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Monday, January 31, 2011

A Mirror for the Soul

The Academy rents its space from a convent, which means that, despite our charter through a public school district, we are often in contact with nuns and religious imagery. While most of the students have come to accept this as just part of the scenery, I still occasionally manage to look at the convent through Christian eyes.

My favorite part of the convent starts on the second floor and stretches up to the third: a big, beautiful Nineteenth Century chapel.

It has lovely stained glass windows, mosaic ceilings, a huge pipe organ back in the choir loft, a smaller pipe organ in the front, marble pillars and altar, the works. The acoustics inside are enough to make a singer like myself salivate. Stepping into the space inspires a strange mix of feelings in me: awe, wonder, insignificance, closeness to God.

The last time I stepped into the chapel (I snuck in for a few moments to listen to the organist practice), a strange thing happened, or rather almost happened. I felt an urge to bow as I went in. Not bow my head in prayer, mind you, but rei, the Japanese bow I perform when stepping into the dojo or onto the mat.

This opens up the floodgates for a staggering number of questions about how the martial arts have affected my thinking and my spirituality in the past year, but I'll start with the biggest and most important: have I begun to equate the martial arts with religion?

To be sure, my martial arts training, especially the aikido, has a spiritual element to it. The kneeling, the bowing, and the ritualized breathing exercises all seem to reach for something more than material. Even some of the warm-up exercises at the beginning of the aikido class are derived from Shinto ritual. But I don't pray to O Sensei (Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of aikido) and I don't go looking for salvation in a kotegaeshi or a side kick. I don't even buy into the more mystical interpretations of ki.

Still, it is clear that my martial arts spirituality is moving into space previously reserved for religious spirituality. If, as I concluded above, the problem isn't that I am affording the martial arts undue religious significance, then the problem must come from the other side, that is, my own observance of religion. There must be some kind of spiritual need I am not filling with Christianity as I am currently practicing it.


Not only have I poked an embarassing hole in my religious self-assuredness, but I have discovered a surprising power of the martial arts. I just used them as a sort of spiritual mirror, looking into them and seeing something about myself that I hadn't been able to see from inside my own head. It's a strange feeling.

What else might I accomplish this way? What else might I find in this new mirror? Maybe I don't want to know.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Less is More, I Hope

The taekwondo instructor at the Academy is on a mission.

Only last year, he seemed a quite traditional-minded martial arts instructor, mixing elements of kali and tai chi into his taekwondo classes, solemnly preaching the tenets all taekwondoists know by heart: courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, indomitable spirit. Not that he no longer does these things, mind you, but he seems to have undergone some kind of transformation. He is no longer a mere instructor.

Now he is a coach. A fully qualified USA Taekwondo coach.

He and another one of our staff members are on a full-time crusade to turn the school into one of the top centers of competitive youth taekwondo in the Midwest, if not the country. Oh sure, he's taken our students to tournaments before, as far north as Green Bay and as far south as the northernmost suburbs of Chicago, but he's got a core of students now for whom there are much bigger plans. There have been conversations recently about Oregon and Oklahoma.

It's an admirable mission. Besides bringing more attention and possibly more funding to the school, he's providing an opportunity for serious competitive sport to a school that has offered almost none to its student body to this point. It's particularly great for his more serious and talented taekwondo students, who might now get a shot at exposure to world-class taekwondo on a pretty regular basis. All good news, right?

Good news for everyone except me. I'm a 28-year-old yellow belt with very little interest in trophies and even less talent for competitive athletics. There is no longer room for me in after school classes, and Saturday mornings, which used to be devoted entirely to the hour-and-a-half-long adult class, now play host to a one-hour adult class (even that partially populated by teenage students) and a one-hour kids' class. My opportunities for training in taekwondo are becoming much slimmer, and I must confess to a little bit of self-pity and jealousy.

But Matt, you ask, isn't your instructor's primary duty to the students? Isn't his instruction for adult staff members a free goodwill service that you have no right to take for granted? Hasn't your attendance at the adult taekwondo classes been sporadic even at the best of times? Haven't you even suggested on this very blog that aikido is your first choice as a martial art and your future in taekwondo is limited? Shouldn't you just be happy for your students and proud of your instructor's efforts on behalf of the school?

Well, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. Touché. So I'm being petty, irrational, and childish. Thanks for reminding me.

I suppose next you're going to tell me that the solution to all this is to just shut up and train whenever I can. Well, I have news for you, you condescending, judgmental reader. You can't tell me what to do. I make my own decisions, and I decide... to shut up and train whenever I can.

It's true: I don't really have any business harboring indignation about playing second fiddle to a group of younger, more talented, more devoted students whom my instructor actually gets paid to instruct. I guess that doesn't make it all better, but it does make my course of action pretty clear, especially in light of the tenets of taekwondo.

The second tenet of taekwondo is usually known in English as "integrity", but it carries an additional connotation in Korean. I've read some older books that translate it as "humility". If humility, then, is an essential element of taekwondo, then swallowing my pride, taking my one-hour class, and accepting that I'm not anywhere near the top of the priority list makes me a better taekwondoist, right?

I said, right?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Choral Singing and Zanshin

The businessman turns out to have a lot of zanshin. Translating this concept into English is like translating "fuckface" into [Japanese], but it might translate into "emotional intensity" in football lingo.
"Emotional intensity" doesn't cover half of it, of course. It is the kind of coarse and disappointing translation that makes the dismembered bodies of samurai warriors spin in their graves. The word "zanshin" is loaded down with a lot of other folderdol you have to be [Japanese] to understand.
- Neil Stephenson, Snow Crash

Usually, when my sensei at the dojo brings up zanshin, she is reminding me to maintain my stance at the completion of the technique. I am slowly learning, though, that there is much more to zanshin. And the more I learn, the more apparent it becomes that I don't have it.

Zanshin seems to be related to the Buddhist principle of mindfulness. It means being aware and ready before, during, and after a technique. It means devoting all one's attention and energy to every detail of what one is doing. It means total, focused commitment to every motion.

I have a hard time scrubbing a dirty plate with zanshin, let alone performing an aikido technique.

There is a new yudansha (black belt) at the dojo. His style is very different from ours, which often makes him confusing to work with. But sweet Lord, has this guy got zanshin. Every movement of his arm is a deliberate cut with an imaginary sword. There is a purpose for his every step. At the end of every technique, his hands are ready and his eyes wide in anticipation of another attack he knows isn't coming.

When showing his favorite technique, a Saito-style shomenuchi ikkyo, even his little pinky finger is buzzing with zanshin. If you think I'm exaggerating, it's only because you've never seen him. He even bows with zanshin.

I used to wonder what I must look like to him, haphazardly hacking my way through the steps of a technique, missing all the little details, and then congratulating myself for getting to the end, with no thought crossing my mind of maintaining a constant energy.

I say "used to wonder" because I think I figured it out last night at choir rehearsal.

Now me, I'm the son of a choir director, a veteran of classical choirs since age twelve, and an extensively trained classical baritone. If I do say so myself, I'm practically a professional. Most of my fellow choir members I tend to think of (rather condescendingly, I admit) as "church choir singers". They sound just fine, but to a snob like myself, they seem to be lacking something: an energy, an urgency, a deliberateness.

I sing with intensity. My pianissimo has as much energy as my fortissimo. I put all my effort into the shape of every vowel, the enunciation of every consosant, the timing of every rest. My back is straight, my shoulders are rolled back, and my folder is always held just so.

The choir sang the last note of a piece last night, and then all seemed to relax and shut down as the piano finished the final cadence. Our director made note of this after the music stopped, reminding us that our duty to the congregation does not end until the music ends. I was struck at that moment by how much he sounded like my sensei.

For my part, I didn't need to be reminded. Until a moment after the last note played, my posture remained in place, my music was held up for me to see, and my right hand was ready to turn another nonexistent page. My eyebrows were raised expectantly, waiting for a cue from the director that I knew wasn't coming, and my jaw was loose and ready to open for another note.

This is zanshin, I thought. Up here in the choir loft, I have zanshin to burn. I have all 31 flavors of zanshin.

I have a hard time making connections between my music and my martial arts. I suspect this is because I have a talent for music that is proportional to my passion, and no such talent for the martial arts. But tonight at the dojo as I train my aikido, I will try to find that feeling I have on the choir risers.

I suspect it will be a largely fruitless search, but at least now I have some idea of what I'm looking for.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Lovely Lucy and Steady Sally: A Martial Arts Metaphor

A little over a year into my journey as a martial artist, my conundrum remains the same: aikido and taekwondo competing for my time, my energy, and my attention. Aikido seems to be winning, but taekwondo isn't going away.

It was starting my job at the Academy, a school where all the students learn taekwondo as physical education, that piqued my interest in the martial arts to begin with. Taekwondo's beautiful poomse (forms), the acrobatic kicks, the statuesque stances, the rush of sparring with a friend or just punching and kicking pads or a bag. It's exciting, it's a great workout, and it makes me feel like the star of a martial arts movie.

Taekwondo does occasionally come up short in the area of intellectual and spiritual stimulation, though, and there are times in my training when I feel like 28 years old is too late to start conditioning my body to perform head-high kicks when I've never been able to touch my toes before.

When I took my martial arts search outside of work, I found aikido. Compared to the hard, simple punches and kicks of taekwondo, it's very gentle and yet very demanding. Rather than simply striking or kicking my opponent, aikido expects me to harmonize with his movements and take control of him. Sometimes that's no easy task.

I find peace in aikido's traditional ettiquette and ritual, and I find completeness in the fact that its philosophy and ethics are readily apparent in every technique. Sometimes it isn't much of a workout, though, and there are days when trying to understand it feels like trying to grab hold of a shadow. But there is a future in aikido: it keeps my mind busy and expects less of my body. I think the 55-year-old me might appreciate this someday.

I have the age-old man's dilemma: Lovely Lucy on one side and Steady Sally on the other.

Lucy (taekwondo) is, well, hot. She's sexy. She's stylish. She's always doing something fun. She's the kind of girl tough guys fight over and other guys dream about. What guy wouldn't want this girl on his arm?

Maybe she's not the best for clever conversation, and sometimes it's hard to keep up with her. To be honest, she might be a little young for me.

Sally (aikido) is certainly lovely in her own way, but not very glamorous and a little shy. An evening with her is more likely to be spent on the couch than in a club. There are nights when I want to go for a drink or a movie and she just isn't up for it.

If less exciting, she's certainly interesting. Unlike Lucy, she makes a regular habit of reading books without pictures in them. She has less to say than Lucy, but more to talk about. She can be a little demanding emotionally; she's looking for commitment, not just companionship.

She's a good cook. Her house is clean. She's comfortable.

For some time now, I've been flirting with both. I like to think that I can keep this up for a while longer. But I know someday I'll have to choose, and on that day, I'll choose Sally. She's better marriage material, and I'm not going to be young enough to handle Lucy forever. Truth be told, I was more of a Sally kind of guy in the first place.

But right now I'm still young, and I just can't get Lucy out of my head. The beauty and the excitement are too much for a guy to resist. So in the end, I'm back where I started, only a year older. I'm still devoted to one, and I'm still unable to give up the other. I'm about to turn 29, and I'm gearing up for another year of dedicated fence-riding.

If nothing else, it should be a fun ride.

Much to learn...


My name is Matt.

The Newbie Deshi blog will chronicle my thoughts and experiences as a beginner in the martial arts.

For some background on the subject matter of this blog, I have been training in the martial arts for a year now. I have been learning aikido at a non-profit aikido club in Milwaukee, and (to a lesser degree) taekwondo at work.

"Work", for me, is a Milwaukee charter school where taekwondo is taught in place of traditional physical education. This has offered me the opportunity to train with students and coworkers free of charge, though not as often or as consistently as I would like.

 My hope for the Newbie Deshi blog is that I will be better able to learn from the lessons and experiences of martial arts training by putting them into writing and rereading and reexamining them.

Oh, and one extra note:
The image at the top of the blog is taken from the book Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere, a veritable classic of the martial arts world by Adele Westbrook and Oscar Ratti. I cannot claim credit for these iconic illustrations.