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You can't see ki; can't touch it, taste it, smell it or hear it. Ki can't be measured in the physicists' lab; can't be shown to have any measurable effects on massive objects. While it is elusive in the manner of dark matter or dark energy ki can be felt by human beings. And it's at this point where many Aikido practitioners lose their way regarding ki. Invariably they are wont to ask ‘What is ki?' One might as well ask what is love or hate or envy or any other feeling. For ki is feeling. It is the feeling one has when one's mind and body are coordinated (same place, same time, same activity). Relegating ki to the realm of feelings precludes the question of whether ki has independent existence in the physical world.
Released from the burden of having to determine whether ki exists or not, the student is free to develop an understanding of what ki feels like and this is where the use of metaphor comes into play. Human beings use metaphors to explain and make sense of the universe. Metaphors can be simple such as "saving time" (good) or "wasting time" (bad). Metaphors can also be complex such as E=mc*2 (a mathematical metaphor used to show that mass and energy are inexorably related, the essence of each contained within the other). Feelings are depicted metaphorically all the time "love is sweet" and "the bitter fruit of jealousy", for example. Indeed, much of poetry is concerned with describing feelings in everyday terms through the use of metaphor. Viewing ki as a feeling allows one to create metaphors that can be employed to develop this feeling, come to an understanding of it and ultimately enhance it.
From what knowledge of ki I have accumulated over the years, I see two fundamental paradigms emerge when it comes to understanding the nature of ki. One paradigm is based on "independent ki" metaphors; the other on "dependent ki" metaphors.
Independent ki metaphors emphasize the cultivation of ki as an external resource. Concentrate ki at the one point, extend ki, let ki flow freely are all metaphors that invoke images of ki as existing independently of the Aikido practitioner. From this point of view the student is seen to be a vessel for storing and concentrating ki and also a conduit through which ki is able to flow and be directed. Ki is accorded independent existence. It has properties which can be felt by the student; properties which when cultivated allow the student to perform at a level greater than can be explained by the student's physical being alone.
Dependent ki metaphors evoke images of ki as being generated within the student's body by the correct application of principles of movement, ground path mechanisms, fascia and other structural conditioning etc. Dependent ki metaphors remove ki as existing independently of the student and replace it with ki as a generated force.
Let's look at unbendable arm for a moment in light of both classes of metaphors. When I began Aikido the first thing I was taught was unbendable arm. It was explained that I should relax, keep one point and extend ki from my center through my arm and let it go out and away. I did these things (that is I imagined what I would feel like when these things were happening) and when tested, my arm did not bend. Conversely unbendable arm could have been explained to me in terms of the juxtaposition of opposing muscle groups and how by correctly manipulating them I could keep my partner from bending my arm. Or I could have been told to let my body absorb the applied force on my arm and let the force flow through me on into the ground. In any case, translating the metaphor into the correct will result in my partner being unable to bend my arm.
These paradigms are fundamentally at odds. But isn't the conflict really illusory? We don't experience "reality" directly. We interpret sensory input in our brains and formulate our separate realities based on a host of filters and amplifiers that we have constructed over the span of our lives. The long and the short of it is we see the world metaphorically. As Aikido students, we learn to build metaphors to explain and understand the concepts ki. Who is to say that one person's ki metaphor is correct while another's is incorrect if the observed result of both students' Aikido execution is the same? If a student is taught unbendable arm using independent ki metaphors and another student is taught unbendable arm via dependent ki metaphors and when tested both students perform unbendable arm, which paradigm is right? Does it matter?