We do not really use a set time. It is more that we use reps -- usually three or four attempts (or successes) per set, then you trade roles. When folks have a handle on the drill, that can take anywhere from about 15 seconds, 30 seconds, or at most a minute. We would trade roles after that. If a person is still in the early levels of acquiring the skill sets relevant to the drill, that might take quite a while (if we still use the number of reps to determine when we trade roles). In the latter case then, we would use a time limit that is determined according to exhaustion levels and/or having a more well rounded training session (for both partners). That usually has us with a specific role for no more than about 3 minutes.
Your reflections are helping me run through some of my own. Hoping you would be so kind as to let me ramble through some of those thoughts here…
For the sake of this discussion, I would like to simply define "Aiki" as the proper harmonizing of Yin and Yang aspects. From here, it can of course come to mean many things and even come to achieve many things. I do not mean to dispute any one of these things over and against any other of these things. However, I would like to pull out one element that strikes us the most from within these drills: That the tactic of Aiki is as much a bodily one as it is an emotional/mental/spiritual one. This is such an obvious statement. However, it is this obviousness that makes us, in my opinion, gloss over how much forms training, for example, may not only assume it of us but of how it may assume it of us.
In forms training, for example, we understand that in order to "blend," or to "connect," or to "harmonize," etc., we must not only move our bodies in a certain way. We understand that also having a particular mental state is very relevant to how we can move our bodies. Thus, to move our bodies to blend, to connect, or to harmonize, we often allow our minds or we often encourage our minds to adopt either these imaginings (i.e. the thought "blend," the thought "connect," the thought "harmonize") and/or something very similar (e.g. adopting a sense of openness, etc).
For some of us, due to our personal histories, in which we have gained our habitual ways of experiencing the world around us, the thoughts of "blend," "connect," and/or "harmonize" may be something that is very difficult to adopt any time, any place. For others, with a slightly different habitual way of experiencing the world around us, such thoughts may be something we are capable of manifesting in some places of our life but we may have difficulty adopting them under the various martial settings of Kihon Waza. Some of us may be able to adopt such thoughts under less intense Kihon Waza training sessions (e.g. training at lighter levels, training with a peer and not your Shihan, etc.), and some of us may be able to adopt them even under extremely intense Kihon Waza training sessions. As a result, relative to our capacity to adopt such thoughts we gain or lose the benefit of such imaginings in regards to our physical applications of Aiki in Kihon Waza.
I do not want to say that such mind/body connections are not an important part of training overall -- they are. Nor do I want to say that this is not a vital part of both Kihon Waza training and thus then not of Spontaneous training -- it is. I also do not want to say that there is no value in going from a life that cannot imagine such things to a life where one can imagine such things even under very intense martial settings -- there is a great value in such a thing. However, something entirely different seems to be going on in Spontaneous training -- something very different from a corresponding of mind to body via attributes like the imagination.
In spontaneous training, we are looking at a state of being -- not merely an imagined state of being or merely a disciplined state of body - nor any kind of connection between the two. There is no relevance (but for how it hinders us) to what we are thinking or how we intend to move in spontaneous training. There is only who we are. For it is who we are that creates the experience itself. No other reality, no other experience of the drill, exists outside of this our being. Moreover, it is the rawness of our being that dominates what we are able or unable to do in the drill since it is our being that is manifesting the reality we are experiencing. Thinking this, or attempting that, only comes to make us succeed less as we struggle to resist the rawness of our own being and the experience of our own being/reality by attempting to create some sort of intermediary between the doer and the deed being done.
In form's training, this intermediary is possible because the form itself exists as an ideal and the subjective self is then able to coast along its spine -- constantly measuring itself against it. In forms training, there is a division between being and reality -- since "reality" has been idealized and thus somewhat separated from being. Thus, for example, there is the form, the person doing the form, and the person measuring him/herself against the form. Meaning, as the form is an idealized space/time, it creates the possibility for the subjective self to be separated from its objective aspects. Because of this, we are able to do the form, trying to blend (for example), and we are able to do the form thinking, "blend" (for example). In spontaneous training, such imaginings manifest into the experience/being/reality only as a fettered mind. As a result, such imaginings do something very different from what they may do in forms training. In spontaneous training, such imaginings will corrupt our physical capacities at performing Aiki because they remain what we think and not necessary who or what we are (i.e. being/experience).
To be sure, there is much overlap here, and indeed then, many aspects of this come up in forms training -- especially during the early stages of our practice. However, what is important to note here is that when we experience frustration or fettering, for example, in these drills, we are not ever going to experience them in light of some idealized space/time, and, as a result, we are not merely experiencing frustration and/or fettering, we ARE frustration, we ARE fettering, and the there is no outside experience to these states of being. This is what gives us the overwhelming sense we often experience in these drills. It is that there is no outside to the experience because there is no outside to us -- no idealized space/time that is not us and by which we can measure, experience objectively or subjectively, etc.
Under such a model, I am skeptical of how much progress we can achieve through simply gaining more insight to how we react and thus to who we are. To be sure, this is a vital part of the training, however, it seems that at some point we are going to have to address the being we are so as to address the experience we are/have. Under such a model, we cannot simply intend to move with Aiki -- to blend, to connect, to harmonize. Under such a model, we cannot simply imagine "Aiki," "blend," "connect," "harmonize." Nor can we under such a model simply hope to get used to the intensity levels being experienced. Etc. Under such a model, if our being/reality/experience of the drill is plagued by various habitual reactions to Fear, Pride, and Ignorance, for example, we are going to have to address these things as the very "I" we are. In my opinion, this would mean that rather than attempting to address our fear reactions with more drilling, etc., we may want to adopt a practice more geared toward a cultivation of who we are/experience as Fear. For example, to offset fear then, let us throughout our lives practice compassion so as to cultivate more compassion within us. In addition, for example, to offset pride, let us practice mercy so as to cultivate more mercy within us; to offset ignorance, let us practice faith so as to cultivate more faith within us. To develop compassion, let us practice more servitude in our lives; to develop mercy, let us practice more charity in our lives; to develop faith, let us practice more prayer in our lives. After all, the goal here is not to think or imagine Aiki, nor even to move with Aiki. The goal here is to be Aiki. At some point then, we are going to have to ask, for example, "How is continually observing myself ducking down when I should be looking up going to allow me to be Aiki?"
Here are two videos I put together so folks can see a different stage of learning in the drill.
See the videos here: