Leaving Social Media

I think it’s time I depart from social media for a time.

My first steps into “social media” was with Facebook. When I first joined the platform, so many years ago, it seemed like a novel way to keep in touch with a whole bunch of people that I didn’t, or couldn’t see. Old high school and college friends. People I used to work with. Family members. The platform seemed so interesting–does anyone remember when status updates took the form of partial sentences, like:

Dave Shevitz is writing a Facebook post. How meta.

Then, of course, came other platforms: Instagram. Twitter. Tumblr.

But I don’t like what I see on Facebook any more.

An initial assumption might be that this is a direct result of the last election, and the discoveries that–shock and horror–these platforms may have been manipulated for political means. Another assumption might be slightly less Illuminati in nature: that I have grown tired of being in a self-inflicted bubble, in which the only comments and posts I see are ones that I already agree with.

Both are valid assumptions, but neither capture what’s going on in my mind right now.

To explain, we have to go back a number of years. I was just starting out in my career and my marriage, and I discovered a remarkable game: EverQuest. It was expansive. It was online. It was always there. And I quickly became addicted to it. I would spend hours playing–because you had to. It took you at least an hour to find a good group! Another hour to find a good spot to fight digital monsters! And then you had maybe a couple of hours of where the group was working together to actually play the game. Although it was a game, EverQuest was also a social media platform itself–an opportunity for me to talk and engage with a whole community of people.

I was unaware of what was going on. My wife was not. And it became clear that I had let this game consume way too much of my attention. It had to stop. So I stopped playing.

I wish I could say “I stopped playing entirely.” But I can’t. I reduced my playing time. I even quit EverQuest. But, over the years, there were many, many other games. I justified playing them because, well, my wife got into watching her own shows. Shows that I didn’t particularly care for. So an equilibrium was struck: she watched her shows, I played my games. Eventually, I found other interests, such as guitar, shows that I liked myself (hello, Star Trek Discovery!) and, well, there’s always a work. (Which is fine. I like what I do!) So my evenings now are mostly spent playing guitar and working, and my wife still watches shows that creep me out, like Criminal Minds. (Seriously, what is WITH that show?)

What do these last few paragraphs have to do with anything? I guess I’m pointing out that I have gone through having one platform dominate my life, and that experience helps me (sometimes) see when another platform is doing the same.

Let’s return to traditional social media for a moment. (Wait–not just yet. Let’s just marvel at the fact that we can use the phrase “traditional social media.” Because social media has been around THAT long?) My major experience with social media is Facebook. And, as I mentioned, at first it was a novel way of keeping in touch with people. And it still is.

But I’m also discovering that Facebook has become the ONLY way I communicate with some people, or with how some people communicate with me. My own family is not exempt. I find that I check Facebook primarily because I’m curious what’s going on with my family. My immediate family. This stresses me out. First, I want to have direct communication with my family. I want to talk with them, listen to them. I don’t want these events to occur only on Facebook.

I’m also becoming disenchanted with what I call the Scrapbook Lie. (There is probably a better name for this, but I like this one.) When you look through a scrapbook, most of the pictures you see are of people smiling, happy, enjoying themselves. We all know that’s not really how life is. It pains me to see a photo “Look how much fun we are having!” when I know, firsthand, that a few moments ago everyone was in tears. I understand that filters are important. But I don’t understand the line between filters and outright censorship/propaganda, and that bothers me.

I really should say that I don’t consider social media to be a bad thing. It is a tool, a technology, and whatever is good or bad about it is what we bring to it. I’ve stayed on Facebook, for example, because I enjoy the interesting perspectives many of my friends share, and I am glad to provide a word of support when someone mentions that they are suffering. But I can no longer tell if social media, as a whole, is a net-positive influence on my life. And it seems the only way to find out for sure is to step away for a while.

For those of you with whom I communicate with regularly, you know there are plenty of other ways to reach me. For those who would like to communicate with me more regularly but don’t know how, message me here and I’ll happily share some of my contact info. And for those who couldn’t care one way or the other: I commend you for reading this far.

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The Last Jedi and Communication

So on my Facebook feed a friend of mine was positing that the latest Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi, could easily be a treatise/commentary on the failure of how men tend to think and act versus how women tend to think and act.

(Yes, I said tend to. I don’t mean to generalize. I am also being lazy and sticking with typical male/female pronouns. I’m not trying to disrespect anyone here.)

The basic idea is this: during the movie, male characters like Poe and Skywalker seem to act impulsively, and with their own self-interests in mind. Poe wants to blow things up. Skywalker wants to crawl into a hole and die. Neither, at the beginning, see that sometimes, you have to think beyond yourself.

It’s a great argument, and a great point of view. One of the reasons I like the latest Star Wars movies is because they have such strong female characters. Check that. They have strong characters, some of whom appear to identify as female. My opinion on this matters not one little bit, but I still think it is fantastic.

But I’m not writing to lend weight for or against this particular viewing of the movie. Rather, I wanted to capture another thought, which came while I was discussing the first one.

The Last Jedi could really be an interesting comparison of rigid, top-down, proprietary organization structures versus fluid, open-source communities. Consider the First Order. It is led by the Supreme Leader. He holds the vision, and he alone sees the big picture. The people he attracts are those who do not want to think for themselves, who want to be told what to do. (Kylo Ren is a possible exception here.)

These traits are similar to the classic top-down communication structure found in older technology companies. One person has the vision. Everyone else is supposed to execute on that vision. The vision is not to be questioned.

Now look at the Resistance. It is organic. (Maybe it gets that from it’s nominal leader, Leia. Organa = organic? Ha! I amuse myself so.) Low-level captains can argue with Vice Admirals. Individual rebels can take on a mission without asking anyone else’s help. It is chaotic, crazy, and often at the brink of failure. Yet it is also has the potential to be inspirational, awe-inspiring and world (okay, galaxy) changing. Just like more modern technology companies, where the individuals make the call, not someone sitting in an ivory tower or massive Star Destroyer.

Dunno. I should probably spend more time thinking on this. Or maybe I’ve spent enough.

Applied Principles: Playground Swings and Hot Summer Days

Yesterday, the family and I went to a BBQ sponsored by my daughter’s swim team. It was one part “end-of-the-season” celebration, and one part farewell party for one of Hannah’s coaches. My daughter, H, spent most of her time playing at the lake with her teammates and friends. My wife spent her time taking pictures and (hopefully) relaxing with some of the other parents. My youngest was your typical four-year-old–bouncing from one event to the other.

And my middle child, M? He wanted to swing.

At first, I resisted this. It was 80-90 degrees out. The swingset was smack in the middle of the playground. No shade anywhere nearby. Standing out in the sun was hot and tiring and boring. On our first two trips out there, I lasted for about 10 minutes before I told M we had to do something else. He went sadly–throwing a little fit here and there. I transferred my fatigue and frustration to him without even realizing it.

It was inevitable before he’d ask me to take him swinging again. At last, I gave in and told him I would push him on the swings one more time. He joyfully ran to find a swing. As I watched him go, I realized that this was all he wanted–was to have his dad push him on the swings. I resolved at that moment to do so as long as possible. So I pushed him on the swings. And I stayed there. I only left twice–to check on my youngest. Each time I would give M a huge push, run like crazy to find my youngest (who was usually with my wife or on another part of the playground) and then ran back just as M’s momentum was starting to ebb. I’d then give M another huge push, and his smiles and laughter returned.

It was hot. Really hot, for me. But this time, it wasn’t boring, because I focused solely on M and making him happy. We stayed there on the swings for at least 45 minutes–perhaps longer. At one point, I pushed M and said: “Are you having fun?” A tired, contented voice responded: “Yes. This makes me happy.” Finally, when I knew it was nearly time for us to go home, I asked him if we could stop and I’d carry him. He was nearly asleep on the swing, and gratefully climbed into my arms.

In Kokikai Aikido, we talk a lot about keeping one point. Often, we talk about it as the center of your balance. But I think it applies more broadly than that. Keeping one point means your focus on what truly matters at that instant in time. To throw away what you think you want or need and just take in the world as it is before you. Yesterday, one point meant pushing M on the swings for as long as he wanted. After all, how many days do I get where he’ll ask me to do that? And making him happy filled me with such contentment, such peace. I am so very glad that I somehow had the presence of mind to throw away my own wants and instead focus on someone else. With luck, this type of awareness–this keeping of one point–will become more frequent.

 

Applied Principles: Being a good husband

Kokikai Basic Principles:

  1. Keep One Point
  2. Relax (progressively)
  3. Correct Posture
  4. Positive Mind

At our dojo, we look at these principles every time we step on and off the mat. When I teach, I tend to call attention to them–sometimes to a specific one, sometimes to all of them. Of these principles, perhaps the one that most often comes up in class is the second one: Relax (progressively). The idea is simple in concept, if difficult in execution: the more relaxed we are, the better we can assess a situation. We can move more correctly and more efficiently. We can prevent an opponent from applying their power because it is very difficult to use force against something that is relaxed and forgiving.

(Don’t believe me? Go lift a box spring. Pretty easy right? It’s got a solid structure. Now lift the mattress. Harder, right? It’s still got structure, but less so. Now lift a futon. You don’t have to–if you’re like me, you’re already rolling your eyes. Lifting a futon is a pain, because it has very little form to it. It flops and folds. I hate moving futons.)

(Still don’t believe me? Go lift a toddler (yours, please, or with the permission of the toddler’s parent).  Now think about when you had to lift that same toddler when they did NOT want to go somewhere. They’re kind of like a futon, right?)

After nearly 20 years of studying aikido, I understand how important being relaxed is. It’s just the better way to go. And, on the mat, I tend to be pretty good at it.

It’s harder when I’m not on the mat. For example, when I’m trying to be a good husband to my wife.

See, my wife is pretty stressed. We have three kids, one of whom is on the Autism spectrum. Our oldest child has swim practice and camps and just general pre-teen angst that goes on ALL THE TIME. Our five-year-old can be sweet one minute and hitting his brother the next. Our youngest is prone to whining and antagonizing his older brother until said brother hits him (as I just mentioned). We have two dogs. They shed. EVERYWHERE. I have literally vacuumed the floor only to find that it has made almost no difference whatsoever. We have a garden. We have a house to maintain. Oh, and my wife has her own schedule and challenges. She has injuries from the past that continue to bother her, and injuries from the present that she’s trying to avoid. I just read a blog post about how many mothers are tightly wound, and I found myself thinking: that’s my wife. And you know what? I can’t blame her for being this way. In fact, I’m constantly surprised she hasn’t completely lost it.

So I come home, and I use my highly-trained aikido senses (or I just open the door to the house) to discover that my wife is very stressed out. When I sense this kind of stress, my training from the mat takes over, and I think of how I can relax my way through this, so that not only I remain calm but hopefully my wife can remain calm as well.

Good intentions. Bad idea.

Guys, our wives don’t want us to help them calm down. She IS calm. Our wives need us to do one of two things:

  1. Get stuff done. The dishes. The laundry. Getting the kids out of the way for 10 minutes. Whatever.
  2. Get out of the way. Don’t ask questions. Don’t chitchat. If you don’t have something to do, grab the kids and go somewhere else. Anywhere else. Morocco, perhaps.

In Kokikai, being relaxed is usually synonymous with being calm. But that’s not the only interpretation. An equally valid interpretation is being efficient. I am understanding, more and more, that being a good husband does not mean helping my wife remain calm under fire. My job is to be efficient. To get stuff done quickly and correctly and then get out of the way. It is just like being on the mat: our job is not to have our opponent calm down. It is to move quickly and correctly in such a way that our opponent’s desire to fight is reduced to zero. My wife is most certainly NOT my opponent, but the idea is the same. I cannot, and should not, try to “calm things down.” Instead, I should move quickly, correctly–getting the stuff done that I know needs to get done.

Some folks might resist this idea. “I have worked hard all day! I need a break.” To these people, I say: No. Actually you don’t need a break. Not  only that, you don’t actually want a break. Has any husband ever “taken a break” when their wife is still dealing with all sort of chaos in the house and had it work out in his favor? No.  What you want is a bit of calmness, a bit of peace. You can get some of that by finding it within yourself. You get the rest of it by getting everything done that needs doing around the house–be it parenting, making dinner, whatever. To put it in another way: I don’t get to “take a break” when someone is throwing a punch at me. I get calmness when I’ve moved correctly and deflected the punch into something else.

In short: move first and get things done calmly. Then, and only then, is there a chance for that calmness to move through the rest of the house. That’s what my wife is working towards. Time I try harder more correctly to help.

Running, Aikido, and a Thousand Thoughts

A couple of years ago, I decided to take up distance running in addition to all the other things I do with my time (work, aikido, parenting, and so on). Initially, I started running for the simplest reason: my wife was running. More specifically, she had torn her meniscus, and I cold not understand why she was still trying to run if it caused her pain. So I strapped on a pair of running shoes and headed out, in an effort to experience what she was experiencing, and perhaps understand her mindset better. (And, one major stress fracture later, I do understand–almost too well. But that’s a story for another post…)

I ended up continuing to run because I find running long distances to be very complimentary to aikido. For example, running requires a combination of relaxation without compromising form–a state of being we often seek in our aikido practice. In addition, running long distances has allowed me to better appreciate ki breathing. I am fortunate to live in a part of the country where I can run in very open, natural environments, so I can breathe deeply and fully, knowing the air is relatively clean and pure. There is a great deal I could potentially write about regarding running and aikido–and I hope to do so. But, in this post, I want to focus on something specific: headphones. Or rather, the lack of headphones.

You see, often when I run it is either early in the morning or heading into evening. Rather than head to the gym and log hours on the treadmill (which I am actually fine with), I often will head outside and run the streets of my neighborhood. It didn’t take me long to realize that, if I was going to do this, I had to forego my headphones. There are three primary reasons for this:

  1. By running without headphones, I can pay better attention to my body. I can build a better awareness of how hard I’m working, or how a given pace feels.
  2. Without headphones, I am more aware of my surroundings. I appreciate the setting sun, or the view of the mountains.
  3. Especially at night, people like to drive up behind me as I run and honk, scaring the crap out of me.

That last one–#3–is the reason for this post. There is nothing like having someone drive up behind you when you’re running–on the sidewalk, well away from the street–and honking at you. I don’t know why they do it, but it makes me jump every time. Interestingly, though, I can feel the impact of aikido training at these moments. It’s impossible not to react to the sudden noise, but I know that, thanks to aikido, I revert to calmness much faster. The last few times someone has honked as I ran, I reacted, then immediately fell back into one point and kept running.

I then started to wonder–is it possible not to react at all? In an effort to get to this point, I tried anticipating that any car that was coming up behind me might honk their horn in an effort to startle me. As you can imagine, this was a ridiculous notion–especially when as I am often running on well-traveled streets. I have given up on anticipation, and now am trying to do something different (or at least, different for me). Now, I recognize that any car could honk, but that this is one of a thousand possibilities that could occur. I don’t dismiss any of these possibilities. Rather, I try to let them flow through my mind, like a river.

This might seem counter-productive. After all, in aikido we often value stillness. Yet, a thousand drops of water flow within a river, and a river is not chaotic. It is the river, and each drop of water within it, while potentially distinct, in the end is part of a greater whole.

I know little of meditation. But I have been wondering if, too often, I try to limit my thoughts in order to achieve a sense of calmness. Perhaps, instead, I should treat my every day thoughts much as I do when I run–let the flow through me like a river, and find my calmness in the current.

Accepting Reality

As the chief instructor of Aikido Kokikai South Everett, I am often asked questions regarding how “effective” our style of aikido (and, for that matter, aikido in general) can be. Usually, these questions are thinly-veiled attempts to ask the more direct question: “How good is aikido in a fight?” However, the real answers to this question move beyond self-defense into something far more practical and meaningful.

Of course, after 15 years of being an instructor, I’ve become adept at having fun with this question. “Is aikido good in a fight? What kind of fight? In a gun fight, it’s not so great. In a knife fight? Still not ideal. Why? Are you getting into knife fights? Oh…you mean fist fights? Depends! Are you fighting in a ring? Or on the street? Against one person? Thirty? Why are you fighting so many people? What do you DO all day?” Most students or potential students see that I’m trying to be humorous, and realize that their question is somewhat ridiculous.

After my initial attempt at humor is over (there are usually more attempts later), I then get to the answer that means the most to me: Kokikai Aikido is effective. Not only from a physical standpoint, but from a mental perspective, a philosophical one. One way I choose to look at it is this: With Kokikai Aikido, you learn how to accept reality.

Here’s a mundane example. You are driving home, but you are stuck in traffic. How easy it is to get angry at the traffic, to rail against the fact that you’re not getting home fast enough. I know I’ve felt this way more times than I can count. When I apply what I learn in Kokikai Aikido, I find that I’m much more accepting of my situation. Instead of crying out: “Why is there traffic?” I think: “There is traffic.” No amount of anger will dissipate the traffic that’s between me and my house. I can, however, choose to accept the fact that the traffic is here, and decide what to do about it. Perhaps that means taking a side street. Perhaps it means pulling off at an exit and getting something to eat. Perhaps it means just waiting it out. But whatever action I choose to take is taken more calmly and with more understanding. I may not get home much faster, but I definitely feel better.

Let me give a greater, and more personal example. My wonderful son, who is five, was diagnosed a couple of years ago as having ASD: Autism Spectrum Disorder. Go online, and you can find all sorts of parents of children with autism who blame a variety of causes for their child’s situation. Some blame pollution. Some blame a medical treatment that was or was not given at the right time. And, yes, still others blame vaccinations. I read these blog posts and articles, and rarely do I find someone intelligently and calmly addressing an issue in a meaningful way. Instead, I see people who are scared, angry, and frightened. They are unwilling to accept their reality, and so choose to fight against it. Since there is no way to fight against reality, they are forced to revert to expressing their fears in the hopes that they can find or convince others to be afraid too.

In my case, I have been fortunate. The principles I’ve studied in Kokikai Aikido have helped me accept my son’s diagnosis. This does not mean that I have given up on him–far, FAR from it. His mother and I, along with his older sister and younger brother, work with a team of educators and therapists to help him be happy and reach his best potential. (For those curious, he’s doing very well, and is scheduled to go to a public school kindergarten program!) What I do NOT do is spend my hours and days trying to find something or someone to blame. Even if I found someone to blame, it would not change my son’s situation–so why bother? Instead, I choose to accept reality, and work within it to provide him the love, education, and happiness he so richly deserves. True, there are hard days and frustrating days, but these are rare. More often than not, there are simply days: filled with good times and challenging times, just like any other parent and child might experience.

When people ask me if Kokikai Aikido is effective, of course I can answer honestly that it will help keep them physically safe. But I am also quick to tell them that it does much, much more. It teaches you to see the world around you more clearly today than yesterday, and more clearly tomorrow than today. When you see the world around you clearly, without fear, you can act calmly, instead of reacting rashly. You can accept reality and, as a result, navigate your way through life in ways more effective than you ever thought possible.

Mountains and Rivers

Koichi Tohei, one of the pivotal figures in aikido, is quoted as saying:

“The mountain does not laugh at the river because it is lowly, nor does the river speak ill of the mountain because it can not move.”

I often keep this quote in mind when people start comparing martial arts. And people do enjoy comparing martial arts against each other! I’ve lost count of the number of Facebook discussions, email threads, and (sometimes heated) in-person conversations I’ve come across in which the pros and cons of two martial arts are compared.

In truth, comparing martial arts in order to determine which one is “better” makes no sense. To carry Tohei sensei’s statement further: when you go hiking, do you comment on how the mountain is more beautiful to look at than the river? Of course not. If you must compare martial arts, compare them based on their basic assumptions of conflict, and how their strategies and tactics address those assumptions. In aikido, for example, it’s often assumed that there are multiple potential attackers (even if you’re only dealing with one that you know of). We also tend to assume that the conflict is occurring in a relatively civilized location–a bar, a street corner, and so on. This is a different set of assumptions than, say, Krav Maga. Does this mean one art is better than the other? No. They are simply different. And, with luck, we can learn more about ourselves by appreciating these differences.

Tohei’s statement resonates with me on another level, however. Just as it’s incorrect to compare two martial arts, I often think it’s incorrect to compare two people in the same martial art. This idea became very apparent to me when I was the dojo the other day. As I taught class and worked with students, I realized that each person moved in different ways. Some people in the dojo are very large and very strong. Others are small and light. When we train, we should recognize and respect the power of our opponent. We can’t make someone strong and heavy instantly become light, nor can we do the reverse. Even more important, we should respect the power of ourselves. For example, sometimes, when I have trouble taking someone’s balance, I try to match their power. This can work if the person is similar to me in terms of size and movement. But it rarely works when someone is bigger, stronger, faster, or whatever. What works better is to recognize my opponent’s power, and still respect my own.

After all, the river does not try to become the mountain, and the mountain does not try to be the river. They simply meet in harmony.

Trust Your Training

(Reprinted from www.everettaikido.com)

It seems that every month or so, I get asked about whether aikido is “effective” as a martial art. I don’t particular care for this question, because you can define “effective” in so many ways. Effective on the street? Effective on the field of battle? Effective in a school? Effective because anyone can do it? I could go on, but you get the idea. We need to remember that, in the case of a physical confrontation, the winner does not indicate the best martial art, but rather the best martial artist at that time and at that place.

That said, I understand why people ask the question. Studying a martial art is extremely difficult and very time-consuming. It is only natural–I would even say it is recommended–that people question the effectiveness of their training. To those asking this question, now, I’ll give you the answer I often give: “Aikido is effective. More importantly, our training system is effective for the goals we want to accomplish.”

In aikido, we are not interested in fighting. You could even say that we are only marginally interested in self-defense. What we are interested in is balance. How to take it, how to keep it, how to use it. This is different from striking arts, which focus on how to block and how to hit. It is also (and many people get confused here) different from grappling arts (like judo), which focus on more on takedowns and pins. In aikido, we focus on how to keep our balance as much as possible, and how to take the balance of our attackers. From there, we next study what to do with an off-balanced opponent. Throw them to the ground? Set them down gently? Hit them? Any of these responses may well be appropriate–it is our job to understand the choices that are available, and how to take advantage of them as needed.

One particular challenge people have with aikido is that they only trust it partway. What I mean is this: they initialize an aikido technique, but when encounter a problem or resistance they immediately revert back to instincts. This usually means trying to hit or grapple. There are two problems here. First, there is no guarantee that strike or a takedown will work. There is a reason why MMA, boxing, wrestling, and other arts have weight classes. Putting someone who weighs 200 pounds in a ring with someone who weighs 135 doesn’t make a lot of sense. The second problem is more obvious. In aikido, we study that narrow sliver of time between an attacker’s commitment and an attacker’s connection. This seems very difficult (and sometimes is) but it really is no different than a baseball player learning how to hit a baseball. But because we focus so much on this moment, we don’t study how to hit or grapple as much. So the second problem is that we just aren’t as good at hitting and grappling!

Instead, what I encourage all aikido students–all martial arts students, in fact–is to trust your training. If the principles you study are sound, then by trusting in them you will eventually have a reliable set of movements that will serve you well. And if they are not sound, then you will learn quickly that the art is not effective and you need to move on. The bad news: this information does not come to you quickly. The good news it also shouldn’t take months or years. A good school with a good group of students should give you the opportunity to test the principles of a martial art, and you should at least get some preliminary results of those tests within a month or so. You may not be very good at the art, but at least you should have a sense of “Interesting. I think I see how this works.”

You will be surprised how much you can do when you learn to trust your training. It’s only when you doubt that you hinder your progress.

Aikido and Sample Code

The other night, I decided it was time to work on tsuki kotegaeshi again. This is not an uncommon thought that runs through my head when I’m teaching. In Kokikai Aikido, we have four techniques that are part of the first test a student might take: kata-tori ikkyo, katate-tori shihonage, ushiro kubishime kokyunage, and tsuki kotegaeshi. (If you know these terms, great. If not, don’t worry about it. It’s not really that important here.)

Tsuki kotegaeshi is an interesting technique. For the uninitiated, the technique is a defense against a straight punch. The response leads to a joint lock that involves the attacker’s wrist turned in a way not normally recommended. It’s an old technique, harking back to the day when someone was likely to charge you on the field of battle. Today, it is less relevant from a self-defense perspective, primarily because people aren’t normally on the battlefield—they’re in a bar, or a schoolyard. The punch is different.

So why learn the technique? The answer is simple. There is so much going on in tsuki kotegaeshi: how to enter, how to turn, how to use your hips to take balance, how to control, how to apply power, how to show restraint. This one technique packs more content than a dozen other, more “practical” techniques.

But we can take this further. Even in a fundamental technique like tsuki kotegaeshi, there are layers of functionality. For example, a lot of students get distracted by the kotegaeshi response. They are so focused on the jointlock, that they lose sight of a more basic principle: the importance of taking your attacker off-balance. To highlight this, I demonstrated the technique using only two fingers (one from each hand). This is NOT practical in any way, shape, or form; that wasn’t my intention. My intention was to show the technique in the most minimalistic way possible, while retaining the essence of the movement.

The following day, while at work, I was trying to think of how to best write some sample code for an API that I am documenting. Writing sample code can be tricky. You want the sample to fully represent the capability of the API; at the same time, you don’t want to actually write a full-fledged application (that’s the job of the developer reading the docs). In other words, the challenge with writing sample code is rarely where to start, but more when to stop.

As I was planning my work, the previous night’s aikido class came to mind. What I essentially needed was to do kotegaeshi with two fingers, but with code. I needed enough code so that a developer would understand the essence of the feature, but avoid anything that would prove too distracting. The goal of sample code is not to demonstrate the feature per se, but to demonstrate the essence of the task that the feature accomplishes. Of course, the sample code is going to include the feature, method, or property; but it is a waypoint towards a larger goal. The sample doesn’t even have to be practical in a “drop-this-in-and-away-you-go” sort of way. It needs to give the developer just enough that they can apply the feature in a way that best suits their needs.

To paraphrase a well-known expression: a perfect sample code is not when you have no additional code to add, but when there is no remaining code to take away.

No reprieve

Inevitably, as an aikido student, you find yourself wondering why you continue to fail to master the techniques you have been practicing for years. Why do you continue to use more muscle than you need? Why can’t you relax more? In an earlier post, I mention one of my instructors, who pointed out that you always suck at aikido, because there is always another level to reach, another concept to master. I still think this is true. But for me, there is a little more that I have to keep in mind.

There is no reprieve in aikido.

Think about how you train when you’re on the mat. Chances are, you step onto the mat, and that’s all you’re doing. You go through warm ups, you watch the instructor demonstrate a technique, you find a partner to practice with. And then, only then, does a part of your brain kick into gear and realize that it’s time to “do” aikido. If your time on the mat is similar to what I’ve described, then you are most certainly not alone.

But you’re also limiting yourself.

I am becoming increasingly convinced that, to truly practice aikido, you must always be practicing aikido. With every step, every motion, every thought, you must be practicing aikido. You must be relaxed, prepared, calm, and focused. To fail in this regard is to leave yourself with a set of unreliable skills–you may know 87 different variations of kokyunage, but you can’t perform one when it counts, when you most need it.

I had a moment on the mat a few weeks ago that really started me thinking about this. One of my senior students attacked, and my first attempt to take his balance failed. The second time, I was successful. But the interesting thing was, I knew that I would be successful. Why? Because the first time, I knew I hadn’t really engaged with my attacker; instead, I was counting on muscle memory and habits to do the hard work. The second time, I engaged my attention fully; consequently, I could respond faster, better, and more effectively. After we stopped practicing, I had to ask myself why I was “checked out” the first time. I had no answer. I made a promise to myself then and there–to attempt to always be present and ready to move.

Initially, I thought this objective would be out of reach–completely impossible. I remember my old teacher asking me to sit and be focused for five minutes–hardly anyone could last 30 seconds! Now, however, I think we had the wrong idea. The key to being strong and focused is to truly be relaxed. You have to be comfortable–not because it helps you become strong, but because it is strong. By being relaxed, you do not find your strongest state–you are already in it.

One example I gave when trying to explain this to a student was learning a new language. After a certain amount of study, you can translate your thoughts into the language you are studying. You might even be able to communicate effectively. But it is a lot of work, and can be slow and tiresome. You know you are fluent in a language when you no longer translate in your head–you think in the language instead. The same is true for aikido. We must move beyond translating our movements into what we perceive to be relaxed and natural, and instead simply be relaxed and natural.

The result? There is no reprieve from your training, because there ceases to be a difference between training and your everyday life.