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R.A. Robertson 07-20-2007 09:22 AM

The Greater and Lesser Problem
 
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I once had the privilege of attending a lecture by the celebrated composer Philip Glass. Among the many fine things he said, one really stuck in my mind. He said (as nearly as I can remember all these years later) "The first great challenge a composer faces is in finding his own unique voice. The second challenge is in discarding it."

The same thing could be said for aikido, or any other art form, for that matter. Beyond all the technical skills and influences from the great ones before us, we must find an expression that is uniquely our own. Having done that, we must then avoid being confined by our own graven image.

In aikido, I think there is yet another set of two great challenges. I frame these as follows:
The Lesser Problem of aikido is learning how to do it.
The Greater Problem of aikido is learning how to not do it.
The Lesser Problem is what most of us spend our lifetimes working on. We acquire techniques, we learn forms, we practice, we study, we research, we refine. Over time our efforts yield results, and we become more efficient, more subtle, and the desired results become more reliable and reproducible.

Now, please understand that the Lesser Problem is vast. It is eminently worthwhile, and not a single one of us will ever solve it in its fullness. Even so, there is another challenge before us that is easily overlooked, and yet possibly even more vital.

The Greater Problem is the study of how aikido happens through us when we refrain from doing anything to a partner or adversary. This is the path of directed non-resistance, where even the gentlest of technique directed at control over someone else is found to be counterproductive. This is the aikido of non-doing, or wu-wei, as it is expressed in Chinese philosophy. In this practice, masakatsu agatsu is taken literally, and all action is directed toward a fluid and adaptable self-control. The energy of the attack is joined and surfed like a wave, but there is no attempt by the defender to throw, to lock, to twist, pin, choke, and there is no push or pull. What remains is to learn how to adapt and return repeatedly and sustainably, while suffering no harm.

This problem may be counterintuitive and more difficult to grasp, but that is not what makes it the Greater of the two problems. Paradoxically, once we become willing to abandon our need to control others, the skills needed to explore this path are easily accessible. There are only a few techniques required to learn the limits of our own flexibility and adaptability, and these can be taught and learned in a very short period of time. The rest is simply a matter of ongoing immersion in an improvisatory experience which allows us to gain confidence in the ease and power that comes with freedom from our own opposition.

Therefore the Greater Problem is so called, not because it is more difficult to learn or perform, but because it is the more primary of the two problems. By this I mean that it is possible to spend a lifetime pursuing the Lesser Problem and never catch more than a glimpse of the Greater Problem. We may have an experience of aikido happening all by itself, where we feel like a conduit for something wonderful, but have no idea whatsoever how to reproduce it. By contrast, the Greater Problem immediately informs and enhances the Lesser Problem. Once you begin to get a grasp of successful non-doing, doing becomes much easier. When it becomes necessary or desirable to do something, the Greater Problem helps us intuit directly what to do, how much to do, and when not to do.

This is because the Greater Problem reduces the space between perceiving and acting. Even when performing, or "doing" aikido excellently, there tends to be a certain amount of processing perceptions and then judging how to act. At this point, all the well-rehearsed forms tend to get in the way as they assert their mental presence -- seductive choices among familiar solutions. Focusing exclusively on the Lesser Problem only exacerbates the difficulty. On the other hand, the Greater Problem emphasizes a clarity of attention to what is happening in the moment, a willingness to always submit to the movement of the energy, and a sensitivity to what natural corrections must occur to remain within one's natural limits. Perception and performance become one.

When this is so, it is the persistence of the attacker that causes the outer appearance of a technique. Should an adversary choose to chase a target over the event horizon of a compliant emptiness, then nothing but their own energy will unbalance them or bind them. In the course of this interplay, it is quite common to see any of the standard aikido technical forms arise naturally and spontaneously without effort or design on the defender's part. This living organic quality is what is meant by takemusu aiki, the "confluence of energy that gives birth to infinite forms."

Within the Lesser Problem, aikido is encased inside certain forms, and the practitioner is expected to learn the art through repetition of these forms and their myriad variations. Through the Greater Problem, form is transitory and arises inevitably from the combined geometries of human figures in motion. Here, the practitioner is expected to learn by avoiding the tendency to fixate on form and instead exploit the avenues of freedom that surround and penetrate form.

The Greater Problem is rarely found in mainstream aikido. Even when encountered, it is rare to discover a methodology for exploring it. Regardless, we should not be tempted to abandon the Lesser Problem once we begin to appreciate how beneficial the Greater Problem can be. Instead, we should configure our training such that each can enhance and inform the other according to appropriate priorities.

Ultimately, these two great Problems must be combined for a comprehensive approach to understanding and expressing aikido. Doing and not-doing are complementary parts of a balanced whole, in the same way that movement and stillness, solidification and fluidity, extension and contraction, and unification and division are all encompassed in a universal aikido.*

Doing aikido is about overcoming obstacles with increasing degrees of efficiency. "Not-doing" is about moving around, through, and with obstacles toward increasing degrees of freedom in a vast field of infinite possibility.

*The Eight Forces which sustain creation, as delineated by Morihei Ueshiba
Ross Robertson
Still Point Aikido Center
Austin, Texas, USA
http://www.stillpointaikido.com
etaison@stillpointaikido.com
Ross Robertson lives and teaches aikido in Austin, Texas.

piyush.kumar 12-05-2009 02:45 AM

Re: The Greater and Lesser Problem
 
Excellent article sir and even the concept you have put forth is befitting the way you have written it. Had to read it really slowly to understand it which is perhaps the best way.
Thank you,
Piyush

R.A. Robertson 12-18-2009 02:39 PM

Re: The Greater and Lesser Problem
 
Piyush,

Thank you again for your time in reading and contemplating these concepts.

We can do aikido, and cause aiki to happen. Or we can do things that interfere with allowing aiki to occur, and experience an increase of conflict and disruption.

Part of the discipline is knowing how to create aikido. The other part is knowing that aikido exists without us and will happen all on its own. But even then, our discipline is in learning how to arrange ourselves so that we do not interfere with this inevitability.

Thanks,

Ross

piyush.kumar 12-29-2009 01:22 PM

Re: The Greater and Lesser Problem
 
If i may sensei,
How does one manifest the greater problem in solo training?
Piyush

piyush.kumar 01-04-2010 10:26 AM

Re: The Greater and Lesser Problem
 
And, actually i have one more question,
Can this concept be applied to real life too? As in our daily life, in pursuit of our goals such as passing a exam, or a long term goal such as getting a PhD degree. If so, what must be our goal so that we may be able to align ourselves as is necessary?

And even in aikido, what shud be our goal even while applying the concepts of non doing? Shud we be aiming to take the attacker to the ground or have an empty mind?

Thank you for the time,
Piyush

R.A. Robertson 01-04-2010 12:48 PM

Re: The Greater and Lesser Problem
 
Quote:

Piyush Kumar wrote: (Post 249139)
If i may sensei,
How does one manifest the greater problem in solo training?
Piyush

Hi Piyush,

By paying attention.

The body is made of many parts, so ordinary movement is really a randori. If we pay close attention when we are doing mundane things in our lives, or when we are doing our taiso undo, we can learn how things work well when they are aligned and less so when they are working at odds. Sometimes this can be very subtle, so this is why we pay close attention.

The Greater Problem is in the non-doing. Within your own body-mind, this has to do with not interfering with its normal function. If you pay attention, you may notice that you are sitting in such a way that breathing is more difficult than necessary. We may practice habits that are not good for circulation of the blood and lymph. We may carry tension that interferes with fluid movement.

I know this, because I do all of these things. The discipline and the joy is in the willingness to notice, and to let go of patterns which do not serve. The Greater Problem is in the continuing discovery of the right application of non-interference.

Ross

R.A. Robertson 01-04-2010 01:14 PM

Re: The Greater and Lesser Problem
 
Quote:

Piyush Kumar wrote: (Post 249563)
And, actually i have one more question,
Can this concept be applied to real life too? As in our daily life, in pursuit of our goals such as passing a exam, or a long term goal such as getting a PhD degree. If so, what must be our goal so that we may be able to align ourselves as is necessary?

And even in aikido, what shud be our goal even while applying the concepts of non doing? Shud we be aiming to take the attacker to the ground or have an empty mind?

Thank you for the time,
Piyush

Just as doing aikido can be truly hard work, and yet is also the study of effortlessness, your life can also be expected to be hard work, and yet to unfold naturally.

If you want something you do not have, you must go and get it. This may require overcoming obstacles, breaking down barriers, and imposing the pattern of your will upon the receptive world. This is the doing part of aikido. As a seeker, you are uke, but this does not mean you are an attacker wishing to do violence. It only means that you are willing to spend energy to make a change. If you can do this constructively and compassionately with sincere regard for the world you are changing, then you are doing good aikido.

In your seeking, you may expect to get thrown off balance and off course once in a while. You might even get stuck, unable to move for a while. Obviously the practice here is to learn the art of recovery and the return to seeking.

Even with such an endeavor, you may be able to be on the lookout for when you are pushing too hard. There may be times when it is better to arrange circumstances so that you can be confident of inevitable outcomes. This is the non-doing, where you understand that things come in their own time, at their own pace, and only need a bit of nurturing to realize their inherent fullness.

This is the kokyu, or breath. We breathe out, and we breathe in. We seek to cause change, we let change come to us.

In our taijutsu, I think the situation must determine our course. In training, because non-doing is harder for most of us, I think it's more often best to train without attachment to specific outcomes. It matters very little if we throw or pin. We learn more efficiently if we just pay attention to the truth of the immediate movement, knowing it will find its own grounded state if we let it. Maybe we are the ones who are thrown or pinned, but it doesn't matter if we learn to observe the flow and stillness. And this is the non-doing.

Now, if our lives are at risk, or that of our loved ones, then throwing and pinning may be the urgent necessity. If we are well trained in non-doing, then our doing may be done well. But there is certainly a time for doing.

Let me say again that aikido is both doing and non-doing. It is important to understand their difference and not to think that only one or the other is real aikido. They are different and must not be wrongly applied. But they are also complimentary, and each informs the other.

I hope you understand that I am not giving you any answers, but merely speaking my thoughts so that you can find your own answers.

Ross

piyush.kumar 01-05-2010 12:50 AM

Re: The Greater and Lesser Problem
 
Hai, Understood sensei. Like everything in this world, its all split into two, light and dark, day and night, doing and non doing. Going to its centre is perhaps where enlightenment lies. Thank you so much for taking time to put your thoughts down here. I really appreciate it. It does reinforce certain thoughts i have.
Piyush


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