May 21, 2008

Pick a card. Any card …

The other night, one of my most senior students was unsure about his ability to keep and control his partner’s balance. Upon initial capture he wasn’t certain he could keep it even when pinning the weight on one foot or another, feeling that might be an opportunity to regain their equilibrium and either escape or fight. But he’s good enough now to be looking at a bigger issue in his training – studying not only the physical side, but also the non-physical, control over the opponent’s will.

We are only ever going to get so good at any particular strategy, tactic, or technique, and there will come a point when we will simply not get any better physically. Which is why so often younger, stronger competitors beat older and more seasoned fighters – they simply cannot keep up. Whether it’s boxing, MMA, or any other form of martial sport, if a practitioner’s training is purely in the physical realm, it will become untenable. This is even more important in Budo. If we rely on the solely physical aspects of training and overlook the natural progression into the non-physical, we inadvertently place a cap on our ability, which could cost us our life or the lives of people we love.

Capturing the balance of an opponent in a safe way, automatically ensures we own the tactical space to control them; it’s good training and a must if we are to progress to any higher level. But solid training should not only make us aware of what is happening in the “now,” it should also constantly be looking ahead to what is, “next.” Only then can we hope to attune our sensitivity to interpret and make sense of the signals all around us that are not yet fully defined – like experts do when piecing together streams of data that make up terrorist “chatter.” Nakadai sensei used to tell me himself to, “push back my feeling (behind me),” to take in that which I could not see. To ensure our best chances for survival, we have to push past the physical to recognize the intent of our opponent and be able to own the moment, just like great magicians do.

There are (at least) two parts to any successful magic trick: the trick and the magic. The trick is the actual physical technique of whatever card switch, sleight-of-hand, or illusion performed. But the magic is in the connection you make with the audience and the confidence you build within them to accept that which their brain tells them is impossible. Great magic starts and ends with this connection, the actual technique occupying only as much time as is necessary to ensure the former. A trick never begins with, “Check out this awesome coin sleight I can do,” but rather, “Hey, can I tell you a secret? I have this power …” In many ways, Budo emulates this very concept in the teachings of Kyojitsu Tenkan Ho.

By controlling the Kukan from the get-go through Kamae, we can severely limit and possibly disallow an opponent from making any physical choice that we have not provided them with. This is a far cry from simply showing up and waiting for our partner/opponent to do something and then trying to defend against it – that is thinking too late. Instead, we can think ahead and activate our opponent into doing our will – shinnenjutsu – by providing them with the most tactically viable target and a sense of urgency. Either way it works for us and against them – if they take the viable target, it’s a trap ready to be sprung, and if they choose another target instead of the “best” one, it places them in an even worse position. By restricting the options of our opponent, we change an essay test into one of multiple choice and as we get better, single choice. This is training the non-physical in a physical way and allows us to control the potential of the moment, the Ku.

If we can learn to naturally take subtle yet complete control of the opponent’s will - their mental balance - controlling their physical equilibrium will be as easy as, well, performing the amazing separating magic thumb trick for a second grader, right before their very eyes.

May 12, 2008

Invisibility? Two words – smoke bombs

Recently, I was reading an article on how to improve stalking in wilderness environments. The author emphasized not just the importance of masking one’s physical presence through scent reduction, appearance, and movement, but also wrote about, “camouflaging the mind.” Essentially, this is the concealment of one’s intent during any stalk; important since animals can tune in that intent, in turn, tuning us in.

It’s no different in training. Concealing one’s intent/intention during training is essential to be successful in Budo. Intention is tied to ego, pride, selfishness, and desires; unless we can control these aspects, we unwittingly place limitations on our ability. History is rife with those whose wills were broken by enemies exploiting their weaknesses.

To begin, we can let go of the attachment toward completing technique in training. Once we remove ourselves from the want and need to perform any technical goal, we can focus on simply maintaining kamae - maintaining our safety - and allow events to unfold as they must, making certain they occur justly with only the barest minimum of involvement. Learning to ensure outcomes are a direct consequence of our opponent’s recklessness, grants us a high level of survivability.

In this way we sever any communication we might unconsciously have with our opponent in crucial moments. When an opponent has no information to base an attack or defense upon, they are left with aggression driven by conjecture, a lot like driving at night without headlights. The concealment of our intent not only masks any response, but works toward stripping away our physical signature, further cultivating our ability to move ambiguously, spontaneously, and ultimately “invisible.”

Or you could just throw a smoke bomb or something.