Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Entering Into The Waza

Well, Triumph Of Love has closed, giving me the welcome opportunity to catch up on my life outside of acting.
I study a martial art called Iaido, or Japanese swordsmanship, which is really kenjutsu with an emphasis on the draw.Our sensei, Andrej Diamantstein, asked us students to "Enter into the waza" the other day. He then asked us if we knew what he meant by that. All of us- except one lucky and honest guy- said they did. He then asked us to prove we understood what he meant with a three page essay. The fellow who said he didn't understand was, of course, excused from the exercise. Here then, for no other reason than that I thought it might be interesting for someone out there, is mine.

Entering Into The Waza

1: Entering…

Draw a circle on the floor. Try to make it perfectly round. This may take a lifetime or more. You have just divided the universe into three sections. One section is the entire universe outside the circle you have drawn, another section is the area inside the circle you have drawn and the third section is the line separating the inside from the outside.
Walk around the circle. From this position you have a unique perspective. Everything inside the circle is visible to the eye. You can examine the circle like a scientist examines a petrie dish. You can place things inside the circle and watch them interact. This is what artists do with paint on a canvas. Or filmmakers do on a movie screen. The circle has become a sacred space. It is the dance floor, the stage or the dojo. It is the altar, the temple or the launch pad.

From your position here on the outside you can make judgments about the contents of your circle. You can attach values, preferences, likes and dislikes. Opinions form. Notice the first letter in the word opinion is just another one of those beautiful, simple, universe defining circles. You can now make decisions based on your observations of the goings on inside your perfect circle. You are now in what the Japanese call a position of the Shihan. The Japanese character for Shihan is made up of two parts. The shi refers to one being atop a hill. Additional marks refer to wood and trees. So the pictographic meaning of Shihan is something like “being atop a wooded hill”. A good position to achieve on, say, a battlefield. From a wooded hill a general can observe the movements of his troops without being observed himself. He sees all and is unseen. He can orchestrate the battle from this vantage point like a conductor leads an orchestra from his podium. He sees all the parts and can therefore recognize the patterns that may emerge and respond accordingly. He sees the Waza. But has he entered into the Waza? Not Yet.

Now: Step into the circle. Before you do this you may want to bow to the circle as a martial artist might do before stepping on the mat at the dojo or a bullfighter when he genuflects before entering the ring. Close your eyes. Imagine the circle around you. You are encased in the line separating all the universe outside the circle from all the area inside the circle. Outside that is the circle of the room you are in. That circle is in turn encased in the circle of the city limits of your town. We can extrapolate out to the circle of the continent you live on and on to the unknown limits of the trackless vastness of the universe itself.

Now return to the circle that you’ve drawn. Within that circle is the circle of your skin holding magically together the bag of water and bone and sinew and muscle that is your body. Breathe. Draw some air into the inside of the circle of your lungs. Exhale and you contract the organ and simply make the circle of your lungs smaller. Sense your center of gravity. Another circle! Notice how you can move it around. Place it carefully and securely in your Hara, somewhere about three inches below your navel. Notice that you are not observing this new circle with your eyes or any of the other highly developed senses you came factory equipped with. There is another sense you are accessing. This sense comes into play only once you have entered.

When one enters into any activity, be it a job interview, an audition or a marriage, one is seeking a deeper understanding of that particular circle. What is this understanding? It consists of an intuitive “gut feeling” (again the Hara) that through examining the activity we can develop ever deeper appreciation of it. We can begin to perfect our circle.

2: Into…

Take a shower. Towel yourself off. Stand naked before your closet. Your clothes are waiting for you on hangers. These are your costumes. If you have an important interview or a date you may select your costume with that in mind. If you are working around the house all day you might just throw on a t-shirt and a pair of shorts. Either way you are entering into a costume that will define the character, the status, the very silhouette of the observable you. But there is much that is hidden. In Iaido we wear the hakama to obscure our opponents perception of our feet. Our feet reveal how we are managing our center of gravity. This is valuable information for a combatant engaged in a match. It is just one of the many factors he uses to anticipate his opponents next move. The combatant has entered into his opponent. When a defender in basketball effectively keeps his opposing player from scoring it could be said he “wears him like a suit of clothes.” A chess player’s prowess is measured by how well he can anticipate his opponent’s moves. How far can he get into the mind of his opponent. European fencing has been described as chess at a hundred miles an hour. As physical an activity as competitive fencing is, the fencer’s ability to enter into his opponent’s thoughts and respond accordingly relies on senses beyond the mere physical. Amid the flash and fury of steel the fencing practitioner must acquire a stillness, a calm in the eye of the storm that can enable him to access the thoughts of his opponent even before he is consciously aware of them himself.

So entering into the waza or looking deeply into the waza is a determined act to step into that sacred circle. Observing it from both the inside and the outside, we may begin to breathe in and out with its rhythm. Knowing that just observing the waza from the outside only gives us part of the story. And closing ourselves off and focusing inward we may obscure the bigger picture. Our self-centered myopia blinds us to a deeper understanding of the waza.

Consider the koi pond. The observer can distinguish flashes of color, the oranges and rich golds of the fish swimming just under the surface, the perfect symmetry of the water lilies floating gracefully on top, the reflection of the moon catching on the ripples like a thousand tiny mirrors. These are all elements of what we can recognize as something of profound beauty. Taken separately, they are simply random elements found in nature. Without the water, the beautiful golden koi fish will flop around helplessly and die. But taken together the elements that make up the pond are not separate random phenomenon but an aesthetically pleasing whole. In observing the pond it can be said we enter into a form of softening our focus in order to enjoy the whole. When we look at the pond we do not think “the fish are breathing water under the moonlight with water lilies all around.” We simply think “Ahh. A koi pond.” We have entered into a form of perception that takes in all the elements and does not fixate our attention on any single thing. This is a nice place to begin when one seeks to enter into any waza.

In the theatre, we recognize the construction of any play as having a beginning, a middle and an end. The openness of the beginning, with its mystery and promise, is defined by the actions inherent in the middle, and finally congeals into the end. Where we were at the beginning has been colored by the middle so that by the end we cannot be what we were.

Actors make entrances. At the root of the word entrance is the verb “to entrance” and that’s what actors try to do, entrance us. The Way of the martial artist, the do of Aikido or Iaido is reliant on this softening of focus and this awareness of a whole. So this act of entering into the waza is a courageous one. It is the actor stepping from the wings onto the stage. It is like the fisherman wading into the pond.

3: The Waza…

Consider the circle you drew earlier. Is it perfectly round? Close your eyes. Try to imagine a perfect circle. Notice how, even in your imagination slight irregularities occur. One moment it looks vaguely egg shaped. Try to correct it and it loses its roundness altogether, morphs into a different shape entirely. The perfect circle, like the waza, is an elusive beast. Every practitioner of every art form has had to, at some point, face the specter of the waza. From flower arrangers to construction workers learning the basic, fundamental forms or kata that are the foundation of creating something of value is mandatory to achieve anything approaching a higher level. I’ve watched a roofer performing the waza of installing a shingle roof with the quiet concentration of a master swordsman. I’ve watched Micheal Jordan shooting free throws. Three dribbles, bend the knees, exhale, get the elbow under, aim, shoot. The same way every time. This is how good basketball players can shoot free throws with the game on the line and thousands of screaming fans doing everything they can to distract them and yet they can still make the basket ninety percent of the time. The practice of the waza, the thousands of repetitions, has prepared the practitioner to perform at the peak of his abilities. The seemingly mind numbing act of doing the same thing thousands of times exactly the same way has given the artist a form of confidence not found anywhere else. It has won basketball championships as well as vanquished enemies on the battlefield.

Since you can never truly do the same thing exactly the same way every time, in practicing a waza consistently and over a long period of time an interesting possibility is exposed. It is possible that the waza and how you perform it becomes a kind of mirror. It shows you yourself. It reflects your shifts in concentration and focus. It monitors your breathing. It demands equal parts of energy and economy. It is a barometer of your morale and a stern taskmaster constantly challenging your abilities. It is that line that separates the inside from the outside.

In daily life we practice various waza almost without knowing it. We get up in the morning, stumble into the kitchen and make coffee. The entire process, from spooning the coffee into the coffee maker to stirring in just the right amount of cream to watching the swirling cosmos of white and brown and breathing in the welcome aroma is one long waza replete with a beginning, a middle and an end. Performed correctly, no coffee grounds will spill on the counter, the percolator will not over-flow and you may even remember to close the refrigerator door.

Consider Ushiro, the fourth in the sieza series of waza practiced in Iaido. A difficult and graceful maneuver that looks more like a hip hop dance move than a deadly and effective response to a surprise attack from behind. And yet performed over and over it reveals something to the iaidoist he may never have otherwise known about himself. With each new waza a new set of peaks and valleys appears. A vast territory is to be explored. A perfect circle is to be drawn.

And so we come to the circle you drew on the floor originally. Resign yourself to the fact that the circle may never be perfect but the idea of the perfect circle remains, ever elusive, ever beckoning, ever entrancing and always possible with each new beginning.

So looking deep into the waza is simply practicing a given technique to the best of your ability every time and remaining open to its mysteries. To enter into a living, breathing legacy of practice laid down by those that have gone before and lived to tell of it. To wade into that still, still pond, appreciate the water lilies, the flash of orange and gold under the surface and maybe, just maybe, see the moon.

No comments: