I once had the privilege of attending a lecture by the celebrated composer Philip Glass. Among the many fine things he said, one really stuck in my mind. He said (as nearly as I can remember all these years later) "The first great challenge a composer faces is in finding his own unique voice. The second challenge is in discarding it."
The same thing could be said for aikido, or any other art form, for that matter. Beyond all the technical skills and influences from the great ones before us, we must find an expression that is uniquely our own. Having done that, we must then avoid being confined by our own graven image.
In aikido, I think there is yet another set of two great challenges. I frame these as follows:
The Lesser Problem of aikido is learning how to do it.
The Greater Problem of aikido is learning how to not do it.
The Lesser Problem is what most of us spend our lifetimes working on. We acquire techniques, we learn forms, we practice, we study, we research, we refine. Over time our efforts yield results, and we become more efficient, more subtle, and the desired results become more reliable and reproducible.
Now, please understand that the Lesser Problem is vast. It is eminently worthwhile, and not a single one of us will ever solve it in its fullness. Even so, there is another challenge before us that is easily overlooked, and yet possibly even more vital.
The Greater Problem is the study of how aikido happens through us when we refrain from doing anything to a partner or adversary. This is the path of directed non-resistance, where even the gentlest of technique directed at control over someone else is found to be counterproductive. This is the aikido of non-doing, or wu-wei
, as it is expressed in Chinese philosophy. In this practice, masakatsu agatsu is taken literally, and all action is directed toward a fluid and adaptable self-control. The energy of the attack is joined and surfed like a wave, but there is no attempt by the defender to throw, to lock, to twist, pin, choke, and there is no push or pull. What remains is to learn how to adapt and return repeatedly and sustainably, while suffering no harm.
This problem may be counterintuitive and more difficult to grasp, but that is not what makes it the Greater of the two problems. Paradoxically, once we become willing to abandon our need to control others, the skills needed to explore this path are easily accessible. There are only a few techniques required to learn the limits of our own flexibility and adaptability, and these can be taught and learned in a very short period of time. The rest is simply a matter of ongoing immersion in an improvisatory experience which allows us to gain confidence in the ease and power that comes with freedom from our own opposition.
Therefore the Greater Problem is so called, not because it is more difficult to learn or perform, but because it is the more primary of the two problems. By this I mean that it is possible to spend a lifetime pursuing the Lesser Problem and never catch more than a glimpse of the Greater Problem. We may have an experience of aikido happening all by itself, where we feel like a conduit for something wonderful, but have no idea whatsoever how to reproduce it. By contrast, the Greater Problem immediately informs and enhances the Lesser Problem. Once you begin to get a grasp of successful non-doing, doing becomes much easier. When it becomes necessary or desirable to do something, the Greater Problem helps us intuit directly what to do, how much to do, and when not to do.
This is because the Greater Problem reduces the space between perceiving and acting. Even when performing, or "doing" aikido excellently, there tends to be a certain amount of processing perceptions and then judging how to act. At this point, all the well-rehearsed forms tend to get in the way as they assert their mental presence -- seductive choices among familiar solutions. Focusing exclusively on the Lesser Problem only exacerbates the difficulty. On the other hand, the Greater Problem emphasizes a clarity of attention to what is happening in the moment, a willingness to always submit to the movement of the energy, and a sensitivity to what natural corrections must occur to remain within one's natural limits. Perception and performance become one.
When this is so, it is the persistence of the attacker that causes the outer appearance of a technique. Should an adversary choose to chase a target over the event horizon of a compliant emptiness, then nothing but their own energy will unbalance them or bind them. In the course of this interplay, it is quite common to see any of the standard aikido technical forms arise naturally and spontaneously without effort or design on the defender's part. This living organic quality is what is meant by takemusu aiki
, the "confluence of energy that gives birth to infinite forms."
Within the Lesser Problem, aikido is encased inside certain forms, and the practitioner is expected to learn the art through repetition of these forms and their myriad variations. Through the Greater Problem, form is transitory and arises inevitably from the combined geometries of human figures in motion. Here, the practitioner is expected to learn by avoiding the tendency to fixate on form and instead exploit the avenues of freedom that surround and penetrate form.
The Greater Problem is rarely found in mainstream aikido. Even when encountered, it is rare to discover a methodology for exploring it. Regardless, we should not be tempted to abandon the Lesser Problem once we begin to appreciate how beneficial the Greater Problem can be. Instead, we should configure our training such that each can enhance and inform the other according to appropriate priorities.
Ultimately, these two great Problems must be combined for a comprehensive approach to understanding and expressing aikido. Doing and not-doing are complementary parts of a balanced whole, in the same way that movement and stillness, solidification and fluidity, extension and contraction, and unification and division are all encompassed in a universal aikido.*
Doing aikido is about overcoming obstacles with increasing degrees of efficiency. "Not-doing" is about moving around, through, and with obstacles toward increasing degrees of freedom in a vast field of infinite possibility.
*The Eight Forces which sustain creation, as delineated by Morihei Ueshiba
Ross RobertsonRoss Robertson lives and teaches aikido in Austin, Texas.
Still Point Aikido Center
Austin, Texas, USA