Saturday, October 18, 2008

9 hand positions to start my day

For the past few months I've been looking for some kind of ritual that resonates with me. I needed something to bring some stillness in my life before I start my day and a way to connect to the universe around me. I spent a little time talking to a friend of mine who is a yoga teacher. She had completed a 40 day meditation and I was impressed with the discipline she had to complete it. She stressed the importance of being consistent with a practice so that it becomes ingrained, start with something simple, and see where it takes you. This is interestingly and not surprisingly how we start all of our new endeavors. it was good to hear that this works with meditation just as it does Aikido, T'ai Chi, ballroom dance, guitar, or anything else I've tried.

With regards to the specific needs that I needed to fill, I think I found it!

In our Aikido class on Thursday, Sensei did a very interesting exercise. We used hand positions (mudras) derived from the Shingon Buddhist sect as a kind of check point for a single technique. The practice went something like this:
  • Sensei would introduce the mudras, talk about what the mudra signified from an energetic or metaphorical perspective
  • We would hold the mudra for a moment with our partners and practice the technique
  • Discuss as a class how the mudra altered the technique, what did we gain, lost, what experienced
we repeated this through the rest of the mudras.

This was an amazing practice, and it was just what I needed to incorporate into a ritual that resonates with me and allows me the ability to connect. As someone beginning a practice, I stick with the obvious, I don't try to go to more esoteric levels right now, so I stick with the more obvious thoughts that the mudras represent. As I start out, I take a moment to center myself and make myself present, then start with the mudras. I hold each position for 4 deep breaths and repeat the cycle a total of 3 times. We've recently been talking about cleansing rituals (called Misogi) and this has become my ritual of Misogi.

The nine, described by Sensei, are as follows:

  1. Hands joined together, as in prayer. Palms are not touching and creating space in between - This is symbolic of the womb. A place of creation. The first mudra is a great way for me to focus on the creation of a new day. It allows me to feel the fullness of the womb, insulated from outside, comfort, warmth, and safety.

  2. Left hand facing, right hand on top. Palms together at heart level - This mudra represents the Ying and Yang. Form the Tao Te Ching, the Tao produced the one, which gave birth the two, which gave birth to the ten thousand things. This allows me to think about my duality, my left and right, forward and back, up and down, dark and light. If indeed the tao made the one, and the two, then I have aspects of duality as well. This practice gives me the ability to hold the two close at heart and accept the totality of who I am.

  3. Fingers interlaced, index fingers point and touch at the tips, thumbs line up next to each other, hands at heart level - Signifies direction and intention. This brings focus and singlemindedness of thought. This is a great tool for me because by the very nature of my job, I am constantly multitasking. I believe that this will help me find another way to work.

  4. Hands are slightly below the belly button, both hands face up, left sits over right, thumbs come together and almost touch - There are many circles that come into play in this mudra - the belly button, the circle that the hands and thumb form, the circle the arms form. I think about the cyclical nature of things, how efficient movement is circular, and the relationship of circles to spirals and back to circles.

  5. Index finger of right hand out, riest of hand baleld into fist, left hand wrapped around index finger - The yonic and phallic symbols the hands form represents the masculine and feminine. Through this, I see how again, we have two sides, soft and hard. It allows me to think of the differences and ismilarities of male / female interconnection

  6. Hands come up to heart level, palms are together as in prayer - This is simple but beautiful, the mudra allows me to think of center. The hands held together gives me a great sense of devotion to God and the universe. This helps open me up to the sacredness and beauty of all things. At the same time helps support me and hold up my center.

  7. Hands are held up at heart level, palms are facing up, edge of the hands come together - Another simple but beautiful position, this is the mudra of giving and receiviing. Holding this position reminds me of both the act of giving and receiving. Both are equally important. The giving but also the receiving of help, service, gratitude, love and kindness holds relavence for me. Sometimes I'm not good at either, sometimes I'm good at only giving, or only receivng. The palms open can be held equally for both. This is a great reminder for me and a great way to focus my minds eye on the act of giving and receivng.

  8. Arms are extended and hands come together palms out, tips of the index finger are touching and the thumbs come togeher to make a triangle space,. this allows my gaze to focus through the space at a single focal point - This is symbolic of Mind, Body and Speech (thought). This is another way for me, similar to the thrid mudra, to think of a singularity of purpose, it allows me to concentrate on how Mind, Body and Spirit come together and integrate to bring my uniquely human experience to light.

  9. Hands togehter at heart level, fingers interlace tightly - Finally, as my fingers interlace, I think about all these things, center, devotion, masculinity, feminiity, dark, light, devotion, love, service are tightly woven to make up the totality of "I". It allows me to concentrate on the bigger conncetions, how there is no randomness, no coincidence, how I am connected through love and light to alll things.
One of our teachers, a friend of mine that teaches at our Aikido school talks about the fact that when we perform cleansing rituals, we give power to the rituals we undertake. That said, everything can be a ritual if we choose to make it so. This gives me great comfort in seeking out my own ritual of Misogi.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Aikido as self defense

it's interesting to read a thread on youtube about how aikido is fake and doesn't have any practical applications in a "real street brawl." I totally agree! And I totally disagree!

The most important thing for me to be mindful of is why I train. I train to explore movement, understand my body, become more aware of how I present myself to the world, how I move by myself or with another, or several people. Most important, there are great metaphors in the concepts presented within the framework of Aikido that I can take off the mat and into all other aspects of my life.

I am lucky and blessed to have the Aikido teacher I train under. Our training is pretty unique. It is much gentler than I've been accustomed to from other dojos. We talk a lot more about the techniques we practice in a class session almost as much as we train. We check in and verbalize what we feel about a particular level we come into at a technique, Sensei gives us some tools to visualize how to better that level, and we have a few more go rounds, to try and move the level up a notch or two or eight.

It's hard to do this. I would have been content to just have Sensei demonstrate a technique, work on it for five minutes, have him demonstrate another, work on that for a bit, etc until class is done. But when I finally gave it a chance, (5 months ago, when I came back for the nth time) I started finding out something really interesting about my progress. I start seeing that there is only one attack and one response... the attack being, "anything that can happen at the time" and the response as being "anything that is the appropriate response." Wiithin this mindset, I find that I'm free to improvise, move, and the different manifestations of that one response can be whatever they want to be, be it irimi nage, tenshi nagi, etc.

Sensei is a big proponent of asking us to look at why we train, and not be misguided by thinking we can do what we cannot. A fight is a fight is a fight. We cannot ask our confronters to prearrange how they will attack us, or wait for us to straighten out our clothes, get into hamni position and then proceed to attack us. The danger in our training comes in thinking that we can do what we simply can't. There are other arts that are better at teaching practical application than Aikido. MMA, Brazilian Ju Jitsu, Wing Chun, some of the Israeli Commando fighting arts like Haganah are all systems of practical applications in a fight situation. But does this rule out Aikido as practical self defense? I would say most definetely not.

The biggest difference is when we choose to defend ourselves. A good defense could simply be being aware of your situation. Understanding the energy of a location and avoiding it is as good a defense that you can have as well. A kind word, rather than a reliance on physical ability can do wonders for everyone involved.

Sensei tells us of a time once where he was in a movie theater and a man stood up after the movie was done. Someone behind the man wanted to see the credits. He asked the man to sit down but he didnt' move. He asked him a couple more times. No reaction. At this point he started coming toward the man. Sensei was witnessing this and noticed that the man standing up had a hearing aid. He simply said to the man behind, "Hey, the guy has a hearing aid and can't hear you." No ego involved, no need to posture and get physical. Sensei said what he said in a calm collected way. That diffused the situation. No one was hurt, no egos were bruised, and the man standing in front walked away not knowing that anything had gone wrong.

if it ever comes down to brass tax and a physical conflct can't be avoided, I truly think that aikido training will help. The awareness that we gain through training, the calmness under pressure and the ability to think on our feet will carry us through. There are many stories on the net of physical confrontations ending favorable for the Aikidoist. Personally, I'd like to think that the best use of our "self defense" skills is the love that comes from us, and the ability to keep out of situations altogether.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Skipping Stones

My father died 3 years ago on July 13th. 3 days shy of my birthday and 4 weeks shy of seeing my brother and me for the first time in about 9 years. If the universe revolved around me (and sometimes I truly think that it does) I would venture to say that this was incredibly bad timing on his part. However, we don't pick the time when we get brought into this world, and we, for the most don't get to choose when we leave for better things. My dad and me had long periods in our lives when we didn't speak. As child, in my teens, as an adult. He was simply not around and I did not get to experience a lot of what little boys, adolescents, young men and adults experience with their dads.

But we did skip stones when I was a kid. he'd challenge me to find the better stone, who had the biggest skip, the most skips, and we'd be out there for a long time. There was no talking....our attention was focused on our silent competition. There would be the occasional grunt of success, or "awwwww" at the loss of a perfect rock improperly thrown and kerplunking in the water... such a waste. But there would be my dad with his grin, a Camel's non filtered and an impeccable throw.

So I'm back from a short camping trip with my son. Of the things that he loves to do, he loves to find a skipping stone. He gathered them up greedily, like a leprechaun might horde gold. He brought them to our camp site before our final night and made sure that he had them tucked safely away, lest another leprachaunish child with cruel intentions and the audacity and cojanes to raid our campsite for his precious find. None of this happened obviously and this morning we sat at the river and quietly, he threw his rocks. Some of them were doozies... skipping twelve, thirteen, maybe fifteen times across the river just shy of the bank on the other side. I watched him and the memories of my dad came flying back. I said more than once, "Your grandpa would have been proud." "Wow, I don't think that your grandpa would have had anything on you."

There were many things that my father didn't see. Never saw me play guitar. Never saw me struggle over homework. Never comforted me when I was dumped by someone i really liked in highschool. Never gave me lectures about underage drinking. Never helped me drive a car. And I never did get to see him that final time. We were three weeks short.

But all of this doesn't matter. We skipped stones. We sat and laughed and taunted each other. We had the silent and not so silent bond of a father and son. My dad was the biggest man in the world. His love for me in that moment was infinite... and I know that he carried that seed with him for the rest of his life. Regardless of how deep it was buried or how many years went by. I know this because I experience it with my son. I experience the silent love that only a father and son can experience.

I hope that I will be in my son's life for as long as I'm alive. I hope that I can watch him grow into a man and share those same simple moments with his child. Those slient, almost silent and not so silent moments are like gold. I will hungrily and greedily hold them close to me, like a leprechaun... or more aptly, like a father who loves his son dearly.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Seeing the optimal path

In last nights Aikido class, I had an interesting revelation. The ingredients of my revelation included the putting green (I don't play golf) and time lapse photography. I'll try to explain. Maybe I'll do a good job and maybe I won't. We were practicing a technique yesterday, "shomen uchi ikkyu" that involves connecting to an overhead strike, and then taking the energy of that strike and moving it safely to the ground for a pin so as to not hurt the attacker but effectively neutralize the attack and pin the attacker so he cannot do any harm to himself or others.

I noticed that when I was doing a really good technique, there was an optimal path that the attacker's hand drew. The downward arch of the strike just seemed to "fit" into the curvature of the deflection, blending and redirection of his energy. This curvature turns into a spiral, and comes to land on the ground. If i could draw this in the air with light, I'm convinced that the trail would look like a totally natural path.

I remember drawing light in the air with my friend Patti a few years ago. We had some fun with some glowy balls, and long exposure photographs. We would, in fact "draw in air". This thought of drawing light in air helped me visualize the optimal path for this technique. Subsequently, when I didn't pull of as good an attack, I was again able to see the path that I drew, but not natural, sometimes stunted, disproportionate, or jagged, as if I was not serving the optimal path appropriate to the speed and trajectory of the attacker's strike. It was a very enlightening experience.

So why did I mention golf? I don't play it. It occured to me that really good golfers can see this path on the putting green. They can see how hard they need to hit the ball, the angle the ball will take and the curves, seemingly unseen by others, that the ball will need to take to sink into the hole. To me this practice of finding the path was no different. It was a great class.

Aikido is such a great art for me to practice because there is so much metaphor I can take onto the mat, but more importantly, off the mat too. The concept of the optimal path doesn't have to be grand scheme of things. It can be the path to settlng an argument, the optimal path to getingt a job done quickly and efficiently, the optimal path to loving wholeheartedly. There is also a difference between "optimal" and "quickest". Optimal implies just that. The optimal path... the path that brings to bear the most scenery, experience, knowledge and wisdom. Sometimes that path can be quick, but it doesn't have to be,

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Summer Solstice

My son and I went camping over the weekend. We went to Gualala, probably one of the most beautiful spots in Northern California. On the summer solstice we went to a spot overlooking the estuary and the ocean and waited for the sun to go down to take some pictures. While we waited, we did our Yang style short form.

Moments like these are nothing short of amazing. My son has been training in Tae Kwon Do since he was 7 years old, and has had his black belt now for 2 years. I think that this is a great accomplishment for him, but part of the attraction for him is that he gets a chance to mimic some of his screen favorites (Jackie Chan, Jet Li). So it pleases me to no end that he started T'ai Chi training with me over a year ago and has stuck with this as well. T'ai Chi certainly doesn't offer the gang buster high kicks that his other art does, but he has an appreciation for the softer and yielding forms that he may not have gotten had he not started practicing.

So being able to do the Yang style set with him, overlooking such a beautiful coming together of the Gualala river and the pacific ocean, with the sun setting on the summer solstice was a really awesome and powerful experience for me. It was a great day to be alive!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Father's Day

Today is Father's Day. It was a purposely ordinary day. We cleaned a little, did laundry, went to a movie, had lunch, talked, laughed, swam. So although it was an ordinary day, it was a perfect day.

On the way to dropping my son off back at his mom's, I took a moment to tell him this. Some people's life accomplishments are building a company, composing an anthem, writing a novel, discovering fire. My crowning achievement in this life time is Steven. He is special in so many ways, but most of all, he is nice, kind and has a good soul. I believe that he will grow up to be a great man. He will achieve greatness simply by the fact that he will touch the hearts of those around him.

Father's day is a time that we honor our dads, grandfathers, and us fathers are given acknowledgment of the time and effort it takes to be present, happy and joyful in our children's lives. But I see this also as a day to acknowledge our sons and daughters. It is a truly an honor to be the father of my son. I keep this with me close everyday. Everyday I give thanks for him and find that my love for him grows all the more.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Rhythm and Timing

I've spent a bit of time lately thinking about rhythm and how it relates to both Aikido and music. I've played guitar almost all of my life and as a musician, I've understood the importance of rhythmic patterns in music. If I am to play with other musicians, then this is the framework that we communicate our musical expression, through the rhythm of the music.

Rhythm happens in everything, and it naturally happens in Aikido. Form can only be achieved through several moments in time and it's timing and rhythm of a partner that I see I need to address most if I'm to be fluid in my technique. The act of blending with a partner smoothly is done through the understanding and acknowledgment of their own rhythm; too fast and you will end up hurting them, too slow and the technique can be weak.

I remember having a music teacher talk about the same thing. He was on a piano and was talking about technique. He talked about playing in the lower registers of the piano and then having to moe up many keys to the higher register to play a high note for a piece. He demonstrated this by playing notes on the lower register, pausing and then finding that he has to hurry up to the higher notes of the piano to still keep time with the temp and rhythm of the piece. He then demonstrated his movement where as he finishes the last notes of the lower register, he doesn't pause but rather moves fluidly to the upper registers. There was little or no aural difference but the point he was making was that it aids the musician in his piece of mind to continue confidently, to feel centered and grounded as the performance goes on.

So almost 30 years later I can take this and not only apply it to my music but allow it to cross over into my Aikido training too.

Aikido and music have much to share. The term "Harmony" is first, a musical term. In music, harmony cannot happen without the concept of time, and the frame work that allows harmony to happen is rhythm. If I am hurried in my technique, cannot harmonize and find my partners rhythm, my Aikido will be no good. Neither will my music. More importantly, there is a voice and an inner rhythm that I need to pay attention to and allow myself to heed the ever changing rhythm inside.

I'm looking forward to my class this afternoon. Onegaishimasu!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

First Katori Shinto Ryu Class

I've been having a growing interest in sword arts for a while now and have slowly gathered up the keikogi, hakama, iaito and cleaning kit to join Aikido of Santa Rosa in their Katori Shinto Ryu training that they offer. So, I had my first class at Santa Rosa Aikido. I really enjoyed it! It was tiring, my hakama kept on slipping down down, but it felt really good to be there. I spent the first half hour learning how to bow in, lay out my sageo, bow to my sword, etc. There is a lot of ritual surrounding this art and as I have somewhat of an understanding as to why, practical reasons are: you are working with a weapon that can have lethal consequences if it inadvertently slips out of your hands. The ritual surrounding the entrance onto the mat heightens your awareness and respect to the sword and the training you are about to undertake. I worked on my first draw, strike and resheathing of my sword. It's interesting to watch everyone make it look so easy when it seems so awkward to resheath my blade.

After we were done with the iai portion we went onto the 2 person kata practice. I was a bit out of my element and overwhelmed. There was a lot of information to digest at once. (thank god for youtube) but i think that we need that sometimes. i like being overwhelmed and then after time and diligence, the light bulb turns on. The people are really nice and very helpful. My biggest woe is having to figure out how to keep my hakama on... thats my first priority... I am tired today, I'm sore in weird parts of my body, and I have a big grin. I had so much fun!

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Surrendering to Center

After a long long haitus, I've been back doing Aikido training for 4 months now. Mondays we have a beginners class that i make a point of going to because I enjoy the instructor that teaches that night and I feel strongly about spending the time working on the basic building blocks of my art. It's something i didn't have the patience for before but now I feel that it's an absolute necessity. I heard a classmate yesterday say something that was very profound, probably one of the most profound things I've heard on the mat. We were describing what "center" means to us, and more important, what we do with our center. She said simply that she feels the need to "surrender to center".

What this means to me is that center happens. "Center" is that element of myself that I cannot avoid. it is me, the good, the bad, the ugly. Therefore, I happen. I happen everyday, whether I am alone, with my lover, my son, my friends, my coworkers. Surrendering to center means that I need to embrace my demons, make peace with them and thoroughly love me for who I am.

In Aikido, our techniques work much better if we have a partner that can take a good throw. Working with a good partner can be akin to finding a really good dance partner, someone who can take the energy you give them in your technique and do wonderful things with it. Or when your partner throws you, they can throw you in such a way that just feels right. Sometimes in our training though we get partners that don't have as much experience than we do, perhaps they are not mentally on the mat that day because of something else going on in their lives. Maybe they are obstinate and will make it hard for you to throw them, or even worse, throw you harder than you are used to. It's an interesting microcosm that the mat presents.

"Surrendering to center" means that all i can do is my best when I'm throwing or being thrown. If my partner is uncooperative, inexperienced or over-experienced, these elements of my training are out of my control. I can only do the best that I can with the tools that I have. Everything else that happens will happen the way it was meant to. The lesson I can take off the mat, that seems to be repeated in my life is sometimes I have no control over other peoples actions, but I do have control over mine. "Surrendering to center" allows me to do this, to blend and become ok with the inevitability of life, the future and whatever good or bad things will come my way.

There are many terms where I've heard center used in similar context. "Move from center", "find your center", the concept in Wing Chun of "taking the center line of your opponent", etc. But I've never quite heard "surrender to center". Those three words have, in a moment changed, or rather solidify how I view Aikido, how I train and how I live.