Friday, January 8, 2010

Question Everything: Ki

Ki, or energy, is something many Japanese arts profess to utilize. Whether it's generated as an explosion of energy, a laser-like intensity, or near-perfect stillness, ki is a very powerful force.

Or is it?

To me, ki is intention behind whatever you're doing. It can be presence of mind and/or purpose behind a technique. I'm not going to argue that ki doesn't exist; but I do plan to challenge your perceptions of what ki really is.

If a performer is screaming at the top of their lungs, sweating profusely, it sure as heck seems like they're exploding with ki. But is it possible to do so and yet still be "going through the motions"? If you're told to be louder or look more intense, you can do so without really projecting energy past your own nose. By focusing on what you think you should look like, you can miss what you should feel like.

I see this in both taiko and karate. Without really understanding that projecting raw energy is more than volume and flash, some people copy the facade of people around them. Sweat is a poor indicator of skill, and screaming is the untrained person's kiai. (To kiai well is to use the diaphragm, not the throat.)

Also, how much of ki is in the perception from another person? If you're doing a move or a pose and doing your damnedest to project a "supernova of ki", what if I'm looking right at you and I can't see it? Does that mean you're not generating it? Now, I realize asking that question makes me susceptible to criticism in my first point - maybe I'm wrong and people are generating ki that I can't see? Let me just say it's possible, but the point there is to make you question what you take for granted.

At the dojo in the beginning of each quarter, the intermediates are told not to kiai while sensei is teaching the beginners. It distracts the beginners until the second week, where they are taught how to kiai. About a year ago, I was getting frustrated at the lack of ki coming from the intermediates because of the imposed lack of kiai. It was almost as if without being able to kiai loudly on every 4th or 5th move, they couldn't generate ki! Ridiculous. After talking to the group and explaining that kiai should be on every move, audible or not, we resumed training. As I stood in front of the class, giving commands, I could feel the difference in energy (that above mentioned laser-like intensity) coming from the group.

So, let's assume I'm right about ki being intention. Try making faces to a partner and have them guess what expressions you're doing. If they get it wrong, who's really "wrong"? Is it the intention or the perception? I've seen way too many performances/tests where a person is really giving it their all, but the face is dead. It makes their ki feel at best muted, at worst really confusing. Also, consider performances where people are wearing masks, but you can still really feel the ki eminating from them - there's no way they could generate that kind of energy if their faces were dead behind those masks.

When it comes down to it, you can do almost anything with ki. You can brush your teeth with ki, you can even fill your gas tank with ki! But it's also easy to fool yourself into believing you're projecting ki when you're not, or to rely on making ki "loud" to make it effective. Experiment on your own if you truly want to figure out how to make ki work for you.

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