February 28, 2008

Confidence, Shmonfidence …

Got a great question the other night regarding confidence. How can we know if our confidence is real and not simply a false confidence?

There is plenty in the Bujinkan we can base confidence on: our teachers, our history, and our tradition, for starters. Trust is at the core of confidence. Do we trust our teachers? Our history? Our traditions? If we do, then we can transfer that confidence to ourselves and the path we’re on.

But this question spoke more to our individual understanding, our own personal ability and skill, and the confidence or false confidence that can manifest through our connection to training. In a sense asking, if we didn’t have our teachers, history, and tradition to rely on, is there a way we could know if our ability is high and take confidence in it?

My answer is, yes, I think there is - it starts with honesty. If we can be honest with ourselves and our training partners we can begin to create the kind of confidence that is not easily questioned, not by us or anyone else. But this requires a level of awareness that must be adhered to in and out of training; the same kind of self-awareness necessary to answer most of life’s little moral questions in anticipation of the big ones.

Sincere training is the best we can offer each other. Our partners have to know that we are sincerely going to strike them, throw them, move against them if they don’t counter our movement. In response to that kind of sincerity, we must always direct ourselves toward the art’s intent – to persevere – until we can feel honest Taijutsu.

Sincere attacks can only be answered with honest defenses, meaning, we must apply the kind of freedom of principle needed to survive the moment and own the next. This is movement that is not simply good, but true, and gives us the chance to realize ability we can not only take pride in, but also rely on.

Sincerity and honesty lay the groundwork for trust, not just in our partners, but in ourselves. And if we can trust in ourselves and our own understanding, confidence is not far off.

February 21, 2008

Ukemi, Youkemi, Hekemi, Shekemi - Shidoshi Suess

I was asked an interesting question the other day concerning Ukemi. The questioner wished to know if he was missing any key points to improve his own movement. In fact, he was having difficulty returning to a position of balance. The only way I know how to do this is by learning to give way to gravity and control our spine to activate our posture.

If we think about how a ball rolls, smooth and symmetrical, we get a sense of a body 'with no corners.' If we can then imagine how a water balloon rolls, we get a sense of giving way to gravity and the spine's activation in doing so. The trick is knowing when to be the ball or the balloon.

The best way to learn this is not on your own, but with a partner. Controlling the space between us and them allows a firm grip on how our bodies can be manipulated to 'take up' or 'give up' space inside the kukan. Unless we become experienced with this, we can only ever hope to have 'by the book' ukemi, such as front rolls and so forth.

Try having a partner throw you with any kind of joint lock; don't resist the lock, just get a sense of the where and the how and the when they're using to throw you down. Once you've experienced this several times, try it again, but with the anticipation of what's in store. Just before your partner commits to the lock/throw change your positioning to break his balance and throw them instead. This positional change should be reflective of the nagare of multi-directional movement and should allow us the freedom to change our kamae while breaking theirs.

Training this connection allows us to expand our sense of mobility and in turn internalize the movement for our own.

February 19, 2008

On Her Majesty's Shinobi Service

Tomoko and I have just returned from our second (my third) trip to the UK and as always it was utterly brilliant.

Some have been with us right from the start - Gary, Miles, Rik, Hanzo, Hassan, Dermot, Mags, Murrough - but this time 'round we met plenty of new Buyu including Alan from Malta, Rex from Ireland, and a host of others from around England we hope to see again. I'd also like to thank Shihan Norman Smithers for coming out on Sunday - it was terrific to meet him; he made the day especially enjoyable. Special thanks to Rie for videotaping (a copy should be forthcoming) and of course Steve Kovalcik who's been with me since the early days and made the seminar happen.

Tomoko and I were very busy: in addition to the weekend, I taught twice during the week and she took her own night on Friday, teaching the finer points of Makko ho and its Hodo Taiso. Turnout was strong, including folks who didn't train, and everyone sincerely enjoyed it. We also managed to do some sightseeing in and around London: we saw Windsor castle, the Tower of London, and also caught a matinee of "Cabaret," which had lots of naked people in it - it gave "bangers and mash" a whole new meaning.

I can say without hesitation this was our very best seminar to date. Not only did I feel more connected to everyone there, but I think the message was taken to heart. Bujinkan training is a very special thing - sacred in a way - and I wanted everyone to experience the chance to discover a new perspective for themselves, one that grants ownership of their training. I'd like to say we achieved that.

There is plenty of information constituting the "what" of Bujinkan training - katas, wazas, kihon, sanshin, weapons, and natural skills. But the "how" - the perspective from which all of it is trained - is far more interesting to me. It is simply not enough, in my opinion, to be technically proficient in the "basics," which are at best reference material to guide us. The challenge for everyone last weekend was to own their training by stripping the "what" of the very elements practictioners are so overly focused on.

However much you put into training, you'll get double back. But when we focus too much on the details and not enough on direction, we take one step forward and two steps back, resulting in achingly slow progress or worse, Budo purgatory. Efficient and contextual training is like finding a well-worn trail in the woods, allowing us unimpeded advancement. But we have to decide to use it.

I am proud of everyone who stuck it out through some very tough training last weekend. All of us could have been doing anything else, but we chose to be there and I know I came out better for it.

February 6, 2008

Under the Blade, 2008

Akemashite Omedeto Gozaimasu!

Once again, here we are, another year behind us and in wonder of what the new year holds. But if this one is even half as good as the last, strap yourselves in! Our little dojo had a terrific 2007; we picked up some great new students, made lots of new friends, and set ourselves in an incredible, new training direction, with utterly amazing results!

Jim and April married and moved to Nevada and are already making plans to move back home - apparently not big fans of the desert. Roger and Etsuko also married in a beautiful ceremony with dancing Japanese women, expensive kimonos, and a toast from yours truly, in which I forgot all the Japanese I had memorized. Miguel got engaged and pregnant with his significant, Jennifer, and are incredibly excited, as are we to have the first Cuban/Korean ninja to add to the clan. We expanded the dojo and now have four Shibu, each helmed by very capable Shidoshi. We sure have come a long way since our 5-hour Friday night training sessions so many years ago, but I’d say we’re better for it.

I also took some fantastic trips – I was in St. Louis with Shidoshi Angie Smith and London, England, twice, with Shidoshi Steve Kovalcik. There are some great folks ‘across the pond’ and Tomoko and I are anxious to return and keep training, sharing, and Makko-ho-ing our way across the countryside, or at least Central London. We, of course, had our annual visit from Jack Hoban, who never ceases to challenge what we think we know and how well we know it. And we made it back to Japan for truly inspiring training with Hatsumi and Nagato sensei. ‘07 was full of serious changes for both the Shingitai-Ichi Dojo and me personally. In many ways it really was my year – I was born in the year of the boar. I not only learned much, but realized what I need to learn next. So, let’s get to it.

Soke’s Kakejiku for 2008 reads, 免虚怪伝 “Men Kyo Kai Den.” Menkyo Kaiden is a license initiating one into the full mysteries of an art and is associated with traditional martial Ryuha. But Soke has written the kanji so as to change the meaning completely allowing us to read it in several ways. Perhaps he’s saying this’ll be the year of full transmission of the feeling of Ninpo’s Kyojitsu. Or could it possibly be a warning against those offering full transmission of false teachings? Whatever the case, it’s up to us to figure it out for ourselves.

This year we’ll be studying Togakure Ryu Ninpo Taijutsu, which has at its core Kyojitsu Tenkan Ho, methods of juxtaposing truth and falsehood. Whereas last year’s theme of Kukishinden Ryu was grounded, armored, and solid in its movement, expect Togakure Ryu to be higher, lighter, and more nimble. Deceptive attacks and defense will keep our touch light and our Taihen and Ukemi strong.

Deception is difficult to train and only possible when we understand sincere and honest movement first. Take our trip to Japan last year, when we had an experience with honesty I can only describe as a divine test. What we went through challenged our resolve and the very faith we have in ourselves, since we almost believed something patently untrue.

Like so much of this art, perception guides direction and I suddenly realized just how much I was taking for granted in my Taijutsu. As I studied and experimented to secure this vulnerability, I came to understand a new perspective toward training, one focused on our art’s intent. For almost 30 years, I had been training “martial arts” and I realized I had finally come to the end … I needed to change direction.

Unlike Japan, America is not a warrior culture. Martial arts as we know them have not been mainstream in the U.S. for very long and since their rise in popularity, Americans have struggled to make sense of them. Made famous through pop culture, they have been exaggerated, their teachings made mystical by their origins, and in many cases their knowledge held for ransom, restricted from eager students, who only wished to better themselves. We can see much of this still playing out today in commercial martial arts business, where practitioners have morphed from student to consumer, allowed to choose the subject and schedule of their training simply by paying for it.

The modern model is to view martial arts as a collective of information to be studied and practiced for a number of years before applying it to one’s life or situation; similar to reading through an entire library before considering yourself smart. Schools have curriculums that students slowly work their way through, usually practicing to chain movements together for their next rank test. It seems, unfortunately, to be patterned after our own modern system of education: read, memorize, regurgitate, repeat.

But wouldn’t it be great if instead of reading and memorizing ideas, we were led to discover them for ourselves? And instead of regurgitating, we made our own realizations, ones we could understand contextually and internalize instantly? And what if we could do this with the training of martial arts? I think we can.

If someone we cared about was going to war and they wanted us to teach them martial arts, but we had a single day in which to do it, could we? We could teach them a technique, in fact, we could teach them a bunch. But I doubt they’d be worth anything - idealized techniques have a habit of breaking down under unpredictable, brutal combat. This is teaching someone from the perspective of abstract situation – would our first driving lesson be how to do 70 on the interstate and steer with your knees, while you dial your cell and scratch yourself?

Skill to perform techniques is acquired through repetitive practice. Boxers and judoka have excellent skills, performing them in competition. But in reality, being able to utilize technique, any technique, to possibly save our or a loved one’s life, is only arrived at through understanding how to apply them, not simply perform them, under the combative circumstances at that moment. Overtraining the mechanical use of techniques under dojo conditions may also contribute to the formation of a very bad habit – the desire to “checkmate” instead of “stalemate” an unpredictable situation. Forcing our will onto another in the hopes of overpowering an unknowable outcome may just get us killed. I think it’s more important to focus awareness on the intent of training.

Martial thought is very old. In fact, I think it’s as old as mankind itself. Derived from our collective primal nature to survive, early communities would have used the very same instincts that led them to hunt, fish, and farm the land, to protect their families and tribes. Some of the earliest archeological sites contain the remains of weapons, which aside from hunting, indicates knowledge of their use from individual combat to warfare. The Bujinkan’s divine warrior arts inherited the drive to persevere, endure, and survive - this I believe is the intent of training. We can internalize this if we realize the right perspective for training and apply it to fulfill the intent.

Is the Bujinkan merely the sum of its parts or is it something else, something intangible we cannot likely see, yet can experience through Hatsumi sensei as well as our own training? If it is all about technique then I can understand why some choose to crosstrain in other styles. Some feel the Bujinkan has weak groundfighting, so they crosstrain, or weak striking, so they crosstrain. There are some who crosstrain with groups for sword, knife, Judo for throws, Boxing for punches, perhaps even spear and naginata. But at what point does crosstraining supercede Bujinkan training? Are we so determined to search for some ultimate technique, one single move that can somehow defeat all others? It seems to me, kata and technique have replaced our reliance on speed and strength as the new crutch. There is power in information, but it can be-devil one without the forethought of how it should be applied. Remember, the difference between two masters of history is one knows how to apply it to predict the future, making them an historian, the other is simply a trivia expert.

In the end, one can do all the crosstraining one wants, but the intent of these other schools is not necessarily the intent of the Bujinkan. Intent must permeate the very fiber of the will to direct movement in ways necessary to fulfill it. It’s the same with other arts, their intent directs their movement, whether it’s to compete and win, become spiritually pure, or gracefully refined. There are other martial arts whose intent is also to survive and it’s the same with them as well. The difference as I see it, is in training a “martial art” or something better, something sustainable that doesn’t rely on resolute physical power or techniques to overcome enemies and challenges - there needs to be something more. Practicing physical skills, like a boxer, like a judoka, like a technique, is totally different than the perspective of sharpening one’s instinct to interpret and adapt to spontaneous, ambiguous, savage combat. If everything one trained in the Bujinkan was viewed through this prism, the perspective makes itself perfectly clear – focus on the intent and move in such a way, so we don’t die.

Superman is invincible – bullets, bombs, Lex Luthor – nothing on Earth can stop this guy. But we can’t train to be Superman, even if kryptonite didn’t exist and we actually were aliens enhanced by Earth’s yellow sun. Now Batman, he’s just some guy who’s trained himself in extraordinary ways, ways to become undefeatable. Not because he’s super tough, but super smart. He’s undefeatable because if needs to run, he runs – he throws a smoke bomb from that sweet belt. He has cool weapons and gadgets specifically fit to the situation, like anti-giant clam spray or something. Enemies can never trap him and just kill him, he’s always one step ahead, one moment out of reach. James Bond and Indy Jones are the same way – turn your back on Bond and he’s off the laser table stabbing you with a knife from his shoe; Indy’s dodging blowdarts to literally grab the next flight out of some South American country where they still shoot blowdarts.

The point is, our mindset plays an incredibly vital role in the formation of self-awareness. If we are simply trying to master a set of physical skills that have been gathered together to form a “martial art,” it holds no potential except the physical strength we infuse it with. How much faster or more powerfully can we actually punch or kick or joint lock as we grow older? And certainly our understanding of technique will not protect us – it might in fact give us a false sense of confidence. But if we understand a martial way, a martial perspective – read in between the lines of the martial art – we learn to live and think and look at the world from a tactically mindful and instinctually aware consciousness. In fact, we might, in a sense, see the world the same as early man viewed his world, where you lived cautiously to survive each and every day.

Let’s say we want to become a nicer person. So, we join a group that meets weekly and at each meeting discuss everyday ways we can become that nicer person: leave bigger tips at restaurants, learn to drive more mannerly, or help little old ladies cross the street. But at the heart of all these good intentions lies a simple philosophy, one which, if we knew it, would alleviate “becoming” a nicer person, and simply allow us to “be” them today. If instead of receiving weekly techniques about future situations that may or may not ever present themselves, what if on our very first night of training, we were told, “to be a nicer person … simply treat people the way you want to be treated.” This is a perspective that helps fulfill our intent. Now, instead of receiving weekly skill sets we must practice to perfect and utilize, we have a broad, contextual understanding that we can apply across the board to our lives today. Absolutely everything we now do, and say, and think can be distilled through this perspective. Techniques now make themselves available to us and we can focus on sharpening our instinct to observe the opportunities available to fulfill our intent. This allows us to interpret and adapt to the spontaneous, ambiguous, savageries of – not becoming that nicer person - being them.

We can apply this directly to training. If we connect to the core movement of the principle of distance, we can internalize awareness contextually, giving us a broad, macro understanding that we can then refine through the use of strategy, tactic, and technique. We can then layer training with various changes to distance, balance, and timing and focus on the opportunities that become apparent. Into these opportunities lie the options for the infinite changes of Taijutsu.

To capture a mouse running inside a room, don’t chase after the mouse, section the room off and control the space the mouse is using, until it has no more space. It’s the same with Taijutsu. By not taking anything for granted we can shape the tactical space around ourselves and our opponent through the use of kamae/kuraidori, even before we cross hands or swords. We need to do so relaxed and stress free and be confident for a successful outcome. After breaking their kamae and capturing their equilibrium, we must seize the initiative by continuing to shape the tactical space until our strategy of escaping, defending, or attacking in complete and our intent fulfilled. This is how I would teach my friend who is off to war, by giving them a fundamental understanding of instinctual movement and layering in variables. I might not even show them one specific technique. Again, with this type of training, techniques find their way to you; we must simply learn to recognize them.

How we fit together in the tactical space, the Kukan, takes up the lion’s share of my training now. I call this fundamental point, to begin learning the bond between us and the opponent, Tsunagari, meaning “connection” and it’s one of our dojo’s main themes for 2008. Tsunagari is also the first step toward understanding the higher concepts of Inryoku, Ninshiki, and Butoku. Inryoku, magnetism, is explored as we realize how we connect and fit together and how to draw or repel the opponent. Ninshiki is perceptive consciousness, in effect, becoming so sensitive to our opponents, our environment, and events around us, so as to actually predict outcomes before they are apparent. Butoku is martial virtue, knowing the manner to use our potential toward the justice and good of others.

Ninshiki and Butoku seem to be two halves of a whole: we cannot hope to perceive the unperceivable without a virtuous heart and cannot become virtuous without first directing our consciousness to connect with the wants and needs of those who love us, need our service, or seek to destroy us. But for me, it all begins with connecting to the art’s intent.

In 2008, let’s rediscover the intent of training with our unique warrior’s perspective so we can more fully understand the, “way of the ninja.” If we stop training a martial art and start training a martial way, a martial attitude, we can remove the blinders on our limitations to reveal the truth – there is no disadvantage, only failure to see opportunity. From instinct and principle, we can build toward skill and technique and instead of constantly training to ‘become good,’ we can ‘be good today.’

Have an inspired 2008!