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I write this entry whilst sitting in the Joshua Tree National Park. After a beautiful desert sunset, the moon is up and the stars are starting to appear. The day began with breakfast in amongst the Mojave yuccas, Joshua trees and countless other desert plants that are covered in sharp points. Before I'd even got to finish my cooking, I had been joined by an Antelope ground squirrel, who once he'd got over his initial shyness, spent the best part of an hour, trying to find a way into my van. He was very persistent, trying each wheel arch in turn, then finally settling on jumping up onto the front fender, scrabbling up the spare wheel and doing his best to get through the windscreen. Whilst all this attempted burglary was going on, I saw some Gambel's quail, a Black tailed jack rabbit, a humming bird, some cactus wren and a road runner. A nice start to a very quiet and peaceful day.
I had fully expected to be gasping from oven like temperatures, but to my very pleasant surprise, it rained! The first rain that I had felt since just before Independence day. It was great to feel the liquid drops on my body. Only a few light showers though and the clouds kept the temperatures down to a pleasant heat for most of the day.
All this is a nice contrast to the last week or so in LA.
When I set out on this trip, I was determined to have an open mind to every type of practice I came across. Figuring that there is wisdom in the old martial arts adage of trying to cultivate a beginners mind. I was also hoping to meet someone who would 'open my eyes' a bit, and if I met that person, stay and try to learn what they are doing. Well 9 days with Corky Quakenbush, practising what he is doing, completely fit the bill.
I am sure you all dying to know the detail of my practice, which I will come to, in due course. I feel that first I need to give you a little of my understanding of where Corky is coming from. If I may be so bold as to coin a new phrase, I believe that the what and the how of what he is doing should be seen as 'Post Modern' Aikido. If we are to accept the voices of quite a few out there who say that Modern Aikido was born through the 2nd Doshu, Tohei and others and that 'pre' Modern Aikido was everything before, then Corky's method could well come to be seen as the development of a new and valid approach to learning the fundamental spiritual elements of Ueshiba's art.
Corky had an experience after eighteen years or so of practice, which caused him to rethink his relationship to aikido, what was being practised and how it was being taught. He felt that the focus of 'conventional' aikido was all about nage and what nage was to do to uke. This can often be, depending on the relative hard/softness of the style, quite 'violent'. The end result of a typical aikido encounter is usually a projection or an immobilisation, uke having little choice but to protect themselves in the process. He was left pondering the question, "if Ueshiba said that aikido is 'the loving protection of all things' then where is the manifestation of that in conventional practice?"
He saw the role of uke as being the primary player. It is uke's attack that has to be present to make aikido happen. He felt that a great deal of the attacks offered by uke in standard practice are not really attacks at all. Static grabs without a desire to control nage's centre are a case in point. He felt that the real valid attack is only when uke commits to a spear-like attempt to control nage's centre in some way. This could be manifest in any number of different, grabs, strikes, blows or shoves etc.
Now, what is it that forces someone to attack another in this way? Well Corky's understanding is that the attacker is in some way, trying to connect or re-connect with their own centre or source via nage's centre.
Where Corky's method is different from conventional aikido as I understand it is, his approach is coming from the study of energetics. This doesn't exclude the physical, as the physical realm is the means by which the energies are felt. In fact the attacks are a very real and pointed threat to nage's centre. The difference is in the resolution of the attack that the real exploration is manifest. By accepting the attack fully, maintaining centre and connection to uke, and extending ki (or as Corky labels it 'benificent intention'), then the dynamics of the encounter are transformed and an 'aiki' resolution is found. As uke continues their attack on nage's centre, they find themselves going to ground, the difference with this and conventional aikido, is that uke is completely 'supported' by nage, all the way to the floor.
It is this concept of supporting or looking after the attacker's needs, despite their intention, that I feel is reaching for the true meaning of Ueshiba's "loving protection of all things" and is a tangible way of really connecting with the concept of 'budo is love'.
I'm not sure if I have done justice to Corky's method in my short explanation above. What I will say is, I am convinced that this type of practice is absolutely valid in the broader world of aikido study. It is certainly different, in that there are no recognisable techniques to perform as such, having said that, often a spontaneous happening of a recognisable technique can happen. Not having technique to fall back on is the biggest challenge to anyone approaching this new way of practice. I found myself quite lost at times, during practice, when all I had was the quality of my intention to rely on, rather than 'making it work' with something I knew.
If anyone reading this is interested to find out more, then I am sure Corky will be happy to speak to you, with a clearer explanation, or a with a view to sharing through practice at his dojo or yours. He has a number of vids on youtube (some with yours truly involved), where you can see some aspects of what he is doing. This link will take you to one of them: You can also reach him via this link.
Corky has developed a system of teaching to introduce beginners to a variety of 'stretches' and 'spots', which help them understand the physical shapes, movements, postures and footwork required to make best use of the energetics practice. This is being built on all the time, from the work they carry out in the 'Lab'. This in itself is very different to the conventional approach of some dojos I have visited, where it feels that the waza practice is like a fly preserved in amber, something that must remain the same for all time. I like the idea of evolution through time and constant questioning of the status quo.
Let me say that Corky is great fun to train with. He is completely committed to discovering the truth in each encounter, including uncovering his own shortcomings. He has a wicked sense of humour and an uncanny ability to mimic people and their speech patterns. During his attacks, he is liable to slip into various characters, the desperate drunk or pan-handler, the panicking bystander, the aggressive motorist etc. He can completely mind-f**k you with these antics, which have you searching around for the right response. Through the practice, it is revealed that the only true response is the outpouring of ki/benificent intention/unconditional loving support, which seems to miraculously transform the encounter in the blink of an eye, from one of confrontation to resolution.
Some may well feel that this 'spiritual' approach somehow leaves behind the physical/martial aspects of aikido practice. Trust me, this could not be further from the truth. I haven't felt anywhere as near under so much pressure in my aikido journey so far.
So thanks to Corky for an enlightening 9 days of practice, and some great hospitality. Thanks also to his students Joyce, Jim, Steve, Ethan, Rene etc for making my practice so challenging and enjoyable.
What I came away with, that has been hugely beneficial to me is this -- We practiced "flooding the system with ki" which is tapping into the 'source' of all life from the big bang on, when this is expressed, all is transformed. Now my biggest breakthrough is that, I now understand that internal conflict can be transformed in the same way. If I am troubled by my thoughts (and I am quite good at doing this, as I imagine most of us are), if I accept what is and 'flood the system' with ki/benificent intention etc. then all the negative energy is transformed. This insight alone is worth its weight in gold to me.
It is something I will be practising for many years to come.
How all this will change or alter my practice of aikido will remain to be seen. But once you have seen/experienced something of this magnitude, you can't just ignore it, well not if you want to be true to your own search for meaning and truth.
So, now I am off to a Seminar with Saotome Sensei in Redlands CA. I will write about this in my next and final blog on this American West Coast adventure.