Monday, June 29, 2009

Music and the creative process

I was having dinner with Larry Wallerstein in San Jose’s Japantown and he asked me a very intriguing question. What does one who has done Aikido for almost 40 years now do to train. My answer to him was that I thought it was vital to keep being creative. Not necessarily just in dojo time.

So one of my creative outlets has been music. I love the music of Chet Baker. So I play the trumpet. I listen to Chet a lot. I’m currently in a phase where I’m playing less and listening more. Initially when I started playing again(I played in middle school and high school but with a flawed embrouchure and have needed in essence to re-learn everything) I would play and every once in a while I would say to myself”That felt like Chet”. Something in a phrase or a sound or a series of sounds. Initially when I recorded stuff and it happened, it didn’t sound like much. But as I kept going, I noticed that this feeling produced something. So I let this feeling be my guide. If I have a teacher, it is this feeling. I lose it quite often, but it will come back at unexpected times. It is not something that(unfortunately) I can produce on demand. Maybe as I play a bit more.

But the journey is what it is all about. Not the destination. The hours of bad sounds and
Struggles are what determines whether you can persevere through difficulties. Bruce Lee hurt his back and was bedridden for 6 months. Osensei spent vast periods physically quite ill. Chet Baker suffered a brutal beating in his 30’s and had to learn to play without teeth. So whatever difficulties I have had pale when compared to those of the true giants. But through it all every once in awhile some thing would come through and I would say to myself” That felt like Chet.” Not sound like Chet. Ultimately you can appreciate someone who inspires you on your journey, but to simply copy them is to do a disservice to their creative process. Chet himself acknowledged the influence of Miles Davis, but said that it helped him to understand what he was about.

So I play. And listen. And hopefully grow. I notice that when in a flow there are notes that you hear inside, rhythms you sense inside, and the more aligned you are the more they just happen. And the less separation between what you hear inside and what you play the better you are doing. And as in aikido when the “I” takes it over and you are caught in your conceptual mind it is very painful. And as I go forward the notes on the interior change. And every once in a while mind and body come together and there is the space of pure being.

One of the reasons I feel so close to Chet Baker’s music is that he obviously felt very deeply what he was playing or singing. He was real in that sense. He was categorized as a jazz trumpeter/ vocalist of the cool West Coast sound of the ‘50’s. I feel he is very mis understood. What he had was an almost unique lyrical sense and jazz was his arena. While he deeply respects the songs he plays, his improvisations are almost compositions in and of themselves and often surpass the songs he plays. Even the old standards. I think he is one of the alltime great musicians. Bach? Beetoven? Chet Baker? That is a bit like saying Einstein? Jung?Ueshiba? Maybe not that farfetched. At least not to my very different mind.

So there have been those who have helped me on my journey. Marianne Messina and Peter Skilj for hanging with me in my insanity to return to music. Ben Shuts for letting me bounce my stuff off his saxophone playing. Dennis Kyne for being there and having someone to play alongside right now. And I’d like to thank Artt Frank for his wisdom and encouragement. Artt is a great drummer and musician in his own right who played with Billie Holiday and Miles Davis. You can find out more about him as And he was a very close friend of Chet Baker. He lets me pester him with questions about Chet. But it is so wonderful to actually be able to talk to someone who not only knew Chet personally, but was a very close friend.

The following piece I did was originally something I learned playing with Marianne. I hope you enjoy it.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Retreat Musings on Warriorship

A couple of thoughts on the Menlo College Summer Retreat. First, the weather was extremely good for almost all of it. Warm but not hot. Evenings cool. Good training weather. It was nice to see old friends. I got a chance to train for a couple of brief stretches with Mary Heiny sensei(who by the way will also be teaching at the Santa Cruz Retreat July 9th thru 12th). After the retreat ended I got a chance along with Nadeau sensei to hang out a bit with both her and Hiroshi Ikeda sensei. It was nice to see both of them. In the '80's Ikeda sensei taught a couple of seminars at our old location in Japantown. We're talking now well over 20 years ago.

One of the most memorable themes for me at the retreat was that of warriorship. Aikido is non-competitive and stresses harmony. So how does warriorship apply to aikido and does it even apply at all? One sense is that a warrior has to do with, well, war. This involves combat, fighting, and facing the possibility of death. One thing aikido does provide is a supportive environment for people to come into and feel a nurturing presence they might otherwise not have in their lives. How can we connect the more commonly accepted sense of being a warrior with much of what aikido provides?

My feeling is that we must connect the sense of being a warrior with the creative path of personal growth. On this path we run into the level of self created by what might be termed the "small mind". On the path of aikido we will run into energies that the small mind will label as threatening or fearful. Yet those energies must be experienced and digested in order to transcend the small levels of self, what Nadeau sensei referred to as "level one". To do so will be to encounter energies that the small self finds much too powerful, or in another way of perception, primal. Instead of facing physical death, we are facing the death of the lesser levels of our own being. To proceed, then, is to be a warrior.

My feeling is that warriorship involves the body. But I mean the body as a system of intelligence that includes the mind. Unless body and mind are equal forces, there can be no true harmony between them. There is the tendency to "mind" almost everything. Tojima sensei would often tell me that he was putting something where I would never forget it. He was putting it in my body. One of the major principles of the Casteneda, don Juan books is that of "stopping the world". Tojima sensei bent my "unbendable" arm, lifted me up when I thought I was "unliftable", and uprooted me with an inch punch a la Bruce Lee when I thought I was strongly grounded and centered. Stopping the world is really stopping the world of the conceptual mind. My body still remembers how it would amaze me when he would just destroy one of my preconceptions. After a while I just came to even expect it. So training with him was one shocking surprise after another. The easiest things are to "mind" it. "What is this weird guy from Southern Japan think he's up to?", ie to take it personally(self-importance). The other mind function is to try to figure it out. All magicians are really tricksters, aren't they? I should be able to just figure it out, can't I?

What about just being able to hang out in the wonder, without having an explanation? Without having to be right or in control? Without having to justify myself? So in the Casteneda/don Juan sense we go from "Stop the World" to "Not-doing". This is not a place the small mind or mind in general finds comfortable. So here we get into the importance of the body.

In an increasingly mind run world, the real work of Aikido is to make sure that its message stays true. Things like love or peace or beauty cannot be fully appreciated by the mind. Heart and belly and what they represent are not just the territory of the mind. The real challenge for aikido instructors is to make sure things stay fresh and vital. To live in that sense of wonder. Aikido must not be reduced purely to training on a form only basis. Nor must it be confined purely to a social activity, however wonderful that may be.

One thing Nadeau sensei mentioned was the sense of a monster. That is an energy that the small mind has encountered and has repeatedly run from. From neglect it has gone from something in the normal range to something that illicits fear, sub-conscious avoidance. Yet the monster is really an ally. Once it is fully experienced it is the key to much finer dimensions of self. A good book for this is "Wizard of Earthsea" by Ursula K. LeGuin.

So are you ready to face your monsters?

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

birthday musings

Today is my birthday. As the years pile up you sort of hope people forget. Yet at the same time I am moved by people who remember. So I thought I would do a blog today and pass on some things that have been noted by me recently.

Thanks to those who have continued to train at the dojo during this time of economic instability. Classes are being attended. We have a good group of new students, which is also encouraging. None of us really knows where the current economy is going. Hopefully the dojo can provide a positive place to come and train, process, and transform during this uncertain period.

We will be taking the adult program and cancelling adult classes during the Menlo College retreat from Sunday June 14th through Saturday June 20th. I am proud to see a good turnout from the dojo for this event. I am especially happy that so many of the instructor level people are takin advantage of this opportunity. Instructors also need to continue to train and evolve. That and I think everyone will find this a very fun time as well.

I recently saw "How Bruce Lee Changed the World" on History channel. It brought back some memories and reflections from the '60's and '70's. One cannot today imagine the effect that he had on someone who was young and Asian during this period. Asian characters on screen were often played by non-Asians. Chief among these was the late David Carradine playing a character designed by and for Bruce Lee on the tv series "Kung Fu". My parents being of Japanese descent were interred during the second world war. I was raised in a complex environment where non-Japanese were not fully trusted and at the same time was encouraged to excel academically so as to fit it and thus be not singled out by a very white world.

In the midst of all this came Bruce Lee. He played Kato on "The Green Hornet" tv series in 1967. He was uncompromisingly Asian. Played his role with dignity and pride. His lightening fast kung fu moves were unlike anything that had been seen on tv. Before him screen fights were long drawn out affairs such as in the early John Wayne movies. One strike one kick were all he required to take out a lethal opponent.
I followed his exploits through articles in "Black Belt Magazine". I remember watching "The Way of the Intercepting Fist" on "Longstreet" during graduate school at UC Davis with my all white house mates at Russian House. Even though he was Chinese he always engendered in me a sense of racial pride. I was practicing t'ai chi ch'uan morning and evening, doing several aikido classes a week, and during my last year trained Japanese Shotokan Karate as well. I even managed to sneak in a graduate class or two.

I think he had something to do with my becoming a martial arts instructor. There was a deep philosophical sense to his Jeet Kune Do. The philosophy is one of deep self exploration. Of strongly finding and following one's own path. Of developping and training oneself constantly. He was also an artist. He studied film very deeply and was responsible for many of the production aspects of his films. He basically did 4 films. Died a month before "Enter the Dragon" was released, and is bigger today than ever.

One that was pointed out in the documentary was that recently there was a statue of him erected in Bosnia. The comment was that "We are Serbs, Croats, and Muslims.... but one thing we all have in common is......Bruce Lee". Ueshiba Osensei saw Aikido as a way to create the world family. So it is gratifying to see a martial artist become a symbol of unity in this increasingly complex world.

I found out from Artt Frank that he and Chet Baker really liked Bruce Lee films. I e-mailed Artt and said that the same broken rhythm I saw in Bruce Lee's movement I heard in Chet's trumpet playing.Artt confirmed that Chet played in a broken rhythm as well. That was encouraging to hear. Both Bruce Lee and Chet Baker followed their own star. Period.

I am including a video from late November. Ben Shuts and I were informally playing music together and I just shot this with a camcorder.