what to emphasize or dismiss regarding the rubber meeting the road, but how to develop oneself as someone able to meet the road. That is, whether I meet the road or not, how, as the student, am I developing myself?

If I am a student counselor, then I may learn talk therapy as well as art therapy so that I can work with various clients. What if I never learn of dance or movement-based therapy? If at some point I learn the principle that by learning talk therapy and art therapy, I am learning about various ways clients might express themselves, then the idea of movement-based therapy might not be another “add-on” to learn. Likewise, if I learn the principle that aikido is about how to move oneself and touch another person (that happens to be taught via certain forms), then if circumstances don’t allow me to move according to a form, my body may still have a sense of how to move skillfully, and if circumstances restrict me to touching a person in specific ways different from the forms I learned, then perhaps I will still have a sense of how to touch them.

Both learning from theory and from practical experience may address only how the rubber meets the road, how to expect the road to be, how the rubber should be, etc. However, the common point that makes either or both of these approaches work well could be the consideration given to how the student and teacher are continuously developing themselves to be the “tire”, and how to be regardless of whether they will meet the “road”. As well having and developing awareness regarding what one is valuing as important or dismissing as unimportant is crucial.


‘What are we doing?’

June 22, 2009

My ‘thinking out loud’:

Originally, “What is the point” – specifically, what are we in aikido doing if we stick with approaches that are different from traditional jujutsu/bujutsu ways of practice? What’s the point of doing aikido and not aikijujutsu?

Common features of traditional jujutsu practice (and what we might all be neglecting in aikido) that I’ve observed:

  • Addressing (ie talking about, being explicit about) the circumstances, being very specific about the circumstances, and emphasizing staying within those circumstances and not claiming to be practicing something effective in all circumstances (ie a ‘”magic bullet”).
  • Being specific about the use of the body (eg which parts move and don’t, which parts should be activated, which tension is crucial to avoid, etc.)
  • Being specific and concrete about what is going on in the uke’s body. Ie 1) what effect one is having on uke and 2) what uke is doing.
  • Is there a desire among aikido practitioners to not have emphasis/thought given to many specific points but rather have one coherent and unified rationale/philosophy?
  • Is there a desire among aikido practitioners to have a coherent and unified philosophy because the emphasis is about how to be as a single, unified person (ie a philosophy about how to live)? or because it simply sounds simple/beautiful/convenient/romantic/etc.?
  • Re-phrase of above: Do aikido practitioners operate based on a (appealing) view of the practice as something that’s supposed to be more than what happens on the mat?
  • Is there a desire (possibly compulsion) among aikido practitioners to use abstract and philosophical frames more than concrete/specific? Or to go to extremes (very shallow or very deep/”jutsu-y”) when using either of these frames (as if one frame explains it all)?
  • Is there an open-ness or susceptibility to mystification? (Both among students and teachers catering to such students? and reciprocally, teachers who are inclined to get/have students under such control?) A broader-view re-phrase: does aikido have a self-selecting audience of people wanting mystification, simplicity, etc.?
  • Is the tendency to desire mystification a desire for simplicity, convenience, ease, etc.?
  • Is the unique emphasis of aikido to be adaptable in the moment (ie not so circumstance specific)?
  • (Related to previous thought on people’s desiring unified, coherent philosophy:) Do general/universal principles of how to use the body become apparent gradually through the specific techniques in jujutsu/bujutsu? Eg the head shouldn’t come forward, the elbows shouldn’t end up behind your torso, you should maintain an upright upper body.
    Do these generalize to, e.g., have good posture, don’t force things, develop your sense/sensitivity of awkwardness, ease, etc.?
    And do these then generalize to the kind of person you are/are becoming through practicing?
    Is this an individual question, more than a generalization that can be made about all the people doing a particular art? Isn’t there an influence if generalizing/integrating is explicitly mentioned?
  • Is the (ideal) method of transmission in aikido, one in which 1) a developed and skilled senior is in the nage role and transmits to newer people his/her internalized sensibilities, and 2) less time is spent emphasizing specific technical points, one that enhances cultivation of relationship (e.g., paying attention to self-other, developing sensitivity to cues and communication, functioning according to roles, developing within and to other roles), not just between seniors and juniors but among the group in general?
    If so, it would inherently be less efficient technically; but the aim would be different – less technique and more self-awareness, receptivity, responsiveness/connectedness.
  • What exactly is this necessity, or ideal, of a skilled senior/mentor/teacher? Someone who models and conveys a further advanced/developed sense (thereby inspiring and nurturing the newer person’s capacity) of being ‘honest’, insightful, fitting/accurate/congruent.
  • How is the above realized through the practice of forms? How is form practice that is “alive” and responsive realized? Sensitivity, continual questioning/examining e.g. was this movement reasonable? how much strength did I use? did my position allow me to move in an un-forced way?
  • To realize responsive and accurate practice, many reach the conclusion that the uke should intentionally create more variables for nage to deal with and resolve. Or that uke should not be concerned with taking away the variables for nage to deal with.
    One implication of this is that, through the practice of the uke role, one can enforce/normalize forced movement, sloppy/inaccurate movement, lack of connection, lack of sensitivity/self-awareness.
  • How to practice the same things as nage but not be nage? How to practice responsiveness, unforced movement, absorption, re-positioning, accuracy, etc.?
    Connection, an emphasis on. Continually receiving and reconciling that which nage gives.
    [Addendum: uke acts with little initiative. Just do the initial attack. When something happens next, continue the possibilities rather than stopping, interrupting, and starting over. Very ‘mindless’ and in the moment.]
    Responsiveness, unforced movement, etc. is not the opposite of falling down and taking the disadvantaged position. They become the opposite when, more than connection, one emphasizes the technical aspects (eg staying upright, moving at certain angles, successfully executing one’s own action, etc.)

    Could this be the unique characteristic of aikido? (Is the unique emphasis of aikido to be adaptable in the moment (ie not so circumstance specific)?)Why O-sensei changed around the roles of traditional practice in which the more senior student takes the ‘losing’ role? The point of being uke is not to learn exactly how to do what nage is doing but what nage is doing?

Seminar – taking stock 2 (Atari & “Hitting the structure”)

June 3, 2009

There is another thing that I realize I’ve walked away with from the Aikiweb seminar, evidenced by how frequently it’s been popping into my mind. It is the phrase that George Ledyard used, “hit the (partner’s) structure”. This phrase fits so well that I am tempted to say I prefer it over the expression “tai-atari (体当たり)”, which would be the original term I heard. Perhaps tai-atari would show its usefulness in the connection to “ki-no-atari”, which of course leads to an early point, namely that there is no absolute distinction between body and ki, or body and mind. For now, I had a train of thought run through my mind based on “hitting the structure”.

With variation among schools of aikido, there are place where the partners pause. E.g., after nage does the turn in tenkan/tai-no-henko; the first cut down in ikkyo omote; the first cut down to create kuzushi for kata-dori or katate-dori ikkyo, the cut down after the initial irimi movement in irimi-nage, etc.

What the examination of pauses boils down to is, what possibilities do you have from that position? The scope can be as narrow as, can you and your partner go to the next proper step in the form? It might be wider, such as can you extricate yourself from that position and continue attacking, possibly with the other hand, without opening yourself up to all manner of techniques and attacks? From this general question of possibilities, the examination is no longer restricted to the codified pauses in the forms. It’s anywhere uke’s balance is broken, which direction they fall or stumble, and how they recover. And, possibly the extraneous question, how to still “be uke” in that the interaction between nage and uke is completed with uke falling or being pinned.

What the idea of possibilities has to do with “hitting structure” is that in order to have the possibility of acting on a partner, one must be engaged with them. That is, I might have many possibilities by disengaging, staying away, and making noncommital gestures to engage, but none of them will give me access to the possibilities of interacting with or acting upon my partner.

The more or less codified pauses are points at which uke can check whether they are organized enough to a) hit the nage’s structure with their structure (as opposed to with only their arm) and b) move in accordance with the next step in the form, or more precisely speaking, move such that the next step in the form is fitting (or else the nage can either forcibly continue the form or change to something else that is more fitting).

Offhand there are 4 ways in which the interaction can go.

  1. Uke hits nage’s structure with his own structure.
  2. Uke hit’s nage’s structure only partially (eg with muscular strength only).
  3. Uke hits part or none of nage’s structure (eg only the arm) but with his own structure.
  4. Uke hits part or none of nage’s structure and without his own structure.

There’s a fifth way, consisting of uke leaning on nage. I’m presuming that this gives uke the sensation of pushing on nage. Suffice it to say, using one’s body to push and to lean are quite different actions. At the least, leaning creates the potential for falling, and likely makes acting upon uke’s body by nage a completely different action. Utilizing the fall is probably primary and not necessarily easy.

One way that it is not easy (if uke is leaning skillfully, like a good tackle), is that nage must still be moving with his structure, not just any old way. A skillful tackle will fill up the “space” within nage’s body such that nage may be literally backpedalling, or unable to use his body with the feeling of backpedalling.

When one “grows up” in a particular school, they learn where to stop and how. The “how” part might not be examined very deeply, though there might be a sense of accomplishing it better or worse. Another piece that might not be examined is “why”. From what I myself have seen, both students who do and don’t come from schools where these “pauses” are practiced struggle to one degree or another when faced with the examination of “how” and “why”. This examination is probably presented to students familar with pauses as pausing in unfamiliar places and times, with consequences relating to what happens after a pause. These students may at least have the possible advantage of having something to translate to become more flexible or generalized. To students unfamiliar with pauses, the examination is likely more of a struggle. For one thing, if a student is used to continuous movement, they may face the demand of organizing their body only at a few points, such as at the very beginning or very end of contact with nage. If demanded to pause right in the middle of flow, their body organization might be lagging behind, accustomed to the luxury of catching up later in the flow, or jumped ahead, knowing what the next leg of the flow will be like. Or perhaps the student might not even be behind or ahead, but simply doing an approximation, sort of like counting from 1 through 10, “1, 3, 5, 34, 2, 78, 5, 9 9.1, 10”, used to getting by within the loosest of criteria. If a student was suddently corrected that this was not really counting from 1 to 10, they might have some justified response, indicating the criteria that they’ve been using, such as “I counted 10 numbers didn’t I?” or “I started with 1 and ended with 10 didn’t I?” The student who is already used to pausing may be used to counting correctly from 1 to 10, but struggle with the task of struggle with the task of counting from 1 to 20 using whatever numbers they deemed fitting. For both, the examination of pauses may seem nonsensical.

Seminar – taking stock

March 30, 2009
  • “The Animal” – Clark sensei responded to someone who was basically commenting how it “feels like nothing” when you do the technique and your partner falls down. Perhaps the question was, how do you assess and improve the skill if you can’t feel when you succeed? Clark brought up the concept of the “animal” that we feed with the feeling of success or otherwise working away at something (eg wrestling with someone, overpowering someone). Getting better at technique means becoming able to do technique in a way that doesn’t give you that feedback that “feeds the animal”. Conversely, if feeding the animal is your incentive for practicing, then your technical improvement will accordingly stay at a level at which you can still feed the animal. To move on, you have to starve it.
    An immediate thought I had was how the animal can adapt to different “diets”. And, because the animal isn’t being fed by the initial diet, I might be in danger of feeding it without noticing. This is a question of  internal awareness and introspection, one that could be the biggest one I took away from that weekend. It was one of those “Ag!” moments where I realized I didn’t really understand what my teacher was getting at years ago. I’ve already had a couple of “Ag!” occasions where I thought I understood why Endo sensei was so persistent about the idea of feeling oneself and not being captivated by the partner to the point of not noticing or ignoring the partner.
    My “project” now is to notice the animal’s current diet.
  • The value of a group to which you belong, or a “kai”.
    Talking with some of the Jiyushinkan people, I could see on one hand how much they were developing as human beings from their practice because they belonged to a coherent, cohesive group. Belonging entails having a set a values, priorities, relationships, reference points – all of which entail having an identity. Paradoxically, being able to have an identity enables a person to question themselves and thereby grow.
    On the other hand, and this is not a piece that is strictly wedded to being in a group, there is the aspect of “other”. That is, belonging to a group influences how you see people outside of the group and how your experience is when you encounter such people. The main, possibly only, danger lies here, in that that development of “other” could go poorly. Precisely because the danger lies here, a person’s way of mitigating that danger is to initiate encounters with it (ie interact with “others”) and continue to be/become the person he/she is trying to become. So, if belonging to a group involves any related danger, it is to minimize exposure to “other” and increase the possibility of a person’s grasp of “self” and “other” to go awry.
  • Premises and assumptions.
    Examining the assumptions that I place myself under in my practice is a good way to contemplate why I am practicing, what I think is important, how I prioritize, what I’m trying to get out of it.
    To start from specifics, I think I don’t value reversals as much as I value absorption and efficient use of energy. I probably value continuity more than intentional acceleration/deceleration. I think I value surrendering myself to my partner’s actions more than consciously deciding or knowing what we are doing from moment to moment.
    I probably value demanding, or encouraging, a pre-decided form to happen by making my own openings rather than my partner’s openings apparent. This could have something to do with boundaries, but particularly when I’m dealing with someone I’m not familiar with or with a beginner, I will be more likely to leave the windows of opportunity open, and close them with people I’m more familiar with and of a higher level. Of course the premise is that I think one dimension of an interaction with a partner is awareness of who they are and when something is being artificially, rather than organically, given/taken. I don’t know if this reflects my attitude on social context or my aikido development.
    Why? Why choose these assumptions? For the first assumption, at the risk of providing an evasive answer, I like “neru” practice. I like the idea of striving for unconscious awareness and accepting whatever comes. As mentioned above, with a higher level partner I can “keep a channel open” for my own agenda (eg attacking and putting them down, or reversing) but it’s not an emphasis.
    As for the second assumption, again at the risk of an evasive answer, I think that that is more in accordance with my philosophy of life at this point. It’s likely also how I’ve “starved my animal”, at least in one way.

Progress, and reliance on teachers

March 23, 2009

A conversation topic that came up recently was around attending seminars and having contact with one’s shihan. (As an aside: the topic brought up the feeling of reactance within me because it felt like it was “drenched” in common sense and was part of the impetus for my writing Common Sense and Reactivity.) In the conversation, it was clear there was a difference in the amount of experience, and consequently the outlook, of myself and the other person. We had quite different views on the role of a teacher in one’s practice, the ways in which one is responsible for and creates one’s practice, and the role of a teacher with whom one does not have frequent contact.

When I myself went “guru seeking”, over some time I found that there was no such thing as a guru, while simultaneously I discovered how interesting and deep the things were that I had presumed I already knew relatively well and were not so deep: namely, basics. I also discovered how many different sources of inspiration and stimulation there were, as opposed to solely my main teacher. While I never achieved the feeling of having found “the one (guru)”, my teacher guided me in some tremendously significant ways, almost always in a very subtle, nondescript manner. Though I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, my teacher was there to relate to me and for me to relate to him, even when it wasn’t explicit. By simply relating and communicating with me, his teaching occurred in such a way that I kept and developed my autonomy, self-motivation, and self-discipline. Despite my receiving such encouragement to stand on my own two feet, I am now revisiting the idea of how much I was relying and leaning on my teacher.

In what ways have I been “leaning” and “letting my guard down”? For one thing, I was able to presume that my teacher was watching me and would give me feedback or guidance from time to time based on what he saw. My presumption was supported by the fact that I did in fact receive such feedback – furthermore, it was always meaningful. Another thing was, when communication happened, verbal or otherwise, I could rely on his fully listening to me and taking me seriously. Conversely, he conveyed to me that I should try to be serious, not lackadaisical, and attentive as well. In other words, it was not only words and information that was shared, but feeling and attitudes also. In relation to nonverbal communication, it could not be clearly concluded what was given and received by each person. So when I had the feeling my teacher was doing a behavior that related to me (e.g., observing me or imitating me), he would be straightforward and honest about it, without necessarily going out of his way to verify it for me. That is, he did not make an effort to hide anything, without necessarily making sure we saw everything. And sometimes, when he felt like it or when we got close enough to what he felt was meaningful, he would communicate to us on the general subject, whether it was directly relevant to our understanding or what he thought was a relevant tangent.

In summary, I could rely on my teacher, if no one else, to see me deeply for what and how I truly was. I could rely on him to communicate to me what he perceived, whether it be a verification, reflection, or critique. I could rely on him to be honest and transparent about himself, and still end up being someone I could aspire to be like myself.

So, then, without a person in my life without these things, am I totally hobbled in some ways? If I rely on these things, am I forced to stop without them? Intellectually, I can see that, despite receiving the benefit of certain valuable things from a teacher, I should not be reliant upon those things in the exact same way for my entire life. At the same time, as human beings everything is not always obvious and simple, and sometimes we need to stop and make an effort to take stock of what is and isn’t. Currently I can tell my heart protests and doesn’t like the prospect of losing a valuable support. But I know in my head that it is already lost and the time is now appropriate for me not to have it – thus it’s more a matter of accepting the reality of my current and next life stage.

The topic of whether a person “needs” to see their shihan every month, every year, etc. and have the same, un-evolving relationship forever is moot. I can only imagine it is troubling for someone who find it difficult to see themselves practicing and teaching along side their teacher someday, with the same knowledge or ability that seemed so grand and unattainable years ago. Another aside: when I was seeing a therapist as part of my own therapy training, I had a clear realization one day that I had internalized his lines of inquiry. I found myself asking myself the same things he often asked, things that I did not notice by myself, initially. By internalizing (maybe the terminology is “introject”), in a way I became independent. On one hand, I didn’t need him to actually ask the questions – I could pose them to myself. On the other hand, they still didn’t feel (initially anyway) like my questions. Until they are mine, perhaps I am relying on him.


March 16, 2009

I like analysing people. Now I try not to focus on judging others, guessing what they are like and what they might be thinking about, but I still watch others in the street to observe the way they walk.

Since I can remember, I’ve never really gotten how people seem to use the word “judge”. It seems to carry a negative connotation. “Assess” seems to make some people feel better. I wonder if people’s negative take on “judge” has something to do with perceiving that one is separate with others, that one can observe the world and not be a part of it.

I have a thing with posture. It might have something to do with my bad eyesight. I notice posture/comportment from far away – it enables me to identify people when I can’t see their face. Not only do I notice it in a pure sense, I notice it in a subjective sense i.e., if someone’s posture is really bad or really good, I take notice. I can acknowledge that I’m noticing because it’s good or bad – I don’t mind too much saying so. Perhaps this is when people don’t like the word “judge”. “Who are you to say that person’s posture is good/bad?”

But the bottom line is a significant part of why I notice what I notice is due to my subjective experience of the thing. The above has been about good/bad, possibly beautiful/ugly. What about other dimensions?

For example, at some point in aikido I started to pay attention to whether a person really meant to attack and experience the prescribed technique of the moment with me, or they meant to sort of attack, sort of let me do the technique but more fall down by themselves, sort of attack but be more concerned with blocking my atemi, prevent me from doing what we’d supposedly agreed upon, etc. This is not a simple good vs bad kind of aspect, yet I would say that it has to do with “judgment”.

Subjectively, the degree to which I experienced my attention being drawn to this aspect probably puts me more at the sensitive end of the spectrum. It was something that pushed my buttons. Thus it was about attachment and something I have worked on. However, though I’d like to be free of the attachment, I never thought to give up on becoming a better and better judge of people’s intentions.

As I got more and more accurate, and more and more free of becoming attached/captivated, I became more and more able to see the situation. The current situation as what came before and what’s reasonable (not forced) to happen next. Thus, in aikido techniques, the interaction with the partner could happen earlier, time-wise. However, from my perspective it is happening at the right time. “Early” is only relative to the point in time I perceived our interaction as starting as I would have reported one year ago, ten years ago, etc.

If someone is about to attack me in practice, and I can tell they don’t like me or have some problem with me, I try to see it, see how I am with having perceived that, and accept it all. If I don’t like that I’m feeling my partner is being suspicious of me or scared of me or whatever, I don’t think to stop judging  – stop judging because I might not be right or because judging only introduces information that is possibly useless. Not only is it (to deal with attachment and greater self-awarness) part of my area of interest and motivation to do such a practice as aikido, it is also relevant to the execution of technique on an “aiki” level, territory I think I’ve started to delve into recently.

As a human being, it makes sense to me to take into account how a person’s emotional state is when I am try to see all of how a person is. As a human being who is in the learning process, it makes sense to take advantage of my strengths in the process; if I am more adept at noticing certain details, I should continue, not stop, to refine the noticing of those details so that it serves me in my learning. If I notice something because it makes me feel good or bad, so be it. It is not the assessing, judging, or noticing that is counterproductive but the attachment to and captivation by the same.


March 16, 2009

Re: Who Sez O\’Sensei Was Wise!

Still taking about the power of myth, does it or doesn\’t place more dependence on someone else, like O\’Sensei, to guide my life? Will it help me turn that focus I have off of someone else I think provides me wisdom and guidance to my own inner voice? Is there myths that do that? Or is it the nature myth power to direct us to the dependence on others?

This is a fine question but one I think that is quintessentially American.

How is this question \”quintessentially American\”? The question reveals a certain thought process. It somehow connects, or possibly even equates, receiving guidance with becoming dependent, and receiving guidance and not listening to one\’s inner voice. How does it happen that those connections are made? That contradictions must be reconciled, and paradoxes expected and accepted when it comes to \”deeper\” things (which are often the same as \”simpler\” everyday things) – these could be difficult to realize with the thinking that is basis for the above question.

In the West we have very few arts that require \”transmission\”. Many of those that did don\’t exist any more because no one wanted to do that kind of work under a teacher. Still, one can see examples that bear… Look at the relationship between the coach and the elite level athlete. …  A writer may have an editor without whom his talents wouldn\’t be sharpened. A recording musician has a sound engineer and producer. … . The fundamental foundation for the transmission of knowledge in the East is the Teacher / Student relationship. \”Transmission\” go ways beyond mere instruction. It is a heart to heart process. It requires a letting go of ones individual concerns. … In fact a great degree of faith is required in the process. That is why the finding of ones teacher is so important. …  Leaving aside that the process was often subverted or that unscrupulous people simply resorted to outright fraud, the system worked and transmitted a certain kind of spiritual and technical knowledge over thousands of years.

This isn\’t a science vs. myth thing. I want to show why I am saying what I am. The thing so powerful that came from the revolution of science was that we could independently find wisdom on our own and not dependent on the myths that lead us to looking at others for guidance.

The revolution of science, while great in many ways, caused us to throw out the baby with the bath water from the standpoint of traditional knowledge. I do not think that science has caused us to become independent individuals from a wisdom standpoint. Quite the opposite. From the Western scientific standpoint, if we can\’t find a way to measure something with a machine, it doesn\’t exist. … . Science has no useful explanation for \”enlightenment\” or mystic union with God. It would like to think it can explain Love as a biochemical process but I suspect that most individuals find that to be unsatisfactory. … . The world O-Sensei lived in was full of kami, contained inherent wisdom that a person\’s mission was to discover. That is the spiritual path in a nutshell… the discovery of ones relationship to the absolute and how one can live with that. Science has no methodology for this. Zen quite explicitly states that the thinking mind cannot even perceive the truth of this.

Scientific method and data may enable us to be more independent (i.e., not require the existence of any other people)  relative to something more scientific in nature. However, it is just \”more\” or \”less\” and not  \”either/or\”.

Even if we took as an example the medical field, we will probably never reach the end of the quest for better diagnostic instruments. We do what we can with our current instrumentation. I.e., the instrument cannot give the doctor 100% of the necessary information such as what is occurring, why it is occurring,  and what should be done. The doctor uses experience and judgment to give the best possible response under the circumstances. This can include what is noteworthy in the first place, hunches about what else to look for, assessment of what is being observed, what course of action will actually be practicable, etc.

Experience and judgment come partly from exposure to others, both good and bad. With no exposure to others (e.g., mentors), one\’s judgment will certainly develop differently than with exposure. Is this \”dependence\” on others, to develop better judgment, wisdom, etc. from outside influences? Are there fields in which an individual\’s development is unconnected from others and one is completely independent?

As stated above, it is precisely because instruments/methods are better and better able to tell me what they are (and aren\’t, if one includes instruction manuals and information from other people) measuring, it is more apparent to the individual what the instrument/method cannot do. At such a point the individual make his/her own assessment, hypotheses, judgment, etc., which are inevitably the product of the individual\’s measurements plus prior experiences. Therefore, for instance, I can know that I am at and angle of x-degrees relative to my target, but there is \”something more\”, such as distance, speed, muscular tension, intention, potential responses, responses to responses, etc., that I factor in to achieve my goal – that I recognize the existence of that \”something more\” at all, and that I can identify and see the significance of that \”something more\” are subsequent stages.

The search for the Teacher is one that entails a leap of faith. The teacher is, by definition, someone who knows what you do not, perceives what you can\’t, can do what seems impossible for you. The fact that there are so few real Teachers of true mastership has caused a major disruption in the spiritual world. Look at Aikido… it has been the blind leading the blind. … The vast majority of American martial artists have Zero experience with any teachers who truly function at what in the East would be considered mastery. So we decide \”Hell, we all put our pants on the same way\” and decide, in true democratic fashion that no one is higher than ourselves. When it comes to a clash between what we want and what our teacher demands we quit and find a teacher who lets us be \”ourselves\”. And that\’s fine for someone but I have never seen anyone who got to a really high level of mastery that way. It is not the function of the teacher to let you be yourself.

I follow him because I think his skill was great and I want to be like him.

Actually, I don\’t want to be like O-Sensei. … . But I want to know, at least to some extent what the Founder knew. I think much of that knowledge is Universal and transferable across culture. … . My job as a teacher of Aikido in the West is to take my understanding as far as it can go but also to pass it down to another generation. …  I have to find a way to create a genuine American context for this knowledge that preserves its depth but is also understandable and of value to American practitioners. …  What is inherent in the Aikido of the Founder that can help us be better people, make or world better, help us lead better lives? It is the job of the non-Japanese teacher of the art to find this out. I can\’t get that from O-Sensei or Saotome Sensei or Ikeda Sensei. I can get help from friends who are also engaged in this process themselves. But without the myth to inspire, without teachers to stand as examples of what mastery REALLY is, the individual simply relies on his own judgment, his own perception, his own experience. That generally results in someone who is very good at being the same person they\’ve always been but perhaps more attached to it.

Another, practical, consideration when examining what an \”independent\” person with nothing but scientific method would be is lifespan. Perhaps a machine can spend forever honing its results, but for a human it wouldn\’t work. And would a machine be able to come up with experiments to do? This is precisely where inspiration and consideration of possibilities becomes relevant. We are all in danger of being satisfied with familiarity. The danger is with respect to complacency and attachment. Inspiration is, \”I don\’t know where it will take me but I\’m going to try it.\” Perhaps even, \”I\’m not exactly sure what \’it\’ is but I\’m going to try \’it\’\”.

Here again, I don\’t question. It doesn\’t occur to me that there might be someone better then him. Maybe that is, because of myth. Which didn\’t occur to me until you wrote about myth, that helps.

We should question, all the time… But we also have to take on faith that there are simply things we don\’t have a clue about right now. For many years I had no idea whatever what my own teacher was doing. I think I had gotten to the point at which I had conceded that I would never be as good as he is.But then I met some other teachers who functioned at that same very high level. They had ways of teaching things that were totally different from my own teacher and suddenly I started to understand what my own teacher was doing. Then, they showed me that there were things far beyond what I had even been shooting for. I am far better than I ever thought I\’d be now and yet I feel like a complete beginner. There is stuff out there that I had no clue even existed. There are folks out there who make the myths real. I don\’t give anything up in this process. I don\’t lose my sense of myself… but what that sense is is constantly shifting.

It is that process of not questioning that I relate to as impulse buying of what and why we are not independent but rather dependent. Does myth lead us to impulse buy or away from that?

We are not independent. We are totally dependent… on our teachers, on each other, on our environment… In fact it is not so much that we are dependent but that we are totally connected. Everything is connected. Virtually all of our problems as individuals and as members of the collective come from our ignorance of this fact and continued attempts to act as if it weren\’t true. The Founder saw Aikido as a practice that would lead us to a better understanding of this fundamental connection. Since we do not inherently understand this connection, the myth inspires us to go beyond our own limitations. The \”myth\” is how the reality of the great teacher lives on after his death to continue to teach and inspire.

\”Lives on\” is relevant because we are connected through space and time. I may not see my teacher for long periods of time. I may never have met someone who is inspiring. How can they affect me then?

It is interesting that the confusion between \”being connected/affected\” and \”being at the mercy of\” arises so often, both intellectually and physically.