I was listening to an episode of the BuddhsitGeeks podcat the other day, This Is Your Brain On Meditation (part 1 of a 2 part series), and it got me to thinking about Aikido. In the podcast, James Austin discusses the two primary types of attention that the brain engages in. top-down, and
bottom-up. In top-down mode we are focused at what is to hand, what we can touch and manipulate with our fingers. We are literally looking down and the brain is focusing attention on detail and management. This mode is designed to puzzle through a problem. The other mode of awareness (bottom-up) involves actually looking up and out and is a diffuse generalizing awareness of our greater surroundings. This mode is used to orient ourselves to our environment in a non-specific way and is what allows us to see and note arising trends or circumstances in our environment. It’s a global awareness as opposed to a focused one (the top-down variety.) The podcast goes on to deeply analyze the brain functions involved and how they apply to meditation and awakening. A great listen when you have some time to digest it. (James Austin has a brain the size of Wisconsin, and is not afraid to use it! 😉 )
After having listened to these podcasts I was teaching an Aikido class, and it struck me how applicable this thinking is for Aikido, and how it addresses a common trap in training. Kato Sensei said during a seminar once that our common reaction when we don’t understand a technique (or feel confident about it) is to make our movements smaller. The cure for this is not to wait until we get good at the technique to make the movement bigger, but is in fact to make our movements bigger from the get go. If we leave our movements small while executing a technique we might eventually get good at it, but we would be locked into being good at a “pinched up” version.
This is in direct correlation to the modes of awareness/attention that James Austin was going on about. I watched it happen during my class. When folks were puzzled by a technique, they looked down at their hands, and more or less planted their feet. Their motions became restricted to only include their shoulders, arms and fingers. I stopped class for a moment and let them know what I was seeing, mentioned the two modes of awareness, and suggested consciously trying to use bottom-up attention when they felt confused as opposed to top-down. Instead of looking down, look up and out. Instead of restricting motion, expand on it. Instead of employing only the arms and hands, use the whole body. The effect was immediate and startling. The technique was not suddenly mastered, but it was way more dynamic. The ukes reported much more connection and loss of balance. Everyone started smiling more and moving bigger and more vigorously. All good things.
That also ties in with another thing I have noted as an Aikido instructor. People tend to cut down their options when confused when what they should be doing is expanding on them. As an example, when performing a kote-gaeshi (wrist-reversal) when dealing with a punch and the punching partner locks their arm the first thing the person doing the kote-gaeshi does is lock down on the wrist, focus their attention and power there and tries to apply more strength. That’s a wrestling match, nothing but conflict and the evil opposite of the point of Aikido. Instead, when we find ourselves in that situation we should not struggle to do more of the same, but should do something else. I am not talking here about Hanka-waza, which is a switch to another technique. Instead I mean continuing the same technique while exploring what other options are open other than the specific portion that is locked down. In the example here, rather than fight to twist uke’s wrist the nage (thrower) could turn their hip, move their gaze, take a step, pivot an angle, anything within the context of the technique other than struggling where the struggle is. I have tried this a lot myself, and when I can recall inthe moment to do it the results are astounding. Moving a foot twenty degrees out can turn a failed technique into a dynamic throw.
Use everything you have, your whole body as well as both modes of awareness. Give it a try, I think you’ll like it.
Let me know how it goes for you!