Re: My Spiritual Aikido.
I apologize ahead of time for length of this.
I have appreciated reading everyone's posts on this topic and have found them to be thought provoking. I continue to be fascinated by the levels of interest that Aikidoists sustain in the spiritual aspect of training and how difficult it is to talk about it.
My own interest in Aikido was sparked when I learned that there was a martial art that was based on fostering harmony between people instead of conflict. This was influenced to some degree on fantasies generated by watching too many Kung Fu episodes as a kid, but even so I think my desire to face fear and open up to life was genuine.
This was the hook for me - to become strong enough to manage a martial situation and at the same time to have the choice of sparing my enemies and fostering the common good. This is, actually, the ancient and noble archetype of the warrior-king and many people admire it. My own personality is such that this promise of becoming an effectively better person through practice remains deeply appealing. Actively engaging in the well-being of others is my "default setting", so to speak. Like most default settings, this has some major downsides. I will spare everyone an exposition of my own personal material, but for those interested in an insight into the craziness of do-gooders I suggest looking up the "The Proverbs of Hell" from "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" by William Blake.
In any case, my own ideas about Spirituality and Aikido have evolved over the years. To provide some context, let me just say that I have become moderately proficient in conventional Aikido practice. I have become increasingly interested in what is happening inside Aikido techniques and between me and my partners. I have also had a brief introduction to IP through Dan Harden and came way believing that this material was extremely important to Aikido. This direction in my physical practice has informed my spiritual experiences in important ways.
The essential point of a spiritual practice is that it changes one's consciousness. The daily circumstances of life can narrow our vision and disconnect us from what the soul needs in order to live out its potentialities. This is one reason why it is useful for dojos to be so beautiful in austere way. If Aikido was solely concerned with training fighting or self defense, one could practice in any gym. It might even be advantageous to train somewhere ugly. However, stepping onto the mat in a meticulous dojo that is beautifully designed invites a change of consciousness on the part of the practitioner. It draws one to a sense of nobility and larger purpose. This beginning of expanding one's mind is not fantasy but is a real and critical process that is at the core of human transformation.
Aikido training, when striving for a high level, can transcend the physical and gives us an amazing sense of enlarging our life. Its forms echo the forms of nature and the larger world and demonstrate how the human sense of beauty is connected to strength of form. To take a set of movements whose genesis is the lowest forms of human behavior and transmute it into something life affirming is valuable sort of alchemy. By working through the predicaments and trials of an effective Aikido practice, a person comes away stronger and with an expanded capacity to live in the world. Underlying all of this is a fundamental perception of the mystery that is at the root of existence and is the heart of all great religions. I think Aikido has the capacity to enable the practitioner to experience all of this physically in the body and work with spiritual themes in ways that are very integrating.
This approach to spirituality is not unique to Aikido. It can be found in traditional religions as well as art, poetry, storytelling, music and other great forms of human discipline and expression. This then brings me to the question of martial effectiveness. Each of the human disciplines has parameters that enables a person achieve the quality of experience that the path promises. For example, to be able to produce music that truly moves the human soul requires a huge amount of study, effort and practice. If a person ignores musical principles and just tries to "do their own thing", they often simply produce lousy music. It is clear to me that if I am not interested in really embodying the principles that Aikido is trying to get me to find, I will simply do lousy Aikido and in consequence also miss out on the authentic spiritual experience that would otherwise be available. The great thing about effective practice is that it exposes our shortcomings and provides feedback about our technique. A t the same time it exposes our spiritual condition, whether we are aware of it or not. This exposure is the key to growth.
Aikido in the world has become a large landscape. On one hand, I think it is entirely possible to have a deep spiritual training without focusing on becoming an effective fighter or physically more powerful than other people. For example, I am probably not alone in recognizing that physical prowess has been of no use to me at all in dealing with the most wrenching dilemmas in my life so far. These have required me to call upon some other aspects of my character. I might even go so far as to say that having an internal access to a sense of mother earth has, in some cases, been way more useful. However, it is extremely important not to be deluded. If one wants to practice a highly rarified form of Aikido where all of the movements are symbolic, then this is fine. However confusing this type of practice with one that is creates martial effectiveness is not a good thing. Delusion is not a sign of spiritual clarity.
Dan Harden likes to challenge Aikidoists to delve deeply and demand a higher level from their art. Even further, he is challenging us to put something back into the art that has been lost. I think he is doing a great service in doing so. At the same time, I don't think that martial effectiveness negates the spiritual evolution of someone who doesn't have this power. It's ironic to me how many of the highest level teachers have conducted lives that are a mess while there are many middling students that are true gems as human beings.
I would like to challenge Aikido to deeply question its spiritual dimensions in the same way that Dan challenges it physically. It is not easy to sustain focus on just one dimension of the art, say IP, and succeed. It is even more difficult to sustain effort in multiple dimensions at the same time. But this is what make a "way " hold up over time - that it has the capacity of being ever deeper and wider the more one goes into it. The fact that the art is difficult is part of the spiritual path and the reason that Aikido give us the warrior archetype to sustain us.
I stayed with Aikido practice all this time because it has proven to be deep enough and difficult enough to sustain my interest. Aikido has also given me rewarding network of friendships with people I would have been unlikely to meet any other way. We tend to be an odd cast of characters and I enjoy this tremendously.