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Friday, August 23, 2013

What is a Martial Art For?

I have stumbled into many discussions on Bullshido, Martial Arts Planet, and AikiWeb lately with people who have a very strong sense of what their martial arts are all about and what is good (and not good) for their martial arts as a whole.

Performance art is not what taekwondo is for and is bad for taekwondo. Aikido is a spiritual pursuit and people who leave the spiritual element out of aikido are missing the point. People who aren't really learning to fight are wasting their training and are diluting the martial arts.

These claims are all rooted in the same basic belief: that a martial art is for something, that it has an objective raison d'etre which is independent of the needs and goals of the individual martial artist. If your practice of the art does not serve this particular purpose, then it is wrong, and, even worse, it harms the art as a whole.

My favorite martial arts blogger, Rob Redmond of 24 Fighting Chickens, addresses this belief in discussing one of his blog entries:
Karate is not _for_ anything. Karate doesn't have emotions. It isn't a person. Karate is a concept, an instruction set, a gathering of principles.

The people who do the Karate determine what they do it for. That is where the purpose comes from -- from the people who do it. Each of them does it for a different reason.

Just because I do not do Karate for a particular reason does not mean the reason is invalid for you. It simply means that we are habituated to thinking about Karate incorrectly and speaking of it as if it had willpower and personality -- as if my doing it one way would affect the other way of doing it someone else practices.

That has come to us, I believe, from the group-think of organized sports, organized religion, and the Japanese culture.

"Gambling isn't good for baseball." What the heck does that mean? It means that the person saying it doesn't like what happens when people gamble. Baseball isn't damaged by gambling. Baseball happens all over the country whether anyone gambles or not. But his experience is lessened, he feels, if the players gamble.

"What is Karate for?" is the same sort of group-think question. Karate isn't for anything. Nothing is good or bad for "Karate." Karate isn't a person.

I'm with Rob. I think a martial art, like all forms of art, exists for its own sake (ars gratia artis). It doesn't need to have a point. It doesn't have to justify or validate its existence by serving a particular purpose. It is up to me to determine what purpose my aikido serves in my own life, and it is up to every other martial artist in the world to make that determination for himself. Their reasons do not  invalidate mine, and vice versa.

This strips me of the authority to say that something is "bad for aikido". I can only speak for myself and my own needs; all I really mean if I say that something is "bad for aikido" is that it is bad for me.

This doesn't mean I don't have complaints about the way some people practice the martial arts; I do. Some people (like the belt-chasers I described in "Karateville") practice martial arts in a way that negatively affects my own personal experience of my art when I train with them. But I cannot be so arrogant as to presume my complaints are -- or should be -- everyone's. I don't have that authority. No one does.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Two Lessons From Tim Detmer

Tim Detmer in 2006. (source)
Twice in the past two weeks I have had the great privilege of training under Tim Detmer, an American-born aikido instructor who has spent the last 29 years living and training in Shingu, Japan. Working with him was in equal measures challenging, educational, inspiring, and exhausting.

If nationality can be measured in years, Detmer Sensei is more Japanese than American. He was born and raised in Seattle, but has lived most of his adult life and done virtually all his formal aikido training in Shingu. He is, therefore, uniquely equipped to communicate a Japanese perspective on aikido to an American audience.

Apart from his insights on aikido method and technique (which would be difficult for a novice like myself to put into words and which would be very dry reading in any case), Detmer Sensei left me with two lessons that I'd like to preserve here, as much for my own benefit as for any reader's.

Do not be too focused on your opponent.

Another way Detmer Sensei put this was: "Do not give him the honor of being your enemy."

Aikido and life work better when we decide on our own course of action based on what we think it ought to be rather than on whom we want to defeat. In aikido, being too focused on our opponents can lead to badly aimed technique, exposure to reversal, and compromised balance. In an argument, becoming too focused on our opponent can lead to attacking the man and being dragged off onto tangents (yes, message board freinds, I'm guilty). In all things, there are goals and obstacles. If we focus on the obstacle, we tend to miss the goal.

One of the instructors at my old club used to say, "I don't care," as nage when talking about uke. I think he was trying to make the same point.

Undertake all things with gratitude.

In aikido and in life, learning to be grateful for what is keeps us from dwelling on what has been or what could be. This not only makes us more positive people, but it keeps us in the now. Detmer Sensei claimed that gratitude was a determining factor in the success of any undertaking.

Another way Detmer Sensei put this was: "Want what you have." He illustrated his point by saying, "I really wish I had a great aikido class with 20 students," then looking around and observing, "I do!"

We in aikido love to talk about taking what we learn in the dojo "off the mat". There are a lot of people who take this idea much further than I'm comfortable with, believing that everything they do is somehow a manifestation of aikido. I don't think I'll ever buy into that kind of thinking, but these past two weeks Detmer Sensei has shared a few things that I'll definitely be taking home with me.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Grappling With Humanity

(Image source: CBS News)
The latest innovation in the world of portable technology is Google Glass, the computer you wear on your face. I have yet to see this thing in person, but I can't help thinking that the first time I do I'm going to find it comical and creepy in equal measures. I mean, dude, you're wearing a computer on your face.

I especially hope that I don't actually have to talk to the person wearing it. It would be positively unnerving to try and have a conversation with someone who may or may not be looking at a LOLcat or a Twitter feed (to say nothing of the less innocent possibilities) while I'm speaking to him. According to an NPR piece I listened to last night, those who are wearing Google Glass are already being labelled "glassholes", and I think I can imagine why.

I'm sure the proponents of progress and innovation would be quick to assure me that I'll get used to Google Glass -- and the imitators that are sure to follow it -- in the same way that I've gotten used the internet, the laptop, and the smartphone before it. They're certainly right that I've gotten used to a lot in my short lifetime, but I think this particular invention might be going a little too far for me.

My whole life, I have watched real interaction with real people being slowly replaced by technology. Video games replaced ball games, discussion boards replaced discussions, virtual worlds replaced the real world. Then laptops let us take these replacements anywhere we could find a place to sit, and then smartphones let us keep these replacements in our pockets all the time. And now, with Google Glass, we will have the option of avoiding human interaction even while ostensibly interacting with people.

Now, before any reader who knows me points out my hypocrisy, let me point it out myself.

I am a blogger. I am a gamer (currently on my third time through Fallout: New Vegas). I am a regular poster on at least five internet forums. I have preferred books to people my whole life, and now I get my books on my smartphone rather than going to buy or borrow them from places manned by real people. In short, I am hopelessly dependent on technology and I am as guilty as anyone of using it as a replacement for a real social life.

All that said, Google Glass still worries me. The times when circumstances force us to come face-to-face with other human beings are the last bastion of real interaction. If I can't go to the store or to a restaurant without a computer screen literally attached to my face, it's pretty much all over. I might as well go full-on Mr. House at that point (if you don't get that reference, good for you). I admit I'm right at the line, but I'm still very afraid of crossing it.

In light of that fear, I'm glad to have aikido.

There is something that has always felt so very separate and different about aikido, like stepping into the dojo is entering another world. I used to think this was about things like the gi and the hakama, the bowing, the Japanese terminology, the weapon racks, the sitting in seiza, and the image of Ueshiba on the kamiza. The more I train, though, the more I come to see these things as nonessential trappings, and the more these trappings lose their novelty for me. What really sets aikido apart from the rest of my postmodern existence is the people.

Grappling is cooperative to the core; it cannot be done alone. Players at aikido, judo, jujutsu, wrestling, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, etc. are unique among sportsmen. They have no ball, no bat, and no racket. They have no net and no basket. Even in practice, they have no pads or bags to hit, and no forms to train against empty air. There is no medium other than another human being -- one whose sweat will be mingled with your own, whose pain will mirror your own, and whose movements will be real-time responses to your own.

Aikidoists generally don't like to think of their art as primitive, but I think there's something wonderfully primitive about it. The thousands of years we have spent developing new, more diluted ways of interacting with other humans, from the first written words all the way to the current generation of social media, are forgotten: come to me, grab hold of me, and throw and be thrown. Aikido training is as low-tech as my life gets and is more physically intimate than anything I do with anyone other than my wife and daughter. It flies in the face of the e-world of profiles, avatars, and typed messages.

Grappling, I think, offers us a unique opportunity to remember what it is to be human. And it is this memory, I hope, that will prevent me from one day joining the ranks of the "glassholes".