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Home > Columns > Ross Robertson > August, 2004 - Aikido and Group Sects
by Ross Robertson

Aikido and Group Sects by Ross Robertson

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It's widely accepted that aikido isn't much of a solo activity. There are a handful of forms we can go through, we can swing sticks around in our backyards and scare our neighbors, and we can practice with imaginary partners in our living rooms. But the real juicy stuff comes from getting down with a group of people. Encountering other human beings provides the variety and random factor that turns simple body mechanics into an engaging dance of suspense and surprise. We go to a dojo to learn aikido, because, well -- it's really all about the interaction.

The dojo, if it is healthy, becomes a tight-knit support group of like-minded peers. In a good dojo, a sense of group identity and culture emerges. As group coherency matures, the dojo takes a life of its own. It becomes a living thing. People may come and go, but the dojo endures the same as you and I do... breathing in and breathing out.

At this point, some interesting questions begin to emerge. If it makes sense that individuals must train together to learn aikido, does it follow that groups should seek out other groups for the same reason? In other words, should the dojo group entity find a venue for interacting with other dojo? Is it necessary for the dojo get out of its own back yard and living room, and find a way to practice with others? Can aikido be practiced, not just as a group of individuals, but as a coordinated singular entity composed of individuals? What does this aikido look like?

Some dojo are insular. They may do good aikido on the mat, perhaps in their personal lives also, but as a group do not play well with others. It's their prerogative, of course, but I think they're missing a chance for a whole new level of training. Organizations and styles are formed for a variety of reasons, but in a way they all function as a kind of collective dojo for dojo. In belonging to an aikido organization, the dojo itself can learn about applying aiki principles to group interaction. Politics is one aspect of that, but also diplomacy and cultural exchange, economy, sharing of resources, and providing for common defense. Some examples are: meeting for seminars and camps, exchanging newsletters, collaborating on web sites, participating in on-line discussions, encouraging visitors and exchange programs, fund raising efforts, and so on.

How well does your dojo do aikido? How well does your organization do aikido? What is the relationship of your group to other aikido groups? How well does your organization interact with other aikido styles? To the surrounding community? To global society?

The word "organization" shares its pedigree with "organism" and "organic." There's an obvious biological analogy here: cells, organs, systems, body; body, family, community, tribe, nation, and beyond. How are these systems of scale related, integrated, and coordinated?

Some styles of aikido talk about mind and body unification. So self defense begins with the ongoing integration of one's own internal systems. Then we apply that paradigm toward interacting with others. On how many levels is this applicable? What is the nature of your group's mind and body integration? Who or what is the head? Where is the center? How well coordinated are the arms and legs? What postures are adopted, and why? Where is the heart? Are the words and actions consistent, and are they applied to a meaningful purpose?

What is so fascinating about all of this is that the very inclinations that unite us are the same forces that keep us apart. Group acceptance is fundamental to being human. But tribalism can lead to prejudice, xenophobia, and warfare.

The fact of violence forms the basis and impetus for aikido as self-defense. Kisshomaru Ueshiba once said something to the effect that all rational beings have the responsibility to accept the reality of violence and cultivate an appropriate response. So, the aikido that you and I practice together on the mat is that response. It is understood to apply within the realm of hand-to-hand personal tactics. But I often wonder if our techniques and teachings can be also learned by governments, nationalities, and military agencies. Can these be applied to increasingly macroscopic scales? For instance, the move toward technologies of less lethal, less harmful crowd engagement devices has its own potential for abuse, but it remains nonetheless a tantalizing shift in consciousness.

Of course, not all division is bad. O-Sensei named division as one of the eight forces that sustain the universe. And in nature, all growth is through division. At certain points of scale, we or our groups are sovereign independents. It is right and appropriate that when a relationship is not wise, then a separation and moving on should occur. Aikido should (and does) provide a model for how such separation can happen without harm, and without the need for imposition of one's will on another.

At whatever level, we may choose to mind our own business, and tend our own garden. This is fine. A good start, in fact. Even so, aikido is really about the interaction. Where interaction breeds cultishness, sectarianism, and insularity, then that interaction becomes incestuous. And inbreeding is the way of death. Symbiosis, cross-pollination, and frequent exchange of genes are characteristics of a healthy ecosystem.

If, as O-Sensei seemed to hope, aikido is a great gift for all humanity, we have to find ways to let it out of its cradle and help it walk. Aikido belongs in commerce, in politics, in the arts, and in all the conflicted regions of the world. Aikido completes the circle of violence and conflict by confronting it compassionately and rationally. Aikido therefore is a martial art deployed as a healing art. We have only to discover more ways and more domains in which to practice.

I would urge anyone to get up off your cozy couch and go to the dojo. But I also challenge the leaders of dojo and aikido organizations to get out of your house and take it to the streets. The world is one big mat. It's ok to take it in stages and select our encounters wisely. Establishing networks among simpatico dojo, regardless of affiliation, is the first step. Getting larger organizations to acknowledge and exchange resources with one another is the next. Plugging these meta-entities into social organizations, communities, and government agencies is the right and inevitable conclusion. Some are out there already leading the way.

At no point do we need to give up our own individuality, our sovereignty, or our group identities. Strong, self-sufficient people make strong groups, when rightly coordinated. Strong, cohesive groups have a better basis for surviving threats and for engaging in trade. So, by all means, more sects for everyone! But let's remember, it's really all about the interaction.

Ross Robertson
Still Point Aikido Center
Austin, Texas, USA

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