FROM EDITION 5 OF THE TRADITIONAL AIKIDO EUROPE JOURNAL – SPRING 2021
'Always imagine yourself on the battlefield under the fiercest attack; never forget this crucial element of training.”
Q: How do we approach and maintain this level of real intensity in our practice? Especially when working solo (online), or training with beginners/ children? And how do we transmit that through the training methods to the students?
When I began meditation practice under a teacher the first steps were not about meditation as such but about being able to ‘gather’ one’s scattered attention. I was told to simply follow the breath. Once my teacher was satisfied that I could do that minimally I was instructed to abandon concentrating on any object (breath, body, sensation, etc) and to just ‘be present’ with my ongoing experience in a non manipulative, non resistant way. No plan, no seeking, no next moment...just to fully allow ‘this’. And upon failing to do so, to notice and return to ‘just being’. Again and again and again...My teacher was in the Soto Zen tradition so their main practice was this ‘just sitting’ (shikantaza).
If we bring this mindset (‘presence/being’) to martial arts we can see that being fully present with one’s actual ongoing experience is fundamental. No matter one’s technical ability or strength if in a moment of crisis one is distracted or ‘absent’ then intelligent and appropriate responsiveness to the demands of the situation will be impossible. You are literally not ‘there’ to apply your technique at the right moment. In fact in martial arts many ‘strategies’ exist to distract or cause an opponent to lose mindful contact with the engagement and hence create an ‘opening’ whereby we can gain control of the encounter. When we talk of an ‘opening’ or ‘tsuki’ we are really talking about a break in the attention or ‘mind’ of the opponent.
How do we train this critical and all important aspect in the dojo?
First of all, as in the first steps I described above with meditation, we need to recognise that as with our generally disorganised bodily structures and patterns of movement, when we begin aikido our minds are in a generally ‘distracted’ and somewhat disorganized state as well. Being ‘just present’, although natural, is somewhat unusual for most of us amidst the generally high pace and stress of modern life. How often nowadays do we see others in a moment of inactivity ‘just being’? Most often we see moments of inactivity being filled by a smartphone or by falling asleep. What do we do ourselves in those many moments that come during the day?
So the first steps in the Dojo are about ‘coming to our senses’ and getting out of our minds so to speak. As instructors we teach forms and techniques but constantly stress the need to feel the ground, the pressure of our feet, to become increasingly sensitive to our bodies, our backs, the way our articulations work, to our partners, to the others on the mat around us...We remind our students again and again to be present and to enter the experience of the training. To come alive to the infinite tapestry of our senses and in particular to develop further our kinesthetic sense.
The rituals and etiquette (reigi) of the Dojo also create ‘habits’ that encourage presence. We leave our daily life with its many concerns in the changing room with our clothes, dress in a white gi, step onto the mat and bow to the shomen. The Dojo is a sacred space.
In this style (Takemusu Aikido) there is a strong emphasis on basic training. That means that we repeat relatively few ‘simple’ techniques most of the time while more complex or advanced forms are practiced occasionally. What does this mean? That soon we don’t have to think about them. Our mind chatter calms down as we enter the sensation layers of the techniques deeper and deeper. We learn to ‘think’ with our bodies and navigate the techniques and relational parameters with our partners through ‘feel’.
This is a gradual process of deepening our ability to be present with process and is easily appreciated in a Dojo training in this orientation. Beginners are generally seen to be more restless and ‘noisy’ while the more senior practitioners are more intense and ‘quiet’.
So as we train our bodies and develop our knowledge of the technical curriculum we are also training our minds and our capacity to be present and in particular, since we are practicing a martial art, we develop this ability under graduated levels of increasing stress (see Tomas Nord article in this edition). If this concomitant development is not taking place we need to question our training method.
So that is the long answer to the question posed above.
The short answer in line with O Sensei’s quote is to directly realize that nothing and no one can guarantee that you will be alive in 5 minutes. This is not imagination, it is fact. You can die at any moment. Letting this in fully has an instantly sobering effect on whatever concerns may be distracting you in the moment. You are here and alive now - while constantly stepping into the next unknown moment. You are on a battlefield and the fierce attack can occur at any moment. Being here now is the only real thing there is. Everything else is just fantasy.
So this is the paradox of living with the awareness of death as an ever present reality: that our lives are lived more fully in the only place that life is taking place: now. Death is not an enemy but an ally.
One last little anecdote. In my time in Iwama at one point it hit me forcefully that I was living a golden opportunity and period in my life. To train there in the Founders Dojo and to receive daily instruction from such a great teacher as Morihiro Saito Sensei. I knew this time would end at some point and that every training was counted. From that ‘insight’ on (obvious as it may seem), when I bowed in, I really bowed in. Full of enthusiasm and gratefulness for the class. So although the Dojo could sometimes feel very much like a battlefield and - depending on your partner - feel like life and limb were at risk, I did not need to feel like death was hovering over my shoulder to feel fully present. Joy and gratefulness was enough.
Q: Go no awase: Is the receiving side cutting yokomen or shomen?
Uchitachi attacks with yokomen uchi off the line of attack and uketachi receives with yokomen uchi holding the line between them. However the best thing is to experiment receiving a yokomen uchi with shomen or with yokomen, with increasing pressure and speed from uchitachi. Then the answer becomes clear, from a purely mechanical point of view.
Q: Ken Kamae: is the sword held straight or wedged?
In ken kamae the ken is not projected straight forward from the tanden but is slanted (‘wedged’) diagonally following the triangulation of the feet and body. One morning during weapons class in Iwama Saito Sensei made this clear to us by explaining that in other Kenjutsu arts such as modern day kendo the kamae was straight forward and represented a complete commitment to attack with no thought of withdrawing. This is the spirit of ai-uchi that is at the heart of kendo. However in aiki-ken the sword is both yin and yang (in-yo in japanese), it is both receptive as well as positive. Sensei told us that in kamae we should feel both extended and connected to our partner as well as able to feel them connecting likewise to us and that the ‘feel’ of this receptive side was akin to being shielded by our own sword. Available to the other yet not vulnerable to them. We both extend towards and receive simultaneously.