O’Sensei and the goal of Aikido
by George S. Ledyard
The article below does not necessary reflect the point of view on Aikido of our club Aikikai Gent. However, we think these articles provide really ‘food’ for deeper thought on Aikido and it’s value.
This article appeared on the forums of aikiweb
I spent this past weekend at Raso Hultgren Sensei’s dojo in Missoula, MT training with my teacher, Mitsugi Saotome Sensei. As expected, the seminar was wonderful but I found Sensei’s exposition particularly moving this time. I think that Sensei, having broken seventy now, is increasingly conscious of his “mission”, begun over 35 years ago when he came to the United States to teach. Saotome Sensei has spent his entire adult life in the art of Aikido. He feels that the Aikido Founder instructed his personal students to, first of all understand the meaning of his teachings for themselves and then to transmit that understanding to students around the world. The Aikido my teacher was charged with transmitting was meant to be a trans-formative practice for the individuals who study the art and for the world, the goal being nothing less lofty than, the too often cliche, world peace.
Given the state of the world, both currently and historically, I find it difficult to wrap my mind around the whole concept of world peace. I think that the only way to even start to approach this idea is from the standpoint of how Aikido practice can transform the individual, because it all starts there, with the dedicated practitioners who pursue this practice, shaping their daily lives around an art that most people find, at best, to be rather exotic and mostly irrelevant to their daily concerns.
How could anyone think that any practice be important on any scale larger than the small community of the people who practice that art? I think it all stems from the belief that everything, every object, every being, literally everything in the universe is connected. So, just as Physics tells us that every particle in the whole universe is connected to every other particle, that a change in state in one will instantly, without temporal delay, reflect in a particle on he other side of the universe, so too does a change in any individual, on some level, effect every other human being.
These are heady ideas. But unless one has had some sort of mystic kensho experience in which he or she has directly perceived the truth of this reality it remains simply the kind of cosmic conjecture one does over wine with friends in ones living room,lacking in real substance or tangible reality. While I believe that Aikido practice, if done very seriously, for quite a long time can start to give one a real sense of this “universal connection” I think that the focus for most folks in the art should be on the aspect of how the training should be and can actually be, trans-formative on a personal level. As in the theory of the “tipping point”, which deals with large scale changes in society and how they take place, if enough individuals engage in such a practice, there can really be an effect on the whole that seems to be greater than the actual numbers of folks making this change would seem to indicate.
The first thing that struck me about what Saotome Sensei discussed with us was that merely doing Aikido wasn’t enough, that the trans-formative aspect of the art was not inherent in the doing of the art but rather one needed to do the art in a manner that was trans-formative. Sensei talked about how people are apt to simply incorporate all of the fears, insecurities, and aggression into their practice. Their Aikido is based on a defensive mindset and the hope is that, if one could simply achieve the kind of power that would allow one to defeat any enemy, that would allow one to be “safe” in this dangerous world.
Sensei stressed that this is not the Aikido of transformation. This is the Aikido of destruction. This is what he calls the “dark side” of the art. It’s not that it doesn’t exist. It’s not even that one doesn’t study this aspect of the art. It’s simply that focus on this side of the art misses the whole point of why the Founder created the art in the first place. I think that the Founder meant for our practice to transform this isolated, paranoid, fearful mindset, which virtually produces the very threats that it is so afraid of. The dislocated vision of reality that incorporates threats, enemies, looks at every aspect of life as some sort of win lose contest is simply an illusion. Our actions cause suffering precisely because they are based on the false idea that we are not integrally connected to each other.
So an Aikido that has the power to transform is one that focuses on this connection rather than on some make believe faux samurai play acting that revolves around pretend fights against imagined aggressors. The martial paradigm isn’t for the purpose of preparing us for some potential fight against evil doers, it is simply the feedback mechanism that allows us to test our own understanding and get immediate confirmation or the lack thereof. The “fighting mind” simply cannot result in anything but remedial Aikido. One is forced by the constant striving to refine ones technique, to make it more and more effortless, to let go of our mistaken views of separation and accept that we are connected.
If our practice is done properly, every time we act in a way that fails to be in accord with the underlying reality of interconnectedness, it should be instantly evident in the failure of our technique to attain that level of natural effortlessness that characterizes real “aiki”. Our goal isn’t the defeat of an attacker, nor should we be content with the mere fact that our partner has struck the mat and this means that somehow we have “won”. No, the goal of our efforts is a level of technique that is so in accord with the essential principles underlying reality that no effort is required, that the interaction with the partner is so perfect that it all takes place without any thought of contention, without the need for dichotomies like offense and defense, beyond conventional notions of time, in a place that doesn’t engage the thinking mind.
It is this search for “perfection” that changes a mere fighting system into something far greater. Rather than looking at the defeat of some imagined enemy as the goal, which doesn’t require any fundamental shift in ones fear based world view, the kind of technique I am talking about virtually requires that one lets go of any notion of contention. It requires that one stop being fearful, cease trying to cover up ones fears with the hopeless search for power, the un-defeatable technique… rid oneself of the false notion that one can use force to prevail.
All of this is contained in Aikido technique when done well. Every technique has an instant in which one accepts the energy of the attack. It is impossible effectively execute a technique with “aiki” without this. One has to being willing to “let go” of the need to defend and to really , fully be right where he could be cut by the sword or struck by the blow, to have a chance of not being hit. Technique only becomes possible in the instant in which you and the partner meet.
Aikido is an art which is fundamentally about “connection” yet it attracts precisely those folks who don’t actually want to connect. Weak people have to meet an “attack” and stand in the eye of the hurricane to have any hope of being safe. Strong people have to let go of the false notion that their strength is what actually makes them safe, they have to realize that the only way to be safe is to stop contending and to really relax, in the mind and the body. Each individual is called upon to develop precisely the opposite set of skills and traits which they hold onto as the false idea of who they are.
The entire practice is about attaining an understanding of balance, balance on all levels, mental, physical, spiritual, emotional, social, cosmic. This “balance” represents true freedom. It is the place in ones body in which one can move completely effortlessly as one feels the need. No one is strong enough to stop you once you make this balance part of your default setting. Training reveals to us that contention is the physical expression of mental tension caused by fear. Practice must be about transforming that fear, which is negative and the motivator for the darker impulses we all carry into something else.
If ones Aikido practice doesn’t help one come to terms with ones mortality, it isn’t doing what it needs to. If one delves into most negative emotions, one eventually gets to fear. And underlying all fear is at the bottom, fear of death. Budo, and Aikido is a form of Budo, is about coming terms with ones mortality. Too often Aikido practice is toned down too much for this to happen. There’s no sense of walking on the edge. So, while the practice isn’t about fighting, it has to keep its martial paradigm. The dojo in which everything is too safe cannot produce personal transformation. Many dojos embody a misguided desire to protect their students from anything which frightens them or might potentially be injurious. They are little more than social clubs in which the membership functions as a mutual admiration society. Human beings do not make serious changes easily and this type of atmosphere simply allows everyone to not change rather than placing folks in a situation in which they must do so.
On the other hand, in a totally misguided attempt to avoid the above, many dojos go the other way. Practice is brutal, injuries frequent. Students may exist in a perpetual state of fear of the teacher or the seniors. Students who are smart enough to see through this nonsense and leave are seen as “not tough enough”, not worth the time and effort it would take to teach them technique, so good riddance. The problem is that one does not learn not to be afraid by being afraid. Those folks who prove “tough enough” to deal with the rough training and brutal instructors simply desensitize themselves. They don’t transform the energy of their fear into a different positive energy, they cover it over, bury it deep and pretend they aren’t afraid any more. Folks like this become the classic abused children who grow up to be abusers. Certainly no ones idea of the way to create world peace or even individual balance.
No, the answer to what training needs to be lies, once again, in balance. There needs to be risk. People need to feel as if they have to step outside the safety zone, over and over. But they also have to experience that their training allows them to take this risk and succeed. They need to have the “win” so that their bodies and their minds start to believe that the lessons contained in proper technique represent a better way to approach the world. So the practice is a tenuous balance between repeated failures and repeated successes. Too much failure doesn’t result in much learning at all. Too much success doesn’t force the student to dig deep, tap those unknown reserves, to go past previous limits.
Every technique requires sensitivity to the essential balance that exists between the partners. This requires that one learn to “listen”. to shut up that internal dialogue, the “noise” that prevents one from really listening to the partner. At the same time, Aikido is truly a conversation… so just listening doesn’t make it a conversation. One has to know the proper way to express oneself in just such a way that the partner has to hear you. So, in the partnership arrangement of Aikido practice, each partner is forced to both shut up and listen and simultaneously express himself or herself and be heard. One has to do this with many different partners, each with a different disposition, body type, etc. One finds that one simply can’t force any preconceived notion of technique on these different partners. What worked with one fails miserably with the next.
So, over time, one begins, not just to understand the way in which one relaxes and balances out ones own mind and body but also one is forced to really be in the present instant. No notion of what one wants something to be in the future, or what one wanted it to be results in anything but struggle. One has to really let go of the desire to force ones own preferences on others and allow the technique to express itself. Neither one of the partners actually determines the outcome, rather, when both partners practice well, the technique is an expression of how they came together in that instant of space and time. Like a snow flake, there will never be another technique which occurs exactly the same way. This is Take Musu Aiki, the highest expression of Aikido technique. Many people mistake the stage of technical expertise which becomes spontaneous and free as the expression of this concept. I think this is mistaken… it falls short of what Take Musu Aiki really is.
Take Musu Aiki can only really take place when one has let go of preferences, preconceptions, desires… it is beyond actor or one acted upon. It occurs in that moment when principle has become ingrained in ones body as its default setting and the conversation between the partners reaches that stage that can exist between true intimates in which the whole conversation can be silent. The action feels still and the stillness contains infinite possibilities for expression, a state of potential which isn’t used up or exhausted as the technique unfolds itself.
Most folks, even serious practitioners of the art of Aikido only have flashes of this state in their practice. Can Aikido be trans-formative even for those who will not train to this ethereal level? In my opinion, yes. For most folks, the most valuable lesson in Aikido is contained in the ukemi, as they act out the role of the person who initiates the interaction between the partners. In terms of taking lessons out of the dojo that will stand one in good stead in ones every day life, ukemi is far and away more important than any technical skill that one attains doing waza.
Every day, as human beings, we encounter experiences in which we are required to “take a fall”. A partner leaves us, a loved one passes away, one loses ones job, a boss gives one a bad review… its endless. One of the Noble truths of Buddhism is that “existence is suffering”. The Aikido approach to dealing with suffering is to “take the ukemi”. One can fall hard, contract around the pain, carry it around for years and let it control ones life or one can soften up, take the hit or take the fall, let it go and get on with life, its really up to the individual.
There are no magic techniques for most of these occurrences. How singularly useless is the ability to hurl another human being to the ground is when your boss tells you that you’ve been downsized. The most frightening nikkyo in the Aikido world seems trivial and irrelevant when your issue is finding you are losing your mortgage and possibly your home. Many of the pivotal moments in ones life involve situations in which there simply is no good resolution in sight, You are taking the fall. Plain and simple.
In Aikido we spend fifty percent of our time in the role of uke. It is a crucial part of the practice that we embrace that role. It requires a letting go of the go to take that fall for old folks, young people, juniors, smaller partners. This is a very important part of Aikido training and a part that, in my opinion, isn’t well understood. The role of the uke is to facilitate his partner’s learning. That doesn’t mean “tanking” for the partner because neither one learns anything much when that happens. It also doesn’t mean shutting down the partner’s attempts to execute a technique that he’s trying to learn. One never learns to do anything by not doing it.
So the role of the uke is crucial to the ability to take technique up to that high level we previously described. It is the role of uke that the practitioner first learns to check his ego at the door. He learns to be strong without being resistant. He develops the sensitivity to know exactly what his partner needs. The technique shouldn’t work if its not right and it should be allowed and encouraged to be right by the uke. When it is right the uke takes the fall, an acknowledgment of its “rightness” and a continuous practice of being humble on the part of the uke. When the technique isn’t right, the uke doesn’t fall. Not out of some sense of triumph or victory but out of that sense of tough love that knows that the partner doesn’t learn anything from interactions which are fake, false, energetically not true. One gives exactly the kind of ukemi one would like to get when the roles switch.
And isn’t that a lesson for life? The roles always switch at some point. The “winner now will later be last”, as Dylan said. So, as the Aikido practitioner learns to be the best possible uke for his or her partner, he is simultaneously preparing the mental and physical ground required to be able to take ones technique up to increasing levels of sophistication. The “letting go” that’s required to be a great uke is precisely what is required to develop great technical ability. And the pursuit of that ethereal technical ability is what, in the end will create that personal transformation which is the whole point of the art. The only thing that will stop the process is settling for something less, rather than reaching for the sky. As Ushiro Kenji stated in his latest book, “What you know is the enemy of learning.”
So, I am hopeful that O-Senseis dream of an Aikido that does transform the world can proceed through the efforts of our teachers, like my own Sensei, and through the essential commitment that we all have to make in our own training to develop our Aikido and make that Aikido something that in the end justifies all of this time, effort, and sacrifice. In the end, it really is up to us to make this happen. Our teachers showed us but it will simply die unless we actually make it happen ourselves. That’s how the transmission works.