Saturday, August 31, 2013

Elemental Aikido

I've been thinking about these elements, drawn from multiple traditions: Earth, Air, Water, Fire, Wood and Metal, and what makes a good aikido technique.

Here are a few initial thoughts. Like a good technique, I'm sure this will refine over time as I polish them through more reflection.

Earth is the grounding element. The practical. The ground we stand on. Does it work? Is it efficient? Is it true to the values and aspirations of our practice?

Air is the power of the breath. The spiritual connection between the seen and the unseen. Does it have a connection to a higher purpose?

Water is the flow. The ease of connection that moves, yielding, yet unyieldingly, toward its goal. Are you moving in harmony with your partner? Are you seeking resolution of the conflict?

Fire is the vitality. Does it have "zip"? Is the technique flat, mono-cromatic or dynamic and spirited? Does it spark something in you and the other person?

Wood is the Nature element. Does it follow the principles of nature, the Laws of the Universe? Is it transforming and creative? Is there a complete cycle, from beginning to end, of initiation, growth (natural development) and fading away which restores the natural harmony found in Nature?

Metal is the Mineral element. Metal is raw ore (from the Earth), forged (with Fire and Air), tempered (with Water) and shaped. Have you been "tempered" by your practice? Does your technique have "shape"? Is it a useful tool for the intended purpose?

A good technique is multi-layered, multi-dimensional. It has the depth of familiarity born from constant repetition. It has the ability to change and adapt to an ever-changing situation. It's effective without being damaging. It restores harmony.

To the mix, I would also add the notion of proportion. What is enough? What is too much? Too much of one element, not enough of another, throws the alchemy off and the intended result will not happen.

Too much Fire and you burn yourself, and others, out. You get injured. You get burned.

Not enough Air (holding your breath) and your energy fades. You run out of breath and are exhausted.

Too much Earth and you get stuck. New ideas and ways can't grow because the ground is not fertile or packed so hard the seed just sits on the surface.

Also add the idea of how the elements work together.

Add some Water, but not too much, and the Earth softens, the seed takes root. Add the warmth of the Sun (Fire), but not too much, and the seed opens and becomes a maturing plant. The plant takes in our "exhaust" (carbon dioxide - what we exhale) and gives back purified Air (oxygen). A transformation happens within the body of the plant.

You get the picture.

All this is nothing new. If you think about it, you know it already. The difficult part is living it.

That is our practice.

See you on the mat.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Struggling and Suffering

I’d like to draw a distinction between struggling and suffering.

Whenever you learn something new, there’s going to be a a struggle. Sometimes a little bit, sometimes a lot.

Take learning to tie your shoe laces as an example. Remember that? Remember how many times you tried, and messed up, before you finally got it. And now, years later, you hardly remember the difficulty. You probably just remember it as ”part of growing up.”

For a new student, learning aikido is something like that. Except, instead of one new body movement pattern, there are seemingly hundreds. And everyone of them with a different name! No wonder we struggle.

But this struggle is good. It’s part of the learning process. It’s to be expected and honored. And it is different from suffering.

Suffering is experiencing anguish. Pain. Emotional or physical. Suffering calls for alleviation.

Humans can witness each others struggle and find mutual respect in the process, knowing that at the end of the struggle is a clearly won personal achievement.

When humans witness suffering, however, the baseline response is to reach out and help alleviate or mitigate the hardship. This is our natural empathetic response.

On the mat, when one is learning aikido, there is struggle. There’s suppose to be struggle. But rarely do I experience those people who are struggling as also suffering.

Sometimes, yes. You do hear someone giving themselves a hard time. ”I’ll never get this”. ”I’m a slow learner.” ”I did it wrong again.” That sort of thing. Certainly, in those instances it may be helpful of offer a word of encouragement and a reminder about how, yes, you, too, struggled to familiarize yourself with this particular movement. Let them know that, yes, they are on the bell curve, and somewhere near the middle and not, as they imagine, way out on the edge.

Now, remember the learing-to-tie-your-shoe example a few paragraphs back? Of course, you do. Now, however let’s put ourselves not in the role of learning, but in the role of witnessing. Let’s imagine we’re the parent, or the teacher, or the friend who is helping and witnessing the process.

The question then becomes, not whether to help, but how to help, and when. Too soon, and you risk robbing the person of the satisfaction of figuring it out for themselves. Too late, and you risk them heading into the realm of possible suffering.

And, let’s add the element of age and experience. So now we’re not talking about kids, where every day is a day of major learning and potential struggle. We’re talking about adults. Competent adults. Self-reliant adults. Adults with fully developed, and defended, egos.

Adults where, if you say something to help them, it could make them feel even stupider. Or, if you don’t say something to help them, it could make them feel even stupider.

Add to this the factor of ”unsolicited advice”. Helping someone who has not asked for any help. Do they actually need help and either don’t know how to ask or know how to ask, but, for some reason, don’t.

So there you are, having just completed your four repetitions of the movement and you’re watching your partner struggle. What do you do?

First, let’s remember the difference between struggling and suffering. Are they struggling, or suffering?

If they’re struggling, should you help them immediately or give them some additional time to figure it out?

This is where it gets really interesting for me. And especially for me as the Chief Instructor who witnesses this process daily between training partners.

Here’s my take on it. In the context of struggling and suffering. The learner is struggling and their partner, the witness, is often suffering.

They’re just dying to say something, to do something, to help. To do ANYTHING that will help to alleviate their partner’s suffering.

But wait, your partner isn’t suffering. They’re struggling. You’re the one who’s suffering. And you’re suffering because your partner is struggling. Stop it. Stop suffering. Relax. Wait. Watch. The answer is right before your eyes. Be patient.

And while you’re being patient, think about this: There are generally two reasons why someone breaks the silence so necessary for good training. To help and to show off.

Are you breaking the silence to offer assistance or are you just letting them know how much you know? Think about it. This is not an easy question. Especially if you have an ego. And who doesn’t have an ego?

Have they asked for help? Have you slowed down? Have you started the technique from the beginning? Have you just waited in place for a moment?

If they haven’t asked for help, maybe you shouldn’t give any. I know you want to help, but your help may not be helpful right now. What helped you in a similar situation may be just the opposite of what is needed now. Maybe a question may be more helpful than a statement or your well-intentioned suggestion.

I’m not saying this process is easy. Nor am I saying there is a formula. But what I am saying is that there is a relationship. A relationship between you and your training partner. And that relationship needs to be respected and preserved.

You are not teacher-student. You are student-student. You’re more like siblings rather than parent and child. And, of you had siblings, you know the difference in your reactions and responses between when your parents tell you to do something and when a sibling tells you to do something. It’s the difference between ”Yes. Thank you. Right away.” and ”Buzz off. Get out of my face, you idiot.” This is the memory energy that you’re tapping into. A potential minefield.

Most students are open to having the ”teacher” come around and make suggestions. But not every student wants every other student constantly telling the what to do. It’s tedious. And it’s often counter productive. It may even drive some people away.

Your job is to train. That’s what you’re on the mat to do. Along with all those other people you bow in to. It’s the teacher’s job to teach.

Certainly, if you can be helpful, it may be helpful to help. But don’t assume just because you know the answer or think you know what someone else needs that you’re being helpful. You may just be getting in the way of the most natural thing there is. Learning.

Humans are hard-wired for mastery.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Level One - Commitment

(Originally published in 1995)

I just got back from the Mt. Baldy Zen Center in Los Angeles where each year over the Memorial Day weekend Frank McGouirk Sensei of Aikido-Ai in Whittier, CA hosts an aikido retreat which includes aikido training, tai chi, chi gong and early morning zen meditations.

One of the high points of the retreat is the dharma talk by Dr. Robert Moore, Frank’s zen teacher. This year he spoke on the eight levels of mastery. During his talk, I was struck by the similarities between the model he used from his Chinese martial arts experience and the map that I have formed from my own experience. Both start at commitment.

Mastery at level one is showing up. Getting to the dojo. Making yourself open and available for the teachings. Be there.

I have often said to new students that, in the beginning, the hardest thing is getting to the dojo. Once you’re there, the rest is easy. But, as each of us will attest, getting there can be difficult. There are lots of reasons for not going... we’re tired... we’re hungry... something good is on TV... we just don’t feel like it... you name it...

But. Sooner or later, you have to deal with it. How committed are you? And what are you going to do about it? You have got to show up in order to get the training.

In the “old days” commitment was tested first. Students were left sitting outside the monastery doors for days, for weeks, in the cold, in the rain, just to see if they were serious. In Japan, stories abound about new students cleaning toilets for a year before they were deemed worthy of being given even the most basic teaching.

What prospective student of today would wait outside the dojo for admittance longer that 15 minutes before going away thinking that maybe this wasn’t an auspicious occasion on which to start? They would come back when the stars were lined up better, or at least when the lights were on... And, as for cleaning toilets... janitors do that sort of thing... I mean, really...

And yet commitment is the very thing that will immediately determine who will stay and who will go. All other traits become secondary. Students with physical talent come and go. Students with enthusiasm come and go. It is the students with commitment that come and stay. Not because they are talented, not because it’s always fun, not because of anything other than they are committed to being there. Time after time after time. Because they want to get what is there and they are committed to getting it. It is this quiet fierceness that forms every black belt.

Remember the old stories of how black belts were made. One started with a white belt and over the years the sweat and dirt that permeated the belt turned it black. You couldn’t buy one. You had to make it yourself. No shortcuts. No quick way. No weekend courses. No home correspondence course. You had to show up to get it.

Over the course of a lifetime, there may be an ebb and flow to your training. There are times when you have lots of time to show up for training and there are times when time is scarce for training. Not a problem. Your commitment will keep you on the path.

Remember your commitment. To your training and to yourself.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


These are some of the guidelines regarding talking on the mat that I use in my own training:

If I'm talking, I'm not training.

If it's more than three words, it's a conversation.

Is what I'm about to say more important than maintaining the silence?

Rumi says:

There is a way
between voice and presence
where information flows.
In disciplined silence it opens.
With wandering talk it closes.

Pema Chodron says:

It's a transformative experience to simply pause instead of immediately filling up the space. By waiting, we begin to connect with fundamental restlessness as well as fundamental spaciousness.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Kangeiko Poetry, Friday 1/15/2010

Prescription for the Disillusioned

Come new to this day.

Remove the rigid overcoat of experience,

the notion of knowing,

the beliefs that cloud your vision.

Leave behind the stories of your life.

Spit out the sour taste of unmet expectations.

Let the old,

almost forgotten scent of what-if

drift back into the swamp

of your useless fears.

Arrive curious,

without the armor of certainty,

without the planned results for the life

you’ve imagined.

Live the life that chooses you,

new with every breath,

new with every blink of

your astonished eyes.

— Rebecca del Rio

The Journey

One day you finally knew what you had to do.

And began.

Though the voices around you

kept shouting their bad advice.

Though the whole house began to tremble

and you felt the old tug at your ankles.

“Mend my life,” each voice cried.

But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do.

Though the wind pried

with its fingers

at the very foundations.

Though their melancholy was terrible.

It was already late enough.

And a wild night.

And a road full of fallen branches

and stones.

But little by little

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds.

And there was a new voice

that you slowly recognized as you own

which kept you company

as you strolled deeper and deeper into the world.

Determined to do the only thing you could do.

Determined to save the only life you could save.

— Mary Oliver

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Kangeiko Poetry, Thursday 1/14/2010

The mystery cannot be answered

By repeating the question

Nor can it be bought

By going to amazing places.

Not until the eye and desires

Have been stilled for many years,

Not until then,

Can I cross over from confusion.

— Rumi

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

— Mary Oliver

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Kangeiko Poetry, Wednesday 1/13/2010


It doesn’t interest me if there is one God or many gods.

I want to know if you belong or feel abandoned.

If you know despair or can see it in others.

I want to know if you are prepared to live in this world with its harsh need to change you.

If you can look back with firm eyes saying this is where I stand.

I want to know if you know how to melt into that fierce heat of living falling toward

the center of your longing.

I want to know if you are willing to live, day by day, with the consequence of love

and the bitter unwanted passion of your sure defeat.

I have heard, in that fierce embrace, even the gods speak of God.

— David Whyte

Kangeiko Poetry, Monday 1/11/2010

Wanderer, there is no road

Wanderer, your footsteps are
the road, and nothing more;
wanderer, there is no road,
the road is made by walking.
By walking one makes the road,
and upon glancing behind
one sees the path
that never will be trod again.
Wanderer, there is no road -
Only wakes upon the sea.

— Antonio Machado

The original Spanish:

Caminante, son tus huellas

el camino, y nada más;

caminante, no hay camino,

se hace camino al andar.

Al andar se hace camino,

y al volver la vista atrás

se ve la senda que nunca

se ha de volver a pisar.

Caminante, no hay camino,

sino estelas en la mar.

And another English translation:

Wayfarer, the only way is your footsteps,

there is no other.

Wayfarer, there is no way,

you make the way as you go.

As you go you make the way

and stopping to look behind,

you see the path that your feet will never travel again.

Wayfarer, there is no way -

only foam trails in the sea.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Here's a simple kindness practice:

Count the number of kind acts you do in a day and then at 3 stop counting and continue doing acts of kindness.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Five Things I Would Like To See In My Lifetime

In no particular order, but, still... in my lifetime.

End of the death penalty.
End of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
Universal single payer healthcare.
Equal marriage rights for all couples.
Legalization of marijuana for medical and personal use.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Arrogance and Ignorance

Lately, I've been thinking about arrogance and ignorance. Here's what I've come up with so far: It's arrogance that keeps me from seeing the genius in others. And it's ignorance that keeps me from seeing the genius in me.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

An Open Heart

An open heart is a generous and loving heart. And a vulnerable heart. When confronted by life’s vicissitudes, we naturally build barriers and adopt behaviors to protect our gentle hearts. Yet, these same protective barriers and behaviors impede our natural flow of generosity and love.

Without practices and gatherings which allow us to reopen and reconnect to our loving selves and others, the path away from love grows wider every day and harder to reverse.

Reopening your heart is an act of courage. Learning practices which replace resistance with resilience and competitiveness with compassion begins the process of turning our hearts back to our original state. From clutching to caring, from bitterness to benevolence, and from a living death to a living life.

What practices do you do to reopen your heart? What gatherings do you attend which put you in the company of like-minded people seeking the same goals?

Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Quest for Non-Harming Techniques

It's clear from research that O'Sensei took the old martial arts techniques he had learned and modified them according to his spiritual practice. This evolution of techniques is part of our legacy from him. And one of aikido's cornerstones.

He left us a "work in progress." And it's our responsibility to continue searching for new effective self-defense techniques, and modifying old ones to become even less harming.

The analogy I often use is knee surgury. (Something too many are familiar with.) In the "old days" surgeons cut open your knee, spread it apart, repaired whatever was necessary and closed it up. Very invasive and it took a long time to heal.

The current "modern day" knee surgury is often arthroscopic. A couple of small holes, minor invasion, and shorter healing time.

Doctors are continuing to look for new and inovative ways to solve old problems. Less invasive, less traumatic. That type of quest is also necessary in aikido.

I call it the "Quest for Non-Harming Techniques."

Why throw someone in a way that might cause them injury when another, less risky, way will do the job? Why not deal with the situation in the most effective and yet least traumatic way possible?

So next time you're on the mat, why not look for a new way? Reducing the amount of violence in our lives is well worth the effort.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


I turned 60 today. And what an amazing 60 years it has been. If you had asked me at 12, or even 18, what I wanted to be when I grew up, I certainly wouldn't have said an aikido instructor. In fact, I had no idea that aikido even existed until I was about 21 years old and an Army buddy told me about it.

Now, 33 years after I began aikido, here I am with my own dojo and thriving community. I've been a full-time aikido instructor for 21 years and have been in the same location for 19 years. No small feat given the rise and fall of strip mall martial arts schools I've seen during that time.

It's hard to put into words how my practice has changed over the three decades. The closest thing may be something like, "It has deepened." The gradual unfolding that has happened has made me appreciate that something as life-changing as aikido takes years to even begin to understand.

I want to take a moment here, on my 60th solar cycle day, to express gratitude to Morihei Ueshiba, O'Sensei for his grand vision and his commitment to his own spiritual path; and to my first teacher Stan Pranin Sensei for his enthusiasm and curiosity about aikido and O'Sensei's life; and to my current teacher, Frank Doran Sensei for his continued support in allowing me to find my own personal path within the larger path of aikido; and to my wife, Linda for waking me up to the fact that without loving support from a life-partner, an important part of one's deepest self may never get expressed in the world; and to all my teachers over the years, both in aikido and in other practices, who have shown me both how to be and how not to be; and to all my students who have also been my teachers; and to my former wives, all my friends, my family...

To all of you, I love you.

Thank you.

It's been an amazing 60 years.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Allow No Harm. Do No Harm.

My wife, Linda, came up with one of the best short descriptions of Aikido I've ever heard.

"Allow no harm. Do no harm."


Take care of your yourself: Allow no harm.

And don't harm the other person: Do no harm.

O'Sensei said (or so it was said he said), "Aikido is the loving protection of all living things." All living things. Not just those things we already love. But the other things as well. The not so loveable things in our lives.

Jesus said (or so it was said he said), "Love your enemies." Loving your friends, and/or even close aquaintences is not so difficult. But your enemies? Now that's a practice.

I've created friends and I've created enemies. And I've turned friends into enemies. The hardest practice for me is the turning enemies into friends. That's worth trying. Again and again.

And while I'm practicing all that. I'll do my best to allow no harm and to do no harm.