Aikido Rokyu Testing – Part 2

In part 1 of this article, I wrote a little about where akido and vipassana meditation intersect, but mostly about the mechanics involved in testing for my personal reference. In this installment, I discuss more about how the two practices overlap and enhance one another.

Aikido Flow

Aikido Flow – Lytescape by Jon Lybrook © 1996

Had my rokyu test last night, and all went well.  Collin also tested and did a great job as my uke (attacker). While my technique may not have been perfect, I was focused and the experience of testing brought me to a greater level of commitment having performed acceptably in front of about 30 aikidoists. Looking forward to the feedback from the judges on how I might improve, which is one of the most valuable parts of getting such an evaluation.  I will be eligible for the next rank (gokyu, or 5th kyu) in March.

In my last post I wrote about the difference between meditation and aikido practice in terms of one being solitary and the other interactive. While true that meditation is a solitary pursuit and aikido is mostly done with others, the goal of the Vipassana path I follow is to eventually integrate the vipassana technique of maintaining mental balance (through awareness of feelings and sensations) into everyday life and thus improve our interactions with others all the time. By paying attention to changes in physiology when experiencing mental conflict in meditation – breathing, heart rate, sensations on the skin – we can focus on being aware of that genuine experience in our bodies instead of getting stuck in a loop of “imagined” experiences and our reactions to these imaginings, in order to calm the mind.  I use the word imagined because however bad or good the situation, our memory and impressions, and subsequent reactions to them are often different when we’re feeling strongly about something, than if we had more objectivity. This has been proven time and again when interviewing witnesses from crime scenes and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) patients — our memory of a situation and its circumstances becomes distorted the more we mentally relive a powerful experience.  In other words, our tendency is to blow things out of proportion and overreact, at least internally if not externally when we’re not focused on the moment.

Similarly aikido, while martial in essence, is meant not just to provide physical skill and balance when in physical conflict with others, but also mental skill and balance internally, where our reactions to conflict originate. Keeping the mind focused and sharp while jolting and exhausting the body through continuous throwing, falling and hitting the mat can prove to be a challenging exercise and quite different from the more subtle focus required during the physical stasis of meditation.

In aikido one of the goals and challenges is to respond to attacks with an appropriate level of response.  The first part of the word Aikido means “match” or “harmony” — according to Miriam-Webster: ai- match, coordinate + ki breath, spirit + art, way. If someone attacks with moderate force, breaking their arm would be an excessive and inappropriate response. Likewise responding weakly would be inappropriate, not to mention ineffective. Aikido practice prepares us for both mildly threatening as well as deadly attacks and helps us to discern the difference and respond appropriately – mentally and physically.

To not respond excessively based on exaggerated impressions, rather than the actual level of force in harmony with the attacker and their attack is a difficult thing to master, and where Vipassana meditation practice can help us to improve aikido.  The mental/physical response is not just a matter of responding to the attack itself in a vacuum, but also has to do with our current, as well as our past reactions to similar situations.  For example, if the attack is coming from a person who has hurt me before, or if the person or style of attack reminds me of being hurt or rendered ineffective in the past, I may have a prejudiced reaction to the attack.  Mental reactions (verbal or physical) will increase or decrease in intensity, sometimes quite inappropriately, based on these imagined conditions rather than the actual conditions.

People come to aikido for different personal reasons. For me at least, aikido practice provides a place where Vipassana practice of maintaining mental focus is able to be challenged, tested and improved upon in a generally safe, physical environment, in addition to being great exercise and a way to meet fascinating people of all ages with mutual goals of self-improvement.

 

 

Bioenergetics, NLP, and Vipassana

A friend of mine sent me a few videos on the topic of Bioenergetics recently.  Bioenergetics is kind of a group-based and body-based psychological therapy where people act out their aggressions and fears.  I’ve heard about this kind of thing, and knew it was referenced alot, especially in the 1960s.

Based on the brief introduction I’ve had there seems to be a fair amount of conceptual overlap with S.N. Goenka’s style of Vipassana training even though meditation is (ideally) physically static.

With Bioenergetics patients are put in situations of physical stress and encouraged to act out scenes of their past in order to release the mental and physical stress.  This approach seems to require some certainty on the part the patient and therapist that trauma has been inflicted by a specific event, person, or persons.  Once established, the group and therapist work backwards to try and undo it.  One way is by replacing ‘somatic markers’ left in the body by the trauma with more neutral ones through physical touch by others and psychosomatic exercises.  This may be vaguely similar to Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) where the patient is encouraged to visualize different, more positive outcomes to nonconstructive stories about the past or future that run through their mind with some degree of frequency. In one of the NLP books I read, it is referred to as replaying the same “tapes” (i.e. recordings) in the mind over and over. Bioenergetics is different, however, in that it has a direct, physical, touch component to the therapy while the physical markers (and presumably the mental tapes) get overwritten.  By releasing the harmful, residual tensions in the body, one is more at peace in their body and therefore, it is assumed, their life.

With Vipassana it’s implied that everything comes out in the wash through their simple technique of body scanning, without having to define or discuss specifics about our past hangups or trauma with anyone.  Things come up in the mind without our having to interpret or attest to them in any way as being a root cause of our problems.  The hard part in Vipassana is to simply observe without reacting (and thereby perpetuate) the things that have been disturbing us.

Vipassana, through the awareness of sensation on the body, provides a recognition of specific tensions in the body.  While we may not know the event or mental condition associated with these tensions specifically, the technique instructs us not to be concerned with such specifics, and allows us to release the tension naturally, by training us to allow it to pass regardless, rather than clinging to it out of fear or anger about it, as is our habit.

 

Sensory-Based Meditation for Anxiety vs. Drug-based Treatments

An article in “Wired” from March 2012 entitled “The Forgetting Pill erases Painful Memories Forever”. describes an experimental therapy for eliminating negative memories to help patients struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), as well as less severe conditions. The treatment involves giving patients the equivalent of blood pressure medication which only lasts 3 hours vs. full strength version of the medication which may last all day. Once the medication, which has a calming effect, kicks in, the patients are then asked to recall the traumatic or negative memory in as much detail as possible.

According to the article, every time we remember or relive an event, we rewrite it to our memory along with the emotional state we are in at the time we recant it.  Because the blood pressure medication lessens general excitement, the memory is re-experienced and “rewritten” to the mind from a more objective perspective with less emotional attachment to the memory of the event.

What I found intriguing about this article was that the treatment is in many ways similar to the technique of Vipassana meditation I study, where practitioners are asked to sit motionless with eyes closed and methodically pay close attention to sensations on the body. While doing so, they are instructed to stay focused and not to react with craving or aversion to these sensations on the body (no matter how pleasant or unpleasant) and to simply observe them with compassion and equanimity.  The sensations on the body are, according to the teaching, tied directly with emotions and memories in the subconscious.  By acknowledging the sensations we are tapping into subconscious memories and re-experiencing them in a direct way.  The word ‘recognize’ literally means to re-think. By remaining equanimous, or accepting the truth about how we feel about our experiences at the deepest level, we become free of them.

If they are not accepted by the mind and integrated in to the life-experience, over time and through repetition, these layers of emotions associated with the initial experience intensify, as do the physiological and biochemical reactions to the memory. If negative, these emotions can cause mental and physical stress and tension in the form of a fight or flight response.  If positive, the emotions can result in clinging or craving, resulting in an addiction to the experience.  More specifically an addiction to the biochemicals is produced by the emotions associated with the memory of the experience.

The danger is that the biochemicals, regardless of whether or not the subject sees the memory as good or bad, create a craving for more of the chemical, which is why anger or depression can sometimes spiral out of control.  The angrier we get, the more we tend to generate even greater anger, feeding back on itself into an upward spiral of fury.  Similarly downward spirals of depression create an inescapable feedback loop of angst and misery.

In either situation there is a physiological response to the emotion reaction: the secretion of biochemicals resulting in things such as an increase of adrenaline, vascular and muscle constrictions, and/or an increase in blood pressure, to name a few. This can manifest in the form of back pain, stomach problems, migraines, insomnia, heart disease, and even cancer.  Over time the increasing physical and biochemical changes in the body can and do make us sick, yet they originate in the mind.  In this way, meditation for anxiety has similar benefits to the drug-based therapy.

Whether under the influence of a calming drug, as described in the Wired article, or under the influence of a disciplined mind through meditation, there is a lessened reaction to the experience by not reinforcing the story in an environment of strong emotions.  Through repeated exposure to the memories under “safe” environments, the self-generated and self-perpetuated emotional level is diminished, as well as the physiological and biochemical responses.

The main difference between this new therapy and sensory-based meditation is that with Vipassana meditation at least, concentrating on the conscious memories and reliving experiences during meditation are discouraged.  One in instructed to only pay attention to sensations directly on the body and keep focused on that activity, since sensations are tied to the more important memories and emotions residing in the subconscious.

While the application of drugs in conjunction with talking about the memories could perhaps tap in to the subconscious to some degree, results of the therapy described in the Wired article are inconclusive. My sense is it will have limited success with victims of PTSD or other forms of anxiety, since the issues are only being dealt with closer to the conscious level.

In certain cases, there is certainly no substitute for modern medicine, especially where symptoms need to be diminished in order for the person to heal.  Ultimately though, we are our own masters and need to take control of how our mind reacts to the past, present and future for our own health and benefit and those around us.