The Test of Time

“Time is free, but it’s priceless. You can’t own it, but you can use it. You can’t keep it, but you can spend it. Once you’ve lost it you can never get it back.”

As many of you might know, compared to many I train with, I am new to Aikido training. I do not have the years of continuous training. As I continue my Aikido training, I have come to realize that while there are ranks and tests, the true determining elements in learning, training and developing my Aikido skills is a “Test of Time”.

This is not a new idea and I’m sure I’m not the only one to experience this. Time is finite. It has bounders and limits. Our existence is time boxed. How we choose to use time is crucial. For all of us who have chosen to make Aikido a part of our lives, we are told of the commitments that it asks. We are told that Aikido is not simply a recreational activity to be performed on weekends.

Take a look at your Aikido inspirations. If you look at them and admire the skills they possess, ask yourself what has gotten them to that status. They have one major thing in common; they all have dedicated themselves to Aikido. They made Aikido a part of their lives and we are witnessing the results. I don’t know about you but I want to emulate these results. I admire the Aikido Senseis and want to one day attain what they have attained.

As stated earlier, our time is limited. In accepting the challenges of commitment and dedication that Aikido asks of us, we will face the true “Test of Time”.

Continue to train hard, sincerely and passionately, my Aikido cohorts.

Rey Robles
Southern Maryland Aikido Center

Oh My Ma-ai

Ma-ai is a concept that is often described to Aikidoka as meaning “space-time”. It is taught as a beginning concept of ‘safe distance’ typically measured by both practitioners extending their arms from a hanme stance so that they cross somewhere between the wrist and the fingertips. This “space”, if you will, represents the “time” it would take an attacker to reach the defender… the time required to take the step that spans the distance. This “time distance” provides the defender with an interval to react and thus effectively respond.

Such an elegant a formulation because of its economy and simplicity, but the equation E = mc2 (another space-time continuum) also appears simple but is about as conceptually complicated as you can get. And ma-ai has its complications and nuances as well.

First maai is not a fixed single concept. It is neither a fixed space nor a fixed time. For example if two opponents are of different heights or different arm lengths or different leg lengths then the maai is different for each of them in the same instant of encounter. The taller individual or the one with longer arms may not need to take a step in order to touch the opponent and thus is ‘closer’ and the opponent needs a longer distance for effective maai.

Conversely if one of the opponents has exceptionally fast reflexes and is the speedier of the two then the slower combatant needs more distance to maintain safety. But this requirement also brings with it the problem of giving the slower opponent a greater distance to cover when attacking, which in turn, because s/he is the slower of the two, gives the receiver of the attack an even longer time to respond.

These complications of the “space-time continuum” thus lead to another dimension, a dimension of mind (insert “Twilight Zone” music and the narration of Rod Serling… but I’m dating myself! However, it is where I’m going with this though… more later… with a sudden twist at the end.)

There is a maai of consciousness… the steadiness of attention, the constancy of focus, the point of breath at either inhale or exhale.

To gain a better understanding it is helpful to observe that maai is not just one thing but at least three things. The basic description of maai given above is actually a combination of two types of maai and blurs their differences a bit. When one is keeping a distance that allows for some reaction time this distance can be more specifically labeled as “to-ma” or perhaps called “long distance”.

But when one can strike the other only by covering the distance of one step then that distance is more specifically called Issoku ittō-no-maai (Itto-ma or “chuma”, middle distance). With this physical space there is very little time to react and so concentration must be unwavering. At this distance, all other factors being equal, the advantage goes to the opponent with the stronger steadier mind. Indeed it is possible that a stronger steadier mind that can identify and exploit lapses in an opponent’s consciousness may in fact more than compensate for the opponent’s advantages in reach and/or reflex speed.

The third kind of maai in this categorization scheme is “chikama” or short distance. In this situation an opponent has gotten too close, too far inside, in order to allow for any reaction time and there is nothing that can be done to defend oneself. An example of this is an instance in which a man brandishing a knife has gotten within 10 feet of a man with a holstered sidearm. The man with the knife has an overwhelming advantage. In fact in law enforcement training the safe distance here, the maai, is deemed to be a minimum of 21 feet.

In this last category an aware and “intuitive” mind could still have an advantage by moving ahead of the attack or specifically leading it to a pre-determined spot chosen for its defensive advantage. This is one of the meanings of the concept of “leading” an opponent’s mind.

We deal with maai constantly in everyday life. It is as simple as the time elapsed between the knock on the bathroom door and the same hand then turning the knob to open the door. It seems rarely, if ever, does the “knocker” allow for any time for the “current user” to respond before s/he tries the knob. If this occurs on an unlocked door in a public place like an office or garage restroom the “current user” soon discovers that there is an “opening”!

More dangerous is a failure to maintain a safe following distance between cars on a highway. Here severe tragedy can result from chikama, maai that is too close and inappropriate. This situation is exacerbated by texting while driving. Here there is a lapse in consciousness that allows great distances to be breached before there is even an awareness of danger and response and reflex speed remain as factors after initial awareness.

And then there are the more subtle nuances of maai that are manifest in body language and the cultural overtones embedded within non-verbal communication. If you are adventurous, experiment with the invisible boundary that represents the half way point on a shared table. Spread out across that line in a cafeteria or a library… what’s the body language (or possibly the spoken language) of the “sharer”. Or what’s your comfortable speaking distance? How close do you allow a boss or a co-worker? Where’s your line? What’s your maai?

Culturing an awareness of details and allowing for the healthy sensitivity of “relaxed alertness” is the way one can take advantage of “kokoro-no-maai”… a lapse of spirit, a wandering of the mind which leaves a momentary “tsuki” or opening. Such moments are said to exist at certain points in the breath cycle such as just before an exhale is completed. One would unleash a most successful attack if coupled with a “ki-ai”, a spirit yell, an exhalation at the moment of the strike. The same would be true at the moment of response. However if one has not quite finished an exhale then this has to be completed, followed by an inhale before there can be a powerful exhale again. Thus there is an “opening” at that specific point of the breathing rhythm.

But none of this has anything to do with my point! Or maybe it has everything to do with it.

This all started while I was listening to a discussion on my car radio as I drove to work in congested morning traffic with an aggressive driver tailgating me as she did her lipstick in her rear view mirror. One of the contributors speaking on the radio used the phrase “the problem with the world today”… when it occurred to me that this was a confluence of issues in space and time that could be eliminated with an awareness of maai.

Technology has become a virulent attacker to the act of living in a relaxed manner in the here and now. Multi-tasking and web surfing and television with “57 channels and nothin’ on” and a 24 hour hyped news cycle, and tweets and postings and a virtual community that frantically devours bits of minutia like piranha in a feeding frenzy leaves no time or space for solitude… just a zombie crowd engulfed in a steady numbing drone.

The dialogue on my car radio had lost its sense of real context and seduces the listener to journey to conceptual abstractions. The “world” is the space we live in… that is immediately around us. I cannot describe the world solely as this commute. The discussion of the “world” was a provincial look at a microcosm and reduction of urban America. It certainly was not the universe. It was not the world of medieval burgermeisters, or the Omo tribe in Sudan, or for that matter of a farmer in the Midwest USA.

And “today” is just that… a “moment” that is “here”. It is not eternity… it is not “all of the time”. And yet “now” is all we have… and it is only “here” and it never goes away so it is “eternity”. A Roman gladiator only had “now”, a mugging victim only has “now”, a runaway slave only had, or because it still exists somewhere on the planet and probably in more than one place, they only have “nows”.

Sure we have memories and we have goals and plans but these too are abstracts. They change according to the now. The humiliating moment last summer when a co-worker accidently walked into the bathroom you were using becomes the funniest story at the office Christmas party. The righteous argument you had in college with the dorky disheveled and disorganized weird kid because of how much space he was taking and the noise he was making in the library becomes patty and sickening when you found out he jumped off a bridge later that day. The happy goal of buying that house suddenly becomes a burden when you’ve be laid off and your home mortgage is under water. And the lay off becomes the best thing that ever happened to your career because it created the opportunity where you stumbled into your dream job.

Practice Aikido to develop penetrating awareness… to find your place in space and time… to guard your maai… and to see the openings… to stay in the now… in big things and little things… like maybe I shouldn’t be texting this while I’m driving!

Robert A. Whelan
Shodokan

The Prince and the Tea Master

There once was a vain young prince, who’s most proud possession was the greatest tea master in the land.

The old tea master lived a joyous and natural life in the prices’ hereditary castle, much what you would expect from a master of his great stature. Just one thing however was unusual. And that was that in all his life and training, he had never once stepped foot outside of his lords castle gates.

One day the prince was invited to a neighboring castle, and decided to show off his tea master. He began preparations for the visit and sent a servant to the tea master, requiring his attendance. The tea master immediately sought out his prince, pleading not to have to leave the safety of the castle. “My lord, I beg you not to take me, I know something awful will happen if I accompany you tomorrow.” The master could not imagine actually stepping foot outside the gates, never mind traveling a great distance to some unknown castle. But the price refused to take no for an answer. The tea master was mortified. He hardly slept a wink.

The next day, as they were about to leave the safety of his beloved castle, the tea master said, “My lord, last night I had a most terrible dream. I know that utter disaster and misfortune awaits me outside these gates. I beg you to let me stay.” But there was no changing his mind, and off they went.

As the humble master entered the gates of the neighboring castle, he turned his head to look back at the heavily fortified doors closing him in, when he bumped right into the most vicious mean looking samurai he had ever met. “Oh, pardon me, I am so sorry.” said the tea master.

The brutish samurai glared down at him saying, “You little fuck, who do you think you are. I’m going to cut your shrimpy head off for that!” “Oh no please, it was foolish of me not to look where I was going. Please forgive me.,” said the tea master with his nose in the dirt. But the huge samurai picked him up by the scruff of the neck with one hand and declared, “Tomorrow you meet at the river, crack of dawn. Bring your katana!”

Later that day the prince introduced his tea master to the neighboring lord, who in turn introduced him to his trusted majordomo. The officer could see the troubled countenance of the tea master and took him aside to inquire. When the warrior learned of the impending duel, he put his hand on the old mans shoulder, and then said a very wise thing, “This calls for tea”.

An hour later the majordomo bowed low as he entered the small tearoom, which had been meticulously prepared by the tea master. They bowed to each other and soon the great warrior was humbled to the bone at the mastery, the beauty, and the utter power in simplicity of each and every breath and gesture he observed and shared, in what would be the final tea ceremony. Then as the master offered the cup in a movement that was one with his mind, his spirit and body, his eyes held the majordomos, and the warrior was awestruck.

After finishing a few sips of the green brew, he looked at the tea master and said, “tomorrow, you have nothing to worry about. Take my sword, and when the samurai comes to you at the river, raise the katana, just as you raise this cup. Hold it over your head, and just look into his eyes.”

The next morning at dawn the tea master waited next to the river, and when he saw the muscled samurai coming, he grasped the katana with two hands and raised it above his head, focusing his whole being on the big samurai before him. Not a hair moved, he breathed the natural breath of a sleeping baby. His whole being was as one.

And the samurai instantly knew he could step no closer. He stopped and bristled, eyeing the tea master in front of him. “Mmmmmm, you are not the same man I met yesterday. I do not think it is wise for us to continue. I forgive you.”

Bob Toabe
MIT Aikido Club