The aims of training are varied. They are personal, and as such they change with our needs and insights. However, in this variation, we can find common threads, threads that connect us to each other as Aikidoka, and threads that mark our independent lives as belonging to a single and continuous subjective experience. For me, my path thus far, and my connection to those I've trained with, has centered around a problematizing of thought, speech, and action, one geared toward a reconciliation of fear, pride, and ignorance.
Undoubtedly, these three dis-eases (i.e. fear, pride, and ignorance) of the heart-mind are difficult to separate when it comes to plaguing our lives. They are so thoroughly interwoven, and we can hardly find any real spiritual usefulness in saying, for example, it is was fear, and not pride or ignorance, that caused this or that suffering in our life (or in the lives of others). Surely, all three are always simultaneously at work in our ego-attachments (i.e. our un-reconciled fear, pride, and ignorance), and thus all three must always be simultaneously addressed in our paths toward spiritual maturity.
As ego-attachment, as an un-reconciliation of fear, pride, or ignorance, is always an obstacle to learning, we can say that in any dojo where learning is expected to take place, at some level, practitioners there must be engaged in their own reconciliation of fear, pride, and ignorance. Thus, it makes sense that any of us can walk into any dojo and see people being asked to wrestle, for example, with their pride and ignorance, and thus engaged in their own cultivation of humility (a spiritual virtue -- a mark of spiritual maturity). This, the wrestling with pride and ignorance, and the cultivation of humility, is the underlying structural level to the universal sensei-deshi exchange of, "No. Not like that, but like this."
For sure, in that universal sensei-deshi exchange, fear is lurking. It is not just a matter of pride and ignorance, and thus it is not just an opportunity to cultivate humility. As pride deepens its hold upon us, as we live our lives wherein self-reflection can become virtually non-existent, there is the fear of embarrassment, the fear of exposed ignorance, the fear of failure, the fear of remaining incompetent, etc., all happening in the "not like that, but like this" exchange. Fear is being worked with, and thus other spiritual virtues, such as courage, are indeed being cultivated at that moment. Who can argue with that?
These exchanges, these wrestling matches with our fear, pride, and ignorance, and of course the ensuing cultivation of spiritual virtues such as humility and courage, impact our lives in great ways. In the greater scope of our existence, the cultivation of these virtues save us from unneeded self-torturing, and they aid us in serving those around us. These virtues bring us a capacity for love and compassion and thus for a continuous supply of blessings -- both issued and received. And, in light of the fact that all of us will see a greater need for practiced love and compassion in our lives than we will ever see for a self-defense skill, it is somewhat ridiculous to fault Aikido training for, as they say, "not being martial enough."
Yet, if we keep this framework for spiritual cultivation in place, if we come to our ego-attachments in our training not solely or predominantly through pride or ignorance (as is commonly the case nowadays), but instead right through fear itself, is it not fair to say, "Aikido training is not spiritual enough." That is to say, as the ego-attachment to physical well-being, such as in the fear of injury, and/or the fear of death, presses upon us deeply, are we not preventing equally deep cultivation of spiritual virtue when we do not regularly take our training to this level? For me, the answer is "Yes." For me, we should all be pressed repeatedly upon the grindstone.
In the tactical world, they often speak of stress inoculation training. Stress inoculation training repeatedly exposes a practitioner to mental pressure and physical suffering so that one can build up his/her "immunity." The idea is that training can act like a vaccine, as relatively small challenges or doses of a virus that prepares your system and makes it ready for bigger challenges. Think Vince Lombardi: "The harder you work, the harder it is for you to surrender."
In a recent study, Dr. Andrew Morgan of the Yale Medical School set out to research the physical and mental effects of stress inoculation training at Fort Bragg -- home of the Army's elite Airborne and Special Forces. Dr. Morgan was allowed access to the Army's Camp Mackall -- a mock prisoner-of-war camp where soldiers are expected to put into practice what they learned in Survival School. The camp includes guard towers, razor-wire fences, concrete cells, metal cages, fake graves marked with crosses, etc. It is ran by highly trained professionals who serve as jailers and interrogators. The goal of these professionals is to generate a choreographed chaos wherein soldiers are likely to be disoriented and broken down during interrogation.
Now, one might think that in their heart-of-hearts the soldier knows all of this is fake, not real combat, but as a trainer for my own Sheriff's Department, I can tell you the body-mind nevertheless reacts and reacts fully in stress inoculation training. For example, Dr. Morgan observed that heartbeats rose to 170 beats per minute at a prolonged duration of ˝ hour during mock interrogations. Note: This was without physical activity occurring! Stress hormone levels rose to those comparable to when a pilot lands on an aircraft carrier or when soldiers are awaiting ambushes in a jungle setting. Dr. Morgan noted that this level of stress hormone release is sufficient to turn off the immune system and to produce a catabolic state. In fact, the study showed that the average weight loss for three days of training was 22 pounds.
In the study, Dr. Morgan went on to look at two different groups: regular Army troops (who are not consistently trained in stress inoculation) and Special Forces troops (who are regularly trained in stress inoculation). At the start of the study, the two groups appeared to be essentially the same. However, once stress was introduced there were significant differences. Specifically, the two groups released different amounts of a chemical called Neuropeptide Y (NYP). NPY is an abundant amino acid in our bodies that helps regulate blood pressure, appetite, learning, and memory. NPY also controls and helps us manage our anxiety by buffering the effects of stress hormones like Norepenephrine. NPY is what the brain uses to better address our alarm and fear responses and it does this by keeping the frontal-lobe parts of our brain working longer under stress. Note: The frontal lobes are involved in motor function, problem solving, spontaneity, memory, language, initiation, judgment, impulse control, and social and sexual behavior.
Dr. Morgan observed that the Special Forces troops, those more regularly trained in stress inoculation, produced significantly greater levels of NPY during the exercise than regular Army troops did. With so much more NPY in their systems, the Special Forces soldiers demonstrated more clear-headedness under interrogation. The Special Forces soldiers were able remain focused and engaged throughout the crisis. As Ben Sherwood, a Newsweek reporter, commenting on the research project said, "In the fog of war—and everyday life for that matter—that's a major advantage."
Translating what we have discussed above, and looking to be able to continue to practice our Aikido-cultivated virtues of humility, courage, love, and compassion, under situations wherein our alarm and/or fear responses would normally have us lose the path of wisdom and clear-headedness -- this is the goal of training hard, training fast, with violence, with the risk of injury and with death on the horizon at all times. Choreographed or not, the body-mind will respond to the training, and therein fear (deep deep fear), directly, can be reconciled -- allowing us to stay true to our mission and/or to our accepted ideals where or when others (including our past selves) would falter. For me, this is part of what it means to use the keen edge of martial arts training for spiritual development. Hard and violent training is not necessarily solely about addressing the critique of martial validity in Aikido. It is not just a question for those that wish to protect their physical well-being. It is a question for all those that wish to deepen their spiritual insights, to have them function when all around them only chaos exists. It is thus also a question for those that wish to protect their spiritual well-being.
By David M. Valadez
"The Grindstone" is a collaborative column written by these authors.