Friday, January 21, 2011

Questions to Wilkinson Sensei

Todays interview is of a man from the Tomiki lineage. It is from L.F. Wilkinson from the Aikibudokan in Houston, Texas. L.F. is also the author of the Thoughtful Sensei blog from where I first encountered him. I became interested in his work, honestly, because I disagreed with many of the opinions he writes about. However, I am mature enough person and martial artist to know that the most important lessons can be gleamed from people like this - especially when they have a reputation as being a superb teacher and aiki player. I think because of my willingness to listen, L.F. has grown to be one of my favorite internet influences and a person I am eagerly looking forward to training with in the future. He has even changed my stubborn mind on a few things. I will endorse that this man knows his stuff.

When I asked a friend about L.F. they flatly said, "He will put you on your butt all day long," I believe it.

Why did you start training?

I grew up in a small town that had an economy based in ranching and oil field work plus we had a very large military base full of Marine pilots and Naval personnel. As a rule people didn't hesitate to challenge you so conflict on one level or another was a daily fact of life. As I got older and the guys I grew up with got taller and/or more aggressive (for me, like for most people, high school was not the zenith of my teenage years and I was never a BMOC) I got tired of it all and wanted an "equalizer" that would allow me to diffuse the situation non-violently if possible, or other-wise if not.

Why do you continue to?

After discovering that martial arts = self-confidence + the ability to early identify and non-violently diffuse a situation before it gets serious, then that non-violent diffusing of confrontation is the most valuable thing in the world. Once people see that you have confidence and won't hesitate to stand there, they generally back off and the situation calms down. That confidence is invaluable and I love stories from my students about how they calmly stood there while someone freaks out but won't approach them because they stand their ground and ...... just .... smile.

Do you have a phrase(s) that sum up your ideal of martial arts practice?

Continual learning and adaptation to ever higher levels and more sophisticated but subtle martial arts principles; or, looking for that magic moment of "ki" by following what Tomiki, Kogure and Geis preached which was very strict adherence to fundamental principles while keeping one eye firmly on adaptation based on functionality.

What do you like to see in a practice?

Ukemi. We do a throwing art and a take-down art. If I don't hear ukemi on a continual basis every second of the class then people aren't working hard enough. Only a million rep's of a movement will allow you to own it.

What do you not like to see in a practice?

People standing around talking; otherwise known as "koochi-waza" or mouth work. Do the work. If you don't understand then copy what the seniors are doing until you do understand it. The body can do before the mind can see and the mouth can speak.

How do you define aiki?

Control; of yourself, of your uke, of the opponent, of the energies, of the flow, of the moment. It's when you lose control of some aspect that it becomes "not aiki".

What adjective would you say your technique 'feels' like?

Continual flow both physically and mentally. I always strive to maintain control of uke's "being" from the moment I enter and take kuzushi until the termination of the waza. If I can control his "being" than I can control and merge perfectly with "the moment". I find this effort to be both physical and emotional and part of understanding ma-ai while "pressing" uke and keeping him off-balance mentally which of course leads to control of his emotions or his "lizard brain". I'm no-where close to being consistent with it but it's the only area I'm working on for the last 2-3 years or so.

When does a practice become not-aiki?

See Prior Answer: Control; of yourself, of your uke, of the opponent, of the energies, of the flow, of the moment. It's when you lose control of some aspect that it becomes "not aiki".

Do you have a favored technique right now?

Technique no. At the level I'm currently working on I'm no longer concerned about waza per se. I only focus on connection to uke (musubi) and the off balances I can put him through. In hand randori I deliberately flow by waza & terminations looking for control and total collapse of uke by using ONLY connection.

What is your favorite practice related book?

None at present although I will say that I find sitting in my easy chair with a hot sake while watching training DVD's by other teachers has become a really good substitute for the moment. Watching someone drive uke across the mat and then talk about the kinesiology and personal ideas behind it is much easier to follow than trying to read it and look at funny photo's in a book. DVD has much more immediacy to it.

What is rank? What does rank reflect?

Rank should reflect hours on the mat doing, hours off the mat thinking, hours sharing with others, and overall knowledge. At some point, probably about 6th Dan, there is no more technical material to absorb. Only subtleties and possibly variants remain for exploration. In my view anything past 6th Dan should indicate that you know absolutely all the kihon, waza, kata and randori in the system and are only working on understanding better by both more practice and by teaching. 7th Dan and up, other than to have a paper on the wall that in essence says, "Hey, I run a dojo or a kai or I'm old and bald", is meaningless and the drive to get that 7th or 8th Dan is simply mental masturbation. 7th and 8th should just show up in the mail one day as a gift from a more experienced teacher as a recognition of your work. Don't ask me what I think about 9th and 10th Dans.

What principle have you been focusing on in your practice lately?

See above answer regarding connection and musubi.

What is your relationship to kata?

Very strong. Continual, precise kata practice becomes the foundation for randori and any free style ideas that may come later. It is the foundation that teaches a pure view of principle that can be applied to any situation. Randori and randomized practice simple doesn't allow a sufficient number of reps of a movement to fully internalize the underlying "theme". It is thru' kata that I initially discovered what "connection" was.

What is your relationship to a competitive feeling in training?

Extremely destructive. You can enjoy being better than the other person in either randori or kata when considered from the aspect of your having spent more time on the mat and having more understanding which, in randori, will naturally lead to your dominance of the uke. However, that pride in your having trained harder should never lead to the classic American "competitive attitude" as that hinders your learning by producing "winners and losers". I allow no competitive attitudes on my mat and eject those who prove unable to get past it in their learning curve.

How has your vision of practice changed as you have gotten older?

Yes, greatly. I find myself more and more looking at the subtle energies involved but doing it within the confines of kata. Pat Parker recently posted that one way to look at kata is to consider it to be a story. I think I agree but I also think that the "story" takes more than one read and that (as we gain more seasoning in the art form) each read takes us deeper into that story and allows us to more strongly identify with the emotions of each "character" and each "plot" and "sub-plot". Basically I no longer believe that a "technique" is just a "technique" and that by considering it thus, kata gains more importance because trying to fully explore a very sophisticated "plot" in the contest of the chaos of randori means that you cannot repeat that "plot/sub-plot" a sufficient number of times to understand; thus creating a barrier difficult to move beyond.

Do you have another hobby or art form that you think about in martial arts terms and ideas?

No, not any longer; that is, not a separate area. I can no longer see any difference between martial arts on the mat or life outside the dojo. This is probably why some people on blogs or on Face Book likely think me abrasive at times. If someone sticks their hand in my face in randori then what is the difference between that (on the mat) and the equivalent gesture in a conversation? If Aikido teaches us to see "truth" in uke's intent and the functionality/non-functionality of the waza at hand; then why program ourselves to respond appropriately when on the mat but then suppress our "BS Meter" at work or on a blog or Face Book? After all these years I finally understand my ex-Sensei and many of his actions. Aikido IS life and life IS Aikido and at some point there can be no separation; otherwise you've missed the point.

Do you see any problems with the way aikido is practiced in the world at large, and do you have any recommendations for change?

The current competitive Aikido branches have, IMHO, become too rigid and dogmatic in their approach. A well known Tomiki player in the UK recently posted to Face Book that had Kogure become head of the JAA instead of Nariyama then Shodokan Aikido (known as Tomiki Ryu back then by most of us) would look very different by being more adaptive and less inflexible. I got excited when I read that since Kogure was my Sensei's first teacher.
On the other hand, the more "traditional" forms for the most part, are becoming too "soft" and less functional so the issue as I see it is that due to the divergence of the various schools since Ueshiba's death, Aikido is becoming over-specialized, with each kai focusing on one area (competition, kata only, meditation, etc.) and is missing the larger picture. Each generation of teachers knows less and has a more "soda-straw" view of Aikido so it gets worse every few years or so as the older teachers roll out into death or retirement and are replaced by the "young turks".
You can train in Aikido and simultaneously; be both soft AND hard, use kata AND randori as training modalities, focus on non-violent conflict resolution AND on whacking the guy, being humble AND slightly arrogant (at the appropriate times), being realistic AND idealistic concurrent with being down and dirty AND spiritual.
I view Aikido as being a balance of all (and of each) and any Aikido that fails to have that balance has, bottom line, simply become something else. It is no longer Aikido per se' but rather some crude form of jujutsu; the word jujutsu meaning only "technique" and not something larger with a life philosophy underpinning it.

What martial art besides the one you practice do you think is interesting?

Pure Gracie Jujutsu; not BJJ or MMA or whatever. I've done a little (not very good at it tho') and have included a basic ne-waza component in our promotional requirements with teaching blocks at Ikkyu, Shodan and Nidan in order to round-out the standing work. I've read a lot of their ideas about training and esp. like the one about how Helio was a little, sickly guy who had to find a way to use principle to make it work against someone much larger. I like a study of principle as opposed to the idea of two steroid monsters pounding on each other. Sounds a little like Ueshiba and Kano doesn't it?

What inspires you?

A student who comes to me as an insecure Casper Milquetoast and who years later walks up one day, not with a story about kicking someone's booty, but instead with a story about how for the first time they stood in front of a screaming maniac (their boss, a store clerk, etc.) and how it just didn't bother them anymore and how the maniac walked off without touching them. Seeing someone build that self-confidence only makes me want to see everyone get it. Grabbing some fool and stomping them like a cockroach is really not that difficult; it's building a person's self-respect, self-confidence and self-belief that's hard and takes work both for the student and for Sensei. Over time, teaching the self-confidence aspect becomes much more enjoyable and important than showing simple self-defense and randori.

Do you have any aspirations for your art, dojo or organization for the future?

Please see everything above. I'd just like to see more of the same for all of us.

Anything on your mind you would like to add?

No. Thanks for the opportunity to share and sorry about having tappy-tappy fingers and having such long responses. Your questions have caused me to slow down and think about my current direction at the moment (tomorrow will, I'm certain, be different) and as an FYI; I appreciate your efforts in trying to expand everyone's knowledge and understanding.