What comes to my mind are the benefits of creating stillness. Perception (mindfulness) takes energy; in quieting my mind/body (stripping superfluous activity), I can perceive better. In perceiving better, I can act better. In acting better, I can "quiet" better. If I have diligence throughout the process, I create a kind of upward spiral that affects everything I do.
I had these ideas before I came to Aikido, and it's from them that I chose what I perceived to be a more meditative approach to physicality (and was reinforced in a somewhat profound way).
That's the general gist. Specifically, I practice Shinto meditation along with my meager physical aiki practice and that fits perfectly (minus the "meager" part) with my search for "inner peace" (stillness/clarity). Water misogi; various breath exercises; and gratitude might be a good description of my practice, and in doing them I've seen my body develop an element of what I call indomitability. I've seen that as my mindfulness for practice declines, so too does my stability. So where I'm at now is trying to reclaim lost ground and developing a solid rythm of living/doing.
That's what comes to mind, at any rate. As I type different sections I get a bunch of other ideas, so it's hard to pick one. Each connection a thousand others. Another example of where I'm at with quieting my mind.
Lord I was born a ramblin' man...
I think, in general, there are two main approaches towards what we might call spirituality in Aikido. First, there are the technique folks. Then there are the Spiritual folks. This isn't a new phenomenon, it was always there from the start of Aikido.
Generally, the technique folks worry more about the how to, the martial application, the development of traits we would directly associate with martial practice, or Budo etc.
The Spiritual folks are usually folks who found Aikido because it fit with their already existing values system. They develop their technique to reflect their spiritual outlook.
In my experience, it is somewhat rare that the technique folks ever develop much of a sense of the spiritual possibilities of the art through their pursuit of effective technique. They develop certain martial traits like toughness and discipline, and on some level they get less fearful of physical threat, but they are typically not all that good at applying the various lessons that could be learned from training off the mat. O-Sensei used to caution students repeatedly that they missed the point by over focusing on waza.
On the other hand, the spiritual folks seldom seem to have taken their understanding of the technical very deep. Very seldom do you find people within this category who could hold their own with someone of equivalent experience in another martial art. Nor do they have the ability to connect the waza they do on the mat with the spiritual values they espouse on anything more than a superficial level.
In O-Sensei's Aikido these two areas were just sides of the same coin. They could not be separated. When O-Sensei demonstrated waza he was showing physical manifestation of certain energetic aspects of the universe. His Aikido was a martial embodiment of the concept that goes all the way back to the Upanishads
that what is out there (the Universe) is duplicated in here (the Body).
So, O-Sensei's training was about reorganizing his body to reflect the principles that are manifest on the universe. To do this it required that he reorganize his mind the same way because one can't organize the body properly when the mind is doing something else. It has to go together.
On some level. if there isn't a balance between the physical waza and the spiritual side of the art, then it isn't really Aikido. It's an Aikido-like substance.
I think that the spiritual ideal can certainly precede the technical, in fact, I believe it must. Ones waza will be what one trains. If ones focus is simply on how to defend oneself, how to defeat another, how to be powerful, etc. that will almost certainly be what one gets out of training. If, on the other hand, ones focus is on understanding the underlying connection between all things, ones practice will tend to develop a sense of that. Martial skill, in my opinion, is a by product of proper training, but not the point. The reason that the martial paradigm is important is that it is the instant and immediate confirmation or denial of ones understanding in that instant. If one is training properly, with partners that are giving correct feedback, every technique demonstrates your level of understanding. Without this, ones understanding is not tested. One has no real idea whether what one believes to be true is really true. The whole process is just wishful thinking.
Just because you understand the nature of things in your mind does not mean you do in your body. Doran Sensei once told me he did a class for some advanced Zen practitioners. These were fairly senior folks, quite experienced in the spiritual realm. But on the mat, he said they were just like any other beginners. The fact that they had achieved a certain direct perception of the nature of things did not mean that they could connect that understanding to their bodies.
People constantly try to reshape Aikido into something that reflects their own preconceptions and the avoid doing anything which calls those preconceptions into question. On some level every person who walks into an Aikido dojo did so because they knew on some level, that they needed to change. Otherwise, you'd never have even seen them. They be home watching TV like everyone else. But, the instant they get inside, they resist changing like crazy. They want the art to affirm their ideas of who they think they are rather than call for them to change.
I think think that, when training is structured properly, each person is called upon to change on a fundamental level. This is because Aikido is all about balancing things out. We are striving for that still point, that physical balance and mental balance where we are free to move as we wish. Training is about achieving freedom. In the physical sense it is about understanding that no other person can really take away your freedom to move. The more you balance your own structure, calm your own mind, and learn to relax, the more you understand that no one else can take away that freedom. You can get to the point at which the very thought of an attack has already defeated itself.
To really attain a level of technique that is anything more than simply mechanical, you have to "let go". Strong people have to stop relying on being strong, weak people have to become strong, aggressive people need to become less aggressive and shy people need to become assertive. Taking ones Aikido beyond the superficial level requires doing what is most difficult for any of us, namely, change that which is our dominant way we see and present ourselves and develop its opposite thereby achieving balance. Balance is what it's all about. Achieving that balance is clearly not an easy matter or everybody would be great at Aikido waza and possessed of profound insight.
We need to understand that this is the goal of training. If the goal is martial capability and the ability to effectively confront all comers regardless of martial style or skill, one will training one way. While it is possible that deep spiritual insight and personal transformation can come out of this process, it isn't terribly likely. Witness the number of really ferocious and accomplished fighters who are also wretched human beings.
Why do we think O-Sensei created this art? Pursuit of fighting skill alone is a distraction, it is a false path that will not lead to the kind of freedom and balance or understanding that we are talking about. On the other hand, the folks who ignore principle, tailor their technique to reflect their pre-existing notions, insist that their ukes act in a way that confirms these ideas are just as side tracked. Whatever beautiful ideas they have about oneness, connection, conflict resolution, peace, etc are totally superficial until they can manifest them on the mat physically.
It's not that the ideas are not true or that they are not manifesting their values in their lives... Mother Teresa was an extremely, profoundly, spiritual person. She lived her spirituality every day. But she didn't do Aikido. It is only Aikido when you can manifest this knowledge in ones waza. The understanding of Aikido is a Mind / Body understanding that reveals and demonstrates spiritual insight. Spiritual insight without the mind / body manifestation isn't Aikido. It's not wrong or in any way inferior, it just isn't Aikido. That's what makes Aikido such a unique practice.
So, we all need to take a look at our Aikido training... It's one thing to be able to say I get his out of it or I get that out of it... It's quite another to ask oneself what you should be getting out of it, or what you would like to get out of it? What does your teacher want you to get out of it? What might O-Sensei have wanted you to get out of it? Think about those answers... Are your answers reflective of what would make you feel better or be better? They are not necessarily the same. In my own case, some of the things in my life that made be better were things that, at the time, made me feel the worst I had ever felt.
Anyway, whatever you decide those answers are, then you must structure your training so that it directly addresses those issues. Unless you have an enlightened teacher (and I can't think of one off hand) you can't simply trust this process to that teacher. You have to look at what you want and need to get out of the training and find those teachers (notice I did not say just one) who can help get you there. This is what we all have to do.
Anyway, that's my take on it.