Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Silly Words

"If the pen is mightier than the sword,
then how do actions speak louder than words?"


Saturday, November 13, 2010

How to Keep Your Integrity in Japan

(First off, this blog just won't let me seperate my paragraphs the way I want in this post for some reason, but I hope you can see where the seperations are somehow. Prease excuse.)

We are everything, and everything is us. However, sometimes I think it is important to be able to make seperations between ourselves and the environment we live in. I've found that it can be especially tricky at times for a gaijin living in Japan. Listed below are three quandaries I have stumbled across.

First, everything around you in Japan is artificial. Perhaps its the effect of such a large population living in such close quarters on a relatively small island chain. Basically, if there is flat ground in Japan, it has been cultivated by man in some way. Either it is in the form of towns and cities or rice fields. If you go into the mountains, it is nearly impossible to get a 360 degree view of pure nature without the effect of man. Either you see concrete dams (which are in every single river in Japan save three), powerlines, or huts for hikers and workers. But this applies to human behavior in Japan as well. Anything that humans do, think, or say in Japan seems to have "a way to do it." There are accepted ways to do everything in Japan, from greetings, to speech, to cleaning your house, to parking your car, to being an artist, to reaching enlightenment, whatever. This is the trickiest part, and the most violating of free-will.
However, I think a lot of the problem of this has been my perception of the world as either "affected by man" or "pure nature." Maintaining this dichotomy has made me stifled in Japan because I see everything as "affected by man," and look for the "pure nature." So instead lately, I've been looking at man's affect as a part of nature. Everything I see, is "pure nature" manifesting itself through human behavior. In Japan, people just seem to be extra ... mmm ... what can I say ... genki ... or enthusiastic about production and their effect on nature. One way I came across this new-found seeing everything as nature was by looking at the strict form and uniformity behind everything. Surely there are strict rules behind form and uniformity in Japan, but that is only the frame and initial idea; the actual manifestation of this law is not uniformity and perfection, but a wide array of remarkably individual people all trying to conform. It is not perfect, and it can be beautifully strange. Humans may be one of the most interesting things in nature.
Second, Japanese society always seems to be looking up or down. This has been described as a "vertical society" as opposed to a more "horizontal" found in the West. For Japanese, everyone around them is either their junior or superior in some way socially, so you have a society where you are either looking up or down in the social sense to everyone around you. This becomes very obvious in the Japanese language. There are specific forms of verbs and nouns and sentence structures you are supposed to use (keigo it's called in Japanese)when talking to either someone above or below you, which may be just one reason for the famed difficulty of learning the Japanese language. The effect of this is that your conversations in Japan are already pre-dictated at least a little, and puts a lot of limits on what you want to say and how you say it. This makes it often difficult to have an honest heart to heart talk with some Japanese.

However, there is a very easy way to deal with this stifling limitation: treat everyone according to their quality and potential instead of automatically pre-judging them by their appearance or social status. While living in Japan, I do have to mind Japanese social structure to an extent, but also because I'm gaijin, I am also a bit excused from a lot of these social laws. The effect of this is that I can know more about my coworkers personal lives and true feelings after one year than other people who have known them for a decade. Because I am excused from a lot of this, Japanese will often open up to me a bit more and relish in their freedom of expression. Seeing this phenomenon so socially engrained here in Japan does allow me to see it's more universal existence in human nature around the world. And you know what? I'm not impressed. In most situations, I will obey the accepted social rules, but I'll be paying a lot more attention to your actions than your social status.

Thirdly, Japan loves the familiar, and feels ... differently about the unfamiliar. This is similar to my first point, but this is more about the effect of this phenomenon rather than just stating it's existence. So yes, Japan loves the familiar, and if something isn't, like a controversial topic of discussion or an avante-garde artistic display, it's at least in a comfortable and acceptable setting where people may cushion the shock a bit. In all honesty, I have met some of the most generous and genuine people in my life in Japan, but I think credit is due more to their personalities than the Japanese culture. And I don't know any culture that could shower it's upstanding citizens and well-paying visitors as conveniently, comfortably, and pleasantly as Japan, but sometimes one is able to see the sensitive conditionality of it all. A few times I've wandered to it's boundaries and sensed the looming, cold, and impersonal concrete wall that lays just beyond the pinky hello-kitty fog of acceptance. Perhaps forgetting to say the right amount of thank you's and sorry's if you are being done a favor or if you have made a mistake in the system somehow. (For instance, showing up to work late and hung over, or asking for your paid-leave holidays when other people are still showing up to work). As a young caucasian American male, I stand in a great advantage to many other gaijin, but it sure does still feel stifling sometimes.
I have to say, practicing aikido has helped me understand the solution to this iron wall Japan can be: If there's a big train comin' down the tracks, GET OUT OF THE WAY! Get out of the way of the machine, don't fight it because you will lose and it will be unpleasant. Don't spend any more time or do any more favors than you have to in the system. Use your time effectively for your own desires. Rereading this last part I can't help but feel a little strange, as so much I believe in requires standing up against unjust opposition. But in the context of the topics in this blog entry, I feel confident in this answer to threats from the Japanese machine. Perhaps when I have a home and kids and matters are a bit more serious than they are now, things will shift.
Thanks for joining me for more generalizations about Japanese culture from a young aikido practicing English teacher.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Lesson 30: See the Cycle

I've been here before.
As sure as the cycles of the moon, I just realized tonight during training that I have come back to where I was between a month and two months ago: an extremely strict and tightly strung mindset. Last time I wound myself up into this self-ultimatum setting-agro-self destructive mindset, it all came undone and shot me to careless excess. Somewhere after that I guess I got out of it to find middle ground, only to shoot straight up towards glass towers again at the first sign of light. Now I'm holding on so tight that if I let go I feel like I'll fall for miles until I slam into the ground again. This time around it's been facillitated by being sick. Here's how the equation goes: I'm getting ready for my first weekend to go on a trip which I haven't had in a long time, so it's really special, but I get myself sick just before I go. I take mediocre precautions before-hand, and cold increases during trip. I still had a great time, but I was also sick the whole time. I came back home, got more sick, and I am as busy as ever at school and this month it's testing month at the dojo so it's extremely important I make it to everything that I'm doing. Because I want to do everything possible to get better as fast as possible, I'm am trying to get lots of sleep, take lots of vitamins, and drink lots of tea, as well as not participate in things that will make my cold worse. The only problem is, I want to do those things that will not make my cold heal quickly. So, I take the disciplinarian route and hold back, but it's made me extremely ansy. Now I'm taking that same attitude to aikido, and while my mind is extremely attentive, it is completely clouded with my illusions of purity. Sensei saw my attitude tonight, like I really wanted to do something serious, so he gave me a nikkyo (particular wrist lock) that really shocked my elbow and sent me to the ground. This is how I feel all of my excessive mindsights take me. I get in a mood where I have to take it to the very end no matter what, build up speed the whole way, and then crash full on with my fastest speed at the last moment before impact.
Now that I see this cycle going round and round, what am I to do? I feel like I've been given a map and compass and have a good wind, but it's all in Japanese and nobody will help me to figure it out. And so, alone in my ship as captain, firstmate, deck hand, and whatever other positions they have on boats, I am trying every switch and direction to see what happens. I guess I wouldn't want it any other way. After so much time here in Japan having to figure so much on my own, make so many repeated mistakes over and over again on my own, and find myself alone over and over again, the last thing I want is for someone to give me an answer or hold my hand.
I'd like to ease up and just find that perfect balance between soft and hard, but when I try to see it or imagine it, it all seems empty, and I can't flail my arms in the air like a puppet because of some idealistic proverb I read.
I see the cycle. Good job. Now what?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Lesson 29

First of all, the things I want to talk about are seemingly impossible to express completely in words alone, and those words inevitably betray the meanings they are trying to represent. Regardless, I experiment with these limitations.

What I am doing at all of these aikido practices is trying to steal the secrets of effective movement. There is no need to hide this with formalities, moralities, and ideologies. I care for absolutley nothing but being absorbed with Truth. My aikido practice and life just happen to be in the context of respect and genuine human interaction, but these are not things I consciously focus on putting effort into. I would love to practice aikido for the rest of my life, and it would be so great because aikido is so great and I would be so great and aikido could be better than everything else and I could be old and have spent so much time in this great aikido and thusly better than anyone else that has done it for less time than me, and I hope one day I can be like those masters who practiced longer than me, etc, blah blah blah...

I am not practicing aikido for the idea of aikido, I'm practicing aikido to find an ideal movement. I am not stupid, I am not a slow learner, and I don't want to be either of those. I simply want to do what my sensei does, and then do it better. What I am doing is stealing secrets and keeping my eyes peeled wide back looking for shortcuts. The best thing about this is that my sensei is the same way. I am looking for that bridge between the land where I live "right now" and that of "incomprehensible ability." How can I know where my ideal is? Where I am going? If I did know, then either I'd be there, or it would be, at best, an abstraction different from the wholeness of reality.
Tonight at the end of practice, we were simply working on movement. The partner would come in with shomen uchi (a sword hand movement cutting straight down in front of you with a step forward), and we would make smooth movement with minimal effort to evade the attack. However simple this is, most of us were having a very hard time. We were trying to anticipate where exactly the partner was going. We were trying to think of the best angle to make. We were hesitating, clumsy, and sending our body parts and mind in different directions. How is this possible? We are moving to move. Moving to get out of the way of something? This is not a magical skill reserved only for masters, it is simply what it is: relaxed efficient movement. If we would all relax, and just move instead of thinking and falling over all these hurdles we create ourselves, we would be on a fabulous shortcut.

Furthermore, I have developed two big pet peeves in arguments that often come up in the topic of martial arts. First, is the term "natural movement." This is used all the time, as a teacher tells you to stop screwing up and just move naturally. The person is moving naturally and appropriately to their current state, it just happens to really hamper the technique the teacher wants them to be doing. I understand ideas of "not fighting force with force", or "not making something more work than it requires", but the word "natural" is very misleading in the way it is often used in martial arts. Second, it's the idea that as adults, we are clumsy and we've screwed up somehow this idea of perfect movement that we would be doing if we weren't so stupid. That our movement is inherently a problem. Our current movements and abilities are not problems to fix, or something that will so greatly hinder our lives if we don't pursue right away. To try to analyze why it is we don't automatically, or dare I say naturally, move perfectly already, or why it is we have the ability to move so well is to go much farther in an intellectual direction than is necessary to do the movement.

Relax, don't waste your time trying to punch through concrete walls, and just do what you're trying to do. This is my lesson for tonight.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Lesson 28: You Gotta Relax

So I've been continuing practicing extra high falls (check the image above for a visual), and because I don't relax, they're very ugly and uncomfortable. There's two main factors I'm not doing correctly. First, going into it with my head straight on towards the front like a front flip. But I also need to tuck my chin, instead of protrude it out towards the ground which I usually do. I either do one of these and screw up the other, or vice versa. My partner Hosogoshi keeps telling to relax ... so finally one time I actually did, and it was the best by miles that I've done so far. It was one of those moments I let out a huge exhale, and "just f*&%^$*^g did it." My body felt weightless and the movement was smooth and correct. However, immediately after, I couldn't replicate it just how I did, and so I'll continue practicing until I find it again. I know with this particular movement, I'm subconsciously a little scared and so I'm naturally tensing up.

No matter what martial art, other art, or just living that you do, relaxing will make it lighter and smoother if that's what you want, so it's time to get on it. Forget all the s&*t you think is weighing you down, forget about your ideas of failure, and just go.