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go into new territory, although it may not account for everything you encounter and it may even be inaccurate (e.g., outdated) in some ways.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.

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.

Interview with Philippe Gouttard

March 4, 2009

Interview with Philippe Gouttard

… Christian Tissier, who was just back from Japan, came to give a course in Saint-Étienne. There I said to myself “this is what we have to do”. What is funny about it is that the other members of our group did not like what they saw at all. There I realised that perception is really a question of moment. If Mr Tissier had come 10 day before or after, maybe it might have been me who had said “that’s crap” and the others “that’s great!”. Anyway, I was in a good state of mind to receive his teaching and I realised that it was exactly what I wanted to do.

G.E.: Nowadays you speak Japanese fluently. Did this change your understanding of what the Japanese teachers were doing?

P.G.: When I finally understood, I was a bit disappointed by the fact that they spoke very much like we do. I thought they would use poetic words with a lot of metaphors but in fact, not at all. They talked exactly like us “raise your arm, lower your hips, you are a bunch of morons!” (laughs). When I first came to Japan, I was convinced that the masters lived in tree tops, that they did not eat, did not have sex and so on. When I saw that every now and then, they fancied a drink or two, I was really disappointed. I realised that these guys who were virtuosos in aikido were in every other aspect very much like us. They were Japanese men living according to the customs of their own country.

G.E.: Was there a Japanese instructor who had a particular influence upon you?

P.G.: A gentleman like Seigo Yamaguchi helped me a lot because he was a nonconformist and that is exactly what I am trying to do on the mat. He was not in the Aikikai standards. For example, it was forbidden to smoke in the Aikikai but he smoked there, he used to do exactly the class he wanted and sometimes, he wouldn’t even turn up at all! For me, he brought freedom to a peak. This guy that I found ugly was suddenly magnificent when he stepped on the mat. Gradually, as I met teachers and improved in my practice, I came to realise that I wouldn’t mind dying in the arms of somebody like Mr Tissier or Mr Yamaguchi.

G.E.: Does your knowledge in osteopathy help you to teach aikido?

P.G.: All this allowed me to ask myself: instead of thinking of hurting, control and twist wrists, couldn’t we say “we are going to build the body”? Of course in the beginning, we build our own, we become very strong but what is the point if it is only to destroy the other guy? I tried to formulate things a little differently. He is attacking me because he has run out of any other way of expressing himself. I will therefore put him in such a situation of motion and pleasure that I will take any desire to aggress from him; not the will of being powerful, decided or strong; just the urge for destruction.

My own experience with the teachers I like, and furthermore the teachers who blew my mind at one point or another, the experience was disconcerting and unfamiliar, but felt light, open, and pleasurable. Currently I’ve reached a place where I can viably explore how to let the partner’s function actually happen and accordingly how I can help them to “dissolve” in that open way. That open way is something that is not simply overpowering or oppressing the partner (although attachment to one specific way or another isn’t constructive). In an odd way, the partner often seems to expect to experience some degree of fighting or resistance when he/she attacks. By letting the partner succeed, they don’t encounter the fighting experience, and at least something different can arise.

G.E.: This idea of construction is a crucial part of you teaching isn’t it?

P.G.: When we twist a wrist, we don’t only act on the wrist but on the whole articulation and the muscular chain down to the point of balance. This is why we have very few acute injuries in aikido but many more chronically debilitating pains. The body gets used to taking the abuse until the day it makes you say “that’s it, I can’t take it any longer”. Then we start wondering why it went wrong since we’d been so careful all these years and never got injured. It is now that we must be careful and practice intelligently. We should not change the techniques but change the minds instead. We must avoid at all cost incidents due to awkwardness or lack of attention. Also, we must get rid of the notion of wanting to do well and focus on wanting to do better. It is when we expect to do well all the time that we end up with frustration. We have to leave ourselves room for improvement, allow ourselves to make mistakes.

What I really want to get away from is the idea of perfection. We should obviously tend towards perfection but certainly not let ourselves be put down by mistakes. As soon as we are afraid to make mistakes, we don’t do half of what we are capable of and we make excuses for ourselves. Right know we are talking to each other, we try to speak properly but at some point, we are going to make language mistakes. If somebody passes by at that moment, he is going to say “Look at this moron, he can’t even speak properly”. The thing is we don’t care about it! I much prefer to things according to the way I feel than using perfect but empty sentences. Afterwards, we can always fix things if they have not been expressed properly or understood right instead of always having to be careful. Let’s face it, this is only aikido, it is not like if we were in politics trying to reunify a country. It is exactly like when people want to take pictures. I don’t mind people taking pictures when I am in an awkward position. People who appreciate me will figure out that it was at that particular time of the motion whereas others don’t like me will always find something anyway. By far I prefer things to be natural. See, when a politician screws up, I don’t mind it as long as he recognised his mistake.

Some of these above points are very much along the lines of what I’ve been hearing Endo sensei say. The reconciliation of striving to do something better with letting go (of achieving “better”) is, in a general sense, also about reconciling how to follow one’s wishes and desires (i.e., what one’s ego is telling one to do) and how to achieve freedom, actualization, and happiness. Too often we get sidetracked in strategizing and dissecting.

G.E.: During seminars you indeed show little concern towards the form but pay a lot of attention to the essence of a technique.

P.G.: That is right. In fact I try to give as much freedom as possible to my students, they are always right but all in a different way. We become better by changing of partner, vision, teacher, place etc. Of course we do the same technique over and over again but the point is to understand why it works in some places, not in others. Everybody has the solution within themselves but the difficulty is to take enough time to think it over. A teacher can only give his own solution which is one amongst many others.

To relate this to aikido, shihonage is the same everywhere but sometimes, we see a practitioner doing it and we think that it is rubbish. He is probably not rubbish but he has motions, postures and attitudes that irritate us. It only means that we are not good enough yet to accept that the others might do things differently. Instead of saying that the other guy is crap, we should say that we did not train enough to understand him properly. As a consequence, we will go see somebody else and later, we should go back to see him.

This is speaking to the idea of developing one’s eye. Developing one’s eye is not only about discerning more detail, but about freeing oneself from “the specks of dirt on the lenses” – those workings that can be no one’s but our own which make us overlook some things while over-fixating on others. To develop one’s eye in seeing a baseball thrown by a pitcher is one thing, but to develop one’s eye in seeing another human being in the context of proceeding through life is a whole other ball of wax.

This is basically what I try to do in Japan. Before, I rarely went to practice with the teachers that I did not like. Nowadays, I always go there.

G.E.: Why is that?

P.G.: Precisely to check if I really don’t like them or if I just was not mature enough to understand.

G.E.: Isn’t this degree of liberty unsettling for your students?

P.G: I offer the technique to my students, from that, they do whatever they want with it. Of course I am sad when my students leave me but I would be even more upset if they were staying with me so as not to sadden. In that case, they would be considering me as an old man. If a student of mine tells me “Philippe, for the next year, I won’t be coming to train with you because I want to train with this other guy.”, I won’t mind at all. The thing that would really hurt me is if we did not keep contact. The fact that during his life, a student might want to study with another teacher is perfectly normal; it does not strike me since I did it myself. We will meet each other again, that is aikido, paths that divert and meet each other all the time. The times when we meet each other have to be very strong and precious moments so we don’t feel guilty to have parted from each other. As a teacher, if you give intelligence and practice you also give freedom. Freedom is priceless.

Of course we can’t be free at the beginning; we only can trust our teacher. We go to a dojo, usually randomly and we are told that there is nothing better. With practice, we realize however that the best in us is very similar to the best in somebody elsewhere. That is why I think that grades do not have a technical value but a value as a representation of experience and formation.

Faith (in one’s teacher) – it pops up again.

Take the example of Tokyo or Paris; it is quite normal to have 30-40 people on the mat in a dojo. Now, if a teacher has 10 persons on his mat in Galway, Cork or Tipperary, it is as intense as in Paris. Is aikido better in Paris than in Tipperary? I don’t know. What I do know is that in Paris, people can train 6 times a week, 3 times a day whereas a practitioner in Tipperary might consider himself lucky if he has the possibility to do it twice a week. Now both have the same value because even if the shodan in Paris and Tipperary does not represent the same experience, it rewards the same level of personal investment. Personally, I ask of students and teachers that they train hard, without thinking of whether in Tipperary or Paris it is good or not. Us students, we always feel guilty because we think: “I don’t train in Paris and I have never been to Japan so of course, I can’t understand” but once we finally have been to Paris or Tokyo, we often feel empty unless we meet a teacher or a student who enriched us with knowledge that we could not have grasped at home.

Aikido is accessible to everybody but not everybody can access all of aikido.

G.E.: So we don’t practice the founder’s aikido?

P.G.: … aikido has to evolve in function of our needs.

Nowadays, people who come to see us are well behaved and well educated, they are self disciplined. We must tend towards suffering less during the practice, be less frustrated, less jealous. If we get hit, we must accept it, lose a bit of our self esteem; a bit of the 7th dan that goes away. For example, I try to make people practice in a situation where they don’t have the control anymore. I push the students to do techniques beyond reflection in order to make the body “go for it”. Afterwards, we might say “shit, I shouldn’t have done that” but if we leave the intelligent spirit time to anticipate, we won’t go for it anymore because we know we are going to die.

It is probably greatly, vastly, horrifically, tremendously overlooked how much most students protect themselves from ever having to experience all that which aikido practice could expose them to.

Students must trust their teacher but the teacher must also be tolerant of the reactions of his students. It is always a reciprocal thing, a teacher must always accept when a student of his goes to train with somebody else but the student also has to remember that if he is able to make anything out of what the other teacher is saying, it is because of the knowledge he got from the first one.

G.E.: Is the social aspect important for you?

P.G.: It is very important outside the mat. We can talk, cry, hug all night but the following morning, we must be back on the mat at 9 a.m. and go for it! This is a dictatorship, no feelings, no religion, no politics. Gender is non-existent, a girl on the mat is just a smaller partner and I will make her suffer as much as a bloke so she understands that we all deserve to work as hard. However, I believe that we do more aikido than we think at night when we share a good meal and a good beverage. After that, on the Sunday morning, the big bad guy of the previous day is not as nasty as we thought, he is even rather like us but we just did not understand each other the day before.

G.E.: You always work to the limit of physical exhaustion and pain…

P.G: In aikido, we must reach the limit beyond which we should not go. When we practice, if I go beyond the limits of a partner, I abused him but if I don’t reach theses limits, I cheated him. We must always go forward and when we can’t go forward anymore, we just have to choose another forward.

G.E.: Any last word to finish?

P.G.: Give strength to others. If we are strong it is to help others, not to crush them.

Moving Forward in Discussions

February 22, 2009

This week of 2/15/09 on NPR (search online for “Holder’s ‘Cowards’ Comments Examined“(?)), there was a distinct part of the exchange in which the two people were discussing one of their speeches or essays. One person was critical, saying that he perceived that the writing’s focus on negative aspects of race-related discussions today was negating to all of the progress that has been made in the past few decades, that the focus ignored how different and positive it is for youth today compared to youth of thirty years ago. The author of the writing returned that he fully understood all of the progress that had been made as mentioned by the first person, but that that was not the topic of his writing – what was the topic were things that needed to be faced next. So the first person felt that, by its omission, it was being negated and overlooked. But here we have the author himself telling us he wasn’t doing that. Furthermore, we are given a description of his perspective and background which lend credibility – credibility that we are hearing the truth.

(Admittedly taking his side, here,) how is he supposed to compose a speech/essay that is concise and to the point, without digressing on a related but different tangent only to placate people with certain preconceptions and preoccupations? If we say that his essay has as a primary objective to reach everyone, including those who need placating, perhaps he in fact does need to spend some time on the digression. After all, his composition doesn’t come into this world into a vacuum, but into various contexts, which includes various audiences and respective interpretations. Perhaps, at the very least, a digression expressing what the goal of the composition is and what it consciously avoids would be valuable. On the other hand, we could say it’s the onus of the audience to deal with their own preoccupations and preconceptions. If they take in a composition (or read a book, see a movie, hear something from someone, etc.) and receive something that the creator never intended, shouldn’t they question how much was due to their own “junk”? In fact, isn’t the individual who is making the mis/re-interpretation the best person to have insight of what is happening to lead him to such an interpretation at all? And finally, since this is about communication, the format is relevant. If it is a conversation between two people, the speaker has the opportunity to get a sense of how the listener is receiving the words, and accordingly tweak what is being said. If it is an essay that has been completed, then the author does not have such an opportunity. The author’s skill in “pre-reading” the potential audiences’ reception may become apparent. Also, the audience may need to give the author the benefit of the doubt about what the author is striving to convey, precisely because they do not have the opportunity to hear the author’s clarifications.

In discussions about practitioners of aikido of different aspirations, the “moving forward” often becomes derailed by similar divergences of views and interpretations [1][2]. The people who have the knee jerk reactions of the defensive sort when they hear someone calling them or implying that they are “hobbyists”, evidently associate the idea of doing something as a hobby with doing something with little worth, little meaning, little benefit, little beauty, etc. Even if we consider something most people can probably grasp as a hobby, such as building birdhouses, tending a garden, or restoring old cars – for all of these things we can probably see the person doing it not as a professional yet investing much time, effort, energy, and money, attaining pleasure, peace, meaning, etc. and even bringing joy and benefit to others. How is it that “it’s a hobby” becomes “just a hobby”? Can the person hearing “just” acknowledge that that is what their mind is inclined to attach? Also, can such a person come up with an alternative word that is somehow more placating or satisfying? Would it help to assign a different word to those who are obviously more serious/invested? “Amateur”? “Apprentice”?

Without acknowledging and accounting for the objective of statements, conversations, terminology, and for the perspectives and formats of communication, then the discussions can’t move forward. And moving forward is inevitably going to include encountering some unsavory topics. In the case of race, it could include the topic of how to practically address differently different people’s socioeconomic positions as it related to their history. In the case of aikido, it could be about topics such as how teachers should be expected to treat different students differently, and what kind of discriminating treatment students should expect and tolerate. Recognizing that our discussion isn’t moving forward, assessing why it is so, and settling on some basic common ground are essential pieces of a complicated discussion. Without these pieces, it could be like talking about traveling together to the other side of the planet but not agreeing whether to start eastward or westward; like agreeing to travel some place relaxing or exciting but not agreeing where that is and even presuming the other person is thinking the same thing as oneself; like planning a trip somewhere with someone, with one person intending to stay for a few days and another for months, and packing the car accordingly.

Learning, “Sunao” (again)

February 17, 2009

Re: Got pwned by boxer =-(

I’ve been getting a kick out of reading George Ledyard’s recent posts on Aikiweb partly because he bothers to post what I feel it’s too much trouble to partly because he manages to express what I will become very tangential about, and partly because he hasn’t posted in some time.

One thing I’m revisiting is “stupid” questions. A lot of questions virtually all of us have at one point or another are likely good and valid questions that simply arise too early relative to our current level of understanding. The correct or fitting answer to the questions would be incomprehensible and unsatisfying to the person asking. Thus the fitting answer wouldn’t necessarily be to the question, as if it were in a vacuum, but to the person asking the question. However it’s easy to confuse the two – at least it is for me.

I think it is incredibly arrogant for our current generation to assume that knowledge that has been handed down in various arts for hundreds of years is now suddenly outdated and irrelevant and that we know better.

The assumptions and the corresponding questions above are coming out of a certain perspective or understanding. It’s not that the questions are arrogant. It’s more that, because the questions are valid, the person asking presumes that the perspective from which the question originated is valid also. That is, the perspective/understanding is overlooked, and this is what is arrogant. The arrogance manifests in reality when an individual moves on to the next step of, “So, based on my understanding and the resulting question, how to change my current approach so that it answers the question? That is, I believe my understanding, that the current approach isn’t cutting it, is accurate. All those other people, I don’t think they’ve asked this important question; or, if they have, they went through the same process I’m going through now in order to answer it, which is to change my current approach.”

Some people recognize this and “humbly” go back and work on their understanding eternally. “Questions are bad. Just keep practicing.” As a rigid approach, or tool, this is bad. The questions might be useful and productive if kept in mind while one’s understanding develops. But the motivation to keep, or keep wondering about, the question is valuable.

(Likely when one has an image of “arrogance” and “humble”, they are more of the emotional, or charged type, such as “snobby”, “condescending”, or “quiet”, “self-derecating”. For both of these qualities I am considering the overcertainty/overconfidence in one’s apprehension, not the affect, so to speak. )

It takes some individual innovation, which is definitely catalyzed by exposure to and inspiration from high level practitioners, to come to see a way of doing the same thing but in a different way. Outwardly it is mostly the same, but something is mysteriously different. The shallow, or possibly arrogant, way is to only imitate the outward appearance. But the key to depth is to continue to wonder what is happening inwardly that results in this thing we can see outwardly. Not just see, but feel. Thus, working with receptively a high level person is crucial. By following their trajectory, so to speak, but inevitably being on another trajectory as another being and therefore facing the issue of knowing and accepting my own trajectory, it’s possible to surpass them or go in such a way that the comparison becomes moot.

3) None of the ones I know advocate training in a “fully resistive” training environment. The folks who believe that kata training is dead and lifeless don’t understand kata training. If it is dead, lifeless, done by rote it isn’t proper kata training. Traditionally, the senior person always took the losing role in paired forms. Why? Because it was his job to ASSIST his junior partner in developing his understanding of the movements and principles at work in the kata. It was his job to control the interaction in a way that his partner was forced to access the proper skills. It was not his job to shut him down or to fight with him.

As my level becomes better able to shut a person down, I’m better able to regulate controlling the interaction. If the other person’s learning experience is a part of my agenda, then my aim is to require them “to access the proper skills”, which specifically means requiring them to do the particular movement form, or manifestation of particular principles or dynamics, which includes making it nonsensical to do other forms or principles. At one part of the spectrum, I might make attempts to do other forms/principles impossibly difficult. At another I might leave it possible but awkward; this would be based on the expectation that the other person have some inclination for inquiry, noticing for him/herself that it feels awkward and seek a less awkward way.

6) Aikido is the study of connection. The term “aiki” is best thought of as “joining”. It is the combination of the physical and mental in a way that allows on to move an opponent’s mind so that he moves himself. This requires complete relaxation both physical and mental. It requires letting go of our attachments so that we can step right into the path of a sword cut without fear.

The endeavor to become able to step into the path of a cut is to acquire a skill, which inevitably has mental and physical components. This is probably where one can make the presumption that the mental, and by extension “spiritual”, aspects of the endeavor are self-evident. However, people don’t naturally have a tendency to perceive, savor, and embrace their experience, instead repressing and perceiving just enough to get by. Surely the reasons for this are a whole discussion topic in themselves. Endeavoring to not repress but instead consciously incorporate the mental aspect of acquiring and honing the skill is central.

If you wish to reprogram the body and the mind to fundamentally trust that relaxing and accepting an attack is the response that can make one safe you must provide a safe environment in which to do so. Traditional paired kata training provided a structure within which the practitioners could take things right to the edge in relative safety.

Providing safety and security for others is a theme that relates to a lot of conflict in human history. Virtually always we have a rationale for seeking more security for ourselves, taking priority over giving it to others. It starts to feel like giving it to others takes it away from ourselves. Maybe be human beings inherently have a tendency to feel that there is never enough security. In order for me to trust my practice partners enough to give me space to drop my defenses, I would need not only their word or their intention but I’d need them to follow through consistently. Those with the ability to follow through are probably those who are skilled. People who are skilled are not necessarily inclined to give others space to drop their defenses. So an invaluable asset for me as a newer student is a senior who is able and also actually following through in giving me some coherent, rational, and meaningful space to practice relaxation and exercising specific behaviors and mental patterns.

But one thing is certain, as far as I am concerned… you will not learn these very sophisticated skills training in a competitive manner. Aiki is about developing physical and mental sensitivity. It requires that you shut up the internal dialogue so you can listen to the partner / opponent. If you are tense you are feeling you not the other. That’s true both in the body and in the mind.

…If your practice develops your understanding of how the Mind and Body are unified and that on a fundamental level your are simply not separate from those around you, regardless of whether they see themselves as your friend or enemy, then the art “works”.

If your training merely results in your ability to throw or lock an opponent who doesn’t wish you to do so, then the art hasn’t “worked”, not in the way that the Founder intended anyway.