001) Week of 8/26/08: Shugyo

August 26, 2008

I would like to begin this blog section of the website by trying to discuss the “theme of the week” in the teaching of the Aikido classes.

This week’s focus is on SHUGYO.  A literal translation of this Japanese word could be interpreted as “Austere Training.”  The immediate question that comes to mind is how does severe, stern, strict training relate to Aikido when I so frequently emphasize the power of smiling in helping people allow themselves to experience and express positive Ki?

A historical context is necessary in order to understand the concept of Shugyo.  Japanese Martial arts developed at a time where combat was engaged in primarily with the sword and typically “up close and personal.”  Interactions were not about winning or losing, but about life and death.  When a man became a samurai, he pledged his life to his war lord.  This meant that he had proverbially given away his life- died!  This freed that person, because every living moment after that was simply an amazing gift!  This deep and profound appreciation for life led to a higher level of decision-making as to what was important and unimportant in life.

When Japan was unified, wars stopped and the life-and-death duels among marital artists were outlawed.  Martial artists had to struggle to find a way to keep the “life-and-death” focus in absence of life and death circumstances.  Shugyo emerged as a means by which the teachers hoped to keep this important focus alive.

Most martial arts have declined to nothing other than sports, where empty physical training is matched by the empty emphasis on winning and losing.  The hard exterior is matched by the egotistical, shallow interior.

I endeavor to not allow this to occur in my training and in the training of my students.  I believe that it is profoundly important to use training to “polish the spirit/soul.”  This nature of training will hopefully allow us to reach a higher level of appreciation of life.  When we can begin to let go of our petty concerns, we open ourselves up to appreciate the greater beauty and fragility of life itself.  How can we make this happen in our training?

Life and death encounters with swords were not about the banging of steel, but of a fraction of a second and less than an inch.  If a person relied of muscle strength, reaction-time and reaction speed, this person was bound to find a peer or a superior and that gene pool did not get passed on!  Reaching a higher level meant learning to connect with the intentions and spirit of the other person.  This meant moving beyond the physical realm and into the internal realm where the internal controlled the external.

Students know how much I emphasize posture and relaxed but energized bodies and movements and a spirit filled with positive energy.  This is akin to helping us become incredibly sensitive antennas.  If there is undue muscle tension, inbalance and/or negative energy (anger, sadness, anxiety…) then our bodies have too much internal “static” preventing us from “listening in” to another person.  When we do have good posture, we are relaxed, energized and positive, we suddenly become more aware of those around us.  This not only makes up better marital artists, but makes us better people, due to our increased ability to better connect with those around us.

Learning to maintain and move with good posture and good energy is a process of better understanding our own internal experiences.  We are learning how to “polish our spirits” by better understanding ourselves and gaining an increased awareness and capacity to control the nature of our internal experiences.

We will then progress towards better being able to connect at an “energy” level to the uke.  We will suddenly begin to experience how our bodies are no longer engaged in a struggle with an opponent, but move in unison with a two-beings-connected-as-one entity.  The techniques will begin to feel easier and we will begin to think that the uke is “just giving us the technique.”  True martial arts looks and feels phony!!!!!!!!!!!!

Austere training is the path towards achieving these changes.  We must be very sincere in learning to better understand ourselves in training and in life.  We must be very sincere in serving as both an uke and nage.  We must be willing to honestly test our experiences to see if we are moving towards this direction.  We must be willing to openly question the teacher and fellow students to see if what we are doing has any “truth” and “integrity.”  This is learning to live in the moment.  This is the moment that existed in some people who developed from life-and-death circumstances and passed both their genes and teaching on to the next generation.  Can we learn from their wisdom without having to experience life-and-death circumstances?  Can we re-create that spirit in our training?  This is the path towards transforming our practice into SHUGYO.

Marc Abrams Sensei

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