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Witnessing the best martial arts has an air of effortless inevitability in the outcome. It is a perception at odds with our more common perception of power, as dominating force. However dangerous or deadly, it is not the sense of imposed force that we really perceive in a profoundly capable warrior. An almost careless grace is more the image of superb martial power.
This perception remains even for those witnesses of such a performance who know better -- that slavish work that went into producing that bit of physical grace. Grace may be the best word to illustrate the contrast: power vice grace. Or grace as a foundation of a different kind of power.
The first observation about the desire for power is that is confesses a defect, a lack of something. If one were truly whole -- it should not be missing. The desire to supply the lack would not exist. Many come to the martial arts because they desire power to supply that lack, of whatever type it may be -- and there are many different types of personal sense of this deficit.
Aikido also follows this rule; however it also seems a bit different in this regard. What distinguishes many, if not most, aikidoka is that the power they tend to seek is not an increase of power over others so much as a greater power over themselves. That is the motto of the art, after all "True Victory; Self Victory; O Day of Swift Victory!"
A second observation about power: the common conception of power is in the sense of resistance. It is so ingrained that our instinctive action is to resist force applied and to apply more force in the face of resistance to our own. If we sense no resistance being made or being overcome, we do not usually perceive the action as exhibiting "power." Resistance in defying, resistance in overcoming -- always in conflict -- always one imposed against the other and the weaker eventually crushed by the stronger.
Even in aikido people are not immune to the need for satisfying uses or displays of power in this sense. It is a universal human problem. And as a universal problem, no quest for power occurs in isolation from the quests of others in the same space. Contests of power occur -- striving for dominance along a defined axis of influence.
And so it must be -- if we limit our understanding of power in this way. Moreover, it is a trap for both sides. If we define our sense of power by the sense of resistance we are capable of generating or overcoming -- neither the weaker nor the stronger can ever be free in this perception of power. The weaker is not free to relinquish. It means abandoning the sense of resistant power that keeps him from being completely crushed. The stronger is not free to relinquish. It means giving up the sense of power he has known to protect him by crushing opposition. The defeat of resistance or the defiance of resisting is the acme of power understood in this way. The stronger is just as much a slave to the resistance defining his power as the weaker is to maintaining it so as to preserve his own integrity.
There is an escape from that trap. There is type of power that does not provoke instinctive resistance. It is not common. It is, by no means, the unique province of aikido (or any other martial endeavor). Power that is developed in this way tends to diminish or destroy the desire for "felt" power in the sense of resistant conflict. It accomplishes things differently than "felt" forms of power through resistance.
Actual power is obtaining the result conforming to your will. We'll leave the ethical question of what to will for another discussion. For the moment we are talking about power to accomplish that will.
Simply stated, power is freedom to do as you will. More carefully observed, the desire for power is usually a desire to make others do as you will. Very often even that is debased to being seen to make others do as you will. They are not the same thing. And it is not merely a matter of egotistic desire for display. It is a deeper subjective problem as well. Even internally, the desire to FEEL yourself exerting power is a wish to be an observer of yourself in maintaining or defeating resistance.
That is why the sense of power in aiki is hard to define. The commonplace desire for power is, essentially, a felt absence of something. Thus, in possessing power we deeply wish to FEEL the consequence of some presence in having it. Yet perversely, when that is actually possessed in aiki -- it does not feel like much of anything at all. Therefore it ceases to be recognized as "power" by those who seek after the more common perception of it as their felt desire for maintaining or defeating resistance as the substance of power. Aiki, conversely is operating from the void, wherein the more substance you feel of the process of conventional resistance -- the less you are in aiki.
Aikido departs from this understanding of power as a zero-sum game. It is an acknowledgement that MY part of the problem of power is just that -- only one part -- and until an opponent is utterly destroyed it must begin and remain only one part of that problem. In aiki, no conflict is ever necessary to resolve MY part of the problem in the paradox of power. The understanding of power changes from a binary contest of opposites to a unitary problem of precision coordinates.
In Taoist terms, it is the freedom that exists in the space between the joints of bone where the only edge of the blade, which approaches nothingness, alone may go. In aikido, power exists if I am free, and I am free if NOTHING resists my movement, and more to the point I have power if I offer NOTHING to my opponent as resistance to his action. This NOTHING is an active intelligent NOTHING, not a passive one. It is rather more something than nothing, but it is the way of it that to work effectively it must be essentially perceived as NOTHING.
Of course, this change of perspective is a bit of a trick. Merely because I define my power in this way, does not mean that the other guy does. I do not get to inhabit some inviolate bubble of splendid isolation. More to the point, just because I define my power in this way, does not mean that I exist without connection to my attacker. It is however a different form of connection with a different intent, affect (perception of its operation) and effect (perception of its result).
Any object in motion in a straight line can be moved laterally in a perpendicular axis, without creating any resistance whatsoever. The path is altered but the original energy is conserved and not impeded. Change the path -- without impeding the one bent on pursuing its narrow confines. The attacker continues inexorably where the path leads -- that was the intent. It simply now leads elsewhere that he imagined before he set foot on the path mapped in his mind. The path ahead has altered, but NOTHING in the instantaneously perceived aspect of the connection or his intended action has been altered.
The mind acting in aiki alters the shape of the path rather than removing me as a target in the path. If I am attacked the path is right exactly where I am now, but by its nature I occupy the path WELL AHEAD of the attack. By definition, then, if someone attacks me I am well ahead of him. I do not have to "get ahead" of him, I already am; or as O Sensei said in a slightly different sensibility "I am already behind him." And truly, any path necessarily runs both ways. I just have to be facing the right way to meet him.
The first task of orientation is spatial. Whether centripetal or tangential, the basic principle is jūji [十字] or the cross-sign, representing the essence of perpendicular contact. Any component of force that impinges the attack at any angle more or less than ninety degrees is perceived as a push or pull in the line of the attack. If it is perceived, it inherently changes the attack one is preparing to receive, destroying the premise of aiki action. All action should ideally take place at ninety degrees from the action being countered. It does not always look that way, however. The body does not really move in straight lines, but in spiral arcs. Thus, our own spiral motions must connect to the attacker's spiral curves in precise three-dimensionally orthogonal relationship.
It takes time and much practice to sense this relationship in three dimensions intuitively. Once we do then the possibilities of technique begin to open up as variations of motion in this consistent dynamic relationship.
By this token, aiki is a particularly difficult problem to explain or demonstrate in conventional terms of power. Most people who want to "test" aiki, essentially wanting a wrestling contest. And aiki cannot wrestle, for aiki power is not in meeting and overcoming resistance, which is the sense of what it means to wrestle. In this way is most fighting understood, like chess or Go -- opening, move, counter-move, endgame. In aiki there is really only one move, and it simply continues. Either, at some point one ceases using aiki, and then it begins a fight by resistance, or the opponent becomes incapable of continuing an attack, and that is victory.
The second task of orientation is temporal -- which is not to say that it means being faster. In fact, correct spatial orientation takes care of this aspect of temporal orientation, without regard to straight-line range. The more purely temporal problem of orientation is being in rhythm. But let's get the first temporal point out of the way
Take a conical spiral. If I meet the incoming linear force with a spiral oriented at right angles to its line of force at the point on contact, it creates zero resistance or negating component of force along the line of the attack. Any point along the spiral is equivalent to any other point in terms of engaging in the same dynamic jūji action. The amount of lead time I have in beginning the engagement in that manner is virtually irrelevant -- so long as my shape and orientation are correct at the point of engagement.
For the same momentum, as the radius of the motion decreases (the narrow end of my conical spiral) the velocity increases and vice versa. The spiral either progressively tightens or opens as it moves along. Thus a tighter spiral (closer to its center) moves "faster" for the same energy, again addressing this temporal problem in terms of the spatial relationships and their configuration. If it tightens, the predominant motion shifts from one axis (of the attack), to another (of the motion in aiki). The relative velocity between the axes changes as a result of the increase of effective velocity along the intercepting spiral, even though the absolute velocity of the attack axis has not changed at all. The attack goes astray, and if done properly, the opponent's foundation of stability follows as well.
If the spiral opens, the effect is more subtle but no less effective. The predominant axis of motion still changes. The progressively flatter curvature of the opening spiral takes incoming energy on a progressively less steep "downhill" energy path, dissipating into the other axis. Like a river spreading to a delta, it spreads out the energy without changing its course, reducing the angular velocity of the attack, again altering the relative distribution of the velocity in the defender's favor, thus changing the path of the attack in the same manner as the tighter spiral. So as you see, the issue of time to respond in aiki is largely spatial in terms of critical orientation and shape, rather than mere linear range and vector magnitude.
The purer question of time in aiki lies in rhythm. But it is not a counter-rhythm of move, counter-move of a sparring match. It is also not founded on a regular rhythm, but a chaotic one. While it seems impossible to harmonize a chaotic rhythm, in fact, each of us has the same rhythm naturally, just by being able to walk around. It is not a fast or a slow rhythm, or rather it may be fast or slow, but is always the same rhythm whether fast or slow. It also is not always upbeat or downbeat that must harmonize -- it may be syncopated or even on the empty beat, and still join in with the dominant attacking rhythm without destroying it.
This element of rhythm has another aspect of jūji action. Intersecting spiral arcs (portions of three-dimensional waves, actually) -- interact differently depending on their relative phase. Phase has to do with the spatial placement of troughs and crests in waves that interact, described as angular orientation around a unit circle of the cycle of the waves' action. This is too short a piece to delve into the nature of different phase relationships. But they are just as important as the spatial orientations and the same criticality of jūji orientation in the rhythm applies.
The rhythm of aiki is inherent in the body, your own body, the opponent's body and both together. It is inherent in five or ten bodies, once they collectively turn to (or are drawn to) attack the same target. Once we know it well, we actually can match it almost as effortlessly as recovering balance when we stumble. Funatori undo (boat rowing exercise) begins to train you in exploiting this rhythm. Happo undo (eight-direction movement), tekubi furi (wrist shaking) and furitama (spirit shaking) also provide different aspects of training in this same rhythm. Aikido is not alone in this sensibility; the same basic actions can be seen in things like sanchin. While applied in different ways they collectively illustrate tempo being controlled in part by spatial relationships such as the size of the motion or of the things made to move in concert or in contrast to that certain natural reverberatory rhythm.
In that is found the grace of aiki, and its power. That grace has a mathematical elegance to its expression, as well as a physical elegance in its form. Physical grace is not merely an adjunct of power in aiki. It is through such grace that aiki comes into its power.