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
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
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
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
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
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
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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