What is Aikido?

What is Aikido? After over 40 years of training in this art, I am just starting to get an idea of what this art is about, what the Aikido Founder had in mind when he formed it out of what had come before, creating something new.

Aikido is about freedom. It is about reconciling opposites, yin and yang (Japanese in / yo) and bringing about balance. This balance is never static, is always moving, changing, rebalancing, yet within that movement is something solid, seemingly immoveable.

But that seeming immovability is in itself an illusion. The principles of “movement within stillness” and “stillness within movement” are operating at all times within Aikido. In gaining an understanding of creating balance between yin and yang, which O-Sensei described in various ways, his “Heaven, Earth, Man”, his descriptions of the Shinto Kami, Izanagi and Izanami, or his use of Chinese Five Elements theory in “fire ki and water ki”, one comes to terms with “opposition” in one’s body and, by extension, one’s mind.

When the balance between “yin and yang” is achieved, opposition and struggle cease. The end point of decades of hard training, the many years of difficult work, is attainment of a balance in which opposition, contest, and dispute are replaced by a sense of one’s self at the center of everything and an unflappable sense of what that unique self is.

At the same time, there is also the understanding that every other human being is also the center of the universe, that they are also unique expressions of the variations of universal principle.

Aiko training begins with “form”. It utilizes kata to begin to develop the skill, the understanding of how to bring the oppositional forces in the body into balance. The up / down, the in / out, how the connective of the body is unified and controlled by the “intent”, etc.

There is clearly a form, ir style, if you will, to our Aikido. That’s what makes it readily identifiable as Aikido, distinct from any other martial are. Yet for over 40 years my teacher, Mitsugi Saotome Sensei, has said that Aikido “has no style”. What does he mean by that?

The Japanese have a way of describing the stages one must pass through on the way towards “mastery”, not just of a martial art, but of all arts, poetry, woodblock prints, calligraphy, tea ceremony, etc. They talk about “Shu-Ha-Ri”. The initial stage is learning the form, the “Shu” stage. Aikido uses “kata” (which actually means “form” in Japanese) to structure this training. Principle is contained within this “form” and every attack / response, every movement allows the student to identify, isolate, and imprint a particular set of principles.

While the “Shu “ stage is largely one of imitation, using one’s teacher as the model, the “Ha” stage is reached when the body / mind principles have been imprinted through daily training to the point at which they have become one’s “default setting”. One has learned to lose one’s fear and meet conflict “expansively” rather than to contract around that fear. One does not “contend” but rather “joins with” the energy of the attack (this is Aikido’s “aiki”). At this stage the practitioner can freely execute the form, the Kihon waza (essential techniques) of the art while under pressure, perhaps even in randori (multiple attacker practice) with three or four attackers.

But for Saotome Sensei, and I think the Aikido Founder would have agreed), the Shu / Ha stages are on the “path” towards true Aikido mastery but are not yet, real, true, Aikido. Because, as Saotome Sensei said, Aikido has no “style”.

Mastery of the “from” precedes the letting go of the form. As long as one is stuck in the form, style of the art, one is still limited, is essentially still imitating someone else’s Aikido. It is only at the point at which one can “let go” of the form and operate at the level of principle only that one’s Aikido becomes truly a genuine expression of one’s self.

Aikido training is not about accumulating waza (technique) endlessly. It is really about creating the “aiki body”. And since body and mind are not separate in any sense, changing the body also transforms the mind, at least if we allow it to.

One could say that, until the “Ri” stage, one is not really doing Aikido, but rather, is imitating Aikido. But by the “Ri” stage, one has lost the habit of contending. One is able to stand, calm and unflappable, at the center of the daily conflicts that surround us. The Japanese call this “fudoshin” or “immoveable mind”.

Just as one has attained an integrated structure and grounded connection in the body, the same can be said of one’s mind. One has the strong sense of self, the confidence, that allows one to stop being afraid. Because it is fear that causes violence, contention, that causes us to wall ourselves off from others.

The most powerful thing any person can do is to stop being afraid. When on is no longer afraid, one stops committing the violence against one’s fellow humans that comes with non-acceptance of who they are, of how they are trying to move through their lives as best they can. People have your acceptance, allowing them to be different without you feeling threatened. Because you understand that they too are the “center of the universe”

Aikido is fundamentally the study of “connection”/ The connection between all human beings, the connection between all living forms. The essential interconnectedness of everything.

We do not study Aikido to learn how to be “connected”. One’s practice is to understand that we are already connected and learn to stop acting as if we are separate. The “connection” is there already and always has been.

So, at the stage of real mastery of the art, in which principle can now function independent of form or style, one is “free”. Free to move as required in a martial conflict. Free regardless of how strong or how fast an attack may be.

And that freedom extends to one’s whole life. The choices before sus are infinite. One let’s go of the illusion that one “can’t” do something because of what others might think, because of their disapproval. Nor does one direct one’s actions out a desire for their approval. When one is centered, ones decisions and actions are intentional and a reflection of the genuine, true self.

When a lifetime of Aikido training has done its work, you feel free to be that true self. Your life is a genuine expression of who you are. You’ve let go of the illusion that anyone has the power to prevent you from being the person you decide to be.

Not that there aren’t difficulties. But one relates to them differently. Budo, and Aikido is definitely a Budo, teaches one to accept responsibility for one’s actions. Make a mistake and one gets struck or one’s technique doesn’t work. You don’t blame your partner when things go wrong. You accept the fact that you made an error and train harder.

So, when one is really living one’s Aikido. One has the strength to take the consequences of one’s decisions. One might choose to take an unpopular position, to make a difficult decision that might have negative consequences for oneself. But because one is no longer afraid and is making decisions intentionally and not out of “reaction” against anything, one is willing to take responsibility for one’s actions and their consequences. One can live consciously and intentionally.

Most people live in a constrained world. They live much of their lives pursuing rewards offered by others and trying to avoid negative interactions with others. They are outwardly passive about the circumstances of their lives but are really living in daily resistance to their own lives. They don’t like where they are but fear the consequences of risking change.

People who live this way are fearful and angry. They perpetuate the violence done to them by turning around on others. This cycle continues through the generations until individuals choose to break it.

The “personal power” that comes with mastery of the principles of Aikido allows one to stop that destructive cycle. One no longer is compelled to respond to attack with another attack. This why Aikido is often called “the Art of Peace”. One can choose to stand immoveable if the situation requires or one can move, to change one’s position if that’s what seems appropriate. The sen of being “centered” means that wherever you are is OK.

I believe that the study of Aikido is about the acquisition of “old knowledge”. So much of it seems out of sync with all that we see in modern life. There is no “fast track”, no “one minute” Aikido. One does not complete the course and graduate.

Aikido is a “Michi”, a lifelong spiritual “path”. As a Budo, the practice informs every aspect of one’s life. It takes decades of continuous commitment.

In our modern technological / scientific world, the pace of change rather devalues lengthy life experience. Workers can become less valuable as they stay in the job, newly trained young college kids may be more up to speed on current tech.

But in the realm of “old knowledge” this isn’t true. When one talks in terms of “Michi”, the farther down the Path one has progressed, the more one knows. One becomes more valuable with experience rather than becoming less relevant.

Because Aikido is such a “Path”, it is about how one lives one’s life rather than how new tech or some discovery changes the “stuff” in our lives. Because ultimately technology and science are largely about the material, the “stuff” in our lives. Aikido, as a “Michi”, is about how we feel about our lives and how we choose to live them.

As we advance at breakneck speed technologically we can see that people are not generally feeling more connected in their lives but rather less so. We live in a time which is desperate for a revival of “old knowledge” which focuses on how our lives are lived. People need to have an interior life which provides a grounding in a rapidly changing world. Aikido is such a “Path”.

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