Aikido practice is so devoted to the here and now that we have a hard time thinking farther ahead than to the next step of the technique we are involved in at the moment. That's as it should be. When the mind leaves the present, we risk stumbling on the aikido technique and losing control of it.
Leaving the tatami, though, we can safely indulge in thoughts about the past as well as the future. Those two directions are twins. It is by the former that we can get some glimpse of the latter. The present has no baring on what was and what will be. It is stuck in the moment, and gone the next. That limit is also its charm, and the reason for its capacity.
Only the present can be said to exist. The past has ceased to exist, and the future is yet to exist. Therefore they speak to each other. They exchange calls. The past longs for the future, trying to form it. The future longs for the past to reach it.
When I started with aikido as an eager teen, I had bundles of dreams about what my practice would lead to, what would happen to my aikido skills. I just couldn't get there fast enough. But the future was elusive. It was the carrot luring me ahead through many more classes than I would have imagined necessary -- or accepted, if I had known about them beforehand.
A youth finds it easy to say ‘forever', but that's just because he or she has not yet experienced the length of time. To the young, forever means little more than around the corner, or the dawn of the very next day. Aikido soon reveals that another perspective is called for. Progress is as slow as it is sure.
Still, without the impatience of the youth, progress is even slower. The paradox of longing from the past to the distant future, but walking steadily in the present, is what brings us forward. If there is no longing, there is no movement. If there is no focus on the present, there is no learning.
I am still far from accomplishing what I dreamed that my aikido would become. On the other hand, I manage a few things that I did not even dream of, mainly because I was unaware of the possibility. Isn't this true for us all?
If I had only made my path that of turning the past into the future, without proper concentration on the present, the future would be nothing else than what I imagined beforehand. There would be no surprise, no achievement beyond my initially limited perspective. It would be boring.
The surprises appear in the present. So does innovation. Suddenly, something appears -- an idea, a revelation, a new solution. The biggest of those surprises are able to redirect the future, actually also to rewrite the past. The latter is seen in the light of the new discovery, which reveals that even this complete surprise had its seed in the past. We were unaware of it, but it was there. Seeds grow by receiving nourishment. Training in the present is such nourishment.
The sages of old said that they knew nothing about the future -- maybe not because it would be impossible, or even difficult, but because it would chain the future. Refusing to picture the future is leaving it the freedom to grow into what is yet unknown, unfathomable. It's just as stimulating as reading a crime story without knowing who is the murderer.
On the other hand, reading that story in order to find out who did it is indeed the past reaching out to the future. But what we really learn from reading the book is what we experience on the way, through each page our eyes slide through. If all we got out of reading the book was the name of the murderer, then we might as well have skipped to the last page.
This is well known in aikido, expressed in its last syllable. Do
is the way, not the goal. There is no goal. The way means to trust that we get somewhere simply by putting one foot in front of the other, again and again. Repetition of a seemingly simple movement of little significance is boundless. It gets us anywhere and everywhere.
In that sense, the past and the future are only directions by which we decide what to face and what to turn our backs to. We could turn around, but then we would have to walk backwards. Well, that's also rewarding, and as we age we tend to prefer it increasingly -- maybe just to have a distant horizon in our eyesight. But if we only look at our feet, we stop.
In aikido, this is evident. When doing ikkyo, if I only look at my hands I will get stuck and struggle against the very forces of nature to continue. Each fraction of the technique will become a bigger and bigger problem. If I look where the movement should be headed, it will get there as easily as if it did so all by itself, without any need of my effort.
But if I peak longingly at the end position I wish to reach, then I will not even be able to commence the technique. I need to look at what lies right ahead, without imagining a fixed goal, without peeking at the last page of the book. The past and the present are directions, and not fixed positions. They are like the yin and yang of the present -- its shady and its sunny side.
Everything moves, everything changes -- the past, the present, and the future. In aikido we learn to roll with it.
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