One of a sensei’s never-ending goals is to pass on lessons learned, the truths that they themselves have struggled so hard to achieve. Ultimately it is the sensei’s wish for their students to attain and surpass what they have become, and to continue the ryu for future generations. If the student is ready for the lesson and is willing to do the work, the magic will happen.
Lately during class I have found myself bantering on about the advantageous nature of simplicity. I explain that the understanding of our arts over time should become more simple, and easier to comprehend. The deeper our experience, the less complicated it should be. In a strange way we as practitioners of DZR have spent a great deal of time and effort working on how not to do the techniques, so that eventually we come to a more refined perception of what this is all about. With progress measured in years, we whittle away at extraneous movements to awaken to this implication: what we don’t do in an art is as important as what we do. I can still hear Prof. Fisher’s words ringing true: “I thought that I had seen every wrong way this technique could be done, but you have shown me yet another!”
Though I enjoy a similar sarcastic teaching style, occasionally we as sensei must offer something constructive – and heaven forbid – practical. While nursing a dinged rib and unable to actively participate in much of class, I found myself observing our students much more than I was accustomed to. Having preached endlessly on how important it is to actively participate every possible moment, I am reluctant to admit I may have gained some insight by simply watching class. While our blackbelts worked hard on the Oku list, I believe I had a moment of clarity which sent my mind whirling with all its implications.
What I realized isn’t something new, revolutionary or even cool. In fact, I am willing to bet that many of you reading this already know what I observed that evening. My Sensei Ward Melenich even had it written on our chalkboard a few months prior. As students, we simply train the arts. As sensei, we must achieve a higher acuity so that we might transmit the tradition. I guess I am just a bit slow in that department. In my defense I feel that I indeed understood the overlying principle, but failed to see how far reaching it was. For sensei, those nuggets are pure gold – the concepts that unify so much of what we do.
What was it that my sensei had written on the chalkboard that is so incredibly profound it compelled me to write this wordy and overdone article? Here it comes: “It’s pushing”. I warned you, and yet you are still underwhelmed. What I noticed while watching our BB’s was a sharp pulling back on uke’s arm while finishing an armwhip. Mankind’s natural tendency towards possession and “grabbiness” serve us poorly in all aspects of our lives, and the martial arts are no exception. I began to notice the prevalence of contraction in much of what I was seeing. Extension – conversely – tends to aid in the efficiency and effectiveness of our arts. In katate hazushi ichi, for example, we should push our elbow forward with our center, not pull our wrist back with our bicep. In tsurikomi goshi we should extend uke out off of our hip, not pull the arms to wrap them around our midsection. In gyaku juji jime we should be extending the distal heads of our ulnas into uke’s carotid arteries, not pulling our hands to our own chests. In kote gaeshi we extend uke’s elbow out over their pinky toe to throw their shoulder through an arc, not pull the arm back towards yourself so they can simply turn to face you, still standing.
I know there are many ways to do an art, and there are also counters to all of them. I also know that there are exceptions to all rules. That being said, I feel that the majority of what I do is extension from my center. I now hear all the aikidoka in the world saying “No *hit Sherlock!” I already told you, I’m kind of slow.
The more I thought about it, the more the idea of extension made sense. Whether considering specifics or painting with a broader brush, it holds true more often than not. Take posture for example: I know that concentrating on good posture will improve virtually any art, and that good posture is extension, not contraction. The physical benefits of focusing on extension are many, but the system of DZR goes way beyond its laundry list of techniques.
We as students struggle for years to grasp our sensei’s lessons, frustrating ourselves to no end. We look to the sky, arms outstretched and yell “Why?!!!” Or, regretfully we blunder on in complete denial thinking that we have “got it”. Are these roadblocks to mastery caused by some disability, or as Sensei Bob Kunkel says: “because you are encumbered with 2 good knees?” Not likely. If we have been training a technique for 5-10 years with little progress, it may just be because of the “10 lbs of dead weight lying on our shoulders” (Prof. Jenkins).
The mind is a tricky devil. We ourselves create this paradox: We can’t master the arts until we control our mind, and no mind will be mastered until our skills permit. The more we emotionally invest in a technique, the more it is likely to fail. Our minds seem quite willing to invent complexity where it need not exist – and this I can assure you is not the correct path. When it comes to the mind, thankfully Zen can offer some freedom from the dualities we face. Zen itself is no picnic, but over time can be of great benefit to our studies of the martial arts. In the context of our lessons, Zen demands us to be unattached, to be free from what we imagine the art to be. To be free from the experience of the 1000 previous attempts at an art, and again I will repeat: free from what we imagine the art to be.
Senior Instructor Jeff Meyers was teaching at a National Convention class I was attending some years ago. Jeff said something that I have thought about on and off since he said it: “In order to improve, we must change what we are currently doing.” This statement seems quite obvious, but how often is it practiced? The most simple of concepts are quite often the deepest.
Our minds are the biggest roadblock to our improvement. Time and again we witness our peers effortlessly dispense of uke after uke. Attempting to do the same, we end up with less than spectacular results. We clamp on to our uke with either the memory of a 1000 failed attempts or the blind intent to throw uke down no matter what. Digging our meat hooks in, we attach ourselves so thoroughly that a Hollywood special effects crew couldn’t save our techniques with all the cables and pulleys in the world. As students, we desire to succeed so strongly we are willing to ignore our sensei’s instruction and unwilling to abandon what we imagine the art to be – and as a result – unwilling to change. Surely it is not the intention to forsake instruction, but 9 times out of 10 this is exactly what we are doing. Our quest for greatness can get us into a lot of trouble. As I see it, this is simply another example of contraction and exercising our egos.
Zen commands us to live in this moment, free from the failures of the past, and devoid of the anxieties of the future. Serious study may yield independence from a judgmental, discriminating mind. Zen also teaches us that our true nature – a nature of freedom and realization – lies within us. It lies within us at this very moment. Having said all that, know that inside our mind is a power so controlling it works around the clock to derail everything we have worked so hard for. The ego must be carefully understood for what it is: the single most destructive force in our lives. Work to recognize it when you see it, especially within yourself. When we gain the ability to see our ego at work and the damage it does, we then create the opportunity for change. Education, training, and awareness allow us to carve away at our ego’s control, to mitigate its power over our lives. Appreciate that this work you must do will be anything but easy (believe me), and can never end. Our ego would have us very inwardly focused, but through extension – or gazing beyond ourselves – we might get to make some headway on this “character” thing.
So maybe when we consider extension rather than contraction, we should also be making an effort to operate a little outside our comfort zones – to expand beyond what we think we know. Faith in our sensei, faith in our system, and a work ethic 100 times what we thought possible will get us there. There will be times of great progress, and many more of great failure. In the very next class that you attend, ask yourself a couple of questions: Are you ready for the lesson? Are you willing to do the work? If you can answer a sincere yes to both questions, then I can assure you – the magic will happen.