The Quantum Karateka

…step outside the dojo.

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The Spirit of Practice

The video I’m blogging about here was something that was sent to me a while ago (thank you Grasshopper), which I only now got around to watching and listening. It is a Q&A conversation with Brother David Steindl-Rast and Ryushin Paul Haller. You can watch it on Vimeo here.

A few specific things stand out to me from their conversation, mainly revolving around an audience question concerning “the function of structure” and its relationship to “practice” (i.e. prayer, Zen). Here are some transcribed quotes with my thoughts beneath them:

Haller (00:33): “…we often talk about formal zen practice. And when we talk about formal, we mean, it’s formed. It has a particular structure. And within that particular structure, there’s a very intentional, detailed way of engaging…Enter with this foot, stop here and bow like this. And then if you’re still listening, we’ll say, and here’s exactly how you bow, here’s where your elbows are, here’s where your fingertips are, how’s how you move your body. And that’s just getting in the door.”

So of course I’m thinking about karate kata here. I think it only makes sense that a prospective student begins with a structure of some kind. The student is given a tangible, disciplined way of engaging themselves in the practice. And that gives them the foundation to later explore outward from. The obvious problem though, as I’ve experienced it with many teachers (not just karate), is that they’ll get so caught up in the “formal” practice of it that they become Nazi about it. You know, “YOUR FOOT SHOULD BE AT A 45° ANGLE! NOT 44°! AAARRRGGGHHH!!!” A HUNDRED PUSH-UPS NOW!”. Okay, I’ve never been told to do a hundred push-ups. But the irritated and annoyed attitude that I’ve gotten from some teachers has been equally as painful and not at all helpful.  

Haller (02:37): “…and so within the structure – the paying attention. And in the paying attention to the details that are offered – something that goes beyond details…”

And so again, thinking about the kata here of course. You begin with some kind of structure. And so even though modern karate generally teaches kata first (because if you’ve read Patrick McCarthy’s research you’ll find that this was the LAST thing to be taught in the old days), the kata provides the structure for “paying attention” (learning about mindfulness is relevant here too actually). And if knowledgeably taught, the student is eventually able to zoom out and see that the details of kata are really part of a larger chain of fluid and transitional movements used in empty hand-to-hand fighting – “something that goes beyond details“. So again, what’s the common problem with teaching then? That’s right. Gettin’ caught up in the details.

Steindl-Rast (03:10): “That distinction between formal prayer and informal prayer is also obviously in the Christian tradition. And formal prayer is sometimes the ritual, so it’s not yet words…There are advantages to saying your own – putting it in your own words that can also be ritualized, like a circle sitting around or in church…And then everybody’s invited to…express their thanks in some words. And then everybody responds ‘Thanks be to God’ or something like that. And so this’ formalized but in it there’s room for your own expression. Or you have very old prayers, like the Lord’s Prayer, that goes really back to the 1st century and has a staid form. And that’s the problem then that after so many centuries, the words don’t quite fit anymore. And so you have to really think what does that really mean. But it’s almost like putting on a garment that has been worn by your ancestors for several generations and you put it on, you feel differently and you walk differently…even though it’s not very comfortable or doesn’t even exactly fit you…”

I thought Brother David’s comments were particularly insightful here and you can immediately see how this translates to eastern martial arts. “…formal prayer is sometimes the ritual, so it’s not yet words…” – I think here about my inability to speak the combative language of kata (formal prayer) because all I’ve done is blindly followed the ritual, i.e. rote physical repetition of kata. The “advantages” as he says to putting this “in your own words” – that’s what I wanna do with my study-practice group idea. That becomes the ritual. And the people who come are invited to bring their own knowledge to it. And so even though there’s still a “formalized” approach, there’s room for “expression”. That just makes more sense for me, pedagogically speaking. I liked when he talked about the “staid form” of the Lord’s Prayer and how the “words don’t quite fit anymore”, and having to “really think what does that really mean”. That’s all about the kata right there! And then when he mentions putting on the garment of your ancestors, I thought to myself that perhaps this is why so many people are attracted to doing martial arts. There is a kind of mystical and ancient feeling that people yearn to be connected to and erroneously give meaning to as well! And so even though gi are relatively modern inventions, I for one certainly do feel differently when I put one on and practice. I thought the last bit was funny: “even though it’s not very comfortable or doesn’t even exactly fit you…” It made me think about the gi that Jesse Enkamp worked to develop to address exactly that problem! Apparently they’ve designed a garment that is actually comfortable and fits well, although I don’t have one myself to know the difference.

Steindl-Rast (05:15): “But we do want to maintain that in praxis the two…can be quite different…And that’s your main concern. They are very different from one another. But only in the form…Not in what is really at work. Because what is really at work, ultimately in both traditions, is always that basic human trust in life…Whatever we have in differences, if it doesn’t lead to that basic trust in life…it’s misunderstood.”

What Brother David says here is originally the heart of why I wanted to blog this in the first place. I have recently gone back to read Rory Miller’s Meditations on Violence (which honestly, if you are a practicing martial artist and you have not read this book, then look, I’m not gonna call you a fool. Just go and pick up a copy and read it okay?). I was feeling particularly in need of being reminded of “what is really at work” recently and that’s why I picked up that book again. Whatever differences there are in the various martial disciplines, ultimately, if they do not lead us to an understanding of how violence really operates, then we’re not only simply misunderstanding, we are seriously ill-informing ourselves about reality. For us martial artists, the “basic trust in life” has to be the direct experience we gain through consistent scientific experimentation and testing, i.e. real rough&tumble sparring. What I like to call “grappling hands”. This is really to me where the “spirit of practice” lies and that’s where I’m trying to move towards.

– Hiji Até


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Crush the father, crush the son

Some quick context for what I’m about to write:

I have been undergoing, for the past 3 months now, a type of therapy that can be referred to as Jungian analysis, the methods of which were pioneered, if not obvious, by the Switzerland-born psychiatrist and psychotherapist Carl Gustav Jung. This is something that grew out of the suggestion by author Elaine Aron in her book The Highly Sensitive Person, in which she suggested that HSP’s would be well-suited to this type of therapy.

Being the serious introverted HSP that I am, I took her up on that.

So yeah, 3 months later, and I have been going once a week to the clinic at the C.G. Jung Center of Los Angeles where they offer low cost, sliding-scale therapy. For those not in the know, a typical session of therapy, Jungian or not, can cost anywhere from $125 – $150 (or more!) for a single 50 minute session. That is an incredible amount of money to be paying, especially for a broke-ass dude like me, despite the middle-class socio-economic status of my parents. So this clinic was my first and only financially viable option, even though my parents expressed their willingness to support me should I have decided to see an independent analyst. Perhaps in the future I may seek that out, but right now, going to the clinic works for me.

Alright. So you have context. Now, what I wanted to blog here is really very short, but I thought it was profound in terms of the perspective my analyst offered to me with regards to the relationship I have with my Sensei. Basically what my analyst said was that my description of my Sensei as being a father-like figure to me in my twenties when I first began training and my disgruntled need to move past him, was very Freudian in its outlook (this was not a judgement, just an observation). She then mentioned to me that what James Hillman perceived, and what Freud missed, was that in addition to the impulse of the son to kill the father (you know…Oedipus), there is also the impulse of the father to kill the son! What was so profound about that to me was because I had come away from a very recent conversation with my Sensei feeling extremely depressed and suicidal. I didn’t really even understand what exactly had triggered it, but I attributed it to what I felt was a strong negativity, arrogance and conceited attitude coming from my teacher. And so the suicidal impulse might have been a transference of the desire of the father (Sensei) to kill the son (me, his student), in order to retain his throne and keep his kingdom intact. Now, mind you, I don’t have the full context for these theories and I am only now dipping my feet in these psychoanalytic waters, so it’s very possible I may be missing something in my interpretation and misquoted my analyst. But from what I can remember from tonight’s session, that is how I heard it. What’s interesting too is that my Sensei is now struggling with a few serious interpersonal problems. In fact, since the time I’ve known him, he’s shared with me many difficulties he’s had with people. A number of his black belts as well have either split with him over the years or simply moved on. I was talking to my “secret sifu” about this (you know who you are) and I really do agree that FEAR is playing a role in my teacher’s thinking. He’s getting old at 71 years of age, losing his physical power and unsure of the future of his organization. Late-life crisis perhaps? All I know is…I’m no longer interested in killing myself over this. I had no idea that there might be a need for the father to crush the son. Jeezus christ. No fucking wonder then. Here I was considering to assassinate myself ninja-style in order for the king to keep his crown. Shiiiit. That’s some mind-fuck stuff right there. I’m not sayin’ it’s a conspiracy. Just sayin’ like daaamn. That’s warped.

Anyway, just thought that was interesting and helped me to better understand the very strong reaction I had the other day. Sheesh. Maybe my purple belt is giving him the creeps or something. So he feels the need to act tough in front of me so as to appear infallible – ??? – But purple’s a soft color man. C’mon, I love that Okinawa sweet potato! Although Barney is kinda creepy. And then there’s Purple Haze

Hmmm. Lately things definitely don’t seem the same…

…actin’ funny but I don’t know why…

‘scuse me while I end this. Bye.

– Hiji Até

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Testing the assumption

I have been interested in the art of Aikido before, and since I’ve been back here in LA, I have already checked out a few schools in the area. The only school to really resonate on any level with me just happened to be the farthest school from where I live but also the least expensive. And mainly the dojo resonated because of one of the black belts in particular, whom I’ll call “Art”. I thought that he most embodied the philosophy of Aikido in his explanations and physical demonstration of the techniques, more so than the head instructor (whom admittedly I only interacted with briefly, but enough to get the sense that he was a bit too “traditional” for my taste). I didn’t know it at the time, but Art was a very experienced Aikidoka already, having run his own school in Israel (where he’s originally from) for 10 years and many other years of teaching and training experience in other places. To me, Art was Aikido. Or at least, he seemed to best represent my preconceived notions of Aikido. Excited at the prospect of learning from someone who seemed to really understand Ueshiba’s philosophy, I asked if he would consider becoming my Aikido mentor.

So we decided on setting up a day for some private lessons. After my first session with him, I quickly realized that the Art whom I was smitten with in the dojo, was someone a bit different than the one who was now teaching me in private. It was like the bubble bursting and realizing that this person really wasn’t for me. At first I thought maybe I’m being too impatient. Maybe I’m really not ready to be a beginner again. Maybe I’m really not into this stuff after all. I didn’t really understand. All I did know was that Art’s explanations now seemed to become a bit more flimsy in my eyes. His theories started to leak water. I again chalked that up to, well maybe he’s right and I just don’t have enough experience to really perceive more deeply.

Tonight, Art and I went out to eat and discuss my desire to want to stop taking private lessons with him, among other things. The feeling was not bitter at all. In fact, I would much prefer talking to Art than many other martial artists out there. We are both sensitive people and very much nerds in our respective disciplines. But something Art said to me, almost in passing, made my ears perk up and correlated with why I felt so hesitant to move forward with his instruction. He was explaining to me the joint locks that are practiced in Aikido and how, if done right, the Threat will theoretically lose the desire to fight lest he risk the pain that comes from his struggling against the lock. Art explained that this is an example of Aikido philosophy manifesting itself in action, and I agreed with him in fact. That the idea is not to beat the living shit out of a Threat, but to perceive the wounded human being underneath and gently prevent any further harm to him, yourself or others. In that way, the Threat will theoretically realize the futile stupidity of his actions and thus be “reformed”. And then you all go out and have beers and that’s done. (Okay, not really).

But so then I thought, “Wait a minute…”, And I was thinking of all the things I had learned from Rory Miller and others with regards to actual experiences with the adrenalized states of violent people. Then I asked him, “What if the Threat is under the influence of some powerful narcotics and does not have the “normal” human pain-tolerance threshold? Art responded with something like, “Well I don’t really have any experience with that, so I hope I never have to test my assumption.”

Hmmm. Red flag. Never have to test your assumption? Dude, does that mean you actively avoid dealing with reality in order so that it doesn’t disturb what you already know? Are you really saying that to me? Is that what Ueshiba was about with his Aikido? Should we just blindly assume anything without direct experience? This to me is how we can have McDojo’s in the first place. The general populace is largely uninformed when it comes to violence dynamics. And so anyone with enough plaques and degrees on their wall or hanging around their waist can become an authority on a subject, but especially within martial arts (it helps to be gregarious, good-looking and charismatic too). Because it’s not like you’re going to have many students come in off the street and say, “Okay, Master so-and-so, may I test your skill to see if you actually have any?” But so yeah, “not testing assumptions”. That’s the whole problem with karate and MA in general. If we’re not going to be martial scientists with this stuff, we might as well take an aerobics class. The integrity of any instructor rests on having tested assumptions. Do you want to be operated on by a surgeon who only has theories about where to cut and why? I certainly don’t want to be learning an art that only has theories about how violence works. Because if truly you wanted to learn this stuff to save your ass in a bad situation, you’d want to have some kind of taste with how reality might smash you in the face.

I wasn’t astounded that Art said this. It was just a weird thing to say. Like, “Huh? Don’t you see that obvious fallacy?” I do truly believe Ueshiba’s philosophy, for the most part of what I’ve read, was on the right track. And I truly believe that we need to keep expanding on the practice which he developed, especially at this moment of human evolution. I also truly believe that he must have been such a badass with what he did that he left many of us in the dust blinking our eyes. But I don’t believe so much that I’m willing to forgo facts just so I can hold on to some nice sounding theories. If your Aikido joint-lock doesn’t work on a Threat, drugged or non-drugged, that doesn’t discredit Ueshiba’s philosophy. It merely shows us that reality is dynamic and our art, whatever it is, needs to be able to reflect and respond to that.

Otherwise we’ve gone beyond fantasy.

Into stupidity.

– elbow SMASH.

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God, is it okay to fuck up in life?

I’m not a religion follower. But I am a spiritual person. Inspired to blog this tonight after having an ongoing conversation all day with a fellow co-worker on the job. This co-worker, whom I’ll call “Cain”, recently got his first DUI. Cain is in his thirties like me. A short, stocky, brown-skinned Latino man, of Mexican descent. He is a church-going family man with five children and, as he told it, not the drinking/smoking/drug-doing type. But on that particular night, at the particular bar he was at to shoot pool, he ran into some old friends of his. They got to talking and drinking. Cain said, “I had about 6 or 7”. Then he got in his truck to go home. Apparently though, he initially forgot to turn his headlights on. But then, by the time he was stopped, they were already on. But he suspects that’s what initially got the cops curious. Cain was breathalyzed but there wasn’t any significant reading. The officer accused him of not blowing into it. Cain protested that he was. They told him they were gonna blood test him. He protested some more. They threatened to taser him. He finally complied. He sat in a holding cell for the remainder of the night. And all through that time, from the back of the police car to his cell, Cain was thinking and worrying about his family, his job, his “clean” record now being tarnished. Shame engulfed him.

As I was listening to him talk about all of this, I thought of my own “fuck-ups”. Of the time I was violently abusive towards a friend of mine which left him psychologically scarred and bitter. Of the time when I basically cheated on my girlfriend. Cain being a religious man, I responded to him in his own language and said, “Do you think you can kneel before God if you are a perfect man? A person cannot truly kneel if they are not truly humble. These kinds of experiences give us the opportunity to learn humility”. What I was hoping to get across to him was that, the beating up of one’s self, the negativity associated with self-flagellation (things I know all too well), this invariably produces more problems than the initial ones we’re faced with. That if we do not have deep compassion and forgiveness for our “sins”, then instead of correcting ourselves, we actually become more susceptible to making the same mistakes (and even worse) because we’ve made ourselves too rigid, too square in trying to never fuck up again. Because, as in nature, things which are too rigid eventually snap. Life is dynamic, I was reminded of the other day, hard and soft go together (Go-Ju). You try to live your life on a tightrope, eventually you’ll fall. As I told him, “The Devil likes to trick those who are on the straight and narrow”. Who among us is perfect? Who among us does not have, as Jung calls it, a “Shadow”? Making mistakes helps to remind us that we’re human. Attempting to live life without making mistakes can only make a person afraid to live life.

…And so then you know what I thought?

That’s right.

I thought about karate.

I thought about how my Sensei would teach kata. How every little mistake would be pointed out. Every little movement critiqued. Always, always, always there was something I wasn’t doing right, wasn’t doing enough of, wasn’t doing at all. Which ingrained in me this feeling that, to this day, I still struggle with; that karate practice is supposed to be about perfection. Or you know that old adage, “practice makes perfect“? I fuckin’ hate that saying. Totally unnecessary. I much prefer, “Practice means failure“. Embrace fucking up. Cause when it comes down to the real deal, would you have benefited more from training that emphasizes avoiding mistakes? Or training that teaches you how to turn mistakes to your advantage? Rory Miller has an insightful post about this here.

Being hard on ourselves, setting strict, unwavering standards – this is all unnecessary, especially in the martial arts. Or so I believe. Why the fuck is it necessary to be so unforgiving? What comes out of that? More ambition. More hurt. More pain. More conflict. More war. More insanity. Our society is so high-pressure, high-strung. No room for being human. Gotta be like a machine. Work starts at 8:30. Work ends at 5:30. Punch out. Go home. Rushing down the freeway. Everyone else rushing down the freeway in metal and plastic death mobiles. Honking, cursing, maybe even beating and shooting each other because the guy in front of us isn’t going fast enough. Eat quickly. Go do things. Go to sleep. Go do it again the next day.

What clock are we trying to beat?

What record are we trying to set?

Who is this taskmaster keeping time?

What the fuck?!


*deep breath*

I love and accept myself exactly as I am.

– elbow SMASH.

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Making it up as I go along

Just a quick reflection tonight.

I made my first visit to a local karate teacher’s dojo here in Torrance and participated in class. My first official time wearing my purple belt outside my own Sensei’s dojo. I wonder if people think I’m an oddball/weirdo for how I think and what I’m doing? I still feel self-conscious about asserting my “philosophy”, you know? Cause it’s not like I’m anything special with this karate. I guess cause I’m thinking, only badasses are qualified to be creatively independent. Not amateurs like me. But c’mon, belt colors really are ridiculous. We’ve attached so much hoopla to fabric dye that it’s insane. I strive to want to embody and manifest real skill, not fool people into believing I’m skilled by way of belt color. Dig that? But hey, belts are part of the uniform. So why not?

So yeah anyway, not really sure what it is I’m doing though. I’m making the rounds, talking to a few folks here and there about my “experimental” karate group idea. I don’t have my own place to hold court with this, but that’s why I’m networking with the above mentioned teacher and I’m probably going to ask my own Sensei what he thinks about us using his dojo in the off hours for this idea.

Ideally what we’ll have is a once a week (for now) karate “study-group” that will be focusing on the combative analysis of kata, among other things. There’s a small but growing movement for this stuff so I know at least one other person is interested enough to practice.

For this kind of karate, all it takes is two.

Alright. Bed time.

– elbow SMASH! that shit.