FROM EDITION 9 OF THE TRADITIONAL AIKIDO EUROPE JOURNAL – WINTER 2023
“The Study in Aikido Involves the Study of a Lifetime”
Perhaps your teacher has said this. From beginner, to intermediate, to teacher, to master, the refining that occurs from the exterior infiltrates the interior. Amidst this Aiki journey we come to the understanding that it is actually the process that changes us. We realise the destination is not a finish line to be crossed, but rather, a lifestyle revealed to be lived. Going Beyond delves deep into this art to obtain some sense of its Essence.
In the second Doshu's book, “Aikido” (published 1974) O'Sensei's list of Aikido Rules include:
“The teachings of your instructor constitute only a small fraction of what you will learn. Your mastery of each movement will almost completely depend upon individual, earnest practice.” Much learning comes through “individual, earnest practice” and the self-discovery that occurs when we choose to do our own study. We add and integrate knowledge, supporting the framework our teachers have so diligently instilled within us. Obtaining new knowledge is the constructive process that adapts / adjusts this framework. Integrating and connecting that information is the creative process that receives, applies, or simply pockets information for future use or study. Going Beyond is a choice, a conscious, invested endeavour to practise arduously. This Shugyo (mind/body) commitment merges intrigue with frustration, befriends exasperation, invests in failure as we actively choose the harder path, constantly deciding to step outside of our comfort zone. We deliberately temper and discipline the self. This is a choice. There are no shortcuts. Choice is the fundamental power in regards to the human experience and power begins through the activation of choice.
Thus far, our Journeys have been described: The Outer Journey (TAE Journal, Edition 7 - Autumn 2021) detailed external structural relationships. We progressed from the physical stance and central axis into the felt and manifested influence of Aiki weapons and Riai. We concluded with the impact 'Centre First movement' has on technique. The Interior Journey (TAE Journal, Edition 8 - Summer 2022) outlined whole body integrated movement with connected breath. We superficially addressed the yin/yang concept, and peered into the universe of the energetic body tensegrity potential. We remain incomplete without mentioning 'The Journey Beyond'. Here we seek higher consciousness to further refine embodied skills. We realise that in choosing to undertake this deeper study, some amount of healthy self-examination is required. In this endeavour we seek our highest potential and rise to the challenge of also accepting the due burden of responsibility inherent in this kind of commitment.
In seeking the Essence of this art, the learning of the body (physical), the mind (mental), and the spirit (transcendence) follow a trajectory that far exceeds the ordinary learning experience.
This involves realising our ‘true Self’. The deep knowing and sensing of who we truly are. This reveals why we do what we do, what unconscious belief systems we hold, and how our history influences our perceptions. We scrutinise ourselves observing both good and bad with no judgement, thereby deciding what needs change. It is in the knowing of the Self so intensely that we can come to know others. Self understanding is like acquiring great knowledge of the world.
We find our innate inner resourceful state, and our local knowing evolves into a global understanding with a primary singular focus: to make ourselves better.
Aikido begins physically. We learn who we are through body movement. 'Going Beyond' involves study past the five senses, past detail and form. We train sensitivity and intuition, using principles and relationships for direction, and we arrive at a visceral 'knowing'. We start at the beginning, with physical Kamae, surprised at the profound revelations stillness and non-action provide. In Refining Technique, we study describing what is present but absent (unseen), we examine the 'dialogue' in the felt/sensed roles of uke/nage, as we uncover everyday meaning through the act of training. Teaching reveals layers of self discovery in the practice to responsibly transmit information. And lastly, the action and duty of Service to Others describes the 'do' that exists beyond the mat, transforming the physical into a greater good.
Kamae (Posture and stance) and the Kamae ‘Beyond’ (the Present Moment)
One of the first things we learn in martial arts is the proper way to 'stand'. Kamae is basic and fundamental, more than just 'stance' - though a strong, solid, structural base is crucial Through the entire posture, we correctly join gravity, aligning and grounding into the Earth. We develop a very stable structure of static and dynamic readiness available at the start of technique, in the middle during transition, and as a finish (zanshin). This shape expresses our physical standing, our emotional / mental status and intention. On the mat we stand with focused attention, circumferential awareness, and in a 'no mind' (mushin) 'non-thinking' state. Kamae presents a distinct interval, a pause to bring us into the present moment no matter what technique we practise. This occurs even in the midst of flow since Kamae is present throughout. Kamae occurs in our everyday life, defining how we 'abide' in the world. It is present in the space of readiness, as the pause we can assume amidst stress, and as a reset in released conclusion. These intervals occur in silence. Like the space in between each breath, we can discover profound moments of 'being'. This paused, conscious realisation of reality's transience can create a paradigm shift, revealing a surprisingly comfortable, peaceful respite of Calm. It is within this paused quiet state that the body brings into mind that all is well. In life and on the mat, this is how we Stand: Focused, Aware, and Calm. Bask here where the mind and body align and the brain and heart have coherence. Seek to experience this most perfect 'pause' in the physical and ethereal Kamae.
Refining Technique – Viscerally Knowing, Intuitively Understanding
Refining technique 'Beyond' moves past the obvious five sensory observations, past linear physical biomechanics. Here, we feel and sense what is present but absent (unseen).
For example: O'Sensei describes Inryoku, the 'Attractive Force' this way, “...True budo is the cultivation of attraction with which to draw the whole opponent to you.”
We expand this description, utilising O'Sensei's quote as a guide, adding layers to what we already know. We integrate 'sensed' information as we adjust our framework.
I posit this added description of the above:
“Our weighted centre draws the whole mass of uke in like a vortex. The body breathes, exhaling to join gravity with a rotational core spiralling all things down. We blend and take balance, aligning the physical body with a paused mindstate. Technical ability with mindset awareness calibrates interception. An informed, open hand adheres as we amplify awareness by connecting the palm of that hand with the grounded sole of the foot. As we confidently release potential / stored energy, our skill ensures that uke will remain safe.”
When we consciously and mindfully observe the Self and these kinds of relationships, we realise that habits of attention are as important as habits of movement. We observe ourselves fully before we observe uke. When we know the Self, we can intuitively sense uke, physically and intentionally as we strive to know his mind.
There is no perfect language to describe movement, so we shape the nage / uke relationship like a conversation. This body dialogue is initiated as nage absorbs an attack to lead the conversation. Uke receives signals on how to respond to nage's movements. If nage 'converses' clearly, uke perceives direction. If there is confusion, nage must redefine (restate) movements so uke can, through connection, understand. Nage 'shows' the way.
Uke's role in this dialogue is not passive, he accepts this connection and maintains it. Uke listens for physical cues amidst this connected movement, employing a 360 degree situational awareness. He senses what is right in front of him and in every part of the background. Uke shifts, realigning his body to stay connected, essentially harmonising with a destabilising force. Eventually uke 'decides' to meet the fall. As the 'crescendo' of the technique is sensed, uke will, at the exact moment, overtake the fall. In other words, uke will make nage's throw – his fall. This is uke's conversational response. This silent dialogue is not equally dynamic but each role is integral, existing in the state of constant flux. Yet nage and uke have mutual regard, making conversation complete. The principle of blending also lends insight into uke's perception. Creating 'oneness' bridges the gap as uke's viewpoint comes into our consciousness. And since we carry our histories (all we have experienced) in our mind and body, we assess, asking: Exactly how does this blend feel? Is uke aggressively coming forward or is he holding back? We move less to harmonise with enthused movement, while we may need to energetically fetch a more hesitant intent.
Humans often move in unconscious patterns. We react due to the Automatic Nervous System in fight / flight / freeze. However, our present day ‘dangers’ include more insidious threats present in our belief systems or through the human experience of chronic stress resulting in maladaptive behaviour. Implicit bias, history of chronic or complex trauma, extreme sensitivity to pain for whatever reason, etc. reflects the state held within the body.
When we ‘sense’ such variables we draw distinction, we intuitively adjust, optimising connection. We viscerally discern, assessing and adjusting, remaining fluidly adaptable. Aikidoka training for decades may notice some of these unconscious patterns of movement.
As we intuitively adjust, creating harmony to optimise connection, we draw distinctions, viscerally discerning while remaining fluidly adaptable.
As we become better at harmonising with this 'dialogue' we can anticipate problems before they manifest. Eventually, we learn to fully trust our instincts in response to these problems. This mental exercise creates unity, a 'felt' understanding with body and mind. Fluid emotional intelligence, intuitive awareness, and welcoming the ability to understand other viewpoints helps us 'read' and respond to uke / people in general. We adjust conversation just like we adjust connection on the mat. This higher consciousness fosters effective communication - which is not driven forth by an engaging ego - but clearly, by a specific, subtle set of skills.
Teaching – The Forging Continues
Dennis Tatoian Sensei, 7th dan Shin-shin Aiki-shuren-kai, imparted some sage advice from his Sensei, Morohiro Saito Shihan:
“All you need to continue learning is: your students, your sword, and a mirror”
Saito Shihan was technically brilliant. His systematic approach broke down technique into manageable steps. This method allows the student to grasp technique basics, while also empowering one with the ability to “teach” it, rudimentarily, to another. This departs from the classic [Japanese] traditionalist who spoke very little so students had to 'steal' technique. Saito Shihan's method gave students an opportunity to feel successful. Most advanced Iwama teachers employ this approach. Saito Shihans' teaching style can be viewed in the many videos left behind. Many of his students, now Iwama Shihan, preserve this method. I also follow this process, extrapolating deeply for my own study. This approach also helps preserve the forms we transmit. Additionally, we realise that detail can be revealed by assessing technique from many angles. We, who teach, quickly discover that just physically 'knowing' is not enough. Our explanations must clearly match physical technique. Hanmi, centerline, extension and grounding must remain visually intact. The mindful gift here is learning to control our own body precisely and minutely because there is always something, inevitably, a bit off. In essence, ideally, we teach through the clarity of our own example. This considers what they see...not just what we do.
Accurate self-observation is a skill. We maintain a healthy critical spirit so we can examine our own example with objective scrutiny. We should not assume that if our teaching is not received, it is solely due to the student's deficit. The ability to observe oneself beyond the 'surface' level is crucial for growth since we cannot address what we are unaware of. Observe the body and mind apart from the constraints of the mind. This requires very deep presence. The egoic mind will label / rationalise so take heed, the egoic mind serves only the ego. Foster self awareness with receptivity, not defensiveness. Notice flaws with no judgement, see it as information. A new consciousness can arise through mindful practice and meditation. Study intentionality – the 'why' and 'what' we do and its impact.
“Self Awareness is the Key to Self-Mastery” - Gretchen Rubin
Service to Others – the “Do” Beyond the Mat
When we first joined Aikido it was about Ourselves. We came to learn 'how' to fight, to be disciplined and fit. For a while it was, indeed, entirely about the 'Self'. Later we learned to move 'around' our uke. It was about him and ourselves, two separate entities attempting to control the other. We used strength, making or forcing technique to work. We were still into 'fighting'. When we learned that we were only fighting ourselves, our perspectives changed. We blended, surprised to use less strength. We connected, and curiosity began to outweigh frustration. When we learned about the Axis of Rotation, we became efficient. We allowed and harmonised, unifying our body, mind, and spirit. We became smooth and powerful, integrated and aligned. We learned to manage, calibrate, and temper our own body movement.
As we blended, no longer pushing or pulling, we were surprised to discover that now uke dictated how we conformed. In this 'surrender' it all became about uke. Uke dictated timing, absorption and connection. Our centre conformed to uke's centre. We harmonised with uke's mindset and intention first. And then one day we felt the Oneness. We enveloped uke into ourselves, seeing him as we see ourselves with no differentiation, no separation. We both occupied the centre now, as a single unit, a true reflection of the other. We mindfully purified our thoughts and intentions realising that from a pure mind and body flows good energy in technique and thereby, good energy in life. I believe this progressive realisation is the physical manifestation toward a most worthy ideal. From a separate knowing to a singular understanding. This dynamic evolution is reflected in our external life as we discover new ways of 'being'. In our microcosm, we find more calm and peace amidst daily chaos, challenges become opportunities, and we remain unshaken by neither praise nor blame. The ease in dealing with uke on the mat transforms into finding the ease of harmonising with daily life struggle. In our macrocosm, “Service to Others” manifests. We altruistically expand - our boundaries of sensation swelling out to include other people. Our responsibility is to give back once receiving “Fudoshin”, the unwavering heart/immovable mind. This gift of Calm moves us toward humanity and nature, not away from it.
“The ideal in martial arts is humanitarianism. Accomplishment uses diligence as a goal”. -Ip man
Here, aikido presents an example of what a perfect society could be like if we existed in acceptance, cooperation, and compassion. This may be the Utopia O'Sensei imagined. Aikido helps benefit humankind by creating a path to elevate human consciousness to a Divine level.
This realisation promotes us to move as a vehicle of Grace, that small drop pouring into the collective. We realise that in this Shugyo process of searching for the Essence of aikido, we are changed. We transmute from human beings into a human becoming as we remain continually awed by a new love for life.
“...to get to know Aikido is to get to know yourself. I want you to consider Aikido your mirror. You should remember that the Essence of Aikido lies right at your feet” - Morihiro Saito Shihan (Volume 5 of Traditional Aikido)
I conclude with a surmise, most of which I wrote years ago describing my evolution on “Aikido Advice for Women and a Few Men”:
“Formlessness does not exist separate from Form. They exist mutually.
To study an art we must first learn form, shape, and mechanics.
The brain follows linearly, observing pattern and rhythm.
We learn technique.
Like musicians we must first learn the Scales.
Eventually we evolve.
Our mind and body transcend into principle and notion.
The art slowly becomes our own as we discover
the essence of unattached, spontaneous response.
The Math of technique becomes the Poetry of Intention.
This is Takemusu Aikido.
This Embodiment enters in our everyday.
Confidently empowered, we radiate Divine qualities
of Love, Humility, Compassion, Equanimity, and Joy.
Our Duty becomes Service to Others. We are present, ready to do our best.
Aikido is a conduit for Self Transformation, yet this path has no end.
'We are Here', still reaching toward a new and better plateau.
We know more, now we must do more.
This Journey involves one long developmental arc.
We arrive full circle, enabled, ready to begin again.”