“Sense”

May 23, 2018

In Japanese, there is a phrase, センスがある, translating to, “That person has (or doesn’t have) sense”. Basically it is the use of the word, “sense”, to mean good sensibility/intuition. For example, if a person is always choosing awful outfits to wear – and  feels that those choices are perfectly fine – we say that that person has “no sense” or “bad sense”. If a person is standing too close to something dangerous – and they don’t think it’s very remarkable, even when it’s pointed out – we say they “have no sense”. It’s something of a judgmentally used phrase.

The question here is, is “sense” something you’re born with and doesn’t change? or can it become better or worse? Most Japanese people seem to think that it is simply a part of your character that doesn’t change. Another thing to consider is, the proportion of people doing aikido “with no sense” will always be the majority – but is it growing?

1. The major evident tendency we can see in aikido is people who do this martial art that is supposedly about connection and merging, yet have no awareness of when/how that connection is present or not, not to mention how its in-the-moment characteristic or quality is. 2. Another tendency is about the experience and interpretation of power. Many people do not distinguish between the type of effect, or power, that is due to technique and the kind that is due to force, speed, and “muscle power”. 3. Finally, yet another tendency is about safety, security, and weakness/openings. Many people simply have no accurate (i.e., congruent with reality) or functional/adaptive grasp of these things. So they feel in danger when it is safe, and feel safe when it is dangerous. When they feel in danger, they don’t take action to establish safety that is rooted in their martial arts training – their action is more rooted in a normal, layperson’s reaction.

Another way to look at the latter question of whether the number of people with “no sense” is increasing is, perhaps everyone looks like they have “no sense” in the beginning. Perhaps the process of good practice reveals those people with “good sense”. So, perhaps what’s happening is that, there is less good practice happening, leaving people with “good sense” buried, asleep.

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Expectation, Acting, “Bu”

May 21, 2018

http://aikidoofmaine.com/connection-in-aikido/

… Saotome Sensei has three significant points that he consistently made about “connection”:
1) enabling the flow of ‘ki’
2) removing expectations, and
3) discovering ‘aiki’.

Second, in my personal instruction by Sensei, I was many times scolded to attack with no expectation, no plan, and no idea of what ukemi I should be taking. There was a period in my training where Sensei would incrementally make my ukemi more and more difficult by changing his response to my attack at the last possible moment, switching up the throw in mid-technique, even adding another technique while I was “mid-air” falling from his first nage. Saotome Sensei has said that the purpose of ukemi is “to prepare the student for receiving knowledge”, and if I had an idea of what was going to happen I would fail to receive the lesson he was trying to give me. Cultivating a sincere attack means intentionally “forgetting” what technique nage is practicing, each time, and holding nothing back to “save yourself” from the likely outcome. The only way out is through; the ukemi that comes from each technique should be spontaneous, completely committed, and with an utter investment of awareness that at any instant things may change. This is true for nage as well. Thus, the connection should be filled with a deeply focused awareness free of expectation.
Finally, Sensei has said that the goal of both uke and nage is to discover aiki. Sensei uses the term “ikkyo” to describe the moment of meeting, in which both uke and nage discover each other for the first time. “Would you try to apply yesterday’s technique to today’s attacker? Each attacker is unique, each attack is unique.” Unfortunately, we all become programmed as beginners that uke has a job to do (to resist, stop, or defeat nage), and nage has a job to do (to overwhelm uke); we feel we have succeeded in our training when we accomplish these goals. Sensei says there is no room for aiki to happen in this type of relationship, only waza (technique) and contention. In contrast, Sensei defines Aikido as the art of discovering harmony with the forces of nature and the universe; that means that an important part of the successful manifestation of aiki requires something more than ourselves. I understand this to mean it is important for both uke and nage to “redefine success”; instead of trying to defeat an opponent, success is achieved when a spontaneous moment of aiki surprises both uke and nage. Success is shared between uke and nage, and requires both of them to create. “Discovering aiki” means that both uke and nage must approach each attack/technique with a sense of anticipation, as if both are holding a lit firecracker. Within the connection is aiki, a gift which can be allowed to manifest and be celebrated, or crushed out and abandoned because of one’s own need to win.”
Guy sensei describes what I appreciate about Saotome Sensei’s teaching regarding connection. It allows us to be open to new information, and flexible in our movement. There are no preconceived notions, and no reliance on fixed technique. His approach to studying connection requires development of freedom to sense and receive signals from our partners. It facilitates creativity and surprise. That way technique is never stale.

Having no expectation and discovering each moment are goals/guidelines I agree with. In fact, I think they are the central goal of attaining no-mind and doing a “do” practice. However, as for how to attain such a goal, nowadays I am very much on the side of traditional forms practice, in which a person practices a very specific form over and over, striving to go through the process of becoming free and attaining no-mind. From the outside, I would be the first to agree that that kind of practice must look very set and limited, and even overly cooperative.

However, I think that there is a significant amount of room in which to experiment and push boundaries. It is largely mental/internal. The way that Saotome sensei’s way of presenting this is directed toward very advanced people. It is a teacher or senior person’s intervention to challenge a person’s expectations and lack of freedom. At times, it is fitting.

If a person who is still needing to consciously consider the right/wrong aspects of the forms, then it would be very inefficient and misguided to try to do things with no expectation. The person should really be trying to learn good habits and practicing to concentrate with less and less mental tension and refining their sense. If a person is well on their way of embodying good habits and responses, and is well able to concentrate with little mental tension, they are more and more free and closer to being themselves. For that person, of course they should challenge themselves, perhaps beyond what their normal everyday practice environment does. As Saotome sensei himself said, his job at seminars is specifically to do things out of the ordinary, to challenge us. I wholeheartedly agree. What he does should just be an opportunity for assessment, a reality check.  Can our normal, everyday practice be extended to what he does at a seminar? Or does it feel like something entirely different?

The fundamental process of becoming expectation-free has a few pieces that I think can start early and probably continue forever. In this respect, I believe Endo sensei directs us to a core question (though he, also, speaks of many things, rarely clarifying that they are more advanced practitioners): “What is happening in the here-and-now? Why? Is X really happening? Perhaps I should observe more carefully.” Endo sensei further gives two instructions that I continue to consider core: 1) concentrate and relax and 2) be supple.

Regarding the martial character of our practice, in the above excerpt, the students are instructed to approach each interaction as if holding a firecracker. This sense of danger and necessity are valuable. For Endo sensei, I think it is unspoken but true for him also, although in his case the motive contains a strong element of curiosity and meaning-seeking.

Here, I would interject the importance of ambition and, relatedly, competitiveness. When both nage and uke cooperate to complete a kata, they are both using and leaving alone specific elements, such as openings, space, timing, etc. If it is predictable and safe (e.g., it is a dojo where only specified forms are practiced or that they each know that the other person will only do the form), then the elements that are left alone are not simply left alone but may be neglected. This way of executing the form would be without the firecracker, no danger, or curious meaning-seeking piece, no searching or examination just because everything is going well.

How does competitiveness and ambition figure into this? When doing a form, we are making some effort to realize a specific movement or certain interaction with partner. We could call that effort, “ambition”. One may not be able to realize that ambition whether it’s because of partner’s lack of competence or cooperation, or because of one’s own mistaken grasp of the situation or lack of ability. A central point here is that every person, both in nage and uke roles, is presumably grasping the situation imperfectly. Accordingly, each person’s task is to polish their ability to see and grasp as well as reflect on their ambition that arose. “Why is it hard to ‘just’ do the movement? Why and how did I become trapped in a ‘do it now! this way!’ compulsion?” By continually working at the same forms, we can work on observing and noticing, and thereby becoming free our ambition, our conscious effort, our efforts to do what doesn’t fit, and refining our sensitivity to the here-and-now. This brings us gradually closer to being without expectation and appreciating the actual reality of the moment and just “being”. This process can occur for both nage and uke with no emphasis observing, noticing, mindfulness, but not necessarily on danger.

As uke in particular, because one is “just following” and not in the role of determining how things will go, it is a big opportunity to practice “no-mind” and the role of ambition is important. As uke, various expectations, ambitions, together with an imperfect grasp of the situation may lead me to go too far ahead or fall too far behind, press in when something won’t go any further or disconnect from something just because it moves, etc. In the initial (long) stages of refining one’s ukemi, perfectly fitting the situation – by not thinking, not having expectations, and increasing sensitivity – is a very appropriate goal. Furthermore, there is predictability, and consequently safety and reassurance in forms practice. This should give uke all the more “space” and opportunity to work on working on the self, as opposed to other, aspects.

Since uke and nage’s respective ambitions may be in conflict with each other, competitiveness enters the equation. If one person is aware of the others’ conflicting ambition, then they encounter their own competitiveness also since they are still trying to reach a certain goal yet someone is trying to prevent that. In an ideal world, nage responds to uke’s conflicting ambition with a change in technique that fits. Or uke responds to nage’s conflicting ambition by changing and making possible whatever nage wants to do. For the most part these is not possible because a) there is not enough physical room to make this adjustment, b) there is the task at hand, which is to execute the given form at that moment, and c) there are physical/athletic and physiological limitations. Also, a person’s ambition may simply be unrealistic. If nage adapts well and does something outside of the prescribed technique, uke may not respond appropriately, whether due to physical ability or some attachment to their ambition. This lack of response may increase the danger to uke. So, the only way for nage to deal with this and remain within the practice situation is to accept failure.

The non-competitive aspect of aikido practice is such a gift! We are allowed to fail and continue studying the same thing! Of course, the rub is, can you perceive things in terms beyond success and failure? Most people get caught up in the failure of their ambition. They use the opportunity of aikido’s repetitive practice to just “keep working at it, give it another try”. Thus, mentally observing one’s attachment to success and ultimately becoming able to let go of success/failure is crucial, as is studying the how and why of the interaction with uke. With less and less attachment to success, nage can simply do what fits the situation and fail when it becomes impossible. Failing and trying can lead to becoming able to realize alternatives, whereas struggling and fighting to succeed futilely cultivates more attachment and fixation. Refining a skill or craft is tricky, because one must inevitably start on this path of attachment to results and improvement, just not be captive to it.

In principle, introducing competitiveness into the interaction should increase some risk and danger because now we have consequences. What happens when one does something arbitrarily and selfishly? Of course one possibility is the partner dealing with it and doing all the work to put things back on track. But if we don’t allow that to be our main approach, less cooperation should help people learn about risk and openings/weaknesses, that is, the “bu” aspect. Openings/weaknesses are what occur when one is continuing with attachment or ignorance/not-noticing while the other person is freer and more viable. Practicing with overly cooperative partners doesn’t lead to better noticing, better sensitivity, and one remains ignorant of openings/weaknesses. So, it is perhaps most beneficial to practice the forms specifically, deeply, and thoroughly while maintaining an awareness that the form at the moment doesn’t have to necessarily be the only way the interaction can occur.

Uke can not cooperate and make nage’s action difficult in various ways. This includes ways that are not threatening to nage – they simply thwart nage’s efforts, not to take over and gain the advantage, nor to present danger to nage. Of all the teachers I have met, most of them do not view this type of uke behavior as worthwhile to train or cultivate. It is done only by people without “sense”. While often confusing and ambiguous, the actions to thwart nage to some degree should be expected in uke’s behavior, however unintentional. Conversely, uke increasing the difficulty for nage within the confines of doing one form, or doing aikido forms, is a skill in itself. Increasing the possibility of taking over and gaining the advantage while fully interacting within the form at the moment is not easy.

In more advanced stages, one is simply trying to act (e.g., do ikkyo) to truly fit the situation while being very perceptive and without ambition. That person’s grasp of “fitting” is very refined and precise, and does not get caught up in whether the other person is intending to do this or that. Every moment is spontaneous and fresh. The need to remember one is handling a firecracker becomes less and less necessary. As well, one is more accepting of non-threatening, thwarting actions as there is less preoccupation with categorizing a situation as dangerous or not.

IKEDA SENSEI’S APPROACH:

Ikeda Sensei frequently uses the term “unity”. He devotes a great deal of his teaching to establishing Aiki between nage and uke. He emphasizes the importance of connecting energy with that of our partner at the first moment of contact. Ikeda Sensei talks about a line of connection with no slack. That “tight line” allows nage and uke to move together. When it’s absent, we miss the principle of Aiki, and are just relying on a good will of uke to take the fall. We are performing a technique on our partner, instead of moving together.

The above, about the difference between overly cooperative practice and practice that has the right amount of competitiveness, is a lot to explain and even then may not be communicated to people who don’t have at least a partial understanding. I think that Ikeda sensei knows this intuitively and opts to teach people to establish “tightness”, which in my lexicon is very strong atari. This atari has become more and more subtle, judging from feeling and observing Ikeda sensei. However, the atari that is characterized by tension on uke’s part is still the easiest way to tell people to do. Although Ikeda sensei emphasizes strong, static practice, I clearly remember in his more normal, everyday practice he clearly seemed to value and prefer vigorous yet adaptive, sensitive movement. It is unfortunate that some people interpret his appeals to be honest and not simply fall down to mean, refuse to fall down and even more significantly, in their normal, everyday practice, not cultivate being able to do vigorous, adaptive ukemi.


Future of Aikido

May 18, 2018

Article by George Ledyard:

https://www.patreon.com/posts/aging-art-and-18730078

Aikido finds itself at a crossroads in its development. My generation of teachers rode the wave as Aikido grew and spread from its modest beginnings in Japan to a world-wide presence. But times have changed, the demographics are different, and we are presented with several serious challenges going forward.

To start with, Aikido, particularly in the United States, has an aging population.

To summarize his points on aging population:

  • The number of young adults who join and continue practice is low.
  • The earlier trend of more people seeking a “thoughtful” martial art is no longer.

Next is about economy and rents:

Consequently, Aikido (especially in the US) finds itself in a state of what I call “Aikido colony collapse”. Declining numbers are making it increasingly hard for teachers to keep the doors open. I have any number of friends who have lost their spaces and had to return to community centers to keep a group going.

Couple the decline in numbers with the economic boom occurring in many of the major urban areas and you have a double whammy of declining membership fees and rapidly rising rents for dojo space.

Next, the impact of demographics on practice:

The aging population has an impact on training. When I started Aikido, everyone in the dojo was in peak physical condition, their bodies were young enough to absorb the impact and injuries and recover quickly, and the training was very intense and demanding, often a bit frightening, making you feel like you were right on the edge of injury. In fact minor injuries were commonplace as you’d expect when physical training is that intense.

But when you have a dojo where 75% or 80% of the students are over 40. Where the vast majority of new students coming in the door are already past their physical prime… It changes the nature of the practice. The priority ends up being ensuring a safe practice which means the intensity is toned down.

“The consequence: practice is mostly adapted to older, physically less robust students and the young students don’t enjoy the process and results of practicing hard.

What are the implications of few to no people who practice hard?

First, fewer people who get to know the art more broadly and deeply.

Second, the ability level of the population as a whole declines significantly.”

I think we can no longer depend on the individual dojo to produce the next generation of teachers.

George’s points: “Individual dojos don’t provide the intensive training environment necessary to cultivate expert practitioners for the future. What we need to do is work collaboratively to create such an environment, in the form of special events taught by multiple senior teachers. The variety among the instructors is important.”

An intensive experience once in a while is better than none, but it isn’t enough to accomplish the deep reprogramming that training is meant to do.

Most of our organization run one or more camps where everyone can get together with their senior teachers to train. Unfortunately, these events are often more social than intensive. What I envision is Shodan, Nidan, San Dan training on an invitation only basis for those students identified by the senior teachers as having the potential to go the distance.

My first objection here is that, fundamentally, occasional events in contrast with a continuous practice is not going to do the kind of conditioning or “forging” that is necessary. It will simply be an opportunity for a student to receive stimulus and knowledge. I think George’s use of the word, “intensive”, is off the mark.

As far how to offer more intensive training for the rest of our aging Aikido population, I find that weapons work can offer much of the same set of insights if done properly. While a student might get too old for break-falls and impactive training to be sensible, work with the sword or jo can allow a very intensive practice that can take the student right to the edge.

I somewhat agree that weapons practice can cultivate mental focus and control, as well as provide insights. However, I highly doubt that the “intensive” weapons practice that George envisions is realistic. The average student will behave like an average student, with corresponding level of concentration and seriousness.

Also, my view is that the training of the body and the “body language” that is used when practicing with other bodies is key to aikido. This is regardless of age. One has the opportunity at any age to realize one’s potential at that age. Abandoning physical practice because it is hard work, and pursuing another endeavor e.g., weapons, is exactly that, pursuing another endeavor. (If it is possible to adapt physical practice such that the student still moves, has contact with others, and needs to concentrate, but reduces physical demand, then I would be for it.)

Are we doing what needs to be done to have a generation of future teachers ready to step into the shoes of the top seniors we have had? I do not believe that we have been doing so. But I also believe that there is still time to do so. I think we have a fifteen-year window while the uchi deshi still have a few folks left teaching, and the people who trained directly under these teachers are still available as well.

As mentioned above, I think organizing events is a quick-fix approach. What’s needed is more of a cultural normalization of aikido as a continuous life practice, one that may be done intensively or lightly. Both, if done properly, can inculcate many good things. What is happening all around is not even beneficial light practice. Among those who style themselves high-brow aikido, it’s mostly “brain and mouth” exercise with some “I broke a sweat” practice thrown in. Among those who prioritize “traditional”, physical practice, it’s too often physically damaging and not conducive to technical progress and refinement.

What needs to be done – particularly among those concerned with the future – is create a culture in one’s own group or dojo of “body and mind” practice. Normalize learning how to learn, as opposed to expecting and relying on the teacher to explain and teach explicitly. If learning and technical progress aren’t the emphasis, fine, then it should be cultivating mindful movement and contact with others i.e., improved awareness and consciousness of mind and body. Whether it’s technical progress or improved mindfulness, the dojo culture should still be one of, “pay attention and quiet your verbal and intellectual brain”.

And if there are those who seem especially interested and invested and up to the task, nurture an ethic of curiosity, research, and self-discipline. After some introduction to the greater aikido and martial arts world, they will seek out on their own seminars and other teachers and otherwise deepen and broaden their knowledge. They will challenge themselves. I wonder if there is any concern about the future of aikido in the “traditional” dojos. It’s just speculation but it is more a concern for the continuity of the respective lineage of a dojo/teacher, not the art on a global/historical scale.)

Some students will be more casual but enthusiastic. Some students’ interest will be closer to professional. The first type will travel to special events and visit other teachers, but mostly pick up “brain and mouth” material, or socialize and enjoy picking up additional aikido experience. They may show little change over the years. For the second type, some degree of stimulation and inspiration can occur at special events. Maybe they attend to maintain some memory of the feeling of working with the instructor. However, there should be little dependence on those events. The person, if they are truly making the most out of their normal, “everyday” practice context, will take stimulation/inspiration back home and work on it themselves.

The more serious student will make progress or make aikido pervade their everyday life independently and be less swayed by external circumstances e.g., their teacher is absent one day, their teacher said something vaguely, their teacher didn’t do the same technique again, etc. The less serious student will either be swayed (e.g., in their progress as well as attendance and overall motivation) or ignorant (e.g., no increase or decrease in progress whether the external circumstances improve or decline in the short run).

Growing more serious students will always be hard because they will always be so few. So the most important thing is to create an environment and dojo culture that will be rich “soil” for these rare “seeds”. Such an environment is one of “body and mind” practice, not “brain and mouth” practice. The information provided by the teacher will provide the conceptual structure for this environment/culture. Such structure will ideally benefit the more casual student by providing a consistent and basic baseline that will enable that student to benefit even from practicing lightly. Light, low pressure practice can still be one that cultivates mindfulness through physical practice. The structure will also be “true” for the more serious student even as they progress; not only “true” but also forever deep, forever something that they can work on.


Dunning-Kruger effect

January 17, 2018

https://aeon.co/ideas/what-know-it-alls-dont-know-or-the-illusion-of-competence

… while almost everyone holds favourable views of their abilities in various social and intellectual domains, some people mistakenly assess their abilities as being much higher than they actually are. This ‘illusion of confidence’ is now called the ‘Dunning-Kruger effect’, and describes the cognitive bias to inflate self-assessment

… the poorest performers showed no recognition, despite clear and repeated feedback that they were doing badly. Instead of being confused, perplexed or thoughtful about their erroneous ways, incompetent people insist that their ways are correct.

Interestingly, really smart people also fail to accurately self-assess their abilities. As much as D- and F-grade students overestimate their abilities, A-grade students underestimate theirs …

These students presumed that if these cognitive tasks were easy for them, then they must be just as easy or even easier for everyone else. This so-called ‘imposter syndrome’ can be likened to the inverse of the Dunning-Kruger effect, whereby high achievers fail to recognise their talents and think that others are equally competent. The difference is that competent people can and do adjust their self-assessment given appropriate feedback, while incompetent individuals cannot.


Improvisation / Mushin (1)

January 16, 2018

https://aeon.co/ideas/we-could-all-do-with-learning-how-to-improvise-a-little-better

The Chinese philosopher Han Fei Zi (c280-233 BCE) had a deep influence on the development of Chinese bureaucracy, because he proposed that decision-making be taken out of the hands of individuals (with their unreliable intuitions and methods) and placed within a set of rules (simple, impartial and inflexible). This is the principle of xingming: a ruler can best rely on officials who follow his rules, not their own impulses.

Han Fei Zi tells a revealing story of Lord Zhao, who had a cadre of personal and professional servants, including a cap valet and a separate cloak valet. One day, while the lord was out on an expedition, he became drunk and fell asleep. The Valet of Caps, seeing that the lord was cold, placed the cloak over him to keep him warm. When the lord awoke, he was pleased to find the cloak on him and asked who put it on. The Valet of Caps proudly stepped forward to take credit, but when the lord heard this, he punished both the Valet of Caps and the Valet of Cloaks. The lesson: never do another person’s job. Rather than use your own judgment to solve a problem, just conform to the system’s division of labour.

Moving decision-making away from people and putting it in stable institutions is a successful strategy for large, complex and expansionary societies, which are increasingly made up of strangers. On the other hand, bureaucracy is soul-crushing and alienating in its inflexibility and inhumanity. What is more, it exacts a psychological price.

In their book Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection Between Violent Extremism and Education (2016), the social scientists Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog characterise the rule-following mindset as thin-skinned and inflexible. Rule-followers are easily bruised, when expectations are not met, and uncomfortable with ambiguity: seeking ‘cognitive closure’ wherever possible. They tend to accept prevailing hierarchies of power and thrive within predetermined institutional structures. Interestingly, the rule-follower also shows high degrees of psychological disgust when encountering unfamiliar experiences or norms.

This aversion is a significant obstacle, tied to a person’s sense of value and worldview. One of the main ways to break out and become someone who studies, experiments, observes, etc. is to be surrounded and supported by others who do the same. In other words, what’s needed is a safe social environment / community.

Also, as the world is full of “other”, and people are more liable to have contact with “other” these days, being a person who is always experiencing disgust, or otherwise mentally maneuvering to suppress that disgust, sounds exhausting. The reaction of disgust would fall under “hate” in the Buddhist sense. Having such reactions would mean “hanpatsu”, which is the opposite of “sunao”, which is a mind that accepts straightforwardly with no need for maneuvering, justifying, etc. Having a “sunao” mind must be closely related to “mushin”, no-mind, a mind that just is and does, with no figuring out or strategizing, no reacting and hating.

In the context of the current aikido world, which is becoming more splintered with diverse worldviews and value systems – more opportunities to encounter unfamiliarity and therefore be disgusted – the idea of community becomes more and more important. Not (only) to have some kind of safe bubble in which to exist, but to have a safe base from which to reach out and connect with others. There needs to be a balance by community leaders between their efforts to reach out and to cultivate strong communities.

Yet life is intrinsically changing, moving, disappointing and positively surprising. Meeting life with unbending expectations is a recipe for disaster. Those who expect the world to conform to their preset calculations and predictions are destined to be frustrated. They are uncomfortable with spontaneity, and rail against deviations.

Another important Chinese philosopher, Laozi (5th century BCE), promoted fluid and improvisational thinking to bring the sensitive person in line with the Dao (the Way of Nature). According to Laozi, it is by being receptive to immediate experience (wu-wei) that the wise person adapts perfectly to the unique needs of the situation. …

Given what we know about rigid and doctrinaire thinking, the Daoist approach sounds pretty appealing. Our bohemian tendencies assume that improvisation is the antidote to rigid thinking. But improvisation isn’t foolproof either. We live in an age of chaotic political improvisation, which is hardly reassuring at a global scale. So if we want to overcome the rigidity of the bureaucrat, how do make sure our improvisations don’t go sour?

… while ad-libbing can produce novel solutions and genius expressions, sometimes it flounders horribly and does damage instead.

Anyone who has played improvisational music with others is familiar with the virtuoso who has great skill and expertise but bad social sensitivity. In performance, he tears into melodic acrobatics, but never listens enough to know when to stop, or hand it over to another player, or modify and adapt to the aural environment. His narcissism undoes his own musicality. And it can go the other way too, since the overly shy improviser never gets courage enough to assert his musical ideas. A psychological balance of humility and hubris facilitate good improvisation, not just in music but in art, science and business.

When a person is coming from the hubris end of the spectrum, they need to open up to the experience (and corresponding fear and anxiety) of not doing. When a person is coming from the humility end, they need to risk stepping on others’ feet  and endure others’ reactions to their risk-taking experiments. Both people need to have perseverance to continue their endeavors in the context of failures and fear and anxiety. They also need to develop cleverness to improve their experiments, and greater self-regulation to recognize their fear and anxiety is not always so needed.

Sometimes, the problem is a kind of domain overreach. The great physicist, for example, is not automatically qualified to make good poetry. The great business-person is not inevitably effective in the domain of government. And yet, sometimes, overreach is exactly what is needed. One is reminded of George Bernard Shaw’s quip that ‘All progress depends on the unreasonable man.’ Perhaps good improvisation is discernible only in hindsight; we know it’s good because it worked.

“Domain overreach”. Basically, this is about the value of someone not thinking inside the proverbial lines. Ideas may occur to them that don’t come to the experienced expert. And when the ideas don’t immediately fit, or work, they may be more creative in adapting them, rather than giving up right away. This is also about the value of an experienced person continuing to look outside their own “box”, at other fields, other experts, and processes they don’t see in their own daily “box”.

However, this cannot be entirely correct. Often, we do know good improvisation when we see it in action. Watching a football game, you can tell when a player or team is making smart adaptive moves – responsive to the immediate conditions – even when some bad luck or last-minute mistake derails an otherwise skilful trajectory. Even when they lose, we can still see good improv in process. It’s just that there is also bad luck and, sometimes, even better improvisers on the other side. And we can similarly recognise good musical and medical improvisation while it’s happening.

The bad improviser makes moves that are maladaptive. And the single greatest predictor of quality improv is simply experience. But there’s nothing simple about experience. A great jazz improviser such as Miles Davis had thousands of hours of practice and problem-solving underneath every one of his improvisational flights. This kind of experience makes good improv highly intuitive in a biological sense, not a mystical sense. It taps into the subtle systems of animal awareness, mostly unconscious, that we all possess, such as body-awareness (proprioception), personal space (proxemics), and arousal states such as fight or flight. Muscle memory is loaded with this kind of intuitive wisdom.

Improv is also highly adaptive because it seeks to fit (adapt) to an environment, to fit a structure to a function, a part to a whole. Primates and other mammals improvise occasionally (eg, piling boxes to reach food, etc), but humans are masters of repurposing materials to new functions – turning reading-glasses into fire starters, dental-floss into fishing line, and duct tape into everything else. We are the improvising apes.

This kind of decision-making is particularly valuable in situations of resource deficiency. The perfectly provisioned kitchen or tool shed has an implement for every task. But the improviser does not have such optimal resources. And this paucity of resources is the very condition of creativity because it forces a kind of lateral thinking. …

“Resource deficiency” is crucial to the practice of budo, which is the practice by which a smaller or weaker person can overcome a bigger or stronger person. The person who is more deficient, out of necessity, has more incentive to develop their core structure of behaviors as well as the sensitivity and flexibility by which they can improvise.

For aikido people, the danger is overly cooperative and desensitized peers that help to ignore their deficiencies. Enabling ignorance by providing comfort is not the community support being discussed here.

Improvisation is rule-governed in some cases, but moderately so. It is a flexible practice that sees rules as elastic. Improv is serviceable rather than optimal. … The point is that improvisational manoeuvres already exist within a system of received conventions, and only experience can help you decide to respect or ignore them.

Failing is a major aspect of improvisation. Failure is the thing we learn from, so it’s the cornerstone of productive experience. Aristotle described improvisational decision-making as ‘practical reason’, distinct from rule-following logic. He says that young people can become experts in geometry, maths and similar branches of knowledge, but we don’t usually consider a young person to have good improvisational skills. ‘The reason is that [practical reason] includes a knowledge of particular facts, and this is derived from experience, which a young person does not possess; for experience is the fruit of years.’ …

Ultimately, improvising is a form of receptivity to experience, and also a behavioural style based upon that experience. It evolved as part of our cognitive operating system to make good use of available resources. It is a fundamental inheritance, emerging out of our primate evolution. But the narcissistic improviser and the inexperienced improviser – so popular these days in politics and celebrity culture – leaps tragically into delicate situations with no plans, practice, tact or ability to read the room. That is an improvising ape of an altogether different kind.


Kinds of strength

August 30, 2017

At a recent roundtable discussion, someone mentioned that they thought that it was crucial for uke to always be giving energy to the nage. Uke should not emphasize just being there to fall down or have their posture broken. Often in aikido there is confusion between the two, with most people expecting the uke to be someone who falls down regardless of what happens, and by extension, if they continue an effort to stand back up, they are being antisocial and difficult.

In Endo sensei’s seminar classes, he often has uke use one or two hands to grab and raise the nage’s arm up. Nage then practices how to extend the arm downward. Even here, the behavior of uke seems to be interpreted in two ways. In one, uke continues to give energy, whether like a strongly flowing current or less strongly. When nage extends the arm downward, uke may allow their posture to be broken, but the priority is to continue to extend upward or return to how they were initially. In the other interpretation, uke raises the nage’s arm up and tries to remain fixed there. There is no more effort to raise the arm up. When nage begins to extend the arm down, uke 1) has no ability to regulate their effort to maintain the initial state strongly or less strongly, and 2) if nage starts to succeed at lowering the arm and accordingly uke’s posture starts to break, uke still does not extend any energy toward nage – they only try to stop the process of their posture breaking. This effort to stop can include using bursts of effort, repositioning, and changing the connection i.e., grab. All of these changes make the partnered, agreed-upon practice difficult.

There is no clear line between the first and second interpretations. This lends itself to confusion between the two kinds of strength, or the two kinds of challenge nage encounters as they try to lower the arm.

As nage, it is important to discern between the two kinds of challenge as one may waste effort trying to make something impossible happen, or make something improbable happen smoothly or quickly. Also, the effort toward the first goal can be all-captivating, but when one notices one is dealing with the second kind of strength, one can remember there are other goals. The first effort doesn’t need to be completed. The more important thing is that one can still be available for other efforts and goals.

As uke, it is important to discern between the two kinds of strength because the objective is different. It is nonsensical to devote a significant effort toward something one doesn’t even understand, particularly when that something seems to interfere with the partner’s learning. Also, as uke, one is continually experiencing having one’s posture broken yet somehow being available to the nage partner for it to continue happening or happen again and again. The process that uke is undergoing is being disrupted yet not disrupting oneself i.e., receiving and mediating nage’s efforts to disrupt/break posture. This mediating process is the crucial piece. It is not just about receiving nage’s efforts and energy, but how one is receiving it and interacting with it. The interaction is quite spontaneous and vague, so the objective is all the more important. Should the uke be trying to insulate oneself from any of nage’s efforts? Should uke be nakedly open to all of nage’s efforts? The answer is somewhere in between, but hard to define, since in words it is to end up having one’s posture broken and falling down, yet not make it excessively easy to do so.


Curiosity / 気づくこと

August 29, 2017

Curiosity / 気づくこと (kizukukoto). The tendency or inclination to notice things, and the relevance to luxury services, as mentioned in the article, as analogous to very fine individual “fitting”, a salient feature of budo. In the context of an organization, this kind of curiosity behavior being encouraged, rewarded, and normalized is crucial for leadership to do.

https://hbr.org/2016/03/the-best-luxury-services-are-customized-not-standardized

Businesses design standard processes to make sure they get good ratings by checking all the boxes on the agencies’ lists. These ratings are then used by company marketing departments to impress customers, thereby driving volume and revenue. These ratings cannot be ignored. Get a bad one, and your competition will use it to sell against you.

However, trying to provide luxury service by implementing standardized processes that will ensure compliance, with checklists designed by third parties that do not know your business as you do, will inevitably fail to address individual customer needs. These kinds of checklists address the fundamentals of good service — but meeting the requirements of the ratings agencies with standardized processes will inevitably disappoint the individual that you, as a luxury business, most need.

Catering to the individual is what defines luxury; in the luxury segment, it is the critical competitive differentiator. The challenge for any business seeking to deliver a luxury experience is to be knowledgeable enough to go beyond the standard, to have hair spray for the person who needs it whether or not it’s on a checklist.

Curiosity is a quality we look for — and hire for — in staff. Without curious employees asking questions and listening to guests, we can’t get the information to build future dossiers: “What brings you to the hotel?” “What can we do to make your stay enjoyable?” And we reward employees who engage, making their successes part of our hotel’s oral culture.