No Good at It

I took a drawing class through my local parks and rec department and learned that I can, in fact, draw. What I lacked was an understanding of how to look at something if I wanted to draw it.

I didn’t do this to become a serious artist and certainly not to become a professional one. I just want to be able to draw. I always have, even though I was told as a kid that I wasn’t any good at it.

I don’t know if it’s still the case — though I suspect it is — but back when I was a kid if you weren’t naturally good at something you were often told not to bother. Seems like a lot of teachers can’t be bothered with explaining things so that they make sense to those who don’t have a gift for them.

Plus, of course, art isn’t “important” because the accepted opinion is that it’s hard to make a living as an artist. So only those who are already talented are encouraged to try it and even they are rarely encouraged to take it seriously.

The fact that learning to draw can give you insight and personal satisfaction never gets considered. Just from taking this one short class I have learned so much about how to look at things as well as how to try to render them on paper.

I took up martial arts at 30. I’ve got a fourth degree black belt in Aikido and am a decent teacher. I still do a lot of Tai Chi. I spent years going to the dojo four or five times a week.

I am not a superstar and I never became a professional teacher. But movement matters to me, matters a great deal. It has nothing to do with making a living, though everything to do with who I am.

I spent much of my youth in marching band. I used to sing in church choir. I have a decent voice and can play an instrument. I am not a professional musician and I never had the urge to become one. I like to perform. I’d like to get back into making some music, just because it’s pleasurable to make music.

All these things are important, as are many other things we do in life. You don’t have to make a living from them for them to be important.

And all these things are good for your brain, good for your thinking, good for your health. Continue reading “No Good at It”

Practical Skills from Aikido

I read on social media of another friend injured (though fortunately not badly) in a fall, and once again I want to teach everyone I know how to fall. Of course, even if you know how to fall, you can still injure yourself, but the odds are you will minimize the damage.

Everyone falls. Look at toddlers learning how to walk. They fall all the time. We get better at walking, but we still trip on things.

Doctors tell old people not to fall, but of course that’s useless advice. What people need to know — and to learn with their bodies — is how to fall safely so that we don’t hit the back of our heads or reach out to catch our whole body weight on a wrist.

The first thing you learn in Aikido training is how to fall. Judo players learn this as well, and I assume most jujitsu teaches it. It’s a vital skill for fighting arts, but more than that it’s a vital skill for human beings.

You have to learn it with your body, because in the instant moment of a fall, you don’t have time to think; you just fall. Years of experience helps, but even a small amount of solid training will make a difference. Bodies remember.

I understand that physical therapists teach falling in The Netherlands. They should teach it here. Even better, though, teach it in schools. But since so many old people didn’t learn it in school, teach it at senior centers.

One thing I remember in watching a kids’ aikido class was the children teaching each other to fall by protecting their partner throughout a throw. That’s a useful thing to learn, too, with applications far beyond the physical. Continue reading “Practical Skills from Aikido”

Ways of Learning

A friend of mine is working on a book that gets at the heart of the principles and philosophical side of Aikido. Several of us who have trained in Aikido for many years have been reading and discussing it during the process.

One of the pleasures of this for me is that my friend, who is a philosopher as well as a high-ranking Aikido teacher, is very good at putting into words in both Japanese and English concepts that I understand with my body. That deepens my understanding of Aikido, a valuable thing for me at this point in my life, when my aging joints (not to mention the pandemic) have kept me from training as I would like.

She has also incorporated the spiritual and other influences on Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido, usually referred to as O Sensei, and connected them to the principles in a useful way. The book will be out next year and I will write about it more when it is available for preorder.

She sent a piece today — a last minute addition — and it opened some doors for me into deeper personal thought. This particular piece was on ma ai, which is usually translated as distance, or perhaps as spacing and timing, but is much more complex than that. A lot of what I took from her words today had to do with connection.

In reading, it occurred to me how much I apply that principle, on multiple levels, especially in conjunction with the principle of zanshin, which has to do with awareness.

These are things I know, but rarely put into words despite being, at my core, an intellectual. And that’s because when I took up martial arts — Karate before Aikido along with a bit of Tai Chi — I gave myself over to learning with my body.

That’s true even though one of the reasons I ended up in Aikido was that the best writing on martial arts in English (at least) has been done by Aikido people. I have done a lot of reading about Aikido, but the truth is that most of my core understanding is in my body.

It is often very difficult for me to put that understanding into words that make sense to someone who doesn’t train. Continue reading “Ways of Learning”

An Aikido Approach to Chatbots

Tools can be useful,
but don’t count on them to think.
Use them mindfully.

One of the things I’ve noticed is that the discussion of guns for self defense all seem to start — and end — with the purchase of said gun. Perhaps a few of those who hold the view that “an armed society is a polite society” (to quote Robert Heinlein) also advocate serious training, but it’s easy to get the impression that too many people think owning the gun is all you need to protect yourself.

I wrote a story about this called “Survival Skills.” In it an Aikido sensei told the protagonist that no tool is ever ultimately the answer. The protagonist had to learn the core truth of that the hard way, though.

I bring this up because all the furor about the AI chat bots has skipped over analyzing them as a tool that has both benefits and flaws. Some people are already using them to replace humans, without paying any attention to some of their significant flaws. (A writing program that makes up facts and cites non-existent articles is not a tool to rely on.)

And the scammers are already out in full force: people are submitting chatbot written stories to magazines. The biggest problem from the magazine POV is not separating them out from real stories — that’s pretty easy — but the fact they flood the inbox, exhausting the editor who has to deal with them.

Nobody’s going to make any money sending chatbot stories to magazines, but someone’s probably making money teaching people how to do that.

My Aikido teacher used to occasionally say, “I teach philosophy,” meaning that Aikido is so much more than a physical practice. I try to apply the principles of Aikido to other aspects of life.

I just applied two Aikido principles to the discussion of chatbots: relying on a tool when you don’t understand what you’re doing with it and acting without integrity. Aikido teaches you to avoid both of those things. Continue reading “An Aikido Approach to Chatbots”

Turning Away Wrath

You have probably heard about Jordan Neely, the man choked to death by a another subway passenger in New York City because he was yelling. By all accounts that I have seen, Neely wasn’t doing anything violent, though he was certainly making others uncomfortable.

Elie Mystal provides an excellent account of all the issues involved – including race, mental illness, homelessness, and even the possibility that the man who did the choking, a former Marine, overreacted with violence because he hadn’t received enough care for his own traumas. Mystal points out:

But, to be honest, the racism saturating every part of this story is only the most obvious of its horrors. This murder takes many of the problems we have in our society and shoves them into a giant melting pot.

A lot of homeless people live in my neighborhood, many of them under a freeway and BART overpass a few blocks away, others camped in a nearby park. They are often rousted out and have to find other places to go. Meanwhile, there are vacancies in the brand new overpriced apartment buildings put up all over this area.

The people living on the street can’t afford those places, of course. Studio apartments start at over $2,000/month.

Some of the people on the street are mentally ill. Some are just very broke. I give a few of them a wide berth when I see them, but I have never felt compelled to attack any of them, even the ones who scream abuse at all and sundry. I don’t feel threatened. Mostly, I feel horrified that the richest country in the world does not take care of its most fragile people.

Before the pandemic, I was better at being compassionate, but the need to keep my distance from others for my own health got me out of the habit. I’m trying to get back to being kind again, though I know that a couple of bucks and a word is so much less than they need.

As I read about the death of Jordan Neely, I remembered a well-known story from the late Aikido teacher Terry Dobson, an American who trained in Japan with the founder of Aikido back in the early 1960s. That story too took place on a subway (this one in Tokyo) and it featured a very drunk and abusive man. It was entitled “A Kind Word Turneth Away Wrath.”

I first read it in a 1985 anthology edited by Richard Strozzi Heckler called Aikido and the New Warrior, though it occurs to me that I might have heard the story in the dojo before I read the book. It’s the kind of story that Aikido people love to tell.

I suspect from the title alone you can guess that the situation was resolved very differently from the recent killing in New York, though it was not Dobson, a martial artist then in his prime, who resolved it but rather an elderly and very traditional Japanese man.

Every time I read this story, I tear up.

I could summarize it here, but it is so much better in Dobson’s own words and I was able to find it online here under the title “A Soft Answer.” 

Give it a read, and then give it some deep thought.

We don’t have to live like this.

Snaking a Path to Enlightenment

I discovered Anna Sanner’s book of teachings from Aikido and Zen master Katsuyuki Shimamoto, Dance With Heaven and Earth, after a Facebook friend posted a story from it on his page and I found I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Here’s the story that obsessed me:

Miyamoto Musashi was a famous Japanese swordsman who lived about 400 years ago. He did everything in order to win. When he sat in zazen meditation, he always had the possibility in mind that at any minute, somebody might attack him. He did zazen in order to clear his mind of distracting thoughts and always be ready to react to any kind of attack. His zazen was a kind of strategic weapon.

One day Musashi was sitting next to a professional monk in the mountains. Both of them were meditating, sitting in zazen, with correct leg position, good posture, and calm breathing. From the outside it looked like they were doing exactly the same thing. You couldn’t tell the difference.

As they were sitting there meditating, a snake came along. When the snake saw Musashi, it stopped dead in its tracks and pulled back its head in a startled swan neck pose. Even its constantly moving tongue got stuck in its mouth for a second. The snake caught itself, cautiously made a U-turn around Musashi and slithered swiftly across the monk’s legs to disappear back into the mountains.

So even though to us there seemed to be no difference between Musashi and the monk, the snake could not be fooled. It clearly felt that Musashi was ready to cut any attacker at any moment. The monk on the other hand, who was doing zazen in the sense of true Zen meditation, was in a state of 空ku (emptiness). To the snake he was the same as the grass, the stones and the earth it slithered across daily, and slithering across his legs did not make the slightest difference.

One of key elements of good training in martial arts is learning how to be aware of what is happening around you at all times. In Aikido, we emphasize this by reminding people to continue to be aware of their partner even when they have thrown or pinned them. When we train on a crowded mat, we must pay attention to everyone around us so that no one gets hurt.

Awareness is inherent in our practice.

When I teach self defense, I emphasize the importance of paying attention to everything going on around you. But the specifics of learning how to do that are more complex than just the barked words “pay attention,” which I’m sure all of us heard from parents or teachers or coaches at various parts of our lives.

In both cases, practice opens the door to awareness. Continue reading “Snaking a Path to Enlightenment”

On Aristotle, Thomas More, and the U.S. Founding Fathers

Bust of AristotleI meet weekly via Zoom to discuss ideas with a group of friends who have many years in Aikido among them. A couple of weeks ago, one them (a philosopher as well as an Aikido sensei) was taken aback when she came across a comment that our U.S. founding fathers did not come here for freedom and were not interested in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The person who made those observations was referring back to slavery, of course, but my friend compared it to saying that Aristotle was not a great thinker because women during his time couldn’t own property. Since the Greece of Aristotle’s time, like the U.S. today, is often touted as the birthplace of democracy, it is worth noting that women had almost no rights there, which is one of the things that makes Aristophanes’s plays Lysistrata and Congresswomen so funny.

The commentary got me to thinking about how we should look at great thinkers and art in an age when many of us are no longer willing to accept racism, misogyny, and other practices that assume some, or even most, people exist only to serve the elite.

I recently read a discussion of Thomas More’s Utopia in which it is mentioned that the perfect fictional land included slavery. I haven’t read the book in many years and that fact had somehow not stayed with me. However, having looked up a summary of the book, I think I still need to go back and re-read it, because there are some important concepts in there, one of them dealing with the importance of the commons.

This is a roundabout response, but my point is that there is both value and harm in what was done by those who settled this country (many of them my direct ancestors, at least from the 1700s on). In the same vein, both More and Aristotle had important things to say, but there are things they missed. Continue reading “On Aristotle, Thomas More, and the U.S. Founding Fathers”

The Way of the Warrior

I’m doing a weekly Zoom in which I discuss principles and other philosophical aspects of Aikido with several other practitioners. One of the topics we keep coming back to is warriorship.

In the news this past week, I read that a U.S. army sergeant has just been become the first woman to become a Green Beret. I cannot help but be thrilled by that. Women can, of course, succeed in programs that are designed for men, even physical ones.

But while I know that Green Berets and other special forces are intended as elite combat troops and therefore expected to have intense physical skills (ones usually associated with very strong men), our Aikido discussions make me think real warriorship has little to do with that level of physical ability.

Common Japanese words for martial arts are budo (the way of war) or bushido (the way of the warrior). But bu, usually said to mean war, can also be translated “to turn the spear,” which means it has a connotation of protection or defense. That opens up a different way of thinking.

As I began to study martial arts, I found myself drawn to the concept of being a warrior, of being the person who would stand her ground, protect others, fight for those who needed me. And, of course, to be a woman able to walk the streets or travel on her own.

That is, to be a woman who was not afraid of men. Continue reading “The Way of the Warrior”