Monday, July 14, 2014

Searching for Balance

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Balance is like a buzzword in martial arts. If you look at movies and books, everyone talks about balance. Whether its balance of your internal energy, balance of left and right, balance with the opponents... and so forth. Yet for all its ubiquity not much depth in explanation or exploration is given to this very important aspect of life.

Osensei asked us or actually he told us, to observe nature is to study Aikido. (paraphrased). Well, again with these martial art saints, a one liner wisdom. So we have some students go out to nature, sometimes alone and sometimes with friends, to be with nature hoping that one time or another when he gets back to the dojo, Aikido's secret will open up to him somehow.

It is true that a lot of wisdom is garnered from observation. In the past, masters seek inspiration from animals and the forest and wisdom. But those things have been there for a millennia. There's been billions of people too, so why aren't there billions or even millions of different martial arts? I believe though that for for most people, true observation is beyond them. If we cannot even observe our own body and mind and spirit, I doubt we have much to learn from observing nature itself.

Right now, we are in the middle of the muslim's fasting month or ramadhan. Muslims around the world are observing fasting from before dawn to the after dusk each day, abstaining not only from food and water, but also other desires driven by the ego. Abstaining from 'wants' and 'desires' so to speak. They are also asked to perform more good deeds, such as charity, learning, helping and worship of all kinds. Yet this month is also in the pinnacle of the 2014 world cup. Life goes on too, we have work in the morning, traffic jams in the afternoon and the Palestinians are dying by the hundreds.

Oops, it appears this blog now contains political inspiration and religious connotations. Where is the Aikido then? Well today, we are speaking about balance. True Aikido requires its assimilation in the daily life, and balance is a key component. Not just balance written in the first paragraph, but also a balance of self and others, of the worldly and the spiritual. When Osensei kept harping about spirituality as the key of unlocking Aiki, most of his students (I mean almost all of his students) just could not accept it. Some, true to human nature, mocked him quietly that the old man's lost his marbles. Yet, this is a fundamental aspect of human balance. The atheists and the secular would say their piece now, let them. I'm not judging and I'm not preaching. The purpose of writing here is to remind myself of my journey. Perhaps looking back at it in another 10 years, I might have gotten everything wrong... or then again, maybe it was the right step at the right time that will lead to my future progress. Who knows.

There are money examples that we can find to make sense of this actually. A lot of people find faith strengthens them. But faith is meant to soften the heart as well, and .... harden it. We are asked to show mercy because God is merciful to us in his bounty and gifts. But we are taught to be merciless in fighting oppression and injustice. Being kind is not just by helping someone with money and food and love. Sometimes a greater kindness is to cut him up. A doctor saving a patient with gangrene may cut the person's leg off. Sure we understand its mercy now and its medicinal knowledge. But think about it... centuries back, no one knew. The first doctor to cut open his patient to conduct a heart surgery and a cornea surgery was a muslim doctor. (turkey or India, I can't remember). Back then it was a game changer. How could he have every convinced someone to allow him to cut their body open to fix it up?

Yet again this violence done, it was done with knowledge and faith in that knowledge. That knowledge gained through hard work, experimentation and the gradual building up of experience through lesser components was also in the end Godsent.

How true then the art of beheading for the samurai. The way to kill is not anything new. Hit a person's head with something hard enough and he will die for sure. But the Japanese have it down to an art level. Beautiful someone would say when watching a master wield his sword. Elegant. Simple and yet so deadly. Is the art of killing so beautiful that one would praise it? Life is not that cheap that it should be ended by a stab in the dark, a bullet in the head, a rope around the neck, a needle in the vein, or a missile in the dead of the night. To kill someone in combat with skill and faith in oneself is to appreciate death. To feel its close embrace, one would appreciate living all the more. When you can see your opponent's sweat, tears, pain and fear, you see a human being. It makes killing him all the more momentous. Because if you can emphatise with a human being, how would you be able to harm him. Harming another being is like harming yourself. Yet, if in harming this person you are doing great kindness, and you act with full conviction of faith that has its foundation on love and mercy, you shield yourself from destruction with spirituality.

It is a fact that combat veterans comeback with many a disorder and malady. Research shows that in most modern military conflicts, at least a while back, that most soldiers shoot their enemies deliberately aiming to miss. and vice versa. That for most human beings, killing another is apprehensible and unnatural. For most of us, we would like to be kind and happy with other people. Think about it. Would you like to go out there and fight with a total stranger, or would you rather make new friends so that you can enjoy his company?

That is why, when you do go to combat, you have to go there for the absolute right reasons. Human beings lie to each other, most human beings are selfish. We know that, because its a genetic make up to ensure our own survival... over other if need be. So you don't actually know whether going to combat is for the right reason especially if you are a career soldier where questions aren't asked. But a bushi... a bushi or a warrior is not a mindless beast. He has a mind and he has a heart and he needs his faith to justify and bolster him. A samurai is a servant to a higher ideal. He is not a gangster with a sword. He dispenses violence in the path of greater good. A person who actually does that will not find himself rotting inside and expressing this outwardly with hard to pronounce diseases. A person who is selfless and kills other human beings because of faith and conviction would have balanced his deed.

And this understanding is desirous in our pursuit of martial arts. We cannot continue to learn a martial art like Aikido as if it is life's answer to everything. Like a dance routine with our partners. Like a temple to spew koans like a grasshopper's master. Like a hobby we get off after a long day. Aikido in all its temperament find its roots as a martial arts. Osensei may have told us about love and harmony. Yet what is harmony? I believe we have misunderstood harmony as rainbows and pink unicorns. Harmony is the balance and assimilation of the hard and soft. Skewed either way, and human life would be imbalanced. We would suffer within ourselves if the balance remains unaddressed. I don't mean to advocate killing and violence in our practice, but understanding it in our practice is crucial. Using it with faith when called upon is an absolute necessary. You cannot practice a warriors heart without tempering your heart to wilfully enter the path of upholding justice. In whatever form it takes, physical, words or mental, you must stand with the higher good. Otherwise there is no balance.

Lastly, this is also the path of Aiki. Aiki is neither soft or hard. But appropriate.