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The Aiki Puzzle
The Aiki Puzzle
by Ross Robertson
The Aiki Puzzle

Imagine you encounter a physical kind of puzzle. You've seen a variety of these already -- jigsaw puzzles, or the more 3D sort of tabletop puzzles, made of metal, wood, plastic or some such.

Usually these are designed so they fit together one and only one way. And when they are fitted together, their joinery seems so clever, so perfect, as to almost be magical. Even where the seams are perfectly visible, the item presents itself as an obvious whole, complete, balanced, and fully integrated functionally and aesthetically. Indeed, some of these puzzles are twofold: not only is how they are assembled a mystery, finding the turn of the key that unlocks the completed specimen to disassemble it is also part of the game.

Now let's change the nature of the proposition just a bit. Instead of one way of fitting together, suppose there are many. Before you rejoice, thinking this will make things easier for you, there's a twist: one of the pieces spontaneously keeps changing shape, and specifically assumes a shape inimical to the other shapes. So understand, instead of being allowed many solutions, you are required to discover a new solution each time.

Actually it's worse than that. It's not just that there is a new solution each time you play, it's that the solution keeps changing as you play.

All is not hopeless, however. There are some parameters within which this system works. Those antagonistic puzzle pieces (there can be more than one of these in advanced versions of the game) can change shape, but so can the other pieces (lets call them the "agonists"). The variety of shapes the pieces can assume may be large, but it is not infinite. By studying the dynamics over time, we can learn the limits of these shape-shifting abilities. We may not always be able to predict what form a shape may assume, but we can be assured of the endless number of forms it will not assume.

Are you ready to play?

Let's survey some possible strategies. To learn, let's start with a more simple two-piece puzzle: an agonist and one antagonist. Don't relax your guard! Remember, even this simple system is really a puzzle of many puzzles. Oh, and by the way... though the pieces are shape-shifters, they do break if you're not careful.

At the beginning, you might want to find ways for the agonistic piece to limit the action of the antagonist. This can work... go ahead and try it out... I'll be patient. But look, aren't you now really playing with two antagonists? Be careful with this approach, because if you persist, you're likely to break one or both pieces. Or at least scratch, dent, or chip them. And then I'll have to charge you for new ones.

Hopefully you've learned many interesting things with this method. If you've gone slowly, and stopped the process before anything gets hurt, it makes for an interesting and compelling study. Some might even find it very exciting. Maybe you'll agree though that the risk of damage is high, even when you're being careful, and the game could get too expensive.

So how about the opposite strategy? Can we just let the antagonist do whatever it will? Try it and see. Put the two pieces together, and watch what happens. But be ready to intervene, because see, now the antagonist piece is almost always fine, but the poor agonist keeps getting forced into shapes it cannot assume, or cannot sustain.

Don't despair, the game is simply asking you to become more skilled. You must be clever, sophisticated, adaptable yet proactive. Yes, it's frustrating. But fun.

Allow me to suggest a third strategy. Remember we began with the basic puzzle of how to put things together and how to take them apart. Now we see that a key component of the game is to preserve the integrity of the pieces. It should have been obvious from the beginning, and maybe it was, but let's write it down and make it a guiding principle:

You need to know how to put the parts safely together, and take them safely apart.

With this in mind, let's review. In the first approach, both pieces were much at risk. Sometimes we could find a solution, but it frequently seemed more difficult and more risky than necessary. With the second method, only one of the pieces, the agonist, tended to be at risk. From the standpoint of the system as a whole, this is a 100% improvement, but still not acceptable. Is it something we can build on though?

Maybe what we need is a modified version of the second method. Remember that the shapes can assume many different forms, but not an endless variety. What we need to do now is study carefully the many forms that are ok, while recognizing when they are approaching their limits of not ok.

With this knowledge, we can proceed as before, letting the antagonistic piece do whatever it will. The agonistic piece will be shaped accordingly. As long as the agonistic piece is perfectly adaptable, the two pieces will fit exactly, creating a complete whole. However, when the agonistic piece is beginning to trend toward a shape that it cannot assume, or cannot sustain, then we have to intervene.

It's this intervention that reveals the heart of the game. Do nothing, as long as doing nothing is sustainable, as long as this nothing-doing is not passive. Learn to recognize early the patterns of approaching non-sustainability, then move the agonist.

Movement of the agonist must obey three Accords:

First, it must move or be moved in accord with its own nature, well within the limits of its own structural integrity.
Second, it must move or be moved in accord with the movements of the antagonist.
The Third Accord is the union of the First and the Second.

Now, please don't be upset with me, thinking I've ruined your enjoyment of the puzzle by giving away the solution. Nothing could be further from the truth. All I've done is to suggest some strategies that I hope will enhance your pleasure in the game, and save you a bit of unnecessary hurt and expense.

The puzzle will teach you how to play, and will direct your path of mastery if you let it. Every instance of play is unique, and therefore every solution is unique, though patterns do recur. I could never give you the solution to every problem -- my goal is to suggest an approach for finding your own solutions, guided by the very puzzle itself.

By now, you've guessed this puzzle is not really imaginary. Good, but don't think for a minute that you can't make imaginary problems to complicate your real ones. When you do, I suppose that these become more antagonistic pieces of the puzzle, and you must use your very agonistic imagination to help you dance through this now multi-dimensional solution field.

Does this puzzle have a name? Many:

I call it "life." Existence. Work, play, art, sport, statecraft, sex, relationship, dying, survival, hunting and gathering, cultivation, war, collaboration, science, cognition, engineering, architecture, design, mythology, to name a few.

I also have a name for the study and practice of this puzzle game, though others may use the word differently:

I call it, "aikido."

Ross Robertson
Still Point Aikido Systems
Honmatsu Aikido
Austin TX, USA

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