Interview: James Friedman On Aikido: by Mary Stein
by Mary Stein,
I’ve known James Friedman for almost ten years, ever since 2003, when I first attended his San Francisco martial arts dojo, Suginami Aikikai, at the recommendation of a friend from the dojo where I had previously practiced aikido. Soon thereafter I joined Suginami and began attending aikido classes there weekday mornings. Located just south of Mission Street in San Francisco, Suginami offers adult classes—morning, noon and night—as well as children’s classes. The dojo is right around the corner from ARC, a program for developmentally challenged people, and Jimmy Friedman has long taught a free class weekly for the ARC clients. Jimmy himself, in addition to being highly ranked in aikido and a frequent traveler to the source dojo in Tokyo, is well versed in the Japanese language and culture, is a musician and erstwhile painter, and is an enthusiastic student of Brazilian ju jitsu. As I’ve learned from attending his classes for a long time, he is alert to both the humorous and serious implications of a wide range of issues. Recently, right after the morning class, we sat down in the dojo for an interview about his life in aikido and his views about the art.
Mary Stein: Aikido isn’t quite as well known as some other martial arts. How did you discover it?
James Friedman: I was 20 in 1980, playing music in a rock band. I lived on Piedmont Avenue at 51st in Oakland and there was a school, the Aikido Institute, at 41st. One day I happened to look in the window at a practice, and I found it fascinating.
I read the brochure for the school and thought, “This is what I am looking for. This is amazing. You can physically train hard and yet the idea isn't to beat people. You're not competing, you're helping one another, yet you can also train in a physically intense, strong way.” These concepts resonated with me, however deeply or shallowly I understood them at that age.
So I joined the school and started training. I remember trying to find a way to get good at it without practicing! I thought there might be an intellectual trick to it. I asked one of the instructors, who had become a friend, "Is there anything I can do to get better at it?" He laughed and said, "Yeah, train every day." That wasn't what I had in mind. But not long after I started, within a year, I moved into the dojo and trained a large part of every day as an uchi-deshi, a live-in student in the very strict program they had there. I still did everything I could to buck the system, but I was pretty unsuccessful at that. So I ended up learning the art in all its forms by having to train every day.
MS: What led to opening your first dojo? You were pretty young when that happened, weren’t you?
JF: I'd gotten my first-degree black belt pretty quickly, and then my nidan, the second-degree black belt. By this time I was in San Francisco, at Turk Street, the main dojo in the city, still training hard every day. I was only 26 or 27. Sometimes I would cover a kids' class here and there, but I hadn't thought much about becoming an instructor. Then some people—artists, musicians from the punk rock scene, clothing designers—came to me and asked me to teach. They wanted to learn aikido because a friend of theirs had been murdered on Potrero Hill in February 1986—brutally raped and murdered. They knew I was a black belt in something, though they didn't necessarily know what aikido was. They said, “We have a warehouse space on Sixth Street, with some mats. You teach us aikido twice a week and we'll pay you.” So I started teaching, and people started joining the dojo, even though it hadn’t really been meant to be a dojo. I was apprehensive about teaching to begin with and figured it wouldn’t last more than a few months, that their interest would wane quickly. But some of them still do aikido from that original group, and a lot of them are still very close friends of mine.
I think aikido was a way for them to process what they were going through. These were twelve pretty close friends that knew Barb, the woman who was murdered, very well. And they thought, “Maybe I should learn to defend myself. Maybe if Barb had learned how to fight a little bit it might not have happened.” There were probably people in that group who felt, “If I had done something different, maybe Barb wouldn't have been killed.” They thought, “I want to learn a little bit of self-defense. Everybody should know some self-defense.” I think it was also a way of mourning for all these people to just be together and hang out together, for they were a very tight group.
MS: People who had been very deeply touched.
JF: There were a lot of very intense moments in that school on Sixth Street. When I first thought of teaching tanto –knife defenses—I wasn't sure I wanted to do it, because that was how she was murdered. Did I really want to toy with a knife, open that up? I went ahead with it, and when I brought that wooden knife in, I knew what went through the mind of every person in that room in terms of the situation. I don't know how they processed working with the tanto, but I knew what that knife symbolized to them. This wasn’t a Disneyland aikido school. This was hard core.
MS: I remember the fact of a knife coming at you took some getting used to. But then you get to learn how to take it out of their hand without getting hurt yourself. That's a bit of a healing thing, one would think.
JF: Hopefully, yes. It's hard to know--different people process things differently. It's hard to know how we ourselves process different things at times.
MS: Maybe you could say something about O-sensei (Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of aikido). What are you interested in conveying from him? How do you relate to the question of carrying on a tradition of aikido as an “art of peace” with a message of friendship, not conflict? Ueshiba’s own practice seems to have been one where both his skill and level of spiritual development transcended conflict, made conflict irrelevant.
JF: Of course I never met him. He died in 1969, when I was nine years old, so I certainly can’t claim any special insight. I see him more as a messenger. There's a lot of talk and writing saying that he was a magician or he was selfish or he was a great deity, or he was a petty man or he was egotistical or he was free of ego, so many different stories from so many different people who did know him. Usually they talk about how otherworldly he was, but then there's often writing that differs from that. So I don't spend so much time trying to figure out what he was like as an individual. He was a messenger who put out a beautiful message. He taught a philosophy that we can physically train in.
MS: Could you say more about that message?
JF: For me it comes down to the idea that you cannot have love in your mind and fear in your mind at the same time. Or love in your mind and hate in your mind at the same time. I have both of those in me, God knows, but I can't simultaneously be having compassion and love toward someone and also fear and hate. I tend to keep it very down to earth. All these thoughts are only momentary, after all. If I see that my mind is full of negativity—I'm worried about a student I'm not happy with, a tax bill, a financial issue, a fear issue, I try to turn to compassionate thoughts about myself and others that will push out the negativity. And I find that the two—fear and compassion--don't seem to coexist.
If I can be honest with myself, I know that I won’t be able to abolish or destroy these thoughts of negativity or anger—or self-blame or superiority, what have you, so for me it's to learn to balance them. And, when I notice I'm being negative, to try to think about how fortunate I am and try to be humble and try to balance my energy within myself.
MS: And that relates to aikido, and to your practice and teaching?
JF: Yes. When I 'm doing aikido I'm trying to keep a balance, to see if I can try to teach someone who's incredibly talented as well as someone who's having a really difficult time with hand-eye coordination. How do I present an environment in which both of those people can get what they need? How can I open myself to both of them?
MS: That seems so important, to stay in touch with all the possibilities, in someone else, and also in myself.
JF: Aikido is a science that provides a way to study what you as an aikido student are working on internally, within yourself, that moment, that day, that week—at the same time that you are working externally on whatever aikido technique may be on the menu.
What you’re working on internally is an individual matter. When I teach, I don't direct the internal focus on a particular attitude or feeling the students “should” be having. I really don’t go there. I try to give a vehicle, the technique for you to work on. I don't direct what you are working on internally, other than to suggest that you be centered and relaxed, and do the forms from there. Everyone is working internally on something different, and I don’t try to tell anyone what it should be. If someone is interested in becoming more extroverted, from the platform of aikido they could work on that. If someone's interested in becoming more quiet, they could work on that. I might be hyper and working on being grounded and you might be very grounded and working on being more intense.
I acknowledge that what we're all working on is different and my goal is to give a good vehicle, a clean, simple vehicle—that is, the different techniques of aikido—in which to work on oneself. A young person might be thinking that they just need to work out. It's a relief, an hour of relief where they're just exercising; their endorphins are blooming. And that’s fine. Another person might be obsessed with the practical application of the art. That’s their focus, and that’s fine too. I give each of them a practice that they can work on, whatever their focus or objective may be.
MS: Maybe you could say something about the interaction of people on the mat, how we learn from each other. I’m thinking of how in practice I’ve often had to give up my imagination of how a technique is supposed to work. I’ve seen how what I’m trying can have a different effect on different people, not always what I expect.
JF: Aikido is such a wide brush that practicing with a partner is a double-edged sword. It can give you really good feedback, but it can also disguise the work you need to do yourself by putting it on someone else. I've seen both and I've done both—on a daily basis! It almost comes down to your affinity. If you have an affinity for the social aspect of aikido and that works for you, if it's going to keep you on tap, great. If you want yoga, where you're completely by yourself in a room with 50 people, and that's what you have an affinity for, where you're really not dealing with anyone else but you're in a room with people, then you do yoga. If you like meditation in a group where you get the energy of the group but you're by yourself . . . it all comes down to what you have an affinity for. In the long term, what's going to keep you practicing, working on yourself? I don't believe that aikido unto itself is a better practice than yoga or meditation or anything else for working on oneself. A person who goes bowling could be more spiritual about their practice than someone who does aikido.
So, for me, the vehicle comes second. I’ve never looked at the outside manifestation of my creativity as so significant, other than as a helpful affinity. When I did music I didn't necessarily have my identity wrapped up in being a musician. And I don't have my identity wrapped up in being an aikidoist that much, which is maybe to my detriment. People who don't know me well might think I'm very casual about aikido—which I'm not! But at the same time the internal workings of my practice are more important than the vehicle—whether it be painting, which I did, or music, or aikido, or Brazilian ju jitsu. It's the internal aim of being centered and open that is my focus. If I hadn't gone into aikido, I might have started a dance studio. If I see someone who is working with children at a park and I see that they're so beautiful with the children—as far as I’m concerned, they're doing it. Their practice is just as significant, and their affinity to what they’re doing. They’re expressing themselves, being compassionate, giving to and being part of this planet.
MS: Working with others at aikido has brought me right up against my own situation and has helped me to take a look at it. What is my role in what I tend to see as the other person’s resistance? Aikido is quite direct; it's right in your face, maybe more than some other things.
JF: And that might be too much for some people. I've seen just as many times that it closed off that window for someone to look at “what's my role.” Because often someone else's role is so heavily involved that you might say, “Why bother to look at myself?” So someone can hide away in aikido. It’s been said that people start martial arts out of fear-based issues, getting good at technique but never wondering why they were scared in the first place. Of course, that might be true in any philosophical or spiritual practice.
But yes, what's our role? Where are you at? What are you working on in this lifetime? What helps you at it? Aikido reaches out to these questions in a lot of different ways. The self-defense aspect is interesting to me and for some of the people who come here; some people have no interest in that. So a lot of it is just affinity.
MS: I remember one time you mentioned this question of working with violent people and you related that somebody came to practice at the dojo who'd just gotten out of prison for doing something violent, and you had to send him away.
JF: We have had lots of those situations over the years, where people came in and I had to make a judgment call whether it was right for me to have them here at this dojo at this time. I'm pretty strict about these things. When this guy came in, maybe four or five years ago, I was pretty sure he had just gotten out of prison. He trained one time with us, and I saw that he was intense. I was really uncomfortable with how to talk with him, but I knew it wasn't going to work. So I sat down with him after class and talked to him, and he right away admitted that he'd just got out of prison, only two weeks before. He’d been in prison nine years. He said he'd read about aikido and he wanted to do it! And he really had good intentions; he wanted to raise himself up. And I said to him, “You know the reality here has to do with working with someone. You've been in prison a long time. How are you going to relate to women, when you're grabbing them, throwing them? When someone throws you, what are you going to think, are you going to take it personally? You haven't been in this situation and what's going to keep you from reacting?” I said it really kindly, of course, and I said, “I think it's great that you're trying to work on something, but in your case you should find a tai chi school where it's much slower, a soft tai chi style where there's not going to be a direct conflict with someone. You'll work on your own movements, but you're still in a group so you'll have to start working on socialization. But no one's going to be grabbing you and throwing you to the ground. Why put yourself in such a high stress situation? If you do something like tai chi, you can ease yourself into working with people in the outside world.”
And he agreed with me. I myself felt bad that it wasn't going to work for him here. But he was really honest and it went well. I could tell his feelings were hurt, and I told him I saw that. I said, “I know you're upset about this,” but I told him that was best for him--and I did feel that way. I was honest, and he took it that way.
As a teacher I never back away from confrontation, from dealing directly with situations at my dojo to keep it clean and safe on as many levels as I can perceive. That was one, there. I knew it would have been bad if he'd stayed here.
MS: From what you’ve said in the past I’ve learned something about fine-tuning these judgment calls. I remember once you mentioned how X, an accomplished aikidoist everyone respected, still got white with anger in certain situations.
JF: Yes, he could be very intense, but he was truly in a place where he got it that he needed to—and definitely could--handle his emotions. He was dealing with his own issues in a deep way. And, in fact, he was compassionate and protective of people to the point of risking his own life.
Every situation is different, after all. We're working on different things in our lives, and I believe there's no hierarchy there. I'm a sixth degree black belt, but that doesn't mean that on an internal level I'm any more compassionate, thought to thought, than you are. I'd venture to say that I'm not. I think that a lot of the time teachers have some odd fantasy that on an internal level they're more advanced than other people. I don't know how that ever happens because the more I know about myself, the more I peel the onion, the more I see there's a little kid in there half the time. Who am I to tell other people how to live their lives? Even in an interview like this I feel immodest. I'm okay at talking about myself because I have a big ego, but I still feel immodest. Even when I talk about being relaxed and open on an internal level, I feel immodest doing it.
Maybe when some people unpeel their onion, what they see is purity and compassion only. What I see is purity, compassion, anger, frustration, childishness, selflessness, love, hate—all these things—and the need to harness them, to find a balance.
MS: Perhaps aikido helps us to see what it's like to be in all of these states. It's not just a mental construct.
JF: It does help, though even when I was young I guess I knew how messed up I was. Even at a young age, I never was delusional about my own thoughts. (laughs) Now, how much I worked on them, that's debatable. But I never really, other than momentarily, thought I was internally advanced.
MS: All this relates to what you said about trying to keep the atmosphere of the dojo clean, not cluttered up with unnecessary thoughts and expectations. I’ve been struck by the well-kept beauty of the place many times, and the sense of relaxed welcoming that I feel when I open the door. You’ve given a lot of people a non-judgmental space to train in O-sensei’s message and philosophy, though each person may see that a little differently.
JF: I feel honored to have a place that people would want to come to. The more I keep out of it, the better the place is. I don't mean keeping out of the dojo physically, but the more I stay out of the aikido philosophizing and just teach the class and try not to interfere with any of you, the better off you are.
As you know, I don't correct people very often in aikido, and if I do it's generally just postural—“breathe, relax.” If they're taking a test I still don't correct them because the people I have teaching under me do what might be needed. I stay away from that. I make minor corrections, but I often don't even correct where the hands go! It’s better for the learning process that we all do a technique in the same way—it’s too confusing if every teacher shows it differently—but that doesn’t mean that some other way of doing it, at some other dojo, is wrong. Trying to be “correct” can be highly misleading. O-sensei didn’t leave us that kind of information; in fact he once said that every time he did a technique it was different! So I just try to correct myself, to set an example that way.
MS: I’ve watched you check your own alignment and correct your own posture in almost every class. That made an impression—seeing you monitor your own state of centering and relaxation.
JF: I feel you can't simultaneously be centered, relaxed, breathing and also angry and fearful. Just the act of trying to work on being centered and relaxed brings the fear and anxiety down. It doesn't make them non-existent in some happy utopian world, but it balances them, and that's the issue. Fear and anxiety are natural emotions. You'd never pay your taxes if you didn't suffer from anxiety, and you'd get killed if you didn't suffer from fear, the awareness that you were in a dangerous situation. So unto themselves they're all proper emotions, parts of us. To find a balance, where they're showing up at the right time—that’s the question we all have.
MS: In certain postures, that sort of balance is almost impossible.
JF: Right. If you're tight, you can't relax, you can’t be balanced. If you're open, you can start to find that balance. It's an ongoing investigation.