February 20, 2009

Luck, fate, and other weird stuff

The last time I was in Japan, Nagato sensei mentioned he doesn't meditate. He felt no need to since training in itself was meditation, "moving meditation," as some call it. I have never been a proponent of traditional meditation, staying aware and activated during training is hard enough, harder than most give it credit for. The moment we start thinking, the moment we begin to drift away from the situation, is the very time we create a looming threat.

Most of the time, nothing bad occurs and we come back to the moment a few moments later. But it takes only a single time for those loose moments to line up and intersect with another to cause problems. Accidents don't just happen, accidents need opportunity, just like good Taijutsu. And when we take ourselves out of the moment, we drop our guard and provide an opening for that opportunity. Sometimes our thoughts don't get in the way, but learned behavior, occurring when we trust our partner, maybe a little too much, and take for granted the inherent danger in training; our better nature actually working against us.

In training Taijutsu, we must remember our mind and body learn differently and not always at the same rate. The body communicates and our mind interprets - nerve sensitivity and pain is the universal language of the body telling our brains something feels good or not. Science is only now looking into how the mind can actually communicate and control the body as well. After training for some time, the body knows what to do even if we don't cognitively recognize it, which is why we sometimes get spikes in our ability - our mind simply catches up to or realizes what our body is already capable of doing. The body will act, as it has been trained to do, even without direct command. When we are not mindful of that disparity, it can lead to harm when least expected.

I don’t believe we should look to control these aspects, that would be dangerous - an attempt to micromanage our better faculties, preprogramming them to ask permission to engage on our behalf even when necessary. Would we want our ‘radar’ to ask permission to tell us of impending danger, or simply inform us before it’s too late? Staying in the moment covers and manages them. That is enough.

Training should be fun, but can sometimes be a tough learning experience. Lessons come in all shapes and sizes and we would be remiss if we only paid attention to those we wanted to remember and ignored accidents as simply “bad luck.” However, “luck,” as the happenstance of opportunity, is arbitrarily assigned good or bad by those receiving it. Rather we should, "meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same" - a chance to stop, turn ourselves away from the mountainside of the great climb, and for a moment choose to look upon Heaven's fateful design.

February 17, 2009

Does breaking balance, break Kamae?

Good question at training the other night: What’s the difference between breaking balance and breaking Kamae? Breaking balance doesn’t necessarily break Kamae, but breaking Kamae breaks balance.

Balance is the physical equilibrium we depend on to steady our movement and technique; the rudder, so to speak, without which would cause us to drift in turbulent waters. But Kamae is more than a simple posture or some martial-esque pose. Physical Kamae are positions not unlike positions played in sports - the center position in soccer, the goalie position in hockey, or the receiver position in football. Each of them play and own a certain roll within the confines of their sport. When playing these positions, players understand what their job is and how it relates to the game and their team’s outcome.

I see great similarity with martial Kamae. Photos of Kamae are the same as photos of leaping horses – in motion. Kamae can act as waypoints on the map of Taijutsu, preventing us from getting lost. Whether unarmed or using weapons, a solid understanding of Kamae and how they operate can close gaps in one’s movement. ‘Distance,’ that expandable and collapsible macguffin inside the Kukan, is the key to the study of Kamae, specifically how positioning is used to repel someone fiercely or invite them to almost “certain” victory. There is much to be studied here, but Kamae is still more than this.

In war, if we were to break through the enemy’s line, we could say we had broken their balance. But if they were to turn tail and flee, we could say we had broken their Kamae. This is the other part of Kamae, the non-physical or psychological aspect, one’s attitude, spirit, or will. Breaking the will of an opponent is often the catalyst to breaking their balance. But taking balance doesn’t always ensure Kamae will break, in fact, it may galvanize the opponent’s will to fight even harder. Drills in training to break balance by one partner are usually met by new positions to maintain Kamae, and regain balance/break balance in return.

Kamae breaks when the will questions its orders to keep going, it breaks when the spirit’s endurance finally tires and the opponent can no longer impose threats or violence. As Budoka, we must become accustomed to breaking Kamae instead of simply relying on upsetting the balance. This is partly experience and maturity acknowledging their roles in our martial growth, allowing us to transcend the usual, and reach ever higher for a new perspective.

February 8, 2009


The other night at training, while working on handgun disarms, one of the guys said he felt lost when threatened at a distance past arms reach. Worse, several armed holdups had occurred recently in his upscale Chicago neighborhood where he lives with his wife and new baby. Despite the fact Mayor Daley chooses to infringe on the Constitution’s Second Amendment and outlaw handguns in Chicago, we can’t wait for the three lawsuits challenging that order to strike it down like a similar one struck down Washington DC’s ban. Instead, we have get past the physical and “imagine” a better way.

Religion uses higher forms of mental and spiritual principles to change behavior patterns, the physical, in people’s lives. But in our brand of physical philosophy, physical principles are used to raise our mental and spiritual awareness. The practical applications of that awareness are often difficult to imagine at first, but contain the principles of Taijutsu none the less: controlling an attacker by use of their own intention, creating a Kamae, target, that repels or invites the attacker, and ultimately owning the moment when opportunity exists to use some ingenuity, or in our case, “Nin”genuity, the uncommon improvisation to help us persevere.

Facing down, in this case, an armed attacker at a distance outside arms reach, means using our imagination - mind and spirit - to answer questions we can’t answer physically. When simply turning over our wallet does not conclude the situation or when innocents’ lives are also at stake, something else must take shape other than physical technique. How do we “force” an opponent to close with us? What can we do to convince them they have nothing to fear?

How about: fainting, crying, a seizure, shutting down - any number of these might be more than enough in life or death scenarios to cause confusion in the mind of an attacker and open a window for loved ones to escape. The opponent, now emboldened by the sudden shift in the balance of power, may close in to fulfill their intent of robbery, violence, terrorism, whatever. Once the opponent feels comfortable, confident with the psychological distance, their physical distance will close as well, offering us opportunities to escape, defend, or attack.

On March 11, 2005, Brian Nichols, on trial for rape in Atlanta, Georgia, escaped from the Fulton County Courthouse. In the process, he beat his 5’1”, 51-year-old Sheriff’s Deputy so fiercely, she would later become an invalid, unable to even testify against him. Stealing her gun, he made his way back to the courtroom he was being prosecuted in and executed the judge presiding over his case, along with a court reporter. He then searched for his two prosecutors as well as his rape victim, but unable to find them, fled, shooting and killing a pursuing Police Officer. On the streets, Nichols carjacked scores of people smashing some with the butt of his gun and tried to kidnap others, unsuccessfully. During the rampage, he would commit at least 54 crimes. Roadblocks nearly shut down the city of Atlanta, as squad cars, helicopters, 100 State Troopers, and the FBI joined the manhunt.

That night, Nichols killed a federal agent in his own home, as he tiled his bathroom floor, and stole his truck. It would be the last life he would take. On the run, Nichols kidnapped Ashley Smith, a drug-addicted single mother trying to turn herself around, and tied her up in her own bathroom. Giving Nichols her last bit of crystal methamphetamine, Smith, a Christian, began talking to Nichols, speaking of her daughter who she was scheduled to see that very day and even read to him passages from the Bible and Pastor Rick Warren’s “Purpose Driven Life.” It worked. Nichols repented his sins and allowed Smith to leave, after which she called 911. A SWAT team arrested Nichols shortly after as he emerged from Smith’s apartment waving a white flag. Although Nichols was clearly a bloodthirsty killer, Smith was smart, giving up the drugs he wanted, and afterward using the higher principles she believed in to humanize herself and connect with him. Due to the conviction in her spirit she was able to draw him to her psychologically, giving her the physical opportunity to escape.

“How do we know, what we don’t know?” This is the question we must ask ourselves continually to take stock of ourselves, our lives, and circumstances. There is no situation in which we will know the outcome ahead of time. None. And there are plenty of situations where we take our security and safety for granted: at home, at work, commuting, or out with friends. But if we use our own lives as the model and pay attention to the kinds of events that occur daily to us, friends, and around the nation and world, we can quickly imagine those very scenarios happening to us in moments of reflection. What would we do? What could we do? Was there something we could have done beforehand? Would we have paid attention to something that untrained people intentionally shut out?

The process we use to imagine the answers and refine them is the flexing of that mental and spiritual awareness and we should be practicing it everyday, everywhere we go, with everything we do. The warrior’s mind is not simply better prepared because it knows more techniques, more stuff. The warrior’s mind is able to invent the heretofore unknown technique on the fly, imagine and then create with spontaneous combustion the way through; it is able to improvise, adapt, and implement the answer to persevere.

February 1, 2009

Function is the Form

We had some great training last Saturday – our 2009 Hatsugeiko; a long afternoon workshop in which we really tried to get our highest perspective yet with Taijutsu. And it was tough, many had a hard time letting go of what they thought they were supposed to know. But they should take heart in the effort they gave – they were exploring new areas, off the map as they knew it, and in short time will chart them as well.

We started with trying to take up the space opponents need to move against us. We took Kamae that positioned ourselves consistently ahead, leading them to move poorly, and make inaccurate decisions they would not have done otherwise. We talked of simply breaking balance and breaking their Kamae. Never demonstrating a sure way to do this, we instead left the defender to concentrate on the effect desired, rather than a technique to gain the effect. As a result, a myriad of techniques were discovered.

There was talk and questions regarding form. How unrealistic and unnatural physical forms have a tendency to sneak into training, unapplied. How expectations of outcome can become a form of the mind. And how “forming up” or “posturing up” causes us to pause and await the next attack, when we should instead be moving with the inertia of will to shutter the very space surrounding opponents, until their single best option is actually their only – the one that seals their fate.

Form does not follow function here - function is the form. The process of Taijutsu is one of creative un-expectation, improvisational comedy of combat, where our imagination does not make us “ready for anything,” but rather “ready for nothing specific.” This know-how, feeling, “knack,” to be in the right (safe) place, at the right (safe) time, doing the right (safe) thing is how Taijutsu functions. And that function is the very ‘form’ we tried to understand; the initiative of the moment, the advantage under the circumstances, the uncommon adaptive response when no single answer will ever do. Functionality is the fundamental quality of perceiving, persevering, and surviving; the ever-expanding ‘Utsuwa’ pushing the limits of its own boundaries.

The question training rose for me was this: since Budo is not about memorizing forms and instead about breaking them, what happens when we break the “function as form” form? Instead of ‘functional’ Taijutsu, what would it then become? Soke’s Taijutsu is much more than simply functional.

I suppose the answer is higher still.