Category Archives: Aikido

Mind Games

Pay attention! Live in the moment! All that exists is an illusion. Are all we see, hear and do really an illusion? Or are we being deceived by the illumined? Scientists using electron microscopes can find nothing substantial so what are we standing on? Our belief system has many rules and requirements but do not explain why we must obey them. These are simply mind games. Martial arts training follows along that same path.

Fighting systems developed during battlefield conditions seem illogical in today’s environment. Are these ideas relevant today? If a brick is mostly empty space and my hand mostly empty space shouldn’t I be able to put my hand straight through that brick? Or is my mind playing tricks? Self-determination and freedom of expression should be alive and well in the martial arts but they are not. Say or do the wrong thing and you are out on your ear. Practice incorrectly and you will have a problem with many teachers. Are we not standing on the shoulders of giants? The answer is yes and no. We were at one time. Mind games.

Religious leaders set up stringent guidelines to follow. Watch what they do, not what they say. Martial arts instructors say what you should do and how you should act. Watch what they do, not what they say. Our current civil environment in this country as well as around the world is the way it is because our youth are doing what adults, including local, national and international leaders, are doing and ignoring what they are saying. You say those kids are not copying your actions? Before you say another word consider your non-action the last time you saw or heard some elderly person being disrespected by an unruly youngster. In the east, non-action is an action. And you wish for peace. Mind games.

Getting better at Aikido and worse at life is common these days. Frustration with progress or the lack of it causes many to quit. Some at the 3rd, 4th or 5th dan levels. Or could it be they’ve achieved satisfaction and made the decision to move on? In reality, I think it’s because of too many rules, otherwise the training could enhance that other pursuit. Why not practice for the simple joy of it? Why are there belt exams? Mind games.

What’s your game?

B, B S., gone!

The “blue belt slump or BBS as the title indicates is not physical at all, it’s mental. I’ll explain it this way: I watched the U.S. Open golf tournament yesterday and it all fell into place. Rocco Mediate who finished his 72 holes first and was on his way to becoming the first player over the top 100 (158th) listed to win this tourney and also the oldest at 45 years old. He was one shot under Tiger Woods and Tiger hit his shot into the rough grass. Tiger had to make a twelve foot putt to send this tournament into a playoff. After Tiger made the shot one of the sports writers commented to Mediate that he must have been wishing for Tiger to miss. Mediate refused to go down to that level. He said that he never wishes for something like that, that he played the best he could and Tiger did the same thing. This may seem like a small thing but Rocco Mediate demonstrated by his statement that he is a giant of a man. And true manhood is in short supply.
What does all this talk of golf have to do with Aikido or the blue belt slump? Just this, it’s all about attitude. Winning at all “costs” in everything is not the solution. Simply do the best you can! In applying Aikido principles to your technique remember that the height of mastery is to protect yourself AND your uke, be he in the dojo or on the street. At the very highest levels it is not physical.

WHY and the Blue belt slump

Why! My mentor once told me this was the most important word in our language. I say that the second most important word may be “how.” Why something works or how it works is worth knowing. Then again the “how” may not matter as long as you “can.” This makes for an interesting thought equation.

I call this mental Aikido. Does it have anything to do with technique? Some things appear as gifts when they are really impediments. Some students prefer to have the technical aspects explained. But if that happens frequently where is discovery? Where is adventure? Even though we share a journey together, we travel the path alone. Even though the teacher must get inside the student’s head, one’s skin cannot contain two people. That’s why advice is not to be given lightly. It may, in reality, be interference. Which may explain why Aikido is not for everyone. It cannot be given away. Aikido must be discovered! Maruyama Sensei often says, “find out for yourself.” This is not a casual statement.

I have gained an understanding of certain techniques only after getting some insight on the principle behind the technique. but usually I gained the principle after practicing the technique for several years. Which is one of the reasons I said Aikido is not for everyone. Patience is required and even that may come from certain segments of technique.

Just as one must delay attacking until the pieces are developed when playing chess, one must wait for uke to fall into position during the progression of technique in order to move on to the finish. That requires patience and some have not practiced that principle in their daily lives, so they cannot apply it here. Why does the technique work? Or not. To the uninitiated it’s magic. To the master it’s common sense.

Keep on practicing when encountering the “blue belt slump.” Most things have a habit of working themselves out. In fact, there’s an old saying:”Things work out best for those who make the best of the way things work out.” Insight will come as you work through it. Obstacles make us stronger, not weaker.

The Blue Belt Slump

One of my black belt students commented the other day about a nemesis which surfaces from time to time. It was an old conversation revisited and it goes like this; If you practice a martial art long enough you will hit a plateau and cannot seem to improve. George Leonard contributed a whole chapter to it in his book entitled:”Mastery,” however this is not a critique of his beautifully written book. I’ve both seen and experienced this plateau. No only in Aikido but I also noticed it in Ji Do Kwan. I’ve always called it the “blue belt slump.”

A student may learn very well for about a year obtaining 4th kyu or 3rd kyu and suddenly seems frozen in that position and can’t seem to progress. The harder they try the more stagnant they seem to become. They may even seem to regress. It is at this point that the instructor must be the delicate and insightful leader necessary to guide him or her through the rapids and onto solid ground. How exactly is this done?

My teacher, the late Grandmaster C. K. Kim once told me that when students are doing “well” to critique them hard and when they are doing poorly, praise them. In today’s environment many people apply the “good job,” phrase anytime someone performs anything even remotely adequate. I have never subscribed to that philosophy. Continuous praising can lead to a dulling of said praise so that when a significantly effective performance occurs there may be no way to acknowledge it. Plus, at some point I believe one must learn to develop self-confidence which causes self-satisfaction to grow from within. That said, I think Master Kim was talking about getting students to reach above and beyond their normal capabilities at a time when their positive performance enhanced enthusiasm could sustain the critique necessary for their advancement.

As a student progresses, my job is to create a continuously subtle stress and at times, a very large amount of it. This is akin to planting a seed and allowing the subtle pressure of the dirt covering it to cause enough resistance for the seed to erupt into growth. A new plant is born, much as we effect change as the fire of stress forges us. Too soft, no growth, too hard and the student loses his way, breaks down or quits. Poised between too much pressure and too little pressure, that is the level at which the insightful sensei must operate, right on the edge.

The typical student does not know that his sensei may hit a plateau himself where he cannot set the correct altitude for his student to work.

Are you leading?

The statement, “We teach best what we most need to learn,” taken from Richard Bach’s novel, “Illusions,” is a principle I teach frequently. Leading is not much different. Leading calls for stepping out of your comfort zone, out into no-man’s land. Leading puts you on display. Why would anyone sane want to be put through that jazz? History is full of leaders being practically eaten alive. Most of the time it is a set of circumstances which throws you into a particular role, not your determination. Yet determination has a lot to do with it. If you were not determined to do or to get something or to be something in particular you would not necessarily be thrust into the position. Of course you could accidentally fall into a situation, but even then you were going somewhere or doing something weren’t you? Was it an accident? I know it seems like I am arguing opposing sides. The question I’m asking is this; is it paradox or can be explained away?

When I was appointed co-chairman of the safety committee while working at a Reynold’s Metals plant in 1973, I made a very important discovery. There is no such thing as an accident. And no you did not mis-read my last statement. All events are caused. All actions and events! You see there is a universal law in operation called the “Law of Cause and Effect.” If you backtrack through every action you may find a root cause. Looking back from one event leads back to something else, which leads back to another event which developed from another action, to something else again. And again, and so on.

What caused you to take up Aikido? Did something happen in your immediate past to prompt you to seek personal safety? Or did you need better balance and timing in your life for stabilization? If so what caused that imbalance. Was it poor health, caused perhaps by poor eating habits? Or maybe the habits were not poor but the quality of the fruit, vegetables or meat was poor.

Even many of those thoughts you have, especially the really weird ones do not necessarily develop inside your head. They may be coming from somewhere else, from some other person whose thought process overlapped your thoughts. But that thread is for another blog.

Let’s say that you are attacked verbally. What do you do? You cannot necessarily control what happens around you. But how you respond to those circumstances is entirely within your control. All events are caused, but your response is caused by you. The type of response is based on your past experiences and actions which are a direct result of your training, whether that training was proper or not. (This line goes from you and your background to your instructor and his or her background to his instructor) Mental or verbal Aikido is sometimes the only response necessary or appropriate. I call it taking Aikido off the mat and into everyday life. Does Aikido always have to be physical? Or maybe I should be asking if there is a difference between the physiological and the psychological aspects of Aikido? Are we not working in both areas?

These are some of the things we must think about frequently. The comments I receive from some lead me to believe that many do not think along these lines. What questions or comments have you received?

Who is leading?

While pondering life’s pathways the other day, I thought about the law of unintended consequences. Most know of it but not necessarily what it is or how it works. I can’t tell you how it works, however I do know that one must think deeply and long when considering the consequences of an action. And that leads me to explain how this law affected me.

I never intended to teach Aikido. Come to that, I never intended to teach Ji Do kwan either but I’ve always felt what many books have said, namely that the universe works in strange ways. My father wanted me to become a teacher and I resisted that very strongly. I quit college after one semester and that act required me to move out of my father’s house in order to avoid his instructions. I wanted to sing, to be an entertainer. The vocal group I sang with as a teenager even performed on the Apollo Theater stage in the mid sixties. We cut two records, one in New York and one in Philly. But we never made the big time. Was that message coming from the universe telling me that I was moving in the wrong direction? It’s hard to say but the roadblocks kept cropping up, sooo. I moved! Several years after that the military called and soon after that ended I got bitten by the Karate bug.

I only intended to learn enough self defense to protect myself and for conditioning but that “bump in the night” happened in the early evening the first time around. You know what I’m talking about, that scary situation for which you are never fully prepared. One example is public speaking which I almost failed in high school. Another is leading a group in a direction that is unfamiliar, or rather into the unknown. I was asked to take over the dojo. Richard Bach said it well in his book entitled “Illusions, ‘The reluctant Messiah: “We teach best what we most need to learn.” And I was off running, making many, many mistakes but little by little gaining some small understandings through experience. I spent 18 years growing into the teaching mode. Then it happened all over again after I had just gotten comfortable teaching Ji Do Kwan. Maruyama Sensei told me to do the same thing; “go out and open a dojo.” At 5th kyu yet. At least I was shodan in Ji Do Kwan when the order, that bump in the night, came flying at me. Now, about this leadership thing; they say that leaders are made, not born. Maybe those who said it were wrong. What do you think?

People keep looking to me for advice on much more than martial arts. They seem to think I have infinite knowledge on psychic and psychological methods of dealing with life. What I do is observe how life unfolds around me and I add the results to my repertoire for usage. For instance, if all traffic would keep to the right lanes on a highway except to pass, smoothness and efficiency would result. Very few drivers operate this way and some states have rules regarding it. This will work inside shopping malls as well but it has not happened.  Common courtesy, civility and consideration for those around you will work as oil or lubrication for the smooth interactions of everyone producing far less stress. Less stress means lower blood pressure. Lower blood pressure means less visits to the doctor, which translates into cheaper insurance premiums which leads to more money in your pocket. And that’s just from paying attention to driving details.

If you ask what all this has to do with Aikido, there are several answers. The first being this: paying attention to the “details” means the “whole” takes care of itself, as in watching the pennies solves the dollar accumulation problem. Pay attention to the details until it becomes second nature, eventually letting go and nature takes its course. No longer seeking, just being and discovering, or rather, uncovering. What, you say? Answers! Answers start to come from inside, not outside in. Relaxation happens; calmness begins to permeate your being; balance becomes a part of your life; you find that you are no longer empty inside and you are happy. It’s all a conscious decision. Over time, looking back one discovers he has become the path, he is no longer treading it, he lives it. Which is why I stated in my shodan dissertation, “Aikido is me dancing life.”

Concussions

Today I received an email regarding sporting participants who get concussions. Attached was a “New York Times” online article regarding this problem. This email was about the lack of reporting the seriousness of the injuries by the injured players. These were the star players who thought they would be sidelined if they showed the symptoms and likelihood of a concussion thereby letting their team down.

This problem should not arise for martial arts practitioners but I mention it for the simple reason that many young students practice organized sports in addition to martial arts. I’ve, on occasion, observed a macho streak running through much of organized sports and I call it the “win at all costs” syndrome. And I remember that attitude as the primary cause of “Watergate.”

There are literally hundreds, if not thousands of great coaches working with thousands of impressionable athletes. And some of those coaches may lack the proper foresight to understand what they produce when they drive their charges to give “all” for the sake of the team. A strong mind in a strong body is a great and worthy goal, however reason must be applied as well. One evening back in the seventies I had a conversation with a local radio commentator regarding the vulnerability of youthful minds when they are not properly directed. I discuss this incident on page 97 in a chapter of my book, “Stepping Off the Mat.” In another section of the book (page 85) I describe a televised basketball game. Actually, I did not see the game. It was a televised news item which showed a player acting like a dog urinating on the sideline to distract the other team as the ball was being inbounded. The chances are slim that the coach of that team did not know about the tactic. I entitled that chapter “Ethics and Sportsmanship,” and ended it with an open letter to my sons on attitude and altitude and I published it in my company newsletter.

If martial arts instructors do nothing other than teach self-protection, I pray that they at least teach by example how to conduct one’s life honorably. Martial arts’ training does not produce students of good character; Training under an instructor of good character produces students of good character. Children pay more attention to what you do than what you say. Change the word “children” to “people in general.” If one wishes to change the world, start by changing self.

I believe the world is getting better, are you working in that direction or the opposite?

Switching Arts

The training and study of several different martial arts just to be able to say I know them is not my style. I believe in being practical. Multi-tasking is not conducive to my wellbeing. Multi-tasking leads to many problems.

After encouragement from my brother-in-law from whom I borrowed several black belt magazines, I stepped on the martial arts path. What I read about people like Gogen ‘the cat” Yamaguchi, Mas Oyama and Tsutomu Ohshima was impressive. Their many accomplishments were inspirational. All of the stories and articles published in those magazines were fascinating and made me want to train in karate. Back then the mystique of karate was bigger than life. To think that a man could shatter bricks and wooden boards with his bare hands was almost unbelievable.

I joined an Okinawan dojo which taught Shorin ryu Karate. After six months I switched to the Korean Tae Kwon Do system called Ji Do Kwan in which I spent eighteen years of intensive development.

I trained constantly, in the dojo and in my back yard. However, as the months passed into years I noticed something strange happening. Little by little a feeling slowly began to develop and it gnawed at the edge of my consciousness. Something was missing.

I began to research deeper but it wasn’t easy. Books on the arts were not easy to come by and magazines was non-existent except for Black Belt Magazine. Later other magazines began to appear. What was missing was the spiritual dimension. No one seemed to be teaching it. Not even my teacher who was a seminary student at the time. He was also a little younger that me. To his credit, he did insist that we run if possible rather than stand and fight. And that if we could not run, win. Philosophically that principle can be carried to a spiritual level if you are an evolved being. Being older, I had already been through the military, was more disciplined and got the message, but most of my dojo-mates were in their late teens and early twenties. They most likely missed it.

In my belief, the omission of philosophical and/or spiritual discussion [and practice] is what led to the almost total lack of humility, discipline and respect demonstrated at karate tournaments in the late seventies and early eighties. That lack of development was what pushed me out of the tournament environment and encouraged me to pursue the change taking place within me. Disliking what they had produced, I wanted nothing more to do with competitions. An inner tranquility was taking place and I wanted my art to reflect it. Karate and Ji Do Kwan have that element but the students in my dojo environment did not, they just wanted to fight(free sparring). I wanted internal energy development and to guarantee the elimination of competition I considered the sword but could not find a school. I then considered Chi gung but the schools I visited wanted to teach me to the entire spectrum of gung fu and I already knew how to fight. Looking back I remembered those black belt magazine articles on Uyeshiba and Aikido and began a search in Philly which led me to the Arch Street dojo. Ki development was what I was looking for.

But even in Aikido I encountered a problem. Ki development was taught, however I was told that in order to get to more classes for that training I would need rank to enter advance classes. Rank was something I was not seeking so I had to make a choice. As you can see for yourself I made a positive choice.

Now some of you may be thinking that I did not teach my Ji Do Kwan students spiritually which may be the reason they just wanted to spar all the time. Well, consider this: I pushed and pushed relentlessly and lost some students. One of my students left for a period and when he returned commented regarding my loss of students. He had entered a seminary, to gain insight as he put it. He said I was losing students because I was like a 220 volt circuit and they were 110 volt toasters burning out as they could not handle the voltage I was generating.

Comments please.

Tell Me About Aikido

A potential student called me some years ago to inquire about Aikido. I asked what he was looking for. His question was “What is Aikido? Tell me something about it because I think I want to try it.” I hesitated as I usually do when asked to describe one of my passions. Telling someone how I feel does not give them the experience. It’s like a salesman selling a bike to someone who has never seen one before. After watching others riding, one wants to enjoy the pastime also. But the first several attempts will end in failure and the purchaser will want his money back, not realizing that much effort is required in the beginning. Balance must be regained.

But getting back to Aikido – I give the first lesson freely. I don’t tell him that he seeks change as that may drive him away. I ask him to come in to see a class for himself. Only then can I explain how this art may help him achieve his goals. I’ve given him an open secret- all accomplishment begins with that first step, be it a goal or a journey.
My thinking goes like this: In order to affect change in your life, you must take a step (an action). That first step means you are willing to change but it usually slows to a trickle after experiencing difficulty, when you seem not to progress very much (non-action). The obstacle blocking your progress is usually not physical but mental. The dojo is not a gym it is the “way-place” or the “place of change”, but most who come to me for change cannot or will not change their way of thinking.

Some students stay around for quite a while. Most simply quit after a few months, some after a few weeks. I can understand why they leave even though they may not; the known is more comfortable than the unknown even though it may resemble a sinking ship. They cannot see that change must take place or they are afraid to make that change. They do not realize that change is all there is; it is life itself. And, if you swim upstream against the current of a strong river, you will still be carried downstream. My suggestion is to turn and swim downstream, letting the current carry you and glide toward whichever bank you wish to reach. That word “river” is a metaphor for “life”. It never stops flowing onward, carrying you with it whether you wish it or not.

So, for humans, the idea of “no change” does not exist. I have said many times, “simply change the way you think and what you think about will change.” Or no thinking. Go beyond thinking. Simply BE! Your vibrational rate will change. It will rise and the positive repercussions will be smooth and flowing. Positive vibrations create ripples which can be ridden. You do like to ride, do you not? “Tell me about Aikido?” It’s about riding those ripples and being happy NOW.

Speaking of happiness, consider this: There are 168 hours in a week, and if you trade 40 of them to a corporation, they will give you enough compensation to support 128 hours for your personal interests and pleasure. You may sleep for 56 hours, leaving 72 hours to play with. Of course, you may need about 1.5 hours per day for traveling to and from the corporation. (You may take a little more time and cruise to that enterprise because nobody says a person can’t enjoy the ride to and from.) Just think, 128 hours of pure pleasure and it’s your choice.

Of course, sleep is pleasurable, is it not? And, when you get past that, there’s a kicker waiting in the wings for all of you who are greedy (and that’s not necessarily a negative word.) It depends on where your head is. In order to have 100% pleasure, a person may, may, I say, enjoy work too. If you wish. If you wish, “It is no longer work.”

My practice of Aikido is exactly that, “Stepping Off the Mat .”  It is Me dancing life!