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11 QUESTIONS ABOUT AIKIDO


In this long form interview between Jesper L. S. Nordin, a distinguished Danish conductor, and Lewis Bernaldo de Quiros, 6th Dan Aikikai, a dialogue begins to unfold on the essence of Aikido as a martial art – its goals, purpose, and appeal in our modern age – and topics relating to issues we encounter on and off the mat.

The interview delves into various aspects of Aikido, shedding light on its principles, its impact on posture and body language, and its potential transformative power in interpersonal communication. The dialogue is an exploration of the deeper dimensions of this martial art, where the concepts of blending, consciousness, and spirituality intertwine naturally and harmoniously.


1. WHAT IF ANYTHING IS THERE TO BE GAINED FROM JUST OBSERVING AIKIDO PRACTITIONERS?


LEWIS: In Japan it is accepted that when injured or otherwise unable to train, practitioners should be present during trainings to watch the classes (Kengaku). The key thing is not only to maintain the discipline of ‘simply turning up and honouring one’s commitment’ but through watching the class to turn visual input into a kinaesthetic feeling in your own body (this whether just watching or training).


You should strive to ‘feel’ what you ‘see’. When training normally we see the teacher demonstrate and then are busy with our partners attempting to make a translation to our own process. We copy and try approximations as we try variations in movements we already know. This is like ‘moving the furniture around the room’ and is a slow hit and miss process.

But what if the teacher is showing a quality very different from what we know? We just will not find it by reaching into our memory bank of known movement-feeling states.



For a long time, I took the ‘heaviness’ that I saw in [Morihiro SAITO] Sensei to be similar to what I knew and so would try to ‘push down from above to somehow force more contact with the ground. This did not really work as it only created tension in the upper body and restricted breathing. Through taking ukemi and learning how to ‘feel’ Sensei’s body I was able to feel something quite different, a quality (following Tohei Sensei’s term) I refer to as ‘weight underneath’.


You have to learn to make a sensory translation such that you feel the other’s body as if it was your own – which will feel very different! Getting a hit on that gives you instant orientation in terms of directing your training. 


Watching from the side one not only has the opportunity to watch what the teacher shows but can additionally observe the many different translations taking place on the mat. When we can connect with and ‘see/feel’ all the different versions of what the teacher has shown taking place before us this can give valuable insights into not only the technique but also ‘penetrate’ the numerous learning strategies on display (or lack thereof). All of this is valuable information in reflecting back on our own practice and ability in learning. 


2. DOES AIKIDO INFLUENCE A PERSON’S POSTURE AND SUBSEQUENTLY BODY LANGUAGE? 


LEWIS: In two ways: of course, Aikido in being a physical practice as outlined below will improve our bodies and its sensitivity in numerous ways. This will translate to greater ease and more efficiency of movement and function (grace). 


Secondly in becoming more conscious of our bodies as such we get the chance not to just change it’s condition and posture but also have insight into what we are ‘saying’ with our bodies (in martial arts this issue is known as ‘presentation’) This happens naturally as we develop our ability to read posture and intention in our partners in our attempts to follow and blend with them. We start to see more clearly the ‘statements’ they are making: aggressive, fearful, nervous, condescending, insecure, concealing, etc, etc. This is something all of us do all the time but in Aikido, in attempting to see ‘intention’, we can develop this ability to a more subtle level. 


And so, we get the chance to reflect back on how we make the same kind of statements. The positions and attitudes we take at the level of mind faithfully reflect through the body – mostly unconsciously.


With this knowledge we not only get better at ‘reading’ people but also are afforded greater knowledge of ourselves amidst our daily interactions which call out positions and bodily expressions in an instant at every encounter however seemingly insignificant. 

As this whole domain becomes more conscious, we have the opportunity to make choices in it rather than just react and express unconsciously. 


3. THERE IS A TRADITIONAL ‘HIERARCHY’ OF EXECUTING TECHNIQUES IN AIKIDO (KIHON/KATAI, YAWARAKI/ JUTAI, KINONAGARE). WHAT ARE THE NEXT STEPS IN THIS PROGRESSION? 


LEWIS: Beyond agreed-upon techniques in a ritualised training format there are spontaneous responses to the demands of the moment: another meaning for the term Takemusu Aiki.


The ritualised progression of forms from solid to soft to flowing to empty allows us to study and train the principles in a systematic way and is invaluable. 


Through study (benkyo) and training (keiko) the goal is to align with and embody the Principles of Aikido both at the level of the body/mind and at the level of interaction with another (or with anything). This aligned embodiment is what we live and take beyond the formal practice of the Dojo into our everyday life. 


4. IS THE END GOAL OF AIKIDO SIMPLY PACIFICATION/ ANNULMENT OF POTENTIALLY VIOLENT SITUATIONS BY NONPHYSICAL BUDO?


JESPER: or is the end goal something that does not relate to confrontation at all, but is completely personal and/or ‘spiritual’?


LEWIS: The backbone of the training is martial in the sense that we need honest and direct feedback as to the results of our training. We train under pressure to cultivate and test our ability to stay balanced and connected in the face of restriction. In this sense attacks, ukemi and effective technique all need to stay grounded in an appropriately measured training process that is clear about the level it is taking place at and its effectiveness and applicability. 


However, having said the above, Aikido is in my opinion much more than a martial art focused on the non-violent resolution of conflict. Anything really worth studying is something that is going to teach you about yourself. The more we train the principles and penetrate the real mystery that is taking place in simply being present as a body in a gravity field interacting with others, the more our sense of curiosity and wonder opens up. 


For me ‘spirituality’ is not a new set of beliefs or rituals to adhere to and get meaning and support from but to actively challenge the whole notion of being who we think we are and challenge the whole notion of what is apparently taking place in our experience – with the opening to the possibility that a direct (non conceptual) ‘insight’ into the ‘truth’ of the matter is really possible. 


In our culture such a possibility has been essentially negated by centuries of stupefying religious and social dogma and in modern times by mainstream scientific materialistic reductionism. That is why for me contact with Zen as a child was such a gift: what was possible was opened up. But let’s not wander too far off the questions here. 


5. AT WHAT POINT DOES ONE LOSE A SENSE OF SELF IN AIKIDO, AND WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO GET THERE?


LEWIS: Well, maybe let’s wander a bit…


There key question is what do we understand by these terms: ‘loss of sense of self’, ’transcendence’ and fundamentally what is understood by the term ‘self’? 


Without pretending to address all the above in any real detail I am going to turn the assumptions in the question around a bit… 


Maybe it is not what we think. Maybe our ‘sense of self’ is actually an activity within consciousness and not something like a solid permanent entity of sorts. 


If this is so and the sense of self is an activity, then moments of absence of self which can be understood as gaps or pauses in this activity must be present. Generally, we are unaware of these ‘gaps’ as they are not registered in memory because as far as the existence of the person is concerned these gaps are irrelevant. 


But if we pay real attention to our ongoing experience, we can see that there are many gaps (actually between every thought and mental occurrence there must by definition be a gap) and that actually we can be present and conscious during these ‘non-events’.


So, in these moments when we are not thinking about ourself, where is the self, this identity that we have taken ourselves to be? If the self that we take ourselves to be is a process and that process is suspended, then who or what are we at that moment? 


Maybe consciousness and the objects of consciousness (mentations of all kinds) are not the same and we ‘con-fuse’ the two? We confuse the container with the contents so too speak. They cannot be separated and are not the same and yet paradoxically they are of the same nature.


JESPER: Can we through Aikido achieve a (beneficial) loss of conscious control or supervision and achieve ‘transcendence’? 


LEWIS: In any activity that is powerful enough to draw our attention in fully (and Aikido more than qualifies) the sense of self and the conceptual activity that maintains it, will fade into the background or cease entirely. In these moments we are literally ‘liberated’ from our ‘self’. Is this transcendence, albeit an unnoticed transcendence? 


Personally one of the things that has always drawn me to martial arts was that no matter what drama was going on in my life, the ritual of changing into my dogi, bowing and stepping into the dojo would always result in ‘less noise’ while the training itself would just make the ‘quietness’ deeper. It took me a long time to realise what this was about. 


It is not as difficult as we make it out to be as it is occurring all day long – these moments of absence without trace. In fact, if it were the case that we lived in a conceptual continuum of constant ‘noise’ we would soon go insane – as is the case if we are deprived of deep sleep (where we apparently disappear) for a few nights in a row. 


We just need to pay some attention to our actual experience – and thereby penetrate our ‘assumed’ experience. 


But the trick is to be knowingly present in these ‘absences’ – but present knowingly without reference. 


6. IS THERE A FORM OF ‘PHRASING’ IN AIKIDO? ANY GOOD ORATOR, ACTOR OR MUSICIAN HAS HIS OWN CADENCE AND PHRASING. DO YOU SEE THIS IN GREAT AIKIDO PRACTITIONERS AS WELL? 


LEWIS: Of course. All manifestation is a game of timing. The rhythm can be either confusing or clear, disturbing or sublime. In relating to the point above, in my opinion sublime ‘phrasing’ takes place when the ‘noise of self’ with all it’s chatter and positioning has subsided or ceased. This is what we see and appreciate in great artists. In Japanese archery this ‘sublime’ execution (myo: wonderful) is referred to cryptically as ‘the Universe makes the shot’.


7. WHAT ARE THE UNDERLYING PHYSICAL AND MENTAL PRINCIPLES OF ‘AWASE’?


JESPER: Feel free to elaborate as much or as little as you feel like on this; I know it’s a very extensive subject. 


LEWIS: Indeed, very extensive – and what we are busy with for fundamentally in our practice. 


In brief. In my opinion there are three layers of training here (the third not being a layer as such but more of an opening). 


The first layer is clearly working with the body/mind. This is the ‘instrument’ in our practice and must be ‘tuned’. What we are aiming to develop is a body/mind that is relaxed, grounded, whole, centred, present and capable of flexible lively responsiveness.


Working with the body/mind to develop the above is all about consciousness and paying attention. This is not as easy as it sounds as we are to a large extent unconscious to the depth and layering of reactivity and mental emotional ‘positions’ that express themselves directly through the body (our body language). We have all lived through much and that has resulted in multiple layers and defensive positions that imprint themselves in the body: this is our ‘character armour’ and its function is protection – and definition. But it severely inhibits our freedom and ability to respond creatively. We basically live mechanically with little space for creativity. Becoming conscious of this, and gradually ‘unwinding’ it is a lifelong endeavour – but the ongoing rewards are well worth it. 


The second level is the level of interacting with another and the principles that govern this domain. Aikido is a supremely interactive art and most of the practice jumps straight into emphasising this from the beginning at the expense of the first level. Other martial arts spend considerable amount of time doing solo practice before moving onto the interactive side. In my opinion this is a weakness in Aikido and many problems or challenges at the interactive level remain so until addressed at the more basic level. If I reman blocked and stiff, how can I join freely with another? Just trying harder usually doesn’t solve this.

Having said the above, the main Principles at the interactive level of awase are going to be first simply being aware of the other in a way that accepts him or her totally without judgement. This ability to really see what is there without immediately assessing it in terms of its relationship to ourselves (danger, harmless, useful, useless, etc) is the real basic.

Second, we need to ‘connect’ with what is there and strive to feel the other as they see and feel themself. We need to ‘under-stand’ the other. This is the basis of the ‘translation’ I referred to in the first question. 


Third we ‘follow’ the dynamic that is the activity of the other. Our opponent is not static but in constant motion and change. We need to ‘stick to’ and follow these changes. 


Fourth. We seek to neutralise the attack and intent of the other through entering his weak areas and controlling his centre with our own. 


This last is the most difficult step as if we attempt to ‘inflict’ our centre on the other or use reactive force at this time we will break the connection with him and hence end up ‘struggling’ to complete the technique.


In ‘connecting’ deeply through steps 1-3, we are actually connecting centres such that his body becomes an extension of our own. When this has been accomplished the result (neutralisation) is obtained by ‘moving ourselves’ and not ‘moving the other’. In this way we do not endanger our own balance and remain sensitive to the other and (ideally) can control them without damage.


The above breakdown may seem rather cumbersome and time consuming but in reality, can take place in a split second when trained as one familiar ‘feel’. However first it is best to break things down to isolate and study them. 


The third level of awase was expressed succinctly by Ueshiba Morihei himself: ‘For the Aikido of Morihei, there is no other’. 


This for me is the ultimate in so called ‘relationship’ and Aikido itself but I won’t comment further here.

 

8. WHEN DOES, OR RATHER, WHEN SHOULD, AWASE BEGIN IN CONNECTION TO AIKIDO TRAINING? 


LEWIS: It should be emphasised from the beginning: ‘blending’ with one’s own body, with the ground and with the other. In this context the main issue that comes and that needs to be addressed will be ‘resistance’. Resistance is nothing but the feedback we get from various levels of incomplete blending. Understanding what resistance really is and appreciating its inverse relationship with ‘blending’ is the main ‘nuts and bolts’ issue in training. 


JESPER: Is it fair to say there a distinction between a form of ‘passive awase’ (blending) and ‘active awase’ (merging)? (I don’t know how else to put it, perhaps you can enlighten me). 

LEWIS: When we ‘listen’ to anything we can say that it is both passive and active. It is passive in the sense that it is receptive. It is active in the sense that we ‘reach out’ to ‘receive’. 


Ukemi, that art of ‘receiving’ is both active and passive. We receive the others attack as nage and we receive their technique as uke. We receive by reaching out and connecting. Both active and passive. 


Active and passive are best represented by the ying yang symbol. Each exists only in relation to the other and never alone. This is a dynamic relationship constantly in flux with sometimes more emphasis on one side and sometimes more on the other.


9. HOW DOES AIKIDO INFLUENCE INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION? 


LEWIS: I think primarily through enhancing our ‘listening’ abilities. 


JESPER: Can you ‘perform’ aikido with a person that you personally do not like? 


LEWIS: Yes. Our ability to get past our own ‘noise’ should be something that increases in Aikido. This of course refers to the points I made above of ‘loss of self’. Nothing calls out our sense of self like the judgements we have of another. And these judgements create a sense of resistance and separation from our partner such that Aikido techniques just don’t work well – giving us beautiful feedback on this dynamic! 


Having said the above this can be one of the greatest challenges in our practice until we appreciate that the people, we avoid on the mat have the most to teach us about Aikido.


10. DID YOU EVER CONSIDER ANY SIMILARITIES BETWEEN AIKIDO AND MUSIC OR OTHER PERFORMING ARTS? IF YES, PLEASE ELABORATE. 


LEWIS: I cannot elaborate too much on this as while I appreciate music, I am not a musician (maybe something for you to write about?). However obviously and as mentioned above on the points I made about rhythm and cadence; Aikido is all about movement and movement is about rhythm. 


For example, in the 31 jo kata, once we get passed learning the moves and leave the ‘numbers’ behind we can discover the ‘music’ in the kata itself. One mistake practitioners make is to try and force the kata into a rigid cadence with movements and spaces having the same timings. This is not the case at all. The kata has its highs and lows, it’s moments of slowness and serenity, moments of speed and complexity. There are parts where we fade back and to the side and parts where we attack aggressively to the front. All this and more is encoded as a language of movement expressed through rhythms of timing and distance. This is music within the form. 


11. DOES AIKIDO IN YOUR OPINION PRIMARILY CONTAIN PRINCIPLES OF DEVELOPMENT OR OF CONSERVATION? 


LEWIS: All great traditions (in whatever domain) are generally founded upon a central insight. This formless insight becomes expressed according to the domain of concern of the Founder as visible activity. 


The moment teaching takes place (if indeed it takes place at all), with the intent of transmitting or facilitating access to the insight to others a didactic methodology is created as usually a direct grasping of the principle requires a readiness that is usually lacking in students. 


The founder will usually choose and or design a set of techniques and training methods that he ascertains embody the essence of the art and facilitate access to it’s understanding and embodiment. 


These methods and techniques are the ‘conservation’ part of the art. 


But the danger of course is that the goal of the art (the core insight or spirit) is lost, and the methodology and core techniques become themselves the purpose in and of themselves.

When this happens the techniques and training methods lose their real meaning, the art loses its vitality and usually fades away. Or it changes into something else (usually a much watered-down version of the original) or it becomes fractured into various (usually competing) interpretations.


So, to answer the question. Aikido does contain a core set of techniques and training methods that have been handed down to us. And these should be conserved and fully respected. But they are to be considered as a means to learning Aikido and not Aikido itself. They are the ‘form’ which can potentially grant access to the ‘formless’: the original insight that was the source of the art. In our case we call this source Takemusu Aiki (one way of translating these kanji is: the ‘source’ of inspired technique).


JESPER: Does aikido suffer or thrive by adhering to traditional rituals, clothing etc.? 


LEWIS: In my opinion and continuing on the above, all the traditional rituals etc are in themselves harmless – if we know their real purpose and how to use them. If we take them as significant in themselves, they can do more harm than good.


A good example of this is the whole topic of black belts and grades in Aikido. In themselves grades are markers of growth and development but when they are taken as meaningful in themselves, they are appropriated by the ego/identity and used to add more layers of armouring and lack of freedom to the person. This point especially applies to those students who are naturally talented or gifted and who can subsequently find themselves as teachers of the art. They run the greatest danger of getting lost in attainment. 

If the real aim of a martial art in the modern sense (Budo) is to make a man free and put him ‘on his own feet’ (Tatsujin: a ‘human being standing’) then as with the techniques and methods involved, the point is not the means but the spirit of inquiry and sense of responsibility that we bring to the these means. We must make the practice our own and penetrate to the spirit of the art. 

 

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