Thursday, June 11, 2009

Aikido: Uke, Nage, and Mushin

The following is a bit ugly and unpolished, though hopefully useful in draft form. The short essay is part of an on-going discussion between Ron Ragusa and me on AikiWeb. Most recently, we are considering the roles of uke and nage---are they two sides of the same coin?---and we are questioning whether it is necessary to "hold" the state of mushin. Here are my latest thoughts:

Before there can be "just aikido," there is "learning aikido," which generally includes principles and techniques as well as the roles of uke and nage.

In "learning aikido," it is useful to experience "completely centered" and "completely committed" as two extremes of the "placement" of attention / intention---or "ki." I might call the absence of any particular intention or any particular attention to something---such as an adversary's wrist or weapon---mushin, or "completely centered;" and, I might call the laser-like focus upon something---such as "I will grab his wrist!"---"completely committed."

I believe that one type of valuable uke-nage interaction is for uke to practice being completely committed and for nage to practice being completely centered. Practicing in this extreme way, at whatever speed, is often perceived to be ridiculous from the self-defense or martial point of view; however, from the perspective of learning what it is to have mind and body integrated, learning what it is to be led (or, to have "ki led") versus what it is to be "centered," this is very valuable training.

In never practicing this way, we may never sense the full range of the continuum of attention / intention; however, in only practicing this way, we are subject to an equally terrible error: We may develop the habit either of always yielding / being led, or always remaining firm, seeing only the extremes, unable to handle situations in between.

In training we eventually experience what one might consider a third state: distraction. Whether distraction occurs by virtue of something "real" to the encounter such as the momentary blinding by a bright light," or by virtue of something "not real" to the encounter, such as wondering what is for dinner, we should see it for what it is, something essentially no different than focusing upon your adversary's grip or trying to make that technique work, knocking you from your centered (or focused) state most unproductively. Here again, though, if we can recognize the affects of distraction upon our state of mind and body, we can learn to use distraction to our advantage as well as not to be hindered by it.

As we progress from "learning aikido" toward "just aikido," I believe the roles of uke and nage naturally (and, hopefully) tend to dissolve in advanced practice. More time for both players is spent in mushin, attachment to distractions as well as to outcomes of launched attacks and defenses is relaxed, and focused intent becomes more of an impulse rather than sustained effort. This is not to say that attacks or defenses are necessarily less powerful; rather, like shooting an arrow, we are at the ready, and when an opening is noted, the arrow is let loose with only an impulse. Like this, the body is set into motion and immediately returns to its centered state, ready to adjust the action, to deal with a counter, or to launch the next blow. Every action, then, is generated from the centered state; this is mind and body integrated without resistance. Releasing focus upon performing a particular technique---once there is physical competence with that technique, of course---as nage, and feeling when your opponent is off-balanced in performing a technique upon you as uke, this is the foundation for being sensitive to changing conditions, which in turn is the root of changing technique (henka waza) and reversal (kaeshi waza) practices on the mats---as well as the prevention of the same.

Consider an example: I am not persisting with the Ikkyo technique, simply because I am doing Ikkyo---I am not doing anything. I launched what you might call "Ikkyo" (if you were forced to classify it) and returned to center; the body knows the rest from practice, and it is open to what happens next through relaxed mushin. To say, "I am doing Ikkyo," or forcing an interaction to resemble a model Ikkyo, or driving on toward completing a model Ikkyo past when the interaction calls for it or past it being an appropriate response, are all actions rooted in thought, concepts, and ideas, rather than the the situation and your center. Mushin is long gone; seasoned practitioners know the resulting difference in feeling.

The question has also been raised regarding whether mushin is something to be pursued or whether it is something that appears quite naturally when necessary. The active pursuit of being centered is in itself an off-balancing activity by definition---after all, we are focused upon the activity; however, in much the way that medicines are poisons to what they cure, there are focused practices to bring about centeredness. Does mushin naturally appear when needed? Insomuch as mushin is related to that "everything was moving in slow motion"-type experience we feel under extreme circumstances, I suppose it does; however, we should consider these points:

(1) Does mushin's appearance guarantee action, let alone an appropriate action? The clarity to see something falling and to grab it---is this mushin or simply instinct? What if the falling object was a hot pan from the stove? Can we improve the appropriateness of our responses with practice?

(2) Is there value in maintaining mushin under other-than-extreme circumstances? Arguably, most people spend most of the time distracted by some combination of their own senses and their own thoughts---sleep walking, so to speak. Is there value in practicing to maintain centered awareness under more ordinary circumstances?

It is hard to imagine an answer other than "yes" to either question.

But this discourse is very cloudy in itself. Let's consider a different way of responding: If you asked me, "Are the roles of uke and nage the same or different?" and I responded, "I hate when my partner throws himself," would you appreciate the meaning now given the above?


Ron said...

Lots of food for thought Joe, couple of comments.

You wrote, in part, "(1) Does mushin's appearance guarantee action, let alone an appropriate action? The clarity to see something falling and to grab it---is this mushin or simply instinct?"

Comparing mushin to instinct in this way brings about a clash of orders of hierarchy, in my mind anyway. Mushin is a state of being, that of no-mindedness, while instinct is a classification of certain types of behavior. I believe that instinctive behavior, which by definition precludes conscious intent, is predicated upon the state of mushin already being in evidence. Put in terms of a metaphor, I view mushin as a backdrop or coordinate system upon which events play themselves out, not as an active determiner of outcome. The hot pan falling off the stove analogy goes to the question of choice which is based on learned behavior. For instance, someone with no knowledge of heat who has never been burned may simply reach out and grab the pan in a state of mushin (just like I did with the die careening off the table) and end up getting burned in the process. Repeat the experiment and I expect that same person’s experience with getting burned will cause an override of the no-minded state, evoking the more appropriate response of letting the pan fall to the floor. Change the experiment slightly and put a child in the path of the falling pan and the person may override the override and grab the pan in spite of the danger of being burned in order to save the child, all of which will happen with no conscious thought.

You wrote, “(2) Is there value in maintaining mushin under other-than-extreme circumstances?” Quite frankly I don’t see how anyone could function on a daily basis in a state of continuous mushin. The state of no-mindedness precludes so much of what we, as thinking, reasoning human beings do, as to be a pretty impractical state of being for normal everyday living.

Ordinary Joe said...

Just a quick response---all I have time for right now---before I give your comment some deeper consideration, Ron:

For part 1, I agree with the basic premise that we have available what we've practiced or experienced, not necessarily anything else. What is notably absent, though, is any mental obstacle that either obstructs or compels action.

For part 2, mushin is just one, named, of state of mind. So is full concentration. So is completely distracted. One is not inherently good or bad; they're all naturally occurring, after all. I suspect that there is value in practicing the first two, though, and training ourselves to recognize when we are distracted.

A good scenario to consider is driving: Full concentration, or full immersion in driving is simply too exhausting. That's the state that student drivers are in when learning the skills, integrating sensory information, and so forth. Mushin is available to the experienced driver as a base state---"just driving." The radio is on, no big deal. Easy conversation, no big deal. We're basically alert and safe without concentration. Concentration on an aspect of driving, such as focusing upon the speedometer, takes away from what is happening outside the window. Similarly, text messaging may be a distraction that does the same. A pretty girl walking by may distract from what is happening inside the car. All can break mushin. But in this state, we can identify and shift our focus to different things as necessary, and we can recognize when distraction is happening, all as a matter of choice rather than habit.

From this reference scenario, mushin is the preferred natural state. Note that I am not saying that mushin is avoiding doing what is necessary (even if that is focusing upon something), since the conscious act of avoiding something is in itself a distraction that breaks mushin. For example, if I am thinking, "I'd better not read that text message in this traffic," I am already distracted by the thought---I am not fully driving.

I doubt that is the best explanation, but I'll reconsider a bit later. Feel free to comment in between, though!

Spread the Aiki said...

Let me take the driving example one step further and examine the case where the driver actually, say, looks at his or her cellphone or at the pretty girl walking by for the sake of clarification.

'Breaking' mushin does not occur simply by reading the text message or looking at the pretty girl. If either of these actions occurs within the 'observer' perspective free from emotion or intention, then the state persists. As such, it seems to me that mushin is a state that is preferable to any other mental state, regardless of the activity.

Is this a rehash of what you were trying to say or am I moving in a different direction?

Ordinary Joe said...

Whether your eyes are open or closed, you are seeing. Whether your ears are unobstructed or plugged, you are hearing. All the machinery for seeing and hearing is operating just the same.

I am typing a response to you. I am sitting in a room void of furniture. Noticing that there is no furniture broke my "just responding." The noticing "took my mind," albeit very briefly. Fortunately, I recovered!

But what about before there was no furniture? I don't mean when someone else lived here; rather, I mean while I was typing to you: was there furniture or was there no furniture? Depending on how you would like to define mushin, you could say that neither answer is correct.

The pretty girl and the incoming text message: are they there or are they not there when you are just driving?

Between "just driving" and "just reading the text message," what happened?

Ordinary Joe said...

Ah - meant to say that neither answer is completely correct nor completely incorrect in the case of the empty room. The matter of how to finish answering such a question is greatly considered in rigorous practice of koans in Zen.