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R.A. Robertson 03-19-2012 09:59 AM

Dog Chases Tail, Tail Wags Dog
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Take your hand, and see if if there's any part of your body you can't touch with that hand. If you're particularly flexible, you may be able reach almost anywhere, so try to find the most difficult place to reach.

The exact target is immaterial, so long as you really can't reach it. The exercise, though, is to try for all you're worth. Again, if you're flexible, you might have to get creative. Can you reach the back of your neck by reaching under your arm? No? Good.

Let your whole body move, and don't fix your feet to the floor. If you do this correctly, the very act of pushing with the chaser hand will pull the target away. Let yourself become like a dog chasing its tail. Be single-minded and relentless. Be silly and playful.

This is how to be uke in aikido. Commit your whole being to pursuing a goal, even if it continually slips just beyond your grasp. Maintain unwavering focus, but be aware of your surroundings. Push the attack as hard as you can, but not harder, because if you injure or overstrain yourself, you cannot sustain the endeavor.

This is also how to be tori. Let the attack move you. Without thought or stratagem, be moved rationally, logically, and inevitably. Being linked to the attack, there is no push or pull, just a rhythm of alternating compression and tension. Throwing, locking, evading, pinning... these are not even in the equation, except perhaps as side effects.

Uke and tori move as one body. Being one, there is no need even to blend, as blending requires different things coming together. There are different parts involved, but they are parts of a single moving thing. It moves convulsively or with grace and coherence, but it moves as one body, one mind, until body and mind disappear.

However, sometimes the dog actually catches its tail. I don't know if you've actually seen this, but it can be comic to watch. The dog grips its own tail and pulls against it, while the hindquarters strain to free the tail. Movement slows, the dog stumbles, and the system is generally locked.

What motivates movement in the first place is a perceptual kind of chicken-and-egg problem. We generally like to think that the body follows the mind. If the mind is in the brain, then the head moves the body. But I like to make the case that it's a mistake to think of the brain as separate from the rest of the nervous system. In my view, the mind is distributed throughout the body.

A playful dog may notice its own tail wagging and chase it like it's prey. Although part of a distributed system, the brain nevertheless is the central control center. So the head tells the body to chase the tail. But what's informing the brain, if not the tail? Clearly there is a feedback loop where the target (the tail) is leading the leader.

If uke is the head, and tori is the tail, then who or what initiates the encounter? It's uke's decision to attack and close distance to engage, but uke would not do so if no target were perceived. Does this make tori the instigator? In one sense, yes, and in cases where tori is actively provocative, then that sense is made stronger. But it's not always the case that tori is just "asking for it," and motives of hostility are better assigned to the one who manifests the actual aggression.

However, we can philosophically chase our own tails around and around if we bring questions of intentionality into it. I often find it more useful to take the view that we are dealing with systems of attraction and repulsion. If one part is attracted to another part, then movement to close the distance may occur.

If A is attracted to B while B is equally repulsed by A, then interesting things can happen. If B is immovable, then A must be held at some distance in an uneasy equiliibrium. There will be an impasse. On the other hand, if B moves freely, then A's pursuit is the very thing that directs B. Now there is an endless chase, either in a straight line or in a chaotic filigree.

The situation can get even more complicated. Uke (A) may behave as if attracted to tori (B) until within reach, at which point uke may ground their energy and try to exert a pull on tori. In other words, uke reverses polarity. Still, if tori is repulsed (or repulsing) at all times like a magnetic monopole, then not all that much has changed.

If the forces are balanced, then perpetual motion or stasis is achieved and in theory, no harm ever comes to either component. We could almost call this aiki. In practice, the forces are never perfectly balanced, the energy that drives the system has to come from somewhere, and nothing like resolution can be found.

Once again, we are like the dog that has caught its tail, and neither push nor pull frees us from the bind. The Principle of Circularity is not always our friend.

Ideally, we'd like to keep the circle open, as with spirals or curlicues. Then we can at least work with the tendency of energy to run toward a naturally grounded state. When we do find ourselves in a deadlock, we can remember that the head is no more free than the tail, and to relax rather than struggle.

Whenever a dog chases its own tail, it becomes easy for the tail to wag the dog. Both situations, however result in a less that optimal alignment.

When all the parts are in accord, head and shoulders and hips and feet move in synchrony. Power, beauty, speed, elegance and efficiency are not only possible, but likely.

But wait a minute... didn't I start out by saying that you could learn good aikido by pretending to be a dog chasing its tail? And am I not now saying that isn't right, that you should correct your alignment and move like a greyhound unleashed? How could I have gotten myself into such a tangle?

Actually, both assertions encompass the larger truth.

It is true that an attack disrupts an underlying unity, and that systems out of balance can tear themselves apart. In the case where a component in a system might come loose, we have to engineer solutions for keeping the system fail-safe. It's this kind of fail-safe engineering that comprises much of our aikido training.

It's also true that keeping system components aligned and in working order from the outset is better engineering. There should be feedback mechanisms that monitor the balance with instantaneous self-adjusting features built in. Pressure valves, or what-have-you. It's this kind of preemptive engineering that comprises much of our daily lives, with attention to the details of our thoughts, habits, relationships, and larger social structures.

A dog may nick at its tail to bite a flea. In this case it would be great if the tail did not respond as if attacked. A dog may chase its tail for play. In this case it is good if the tail provides healthy sport to promote fitness, sharpen reflexes and perceptions, and yes -- for fun.

The dog that attacks its tail in earnest may be rabid, and beyond intervention. But other forms of madness can be calmed, and it's good if we can keep the poor beast from hurting itself until a remedy is found.

Coming back to my original point, it can be a lot of fun, and there's much to be learned from being both the head of the dog that chases its tail, and the tail that wags the dog. Separate parts playing distinct roles, but always part of the same creature, learning how better to express inescapable oneness.

Ross Robertson
Still Point Aikido Systems
Honmatsu Aikido
Austin TX, USA

niall 04-21-2012 03:10 AM

Re: Dog Chases Tail, Tail Wags Dog
Thanks Ross. Interesting article as always.

Even if the mind is distributed throughout the body there has to be a leader. At least when we go beyond play. Even in an inescapable oneness someone or something has to take the initiative in bringing the disturbed body/bodies/energy/energies/cosmos back into equilibrium.

We have to be able to deal with negative energy with compassion but without allowing harm to come to anyone. That includes an attacker but in a hierarchy of protection presumably that would be the last priority.

So coming back to aikido in a more narrow sense to redress the balance first we have to destroy the balance. Perhaps that is not a narrow sense after all.


R.A. Robertson 04-27-2012 12:24 PM

Re: Dog Chases Tail, Tail Wags Dog

First, thank you for taking time to respond to an article that, for me, proved frustratingly difficult to write, and ultimately disappointing and unsatisfying. A concept is in there somewhere, but just as what I was writing about, most of the time I couldn't catch it, and whenever I could, I just succeeded in tangling myself up.

I believe I probably agree with everything you are saying. I'll comment anyway.

Leadership, mind, responsibility, initiative... these things can be localized and distributed simultaneously. We often inhabit cyclic systems full of feedback loops. If I pick up a pencil, it makes perfect sense to say that I'm in control and directing all of my movements. Yet we should also not overlook the role of the pencil in directing my movements and my choices. It is an inert thing, I do not believe it has mind or intent or a magnetic field, yet it draws me to it under certain circumstances. This has particular relevance to our understanding of the dynamic in aikido.

I cannot always say what constitutes destruction and what is simple change. I have written elsewhere on why I do not emphasize kuzushi, at least not in the sense of breaking anything.

Must we destroy balance in order to redress it? As limited beings with imperfect perception and capacity, yes, I think we sometimes must. And as martial artists (that is, as human beings), we should train to do so unflinchingly.

But are not shifts in balance without destruction also possible? If every moment of change is destruction, I can understand. But then, my understanding of "destruction" as a specific kind of change is now meaningless. So as martial artists (humans being), I try to train first for the shifts in balance, the sequence of changes, that are non-destructive.

I always return to the analogy with medicine. My physician might have to rebreak my arm to set it properly. That is a destructive act for the sake of redress, as you put it. Or microbes might have to be killed for my greater health. I'm comfortable with this as a kind of warfare and destruction, and I think it can be perfectly aiki.

Still, some imbalances can be redressed through other means. Rest, natural healing, closing of wounds, growing new tissue, are but a few examples of non-destructive redress.

So I think.

Tom Verhoeven 04-27-2012 07:51 PM

Re: Dog Chases Tail, Tail Wags Dog
Thank you for this article. It is an interesting read. I liked the image of what happens between aite and shite during their movement as one.

I wonder if there is not too much emphasis on kuzushi in Aikido? In fact, I seem to recall that once the emphasize was on aite to be in balance in order to apply a technique.

I agree that it is a mistake to think the brain as separate of the nervous system. That mistake is the last remnant of Cartesian dualism. The whole body is one - the mind can move the body, just as the body can move the mind. What always has intrigued me about Aikido is that while in some of the other martial arts one tries to move the body of the other in order to gain an advantage or a result, in Aikido it seemed to be more or just as much about moving the other's mind.

Niall's comment was intriguing. Do we have to destroy the balance first in order to redress? It reminds me of a classic philosophical point of discussion; is not every act of creation a form of destruction or violence? If we think about the myth of Izanagi and Izanami thrusting a spear into the water to create an island, is that not an act of violence? Or if we put a brush to a piece of white paper do we not ruin the whiteness of the paper. Or think of a bronze sculpture, by casting it the original gets lost forever.

Today we brought our horse to another field. For some reason she did not want to stay there and she became upset. She ran around the field trying to get out, tried every trick to get past me, came straight at me in full gallop stopping right in front of me, turned around and kicked her hind-legs into the air. It was a battle. A struggle for dominance. But it ended peaceful and no-one got hurt or injured. It was almost like a game, a dance. It was like Aikido.
So I think shifts in balance can happen without destruction. Better still, shifts in balance without destruction are at times the very thing that makes growth possible.

Thanks again for the article and both your comments.


R.A. Robertson 06-02-2012 11:48 AM

Re: Dog Chases Tail, Tail Wags Dog
Ah, Tom... so much you bring up in such a short post!

I agree with all you say. On kuzushi and Izanami - Izanagi, I have already written. See


To return to the subject of creation as destruction... I can agree in principle with those who say every act of creation requires the destruction of that which is. However, I think we play a dangerous semantic game when we universalize a word, such that it approaches the meaningless.

For example, I can accept that there can be a kind of annihilation of self in the act of making love. But this destruction is very different from the destruction of rape. Therefore we need different words to describe these two very different kinds of transformations.

Luckily we have them at our disposal. There are many different -struct words:


... and so on. These are all interrelated, and examining these relationships is interesting philosophically. Yet they are not semantically equivalent, and to treat them as such is to undermine the richness of language and thought.

This is why I prefer to speak of shifts in balance not necessitating breaks in balance. I think of making love as creative and rape as destructive. I look for changes that are transformative and possibly reconstructive without being destructive.

Should we then turn a blind eye to the elements of destruction that almost always accompany constructive acts? Of course not. But if we must "break some eggs to make an omelette," I hope it is understood that the act is one directed towards growth, sustenance, nourishment, health, and vitality. Those who use the saying to justify injustice or recklessness, are simply being disingenuous.

Glad you and the horse are still on good terms. I've been around the animals myself, and I understand how instructive such relationships can be.

R.A. Robertson 06-02-2012 12:02 PM

Re: Dog Chases Tail, Tail Wags Dog
... Actually, some further thoughts since you brought up the Izzies (Izanami and Izanagi).

In my view, one of the central themes of the myth is that of creation and destruction. The spear, an obvious phallic symbol, can be used creatively or destructively. The episode you mention where Izanagi thrusts his spear into the primordial soup is one of creation. In this act, the world of form is conceived.

From there the myth goes on to illustrate which acts produce harmonious union and healthy offspring, and which acts generate imbalance and horror. I think there is some wonderful material to reveal how to do aikido. When is our waza really aiki, and when is it just an empty form, and when is it actually harmful?

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