Monday, January 21, 2013

What Martin Luther King Jr. Day means to me

To me—and this is simply my thoughts on the subject as of today—Martin Luther King Jr. Day is about so much more than just the relationship between white people and black people. It's even about more than just "racism."

It's about the seemingly instinctive impulse for one human being, or group of human beings, to consider themselves superior to another person or people, for whatever reason. And all kinds of reasons exist, even today: men believing they are superior to women; one nation believing they are superior to another nation; the young believing they are superior to their elders; the rich and entitled believing they are superior to the poor and uneducated; one religion believing they are superior to all other religions; this politcal party believing they are superior to the other.

I've seen people act with cruelty or indifference (and I believe ignoring someone is just as bad as mistreating them) for the most absurd of reasons: because they were born with a disability, because they have red hair, because they talk funny.

Worst of all, we often hold dear such dark and corrosive beliefs because we have convinced ourselves that they are in fact "correct" and justified, swearing up and down that they don't stem from our own fears and insecurities but are supported by proof or reason or a Higher Power.

"The principles of the other politcal party are to blame for all our woes. God sanctions my religion, but considers yours sinful. Other people are poor because of their own bad decisions."

No. Martin Luther King Jr. Day is about accepting responsibility for all of it. Me, individually.

As O Sensei once said, "As soon as you concern yourself with the 'good' and 'bad' of your fellows, you create an opening in your heart for maliciousness to enter. Testing, competing with, and criticizing others weaken and defeat you."

The relationship between whites and blacks was simply the most relevant, and deeply personal, example of the day through which Dr. King could preach his message. For Jesus, it was the relationship between Jews and Samaritans. The message is the same. We simply MUST learn to look beyond the things that make us different. We must fight not just racism, but fight to anihilate that natural tendancy within to lift ourselves above another for any reason.

“The good neighbor looks beyond the external accidents and discerns those inner qualities that make all men human and, therefore, brothers." —Martin Luther King Jr. Strength to Love

We don't commemorate Dr. King today because his famous dream has been realized. Far from it; there is still much work to be done.

So for me, what Martin Luther King Jr. Day means is a day to stop and realize that when I assume that I'm not racist, when I'm positive that I haven't held anyone in a lesser regard—I'm mostly likely fooling myself. You and I can't just "turn off" millions of years of ingrained human behavior.

It is to me then a grave mistake to assume that Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a celebration for "someone else" simply because I'm white. That thought, in and of itself, separates humanity. I suspect that Dr. King's dream will have been realized when we as a planet have no need to even have a Martin Luther King Jr. Day. 

Until then, we must practice. Every day.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Five Elements: Earth

After fire—again, in my mind—comes earth.

Here we find the techniques in aikido which tend to bring uke under control, as with pins and joint locks such as oshi taoshi, waki gatame, or tenkai kote hinari. With earth, one's ki is much, much more calm than with fire. In fact, earth is emotionless, being neither angry nor kind.

Though not as merciless as fire, it stems more from apathy than compassion. Earth is steady, hardly moving. Ki moves in small increments, usually up and down—especially down.

Earth is patient, and will wait for uke to bring the attack, even baiting him. Like a python, earth allows uke to squirm all he likes, all the while crushing him gradually at the right moments with deceptive ease. Uke slowly crumples helplessly under earth, often digging his own hole from which he cannot escape.

Both earth and fire do not evade or escape; they own and command the line of movement, derailing uke.

Earth is comfortable with his tekui waza, his favorite techniques. They work, and he is content with his understanding of them. Consequently, he is reluctant to learn new things, or to explore other ways of doing what he always been doing. Many times, you will find brown belts and new black belts inhabiting the earth element.

Earth's attention is keen, even when one may think he isn't paying attention. He is very much in the moment. While fire tends to act on assumptions, earth is content with what is. That unflappable comfort can be very unnerving to opponents. He is intimidating to say the least.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Five Elements: Fire

To me, the element of fire can be represented in aikido by techniques such as the first five techniques of junana hon kata, or randori no kata (or "the 17" as we often call it).

Like these, fire is direct, right to the center line (as opposed to working from uke's elbow or wrist). It often moves in short, straight lines.

With fire, one's ki moves quickly, instantly lighting up the sky like lightning, and fades just as fast.

Fire is definitely not soft. Rather, fire is sharp and capable of taking an opponent down in a single cut. There are no joint locks or pins, no effort to control or suppress; fire simply strikes (hence, ateme waza).

In terms of "go no sen, sen no sen, and sensen no sen", fire lays more in the realm of sensen no sen: our opponent has perhaps only the intention, the thought of attacking. Scarcely can he begin his move when the flames sweep in and level him like a forest fire.

Which means fire can also be impetuous, eager, quick to action. When conflict arrises, striking is his first thought. He is motivated by feelings of justice, of delivering what he feels his opponent "deserves." Consequently, fire can easily veer off into self-righteous fervor. It can convince a person that their own path is the correct one.

Fire is like youth: boundless energy mixed with little fear. The line between "brave" and "foolish" is blurred. Beginning students start with fire. It's fast, powerful, easily grasped. Their eagerness to use what they have learned, however, can leave them burned.

Fortunately, they are also quick to get right back up and try again. They are not easily discouraged; and when they are, their resolution is soon redoubled.

You see, to my way of thinking, there is a yin and yang to each element (at the risk of mixing my metaphors). There are advantages and drawbacks, strengths and weakness. Both sides of the coin much be understood and respected.

Next, earth.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Contemplating the Five Elements

My sensei has on occasion related aikido techniques to what are commonly known as "the five elements", which are of course earth, water, fire, wind, and in the Japanese version, the "void". It's a fairly common concept, really, that seems to permeate most cultures. To students of Japanese martial arts, probably the most familiar association would be Miyomoto Musashi's renown work, "Book of Five Rings".

In the Japanese tradition, the elements are called the 五大 (go dai, literally "five great"). These five are earth, water, fire, wind/air, and void. Or, in Japanese: 地火風水空 (chi ka sui fuu kuu).

Now, I've thought a lot about relating the concept of the five elements to aikido, and frankly, wondered if attempting to do so was merely an exercise of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. After all, isn't the whole idea of the five elements is one of those cool, poetic philosophical constructs that would be ideally suited to martial arts? Something a wise old man in the movies would use to teach the hero, his young new disciple?

But c'mon, does it really apply to everything? Or is it a case of a hammer looking at all problems as nails? Yes and no.

You see, hearing others' explanations of how it related didn't always click with me 100%. Something always seemed just a tad skewed, like ancient scientists bending the math to support their theory that the orbits of the planets around the sun was perfectly circular rather than eliptical.

But as with any aspect of martial arts (or pretty much anything else you'll endeavour to learn in life), you can only coast so far using someone else's sails. At some point, if you hope to progress beyond a certain point, you have to ponder what you've been given all by yourself. You have to spend time on your own looking at it from all sides, trying it, testing it, questioning it, even abandoning it for a while. 

Eventually, you come to your own conclusions, your very own personal understanding. But it's yours, and yours alone. Not your teacher's understanding, not the ancients', not your students'. And that's okay. It's when we and others express our own understanding that we get to the "art" aspect of a martial art.

As another teacher once put it, "In principles, united; in artistry, free." So, all that being said, I thought I'd take some time and jot down my thoughts thus far on the subject of the five elements and how they might relate to aikido—to me. I am by NO means an expert on the subject and some or all of it may change over time; I am not attached by any means. I write it down as if dropping a leaf in a stream.

I'll start by contemplating not earth first, as it is commonly listed, but rather fire.

To be continued...

Many moons

Hey, y'all. Been a loooooong time, I know. I could offer up the usual excuses—life/work/whatever has been busy—but I think you all know how that goes.

Just so you know, I haven't lost interest in studying budo; I've been going to class. I guess it's just that (in addition to all the business) I haven't felt much like pontificating about anything.

Although, in the past couple of months I have had some thoughts along one particular subject, which I  have jotted down offline. So, if I'm going to get back into the blogging game, I suppose that would be a good place to start.

It has to do with the five elements: fire, earth, wind, water and the void. Or at least, my own interpretation on them. Stay tuned.