September 6, 2020
So, I started writing these letters in Maine back in the beginning of the Covid quarantine to help keep our community connected. It has been six months since we first shut down in March, three months since we reopened ASNJ in June. Why am I writing this? I started looking back at this no-longer-recent history and I am shocked at the time and the span. Sensei Lehrman has been talking about the possibility of reopening Aikido Park Slope as it is just now allowed in NYC; six months since that mat has seen a gi. We were thinking about how long people have been without Aikido and what the effects that might have.
I remember reopening ASNJ after those months, the hurdles there were, and the ones that still remain, are many. Among them, fear, which is an understandable experience for any sane person. Freud said the normal reaction to a neurotic environment is a neurotic behavior. (He also sometimes had issues with cigars, but we won’t go down that path). I am not saying that being scared now is neurotic, actually the opposite. We are in an uncharted reality, a complete unknown. And the normal reaction to the unknown is fear. Our studies of Aikido and Tai Chi Chuan (TCC) effect how you experience fear. We discussed that at the last TCC class, and I will touch on that later (I bet you are still trying to figure out why this is called George’s chin. Patience, Grasshopper! ---Derrell, you can add that show to the playlist---).
Another hurdle is momentum. Most of us do not do change well, some of us can do so when doing Aikido. My wife loves to do strength training, I mean she really loves it. She hurt her elbow as people over 50 that workout tend to do (you all know who you are). When we were 20, it was two aspirin and the next morning you were good. Now, after 50, it is a dozen visits to the physical therapist, some acupuncture and eight weeks later and it still is not just right. But Rachel’s new norm was not doing strength training. Those first few classes back were tough. “I am tired today.” “I had too much work.” “I got up late.” Momentum. It is whatever routine we are used to, and it is hard to break from. We all have new norms now and they don’t necessarily include Aikido. It is a difficult hurdle to get back into your practice. Try.
That is why for the last four decades I have loved learning Aikido with Lehrman Sensei. We were doing ikkyo the same way for years. Now we aren’t. He showed us a new way to bring uke’s arm behind our own head (for those of you who have done this class, you know the technique). It sounds almost ridiculous, but it really works. The important lesson from Lehrman Sensei is this is not “The Way To Do It,” just a new way. Add it to your practice, try something new. Do not get stuck in the familiar, no matter how much you feel safe. Eat a new food, try meditating, drive a new road to work, say “hi” to a stranger (that is not for you kids, don’t talk to strangers), but have new experiences, that is learning.
Back at ASNJ, our tire bokken targets seem to be a hit (yes, that en-tire pun is intended). I built a stand for one of them and hope to do the same for the other three tires. There seems to be a shortage of pressure-treated (outdoor) lumber. I guess all the work from at-home weekend warriors (that is a construction term, not a martial art one) are building their dream decks. I had a few other dojo’s email me (who knew other dojos are reading my letters) about suggestions for this project and for the bokkens not to be broken (yes, I meant to rhyme). Thanks to all of you for your ideas.
But as a reminder to ASNJ students, there are tire-chopping-designated bokken to use, please. Thank you to Derrell for donating them. Do NOT grab one off the rack. We are going to duct tape or do something else to protect these tire specific bokken. Only use the tired (another pun) bokken please. And if one breaks, it is not an issue, just let an instructor know. That is what they are there for.
We had a fun Aikido class on Wednesday. I was working on bokken attacking jo. (Yes, I am imagining Musashi vs Muso – great story, look it up). But weapons are a really good way to practice with social distancing while still doing Aikido. The only issue is we are on macadam and that’s not conducive to falling. I had an “oops” and moved out of the way a little too well when demonstrating and Paul proved that you can roll on tarmac. Growing up in Brooklyn, we would go to Tar Beach – baking on the roof with the trifold foil-backed suntan aids. So, in honor of Brooklyn, maybe we should add a Blacktop Ukemi class?......Nah. Too many memories of Brooklyn in this letter. I need to go to Maine and cut down a tree (sorry, that is an old literary classic that I know Hal will get right away).
But, finally to the TCC class. Besides talking about the Tai Chi symbol (you know as Yin/Yang) and the experience of opposites in our body (Light/heavy sides; ki front left foot to right hand/empty right foot to left hand). This is a little too much for a letter. The other discussion we had was in response to a question on self-defense. So, we discussed fear.
From my teachers, I learned that fear, the emotion, consists of a thought “I am going to die, I am going to be hurt” and energy or ki -- the charge you feel after almost getting hit by a car. And the teaching of Aikido on not holding onto our thoughts but letting them go. When you hold onto a thought (repeat it over and over again), you stop the energy and this often manifests itself, as the energy rises, so do your shoulders. In Aikido and TCC, we let the thought go and then have access to the energy (being centered) to do things like move out of the way of the car. Useful.
The practice of not holding onto thoughts is call meditation (Like Lehrman Sensei’s Zoom Meditation class on Wednesday night. Try it.) Allowing the thought to do what is natural for thoughts -- have them and let them go -- is a state of living in the moment. You then have another thought and the energy is used and also allowed to dissipate and you go on with your life. There is a very funny, science-filled book – Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky. Great read and very informative on what happens to your body when you get stuck on repeating thoughts (we call that worrying). Self-defense is more than learning techniques; it is what happens when you need to use the technique. If you hold on to a thought, your Ki gets stuck, you tense and freeze, and the car hits you or you get hit on the chin (more foreshadowing). We practice by someone punching us every class, so this is no longer an unknown frightening experience, but the real practice is what happens to the thought and letting it go (have I mentioned the Zoom Meditation class?) We also have a free meditation group meeting on Sunday mornings. Kind of funny that for me, a major part of my self-defense training is sitting and doing nothing.
Oh, I almost forgot, George’s Chin. I think I rambled on too long this letter with way too many Brooklyn references and parentheses. I’ll save that for another letter. Or come to a TCC class and you will see what I am talking about.
Be well and practice – at a dojo, at home, please just practice.