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One of the elders used to say: In the beginning when we got together we used to talk about something that was good for our souls, and we went up and up, and ascended even to heaven. But now we get together and spend our time in criticizing everything, and we drag one another down into the abyss.

-The Wisdom of the Desert, by Thomas Merton

When I first heard Sensei talk about sensen-no-sen, sen-no-sen, and go-no-sen I thought the concept had to do with sen (線, meaning “line”) in relationship to timing (sen, written 先, also means “before”). But the more I heard the term used in the context of practice and Sensei’s demonstration on the mat, the more I got confused—how does “line” come into play? Increasingly, it appeared the concept was much more about timing than anything. Then, several years ago, I finally got around to reading Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of Five Rings for the first time, and the proverbial scales fell off my eyes. In the Fire section, Musashi writes about the “Three Sens (先).” I realized that, in every instance in the phrase, sen means before or forwardness (先々の先(sen-sen-no-sen) 先の先(sen-no-sen) 後の先(go-no-sen), note how の先is in all). While he used slightly different terminology than ours, the concept was the same.[1] The Three Sens are really about one thing: forwardness.

It suddenly made sense when I thought about timing in regard to forwardness. In each timing, 1) sen-sen (before), 2) sen (simultaneous), and 3) go (after), the constant is one’s own forwardness (the latter sen)—forwardness in different circumstances. On the mat, the concept might be understood as 1) forwardness upon sensing the partner’s intent to come into my space, 2) forwardness as the partner enters my space, and 3) forwardness after the partner has entered my space. While the external circumstances (what the partner is doing) may vary, my spirit, intent, and physical attitude are always forward. George Lyons sensei often uses the term “positive” when talking about our practice, and it strikes me that forwardness is exactly that—positivity. Perhaps “positivity” is the better word here, as “forward” can connote linear movement, but the concept is much more than that. The three forms of positivity shift “according to the moment and as reason dictates,” as Musashi said. In other words, it’s not simply about whether I’m striking early or waiting for the strike. Merely understanding the Three Sens as how to do a technique at different timings is to miss the heart of the concept, which is to understand the moment and seize it through positivity manifest in action.

What, then, is positivity? Certain things come to mind as I contemplate this idea. In body art, the basic of basics is tai-no-henko[2]. The tori moves forward with irimi and turns with tenkan. As Sensei says, irimi always comes first. In whatever attack, the uke practices attacking the tori “fully.” This means moving the whole body forward, as one enters the tori’s space. Striking through in tsuki, shomen, or yokomen uchis, and pushing through the tori in grabbing techniques—as we all know, if you’re leaving half your body behind in the attack, you are not doing your job. “Extension” is another form of positivity. One of the few times Chiba sensei ever spoke to me was to tell me to “extend more” when I was doing kokyuho—to open my body and expand my energy in a large circle. The idea of extension is also hammered home by Sensei in weapons. We must extend through the tip of the weapon as we strike—a positive action to extend our intention and, consequently, our body’s energy outward.

Of course, this is much easier said than done. We in modern society are fragmented in body and mind—what we know in our mind does not easily translate to our body. Take something like standing with feet parallel to each other, under your shoulders. I cannot recount the times I’ve looked down to find my feet were still turned out, despite my intention of making them parallel. Of course, that is why we practice, and practicing aikido can restore the connection of body and mind, but it is not easily accomplished. Much harder is connecting our mind to our physical environment and the moment—to simply be in the now. This is why the practice of sitting and meditation is integral to our training—so we foster an inner life that is unified with our physical being and our physical surroundings.

Sitting is perhaps the starting point for sen—for how can we seize the moment if we are not present in the moment? Meditation hones the ability to quiet the mind and emotions, to expand one’s awareness of connection to the environment and, ultimately, to something deeper. Paradoxically, as the things that crowd my consciousness are shed by doing nothing, my awareness simultaneously extends positively beyond what is within to what is around me. While tai-jutsu (body art) and buki-jutsu (weapons) demand that I be present and responsive in the moment during the most strenuous of circumstances, sitting allows me to deepen my inner stillness. A stillness that opens my awareness and connects me to my surroundings. Hearing my breath, the passing cars, the buzzing mosquito, seeing the grains of the wood floor in front, feeling the air move when a person passes behind. I learn that I’m connected to all of it. This stillness is the foundation for the immovable spirit. And it is the immovable spirit that gives birth to the freedom to move positively.

Still, awareness of one’s surroundings is easily forgotten when your lungs are screaming for air. Inner stillness is not magically transferred from the quiet environment of sitting to the onslaught of strikes and grabs and throws on the mat. Here it must be remembered that aikido is not confined to the mat. As the word, do (道), suggests, it is a way. A way of life. And, as such, everything is practice (embracing this concept is an act of positivity, too!). A crowded subway station can be a place to practice soft focus of taking in everything in the field of vision without intently staring at one thing. A social gathering might be where we practice extending our consciousness to the nuances of human dynamics. Walking on the sidewalk can be practice for moving from our hara and not from our head. Seeing a dinner guest’s water glass nearly empty can be a chance practice sen-sen-no-sen and refill it. Opportunities abound, and as we positively move into that place of practice—strengthening our forward spirit and manifesting that in positive action, we will inch closer to the Three Sens. As Musashi reminds us, “these are all about sen, practice and practice more to achieve the spirit for certain victory through this martial wisdom.”

[1] Some English versions translate the heading to this section as “Three Methods to Forestall the Enemy,” but the Japanese is simply, “About the Three Sens (三つの先といふ事).” Musashi’s terminology is ken-no-sen (equivalent to sen-sen-no-sen), tai-no-sen (equivalent to go-no-sen), and tai-tai-no-sen (equivalent to sen-no-sen). [2] The Japanese website of Hombu Dojo concisely states that the techniques in aikido come from moving the body through irimi, tenkan and the power of breath.

November 28, 2021

There’s a magic to beginnings. They’re like Christmas before you unwrap the presents. Fueled by imagination and swollen with hope, beginnings are reality in its gaseous form. Nothing is settled. Anything is possible. Who knows what's to come? How things will turn out? But then you get to the messy middle act, and life comes crashing back down to Earth. Now traits like tenacity, commitment, and force of will come into play. None of which are my strong suit. But beginnings? I’m good there. Beginnings are my jam. Which takes us to February 12, 2015. An alert pops up on my phone: First day of Aikido. At 11:18 AM, I bolt out of my office to hop on the R train and take a short walk through Gowanus. I arrive at the dojo 19 minutes later. I pause before going in to read the handwritten sign in jet black ink taped to the bright, red door: You can change the world—by being here, right now. Then class starts. I’m a hot, sweaty mess. I trip over myself. I stumble. I fall. By the end of the hour, my legs are jello. I’m hunched over, hands to my knees, sucking down frostbit air, hoping I haven’t done any permanent damage. And I’m hooked. My dad once told me, “I have no doubt you can accomplish anything you put your mind to. But I do worry if you can stick with anything long enough to finish.” Thanks, Dad. But he was right. The problem with beginnings is you can only swim there for so long before you have to come up for air. Eventually it's time to unwrap the presents, and that’s when reality solidifies. Now you’re stuck dealing with what’s really there. And just like that, the fantasies fade and your limitations take center stage. I know this point all too well. In fact, I’ve come to recognize it as a very distinct physical sensation. It feels a lot like falling out of love. One day, you're consumed by passion. The next, you feel nothing. Just a deadness in your gut and a vacuum in your spirit. For awhile the passion might flicker off and on like a dying lightbulb. But the harder you try to grasp it, the emptier you feel, until all that’s left is an aftertaste of self-doubt. It’s like The Wizard of Oz in reverse. Instead of going from black-and-white to color, all the hue bleeds out of your world. Fortunately, as something of an expert in the art of starting over, I've developed a foolproof countermeasure to deal with this feeling: Quit. After all, we live in a world of greener grass and fresh starts. Our entire economy is powered by the idea of newer, easier, and better. Feeling blue? Is life getting hard? Just turn tail and run. The world of the perpetual beginner is always open for enrollment. But Aikido was different from other things. Most disciplines are linear at the start. You get a clear, defined path making progress tangible and motivation easy. It’s easy to feel good about yourself. Of course, any activity worth its salt will get messy. But in general, you can ride the gratification train for a good long while before you get there. Usually, it takes me months or even years before I see my fundamental badness. Not so with Aikido. Even by the second class, I felt like I was flooring a car straight into a two ton wall. Right away, I was in the deep end of the pool. Which isn’t to say there weren’t moments. There were times when I saw a glimmer of light. When the sun seemed to glow a little brighter. When I walked out of the dojo with a bounce to my step and my lips curled up to the sky. But mostly, I lived in a thick haze of uncertainty. I rarely knew if I was doing anything right. I rarely even knew what right was. It was all questions and very few answers. Aikido is all about taking falls, throwing, and being thrown. If you look it up, most people will describe it as a martial art that uses the opponent’s force against them. And while that may be true, it misses the truth. Sure, there are forms. There's something of a system. But because it is all based on physics, it means every encounter demands a slightly different response. It's a target moving on a million planes at once where even the smallest of changes matters. If someone attacks you faster, things are different. If they push with more force, things are different. If they weigh more, stand closer—even if they tense their shoulders—things are different. Aikido is quicksand. It’s too varied to lock down, so sensitivity, connection, and awareness are everything. In principle, that doesn’t sound too hard. Until you’re being thrown by 190 pounds of sweaty mass, and you have to figure it all out in real time. Then it feels impossible. As a consequence, Aikido feels like a circle more than a line. You spend hundreds of hours practicing the same forms over and over just for a sliver of insight. It’s all about seeing more in the same, as you fight and claw to shed the personal baggage and preconceptions blinding you from being present. It's an endless trust fall of self-betterment with a very abstract notion of progress. In fact, for a long time, when friends ask me what I learned, all I could think to do was drop to the ground and show that I didn’t injure myself. Look! No hands! I’m sure it looked like fizzle more than sizzle, but in truth it was a gift. Stripped of the romance, I never had to deal with falling out of love. In Aikido there was no self-induced high built on cheap validation, and that meant there was no crash afterwards. It was just a slow, steady crawl from the start. I never felt empty. I never felt hollow. It’s true that I sometimes wondered just what I got out of it. But, mostly, it was just part of my life, giving structure to my days: Walk to Gowanus. Spend an hour purging myself of fear, doubt, and anxiety. Walk home, sweat-soaked and aching. Wash, rinse, and repeat. Day after day. Month after month. Year after year. Then, came the answer. One day, I was working on a haiku for a poetry class. Haiku is a very visual form of poetry. It’s all observation and nuance. If your haiku isn’t any good, you aren't looking hard enough. It’s a little like Aikido in that sense—you have to see with fresh eyes. This particular assignment was to take a walk, observe carefully, and write a poem. But I was running late, and I didn’t have time to take a walk. So, instead, I just started picturing all of my trips to and from the dojo. When I thought about my early walks, I noticed everything was blank. My only memories were timestamps. When I left. When I got home. Not much else. I was like a tourist in my own life shuttling from stop to stop, head buried, ignoring everything around me. But over the years, things changed. I realized my memories became more and more vivid. I can see the shapes of clouds and colors in the sky. I notice landscapes draped in shadow and light. Cars honk. Birds chirp. I smell the thick, Brooklyn air. The world came alive. And it wasn't just the walks. It was everything. The training helped me burn through the fears and insecurity fogging my brain. All that time I wasn’t just learning to let go of myself when I was on the mat. I was learning to let go everywhere. And when you do, you feel more of everything. My world had gone from stale and muted tones to living, breathing technicolor. And as for the Aikido itself? Well, that’s a work in progress. On occasion, I feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, stuck in an endless loop. Progress is still hard-earned. There are still more questions than answers. But most of the time, I love what’s there. I like steering into the circle. I like pushing through the challenge. And I see possibilities in limitations. Unlike fantasy, the nice thing about letting reality cool down and solidify is you can dig into it and shape it. But maybe the biggest difference is I’ve lost the taste for new starts. When I began, I already believed you can change the world by being here, right now. What I didn’t see is that everything is always new all the time. You don’t need to chase it. It’s there waiting for you if you look inside. That’s the real magic. Just by choosing to be here now, your world changes.

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