Man is a naturally curious creature. We have stared up at the heavens and the stars for centuries. We have mapped the constellations and land masses and ocean floors. We have even mapped the moon. We are curious about why something happens and we want to know how it happens. Some of us spend lifetimes and careers observing, documenting, and graphing natural phenomena and the earth’s creatures who live in it with us.
I, personally, could just spend hours sitting perfectly still in a quiet, secluded forest watching its denizens go about their daily forest life. And those hours, for me, would be considered a well-spent investment for my peace of mind and personal well-being.
What keeps everything so interesting is how we observe these things and the questions we ask ourselves, which then lead us to further studies.
Observation is one of our most powerful tools in being able to study, adapt, and survive living in this world. It is used in the scientific and experimental methodologies, as well as in socio- cultural and anthropological studies. Without observation, we would not have lasted this long as a species. Without observation, we wouldn’t have known that hungry carnivores don’t care where their meat is coming from or that a great mass hurtling at us at a great speed can cause extreme trauma and devastating damage.
The world around us is our teacher and our school. Nature does not discriminate the strong from the weak minded. She just goes ahead and lays out her lessons for us to learn from. Nature is always there, 24/7. She’s never had a day off from work. She caters to all levels of fluency and she doesn’t care whether you even speak or do sign language instead. She is a tireless and all encompassing teacher.
It is all up to us to observe, to learn, adapt or die.
In the martial arts, there are many allusions to Nature. Some martial arts are tied to the five elements in the Orient. Earth, Water, Fire, Metal and Wind. And of course, the great Empty ( the Null). Other martial art forms have more bestial connections, most probably because the animals can be observed more easily than the elements.
For example, in popular kung-fu/shao-lin movies I used to watch (and still watch, as a guilty pleasure), there are all these styles named after animals. There are the crane style, the tiger, the monkey, the mantis, the eagle and so on. These animal forms reflect and seem to emulate the animals for which they have been named. They magnify the advantages and characteristics of that particular animal and develop qualities in the practitioner that reflects it.
For instance, the tiger style seeks to develop power in its strikes and its movement. It teaches the practitioner to be aggressive in his attacks and defenses, while the mantis develops an agile and swift execution of the style. It is believed that the more fluent you are in all the forms, the more a well-rounded, well-adjusted person develops.
For the monks to create these styles, it implies that they have spent not just hours and hours of observation, practice and development, but centuries.
In Aikido, a much younger martial art, we also learn through observation, practice, understanding, exploring, building up, breaking down and creating adaptations. The first skill as a beginner I wish white belts would pay more attention to would be developing their perceptual abilities. It is too easy to be blinded by the glamour of the techniques, and much more difficult to pay attention to the mundane exercises leading up to the techniques.
We need visual acuity to be able to perceive the progress and execution of the technique at work. To see in detail what is going on in motion and in static form is as important as being able to do it. By learning to observe demonstrations properly, we file away in our “little gray cells” bits and pieces of information that do not make sense at present, but might light the eureka bulb in us later on.
As an Aikidoka we need to be able to also be kinesthetically perceptive. Learning while feeling and doing lets us get the feel of what is right and what works. We learn to recognize and observe the patterns in the drills and the techniques and we repeat them to gain fluency.
But then, is it also important to reflect where these forms and patterns came from? What in Nature do these forms and patterns remind us of? Did nature inspire the technique, or does the technique reflect nature? Doesn’t really matter, or does it?
For long-practicing Aikdoka, sometimes, when we look at a picture of Nature or see Nature in action, we are immediately reminded of a particular technique.
Sometimes, our bodies are too beat up to take keiko, but we still want to do Aikido. Times like these, we need to listen to our bodies and let Nature show us the way she wants to go. We can still practice, experience, explore Aikido in Nature. That’s the beauty of it all.
Nature is there all the time so we can practice Aikido all the time, anytime.
Consider this exercise with the sea as your partner: When we look at the waves of the ocean, we see their motion. We can see how the wave is formed and how it rolls. When we get into the water, we feel its rolling and withdrawing and surging. We see it, we feel it, we taste it and move with it. We even hear the slap-slapping of the waves on the sand and on the rocks. It is all around us. It could be a gentle teacher or a ruthless one. How we greet it and perceive it depends entirely up to us. By experiencing this body of water, certain Aikido exercises and techniques come to mind because of its familiar feel.
We associate the experience with certain movements. And there in our associations and perceptions lies the jewel of a lesson we have been observing in Nature all along.
Then the questions come rolling in…and we find the meaning and the purpose in our observations, and we set the directions towards further learning, because we are naturally curious, and Nature is calling.
(Please also see: “Aikido: Everything is a Gift“)