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Home > Columns > Ross Robertson > September, 2005 - Revolution
by Ross Robertson

Revolution by Ross Robertson

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Astronomer Copernicus: Conversation with God
Jan Matejko (1872)

For many centuries, it was generally believed that the Earth was at the center of all things. Although a handful of others had suggested otherwise, it wasn't until Copernicus that a rigorous proof to the contrary was established. His great astronomical work, de Revolutionibus, was published in 1543 (the same year that he died). In it, Copernicus proposed the radical notion that the sun, not the earth, was the center of "The world". Although it took many years for his ideas to become widely accepted, he changed forever the way humans view their place in the cosmos.

Of course, he too was wrong.

In aikido, the concept of the center is essential. The center of the human body, when standing, is understood to be within the hip or lower abdominal region. It is commonly referred to as the seika no itten (One-Point), or seika tanden, or simply hara (abdomen). Students of anatomy locate this same center precisely by intersecting the body with three imaginary planes. The human form is visualized in a neutral standing posture, with the palms turned forward. One plane evenly distinguishes the left and right sides, another the top and bottom, and the third divides (or unites, if you prefer) the front and the back.

For the technically inclined, these are respectively called the Sagittal, Transverse, and Coronal Planes. They define the major divisions of the body shown in the illustration, below. The intersection of any two of these planes creates a line or axis around which revolution is possible. And the point where all three intersect is the geometric center of the body.

Major Divisions of the Body
Illustration by the author

Now, of course all of this is idealized. The body moves and assumes different postures and forms. The center is always necessarily in the center (by definition) regardless of how one is posed. In that sense, the center never moves, but the various parts of the body move around it and change their relationship to it. So, if there is a movement away from neutral posture, a shift occurs so that the whole body is now differently located about the center. For example, bending forward at the waist moves the coronal plane forward and lowers the transverse plane a bit. Standing on the left leg while raising the right knee and holding the right arm out to the side must necessarily cause of shift in the sagittal plane, which will now be centered on the left foot. Try it for yourself and see if you can observe the changes.1

So, although we may understand the idea of the center to be an absolute fixed point relative to its changing surroundings, it is clearly a mistake to think that this point is always in the same location in the body. In the classic rolling posture, for instance, the center is somewhere forward of the abdomen in free space -- not inside the body at all, but rather in "body space." If we are to agree that the study of the center is important in our training, then it is necessary to abandon simplistic and false ideas about it.

The vast majority of aikido practice is oriented toward making one's personal center the dominant center of the system. Uke and tori each have a center from which they are operating. As these centers interact to create a combined system, we may become vaguely aware that a third center has been established. In the system, each of the player's own center is the end of a polar axis, and the third center is in the middle of that axis.

Nevertheless, most aikido practice is aimed at preserving one's personal center while destabilizing the attacker from their own center. Perhaps with a more sophisticated awareness, we may learn to control this "third" center from where we are, but we remain firmly fixed around our own center. We expect uke to orbit around us, and we expect the center of the system to orbit around our own. Or we enter into their space with the intent to override their own center. And clearly, spectacularly effective results can be obtained from this method.

Even so, there is an argument to be made that this is the same mistake as the pre-Copernicus view of the universe.

When two bodies2 connect and interact, they create a single system. It does not matter if these bodies are walking hand-in-hand, or dancing, making love, wrestling, or playing aikido. The two bodies make a single unit. This is the blending, joining, awasu, or ki-musubi that is spoken of in aikido. This system now has its own top and bottom, this side and that side (left and right may no longer apply). For a system in motion, "front and back" is more a matter of which way the system is moving than it is which way the players are facing. By now it should be obvious that this system can be visualized with its own planes, axes, and center.

In a single body, the parts work together coherently if the body is to be coordinated. Changes in position and posture are felt and accommodated by the rest of the body. An arm raises, the leg muscles adjust. Similarly, where two people engage to make a single system, if one moves in such a way as to affect the center, the other must make a corresponding move. The accommodating move need not be identical to its counterpart. It just needs to be appropriate to keeping the parts in balance.

If we appreciate this deeply, aikido is no longer about controlling the other person's center. It's about behaving in such a way as to keep the system coordinated, integrated, and in balance until a natural separation occurs. Even if one side of the system attempts to attack the other side, the correct response is not to control, throw, or subdue the attacker, but rather to make the necessary adjustments to keep the system coordinated.

To do this successfully requires us to continue to move appropriately with regard to our own center. This is the nature of our training and is a simple expression of masakatsu agatsu. We do not control uke's center. We do not attempt to control the system's center. We realize the system's center is something shared but not owned. While thus engaged, we orbit around this shared center, and not the other way around.

Centuries ago, people functioned well enough under the illusion of a geocentric universe. Similarly, aikidoists can continue to do good aikido from an egocentric worldview. Many will no doubt prefer it even when shown the alternative.

Copernicus had the acumen to recognize that things didn't add up quite right. He knew that a more accurate system could be found, one that was closer to the truth. His heliocentric view paved the way for a more cosmocentric understanding, where the center is truly everywhere.

Copernicus was more right in his understanding of the universe and his place in it than his contemporaries. He was able to show that the planets revolve around the sun instead of everything revolving about the earth. Technically, he was wrong in some ways. A planet does not revolve around the sun, but instead they revolve together around a common center. It's because of the sun's greater mass that this common center is very close to the sun's own center.

In aikido of course, the gravitational attraction between the players is negligible. The forces of attraction at work between aikido players are partly mechanical, and largely psychological.3 Regardless, moving out of the egocentric perspective requires a tremendous paradigm shift. The transition can be terribly difficult, as it requires abandoning (or at least suspending) everything we think we know. Nevertheless, once the idea takes hold, its obviousness and rightness is undeniable.

If we are to do aikido effectively, we have to understand what the point is.

The author gratefully acknowledges conversations with Henry Kono as the primary source of inspiration for these ideas.

1 Changing postures does not change the anatomical designations, of course. The anterior side of the arm is still considered to be the "front" side, no matter how the arm is turned. Similarly, the head is superior to the hips, and the feet remain inferior even if the subject is upside down.

2 Two bodies are discussed for simplicity's sake, but the same is true for multiple body systems.

3 The gravity of the Earth does affect the system profoundly, however. A deeper appreciation of the nature of the center will take this into account. Furthermore, we should understand that there is a geometric center of a system, a system of mass, and inertia. These are not the same, nor do they always coincide. With humans, there are also centers of attention, perception, and cognition. All of these combine to create a rather complex system, but nevertheless one that has a single common center.

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