Michi – “the Way” – can meaningfully describe our martial practice if we define it as pursuing spiritual integrity, the extent to which our ideals match our behavior under pressure. To accomplish this, we must create explicit practices that combine emotional training, mindfulness, and perception with our martial training.
This article presents several pragmatic ways to introduce spiritual training to a martial art practice. Aspects of spirituality are separated from religious context, and presented with concrete exercises, goals, and concepts.
Every “Do” (“Michi”) martial art sells a similar pitch; that practice and pursuit of their system provides a process and path to a more spiritual and higher self than versions of the art focused solely on technique, competition or self defense. We are told that there is a deep and meaningful distinction between “Aiki-jutsu” and “Aiki-do”, “Karate-jutsu” and “Karate-do”, between “Jujitsu” and “Judo”, etc., and that the difference will manifest in spiritual and moral qualities for any student that practices these “Do” arts long enough.
However, much of the spiritual distinction comes from a cultural and historical context that is largely absent in Western martial arts. The dogmatic expectation is if the techniques, training, and kata are practiced simply long enough, a practitioner will somehow eventually be instilled with more profound perception, morality and insight. To put a fine point on it, I have often encountered the idea that if one simply practices Ikkyo long enough (an Aikido technique), eventually one will obtain some undefined wisdom. This is patently absurd, even more absurd than the idea that simply attending church services makes one a spiritually enlightened person. We have to challenge the notion that senior rank equates to spiritual wisdom, and even more the notion that the Founders of our arts somehow invested our physical techniques with hidden mystical wisdom that can be automatically unlocked through repetition.
Nonetheless, I believe the Dojo can be a secular temple, a laboratory and meditation hall, and an applied mental health clinic where students can practice, study, manifest and improve morality and spiritual change independent of (or in conjunction with) any religious, academic, or mental health framework (although I’m not endorsing it as a replacement for licensed care, of course). More importantly, I think the Dojo potentially offers tools and an environment for effective pursuit of spiritual growth that are largely lacking elsewhere in modern society.
What I mean by “practical spirituality” is a set of tools, concepts, and a supportive environment for safely evaluating, testing, measuring, experimenting, exploring, and changing emotional selves in pursuit of higher (and more socially-constructive) moral goals. It is the pursuit of critical self-examination, self-knowledge, mindfulness, and controlled change to construct a healthier and happier self, one who is continuously more able to thrive and contribute to society in the face of aggression and misfortune.
Over my last forty years of training in pursuit of my own spirituality, these are the main tools I’ve contemplated and explored in a Dojo context.
1. Seek and combine an external spiritual practice.
Martial arts, historically, tend to pair well with applied spiritual practices (especially those with meditative and ascetic components); simply consider the example of Shaolin priests and Buddhism, or Tai Chi/Kung Fu with Taoism. By pairing martial training with an applied spiritual practice like Zen meditation, the martial practitioner is provided with guiding concepts, a moral framework, a community of support and feedback, and a deep body of inspiring literature and teachings. The goal is to explore how martial training provides an additional layer of mindfulness practice to deepen the Zen (or other) practice, or to use the the arena of structured physical conflict to provide additional lenses of insight into the self.
There is an apocryphal story that I think illustrates this relationship well. In the story, a hermit retires to the top of a mountain to meditate alone until she achieves enlightenment. Eventually, satisfied in the depth of her insights and filled with the responsibility to share her tranquility with others, she descends the mountain. On the way down, she encounters a road, and a truck honks loudly at her, the driver swearing. The hermit turns around and climbs back to her cave at the top of the mountain. The story does not devalue the importance of quiet, introspective meditation, but simply emphasizes that the real world is filled with conflict and stress that requires a more resilient and applied tranquility than a sheltered cave. Martial mindfulness can be one path toward mindfulness in a chaotic world, tranquility away from the refuge, and a place to apply/explore lessons of spirituality in a controlled and graduated manner; instead of a no-stress/too much stress dichotomy, the Dojo can help us create situations that give us just the right amount of stress for our current level of study.
The Dojo can provide a place to test and practice the ethics and ideals of your religious practice, and your spiritual faith can provide purpose, symbology, and meaning for your Dojo training – if you are explicit about it.
Practice: Adopt a regular meditation practice. Commit to manifesting your meditation ideals in the Dojo.
2. Interactive mindfulness.
This practice is just regular keiko (training), except with an additional mental goal: to maintain a single, uninterruped quality in oneself throughout an entire practice. If one is distracted or loses the quality, pay attention to what caused the disruption, and reestablish the quality as quickly as possible without self-recrimination. Any positive quality or attribute works well for this practice. Can you focus on, and maintain, deep and calm breathing, or does it become stopped or ragged when you are attacked? Can you keep a smile on your face through an entire class? Some other productive qualities to be mindful of and maintain in this manner include abstract principles (perfect blending, always early, neutral point of connection, etc.); emotional (listening, giving, never letting yourself feel tired); physical (never resisting or forcing, keeping a low stance, maintaining a perfect posture, focus on your own heartbeat, maintaining soft eyes); or even technique (focusing on the concept or principle that motivated you from the last class or seminar).
Martial training can be interactive meditation.
I believe interactive mindfulness, and cultivating the ability to “reset” and regain mindfulness quickly and calmly, is the “flip side” of atemi training. “Atemi” is a martial concept of striking or causing pain to distract, disrupt, or destroy an opponent’s focus and mental and physical equilibrium. However, we don’t spend enough time using atemi as a tool to study how to recognize when we ourselves have lost our equanimity, and as a tool for becoming more adept at quickly regaining our composure and mindfulness.
Here is another of my favorite Samurai parables. There was a merchant who studied Kenjutsu because it was fashionable; he wasn’t a very good student. One day, he came to his Sensei (one of the most famous swordsmen in the city) and confessed that he had accidentally insulted the Sensei’s arch-rival. As a result, he had to duel his teacher’s rival at the next sunrise. The teacher sighed, and put his hand on the merchant’s shoulder, and said, “I’m sorry, but you will die tomorrow. Your opponent is simply too good, and I cannot teach you enough in one day to defeat him. What I can do is train you all day to make one perfect cut, so you can die with honor; and so that bystanders can say, his cut was pure and it showed his spirit was that of a true warrior.” The merchant sighed, and resolved himself to his fate. All day, he trained diligently so that as soon as he bowed to his opponent – he would step forward without hesitation and make the purest sword cut of his life, though he be cut down in the process.
The next morning, before the duel, the Teacher walked past the designated duel site. Approaching the Sensei, the Rival leered, knowing that he would kill the Teacher’s student that day. The Sensei passed right on by, however, and as he did he struck the Rival’s saya (scabbard) with his own – and kept on walking as if nothing happened. In outrage, the Rival turned to confront the Teacher – and in that moment the merchant stepped forward, bowed to the sputtering Rival, and cut the Rival down with one pure cut. The lesson of the story is that if the Rival was able to stay focused on the moment at hand, he would have won without contest.
Practice: For each class for a month, for the entire class, focus on and maintain a single, uninterrupted positive quality within yourself while training normally.
3. The Pressure Cooker.
There is a charisma, a commanding presence that is often exuded by high-level martial artists. When they walk into a room, even non-martial artists may treat them with instinctual deference and respect, as if they can instinctually sense a certain competence, refinement, focus, or potential for lethality. What is this animal intensity? Where does it come from? I believe it is the cultivation of focus and intensity through long years of training near the edge of danger, far outside of the comfort zone. Saotome Sensei has asked “What does the length of your training mean? 50 years of training in comfort does not compare to a month of training ‘under the sword’.”
For me, I find that weapons training or “slow-time” training are the fastest routes to tapping into this space, the space where primal training takes over all movement and 100% focus is required to keep from being, or causing, injury. In Zen, this space is named “mushin”, or “empty-mind”. If you ever have difficulty quieting your internal dialogue, simply have somebody initiate an intense punch or strike to your face – I assure you that for the instant you are forced to respond, your mind will be empty. It’s a shortcut to an aspect of “enlightenment” – but unfortunately it departs just as swiftly.
To paraphrase an ancient Buddhist aphorism – “One should practice like one’s hair is on fire.”
What benefit comes from this? The ability to concentrate, and hold, attention or focus. For my students, I use the analogy of a “gas can”. When we first start, our “attention span” capacity is limited to a tiny thimble – and when we pour out our attention and the thimble empties, we lose concentration, we become confused, we have a hard time executing or learning. We even feel unexpectedly / physically / tired. As we do “pressure cooker” training, we “stretch out” our thimble until it becomes bigger; first a small cup, then a bowl, and eventually a large can (like a gas can). When we have a wealth of “liquid attention span” to use, we can spend a little over a long time (maintaining focus and clarity for an entire class or seminar), or we can spend A LOT over a short time (REALLY “waking up” and focusing, slowing down our perception of time, such as might be needed for advanced weapons or multiple attackers).
Practice: A little bit, in every class, set aside some time to “ramp up” speed and power just a little outside of your comfort zone, with a partner you trust.
4. Deprogramming triggers.
We all have triggers – stimuli that bring out negative emotions, patterns, and behaviors that are difficult for us to control. I do not pretend to be a mental health professional. However, in my experience, the paradox of getting rid of our triggers is that either we are too safely removed from the stimuli (talking about the triggers), or once the trigger has activated it’s too much, too late (the pattern has already manifested and to a certain extent reinforced). Again, the no-stimulus/too-much-stimulus paradox. With a supportive community, sensitive partners, and an atmosphere that supports constructive failure, I’ve found that Dojos can provide a unique tool for addressing triggers and their resulting patterns.
The patterns I refer to can be as simple as physical or emotional responses (defensive “turtling” responses, freezing up, forceful manipulation, anger etc.) or more severe conditions like PTSD. The goal is twofold: 1) to slowly reassociate the trigger with a more positive emotion like play, and 2) to identify and expand the threshold of the trigger from either “on/off” to a wider and wider “boundary zone” of where reactions can be examined and stimuli desensitized.
In Aikido and Judo, we have all experienced this process the first time we were learning how to roll; despite our strong intentions, we probably “froze up” as our falling instincts interfered with our attempts to embrace a fall. Eventually, however, we learned to associate rolling with a feeling of play and newfound ability, and this opened up our ability to gain more and more ukemi skills. This is the same process I try to help students explore when they are having trouble breaking bad habits.
Let me provide a more detailed example. I had a university student with PTSD from childhood abuse, who would “shut down” when any male got closer than a certain distance. She had received a lifetime of therapy and prescriptions, and came to Aikido on the suggestion of a friend. With the help of senior students, male and female, we trained with her right at the edge of the triggering distance – mostly with a very basic pivoting exercise to give her control over the situation and her perspective on it. At her verbal control, her attackers would either back off, or enter more, carefully. After about five weeks, she was able to train carefully with men actually grabbing her arm. While it was a difficult and stressful exercise for her, more than once I heard her laugh; more importantly, she came to me later and said that the Aikido exercises did more to help her than anything else she tried or any past therapy she had received.
I certainly am not advocating that martial arts represent themselves as mental health specialists. However, I think we have tools that psychiatrists do not, and I think we are uniquely qualified to look at the potential, safe reactions and opportunities that our training traditions afford us to help our students in new and life-changing ways. Our students each have an emotional journey that they have embarked on, and it is our responsibility as instructors to examine our own experiences, life lessons, and training tools to help them. Specifically, we can help them see their own patterns, see their own triggers and responses, and explore different ways to coax new responses to stress stimuli – not the least of which requires embracing an attitude of playfulness, humor, humility as a teacher, and an environment that encourages trying different things and making mistakes.
Practice: Identify a “bad habit” we’d like to break. Identify the situations and stimuli that trigger the habit. “Back off” (rewind) the stimuli, and repeatedly “ease in” to give the student a chance to examine and control both the stimuli and their response, and each time to connect it to a new (and more enjoyable) outcome such as play, humor, or good technique.
5. Detachment, or “letting go of the outcome.”
There is a paradox described by Bushido (the “Way of the Samurai”): in order to have a chance of survival, the warrior must put her worldy affairs in order and resolve that she will in fact die in the next battle. Thus resolved, the warrior can move and strike without hesitation, reservation, doubt, or fear.
Unfortunately, the morality of Aikido encourages us to adopt a defensive mindset, and the training environment further entices us to train analytically, dissecting our movement and feelings in our body, micro-managing every micro-motion for the most optimal and subtle outcome. Aikido keiko makes us comfortable by letting us practice familiar patterns against familiar attacks at familiar speeds, and gives us the illusion of control over the outcome. But when we take that attitude against a fast-paced, unfamiliar attack or attacker, or into a stressful multi-attacker situation, fear and doubt can quickly immobilize us. This can easily be observed in multiple attacker training where Nage (the defender) takes a grip on a single attacker, and has difficulty letting go – despite how that grip immobilizes her and makes her vulnerable to the remaining attackers.
My favorite analogy here is the ancient “monkey trap” – an ancient device used on many continents. This trap works by taking a simple container such as a gourd or vase, chained or tied to the ground near a place where monkeys frequent. A hole is made in the gourd just slightly larger than the width of a monkey’s hand, and some rice or fruit or other enticement is inserted into the gourd. Then, a hunter quietly waits until the monkey approaches the gourd, sees the rice and reaches in to grab it. The hunter can then simply and brazenly walk up to the monkey and strike it dead. Screeching in fear, the monkey sees the hunter approaching, but cannot pull his hand from the gourd! Why? Because the monkey is unwilling to let go of the rice, their hand forms a fist that is too big for the hole. Thus, the deadly monkey trap.
It turns out that we humans are also monkeys. We are programmed to behave exactly like those monkeys in a thousand ways – fixated on a goal even when that goal is no longer desirable. Some of the most insidious self-harming goals in martial training are ego (the need to win, or be better than others) and fear (the need to not feel pain or look incapable or lose the regard of others). Once students start thinking about the monkey trap metaphor, I find they quickly start seeing in themselves moments when they become inappropriately fixated or mentally (and thus, physically) “stuck”.
Training toward detachment can be approached a number of ways. A simple way is just for the Sensei to provide new “win conditions” – instead of letting training “win conditions” default to “how hard I can throw my partner” or “show my partner how knowledgable I am”, new goals can be introduced such as “look for the moment when you and your partner are both surprised”, or even “stop and discuss the moment you and your partner create a technique or outcome between you, that neither of you was responsible for on your own.” Aiki happens in “the space between” anyway.
“The optimum outcome requires detachment from the outcome.”
My favorite personal study for detachment is twofold: (1) Training against a set of multiple attackers long enough that the initial “novelty” wears off and part of me can “settle in” for longer training, and (2) practicing the randori with an attitude of “it’s my birthday! One of these attackers is going to give me a surprise present! Is it you? Or will it be you? I know it will be one of you!” I don’t know the form the gift will take, or when it will happen, only that I must have a sense of anticipation and wonder and detachment from what happens because I cannot make the surprise present appear myself! In this way, I open myself to the chance that wonderful outcomes can appear that I could never force to happen intentionally in the chaotic environment of randori.
Practice: Practice multiple attackers at a medium-slow pace and with a limited set of attacks for 2-3 minutes, without trying to perform technique or control the attackers, and with an attitude of anticipation and trust. Faster speeds are OK, if you can keep it going long enough!
6. As inside the Dojo, so outside.
This practice is developing critical self-awareness of emotional and physical responses to stress on the mat (during training), and how technique (for example, simple irimi tenkan – enter and pivot) relieves and transforms that stress. The stimuli/responses may be fear (I don’t like to train with that Karate person, she attacks too fast for me) or anger (I want to respond with violence when I am manipulated or struck), or even simple frustration (why must my partner try to explain everything to me? Why did Sensei call up that other student before me?). By cataloging one’s emotional patterns and triggers, and further learning that you can safely explore different interactions that might release emotional stress, we prepare ourselves for the idea that “how we respond to problems on the mat, is the same way we respond to problems off the mat.”
We take this internal awareness of our negative response patterns (and what it feels like to release them) into our “everyday lives” with our co-workers, friends, loved ones, and other people in our lives. There we can begin to identify analogous “trigger” situations, and are empowered to seek analogous ways to transform the situations to achieve different outcomes. What happens when we try to “tenkan” an angry boss or colleague by stepping around the table, and looking for a mutual problem? What happens when we step “off the line” from a confrontation, but look for that which verbally unbalances our aggressor? What happens when, instead of letting ourselves feel hurt or defensive, we seek a way to allow both ourselves and our aggressor to have dignity and find another solution than the “win-lose” situation presented?
There are variations of an old saying in Aikido about how many years it takes to learn ikkyo (first principle technique). Twenty years, thirty years, forty years. Saotome Sensei emphasizes however that the principle of ikkyo is “meeting” uke, understanding and transforming the micro-instant that one’s aggressor forms an intent (long before the physical connection). If we mire ourselves in forty years of purely muscular exploration, we lose the opportunity to understand this much more profound aspect of human interaction. Similarly, there reaches a period in our martial career where our growth is limited by our time inside the Dojo. This is a challenge for each of us to solve – how can the Dojo become a gateway to the rest of our life? How can we cultivate our ideals in every aspect of our lives and personalities, to create a spiritual integrity uniting what we do on and off the mat? It is hard for this to happen accidentally, and I believe it takes practicing an explicit mindfulness that leverages the Dojo as an “emotional laboratory” that strengthens and informs us how to exist in every aspect of our lives.
Let me give a transformative example from my life. I was never shy, but as I began my professional career, I found myself speaking in front of larger and larger audiences. At one point, I was presenting at an international conference in Russia, before hundreds of high-level government officials from a dozen countries, being simultaneously translated into several languages. The room was stuffy, and nearly 100 degrees (F). The audience was Eastern European, and well, hostile. To top it off, some helpful person put a loud warehouse fan right next to me, and the 60-mph wind it produced was working hard to scatter all my notes and overhead slides (Powerpoint was not an option there). Frankly, it was the largest and highest-profile presentation of my career, I was beginning to freak out, I was perspiring like a waterfall, and my hands were starting to shake. Not a good start!
Desperate, I imagined myself surrounded by three fierce attackers in martial uniforms, each holding a bokken (wooden sword) pointed at my head – all poised to strike. All at once, my body calmed and grounded; my breathing slowed; I stood taller; my hands steadied. My body knew how to handle that kind of stress from practice; it knew how to channel the energy from the imagined attackers. From there I gave my talk, and as far as those things go, it was a success. I had managed to connect my lessons from stress caused by physical attack to stress caused by contextual/social threat, and it showed me how to handle the new situation with confidence and calm.
Practice: Identify a negative emotion or reaction that we have while training in the Dojo. Find how to recreate the conditions that cause that reaction in ourselves consistently. Study how technique can release the stress that causes the emotional reaction. Over the next week, write down all the times you experience that same emotional reaction “in normal life”, and explore if there are analogous ways for disarming the interpersonal, “normal life” situation as the technique provided for the physical situation.
7. Kotodama, and your echoes in the universe.
I am not a practitioner of Kotodama, the spiritual faith of Aikido’s founder and the religion that is the foundation of much of the Aikido’s terminology and morality. As explained to me by Saotome Sensei, however, I think there is a very beautiful concept of “vibrations” which is its core tenet – that our intents, actions, and spirit cast “vibrations” out to the ends of the universe, that travel through all living things, and return to us. It’s a very similar idea to karmic impact, but I feel it emphasizes a less abstract responsibility and greater awareness of one’s immediate and multiplying effect on the people around us.
One of my favorite examples of this was a student, after a difficult class, asking “why were all my partners being jerks to me today?” as all the other students in class subtly rolled their eyes. The answer, of course, is that student was making them jerks. Of course, the “vibration” doesn’t need to be negative – we can all think of a member of our Dojo who, just by showing up, brightens up the attitude of everyone on the mat, or who instills an extra energy and spirit for everyone to strive harder. This is a different level of mindfulness that begins with becoming aware of our direct and indirect impact of everyone else inside the boundaries of a single class, and then exploring how we can intentionally change it. For me, over the years, it has matured into an awareness of how my smallest words and every moment of my demeanor can affect my students – not just in a particular class, but across all classes, over the course of years. I have been told that my words of well-timed positive encouragement caused students to change how they think of themselves as people, and thus helped them embrace an important new direction in their lives. By extension, I have come to realize there may have been countless moments where I missed the opportunity to make timely, tremendous positive impact due to letting myself feel tired, or self-absorbed, or apathetic; or worse, that there may be many moments where I said or did something thoughtless that had similarly large but negative impacts on some of the hundreds of students that I have taught over the years. Tiny invisible moments, potential for big repercussions.
Saotome Sensei once told me… “Now you understand. The instructor is always under the sword.” There are no trivial interactions, and part of the path of growth is taking responsibility for our smallest interactions with others. Of course, we must forgive ourselves when we slip, for it is inevitable; but we can also learn mindfulness about how we choose to exist impacts many more around us than we can easily observe. If that sounds heavy and sobering, well, sometimes for me it really is. But it can also be a source of deep meaning and pleasure to discover how much ability we have to help others with their journeys. On the mat, it is always within our power to find compassion for our partner, and to commit ourselves fully to finding the best quality of movement and to helping our partners and neighbors grasp the maximum growth from each training moment; it is always within us to “fill” the space around us with a little more energy.
Practice: Try entering the Dojo and training an entire class radiating enthusiasm, or pouring out energy, or smiling, and observe the effects it has on your partners and the “feel” of your training. Pay extra attention to the people you didn’t train with, and see if it affects them too. When you are down, or tired, or frustrated, try to be aware if your training doesn’t become more difficult and your partners don’t reflect your negative energy as well.
8. Perspective and emotional security.
Saotome Sensei once told me, “most bad decisions grow from insecurity”, and that idea has always stuck. So what can the Dojo teach us about security, and how to act from a place of emotional equanimity? I think the easiest answer is to build confidence in one’s ability to avoid personal injury in conflict, and to learn to not fear training pain so much. For me, it is important to reframe the purpose of study from “how to defeat an opponent” to “how to be unattackable”, which in itself implies more of a mental state than a physical one.
Most bad decisions grow from insecurity.Mitsugi Saotome Sensei
Imagine the scenario where you have a young nephew, only a few years old, who really needs a nap and starts throwing a violent tantrum. For some reason, the toddler starts trying to kick, hit, and bite you. It is well within your power to defeat that toddler, to defeat him with a single blow. The defeat would be epic! But you do not fight him, you do not accept his offer of mortal combat. Perhaps you place your hand on his head, and let him expend all his energy swinging his short arms and legs against the air; perhaps you pick him up and give him a hug until he settles. But why do you not feel the need to respond with similar (if disproportionate) violence? It is because you are not threatened. You know the toddler cannot really hurt you, and because you feel affection and compassion, and because you deeply understand that any reaction in anger or violence would have long-lasting and manifold negative repercussions for both you and the child. Well, what if you could cultivate that inner confidence in your ability to prevent a person from harming you, no matter how large or old they are?
The Dojo can create that confidence, if you practice the situations that convince you that it is true; seeking larger and more fearsome partners, being attacked more quickly and more powerfully, setting up disadvantageous situations like multiple attackers. If you are telling yourself, “oh, I already do all of that” – I challenge you – do you really? If your keiko consists only of improving your technique, or enjoying beautiful flow, or staying in your comfort zone, you may be practicing lovely Aikido but I don’t think you are preparing yourself for the overwhelming situations. Your next reaction might be “why would I train in an overwhelming situation? The answer is “not all at once, of course, you have the opportunity to build up to it” – but isn’t preparation for uncomfortable and fearful scenarios really the central point of a “martial art?”
I remember a seminar with Mary Heiny Sensei. She was teaching a very flowing technique, full of visual imagery of growing flowers and sunlight, when a large male student challenged her with his strength – clearly not buying into this form of instruction. Heiny Sensei sighed, and performed a much “crunchier” version of the technique that quite effectively planted the student. While her motions adapted, her composure and equilibrium did not because she knew deep in her soul that she could handle the power offered against her. You may not want, or have access to, the hard training that allowed Mary Heiny Sensei to grow her unshakeable belief in her ability. Fortunately, I don’t think it’s necessary as long as you always “build up” your training to stronger and harder levels, and if you change the “win conditions” of your training. You know you were “in the zone” if your brain and body need a reset after even a very short engagement.
Practice: 1) Continue to push yourself and your partners well out of your comfort zones a little in each class; and 2) focus on being unattackable rather than winning. You never have to accept your partner’s energy… unless you are stubborn, or you are late!
9. Cultivating the intuitive self.
The frontal lobe of the brain (part of the forebrain) is responsible for analytical and conscious thought, but it is relatively slow. In contrast, microsecond-speed reactions, physical timing, and fine motor control are the domain of the cerebellum (part of the hindbrain); essentially, the the part of our subconsciousness responsible for learning and performing neuromotor (physical) skills. While our analytical minds can be very needed for guiding our training and identifying our shortcomings, they tend to have a hard time “stepping aside” and letting the intuitive and physical parts of our mind do their jobs. Our analytical, “ego” self does not wish to relinquish control of the body (or the illusion of control of the situation) when the outcome isn’t known; and the scarier the situation, the more the ego-mind tries to control it. If we never break past this, our training and growth will be permanently stunted, and we will be left unprepared for the unexpected.
Fortunately, the cerebellum (“the Body”) is really, really good at its job, and has been fine-tuned as a learning and performance system for millions of years. If we can practice training encounters (single or multiple freestyle attackers) with a sense of “trust” that the body can and will do the right thing, we “take the brakes off” and create the possibility for split-second improvisation, pre-action, and reaction. The Dojo is the perfect place to build an internal awareness of our mental dialogue and predilection for micro-managing our body, and cultivating the ability to “flip the switch” and step forward into uncertainty with a sense of faith and trust in ourselves and the universe (feel free to make analogies to religious faith and “mushin”). Stop thinking, just “do.”
As much as the hindbrain is responsible for actual physical performance, it is also responsible for learning new breakthrough physical skills, sequences, and reflexes. Again, the forebrain is reluctant to admit that anything can be learned unless it can be thoroughly controlled and analyzed, but research in sports has shown this really isn’t the case. Instead, new skills can sometimes best be learned by intentionally visualizing goals for the body, performing many repetitions with the self as an “observer” of what the body is doing, and then “sleeping on it” while trusting that the body will rewire itself and figure out the best way to achieve the new performance goal all on its own. In other words, trusting your body to learn new skills without trying to control them or force them. (For those interested in intuitive learning, I highly recommend “The Inner Game of Tennis” by Tim Gallwey).
The spiritual component of this is the pursuit of awareness of and skill using the parts of our minds for which they are most suited for; our cognitive mind for goals, retrospective analysis, and communication; and our intuitive mind for intuition, reaction, learning, and improvisation. It helps us understand that we are more than our egos or our internal dialog, and that control can be an illusion and an obstacle to our goals.
Practice: Embrace each encounter without trying to control the outcome. Observe your internal dialogue and desire to control your partner and to micromanage your body. Practice appreciating how your opponent is not a puzzle to be manipulated or forced, but is merely another participant arriving at the moment of creation at the same time as you. Allow your body to do what it does best without interference. Learn to celebrate and have gratitude when your body created a positive resolution, but don’t take credit for it. Between each encounter, analyze the result, and set new goals, but with each new encounter, let the body react and respond at speed. Get good at cycling between analyzing between encounters, and trusting your body during encounters.
10. Acceptance of mortality (and the power of seeking alternate paths ahead).
Acceptance is the lesson that eventually we all must learn whether we choose to or not. That lesson is: we are mortal, we are limited, we cannot always win, and rejecting this truth does not make it go away. Intellectually we all know we cannot remain 21 forever, and we cannot continue to treat (and abuse) our bodies as if we could. Nonetheless, every Dojo is filled with people who consistently train beyond the wise limits of their bodies, and end up paying dearly for it in aches and stiffness for days. The biggest obstacle here is ego; we have difficulty admitting to ourselves that we cannot perform like we remember, that we cannot still move like the 21-year olds on the mat, or that there might just be a different and more subtle way to train that does not require a 21-year old body. Our egos feel good when we can tell ourselves “we’re showing those youngsters we can still take it!”, and we are afraid that any form of training that is less physically expressive or demanding is lesser training. In this way, we hasten the decline of our bodies, we waste our time on the mat, we lose opportunities to train as we recover, and we discard the opportunity to find new paths while our bodies can still take advantage of them. Grace, here, is accepting not that we cannot, but that we should not; and then finding different ways to excel that can be impressive to everybody, even the 21-year olds. The image of our younger selves can be a huge obstacle to what our future selves could become. Grace is adaptation to the reality of now with composure and creativity, and in this case, compassion for yourself. However, once limits are presented, grace doesn’t come by doing what you have always done, or even what everyone else around you is doing; you may need to do what you can do in new and confusing ways.
Of course, there is a fine line between “finding a new path” and just resigning oneself to “taking it easy.” That response might be slowly surrender, just letting yourself slide down the mountain instead of finding different paths up.
The practical training component of this is to constantly explore new ways of moving that create positive outcomes. Old solutions solve old problems, and we must each learn to become an innovator in movement and response that is kind to both ourselves and our partners. The longer we wait, the harder it is to let go; but the actual act of training rewards exploration if you can push yourself to accept frequent failures and occasionally looking the fool. Humility and curiosity can open new doors, and help us resist becoming “petrified” of body and spirit.
Practice: When your body starts telling you that you should not be doing certain things, start exploring different models and ways to create an equivalent outcome but that does not hurt your body. You probably will have to look outside of the Dojo for inspiration. Look to other movement paradigms: Feldenkrais, Yoga, European or Koryu weapons arts, animal movement, Pilates, Somatic Movement therapy, Alexander Technique, senior gymnastics, senior Parkour; these are all disciplines that seek to increase capacity and quality of physical performance. Remind yourself that beginning (and integrating) new ways of moving can result in you performing better than you ever have, not worse.
What makes a “Michi”?
You are a member of Dojo, not a gym. That means you are seeking something more than sweat, exertion or technique. You are seeking to change more than just your body. What your “Michi” (spiritual practice) becomes will be up to you, and different than the Michi of anyone else. The Dojo is a fantastic place to nurture your own Michi, if you make it that way. However, Michi does not happen by accident, nor does it happen automatically. Patterns and expectations will always add inertia, fighting new change and the growth of your Michi.
- Michi grows explicitly,
- with intent,
- with mindfulness,
- with critical self-examination,
- with determination and commitment to a goal,
- with trust,
- with innovation,
- with self-humor,
- with compassion for yourself and your partners, and
- with deliberation.
I am no guru, no spiritual master, and claim no special enlightenment. I am just very thoughtful, introspective, and deeply committed to creating a meaningful path of spiritual growth in my own life. These are just some experiments I’ve structured for my own benefit and the benefit of my students over the the decades of my training. If they are useful to you, please let them inspire you to reinvent your own training. I hope you find new and creative paths toward your Michi that I’ve never imagined!
If this page interested you, please watch this TedX video: The Mat Meets the Couch: How Martial Arts Informs Clinical Psychology.