Thursday night, sitting in the community kitchen with some friends, I heard myself say: ‘No matter what discipline, if you practice it enough, it becomes your life, so then, when you talk about your discipline, you talk about life.’
My aikido teacher has been practicing Zen and aikido for over 50 years. These disciplines have become his life, and when he teaches them, he teaches an approach to life. I find this approach useful, so I decided to write down his teachings in simple, short texts reflecting the simplicity and immediacy of his philosophy, and put them together in a book, accompanied by wabi-sabi photographs representing the beauty he finds in everyday life and encourages everybody to constantly appreciate and keep creating.
I believe wisdom and beauty can be found in any discipline. I remember being a teenager and listening with wide open ears and eyes to my piano teacher, who, as he described to me what mistakes I was making and what aspects I should work on when playing a certain piece, always managed to make me aware of the problems I was experiencing in that particular stretch of my life, and how I could go about fixing them. Piano lessons were like tarot readings to me, like therapy sessions without the gut-wrenching navel-gazing. My teacher could read in the way I played what I was struggling with and what I should work on.
When I made my Thursday night statement about disciplines having the potential to become tools for understanding and informing meaningful lives, I had no idea that I was about to meet another teacher who had polished his discipline into sparkling gems of practical knowledge that were not only a direct road to lots of fun but also offered a helpful universal philosophy for daily life that enabled people to connect with each other and harmonize. On Friday, January 27th 2012 I attended my first class with Andrew Sutton, followed by an entire weekend of fun, connection, and inspiration.
The first eye opener of the weekend was ‘fusion’. I had never heard of this approach to dance before and was in for an exciting surprise. Fusion, as described by Andrew, is ‘blending with your partner and with the music’. It may sound like what people (should) do in any kind of partner dance anyway, but this was exactly why learning some basic techniques to truly achieve this ‘fusion’ was so exciting. The more information we got, and the more we moved to put it into practice, the more fascinated I became with the fusion approach.
My aikido teacher often writes this poem in his calligraphies:
Harmonize with Others
Harmonize with Heaven and Earth
Dance with Others
Dance with Heaven and Earth.
For the title of the book about him I used the line ‘Dance with Heaven and Earth.’ It did not take much to re-adjust this concept I had immersed myself in for the past eight months and turn it into ‘Dance with partner and music.’
While I had done both many times before, the pointers Andrew offered in his class gave my concept of partner dancing a thorough overhaul.
For realizing fusion, Andrew points out, it is helpful to get rid of ‘wrong’, ‘bad’, and ‘can’t’. While many dance teachers have clear ideas about things that are ‘wrong’ within the boundaries of their dance, he suggests to look at what they call ‘wrong’, find out what this actually means (eg. ‘bouncier than I want’ or ‘slower than I want’ etc.) and store it in our minds as alternative possibilities that might be right and appropriate in a different context.
Another frequent case of thinking ‘wrong’, ‘bad’, and ‘can’t’ concerns our approach to different partners. Who has never had thoughts along the lines of ‘O my God, this guy has no rhythm’ or ‘Geez, this girl has no connection’, ‘Does he have to the same thing a hundred times?’ or ‘What’s that bitchy face about?’ Filtered through Andrew’s thinking, this type of thought was exposed as a simple lack of cooperative spirit, which prevented us from harmonizing with our partner.
Pirates & Ninjas
To eliminate thinking ‘wrong’, ‘bad’, and ‘can’t’ type thoughts concerning our partner, we played a game in which one person was the pirate and tried to epitomize ‘bad dancing’ while the other was the ninja whose mission it was to make the dance rock nonetheless.
Once again I felt strongly reminded of aikido. Every time we practice, we face the same challenge: somebody attacks us full force, but instead of letting this faze us, we try to maintain ‘shizentai’, our ‘natural posture’. My teacher describes shizentai as a combination of the following factors:
- Eyes: look at everything equally, not just at one thing
- Back: straight - shoulder blades together and down
- Shoulders: always relaxed
- Breathing: always calm, in coordination with your movements
- Ki (energy): emanating freely from your body, flowing in whatever direction you decide
- Knees: always relaxed, ready to move in any direction
- Mind: always calm and open for whatever may happen (mizu no kokoro - mind of water)
The challenge is that while we respect our partner and try to blend with him or her, we try just as hard to maintain our own center, and provide an axis stable enough for others to revolve around.
What made the dancing exercise much more relaxed than an actual attack-and-defense situation, however, was that even when we realized that blending with our partner was a challenge in this particular case, we still had music we could blend with, so that even if we reduced the points of connection with our partner, we still had a common denominator that informed our dance. All we had to do was respect our partner, and respect the music. In this way, we could find points of connection with both and enjoy a much more harmonious dance than any dance based on premises like ‘O my God, he has no rhythm,’ or ‘I hate techno music.’
Instead of getting angry about our partner or a particular song or type of music potentially putting us in a bad place, it sounds like a better idea to remember that it is our own responsibility to put ourselves in a good place, create harmony, and tell our story as well as listening to our partner’s story.