This column was written by Al Garcia.
I once read a Zen cookbook. It went into a lot of detail on the mindfulness of cooking: don't just chop up your vegetables unconsciously, be aware of the vegetable, of how you're holding the knife--if you hold the knife properly, you can cut with almost no effort at all. Respect the vegetable's shape, texture, etc., in how you prepare and cook it. Be one with what you're doing.
This holiday season I actually did some baking (cookies) and cooking (a roast), and for some reason the parallels between cooking and aikido really jumped out at me. This year I took my time about preparing the food, used only the best ingredients, and learned something in the process that applies just as well to aikido.
I did not grow up cooking. I did learn how to scramble eggs, cook oatmeal, make French toast and whip together a rudimentary coffee cake, but that was it. Anything beyond breakfast was beyond me. There were legendary cooks in my family, reknowned for their culinary skills and feather light biscuits, pies to die for, and ability to feed twenty a banquet on $10, but that talent skipped a generation. My mother was an appallingly bad cook: half her meals qualified as burnt offerings (think religious sacrifices), and the other half were almost inedible. She could follow a recipe to the letter and still have it come out bad. She could open a can and produce something less than what the can advertized. One evening when I was around fourteen, picking black charred chunks out of my teeth after eating, I decided I'd had enough. I was simply tired of eating bad food; I was going to learn how to cook for myself.
The next day I went to the library and got a cookbook. I picked the most interesting one I found: a gorgeously-illustrated book by the head chef of Japan Air Lines. It had a long introductory chapter on the aesthetics of food preparation: the colors, textures (crispy/soft), contrasts (hot/cold, spicy/bland, sweet/salty/sour), and on the presentation of food. I remember it also had a long discussion on the preparation of Bento boxes. Turns out the Japanese ate soup for breakfast. Well, I could do that, too; I learned to make dashi, and thereafter toddled off to school in the freezing cold mornings with a hot satisfying bellyful, instead of an overcooked fried egg churning in my gut. I learned how to cook in this way, and discovered that culinary talent had not skipped my generation, thank goodness!
Anyway, as I was baking/roasting things this year, I thought about how very much like cooking aikido is. There is the overall category of cooking, and the there are the myriad forms that take in the world. O-Sensei, by producing aikido, learned to cook with fire, so to speak, and each of his students to a greater or lesser degree also learned to cook and produce a distinct form of aikido. Some of these forms omit certain elements from their training (koshi-nage, weapons), much as various cuisines omit pork, beef, and meat all together. That doesn't make them less valid, just different, as, say, the difference between Thai and Cajun food. And, naturally, some teachers are more adept at bringing out the flavor of their style than others, just as some chefs are.
There are also underlying principles that have nothing to do with the outward form of either cooking or aikido, the building-blocks of the art, really: fresh ingredients/attitude; appropriate levels of focused effort, guidance, and care in the preparation of food/execution of technique; and synthesis and experimentation (I recall fondly a chocolate cake with Ancho chilis in the batter, and also an innovative training on reversing techniques at a seminar). And mindfulness, always, the most important principle of all.
So I ask you, are you eating "fast food" in your training, or real cuisine? Are you learning by rote to do things only in one way, much like your favorite burger drive-in produces hamburgers, or do you have the courage (and are you encouraged) to think outside the box and experiment with your technique? I'm not knocking a sensei's emphasis on repetition as a way to incorporate moves into your body memory, but do you ever have a choice beyond fries with that?
And what of your practice as an individual? Do you allow the technique the time it needs to happen, or do you try to rush it by speeding up? If the roast should be cooked at 325 degrees, raising the heat 50 degrees and shortening the time will give you a tough piece of meat, notthe tender, carvable one you're looking for. Do you give your best at every encounter on the mat? The cookies that call for butter as an ingredient aren't the same when made with shortening or margarine, not as rich or satisfying. Do you accept your partners for their differences in height, weight, sex, strengths and weaknesses, adapting your technique to their uniqueness, much as you would ideally carve and cook a vegetable, with attention and mindfulness? Have you thought about your presentation? Whether elegant or simple, is it consistent? Is it congruent?
We all are guilty of occasionally being heavy-handed in the kitchen, as well as on the mat, of being clumsy, of not having what we'd planned come out quite the way we'd planned it. But does this happen because, in spite of our best efforts, we can't quite pull it off yet? Because we haven't reached a level where we move with enough finesse? Or are we simply slapping what we do onto a square of waxed paper and stuffing it in a sack? Are we practicing mindfully as much as possible?
My wish for you in this coming year is that you have some times, amid the everyday less-than-perfect practice of the art, where you experience the cuisine of aikido, the blissful moments when everythng is right: when the execution of technique and the movement of your partner are perfect from start to finish. An "Ahhhh" moment. Bon Appetit!
"The Mirror" is a collaborative column written by a group of women who describe themselves as: "We comprise mothers, spouses, scientists, artists, teachers, healers, and yes, of course, writers. We range in age from 30s through 50s, we are kyu ranked and yudansha and from various parts of the United States and styles of aikido. What we have in common is a love for budo that keeps it an integral part of our busy lives, both curiosity about and a commonsense approach to life and aikido, and an inveterate tendency to write about these explorations."