Tonight I'm sitting on my deck, facing northwest. It's a pleasant evening. A slightly gibbous moon is riding the wind. Cicadas are doing their call and response thing, crickets supply a droning chorus, and a whip-poor-will lays down its signature three-note melodic hook. The breeze brings a texture of perfumed tallows, and all in all... it's a fine place to do my work.
The fluorescent sky is thinly overcast, veiling stars. Not so much as to hide the moon though... she and the reflected city lights hold sway on this luminous evening. The white silken gauze of clouds strobes coolly from over the horizon -- hence the reason for my chaise longue orientation. A storm on the other side of Burnet County approaches. Still too far away to hear its basso profundo, but close enough to punctuate the pervasive mated glow (lunar ether and sodium vapor) with an electric lactescent pulse.
Lightning is a strange thing. It comes in a variety of forms, and is not easily studied nor fully understood. It doesn't really behave the way we intuitively think of it. For one thing, when lightning hits the ground, the ground hits back. Harder.
The simplified version is this: an electrical charge is built up between the clouds and the ground. When this happens, pathways of least resistance form ion channels through the air. These channels do indeed propagate generally from the cloud to the ground, as we might expect. This is the "leader" phase of the strike. However, the real lightning bolt, the visible and noisy thing we experience, follows this channel from the ground up to the cloud. This is called the return stroke.
Understanding this may help illuminate a particularly important concept in aikido. Katsu haya bi
is sometimes translated as "victory over the speed of light." This is a difficult idea to accept, and can be even harder to apply. Clearly we cannot move faster than light, so it must be an exaggeration, meaning simply that we must move and respond very quickly. This interpretation is acceptable, if not entirely satisfying. I'd like to suggest an alternative.
If you are the target of an attack, certain initial conditions are necessary for the event to unfold. An assailant must first have identified you as a desirable opportunity, or perhaps see you as a threat which must be removed. Either way, they have to sense your presence. You have to be visible.
What this means, if we break it down, is that some signal or other has to leave your body and enter the awareness of the attacker. A variety of signals are possible, including sounds and odors, but for now, let's just stick with light. When light is reflected from your body, it scatters more or less in all directions around you. However, when your presence is detected by another, only the light that travels from you to the tiny portal of their eyes is relevant. In effect, this creates a channel which connects you to them, just like the leader stroke in a lightning discharge.
This occurs in an instant, literally at the speed of light. It is this path exactly that an attacker must follow if they are to close distance and deliver what, in our crude analogy, we would call the return strike.
Unlike lightning, we reflect light continuously if our environment is a lit one, so our "leader stroke" is updated constantly. This allows an attacker the option of choosing their path toward us, and to some extent, the timing of their attack. Even so, the crucial fact here is that you already exist inside the nervous system of an attacker, before they even know they want to attack you, and likely well before you know you're being attacked.
Regardless of all other considerations, remember: you entered them first.
Needless to say, this is reciprocal. If your assailant is not otherwise hidden or camouflaged, you may see them and when this is so, now they exist inside you. It may even be the case that you saw them first. No matter, the point here is that in order for an attack and defense situation to be created, a light channel must first be established, and this happens faster than human reaction, and faster even than human cognition.
That being the case, how can we possibly capitalize on something which is occurring supra-liminally? There are two ways.
First, we can become more aware of the signals we are sending. We must ask ourselves if our attire, our posture, our demeanor, or our positioning might in any way be inviting to a mugger, or perhaps be threatening to someone who might lash out in fear or anger. By taking responsibility for the nature of the "leader strokes" we send out, we become naturally more leader-like. In this context, a leader is someone who favorably influences their environment, simply by being.
Secondly, when a situation has already developed, however rapidly it unfolds, it's useful to remember that the opponent must cover distance to get from where they are to where you are. Although this can happen startlingly fast, it is still far slower than the speed at which our "light channel" is continuously refreshed. Knowing that your attacker must follow this light path gives you instantaneous access to them. The path emanates from you. You shape it from where you are. You can change the nature of its configuration even as the assailant is on approach. Your movements, right here, right now, can alter the course and trajectory of the attack. As strange as it may be to say it, you have available to you something akin to puppet strings that run from your body to the attacker's mind, and these strings are made of light. More tenuous than spider silk, but useful nonetheless once fastened onto such equally ephemeral material as are minds made of.
I'm aware this all sounds terribly esoteric. But I want to emphasize that, however fanciful my analogy is with lightning, I mean for the rest of this to be taken literally. We actually do exist inside of each other whenever awareness overlaps. We are physically connected by the signals we transmit and receive, and these things penetrate deep inside the body, sparking nerves, stirring hormones, and cascading neurotransmitters. Much of what I am discussing rightly belongs in the realm of psychology, but the psyche is firmly rooted in the world of physics, and that is the domain of which I speak. There is nothing whatsoever of fantasy in this, nor even science fiction.
In aikido, we speak of shodo o seisu
, or "controlling the first move." Katsu haya bi
is, I think, the same thing, albeit spoken as a koan. We cannot move faster than light, but we may move before light.
The thunder that now comes rumbling across the Texas Hill Country and shakes the walls of my office (to where I've since retreated) originates miles away. Yet it exists here inside my house, in the vibrations I feel in my body, the sound in my ears, and the echoes rolling across my own neural landscape. And though it will undergo a series of transformations as it passes through an odd sequence of transducers, the same thunder will also make its way into you, by virtue of what you are now reading.
That which transpires in a flash, faster than human thought, may yet reverberate for years.
We are always at the center of cause and effect -- not caught in between, but at the source of each. That which affects me cannot do so except where and when I am. To respond to it is to always act after the fact, living a moment that has already passed... much like the return stroke which is confined to a path predetermined a moment before. To initiate every encounter is to create action before action even occurs... living, as it were, ahead of time. Although separated by milliseconds, the leader and the return are parts of a singular phenomenon.
We are each of these parts. We are the going out and the coming back. Realizing this can deepen our understanding of many diverse ideas in aikido, from irimi
to yama biko
to kaeshi waza
Even as I bring my evening of writing to a close, the rain is already passing. A Massive Attack remix on the radio has replaced the other nocturnal sounds. Snippets of lyrics pass unregistered, while a few others catch like debris on a fence after a storm. "Closed-eyed sky wide open." "Elsewhere, indefinitely, far away, magnifies and deepens." "See through me little glazed lane
A world in myself."
"I train myself in martial arts, I reinforce my softened parts.""Flickering I roam."
The lesson of the lightning flash is to design synchronicity, knowing it can't be planned, but living as if you built it from the ground up -- the inevitable response to a conduit opened from above.
Still Point Aikido Systems
Austin TX, USA
Massive Attack lyrics from Mezzanine, "Group Four"