It is perhaps ironic that I’m writing a post called “wasted thinking” on the eve of a departure to my alma mater town, Gainesville. I’m sure I’ll do a wealth of “wasted thinking” there, but I doubt it will have anything to do with what I’m about to write.
Not terribly long ago, my teacher in martial arts moved to North Carolina, leaving myself and the other senior student with the teaching responsibility. My teacher, wily bastard that he is, spent the year prior to his departure throwing the two of us into teaching roles time and time again. I can’t say that I’ve become a master teacher in that time, but I’ve done enough of it to draw one conclusion:
Teaching is educational as hell. I don’t think our students really appreciate that we’re learning more from them than they are from us.
Case on point: the wasted thinking principle.
It goes like this: I came to a realization this year that there is absolutely no movement or behavior in our entire martial arts curriculum that a normal, reasonably healthy person couldn’t perform. In fact, most of our movements are so ordinary that almost everyone has performed them at some time or another in their lives. Some martial arts, like Okinawan karate-do, involve specific body modification. Abdominal muscles are hardened into slabs to absorb blows. Scar tissue is built into knuckles to make them more effective bludgeoning instruments.
Aikibudo has none of that stuff. The founder of aikibudo famously said, “If you’re healthy enough to open a door and walk through it, you are well enough to do my aikido.” (Note: that’s an approximate translation. I’m not motivated enough at 8:00 a.m. on coffee #1 to actually look the damn thing up.)
I used to think this type of saying was, like some of the founder’s other gems, bullshit. The sort of thing you’d use to advance the purpose of an organization and get more bodies on the mat to generate more training fees. However, as I’ve come to understand the physical principles of the art better and better, I now believe that what he said about door opening is true. (This belief has been fostered by a number of experiences, too. The most exquisite one was getting totally beat by the founder of my system… who has bad eyesight, a blown hip, bad knees, and is overweight. He literally kicked my ass, one-handed, using a clipboard. If you’re wondering, the other hand was being used to totter around on his cane.)
Suffice to say, it’s true… there’s nothing in my system that your average person can’t already do. No flying crescent kicks, no punching through cinder blocks. Just normal, natural human movement in aiki.
Of course… there is a catch. Mastery still takes a life time. The reason is that, despite the normality of these movements, knowing exactly when to do which specific movement takes a life time. Look at it this way: any schmuck can cause an explosion. Only someone with a good engineering background can bring down a massive building with one.
That said, there gets to be this weird dichotomy: my students already know how to do virtually everything I teach!
And yet… they don’t. At least, they can’t do it whenever they want to.. The biggest stumbling block?
Case in point: Nelson. Nelson is a sixty year-old man from Venezuela. He is remarkably strong and remarkably stiff at times. This all becomes problematic in the context of aikibudo. It screws with the effectiveness of his techniques. All that upper body tension disconnects him from his hips, which are the real source of power.
When we would stand apart from each other at the usual kata distance, I could just see the gears in his brain working, and as a response, his body would start solidifying. (I could practically see him thinking, “I must do this right! I cannot fail! I will not fail! Aaaargh!”) Predictably, his stuff would be very rigid and not very effective.
We have coached him on relaxing again and again and again.
To no avail.
But one day, I had a flash of insight. I figured out how to use his body to “hack” his mind. We were in the middle of a particularly long, frustrating bout of working with his body tension. Finally, I stopped and jogged into the dressing room and got my ipod. I hooked it to the speaker system in the dojo. (At this point, everyone was looking at me like I had finally lost that last little scrap of sanity.)
I threw on James Brown’s classic, “I feel good”.
And promptly started dancing to it. Right there in the middle of the dojo, in front of the picture of the founder, while wearing black belt and hakama. Nelson seemed more than a little stunned… until I made him do it with me. Then he seemed really confused. To his credit, he went with it, though. (Admittedly, though, that was the first time I had seen someone salsa dance to the Godfather of Soul’s stylings.) Something about the dancing unlocked Nelson’s tension. I could literally see it release in the muscles of his back. You could tell that his mind was no longer fixated on absolute perfection and victory.
After a few minutes of getting down (as much as a white kid and an older Venezuelan man can), I put him back in place while the music was still playing. Instead of his usual approach, which is very rigid (he’s thinking “I must do this perfectly or the world will end!”), he kind of diddly-bopped over to me and nailed the technique. Brain-block was gone.
So gone that he did it eight or nine more times in a row.
And then we all started dancing in earnest, celebrating what Mr. Brown so sagely proclaimed all those years ago… because we did feel pretty good. I even started doing that ankle-wiggling thing. One of the students shouted, “Ken, do the split!”
To which I joyously responded, “Die in a fire!”
One of the most beautiful parts of dancing and music is that we don’t think so goddamn much, and I will tell you (not only in aiki, but in all endeavors) it is absolutely astonishing what you can accomplish when you stop letting your mind get in the way.
And that is the wasted thinking principle. Most of the time, we all think way too much. That onslaught of thought and self-fixation keeps us from using 100% of our minds and bodies to actually accomplish what we are trying to do. That is one of the real points of high art in what I do.
You spend the first part of your life learning how to think. And if you are really willing to put in the work, you can spend the second part of your life learning when not to.