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Home > Columns > Ross Robertson > May, 2005 - Get With It
by Ross Robertson

Get With It by Ross Robertson

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We humans are linguistic creatures. Much of the quality of our experience is dictated by the language we use to process input. This, in turn, dictates the quality of our action. Aikido is itself a kind of language, and we can find some useful insights if we look at it in terms of linguistic structures. For this article, I'm going to be focusing on the prepositional nature of aikido.

Prepositions, as you no doubt remember, are those words which describe spatial relationships between objects, and may also indicate relative direction of movement or energy flow. It makes a difference if you take candy from a baby, or take candy to a baby. It matters if you throw a rock to me, or throw a rock at me.

With good aikido, everything becomes more and more with. You can certainly do things to your partner -- you can twist their arm, you can lock their joints, throw them, pin them, etc. And without a doubt this is how much of our training proceeds. And yet there is a tremendous shift in the dynamic as soon as we give up trying to do anything to them at all. Once we decide to abandon our addiction to controlling others, we are free to focus on that which really matters: controlling ourselves.

In order to do this, we must be moving with the energy around us. We must fit in with our surroundings. We cannot always control what our attacker is doing, but we usually can control our ability to work with a situation. In practical terms, it amounts to identifying a force, opening to it, joining with it, and eventually letting it go after it has reached a grounded state. My attacker punches at me, but I move and punch with my attacker. We punch together, in the same general direction, towards a mutually safe open space. My attacker pushes at me, and I turn and push with my attacker. My attacker grabs and pulls me into them, I relax and enter toward them, finding appropriate openings to fit into. My attacker holds me and tries to immobilize me, I relax and stand still, just being with them.

The paradox is that if I do these things properly, control with the attacker results. Once we are joined, once we are really working together, I can steer the situation toward favorable conclusions. Moreover, as the dynamic unfolds, and particularly if the attacker is very persistent, things will happen that may look exactly as if I were doing things to them. An arm may twist, joints may lock, they may fall down or flip themselves through the air. Yet I am not doing these things to them. And just as essential, I am not forcing them to do these things to themselves. All I am really doing is moving with them, in balance, and toward balance.

Certainly other prepositions may be brought into play along the way. In order to steer the flow of energy I may indeed have to do something to something to direct the course. The analogy of driving a car may serve. I do small things to the system that is the car: I press on the gas pedal, I apply the brakes, I turn the steering wheel, perhaps I shift the gears. But even here I'm working with the design and harmony of the system. Imagine instead if I were to push the car to make it go, pull with all my might to make it stop, or try to manipulate the front tires directly to make a turn. Theoretically it could be done, but it is more likely that the system will get out of control, and I may get run over in the process.

Finally, it's important to point out that no matter how with it we are, we are likely to find that we need an appropriate exit strategy. We move out of with to from. We let our partners move away from us, we free ourselves from an attempted immobilization, we let go and walk away from a pin.

Still, during the period of engagement, working with the system is the defining characteristic of aikido.* Regardless of combat and self-defense, we generally experience many things that seem beyond our control. Whenever we ask, despairingly, "Why is this happening to me?" we experience life from the victim's point of view. If we can change our language on a deep level, and say instead, "Well, this is quite the situation I've gotten myself into, I wonder how I can work with it?" then we may begin to focus on opportunities presented by the crisis itself.

Inevitably there will still be many situations where we must exert a superior force or skill to prevail. But even then, the discipline of working with can help us assess how best to use force appropriately, and recognize when the situation has changed such that equilibrium and flow are again possible.

After all, aikido is not about negating force, but about working with it.

* How can we reconcile this with the knowledge that terrible things occur when we go along with oppressive social systems? How can we make sure that these strategies are not used to justify the actions of, for example, Nazi collaborators during WWII? Must we abandon the path of aikido if we find ourselves a part of a system that must rationally and sanely be opposed?

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