The verity of aikido, and the process of validating the art, is a topic that continually fascinates me. I would not have put more than three decades of concentrated effort into aikido if I did not find it worthwhile. But stating clearly and succinctly the what and why of its value can be elusive. As one inclined toward skepticism, I think the need for testing and verification is necessary... yet I am continually thrown by any effort at constructing a reasonable theory of what and how that should work.
It's as if the art itself is elusive and difficult to pin.
I can state some of my biases, to help frame the discussion. I do believe aikido is a martial art. I also believe aikido is a healing art. I believe these are not contradictory.
Before we go any further, allow me say a few things about my own personal history and qualifications:
With over five decades of life experience, so far I have never once been in a fight. I have never served in the military or police force. I've never worked in security or been a bodyguard. I don't compete in tournaments. I don't accept personal challenges. I have no wall of trophies. When I occasionally play with the judo guys and such, I care more about learning what they are doing than I do about winning. And despite being a Texan, I don't own a gun.
I grew up white and lower middle-classed. I've never lived in a ghetto, or in a war zone, or experienced a major disaster at close range. I've never been mugged, nor have I ever been a part of any domestic violence. I did spend about five years without fixed residence, but I never slept under a bridge nor stood on a corner. I always had a car, a bit of income, and a good support network, so I wasn't exactly what you'd call homeless. And although I do know what it's like to have a knife drawn against me and a shotgun pointed at me, even those episodes were no big deal -- stories not worth the telling.
As a kid I, was skinny, and an easy target for some of the bigger guys whose home life was maybe not as nurturing as some, and who needed to play Big Monkey Little Monkey (never my favorite game, and not one I was very good at). I was picked on, but I suppose everyone is at some point and in some degree. There were certainly opportunities and invitations to fight. Sometimes I stood up, sometimes I backed down. But (so far) I've never found a fight I couldn't walk away from or talk my way out of. More often than not, with dignity and honor intact.
I have almost (but not entirely) overcome my reluctance to swat mosquitoes.
Nevertheless, there have been a handful of times when I've stepped in to intervene when I saw violence in progress or rapidly developing. I stepped in without knowing what would happen, believing that I might have to become involved in the violence even as I tried to prevent it. Strangely, even these events evaporated before I could get into the thick of it.things
So I suppose any possibility of me being a great warrior remains purely theoretical.
What about aikido as a healing art?
Well, I'm not a physician or a psychologist, nor a counsellor nor mediator. I do know a bit of first aid, and I'm told I can be a good listener. I can occasionally soothe someone who is agitated, and restore a spark of hope to one who is despondent. But I couldn't prevent my divorce, I have no skills at keeping students, and sometimes friends turn out to be... sometimes friends.
C'est la vie. C'est la guerre, et l'amour.
What then, about aikido as art?
I do believe and conceive aikido to be an art form. Beyond tradition and the necessary skills that comprise the craft, I believe aikido is an art. It is both an expression of truth, and a generative force of reality.
Art is fundamentally a creative discipline, and originality is essential.
The world of art critique notwithstanding, testing and verification and empirical validation do not apply. The market will assert its forces, and popular opinion will exert its influence, but the worth of the artist or the artifact escapes Cartesian tables and ledgers, and lives in other dimensions.
However ineffable and un-quantifiable art may be, it too is not without fraudulence. Forgeries occur. Cynical satires are perpetrated on the market, and perpetuated in university art departments. Skill can be mistaken for authenticity.
Likewise aikido is not without its share of plagiarisms, imitators, and outright shams.
Fortunately for all of us, aikido affords entrance into a realm where there is something undeniably genuine, real, and unmistakably true. In fact, it may be true by the very nature of its un-reproducibility in a lab. It may be authentic, not because of mastery or attainment, but simply by its very immediacy.
Mastery in an art may be nothing more than the ability to elicit shoshin
in either the artist, the audience, or both. You may not find it in a museum or gallery, but there is little that can compare to the first time a child puts a crayon to paper. What is drawn is less important than the smell of wax and manilla, the burning spark of color in the eye, and the wonder of pure geometry expressed through an unmediated gesture of naive anatomy.
It's this quality of experience that is available to us -- all of us -- at any time. Aikido is a particularly good gateway into this world. Anyone at any level at any time can step on the mat and encounter something for which I have no words, and yet know that you know it too.
People speak about the meaning of life as the greatest of imponderables. I've wondered if it's not because the question itself has a false premise. If life is the source of all meaning, then all meaning is derivative of life. Therefore there can be no meaning of life.
It may be that aikido is similarly close to the root of meaning. If so, then such things as tests, validations, verifications, and value judgements will always be a posteriori
, while our direct experience of it is eternally a priori
As for the martial and the healing, I'm prepared to say that we need a way to evaluate the worth of some things as much as for what they do not do as for what they accomplish. I ran across a quote by Eisenhower in a recent Time Magazine that speaks to this:
"The United States never lost a soldier or a foot ground in my Administration. We kept the peace. People asked how it happened. By God, it didn't just happen, I'll tell you that."
Here was a man who knew a thing or two about war, glory, and great achievement. A general and a president, he nevertheless took great pride in the non-events. And I suspect he also knew acutely just how difficult it is to pull off a non-event.
Of course it's true that if I were a great movie star, I couldn't rightly be judged on the movies I never made. Or if I were a great writer, the books I never wrote. A banker is not praised for the money not made, and a lawyer is not hired for the cases they imagined, but never argued.
But there's something to be said for the doctor who cares for many, but needs to treat but a few; for the policeman who patrols diligently, but scarcely arrests any; for the well-trained fire department with no fires to put out; for a government that regulates watchfully and wisely, but rarely intervenes. And yes, there's a special honor for the soldier whose greatest battles are the ones they fought hardest to prevent from ever happening.
The "Zenrin" says
He holds the handle of the hoe, but his hands are empty.
He rides astride the water buffalo, but he is walking.
Entering the forest, he moves not the grass.
Entering the water, he makes not a ripple.
It may be that this is how aikido is measured, and how mastery in the art is best assessed. While we will always have great men and women who make a splash and leave their mark, beyond greatness lies the possibility of inscribing a signature upon history that is "like the footprints of birds in the sky."
July 30, 2010
Still Point Aikido Systems
Austin TX, USA
"Zenrin" quotes from "The Gospel According to Zen," Robert Sohl and Audrey Carr, eds.a