Monday, December 18, 2006


My favorite poet of all time is Edna St. Vincent Millay - probably for no particular reason that I can put my finger on. I'm generally not much on poems about death and love, but her rhythm and word choice turn me on. One of my favorite pieces of her work is as follows.

We have gone too far; we do not know how to stop; impetus

Is all we have. And we share it with the pushed Inert.

We are clever, -- we are as clever as monkeys; and some of us

Have intellect, which is our danger, for we lack intelligence

And have forgotten instinct.

Progress -- progress is the dirtiest word in the language--who ever told us --

And made us believe it - - that to take a step forward was necessarily, was always

A good idea? In this unlighted cave, one step forward

That step can be the down-step into the Abyss.

But we, we have no sense of direction; impetus

Is all we have; we do not proceed, we only

Roll down the mountain,

Like disbalanced boulders, crushing before us many

Delicate springing things, whose plan it was to grow.

Clever, we are, and inventive, -- but not creative;

For, to create, one must decide -- the cells must decide -- what

What colour, what sex, how many petals, five, or more than five,

Or less than five.

But we, we decide nothing: the bland Opportunity

Presents itself, and we embrace it, -- we are so grateful

When something happens which is not directly War;

For we think -- although of course, now we very seldom

Clearly think--

That the other side of War is Peace.

We have no sense; we only roll downhill. Peace

Is the temporary beautiful ignorance that War

Somewhere progresses.

It has been a long time since I have read this in its entirety. I remembered phrases of it, but not in Millay's crisp, precise, beautiful language. Something in Tegatana no kata made me think of this poem the other day and I had to look it up. This poem speaks volumes about war and peace, which is what aikido is really about anyway. This poem speaks about aikido on the spiritual/philisophical level but also on the physical, tactical level.

Whenever we take a step, there is a part of the step that is ballistic. By that, I mean we can't take it back. We are committed to stepping. "Impetus is all we have - and we share it with the pushed Inert." However, in tegatana no kata we work on minimizing this ballistic phase of stepping by taking smaller steps, walking on the balls of the feet, etc... What this does for us is makes us more neutral and gives us more options - more choices."

Consider this quote from another 20th century mastermind, C.S. Lewis, in juxtaposition to Millay's poem about progress:

We all want progress, but if you're on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.

That brings up another, related aspect of tegatana. You want your progress to be reversible. As a general rule of thumb you don't want to make ballistic (irreversible) actions because you end up (in Millay's words) "rolling down the mountain like disbalanced boulders, crushing before you many delicate springing things whose plan it was to grow." You lose the capacity to make intelligent choice, which is what makes us human. You lose opportunity. Moishe Feldenkrais mentions this in his book, Awareness through Movement - reversibility is the mark of voluntary [good] movement.

So, in tegatana we learn to make small, conservative steps, minimizing our disbalanced nature while also minimizing the ballistic nature of our motions. Working on this in your kata will bring Progress (with a captial P).

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