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Kuzushi: The gentle art of balance

Thursday, July 27, 2017, by Corey Carter
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Corey Carter with TramThe forest is like a living organism, it breathes and expels water much like we breathe air. This process of evapotranspiration is… I’m sorry I can’t do this, every blog post, every year talks about the same thing, in a slightly different way. I’m going to talk to about something that has helped me during some dark times and it may help you during these last trying weeks of Harvard REU. It is called Kuzushi!

I know many of you are cocking your head to the side and looking at me like a confused cocker spaniel. Don’t worry, that’s normal; I reacted the same way when my Judo master Thomas Crane first introduced it to me. But I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s rewind my story back like an old VHS… You don’t know what a VHS is…ok, it’s like a CD with movies... You have no clue what a CD too… Wow, you 90’s millennials crack me up. 

It was mid-2009 and I was in a dark place in my life, I had to move back home after I had been laid off from my job during the financial crash, my girlfriend had passed away from an accident, I was on the verge of bankruptcy and due to a physical issue I was rejected from active military service, again... Sounds like a bad country song, right. Nothing seemed to work out for me and I decided that I needed a change of pace and started a seven-year journey in Mixed Martial Arts. Martials arts helped me center myself and one of the many martial arts I trained in was Judo: the gentle way.

Judo is a sport played by Judoka and is based on the ancient fight styles of Japanese Jiu Jitsu. It focuses on throws, submissions and grappling, but the emphasis is on skill not strength and strategy not aggression. Brute strength may win some fights but you will eventually meet someone stronger than you and it will only bring you so far. Therefore, Judo was invented to fight and overpower an opponent with skill not power. Nothing encapsulated this more than the fundamental skill of Judo called Kuzushi, the process of slowly knocking your opponent off balance.

Judo BasicsSparring (practice fighting) in Judo involves two people squaring off, they grab each other’s uniforms and try to control and setup their opponent. You grapple with your opponent trying to throw them to the ground with a variety of techniques. Inexperienced Judoka often try to be aggressive and force their opponent into submission like in wrestling, but you’re often met with more force and aggression from your opponent. Expert Judoka will use Kuzushi and slowly knock their opponent off balance through small gentle pushing and pulling. So, as you’re distracting an opponent in one area you’re making movements so small that the opponent doesn’t even realize they’re being set up for throw - until it’s too late. Beginner and even Experienced Judoka can fall prey to Kuzushi but Master Judoka know themselves well enough and can look within to know when they’re unbalanced and use their opponent’s own momentum generated from Kuzushi against them and achieve a throw.

Life often plays out like a Judo match, we often grapple with life or other people. We tug, we pull and fight for supremacy, thinking the only way to win is to use as much force as possible. As we fight, an unseen force is slowly pulling us out of balance ever so slightly until we’re thrown to the ground in failure.

When life threw me down during this period in my life, I didn’t think I could get back up. Even worse, I questioned the point of even trying to get back up. I was physically, mentally, emotionally and financially broken. I felt that any attempt to recover failed and I often repeated the same mistake, hoping this time it would be different. Each one driving me deeper into the darkness but during your darkest hours, comes your greatest triumphs. In my prolonged periods of bed-ridden depression, my dad taught me many methods and gave me many books that helped me look inward and heal. In one of the most important books, Psycho-cybernetics  written by Dr. Maxwell Maltz , one of the many inspirational individuals highlighted was Dr. Viktor Frankl. Viktor worked with Maxwell relayed his life experiences and lessons to him while Maxwell was writing the book.

Victor Franco was born in Vienna, a survivor of the Holocaust, and he later became a world-famous phycologist. Viktor’s life was filled with many trying periods and through those experiences[?] he helped Maxwell develop  techniques and methods called Psycho-cybernetics. With this technique, Viktor’s book helped me put my life’s failures into perspective and motivated me to look inward to push onward.

The under-lining concept behind Psycho-cybernetics is the process of creating a feedback loop from life’s failures, trials and tribulations. Viktor described it best comparing it to a missiles guidance system. A missile has incredible precision when fired; it can fly across the world and hit a target the size of a quarter with limited error, but many don’t realize that  a missile does not fly in a straight line. Various forces act upon it, whether it be wind, gravity, air density, human activity to name a few. So, a missile’s flight path looks like a zig-zag line; with each error the computer calculates the deviation from the last flight error and is able to correct its flight path. Each error actually makes the missile more accurate. If it were not for this system, each small error would slowly compound until the missile would crash short of the target or would fly past it.

Often in life we act like an unguided missile or an inexperienced Judoka and allow life or people to slowly knock us out of balance. The more self-aware we are, we begin to act like a master Judoka or a guided missile and allow these compounding errors and oppositional forces to work in our favor – better yet use these same tactics to conquer our life’s goals and problems. Each experience positive or negative is making you stronger, better than you were before, that is if you allow it to.

This method of thinking has helped me through many dark chapters in my life. I started to look back at the lessons taught to me by my father and the hard-fought battles with myself and with life and started to apply what I’ve learned. I remembered the principles of Psyhco-cybernetics and I was able to identify my mistakes and my failures. Kuzushi helped me to be self-aware when I was being unbalanced by life or by myself. I started to learn where my weaknesses lay, how to improve upon them and how to apply those Kuzushi techniques against my life problems. I started to remold myself slowly using those failures to correct my flight path, getting ever closer to my goals. I started to conquer myself and used those same methods of unbalancing an opponent to unbalance and conquer the challenges presented to me in life through grace not just force. I was able to pull myself from the depths of depression and used every experience to further myself.

US Navy Missile LaunchIn 2010 I was able to learn from my mistakes and improved my public speaking and found a high paying job with the Post Office; I used my loss of someone I loved to make me more compassionate; and I was finally able to finally join the military. Later on during my Army basic training I would sever two out of three lateral ligaments and sprain the third. If I were a professional athlete this would’ve been the end of my career and most people in the service with this injury are kicked out of the military service. I wouldn’t allow this to be and I dug in my heels; learned from my failures and pain and continued training. I would go on to graduate as one of the top of my class and became an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV or drone) pilot in the Army.

Ok… Now take that VHS of my life and fast forward some years into the present. You can make the cool fast forward sound if you like, don’t worry I won’t make fun of you too much. Over the course of my time at Harvard Forest, our project has many ups and downs. Through experience and a lot of hard work my mentor Chen and partner Valentine were able to resolve a lot of their hardware woes we’ve experienced. As they were working I plunged head first into my work – long seemingly endless nights of coding, testing and thinking. I created a program that would allow for customizable list of temperature probes with integrated meta data, plug and play functionality, and automated temperature reading that would generate data-frames and store them, pump that raw data through various formulas for processing, graph that data and then send it to our website automatically. I was so proud but little did I know that drip by drip issues were building up, I was sparring with our project and I was losing and didn’t even know it.

After weeks of prep and troubleshooting the hardware was ready, it was now my turn – my time to shine. I shined alright, like a flame from a burning wreckage. The core part of my program worked, but everything from the computer we were using to critical parts of the software were failing. This could prevent us from collecting a large amount of data during the final couple of weeks. It would’ve been easy to just quit but I fell back on my experience, rolled up my sleeves and got to work. I looked inward and at my work and made a list of what I saw imbalanced me and my work; the small drips or small movements that slowly threw me down. After making my list, I got excited; this wasn’t a list of short comings, they were a list of opportunities to become a better programmer and a wiser person. Like a guided missile, I used these failures to realign myself, to make my program stronger and even better than previous versions of my software. I slowly unbalanced my opponent (My program and myself) and over the course of a week, I rebuilt a program that will last for years to come.

I told these stories not to impress you but to empress upon you that failure is never the end but only a new beginning for growth and opportunities. As we close our REU experience I hope you can look at your work, other people or yourself objectively and honestly identify imbalances and failures. When the specter of failure looms over you or things aren’t going the way you want, use that internal insight to - Stop, breathe, focus, look inward and imagine yourself as that expert Judoka perfectly attuned with her/his-self and the self- guided missile that becomes better with each mistake. As you spar with life, don’t get angry but find peace in the process and flow with the opponent’s resistance. In other words, be like water; know when to flow with the current and when to divert it. Be internally still and externally flow with the struggle and use that moment to eventually rebalance yourself until you can turn that oppositions own momentum against your life’s obstacles. With an open, flexible mind state you can land that prefect throw and hit any target placed in front of you.

Corey Carter is a Computer Science student at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities. He is a  former Unmanned Aerial Vehicle operator for the US Army, Train Conductor for Union Pacific and a current computational biology research assistant working with barley genomes and soybean GMO applications at a Morrell Labs located at the University of Minnesota - St Paul.