A Perspective on Training
By Bob Jones
AIKIDO is a word made from three words: AI, KI and DO.
AI means fit or harmony. Many people will find it surprising that the name of a martial art begins with the idea of harmony.
KI can mean feeling or spirit. It also means energy, not the energy studied by science but a vitality that is more felt then seen. It is something that must be known directly, from the inside out. Though its effects can be observed, as displays of energy in the scientific sense, it is basically something inward.
Since ki means feeling or spirit as well as subtle energy, the best definition of the word might be 'felt energy' or 'spiritual force.' Actually, this is the second best definition. The best is the experience of ki itself: the feeling of present aliveness, the sense of life emerging from secret regions. One of the aims of aikido is to awaken this direct knowledge of life-energy.
If ai is combined with ki, the result is aiki: harmonious energy, the spiritual vitality akin to love. In this respect Morihei Ueshiba, founder of aikido, often referred to ai as love. This is not just one sort of spiritual energy among many; it is the only spiritual energy. Consequently, the word aiki can be understood as a kind of equation: ai = ki.
But that is only one understanding of the word. The word aiki has the sense of bringing together conflicting sides. This suggests a type of peace-keeping - another surprising association for a martial art! Nonetheless, it is true that most aikidoists (aikidoka) think of themselves as peacemakers.
The idea of harmonising ki can be related to the Chinese practice of blending yin and yang (in and yo in Japan). Active and passive, male and female, yin and yang aspects of ki are brought together in a loving or harmonious relationship, where apparent differences are seen as complementary features of a single thing. In aikido, this harmonising takes place between mind and body, thoughts and emotions, ideals and actions, one person and another, self and world. An all-round state of harmony is sought.
However, the main harmony that is wanted is between self (more accurately, the ego or thinking self) and ki. Ultimately, everything is ki. There is nothing apart from spiritual energy, and the basic character of this energy is the same for all people and things. The feeling self knows this in its own simple fashion. If it is not confused by thoughts, it tends to live in harmony with itself, other people and the world. But the thinking self sees hard divisions between this and that. If it recognises spiritual energy at all, it sees a great many spiritual energies, most of them at war with the others. Because it sees such hard divisions, and because it tends to take charge of things, it twists original energy and makes it flow in an unnatural or complicated manner so that one person's ki seems to be at odds with another person's ki, and even with the world. The result is disharmony, warfare.
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The simple solution is to do away with ego or the thinking self. But that is not aiki; that is not harmony. The thinking self is also ki: spiritual energy that has somehow twisted back on itself and become confused. It needs to wake up to its true nature as ki. It needs to untwist itself enough to begin to function as one with the feeling self and the entire universe of ki. When it does, it realises that the sense of an isolated 'I AM' is only a stage in the growth of a more intelligent feeling self, where ki becomes clearly individuated yet just as clearly a part of everything else. It realises that thought is only a step along a path that leads to a world of intelligent feeling selves, each different from the others but each aware of a basic unit.
Theoretically, it should be possible for thinking to wake up to itself through simple reflection, as sometimes happens in Zen mediation. But this rarely happens. Thinking is too clever for its own good, to the extent that bright people are often the most ignorant in spiritual terms. If this were not the case, how could the atomic bomb have been invented?
If ego formed a mutually alliance with feeling there would also be an awakening, as in the case of great poets, such as Matsuo Basho or William Shakespeare, or as in the case of many humanitarians and religious people. Unfortunately, feeling is easily led by thought, easily enlisted in its cause. Most highly emotional people do not become great poets or saints; they become great egotists who have strong feelings about their private ambitions.
What is needed is a simpler approach, where thoughts and feelings can be met in their simplest forms. Most of us do not have complicated ideas about our bodily movements. We just move. We do not see our movements as being closely related to our egos, even though they are in fact direct expressions of who we are. Aikido masters do not need to be depth psychologists or personal confidants; they know students inside-out, simply from the way they walk and hold themselves. To a lesser degree, everybody reads people in this fashion. In any case, we tend not be as attached to our bodily movements as to our thoughts and feelings; they seem somehow extra. Therefore we can be shown how to move in new ways without feeling inwardly threatened. The result is that we can begin to discover new things about ourselves and the world, and this brings about a gradual change. Because there is a direct connection between body and mind, a change in the body's habits also brings about a change in thinking and feeling.
Of course not everybody is so accessible where the body is concerned. For many people, the body is the chief treasure - or greatest curse; it is the self-image, full stop. Even so, it is something definite and tangible. Unlike thoughts and feelings, it is out in the open for everyone to see. Consequently, it is a more or less an objective standard of reference. Either we look a certain way or we do not. Either we can move in a certain fashion or we cannot.
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True, people can imagine all sorts of things about their bodies, and usually do. Beginners in aikido hardly live in their real bodies at all; they believe that they are performing certain movements when in fact they are doing something completely different. Nonetheless, it is usually possible to show them the truth of the matter. If nothing else works, a video recording settles the question once and for all. In other words, there is something definite to refer to, which is rarely the case with respect to thoughts and feelings.
At the same time vigorous physical practice provides an opportunity for getting outside our heads and discovering something else. Though aikido practice is strenuous and often uncomfortable, especially in the beginning (though, in all honesty, discomfort never disappears), it is also fun. It is a relief to put our usual thoughts and worries behind us and simple to train.
In working with our bodies and the bodies of our partners, we become very simple. We discover that there is an entire universe outside of what we normally think and feel. At first, this seems purely physical: a world of sights and sounds and smells; a world of sweating and puffing and grunting. But gradually something else emerges as well: a sense of peace, a sense of openness, a sense of naturalness and freedom, a sense of aliveness, a sense of things coming into being in every moment - magically, without effort tor plan. Though this is essentially a feeling, like our emotions, there is nothing private, egoistic or subjective about it, as is often the case with emotions.
Our usual feelings, under the direction of thought, tend to close us off, tend to reinforce the notion of being a particular person in opposition to others. The feeling in question opens and includes. It is not my feeling; it is life-feeling. It is the feeling we get while walking through a rainforest or looking out across the ocean. It is nature - not as a collection of plants and animals but as a single spirit or energy that belongs to the whole.
So physical practice works in two ways. First, it provides a more or less objective arena for observing ourselves: our ordinary thoughts and feelings, our limitations and illusions. Second, it provides a hint of 'something else': a different way of being, a sense of ourselves that is wider and deeper than ego, a feeling that goes beyond ordinary emotion. Gradually, little by little, these two work together to bring about an overall change. But only if we commit ourselves to practice...
DO is sometimes translated as 'art.' In fact, it comes from the Chinese term 'tao' which means 'path' or 'way.' In China and Japan, an art is less a matter of end-products than of pursing an on-going atonement, a certain spirit or feeling that unfolds like a path, a spirit that leads us deeper into nature. If this atonement results in paintings and poems, or in mastery of a sword, so much the better; such displays can be useful guideposts to others who follow the same path. Nonetheless, they are only guideposts. The real aim of following a path is simply to follow it: to live in the experience of travelling this route. The more you follow a certain spirit, the more you become it. If you follow the spirit of freedom, you become a free spirit. If you follow the sense of ki (not really different from freedom), you begin to experience yourself as ki.
Though the do of aikido initially means practice in a dojo or training hall, it gradually extends into everyday life a swell. It is impossible to practice aiki in a dojo and forget all about it when you step outside. That is not to say that you go round throwing people in everyday life. Rather, the sense of blending and flowing gets carried out into the world. Aikido becomes a way of living.
The only thing that matters is to keep following the path. It does not matter if people do well or poorly. So long as they continue practising and remain open to new discoveries, they are on the path and the path keeps opening. Generally, the path does not begin until people give up trying to decide whether or not they like it, whether or not they are really cut out for it and whether or not it is the best path to follow. The minute people stop trying to make up their minds, the minute they stop looking for reasons and rewards, the minute they simply train - then the journey begins, though it may take months or even years for people to reach this stage.
No one ever arrives at the end of this path. No one who is serious wants to arrive at the end. Whoever is serious wants to become part of a path that goes on forever.
AIKIDO is the path of loving vitality. It is the path of harmonising oneself with ki.
No long-time aikidoist will argue with this definition, though most will object to the long explanation that precedes it. They will object because it is an explanation rather than a direct experience.
Explanations can be right or wrong. A scientist might easily show that ki has no foundation in scientific fact - save that aikidoists do seem to be very fluid and limber! But it is hard to question what you know directly. Maybe the words you use to describe this knowledge are illogical but the knowledge itself is true. The language of feeling is not the language of science; it is based on shared experience rather than on logic.
As a long-time aikidoist myself, I am not happy with my explanation. If you are interested in aikido I would prefer to work out with you rather than talk. Nonetheless, I see that words can be useful, especially in the early stages of practice. The ego or thinking self will not do anything until it is satisfied that it has something to gain. The explanation I have given is food for thought. Now it is time to practice!
Bingil Bay, Australia