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Harmony, Non-contention, Non-confrontation and Non-resistance:
The Aiki Way of Life.
I've said elsewhere that studying Aikido, or any martial art, purely for self-defence or to acquire fighting skills is a bit pointless. It's akin to walking around with a life jacket on in the off chance there's a flood because it's so rare to be physically threatened. If anything Aikido has prevented more fights than it's won because it's given people what I'm about to talk about here; put simply Aikido is the gateway to a powerful way of handling life.
Often people, me included, decide that we need to study a martial art to feel safe, we like the idea that we can develop fighting skills that will keep us safe from the dangers we feel we are potentially facing. We like the idea that we can become more powerful than others, more in control than others. For a human being to keep training for this reason is really quite difficult; they need a real sense of paranoia, an actual genuine fear that they could be attacked despite the reality that they never are attacked.
The rest of us, often uncomfortably, come to the realisation that in training to fight we're training for an event that probably won't happen. It's not easy acknowledging that your amazing fighting skills have no purpose because there is no-one to fight when you may have spent years, decades even, developing them. Often martial artists will solve this apparent problem by seeking someone to fight, they'll climb into the ring to beat someone up to justify learning how to fight, and often in the name of "realistic training" that they're sure they'll need when, eventually, they're attacked. Curiously none of this "realistic training" ever seems to involve knives and multiple attackers, because this would involve running away, which negates the need to learn fighting skills and returns the martial artist to the original problem of not having any reason to learn how to fight!
This is actually the opposite of Aikido because it flies in the face of the reality of most people's daily experiences and so is completely irrational. Why study an art to avoid being beaten up and then place yourself in a position where you will, win or lose, be beaten up, probably for a plastic trophy? Aikido is a bit more pragmatic and rational. The reality is you're unlikely to ever be in a physical fight; so far you've obviously managed to survive any physical fights that you have been in, despite your lack of training. So why would you go looking to create a fight? If you're going to study conflict and violence would it not be more sensible and more intelligent, if less gratifying for the ego, to use that study to learn how to avoid and resolve conflict and prevent violence? Is that not more powerful than the power to beat someone up who's trying to beat you up? If you wish to avoid harm the best way is not to get into fights.
You should be thinking that you can do that already without learning Aikido and it should be true. So why even bother with Aikido? The answer is simple but the reasoning behind it is quite complex. Aikido is a "do" art, a path; a philosophy a way of living; its physical techniques and the practices surrounding them are teaching tools to teach that philosophy as well as teaching martial skills. Judo, Karate-do and Kendo also have this kind of aim but their philosophical side is much less developed and pronounced; they're content to train a person to be a healthy and productive member of society. Aikido goes much further in that it is a complete philosophy that, supposedly, can lead to complete enlightenment.
Now before we go further I think I should say that I'm not talking about religion here and none of this will be forced upon you or, to be honest, even taught in class. This essay is all the result of my own private research if you have an interest in the philosophical side and you want to study it, you'll have to do it yourself. Personally I think it's worth it, it will really help you get to grips with the physical side of things, but that's just my personal opinion.
So what are we talking about when we talk about Aikido philosophy? Well like virtually all East Asian philosophies it's purely pragmatic; it's nuts and bolts ideas on dealing with life. To my way of thinking it's virtually identical to Daoism and some teachings of Buddhism, which is hardly surprising given that they are two of the most influential philosophical systems in East Asia.
At the core of Aikido philosophy is the concept of non-resistance or harmony; O-Sensei talked about being in harmony with the universe, not contending with the universe and so on. My take on this is that a better way of putting it would have been that it's foolish to try and contend or resist reality and that if a person is in harmony with reality that they are incredibly powerful and virtually undefeatable because they do not put themselves in a position where they can be defeated. In physical Aikido if you are somewhere that allows the opponent to fight back you are in the wrong place, so it is in Aikido philosophy also.
Again this sounds pretty obvious, most of us are mentally healthy individuals, we cannot be said to be delusional or insane; we are very much in touch with reality. Or so we think. The truth is that we are very much in touch with our personal reality and we tend to think of this as universal reality and anyone who's reality is different we refer to as idiots or similar. This is because our experiences and our knowledge act as a filter through which all the information which comes into our brain must pass. Each of us, therefore, has our own reality and not all personal realties are equal. Take, for example, an anorexic girl. In her reality she is obese and needs to lose weight, but then other people have realities where they are the best thing since sliced bread. The difference between "success" and "failure" in life is often to be found in the reality of the individual, confident people do better than people that lack confidence. Each of us cherry pick what we accept and reject based on our personalities, each of us fights an unending battle with reality in an attempt to shape it to match how we want it to be and the battle is mentally draining and exhausting. In some cases the battle is actually life threatening, how many people die each year from stress related illness? As a result of this battle we live in fear constantly; humans as a whole are excellent at finding something to worry about; we're especially good at worrying about things we can't control because we don't know what to do about them. Well actually we like to fight the reality that we are not all powerful beings that can control everything. I don't think I'm talking about anything that most people don't know. I am, though, talking about something most people ignore.
Aikido, therefore, states the obvious: If you want to really succeed and be happy you have to get your personal desires and beliefs out of the decision making process, they cloud your ability to interact with reality effectively. Rather than helping you get to where you want to be they actually hinder you; they disrupt the natural harmony between us and reality creating resistance and contention with a force we cannot possibly hope to defeat.
In physical Aikido this is occasionally demonstrated when we face a really powerful attack. Our ego, our personality wants to be strong; it wants to show off the power it thinks it has by meeting the attack with force; it wants victory over the opponent. It contends with and resists the attack and gets hit on the head as uke powers through. The fight with reality really gets going then; all kinds of excuses are made, "you didn't attack me properly" "I wasn't ready" "I'm having an off day" whatever. The reality is more prosaic: the technique wasn't done correctly. Another example of this in the dojo is ukemi; if a technique is done powerfully by an experienced practitioner contentious resistance is impractical and uke stands a good chance of being hurt. Going back to my flood analogy, running into the oncoming tidal wave is never a good idea, surfing it is a much better survival strategy.
This is Aikido: learning to relax and mentally surf life's ups and downs; to remain in control more effectively by recognising where and when you can be in control and not resisting the reality that you can't always be in control. This is not quite the same as going with the flow; I'm not talking about being a leaf on the wind or any such airy fairy statement equivalent. A criticism made of East Asian and Indian philosophical systems is that they are passive and fatalistic; that they claim that whatever will be will be and there is nothing that can be done about it and that they therefore encourage their adherents to passively accept life. Nothing could be further from the truth. My way of explaining what these systems tend to teach can be summed up as, "Why are you battering your head against the wall when you could walk through the door?" In response to an attack an Aikidoka does not passively stand there and allow themselves to be hit, but neither do they resist. They meet and safety guide the attack out of the way as they themselves move to a position where there can be no resistance to the technique they are about to employ which, outside of a training context, is itself a product of the Aikidoka simply working with the reality of what is happening rather than a set form.
As with the body technique so it is mentally. The Aikidoka mentally accepts the attack with no desire not to be attacked and no desire to defeat the opponent, this is a partly a product of non-dualistic thinking which I talk about elsewhere. Since the Aikidoka's mind is in a state of non-resistance to the attack and non-contention with the attacker it is free from the stress of internal conflict; it is free from the fear of being attacked or the consequences of being attacked and so the Aikidoka has nothing standing between them and an effective resolution of the situation.
At some point in their training those with a serious interest in the philosophical side of Aikido will start a process known as shugyo or austere training. There's no ceremony, you're not told by Sensei to start this process; you probably won't even consciously decide to begin shugyo. That's if you enter into shugyo; many people don't. As the name suggests shugyo is a very hard slog, it is not for the faint of heart. It's at this time where all of the lessons learned in the dojo are internalised and the student takes their training out of the dojo and into everyday life. At this stage the student is consciously striving to live according to the philosophy and transform their behaviour and psychology in line with the philosophy. They start to analyse how their personal reality is different from actual reality and to correct it so that it their personal reality comes into harmony with actual reality, and to remove the blockages and mental exhaustion in their life that the conflict and resistance between personal reality and actual reality creates.
Say for instance the Aikidoka would like to be a lawyer but in their reality they're hopeless at any kind of study and so they've always considered becoming a lawyer to be something they're incapable of. During shugyo the Aikidoka will start questioning the root of this thinking to see if it is representative of reality or just a stupid thought. Perhaps they'll find that they've always lacked the ability to concentrate. During shugyo the student starts to investigate ways of correcting this and in so doing a point of resistance between them and the universe is removed and along with it the stress it causes.
Very quickly the student becomes very mentally resilient and positive as one obstacle after another is dissolved and the mind ceases to get stuck resisting and contending with what the world throws at it. Instead of having resistive thoughts such as, "Why is this happening to me?" "I'm no good at this" "I'm a failure" and the negative emotions that come with these thoughts the mind instead accepts the situation as it accepts the attack in the dojo and it focuses on finding ways around the problem as the Aikidoka in the dojo finds ways of moving around uke. The experience is not resisted it is absorbed as a learning experience. Rather than a stressful, traumatising experience problems simply become learning exercises in the same way that in the dojo you can be attacked a thousand times without the emotional reactions that would accompany a thousand street fights.