"Sensei, something doesn't feel right. Can you show us what we're doing wrong?"
Day in and day out, they come to class three times per week for a bit over two years. These were the words I was waiting for!
Alternating roles as attacker and defender, the pair was apparently able to complete the technique, but they understood that something was not quite right...
What Could be Wrong?
The outward forms, the physical techniques themselves, are not my own primary focus as their teacher; rather, there are the principles---the sensitivity to the changing circumstances and conditions, the connection between the attacker and defender, realization of your own self and your role in the encounter, and so forth---that are present within the martial interaction, which are my ultimate focus. Yes, the context---the physical combat---is very important, of course, and you must train to be successful there; but, can you remain conscious enough during each encounter to realize when you are "doing Aikido" versus when you are not? When you are wrestling, horns locked, versus when you are in control of yourself?
Yes, that statement was not an error. Ultimately, you may "win" or "lose" the physical encounter---Aikido does not skirt reality in this respect; however, how that win or loss occurs is a very important matter. If during the encounter you become so committed to making a particular technique work that you force it, you have lost yourself whether or not you ultimately throw or pin your partner---you've lost the Aikido. If you act out of pride, anger, or even folly to win a laugh, the result is the same: you've lost yourself whether or not you win the encounter. If you "must win," or you "must not lose"? Same thing.
I teach over time that the greatest first step toward really learning Aikido is recognizing that feeling when you are have fallen from a relaxed, somewhat effortless state, into wrestling. It takes time to reach even this point within the context of a very physical, sometimes painful encounter: The framework---some tangible martial techniques themselves---have to be internalized and have to be functional in an encounter even when that special feeling of "Aikido is happening" is not present. Once internalized such that performance does not rely upon conscious attention and thought, we can free the mind to shape and adjust the encounter by shaping and adjusting our response. Techniques---the forms---fall away; the principles become the tools that are available to us. In this state, we can begin to observe our own minds---checking where our attention is, checking what our intention is---and we can begin to recognize when we are actually performing Aikido. Moreover, we begin to recognize when those with whom we interact are actually present (or, "centered") or trapped in a chain of thought and action. Here is where we can begin to master ourselves regardless of our circumstances, and here is where we can begin to bring others to this same realization.
... and one sign that the student is reaching this level may well be the utterance, "Something doesn't feel right..."
How wonderful for us all!!! I have a few students who are now ready to begin!
Integrating Mind & Body
As an aside, the self-defense aspects are not ancillary on this particular path. It is often heard in Aikido circles that this martial art is concerned with "integrating the mind and body." For this to be true, it is sensible to assume that both mind and body need be present in the training. In general, my body can do its thing regardless of whether my mind wanders about. Similarly, focusing the mind on something does not guarantee I will stop breathing, for instance, or even trip when walking a simple path---things I know well. Sometimes the body can lead the mind ("I'm hungry!"), interrupting the work of the mind; sometimes the mind can lead the body ("Let's see if they have a book about Aikido on the shelves..."); but, the body can generally do what the body knows how to do without much active input from the mind, and vice versa.
If I am walking down the block, though, and I become captivated by a passing pretty girl, I may well walk into a telephone pole---an unfavorable outcome of mind and body not integrated.
If we pick an activity that the body understands, we can use it as a platform to investigate the interaction of mind and body. If we begin with a martial art but ignore the reality of a physical encounter, we are at best training our mind alone---we are not training our mind to remain present when our body is stressed as when we are under physical attack. Similarly, if we only train physically, ignoring the mind's role, when under even just verbal attack, the body may interpret conditions of attack and respond as it has been trained---physically. By training them together, we create the conditions to practice recognizing different kinds of "assaults"---or, stimuli---to our person that stress us, and to respond spontaneously and appropriately without being caught up and swept away in the encounter.
If we train to maintain this consciousness during extreme duress, we hope we may carry over this awareness to the more mundane activities---or, from a different perspective, we may see the formerly mundane everyday life activities now with as much acuity as we experience when under physical attack!
There are, of course, less physically stressful paths to learning these skills. Activities such as kyudo (archery), shodo (calligraphy), chado (tea ceremony), and ikebena (flower arranging) from Japanese heritage do the same work on the individual---bringing full presence to the physical activity in which you are engaged. Even one popular Zen practice of shikantaza (a "just sitting" form of Zen meditation) gives the practitioner the opportunity to practice with the mind while performing an activity requiring no mastery of fancy pins and throws---just sitting down! Doing the dishes and vacuuming may not have fancy titles, but they can be practiced similarly. Each can be surprisingly complicated to perform with mind and body integrated. Each is a practice in being present in what you are doing in your daily life, however seemingly exalted or mundane.
Not one is an exercise in being present in pretending to do something else...
... though, yes: being fully present in the conscious act of pretending is a loophole we can discuss another day.
The body is not here while the mind is there and the body is not there while the mind is here; they are together. Whatever one may call the activity you are doing, be fully engaged.
Aikido at the Baltimore Zen Center
While I introduce these more esoteric concepts slowly to my youngsters in my homeschool Aikido class, I am working to start an Aikido practice group at the Baltimore Zen Center (913 Reece Road, Severn, MD 21144) that explores this particular aspect of Aikido in the context of Zen studies. We are currently meeting MWF 7-9 p.m. at a price of $75 per month to help support the activity and the center. We invite people who would like to make this the primary focus of their Aikido training as well as people who would like to practice with us as an adjunct to their current training (in Aikido or any other martial art) to contact us for details. We are also interested in connecting with people elsewhere with similar focus or an interest in this activity. Again, feel free to contact us!