Thursday, October 1, 2009

Who is in Control?

O-Sensei said that Aikido was to be practiced joyously, yet there is no question that discipline as a necessity in any martial arts practice.  Are the points of view at odds?  It is only a light paradox at best, since---particularly in Aikido---we understand that we are training to remain calm and relaxed under extreme duress.  It becomes the instructor's job to balance the forces within the class, or perhaps to take advantage of whatever energy is present that day and to use it as part of the day's lesson.

The Situation

Today was a bit unusual:  There was a mixture of rowdy goofiness and frustrated tension among the students.  Some, in particular, were enjoying the impact of their silly behavior upon the others' frustration.  From the outside, it was clear seeing the goofiness spreading among some of the students, and it was also clear seeing the frustrated responses that at least once ended with a scream, "Knock it off!"

It all led to an interesting discussion before bowing out at the end of class.

An Appropriate Response

Aikido and Zen both seek the spontaneous and appropriate response to deal with immediate circumstances.  "Appropriate" may take any number of meanings, but it is often misunderstood in the context of popular Aikido notions of love and harmony and peaceful conflict resolution.  In the future we will discuss in more detail what we mean by an "appropriate response," but for now it is sufficient to say that an appropriate response in either practice is one that simply comes from your "center."  What does thiis mean? It is not burdened, conditioned, limited, or driven by thoughts, concepts, culture, assumptions, or anything else; rather, it is an immediate and pure response to what you are given.  Moreover, in order to achieve this, you must first have seen clearly what you are given, not superimposing thoughts, concepts, culture, assumptions, or anything else over what you experienced directly.

So, who was right and who was wrong?  In fact, it was the student who yelled "Knock it off!" who received the brunt of today's lecture.

It was already understood that the students who were acting up had lost their bearing---they were not centered, but rather were acting from positions of escalating antics, feeding on each other's enjoyment as well as the others' frustration.  What was not immediately clear was how the angry student's response was equally not clear.  While his response may have seemed justified or deemed allowable, in fact it was not a clean response; he was acting not from his center, but from a position of anger and frustration.  He had lost his bearing just as much as the others.

Is this distinction important?  Yes, it is very important, both in martial arts and in everyday life.  Consider this:  If you can be baited, your actions can be manipulated.

So, Who is in Control?

So, in any given situation, however pleasant or unpleasant and however extreme or mundane, is it you who is in control of yourself, or is it the situation that is in control of you?  Does your anger get the better of you, or can you realize that you are angry and choose an alternative course of action in response?

In Aikido, we drill different jujitsu techniques again and again and again until we internalize them, until we are able to perform them without thought.  But this in itself is not our Aikido practice.  Applying these learned techniques under extreme stress is also not our complete practice.  Rather, practicing to remain cognizant and in control of ourselves before, during, and after such a physically threatening encounter, fluidly applying and adapting those techniques and principles that we have already internalized in order to resolve the situation: this is our higher practice.

Then, if we lose ourselves in the moment, we are at least trained to defend ourselves.  In the best case, however, we are doing all of that and more: we are practicing a highly physical and engaged form of Zen practice.  We are looking to see who is in control.  This is our goal of our integrated practice.
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