I keep on thinking about why I continue to do aikido. What's the point, why do I stay with it after all these years, although I usually get bored with just about anything in no time? Don't we all need a reason for whatever we do?
That might not be very Zen. The conscious mind and its intellectual needs should be brushed off, while the body engages in something that has a delicate value, easily compromised by scrutiny. As far as I understand Zen, the thing is to do it without purpose, without having a reason.
Fortunately, aikido is not Zen, at least not so that the Zen rules necessarily apply. So I let my mind wander, maybe not that much while I'm in the middle of keiko (I hope), but definitely the rest of the day. Sometimes also between techniques, I must admit.
A friend of mine said that aikido is healing, which I believe to have commented in another column. I like the idea. Well, I am delighted by it. So this is probably just another way of saying the same.
Ichimura Sensei, who was my teacher back in the 1970's, often said that aikido is misogi,
purification. Other teachers have said the same. By practicing aikido we are cleansed from the inside out. If that's not self-healing, it must at least be the necessary preparation for it.
Any part of the aikido practice is giving, or extending. As tori we give uke the direction that presents the solution, for the benefit of both. As uke we give ourselves to tori, in order to make the exercise and its lesson possible. There's constant giving on the tatami, constant extension from deep inside. That purifies us, much like the physical efforts of training drain us of energy and make us relax more than we possibly could without the exhaustion.
Some aikido traditions touch on a misogi practice closer to Shinto, although I bet that very few of us belong to this belief system. For example, both torifune
are often used in aikido warm-up. How much of the Shinto significance is included in those exercises, when done in an aikido dojo, I don't know. It's probably not important. The exercises remain in the aikido curriculum because they do some good.
The dojo is not a temple, and the teacher is not a priest. We don't need to relate to the whole traditional context, when using bits and pieces of Shinto or of other spiritual origin. And we don't have to regard misogi as a religious ritual. It is useful also on a much more profane level. The exercises, and even more so the attitude, refresh us profoundly.
The kanji for misogi is intriguingly complex, consisting of several parts that point to another meaning than mere calisthenics. There's the sign for showing something, and those of the hand, the sword, and for something big. The last three have their own combined kanji, which means a pledge or a vow. I guess that the word commitment is also relevant.
So, misogi is to show one's vow, one's commitment. For us, it's a commitment to aikido and its principles. That should indeed fill all our actions on the tatami. One is purified by showing and sticking to one's commitment.
It's certainly a wonderful feeling, but also a risky one, if not accompanied by questioning and reason. We need to inspect and revise our commitments, or we might become narrow-minded fanatics, resisting any progress and losing sensitivity, no matter how noble a cause we are committed to. In our purification, we don't want to throw out the baby with the bath water.
Is there a Japanese concept that would pair up well with misogi, adding the necessary hesitation and consideration? The question mark for the exclamation mark of misogi.
Stefan Stenudd is a 6 dan Aikikai aikido instructor, member of the International Aikido Federation Directing Committee, the Swedish Aikikai Grading Committee, and the Swedish Budo Federation Board. He has practiced aikido since 1972. Presently he teaches aikido and iaido at his dojo Enighet in Malmo, Sweden, and at seminars in Sweden and abroad. He is also an author, artist, and historian of ideas. He has published a number of books in Swedish and English, both fiction and non-fiction. Among the latter are books about aikido and aikibatto, also a guide to the lifeforce qi, and a Life Energy Encyclopedia. He has written a Swedish interpretation of the Chinese classic Tao Te Ching, and of the Japanese samurai classic Book of Five Rings. In the history of ideas he studies the thought patterns of creation myths, as well as Aristotle's Poetics. He has his own extensive aikido website: http://www.stenudd.com/aikido