Author Archives: aikidoacademy

Monkey See, Monkey Do by Mark Peckett

10001392_600051626755332_109218248_nSomething I heard years ago came to my mind recently and prompted me to do some research.  It was a statement, probably by David Attenborough, that when monkeys were x-rayed, a surprising number of them turned out to have healed fractures.

A trawl through the internet lead me to Episode 8 of “Life of Mammals”, indeed narrated by David Attenborough and called “Life in the Trees.”

It turned out he was talking about gibbons which swing from branch to branch for distances of up to 50 feet at speeds of up to34 mph so when a branch breaks or a hand slips researchers estimate that the majority of gibbons suffer bone fractures one or more times during their life!

This means that those monkeys we see swinging so beautifully through the trees on nature documentaries actually also manage to swing not so beautifully, missing the branch they’re aiming for and take a hard landing.

This is bad news for the gibbons, but good news for us because it means that gibbons do not have an innate ability to be the beautiful, agile creatures we see swinging through the trees – it is a skill they have to learn.

It also means that just like us, they can be plain unlucky.  Sometimes a branch just breaks.

So we have a lot more in common with gibbons than some shared DNA.  We have to learn our skills and we need our fair share of luck.

Think of the first time you learnt tai sabaki (or irimi tenkan).  You probably got the first step and turn right, but when the whole class went back the other way, you probably carried on going forwards, or spun round on the spot, or ended up facing the wrong way or with the wrong leg forward, or a combination of all the above.  That was certainly my experience – and sometimes still is if I don’t pay attention.

George Leonard, aikido 5th dan and president of the Esalen Institute, explains in better in his book, “Mastery”:

You feel terribly clumsy and disjointed.  You have to think (author’s italics) to keep the parts of your body synchronised and thinking gets in the way of graceful, spontaneous movement.

In “The Aikido Student Handbook”,  Greg O’Connor is a little kinder, acknowledging that it’s not just ourselves that get in the way, but the rest of the world doesn’t help either.  He gives the following answer to the comment “I’m afraid I’ll be too clumsy and get embarrassed” in the chapter called “Common Questions”:

… we all experience clumsiness whether we are on the mat or not (it happens all the time).  Teacups spill on occasion and feet so trip on all sorts of mysterious objects … if you think this doesn’t happen to everyone – think again.

Failing is part of the human (and gibbon) condition.  As the American novelist O. Henry wrote:

Life is made up of sobs, sniffles and smiles, with sniffles predominating.

I think this is a fairly accurate description of much of everyday life for most of us.  Occasional extremes of happiness (smiles) or sadness (sobs), but mostly it is the commonplace irritations that cause us to sniffle – driving to work, shopping, relationships and so on.

I don’t think however that gibbons look at it that way.  Obviously they can’t be happy that they’ve fractured a bone; it would be a real ‘sob’ for them, but they can’t afford to dwell on it or they will die.  They have to work out – and quickly – ways to deal with the injury until they recover.

But in an aikido class we tend not to think this way.  When something goes wrong with our technique, a tiny fracture turns into a major break.  Of course I’m not talking about actual bones here; thankfully in aikido we don’t get too many of those – painful joints maybe and stretched ligaments, muscle pulls and bruises – but not too many broken bones, because aikido emphasises the need to care for uke.   People who want to hurt others tend not to stay very long.

No, I’m talking about the psychological fractures we are all familiar with, and seem to encounter on a regular basis in aikido.  We struggle with a technique and feel like we might as well give up, we think we’re spoiling everyone else’s practice because we can’t get it right, we get embarrassed because we think we look so bad.  The list goes on.  And as a teacher, I can walk out of the class thinking “That was a terrible lesson.  I wouldn’t be surprised if no one came next week.  I bet they’re all talking about me in the changing rooms.”

But of course, none of that is true.  To use some terms from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy we tend to:

  • Catastrophise – taking relatively minor negative events and imagining all sorts of disasters from that one event.
  • Engage in “All-or-Nothing” Thinking – where we are completely right or completely wrong.
  • Start “Fortune-Telling” – because it was bad this week, it’s sure to be just as bad (or worse) next week.
  • Mind-Read – thinking you know what other people are thinking.
  • Over-generalise – “if it’s this bad now, it will always be like this.”
  • Reason Emotionally – rather than relying on hard evidence.  Actually if you look back, you are getting better at aikido.  My students do come back next week.
  • Label – good/bad, success/failure when in fact we are all of those things and everything in between.
  • Make demands – “I must get better at this technique”, “I need to pass this grading”.  You want to get better at the technique, and you will; you want to pass your grading, but even if you don’t, there’s always next time.  It’s not a catastrophe (see above).
  • Disqualify the Positive – you might not be very good this week, but if you look back, you’ve come a long way.
  • Filter Mentally – the opposite of rose-coloured spectacles.  Because you think you’re doing badly you don’t notice the good techniques you’ve done in the lesson.
  • Develop Low Frustration Tolerance – we forget how we pushed ourselves to walk in the dojo in the first place, how we took that first grading or that first high breakfall.  We are stronger than we think.
  • Personalise – briefly, it’s not all about you (or me)!

So let’s not make the mistake of the King of the Swingers, the Jungle VIP, and consider ourselves a failure if we don’t have the secret of Man’s red fire – let’s rejoice in the fact that despite all the failures, we’re still up there swinging!

What’s in Your Paintbox? by Mark Peckett

MarkIn her book “The Writer’s Life” Annie Dillard quotes the artist Paul Klee as saying:

You adapt yourself to the contents of your paintbox.

And, of course, like everything else I write about, I see that as a metaphor for aikido and life in general.

For example,although I still do shikko, hanmi handachi waza, kokyu ho and Suwari waza, because some years ago I broke the big toe on my left foot and now arthritis is setting in, I can’t perform them in what might be called the classical manner.  And I have to warn my students of that so that they don’t end up copying me (reproducing something I have written about before: “old man’s aikido”).  I wouldn’t want a young man in his twenties to do some weird hobbling thing simply because that’s the way his teacher in his sixties does it.

And I’ve already written in a previous piece about a man I practised with many years ago who had suffered a brain aneurism which had affected one side of his body, making it difficult for him to move his left foot.  This meant he could not step back when he performed kotegaeshi.

To overcome this problem, instead of drawing the technique past him by turning his hips, he turned into it and rooted himself.  This meant you came round his body very quickly and literally ran into the technique with the full momentum of your body.

The first time you experienced it, it was devastatingly painful and after that, aware of what was coming, you tried to control your speed and even fling yourself backwards to protect your wrist.

Needless to say, the technique is a colour I’ve added to my paintbox.

One of my early instructors once had a one-armed student.  He said he enjoyed the challenge of working out how aikido techniques could be applied one-handed.  I can’t say whether he added any of the techniques to his paintbox.

Of course, what Klee is actually talking about is not adding to the paintbox, but working with what we have.  He goes on to say that adapting one’s self to one’s paintbox is more important than the study of nature.  Although I would say that the contents of the paintbox actually is nature.  For a poor artist with a limited palette, it is the nature of economics.  For an isolated artist who has to make her own paints, it’s the nature of geography.

To start mixing metaphors, we all have to play the hand we are dealt.

So as the years go by, my palette becomes more limited physically.t has changed and the pictures I paint now aren’t the same as the ones I did in my twenties, thirties or forties.

Another of my favourite newspaper columnists is Clive James.  Many years ago he used to write an acerbic television review (which is why to this day I think of the TV series “Poldark” as “Old Krap”), and in 2011 he was diagnosed with lymphocytic leukaemia.  The column he now writes for The Guardian comes from a palette coloured by the fact he did not expect to see the end of 2015.

In fact, he wrote a poem about it, published in the New Yorker back in September 2014, which I am going to reproduce here in full:

Japanese Maple

Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.

So slow a fading out brings no real pain.

Breath growing short

Is just uncomfortable.

You feel the drain

Of energy, but thought and sight remain:


Enhanced, in fact.

When did you ever see

So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls

On that small tree

And saturates your brick back garden walls,

So many Amber Rooms and mirror halls?


Ever more lavish as the dusk descends

This glistening illuminates the air.

It never ends.

Whenever the rain comes it will be there,

Beyond my time, but now I take my share.


My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.

Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.

What I must do

Is live to see that.

That will end the game

For me, though life continues all the same:


Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,

A final flood of colours will live on

As my mind dies,

Burned by my vision of a world that shone

So brightly at the last, and then was gone.


Although I enjoyed the wit of his television reviews, I find the columns that he writes now, living on borrowed time thanks to a new chemo drug, of greater depth and wisdom, speaking directly from the heart, although still filtered through a sharp intellect.

He writes poignantly of the song “Hurt” sung by Johnny Cash towards the end of his life, and how the song seems to say his life has come to nothing.  “But,” says James, “we know that he can’t be right, or he wouldn’t sound like that. It’s an untrained voice, but regret has brought depth to it.”

Cash’s palette had changed and he was using it to produce what in the end may be his most memorable work, San Quentin and Folsom Prison notwithstanding.

O’Sensei’s palette changed.  The difference between his pre- and post-war aikido continues to reverberate in the aikido world as we argue which was better, or more effective, or whether he simply introduced the spiritual aspect of aikido after the Second World War in order to make it acceptable to the occupying Allied forces.

For whatever reason, his palette was different and he painted different pictures.  They weren’t worse or better.  After all, aikido is a dynamic art and the definition of “dynamic” is “characterised by constant change, activity or progress.”

I myself hope to continue to paint aikido pictures for many years to come, but I don’t expect them to remain the same.

I will leave the last word, however, to Clive James:

Feeling old can have its own style. I shuffle quite dynamically. It can get tough, though, when you see the young fizzing with the same energy that you once wasted.

What Might Have Been Might Not Have Been by Mark Peckett

10001392_600051626755332_109218248_nSome time ago I wrote a blog quoting the line from the poem poem by American Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier which goes:

“Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been.”

I went on to say that kind of regret was something we had all experienced at some time in our lives. “If only I hadn’t done this,” or “If only I had done that, or done it differently”.  I said the poem was a nineteenth century version of the twenty-first century truism, “Live every day as if it were your last.”

But I’ve been thinking a lot about it recently, and I wonder if it means completely the opposite.

Is there anything more useless than regret?  It hurts us in several ways: we regret what we’ve done that we didn’t do and wish we did because if we had we would be happy in the present, or we regret what we did and wish we hadn’t and regret can paralyse from acting at all because we are always acting carefully so as to have nothing to regret.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition focuses more on the former and less on the latter:

To feel sad or sorry (about something you did or did not do).

One of my favourite newspaper columnists, Oliver Burkeman, recently re-evaluated Robert Frost’s “The Road Less Travelled” in a similar manner.  It tends to be regarded as the poster boy poem for taking risks and seizing your destiny, when it could equally be regarded as a warning that it is pointless to try.  Burkeman counsels that it that it’s both, that we have to make choices and we’ll never be sure we made the right one:

After all, the narrator admits that both paths look roughly similarly well-travelled. And how could he be sure he took the right one? He’ll never know where the other led.

You can make exactly the point about Whittier’s poem.  It may not be a hymn to lost chances, but a warning against wasting your time regretting things that you can now do nothing about.  And yet we seem to have no control over those regrets.

The business magazine Forbes lists twenty-five!  Among them are:

  • Standing up to bullies at school and in life
  • Breaking up with my true love/getting dumped by them
  • Worrying about what others thought about me so much
  • Living the life that my parents wanted me to live instead of the one I wanted to
  • Spending more time with the kids

The list goes on and it makes me feel sad just to read it, not least because some of them resonate with me, but because even on the ones I got right, I know there are people out there regretting that they didn’t.

The nature of regret actually seems to spring from comparison.  When we think “What if” we are comparing a fantasy of what might have been with what is.  6th dan aikidoka Wendy Palmer, addresses exactly this point in her book “The Practice of Freedom” when she says “… comparison opens the door to judgement … ”

In “How to Become a Buddha in 5 Weeks”, a psychological analysis of Buddhism, Giulio Cesare Giacobbe explains that the thoughts which produce suffering are not voluntary:

How often have we tried not to think about what we have lost, our failures, our disappointments, our mistakes, but to no avail … We are incapable of avoiding thoughts that make us suffer … Because it is automatically [author’s emphasis]  produced by our memory (our unconscious).

Giacobbe’s solution is to use Buddhist techniques, which he breaks down in to five principles:

  1. Control of the mind
  2. Presence in reality
  3. Awareness of change
  4. Non-attachment
  5. Universal love

These five principles also embody much of aikido practice because aikido teaches us to embrace things as they are.  This is particularly noticeable when, during the course of a class, we practise with a number of different people, and inevitably there are some we like less than others.  When we do this, there are times when our practice is enjoyable and times when it isn’t, because we begin to take things personally and wish for things to be different.  To quote Wendy Palmer again:

… it is difficult to detach our personal experiences without retracting our feelings and our spirit … our awareness begins … racing toward what we think will end our restlessness or uneasiness … lead[ing] us out of the present into the future or the past …

This is precisely the nature of regret: not living in the present.  Obviously there are ways in which you have to live not in the present, reviewing things that you have learned in the past so as to replicate or not replicate them in the present – you only put your hand on a hot stove once, if you’re sensible; but regret encourages us to dwell in the past and wish for things to be different.  “That class would have been so much better if I hadn’t had to practise so much with so-and-so.”

And yet if you continue to practise aikido for a long time, you will spend a lot of time practising with a lot of so-and-so’s, and your techniques won’t be the techniques they are today if you don’t.

There is a rock on the very cliff edge somewhere along the Pembrokeshire coast that was carried all that way by a glacier 100,000 years ago.  Now it rests on soft grass, sheep grazing around it, warmed by the sun and weathered by the wind and the rain.  Seagulls wheel around it, and the sea stretches out to the horizon.  Along its sides are deep gouges where the ice pushed it over harder rocks.  Each of those scars is a mark of the journey that brought it to the beautiful place it is now.

Why should we regret the things which have given us our scars and brought us to where we are now?

Don’t Do As I Do by Mark Peckett

mpI have written before on the problem of not teaching “old man’s aikido”.  I’m 61 now and I physically can’t do the things that I could 30 years ago.  The knees don’t bend as well (or rather they bend, but they don’t straighten up as easily!) and I certainly don’t have the same physical power or speed I had even ten years ago.

I already have trouble reading small print and hearing conversations in crowded rooms, my gums are receding and my teeth falling out.  I’ve got more wrinkles, I’m thickening up round the waist and a touch of arthritis in my thumbs.  I may end up with high blood pressure or osteoporosis.

When I go to a seminar or course, I still forget my age, and throw myself into the Friday evening class, and the Saturday morning, but by the afternoon I’m definitely slowly down, and I spend Sunday standing in a corner with the other old men.  The spirit is still willing, but the flesh’s recovery time takes a lot longer these days.

I like to think that those things I’ve lost – flexibility, endurance and speed   – have been replaced with improved technical ability and greater sensitivity; I’m less obsessed with the technique that smashes my partner through the floor – the finish – and more with what’s going on with uke during the course of the technique.

However, when I see photographs and videos of myself, I can see the loss of the vertical in my body, the same thing that I pick my students up on, and it’s embarrassing.  The only thing I would say in fairness to myself is the period in my 20s when I developed my anti-establishment “hippie slouch” has been replaced by a more unconscious stoop that reflects my age and it’s something I am working on.

I find shikko hard these days because of arthritis in my toe caused by the time I broke it whilst practising and stupidly didn’t bother to do anything about.

So my kokyu, hanmi handachi waza and seated techniques have a flavour which is uniquely mine – again one which I try not to pass directly on to my students as it involves favouring my weaknesses.

When I watch my students, I see that each and every one of them has a unique flavour – their moves aren’t perfect.

Many years ago I practised with a man who had suffered a brain aneurism which resulted in a partial paralysis of his right side.  It meant that he could not step back when doing kotegaeshi.  He had adapted this “weakness” and drew uke round his body into the kotegaeshi – you literally ran onto the technique with all your impetus and body weight.  It was a technique I stole.

We’re none of us perfect – in fact, just the opposite.  We are imperfect creations, by and large doing our best – and this is what makes us perfect.

We should revel in our imperfections, build on our weaknesses.  They are what challenge us to change the at least cope with.  After all, we want to be human, not computer-generated perfections.

Amongst my students there are the young, middle-aged and old.  At least three of Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man.  I myself have played many parts, but now I am in the sixth age and shifting into:
… the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side …

My shanks are shrunk and my big manly voice has turned again to a childish treble.  But before I end up sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything, there is still time for aikido.

Robert Frager, who I have mentioned before in these blogs, practised in Japan in the 60s and 70s, reports that O’Sensei said:

Whenever I talk about or practise aikido, arthritis and my age, none of that is relevant to me.

I find the same thing.  It doesn’t matter how bad a day I’m having, after my aikido classes I always feel fine.  Of course, that’s teaching – which means I get to talk about aikido and throw people about without getting thrown myself!  It’s a different story when I’m taking about a hundred throws myself and getting up a hundred times.

At first I hated standing in the “old man’s corner”, in much the same way I hate looking in the mirror when I shave, because it’s a reminder that I’m not only getting older, but every day closer to the grave.  If I want to be charitable to myself, I have maybe another 25 Christmases left and believe me that doesn’t seem like much.

But slowly I’ve got used to it and even appreciate it.  There’s a certain camaraderie in swapping aches and pains and illnesses.  “Hip replacement?  You were lucky!”  These are things we can’t defend ourselves against – fish oil might keep the joints lubricated, ginko biloba might help ward off Alzheimer’s, but there’s no getting away from the fact that we’re going to get old and die.  At least Aikido has kept me supple for my years.

We can’t tenkan against that inevitability, but we can use the emotional energy that arises from those feelings in a positive way.  Again this is what aikido teaches us.  We don’t have to meet those negative emotions head-on and let them overwhelm us.  The counsellor and psychologist Tom Crabtree who used to write for Cosmopolitan magazine once advised a woman who intensely disliked her mother to meet her once a month, for lunch, and be totally loving towards her during that time.

This is similar to the Native American ceremony of “killing the enemy” that Terry Dobson writes about, where the tribe get together in a sweat lodge and praise all of their enemy’s good qualities until the stop focusing on the bad ones.

In the same way, I’m going to focus on the pleasure of standing talking with people my age at the edge of the mat and enjoy watching the younger aikidoka crash each other into the mats.  I’m going to carry on doing my weird knee-walking and work on correcting my slouch.

And I’m going to tell my students not to copy all my bad habits!

Two languages are better than one by Mark Peckett

AAUKimage1A recent study by psychologists from the University of Chicago found that not only those who were fluent in another language, but that those who were merely “exposed” to one in early life showed better understanding of others.

They tested their theory by asking different sets of children – bilingual, exposed and monolingual – to move an object from an adult’s eye line.  In the test, there were three toy cars – a large, medium and small one – with the smallest being clearly hidden from the adult.  When the adult said to the child, “I see a small car” and asked them to move it, 75 per cent of the bilingual or exposed groups moved the medium car – the smallest the adult could see – compared to just half of the monolingual group.

The study seems to suggest that in order to understand a speaker’s intention, one must take the speaker’s perspective. Multilingual exposure may promote effective communication by enhancing perspective taking.

Simply put, learning something doesn’t just expand our horizons, it expands us.

I have written elsewhere of my antipathy to sports.  My upbringing just did not encourage an interest in it.  I learned to look down my nose at the “muddied oafs” who played and the fans who watched them.  I certainly didn’t engage actively in sport myself.  For a time, I believe I held the record for avoiding games lessons at my school.

As I got older, like most teens, I did judo for a while.  This was in the 1960s and we all thought we would be James Bond or Batman after three lessons.  I came back to Judo in my early twenties, but I can’t say I enjoyed it any more.  It was still all a little to Saturday afternoon sport for me, followed by a drink down the pub.  Of course, the fact I broke my collar bone twice in six months may have had something to do with it.

It was around this time that I ran across aikido (in the form of the book “Aikido” by Kisshomaru Ueshiba) and I knew this was something different than “sport” and that it was for me.  Later I was fortunate to find a class with an excellent teacher, and what it has done for me over the years, apart from giving me a little skill in aikido, is to broaden my horizons, which is to say, broaden me.  It has made me more appreciative of sport.

For a while I became quite the basketball fan; in fact, I was one of those fans I used to despise, roaring on my own team, disparaging their opponents and fans, and, of course, abusing the referees.  In my defence, I would say, it was always good humoured – well almost always – and during the bad seasons with a poor team, it was the banter that kept us going.

At the most basic level, doing aikido made me appreciative of physical prowess (and the pleasure of working hard at something and making progress, albeit slowly in my case).  And it taught me to enjoy the pleasure of a drink in the pub after a physically demanding session.

So what I’m saying is I was raised in a culturally monolingual way.  That is to say, that I was taught to regard mental effort as better than physical effort, or rather, physical effort for fun and/or competition.  You could argue that it was a class thing.   My world view was white and middle class.  As I grew older, left home and went to college, obviously my perspective changed as I was exposed to people of different political persuasions, religions and ethnicities.  I became more left wing and more inclusive, but I would argue that it was largely an intellectual change.

It was aikido that was responsible for completing the change, because it involved not just the mind, but also the heart and the gut: the three tantien of Chinese medicine, the intellectual, the emotional and the instinctive.  The lowest, physically speaking exists slightly below and in from the navel, is the “ocean of vitality” and changes chi, the life force that permeates and links everything, into physical strength.  The “crimson palace” situated in the centre of the chest at the level of the heart changes energy into passion and emotions, like love and hate.  It is what makes us human.  Finally, the “cave of the original spirit”, situated in the middle of the head is responsible changing life energy into thought processes.

You don’t have to believe in these concepts, but the idea behind them makes perfect sense; when your intellect, emotions and instincts are working in perfect harmony, you tend to feel better.

Aikido encourages you to do this.  I would like to return to Terry Dobson’s translation of awase, which we usually refer to as “blending.” He says “agreeing”.  Receiving uke with kaiten (shifting the hips to avoid attack) or tenkan (pivoting 180 degrees to avoid attack), both involve the same thing – turning to look in the same direction as your attacker and aligning your centre with theirs.

This is physically doing what I experienced when I was eighteen, appreciating that other people looked at the world with a different point of view.  But this time it is not merely an intellectual experience, my whole body is engaged.  However, if my emotions are out of control (if I am scared, or angry) or if my mind is elsewhere, the technique is never perfect.

So to me, the essence of aikido is how it broadens the people who practise it.  It gives us a whole new language to use in our relationships with other people.  It teaches us not to think of people as opponents, or to respond to them aggressively.  It doesn’t ask us to appreciate their situation intellectually, it literally shows us to see what they see and to treat them with the same kindness we treat ourselves.

Aikido may not be another language in the normal sense of the word, but it is a language the whole world should learn to speak.

Remarking on the remarkable by Mark Peckett

MarkRobert Frager is one of the founding fathers of aikido in America.  He was a direct student of O’Sensei, living and studying in Tokyo in the 1960s and one of the few non-Japanese students at the original Aikido dojo.  He is an interesting man, a professor of psychology, a former Jew, a new Muslim and a sheikh in the Halveti-Jerrahi Sufi Order.

I have been reading a piece he wrote in “Aikido in America”, a compilation of writings about aikido by some of the people who had the greatest influence on the development of aikido in the States, people like Terry Dobson, Mary Heiny, Robert Nadeau and Wendy Palmer.

I was particularly taken by one thing he wrote:

I learned what aikido was all about from who O’Sensei was, not from what he did.  I also had the feeling that you could take O’Sensei’s aikido away from him, you could take his skill at the techniques of aikido, and he would still be O’Sensei, because what O’Sensei was for me was what he had become inside, the inner self.

It seems to me that the question he is asking is “Why do we practise aikido?”  Are we primarily studying a martial art to learn to defend ourselves or is something else going on?

Frager goes on to say that O’Sensei said that it was wrong to view the person we were practising with as an opponent instead of a partner because you don’t learn the qualities of blending, sensitivity and empathy if you’re training as if you are always in a fight.

I think people come to the martial arts for a variety of reasons, but the one that gets quoted most often is “to learn to defend myself,” and I believe that is a valid reason to practise aikido.  But it’s not the only reason, and certainly not the most important reason.

It is a good thing that people should feel more confident, fitter, more secure in themselves, physically and mentally, but if that security is won at the expense of someone else, then it exists only so long as you are stronger and someone else is weaker.  And this oppositional view of aikido means that you are always unsatisfied, because you’re always worried about your enemy.

Look how the Cold War developed, with America and Russia developing more and more nuclear weapons to defend themselves, until between them they had enough to destroy the world many times over.  And yet even then they did not feel secure.

Richard Moon 6th dan is an instructor at City Aikido of San Francisco, which was founded by Robert Nadeau, another of those Americans who travelled to Japan in the 1960s to study with O’Sensei.  He argues that the martial arts in general that they are competitive, and therefore are contests about who is best and set us up in opposition to each other.  In an article for Aikido Journal he writes:

I see studying a “way of being” very different from learning the skills of the art whether it be war or dance, painting, pottery or fighting. Developing one’s self for ‘the completion of the universe’ has a different flavour, different intent and ultimately a different outcome, from a competitive approach in which people are trying to conquer or defeat others.

He talks of aikido as a study for the mutual benefit of the community and adds:

It seems people often have a hard time understanding that distinction and so don’t see a value in the practice of harmony.   As such, they miss the value in the practice because they are studying fighting and winning over others.  O’Sensei said, “Winning means winning over the discord in your own mind.”

Frager defines the martial attitude as “the warrior archetype”:

Someone who reveres life but not out of fear.

But he goes on to say that this is not enough, and refers to two further archetypes: the healer and the magician.  The healer is one who works to heal inner fears, to heal oneself, and the magician works on change, on transformation.

The point being that being a warrior is only a small part of the picture.  It is about being comfortable with violence and aggression in other people and in ourselves, but if we can’t transform that energy then we are in danger of being stuck in the technique.

Now I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with technique.  My favourite sensei, Morihiro Saito, was very precise in his teachings of technique.  You had to get used to the word “dame” at his seminars as he produced a book of photographs of Morihei Ueshiba as examples of how you should be doing the technique.

But even he says in his book “Aikido – Its Heart and Appearance”:

If one examines Aikido patiently for a long time, something is bound to touch your heartstrings.

That isn’t something you would generally expect to read in a martial arts!

Terry Dobson, another of American aikido’s founding fathers is quoted in “Aikido in America” as saying:

… so for me learning takes place in just looking at the students, just learning to look at people … to just notice what people show you instead of looking over their heads and being lost in the technique.  I’m starting to look at real small details, to see that person as a person.

These are important statements by people who learned from O’Sensei himself, and they all point to the fact that aikido should develop us, we should not develop aikido.

Or to quote O’Sensei:

Your attitude should be that of a parent to a child.

This is not a soft thing – it can be firm and authoritative, but it is always nurturing and caring.  There can’t be a parent reading this who doesn’t understand that statement.  Our children change us as much as we develop them.

It means that if for whatever reason we can’t be a warrior in the dojo, we can still be remarkable.


Look again by Mark Peckett

10001392_600051626755332_109218248_nI saw a squirrel in the park. Or to be more exact, I saw a rat that turned into a squirrel in the park.
I love squirrels, even the grey red squirrel-murdering ones, and I’d have to say I’m not so fond of rats when I see them in the wild (scuttling around dustbins on the street, or worse, in my garden) although they’re cute when they’re in a cage in a zoo.
So I saw this rat scuttling the way rats do in the park and my first thought was (you’ve guessed it), “Ugh! A rat in the park.”
But then it suddenly started doing that loopy sort of squirrel jump and its tailed fluffed out, and it scuttled (in a non-rat-like way up a tree, and my thought process went, “Oh, it’s a squirrel! Awww!!”
It was the same creature but because I thought of it in a different way, it was transformed.
In a book I’ve referred to several times in these blogs, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” the author, Robert M. Pirsig, addresses a similar issue. He is motorcycling across America with his son and a married couple, and at one point the woman comments on the rush hour traffic they were passing:
“It was all those people in the cars coming the other way,” she says. “The first one looked so sad. And the next one looked exactly the same way, and the next one, and the next one, they were all the same.”
It had made her feel sad. Pirsig explains it was Monday morning and they were all driving to work: “Who goes to work Monday morning with a grin?” He goes on to say he was watching the flocks of red-winged blackbirds on the other side of the road and it made him happy. He encouraged her to do the same.
This, and my squirrel story (or my rat story), are two examples of what is called Cognitive Reframing. It was coined by Aaron T. Beck who developed Cognitive Therapy in the 1960s. Boiled down to its essence, Cognitive Therapy says it’s not how things are that’s important, it’s how we perceive and react to them that is important. The main aim of what Beck called cognitive restructuring is to rethink negative thoughts and turn them into positive ones.
Applied to the world outside the clinic, this cognitive reframing has been used in many areas, such as with patients with breast cancer and children with disabled children. It is a conscious change in a person’s mindset, and although it is generally positive it can also be negative.
And we are all very good a negative reframing. Here are some examples of those negative thoughts that keep us awake at night:
• “Something always goes wrong.”
• “Anyone could do what I could do.”
• “So-and-so hasn’t called. Why are they avoiding me?”
• “I’m not appreciated.”
• “No one’s going to like what I’ve done.”
technique, but a mental one. He used to say, “Tell me five things about yourself, but don’t use any negative statements.”

This is not as easy as it sounds; try it. We tend to baulk at saying, “I can do this”, “I’m good at that”. Our responses much more often are, “I’m not very good” and “I can’t.” Apparently American CVs fall much more into the second category, and British CVs often use a much more passive voice. Of course, whether or not a British employer reading an American-style CV thinks “Wow, that’s a real go-getter I should employ!” or “What a self-important, arrogant little … ” is entirely another matter; that is until British employers go on courses run by American consultants who teach them to weed out the passive voices as the people not worth employing.

The Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman quotes sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel’s argument that it is how we divide the world into what is important and what is not; what he calls “foreground” and “background”. So for example, forty years ago “Sugar Puffs” were in the background, but now that sugar is stigmatised as causing obesity it is in the foreground and now the same breakfast cereal is called “Honey Monster Puffs”.

Comedian Dave Gorman argues that the company that manufacture them have been preparing for the switch for nearly half a century, and perhaps it is a salutary warning to watch for the use of Cognitive Reframing in advertising: what is bad for us is good for us, what we don’t need is essential to our well-being.

So it is our opinions about what is “good” and “bad” about ourselves, or our situation which is the problem. One solution is re-framing. The 17th century scientist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg proposed a more radical solution:

Nothing is more conducive to peace of mind than not having any opinions at all.

And now, to answer the usual question: what does this have to do with aikido?

Well, obviously one of the first things that we are taught in aikido is to re-frame our response to an attack. We are taught to breathe and to relax in the face of a strong grip. We are taught to find our centre, our one point. Then we are taught to “receive” an attack, whether it is punch or shomen uchi or even a weapon, and to blend and flow with it rather than opposing it.

This re-framing is a very important aspect of aikido. It teaches us not to regard those who attack us as enemies, but as energy to be re-directed. We learn this firstly through our bodies and the techniques we do. Hopefully, over time we also learn this mentally and we stop regarding everything interaction as a confrontation which we must win.

We begin to re-frame the way we see the world, or even more radically, perhaps we begin to re-frame ourselves. We learn to connect ourselves to our centre, and then our centre connects us to everyone and everything at this very moment. We learn to become whole.

The mind gives up before the body By Qaisar Najib

ikiyo-1Training the mind is as important as training the body; this dawned to me some time ago as a friend and I were walking through an area of Birmingham. It was a lovely summer day and as we don’t get many of these type of days people always use the opportunity to go out with families and friends to make the most of the limited sunshine we do get here in the UK. As we walked up the street ahead of us were a group of young men, who seemed excited by the sunshine and atmosphere of the day. They were loud, boisterous and very sure of themselves.

As my friend and I noticed them the atmosphere changed, maybe looking back they didn’t seem as nefarious as they did at the time. We were young and immature; stereotypes may have played a role in our view of the young people in our way. They looked bored and maybe wanted to have some fun at our expense.

My friend and I had been practising various martial arts for some time and he had been practising far longer than I. He was far better than I and I would consider him one of my teachers. A strange thing then happened which made me think and reconsider my view of training (and now teaching).

My friend held my arm as a child would when threatened by something and placed himself slightly behind me. It was a subtle gesture but I think I understood. It was a call for help, a call to say “this isn’t in my comfort zone and I need assistance”. Adrenaline can be confused for fear on many occasions and our fight or flight responses may manifest in many ways, but it seemed clear to me at the time – “please take charge”.

We carried on walking towards the group of people and they didn’t seem to want to get out of the way, standing confident as if to goad us into a reaction. It was a notorious area for trouble but most of it caused by boredom possibly or a sense of belonging to something which they felt was bigger than them, the collective.

As we came close to them it did seem like they wanted trouble staying in our path and now the shoulder were square to us staring and you could see their minds asking themselves a million questions. Calculating whether to stand down or act. I smiled at one that seemed to be the leader of the pack (Something I had learned from my brother) and said in my most confident voice “excuse me ladies”.

It was a calculation on my part; I didn’t want to have to physically protect myself. Most likely my friend and I would have come out far worse. I didn’t want that at all.

It worked they came out of the way and we walked right on to where we were going. Sometimes a show of madness is enough, everybody is afraid of a psycho.
When the adrenaline calmed down we talked about the incident and concluded the mind and body both need to be worked on.

One can train the body to do the most amazing things but if the mind gives up there is nothing the body can do.

How to train the mind?

1926915_1438693619704239_9113613269964998510_nAlways push yourself that little further than you think you can.
In my Muay Thai training it wasn’t uncommon to puke up. This was seen as something to be proud of. It meant you pushed your body, trained that much harder than before and your body fought back. You felt nauseous, went to the bathroom puked up, rinsed your mouth out and came back for some more.

It does seem these days that we have lost this in our aikido training and some of my students will tell you that our training sessions and our drill work can leave you thoroughly worn out. The look on their faces when I start counting in halves on their sets when they have already given me what they thought was their limit. I want to push them to be the best they can be, and that means pushing the boundaries. This works though, the next week they give me more, now that their minds know that they are capable of doing it.
Get out of your comfort zone and do challenging things.

In all dojos there are always groupings of people that like to train with each other. They become friends feed off of each other. Although this is good, sometimes it is good to break these routines. I put people together that I know will find it hard to train and apply techniques on each other. This is sometimes controlled at first and I let them fail a few times until I see a little frustration on their faces and their minds starts to wonder about the technique and it’s applicability or the way they have been practising it. I then intervene and demonstrate and tell uke to be a good uke and not always let me get away with the cracks in my technique. I demonstrate and then they do, and I try to be patient as not everyone gets it the first time. This nurturing also I find helps their minds when they actually achieve what they thought was previously impossible. I am always very happy at the ecstatic look that comes on their faces.
Nurture, don’t destroy.

Some instructors take great pleasure from putting down students. It is expected by them that the students put the instructor on a pedestal. An ego stroked environment causes submissiveness and creates drones that hinder thinking. These instructors destroy or exclude any person that can think for themselves and even stop them from training in other dojos.

I feel as an instructor, I should never shout at the students, for it not a privilege for the student that I am teaching them. It is a privilege for me that the students have given up their time to learn from me. An instructor must be patient and wise when dealing with students so as to not demean them in any way. Respect is earned and if the instructor is worthy respect will come naturally.

This is from my observations of students and classes I have attended and taught at. I have made many mistakes in my time as an instructor and as a student. I hope I have learned from those mistakes.

By keeping in the forefront that we train the mind also we can develop the mind that doesn’t give up at the first hurdle; a mind that is even equipped for failure sometimes and learns from those mistakes, a mind that is disciplined.

Train well train hard.

Tread softly by Mark Peckett

mpI have been reading a book called “Barefoot Doctor’s Handbook for the Urban Warrior” by a man called Stephen Russell. In equal parts it’s a mix of ancient Taoist philosophy, chi kung and new age beliefs with affirmations and visualisation thrown in.

So you could say it’s like the curate’s egg: good in parts.
But one passage in it struck me particularly. It was called “four Ounces” and subtitled “In life, three ounces of pressure is too little, five ounces is too much; four ounces meanwhile, is just right.”

He goes on to say that a response to a thousand pound punch on the cheek is to turn, reducing the amount of pressure to four ounces.

This concept should be very familiar to us as aikidoka. Awase or blending is exactly the same idea, accepting the attack like a revolving door and turning with it to let it pass. In fact, it is so familiar that I really don’t want to address it in this particular blog.
I want to look at what he says further on in the passage, and it is the reverse side of blending which isn’t really talked about in aikido at all. After all, once we have turned and uke is off posture, we tend to take that as the point where we, as tori, perform the technique, and the more powerfully the better. Is there a better feeling than the sound of our training partner crashing onto the mat as we demonstrate the power of our technique?

Stephen Russell says:
… when you apply pressure in any situation, apply it in measures of no more or less than four ounces. When you wallop a child’s balloon with a ‘thousand pounds’, there’s less pressure exerted over a greater surface, causing the balloon to move only a short distance and stall. When you flick that balloon with your finger using only four ounces, you are applying more pressure pro rata over a smaller surface area, thereby enabling it to sail gracefully across the room …

When I started practising aikido there was a lot of talk about “leading” your partner, but no one ever really explained the underlying reason, which is to unbalance them. Consequently there was a lot of movement to no real purpose.

Kuzushi or breaking your opponent’s balance is fundamental to aikido as it is to all of the throwing arts. The nature of aikido is that a small person should be able to throw a big person, but you cannot do that if the big person has a solid, stable base and you are the small person. In fact, exactly the opposite is going to happen! But once the big person is off posture as a result of leading or a well-placed atemi, it should become easy to throw them.
And of course, breaking your opponent’s balance has the added advantage that he will probably be using his arms to keep his balance and is therefore less likely to punch you in the face!

So, once uke’s posture is broken and he is off-balance, even if he has attacked with a thousand pounds of pressure, it will only take four ounces to topple him.
The use of too much pressure shows up particularly in nikkyo. It is one of the hardest techniques for beginners to grasp (no pun intended) and when they start they always apply maximum force to get minimum effect.

In “Total Aikido” Gozo Shioda shihan has a number of “don’ts” in performing the technique (all of the italics are my emphasis):
• “It is not a matter of merely twisting uke’s wrist”;
• “Do not waste your power by merely turning uke’s wrist; it is important to understand the correct angle and line in order to unbalance uke”;
• “If at this time you relax your hold on uke’s hand, you will not be able to bend his wrist when the time comes to cut down”;
• “If you stand directly in front, you will not be able to bend the elbow sufficiently as you turn it over”;
• “ … make sure that you don’t change the distance between the hand that you are holding and your own body … make sure you don’t twist the wrist, otherwise the direction of the power will be wrong, and you will not be able to use the power that you develop by moving forwards”.

That’s quite a list of “what not to do’s” to bear in mind, and the first time that a beginner actually gets nikkyo right, they are still applying the same amount of force that they originally used and uke disappears through the mat in an effort to relieve the pain.
Little by little beginners learn to power back, until they can apply the technique with four ounces of pressure.

What makes Stephen Russell’s four ounce concept particularly interesting is that he extends it to the way we speak to people, the way we make physical contact with each other and even the way we touch the earth we walk on.

He recognises that this four ounce idea is a metaphor, but in encouraging us to be have lightness of touch he is also encouraging us to be more receptive.
After all, you are going to be far less aware of what is going on around you if you are striding down the street like an invading army.

He uses a tai chi image which I have often used in my class to encourage my students to maintain a vertical posture whilst practising:
“ … visualise a cup of tea in your tantien [one point]. Your challenge is to retain all the tea in the cup as you walk, without spilling a single drop.”

I tell them, imagine that your legs and pelvis form a table and your upper body is a vase filled with water. Try to perform your techniques without pouring the water away.
So what he is saying is maintain your open-ness and treat everything with care – not the kind of care with which you would treat a poisonous snake, but the care with which you would hold a baby or look after an old person. And this care works best when the recipient is unaware that they are receiving care at all. It is subtle and that to me is the nature of the best aikido techniques.

Beginner’s Mind by Mark Peckett

111These two words translate from the Japanese word Shoshin. “Sho” means first or beginning and “Shin” means mind, spirit or attitude. It is generally taken to mean having an open-ness and not bringing any preconceptions to what is being studied.
It was popularised in the West by Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki in his book “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”. He wrote:
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.
This seems a fairly simple concept. It is advice against thinking you know it all. And yet, as I say to my students, if a technique I am demonstrating looks easy, it’s probably quite difficult, and if it looks difficult, it will probably prove to be quite easy.
I think this concept is nowhere near as easy as it sounds. Within the Martial Arts it is generally assumed to be the attitude required to practise and encompasses the determination to remain sincere, open and prepared to sacrifice and endure with faith in the teaching.
It is then assumed that that same state of mind should be held onto with determination throughout every stage of training as one progresses from being a beginner to an advanced student or an instructor oneself .
However, this is another of those Zen koan situations. Lost innocence cannot be regained by trying to regain it. Knowledge has got in the way, and the harder one tries to find one’s way back to it, the further one moves away from it. This is the meaning of the story of Adam and Eve – once we have tasted the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, we cannot return to Eden.
The same applies to Beginner’s Mind. The moment you begin to practise, you lose it. You begin to interpret and compare. The possibilities we have to learn are reduced every day we step into the dojo. This is something that Eckhart Tolle addresses in his book “The Power of Now”:
… virtually everyone hears a voice, or several voices, in their head all the time … Even if the voice is relevant to the situation in hand, it will interpret it in terms of the past … so you see and judge the present through the eyes of the past and get a totally distorted view of it.
This is how we lose our Beginner’s Mind. But can we regain it?
Obviously there are ways. The title of Tolle’s book clearly indicates one: The Power of Now. Paying attention to the moment, our breathing, the way we are moving, the sounds and smells of the dojo as we practise.
As I’ve said before, I am fond of saying to students who have just done a good technique (and they usually register it with a look of utter surprise on their face), “You might as well go home now – you’re not going to do another technique as good as that all night!”
I know because I’ve experienced it myself. For whatever reason, without thought, everything came together perfectly and astonished both myself and my uke. And then I ruined the rest of the evening trying to recapture what I’d just done: “Did I put my foot there?” “Can I do it again with a different uke?”
This is, if you like, The Power of Not Now. And the harder you try to get it back, the more it slips from your grasp.
This sense of awareness of something lost is seems to be universal as is the yearning to return to it. Hermann Hesse said:
… we are scarcely conscious of all we could do, all that we might make of our freedom … if we ever think of the freedom we possessed and have lost … we may well feel the greatest yearning for those days and imagine that if we ever had such freedom again we would fully enjoy its pleasures and potentialities.
I found this story by Mary Jaksch on her website “Goodlife Zen”, which illustrated what it feels like to get another chance at Beginner’s Mind.
She is a karate 4th dan and had decided to return training after a gap of five years. With the agreement of her instructor she came back as a lowly white belt. She says that what she found was this was an opportunity to reconnect with her practice in a new way – she no longer had to be a senior black belt on the outside – only on the inside.
Starting back down at the bottom end of the mat everything became very simple: just this punch, just this kick, just this block. All the other stuff, climbing up the ranks, being better than the people beneath you and not making a fool of yourself, aspiring to be as good as the people above you or thinking you already are better than some of the people above you, was all let go.
She goes on to say that starting again with Beginner’s Mind meant that she dropped all thoughts about what she should be. The voice that provides a near enough continuous commentary in our heads was stopped for her.
Of course now she is beginning to face the difficulty of maintaining that silence as her teacher pressures her to take gradings and rise up the ranks again!
I hope she resisted the temptation of telling the white belts she practised with that she had been a black belt before. Her techniques should have demonstrated that very well for her .
I certainly find when I go to a seminar or a new club that I tend to drop into the conversation somewhere how long I’ve been practising, and who I’ve practised with. This is not Beginner’s Mind. This is shoring up my ego, and as a result trying to give someone else’s ego a knock.
So maybe that’s what we can try to move towards in achieving Beginner’s Mind. Trying to treat each technique we practise wherever we practise as something new that doesn’t need a commentary or comparison. It just is, and it just is now.
And if we can achieve it occasionally in the dojo, maybe we can achieve it occasionally in real life!

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