On Creativity

This post was originally published on the Exeter Creatives blog (https://exetercreatives.wordpress.com/). If you’re interested in creativity, writing, music, and finding ways to be a bit more than humdrum then give them a read, they’re interesting!

Due to all of us being rather busy with our own affairs in the lead up to Christmas, we haven’t actually be able to have a meet up and agree on a blog topic for a couple of weeks, but since I felt I’d like to continue writing, I’d like to write a little on creativity itself – fitting for a group calling ourselves ‘creatives’ don’t you think?

To begin then, how to define creativity? We’ll skip the rather grand way of interpreting: ‘the power to create’, since it is not my intention to discuss whether it is the part of Gods or humankind to ‘create’ or ‘bring things into being’. Instead we’ll take ‘originality, expressiveness, imaginativity’ as a starting point.

The problem of producing something original is well known to anyone who has ever tried to carry it out – in most any field (unless you’re fortunate enough for your field itself to be relatively new) it’s impossible to produce something which is entirely original. At least in literature (which I would say is the closest thing I have to a ‘field’) the themes that are written about haven’t changed since more or less forever. They’re so concrete in literature that there have been pretty solid genres in Euro-American writing since as long ago at least as the Greeks and Romans (let’s forget that there’s a fuzzy area between oral traditions and literature for now). The Tragedy and Comedy were populated by tropes and themes which commonly identified them just as today anyone can easily identify a novel’s (or film’s, or song’s, or painting’s) genre without much more than a glance at its legion of features which identify it. In today’s cynical language they’re generally called ‘clichés’;  the clumsy-yet-well-meaning-and-deep-inside-complex protagonist who leads the rom-com, the coming-of-age-but-desperately-struggling-with-the-melodramatic-weight-of-responsibility teenager who heads the young adult novel, the gruff-and-nasty-and-cold-and-gritty-yet-surprisingly-morally-firm-and-tenacious-and-occasionally-very-funny-ex-military-cop who sits in the main character chair of the crime noire. Tobacco (or galactic equivalent) chewing (space) cowboys, naive and straightforwardly bold (princes, princesses, hobbits, jedi) knights, mysteriously appearing sagely (wizards, fairy godmothers, goddesses, masters) elders, that one moody (love interest, exile, former spy, ninja, guitarist) girl/guy – these images are so set in stone that they could have conjured a hundred different stock settings and narratives in the reader’s imagination at this point and we’re barely scratching the surface (incidentally, cover art is so formulaic you almost really can judge a book by its cover), and this is for literature alone not to mention music or film. How to be creative in such a saturated environment?

Many try to set out and make something new by using new forms or new configurations of old forms. A rarer few attempt to write about new themes entirely or reimagine tried and tested themes in new variations. The use of new forms or variations on forms is constantly hampered by the prejudices, whether intended or otherwise, of audiences – the most overwhelming examples being in modern and digital art. The resounding cry ‘that’s not real art’, ‘my five year old could have done that’, ‘it’s all digital, where’s the engagement with the real world?’, ‘those things are trivial and facile and childish’, rises as if from the graves of generations of dogmatic conservatives to choke the use of new form. Contemporary forms from films, paintings and sculptures to hypertext art and videogames all face these criticisms which, in turn, lead those who do appreciate the new forms for their attempts at innovation to be branded as snooty elitists or worse, outright frauds who ‘just make it up’ – as if the interpretation of something ‘traditional’ like an impressionist landscape was any simpler than that of unpicking the textual nature of hundreds of lines of code of hypertext, or a novel any more intrinsically insightful than vast and painstaking installations. New attempts at themes run the even greater risk of being labelled as vulgar or elite or simply being boring on account of readers (listeners, watchers, perusers) simply not understanding how to engage with them. Can you imagine a book written not about love between two humans, but the relationship between an headphone jack and the auxiliary port on a laptop? Can you imagine a story about a noble slice of bread on a quest to become toast by any means necessary? A film about what it’s like to be a tongue? Maybe the bread’s toast quest is almost recognisable since it plays on such a strong theme (epic quest), but can you even imagine writing a hundred pages on the headphone jack? What would a feature-length about being a tongue even contain, and would you stay to watch all two hours and fifteen minutes plus commercials of it?

The new is reviled in its irruption, a problem the modernists confronted by embracing the ‘elitist’ label and creating works built for only the highest of high culture moguls (generally speaking of course). Novels too were hated when they first appeared (the ‘one true literature’ was poetry back then) and only overcame the prejudices of time by, well, time. Now, novels are celebrated (at least commercially) for the vulgarity that they were originally hated for (can you honestly tell me you’ve never read an airplane paperback or can doubt their widespread popularity?). Film, when it first appeared wasn’t considered art or artistic, and now it’s a massive global industry. Videogames still mostly aren’t considered artistic and that industry rakes in more than film per annum (not that money is an indicator of art, just that the medium’s growth and widespread popularity is undeniable)! And let’s not even talk about hip-hop, rap, EDM, or Metal as artistic. Whenever the new appears, historically it has been denied the status of art, and thus the potential for being creative, for being ‘original’ and making the ‘genuinely new’ is stifled by the very audience the creator tries to reach. True, if something truly drives itself into the imagination, it’ll survive the test of time and become the norm in 100, maybe 200 years. If you’re willing to wait for your creativity to be acknowledged until long after your death then I guess you’d best start bucking trends and hope for the best. It’s true that life expectancies are increasing I suppose so maybe one day that’ll be fine, but even then, by the time you’re acknowledged for your work, your style will have become dogma, will have become the boring cliché that everyone else is copying – and you’re denied the right to ‘originality’ again. The techniques that were once experimental and radical and hated by everyone turn into commonplace markers of the form (free-indirect-discourse was new when Joyce did it and now it’s everywhere – heck, the first novels didn’t have chapters or paragraphs, imagine how chuffed the person to invent those must have been, and how uncreative (s)he’d seem now!).

Is it possible to be creative in one’s own lifetime? Is it possible to be groundbreaking in your own age and also hailed as ‘original’, ‘expressive’, and ‘imaginative’ in ages to come? I know some would simply recoil at the idea of using this example, but due to its universality, if for no other reason, let’s talk about Shakespeare. Even those who turn their nose up at the archaic language, hated it in school, or simply don’t like theatre, there isn’t anyone who’s taken an English Literature class who doesn’t know who William Shakespeare is to some degree and who hasn’t at least heard of Romeo and Juliet (sweeping statements alert [as if I haven’t made enough already]). Imagine that, almost 400 years after your death being considered ‘the greatest poet in the English language’, theatre groups and students still squeezing relevant, dramatic, and ‘original’, ‘expressive’, and ‘imaginative’ richness from your work. Imagine being considered so ‘creative’ that 400 years later many still consider you foundational in (read: the creator of) massive swathes of a whole culture’s literary tradition. Not to mention you tended to pack out the theatres in your own lifetime, the biggest show in town, appealing to everyone from royalty to the lowliest street urchins who could afford to chuck your theatre a coin. Now, true, not everyone can be The Bard, but if we, who consider ourselves creative could ask him how in the world he did what he did (Elizabethan English notwithstanding), would any of us pass up the chance?

Here lies the crux of the discussion. What we cannot do, is find out from the man himself what his ‘creative process’ was. What we do know is that he was considered not only pathbreaking and revolutionary but also masterful and enormously skilful within the ‘traditional’ disciplines of the time. The sonnet form of poetry pre-existed Shakespeare by many centuries. Tragedy, Comedy, and indeed, even Tragicomedy had been around since Aristotle in 300 BC. Shakespeare didn’t just come out with new things by endlessly mixing and remixing these media which had been around for hundreds of years – in some ways he wasn’t very creative at all, he just produced, in a very traditional way, some of the best material there had ever been in a certain form while adhering to its conventions.

Beyond here lies speculation.

I believe that, broadly speaking there are two main ‘types’ of creativity. One is inspiration, the other is mastery. Inspiration is the blissful visitation of the muse, the descent of the gods from Olympus to bless the mortal pen with divine and eternal beauty – it’s the flash, the ‘Eureka’, that one evening where you sit down and for no reason you can think of, just keep writing until the sun comes up and have something remarkable. Mastery is slow and bottomless process of study, it is searching each hay stack in the barn for a needle, it is slapping the camel’s back with straw hoping it will break (not that we wish harm on camels), it is playing those scales and arpeggios one more time, it’s doing that last push up and going out for that drizzly Sunday morning run again. It’s that training montage that doesn’t happen for only as long as Eye Of The Tiger lasts but carries on until you’re heavyweight champion of the world, and far beyond.

Of course, it’s absurd to think of these two as separate, I don’t think anyone does either in isolation, but I do think these can be heavily polarised. Some writers will be familiar with the notorious fickleness of inspiration, of how standoffish the muses can be. One day, the divine is before you, blinding, and you’ve never written better in your life – the next three months your pen might be drier than a Triassic creek, your picking fingers fat and clumsier than horse trotters, your cinematic eye and panoramic imagination more stale than a month-old baguette. That’s not to say that those devoted to mastery do any better though. Another day slogging through another exercise, another day forcing myself to study and learn and scrutinise and practice in ways which don’t let me express, which don’t let me be free, which might even be (dare I say it?) lethally boring (seriously though, scales and arpeggios…). I do believe that there is a difference though. One who reaches mastery, who does break the camel’s back with straw, who finds a needle in every haystack and keeps on searching, their mastery will never leave them, it will never forsake them like the erstwhile muse. One the other hand, the inspired artist may create in a day, a month, a year, what the student dedicated to mastery never accomplishes in fifty years.

I can’t say for certain whether Shakespeare leant towards one or the other – maybe he was blessed with both? I do favour the idea that he was of the type who leant towards mastery, however. He was beloved in his own generation for being a brilliant poet of all the most traditional styles (Shakespeare did not, contrary to the naming sense, invent the Shakespearean Sonnet). He did not, as far as I believe, begin his career with outlandish or experimental work, or by attempting to break with the theatrical traditions of the era. He was, to all intents and purposes, what one might analogously call, a ‘pop playwright’. True enough, the academic elite playwrights  of the time are believed to have criticised and decried his early work – sound familiar? I believe that Shakespeare’s (and most all creative) genius is ultimately not just the product of miraculous awakenings and flashes of brilliance, but rather, a rigorous and developed, studied, and learnt quality which is enriched and refined through investment in forms and traditions, through deliberate limitation of creativity.

Anyone who is vaguely familiar with my beliefs on martial arts practice will know that one of my favourite martial arts sayings comes from one of the great Aikido masters of this generation; Master Seishiro Endo. It goes like this:

There is no such thing as freedom just like that. It is an aim to become free. Freedom is often referred to as being free of something, but that kind of freedom, to be free, for example, of a duty, or a person, is not real freedom. So what is? – That is an important question. It certainly is nothing you get just like that. There is no easy-going freedom.  I think, in order to become free, you have to restrict yourself at first to a very unfree form. By practising within that form, you will learn to be free – step by step. You practice within a restriction, but in the course of the repetitions within that restriction – it may happen that the restriction rids you of itself. And then the whole practice suddenly, becomes egoless, light – and free. Practising a form thoroughly will, at some point rid you of the form. To reach that stage in a practice means to have acquired freedom. –But within a form.

What Endo says of freedom is, to my mind, true of creativity. If creativity is originality, expressiveness, and imaginativity, then I believe it should follow the same structure as the freedom outlined above. Plenty of people are wildly imaginative – they can picture a scene or a story, an object or a sentence or a concept which others would be awestruck by and which would be uniquely their own. But to realise that imagination, to transform it into expression, will not happen without mastery, or rather, submission to form. By submission to form, I mean learning. I mean becoming so immersed in learning poetry that you end up breathing verse, being to invested in music that you dream in lyric and melody, being so captivated by and dedicated to painting that you see the sky like your own version of van Gogh’s Starry Night, and yes, being so extensively drilled in martial techniques that even the cadence of your step is as intimately martial as your most flamboyant throw. Then your work becomes ‘original’. There is no creativity ‘just like that’: I can’t just turn my idea for a wonderful novel into a book. My imagination is constrained by my technical limitations. In mastering, or rather, being mastered by a form, in ridding myself of ego, I gain expressiveness – my native mode of expression becomes form, I can transform my inner imagination directly into expression. This is ‘originality’, this is creativity. Whether I’m remixing and sampling a sick beat for a brand new experimental mixtape or asking my violin to show my audience how I feel about the Dvořák violin Sonatina – this is true creativity. It’s what happens when you can say someone who might be doing something ages old ‘makes it their own’ – not in the way Simon Cowell idly applauds his stagelings on X-Factor, but in the way everything from Benedict Cumberbatch playing Hamlet to Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker gives you chills. In the way that both Eminem’s Lose Yourself and Nicola Benedetti shredding a Shostakovich solo take your breath away, and in the way both T.S. Eliot’s Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock and the 1982 cartoon The Snowman accompanied by We’re Walking In The Air are both profoundly moving experiences. Even the way water droplets play across the floor of Teshima Art Museum or Amazon’s drop-down menus elegantly and smoothly opening and closing when moused over have this character.

In this way, creativity has little to do with ‘the new’ in the sense of breaking away from things that are dogmatic or ‘traditional’, but rather has to do with sincerity. The sincerity of expressing an aspect or character of something (of yourself, of your medium, of a specific form, of a moment, of an object) which is thoroughly native to that thing is creative – it makes something new happen, even if that’s not in the sense of being genre defining or groundbreaking in the sense that might be more commonly accepted. Creativity is self-expression of the most appropriate order. That which is creative expresses its inner ‘selfness’, its ‘vision’, its ‘imagination’, if you like, through the form of something else. Indeed, it isn’t non-newness which is really the s(c)eptic that rots pop culture – it’s insincerity, the deepset feeling that the ‘artists’ in the big industries aren’t really committing anything sincere to their work at all. It’s not a matter of there being ‘nothing new’, but a matter of there being ‘nothing true’. To begin with creativity relies on there being something non-new there to be expressed through. To reiterate: creativity is expression through form. The violinist expresses themselves through their instrument, the conductor expresses herself through the orchestra, the composer expresses herself through the orchestra, and the conductor, and the paper she wrote the notes on, and the contemporary musician expresses herself too, through all of the above, by sampling and recombining their work. Just because any one of these artists use methods and media that they did not invent (how to play the violin, a conventional orchestra, the conventions of a sonata, someone else’s sonata) does not make them less creative. It is the imagining of one thing through the profile of another thing which is creative and which, in the end, is what makes the whole of aesthetics churn like a geyser from the muses’ fountain into fiery life.

If you have managed to read this far and still not be convinced – I dare you to not at the very least marvel at the technical skill, the artistry if you will, and the inspiration, vision, and expressiveness of this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lTx3G6h2xyA

Thankyou very much for reading. I hope this has proven an interesting and compelling read! Some of you may have noticed two rather odd tags on this post: OOO and Object-Oriented-Ontology. I haven’t actually written on OOO (the acronym of choice for Object-Oriented-Ontology) here, or anywhere else on the blog properly, but I would be lying if I said that these ideas were not heavily influenced by the thought of particularly Timothy Morton and Graham Harman on causality. If you care for philosophy, I certainly recommend them, especially Morton’s Realist Magic and Harman’s The Quadruple Object. They’re fascinating. They also have their own blogs at: https://doctorzamalek2.wordpress.com/ and http://ecologywithoutnature.blogspot.co.uk/. They’re actually very regular updaters and very entertaining bloggers. Given that they’re dedicated to bringing philosophy out of the dry and prohibitively elite/complex dogma it’s been stuck in (amongst other projects), it’s not really that surprising, I suppose! Once again, thanks for reading!



Attitude; Known Aliases: Form, Style, Spirit, Intent, Artistry, Reality

In the 2010 film The New Karate Kid, Jackie Chan takes on the spiritual role of Mr. Miyagi as he trains the young Jayden Smith in the martial arts. Mysterious, reserved, terse, in some ways even ascetic, and deliberately unhelpful, Jackie puts his student through a dogged and unrepentantly eccentric training regime. After a long period of lessons which involve Jayden doing nothing but taking off, dropping, hanging up, taking down, and putting back on his jacket, the young student is at the point of despair. Having taken up the study of Kung Fu in order to overcome his fears and protect himself from a gang of school bullies led by an especially belligerent martial artist (Zhenwei Wang), Jayden is looking for an art he can use in real combat, a fighting system that will teach him how to fight back against his enemies. Jayden makes to leave Jackie’s tutelage, disillusioned and frustrated, but Jackie stops him. In the sequence that follows, Jackie (in a somewhat contrived manner) demonstrates to Jayden how the movements he has been learning are actually the heart of his martial arts. He tells Jayden that “Kung Fu lives in everything we do; in how we put on a jacket, how we take off a jacket, and how we treat people”. It is no coincidence that earlier in his training, Jackie informs Jayden that “there’s something missing… Attitude”.

* * *

It is common for one of our teaching staff at Exeter Aikido to remind students who are struggling or labouring hard with their technique that “you’re forgetting to smile”. I remember during my earlier days at the club furiously resisting the desire to smile whenever this happened. I had my pride and such a suggestion undermined my dignity and was embarrassing besides. Anyway, martial arts was serious business, to be treated with respect and imperious stiff-upper-lipped-ness at all times. To smile on the mat would practically be a disgrace to the very essence of martial arts. Around the mat I went, from partner to partner, stony eyed and resolute, refusing to learn Aikido every step of the way.

* * *

In the Karate class I was part of in my younger days, we were informed every day we went to class that ‘spirit’ was the most important part of training. Indeed, the dojo kun of Karate emphasises this, ostensibly with every verse (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dojo_kun)! Most of the kids failed to understand really what this meant, and most of the adults were trying their best to regulate the (their own) kids. The essence of this particularity of our school, I fear, passed over more or less everyone’s heads. I, for one, was convinced that it meant bowing sharply, holding low and rigid stances, loud kiai, and exerting complete effort into every movement of every kata as if I were fighting my most hated enemies. I scowled my way through many a class believing this to be most ardent truth, secretly looking down on anyone who didn’t uphold these sacred standards of martial arts conduct.

* * *

Mr. Peter Brown, headmaster of Kyushinkan Aikido dojo, is known in the UKA (United Kingdom Aikikai) for his particularly dynamic and powerful movements which he has inherited from the illustrious teaching heritage of the late masters Kazuo Chiba and Bill Smith. These days, he can be found preparing for his hip operation by training with such esteemed teachers as Christian Tissier of France and Toshiharu Sawada of Nagoya (and I wish him the best of luck with the op!). I recall once he told a story while teaching uchi-kaiten-nage. He said that during a class with Chiba long ago, Chiba had stopped the class to point out a mistake his students were making. He said words to the effect of: “don’t take tiny mincing steps like you’re geisha! Aikido is a martial art, complete your movements in a single stride!”. Sensei Brown to this day opens uchi-kaiten-nage with a single, rapid, spiralling turn which has enormous torque and a deep long entrance (which is very difficult to take sincere non-preemptive ukemi for, I’ll add!). Like Jackie Chan, Sensei Brown sometimes also tells his students that what they are missing is Attitude, though not in such uncertain and damning terms as his late master Chiba…

* * *

In contemporary martial arts schools which teach mixed styles of martial arts, self defence classes and fitness and function just as much as gyms as dojo, it is common to see posters and banners bearing training mantra and slogans lining the walls and ceilings. I have known students of such schools to push themselves exceptionally hard and as a result become extraordinarily physically fit and intimidating as well as technically skilled. I have also known such practitioners to have uncommon dedication and commitment to their schools, the long hours single mindedly sweating and drilling and grinding forging a viciously strong bond between the student and their parent organisation. Here is a striking example of how attitude has a vast transformative power to the martial artist (and to anyone else for that matter, but we’ll stick to martial artists here). Particularly in this type of martial arts school (and I am making sweeping generalisations here which are by no means absolutely true and should not be taken as such) students don’t start out as the hardcore aficionados or the idealists seeking a legendary master who may be more common in “traditional” martial arts schools or schools which teach a single style. Students here tend to be the type who had only a passing (sometimes literally, “I was passing by”) interest in martial arts itself and became dedicated later.This is due entirely to the depth of the spirit that such schools as these are able to foster. By not being invested in a single martial art or beholden to the trappings and traditions of an older ‘classical’ system, such schools are able to attract a wide audience and give them a relatively recognisable ground from which to start their training. The ‘blood, sweat and tears’ ethos which resembles the regimes of sportspeople, professional trainers and even relatively casual gym-goers works well here to transform the layperson into a capable martial artist through the sheer diligence and grit of hard work. That’s the actualisation of spirit; straightforward, direct, what could be simpler? It really is a matter of ‘those who believe shall receive’.

* * *

There is another thing that our aforementioned Exeter teacher who advises us to smile does: he poses. What I mean by this is that he will go to great lengths (sometimes purposefully exaggerating to the point of slightly absurd) to emphasize the posture your body should take during a technique and he will happily demonstrate these postures repeatedly for you should you so request it. Throughout this process, he will also crack jokes, make puns, and smile, chuckle, and on the whole be extremely expressive. Despite (or perhaps because of) this seemingly lighthearted and relaxed approach, his Aikido is precise and keen and his posture is exceedingly stable yet fluid and flexible. On (eventually) learning to loosen up in class, I found that my body did just that; it loosened up. My shoulders stopped aching, my stance became less wooden and stick-in-the-mud clumsy, and I started feeling my own centre, as if all the knotted fury in my muscles from before had prevented me from actually connecting my limbs together through my centre of gravity. Approaching training openly lets my body be open, which is the very technical and philosophical point of Aikido. Smiling and enjoying training lets my body relax, which, as anyone in Aikido knows, is a touchstone to learning Aikido at all. Being free and expressive makes our aforementioned teacher’s Aikido equally free and expressive. Attitude is the form you take. Very directly, the emotional load you bring transforms into the movements you make. Style is substantial, intention begets actualisation. Just as any seasoned sportsperson will tell you that confidence can make or break a match and that the elusive groove of “good form” will come and go as unpredictably as your own mood, so it is here that the very thing that makes a martial artist’s work ‘art’ at all is the style with which they perform it. It is common for schools of martial arts to tell students that ‘martial arts is not about being stylish, it’s about technique’ and they are right in the sense that a Bruce Lee flying kick to the head looks great on screen but isn’t exactly what we should be training all the time. However, style and the aesthetics of martial arts isn’t something that can be discarded so easily; ‘being stylish’ isn’t secondary to technique – it is technique.

* * *

There is an (in)famous demonstration (which can be found here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gqOlHLp0TcA) in the Yoshinkan school of Aikido. The story behind it goes (and I have not been able to verify this, but such as my sources are, I believe it is largely reliable with some embellishment) that during the 2008 All Japan Yoshinkan demo, the new head of house set his demonstration to music. Whether he believed that this was a better way to encourage interest in the art for new students or a better marketing ploy for the sponsors attending the event is unknown. What is believed is that Takeno-sensei, who had been very close to the former head of Yoshinkan, the late Gozo Shioda, did not like this. Feeling that this particular style of demonstration was a disservice to the martiality of Yoshinkan Aikido and displayed a weak, populist, and undignified attitude towards the art in general, he proceeded to a roughly 3 minute demonstration in which he repeatedly smashed his uke into the ground on the back of their heads and necks. The uke were (thankfully) very skilled and sincere and as such, able to take the punishment without any serious injuries. There are obvious occasions, nonetheless where they appear visibly and quite badly hurt. Their ukemi becomes rapidly slow and wooden within just two or three techniques, you can see their knees shaking and them panting for breath and struggling to return to their feet. I expect Takeno was unrepentant about this; not because he doesn’t care for his uke, but because what he wished to communicate about Yoshinkan Aikido was absolutely clear from this demonstration. With unwavering conviction he made his intent known. There was no need to voice his disapproval of the new head’s demo, it was completely evident from the precise and pitiless fury etched into Takeno’s form that day what he thought of setting Aikido to music.

* * *

In an old Aikido Journal issue there is an article by William Gleason (now 7th dan) on his time training with the late great Seigo Yamaguchi-sensei. In this article he describes how, ‘Sometimes he [Yamaguchi] would throw Takeda Sensei very hard and then walk away as if to say, ” No big deal after all.” This was difficult to accept for someone who was already known as a high level teacher, yet later Takeda Sensei would say, “Yamaguchi Sensei is a man of great spiritual fortitude.”’
(Full article here: http://blog.aikidojournal.com/2012/05/16/my-experience-with-seigo-yamaguchi-sensei-by-william-gleason/).
I cannot pretend to be anywhere near as accomplished as Takeda-sensei, but I am familiar with the stinging pain and humbling feeling of being thrown hard out of my own technique. I do most certainly feel like ‘no big deal’.

* * *

The late Kazuo Chiba-sensei is often talked about in tones of fear and awe. Indeed, the picture that Peter Brown-sensei paints of Chiba is a man of iron-hard commitment and resolve, utterly devoted to the cultivation of Aikido. The book The Swordmaster’s Apprentice by Edward Burke details further how studying with Chiba meant being prepared to take ukemi which involved regularly being punched in the face for mistakes, having your hands and wrists and forearms continually stinging from bokken and jo strikes, and living in an atmosphere of constant alertness to Chiba’s irascible temperament. Burke tells how, through forging in such a hot fire, he felt his body develop not only an entirely new style of Aikido, but also his alertness, emotional sensitivity and philosophical outlook change. Indeed, the subtitle to the book (‘Or how a Broken Nose, a Shaman, and a Little Light Dusting May Point the Way to Enlightenment’) suggests that Burke felt that the extremes of his uchi-deshi (in-house-student) experience, under the constant pressure of examination by Chiba, led him to significant lifestyle changes. His astonishment and perhaps even wonder is obvious then, when he records Chiba later in the book saying ‘I am not usually angry, I just pretend to be’.

* * *

Seishiro Endo-sensei, when asked about his Aikido and freedom, said words to the effect of: ‘There is no freedom just like that. When we think of freedom usually as “being free of” something, but that is not freedom at all. Only within form, within working through, testing and refining ourselves and eventually, after a long time, mastering form, only then do we become free:- that is keiko (training)’. In this way, all martial arts is self expression. What I mean by this is that the idea of mastering the form is not subservience to it and simple meticulous operation of it. To begin with, a rich and deep understanding of the form does not mean a robotic recitation of prescribed movements, it means a fusion of the form and your own body. When Endo says mastering form he doesn’t mean becoming encyclopaedic; he means becoming creative, that is: having the technical ability to string the units of basic forms together to create art. Like a musician, performance is more than simply knowing how to play the instrument. Like a chess player, the game isn’t about know how each piece moves. Like a poet, beautiful writing isn’t to do with knowing just what words mean and how a sonnet’s rhyming structure exists. All these art forms are creative because the artist is expressing themselves through the form, but only having mastered the form can such expression occur. This is why I have said that Attitude is your form, that style, intention and ‘spirit’ are indeed the really real heart of martial arts. Even the most basic novice can tell that training angrily makes their movements different to training happily or sadly or apathetically, lazily, or intensely or flamboyantly. Though they may interpret this as emotion ‘getting in the way’ of technique, it really is the case that the technique is simply expressing the artist’s feeling – just not in the way she wants it to. This is why masters like Chiba, Yamaguchi, and Takeno have all been known to have vicious and terrifying moments where their Aikido expresses an awesomely sharp anger, yet at the same time have also known to be extraordinarily genial and pleasant, both on and off the mat. Particularly Yamaguchi’s Aikido was revered as wonderfully light to the touch and subtle, a trait inherited by Endo, who perhaps epitomises the idea of feeling-as-form and form-as-freedom. What is Endo’s Aikido without the mild and almost self-deprecating smile he cracks now and then? What is, for example, Christian Tissier’s Aikido without the neat and crisp panache with which he delivers his teaching? Gozo Shioda was known to devastate uke as badly as Takeno but with a rough and rogueish grin. Even the humourless downturned corners of Steven Seagal’s beard are reflective of his martial arts. As Jackie Chan rightly puts it, Martial Arts does live in everything we do, but the reverse is equal too:- everything else we do also makes our martial arts. Attitude is not simply the idea that you come to training honest, sincere, focused, and committed, it is the very thing that changes martial arts from the dogged recitation of movements to something creative and artistic at all. Without form, there is no freedom, without style, there is no substance.

This one has been rather long, but also has been brewing for some time. I hope I have not made it difficult for my readers in this instance! Thankyou very much for reading and all feedback is welcome.
My thanks to: Exeter Aikido,
Kyushinkan dojo,
Exeter University Jujutsu