Layers of the Onion
Visita Interiora Terrae Rectificando Invenies Occultum Lapidem
The story goes that once, a teacher asked a student to take an onion and peel it layer by layer, to discover what lies at the center. So the student obediently takes an onion and undresses it, one transparent veil at a time. (This must have happened back in the days when instructors were trusted, that such odd requests were taken seriously, and with the expectation that the lesson would serve.)
When finished, the teacher asked, "What do you find when all the layers are peeled away?" "Nothing," replied the student. "Look again," said the teacher. "After the onion is gone, the whole universe remains."
Philosophically, this is an important point. We become obsessed with objects at the expense of the systems they occupy. We look at a vacancy and see nothing. But if we fail to see the potential that such nothingness can signify, we are not seeing completely.
Nowadays when I teach aikido, I ask students to abandon efforts at throwing. Moreover, I ask them to give up joint locks and arm twisting. I ask them to forego pins. In other words, no techniques.
To anyone familiar with the art, this is akin to stripping away all the assumptions, one by one, about what is fundamentally necessary for aikido to be what it is. Take away all these things, and what remains?
"Nothing" is a reasonable answer, but like the pedagogue mentioned above, that answer is incomplete, and begs further illumination.
As for me, I will not say that what is left is "the universe." Philosophically interesting as that may be, we need more practical elaboration. There are really two answers I can give, apparently somewhat at odds with one another, but both true:
First, I will say that after all the techniques are gone, there is still plenty that remains. Moving with the movement, without regard to controlling or interfering is plenty. Moving in such a way as to make moving sustainable, not getting hit, not getting trapped, moving through complex patterns of balance, "losing" and recovering, and learning to be still with stillness... all of these things are essential skills. (Call them techniques if you will, but they are not the same thing as the technical forms of ikkyo, irimi-nage, kotegaeshi, and so on).
To do this well, you need to learn to evade and connect simultaneously. You need to allow yourself to be thrown, but not lose your balance. You need to be able to get bent out of shape but keep your composure. You need to be sensitive to what is happening around you and to you, but you respond by making sure you don't run into yourself, and that you relieve the pressure of potential conflicts as soon as they arise.
So let me repeat: take away everything you know about aikido, and there is plenty of "stuff" that still remains. And in my experience, it's this stuff that is the very pith and marrow of the art.
(So what happens then if we take away even this? Maybe nothing... For now, I will say that although in many ways I am quintessentially a minimalist, and that following the principle of parsimony has led me to the best aikido I know, I am no nihilist. In this regard, I'm happy to agree with Einstein when he said "Everything should be kept as simple as possible, but no simpler." [Emphasis added.])
The second answer I could give is, yes... take away all your aikido techniques and indeed, nothing is left -- and that's exactly the point. Throwing, pinning, twisting, locking, leading, leveraging, these are all things done to an opponent. In a purely defensive (actually, this word should be discarded as well) system, we do not do things to others. Instead, we continually monitor increases in pressure (tension and compression and torque) and make adjustments within ourselves and in the system to keep forces within appropriate zones of tolerance. Energy is both guided and followed toward a neutral, grounded state.
Like I said, this requires an extensive amount of "doing," but it's a kind of doing that is, in a sense, directed toward "nothing." When problems arise, when there is an apparent impasse, the solution is to be found in nothingness. Or rather say, in emptiness and in the void. While this might sound mystical, it is fundamentally functional and pragmatic. Harmony of action and integrity of structure are gained by aligning and balancing solids, and residual force is directed toward openings and empty space. Seen this way, the role of tori is no more than that of a pressure valve, receiving whatever can be easily contained, and venting harmlessly anything that exceeds that threshold.
Beyond that, there is nothing to accomplish, nothing to be done, There is no technique to perform, no success or failure, there is no adversary to vanquish. There is only the dynamics of matter and energy moving through space and time, pivoting on the fulcrum of stillness.
Keeping all this in mind, I must now turn to a third answer. When asked what remains after the onion is completely peeled, the wise student could well answer "Everything of the onion remains, but in an altered form."
So it is with aikido. Even in my reductionist program, there is still room for classical forms of aikido (actually, I like to think it's even roomier in the reductionist model). In the first place, tori needs something to respond to and work with. In addition to the standard set of strikes, kicks, and grabs, uke should be prepared to throw, lock, twist, and pin. By so doing, uke also learns aikido.
Moreover, we find that when tori successfully does nothing (or next to nothing), and when uke commits to an agenda of keeping the pressure on, throws may happen by themselves, joints may flex and turn as the inevitable consequence of persistently pushing against something which persistently gives nothing back.
The corollary to masakatsu agatsu is that true defeat only comes from oneself. In higher forms of aikido, we should not seek even to allow others to defeat themselves, but we should, whenever possible, ease their fall, correct imbalances in the system, and preserve healthy function. We should, as I am fond of saying, be the part of a system that allows the system to become self-correcting.
Although such methods may seem restrictive, ultimately they are aimed toward preserving and extending degrees of freedom. Thus, when tori has gained a sufficient level of competency in doing nothing sustainably, elements of doing may be (re)introduced. Beyond bare necessity lies utility. In other words, once we find out just how much we really can do without, we see that some things continue to be very useful, even if they are not strictly necessary. Some things truly do enhance, but it's good to truly experience how equations of balance hinge on zero.
Nothing remains. Nothing endures.
When all the elements are brought back, our experience of aikido is now informed by the persistence of nothingness. Ikkyo now has a lightness and a casual quality bordering on insouciance. When ikkyo occurs, it has a sense of inevitability about it, yet seems entirely of no consequence.
So we peel the onion unto the last and learn to work with the spacious vacancy remaining. Once this is so, we can turn to the pile of skins previously discarded, and find new meaning therein. We can cook up a broth that is flavorful and nourishing, easy to concoct yet infinite in variety.
When I first read the Tao Te Ching as a young teenager, all the talk of the Void struck me as profoundly inscrutable. Now, it strikes me as plain sensible advice. Don't put things where there is no room. Leave space for things to move freely. A good fit may be snug, but not restrictive. Hollow spaces and open conduits and portals are part of essential function for the ten thousand things. Whether engineering devices, self defence methods, or large scale social structures, what is not is every bit as important as what is.
You don't have to do "my" aikido exactly to take advantage of this. In any exercise, see how much you can do without. All forms of aikido encourage efficiency, so see just how far you can take it.
So peel the onion. See that each layer is slightly different from the last. Take it all the way. I can't promise that the effort won't make you cry... But it's possible you may find that possessing nothing is a rare treasure, and a most delectable feast.
Still Point Aikido Systems
Austin TX, USA
Re: Layers of the Onion
It almost sounds as if you are advocating a 'reactionary' methodology. If this isn't premeditated with extension of ki and awase to uke, its probably going to be tough.
Anyway, I like the story of the onion. Thanks for sharing.
Btw, I think you mean true victory, not defeat.
Re: Layers of the Onion
The onion layers is always a useful metaphor.
IMHO,it has been worthwhile to go from the whole, layer by layer, to the reductionistic nothingness at the center.
One higher layer beyond the skin is nothingness.
One reductionistic layer below the center is nothingness.
Agreed, a lot of tears, and some good seasoning of the meals shared with friends.
Nice column. Well said. Compliments and appreciation.
Re: Layers of the Onion
Very perceptive... you're right, I am exactly almost recommending reactionary tactics.
If you push one end of a stick, the other end may move, not because it's reacting, but because the stick is one thing. The ends of the stick simply move according to how the rest of the stick moves.
When it's time for us to move with our partners, I think this is very close to how we should be. We should simply move as one, not leading, not following, neither reacting nor anticipating. We move because we're part of something that is moving.
Of course, you could grasp one end of a stick and beat the crap out of the other end, and this we would avoid... especially if we're that other end. So some additional intelligence, awareness, and motivation are necessary. Ideally this goes toward directing the system to integrate with greater systems, so that oneness is extended.
Is this leading? Sometimes. But the closer we can adhere to successfully moving as one, until a natural separation not unlike breathing out occurs, then conflict will not arise within the system.
As for "true defeat," I was suggesting a corollary to "true victory." That part may not have been as clear as I would have liked.
Re: Layers of the Onion
I've long thought that in aikido we move from the domain of matter and energy into that of space and time. And from thence to thought, emotion, perception...
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