Posted by: aikithoughts | February 28, 2008

The Power of Calmness

Back when I played bass guitar, I had a problem. Every time the band I was in would play a gig, I ended up standing next to the drummer. This normally wouldn’t be a bad thing–communication between the bassist and the drummer can be essential during a show. This is especially true when your guitarist had a tendency to launch into 15-minute solos every third song or so.

The problem stemmed from the snare drum. Every time the drummer hit that thing, I’d wince–I was so close that it sound like a rifle shot every couple of beats. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t overcome this initial reaction. In the end, I finally gave up–I figured it was a physical reaction and, rather than try to eliminate it, I would just try to reduce its impact as much as possible.

My involuntary reaction to the snare drum also manifested when someone gave a solid "kiai!" at the dojo. No matter what I tried to do, I could not overcome that initial wince when someone started screaming in my general direction. Again, I finally realized there might be anything I could do about it except try to reduce my reaction as much as possible. I even asked my instructor at the time for advice. His response: "Kiai back!" (This worked, actually.) I started to assume that reacting to a kiai was normal, and there was little anyone could do to prevent themselves from reacting to it.

That all changed one day at a seminar I attended a few years ago. The seminar was taught by an aikido instructor who was also an avid fan of swordsmanship. As it happened, there was another student who had a strong background in swordsmanship. These two individuals could not have been more different. The instructor was tall, strong, imposing. The student was slim, quiet, unassuming. On a whim, between classes, the two of them decided to have a sparring match with a couple of shinai.

If these two people looked physically different, their stances magnified such differences a hundredfold. The instructor stood, his pose mountain-like, the shinai pointed at the chest of the student. And that student? He stood, almost casually, with his arm extended out to his side, holding the shinai single-handedly. If it weren’t for the fact that the end of his shinai was pointed directly at the chest of the instructor, you wouldn’t have thought he was sparring at all.

The sparring began quietly. After a moment’s pause, the instructor exploded into motion, and he tagged the student before there was time for anyone to react. A short time later, the student’s shinai snuck past the instructor’s, returning the strike. It became clear to those of us on the sidelines that we were watching two people who were very good at their respective styles.

Another pause in the match came, in which both instructor and student watched each other for openings. Time slowed to a crawl. It seemed as if the match had come to an impasse. Then, suddenly, the instructor gave the loudest kiai I had ever heard. It was loud enough that it reverberated off the concrete walls. It was loud enough the windows shook. It was loud enough that everyone in the audience took a half step backward. "This is it," I thought to myself. "The student’s done." As the shout died down, the instructor stared at the student, fully convinced that he had shaken him to the point that he could strike at will.

But to everyone’s surprise, the student still stood. Calmly, relaxed. His facial expression had not changed. It was as if nothing had happened at all. Instead, he said, very quietly: "That? That does not work on me." And TAG! He struck again, bypassing the instructor’s guard completely.

After that, it no longer mattered to me who won or lost the rest of the match. I had seen perhaps the most amazing display of calmness that I had ever seen. A new goal had been set for myself–to achieve that level of calmness for myself. The experience was similar to the first time someone really threw me in aikido; it made me realize that the power of calmness is really a game-changer, and cannot be underestimated.

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Responses

  1. Interesting – I used to play bass in a classic-rock cover band. I haven’t gigged in about 15 years, but I still have my basses: a Fender Precision, an early 60s Gibson EB-2 and a Guild. I really should get back into playing, maybe it’ll enhance my karate skills!

  2. Well-told story … and good point.

    But how to actually develop that calmness under extreme pressure, that’s the trick!

  3. Knowing the personalities you describe, visualizing this duel didn’t take much doing. Another lesson that I learned from your “slim” protagonist is never to underestimate one’s opponent. His lack of “physicality” and softness of movement camoflauged his strength and experience. I’ve amply learned THAT lesson working with him at camps.

  4. For some reason I’m reminded of the Tao Te Ching and the idea that you do what is appropriate when it is appropriate, no more, no less. So perhaps the proper complement of high energy (the resounding kiai) is low energy (centered calmness). So he was calm when it was time to be calm, just as he moved back when it was time to move back, forward when it was time to advance.

  5. In the very little that I interacted with either of them, I do remember the slim-guy telling me once that the big guy had a LOT to teach and that I should consider quitting Aikikai and studying with him full time. I did not but did learn a great deal from him regardless. One thing that stands out was a statement he made to the effect that the key element in performing a perfect shomenuchi-ikyo was condfindence. I think he was right. Not only that, I believe that it was confidence that added so much to slim guy’s calm.

    So, in response to David’s question, I think the asnwer is, “Training”. Lots and lots of tough training will make you good at what you do. Being good will generally bring you confidence. From confidence will come calm.

    Avoiding Starbucks, SBC and the other caffeine pushers might help too … 😉

  6. I was a pro musician in quite a successful band back in the 90’s, and my experiences on and off stage definitely redefined how I practiced on the mat. You quickly realise that sometimes things are beyond control and you simply have to relax and let life flow around you.


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