For the sake of this discussion, "transitivity" refers to actions transferred from a subject to an object. Intransitive actions are those where the subject and object are the same. Saying that a guitarist plucks a string is an example of transitive action. Observing that a string vibrates, regardless of how it got that way, is an example of intransitive action. "The guitarist plays" in intransitive, while "The musician plays the guitar" is transitive.
In a combat encounter, an attacker must take action against a victim or adversary. Action must be conferred from one to the other. The normal assumption is that a defender must also take action against the aggressor, to either stop the attack or to preemptively keep it from happening in the first place. This is often the case, but the root assumption may be wrong. Often it is possible -- and desirable -- to act only on oneself, intransitively, and thereby change the nature of the situation.
To illustrate a very simple example of this, do the following. Have one person distort their own posture noticeably, and let their partner grab hold somehow with both hands. The bent-over person is now asked to find a path back into normal posture, but without pushing or pulling on their partner -- no collision, no significant increase of pressure. For beginners this can be difficult, but when it is successful we see that it can very often and very easily be done without conflict. No action on or against the holder is necessary. However, once normal posture is regained -- and assuming the person holding has been persistent with their grip -- we see that now the posture of the grabbing person has been significantly altered as a consequence.
Many schools of aikido emphasize focusing primarily on controlling oneself instead of the opponent. This is even considered to be a basic principle, yet lessons nevertheless focus on how to twist someone's arm, lock their joints, or destroy their balance. Students are often told not to throw, only to see demonstrations which clearly show the instructor throwing someone. It's not that such practices are bad, it's just that the practice is so often at variance with the principles. More would be gained if more attention were payed to how we should move ourselves under certain conditions, with emphasis on the consequences to the partner being secondary… at least in training.
We don't ever want to ignore our partners. Their safety and ours is paramount. Yet the more we try to do to others, the more we separate from ourselves. We know what is meant when we say someone is "out of their mind." When we do to others we risk coming "out of our bodies" as well. By learning to take action primarily on ourselves, it becomes much easier to integrate with others and our environment. It's true that such practice can result in solipsistic or narcissistic attitudes, but this is where wise instructors and healthy communities become vital to avoid such pitfalls. Integration is the aim.
Now let's do a slightly more advanced version of the above exercise. By now we are familiar with the Solid and Empty practice, so this should be easy. Let the person who is playing Solid grab the Empty person any way they like and distort their posture (transitive). The Empty person will observe the pressures within their own body and in the overall system, and move into open space to release or neutralize the pressures. Insomuch as is humanly possible, all action should be only on the self (intransitive). As the Solid person feels their own perturbations, they should take corrective action so as to persist in the application of pressure. Done slowly, with safety and respect, it's an interesting dance, where one person is focusing on changing the other, while the other is focusing on allowing the change but fluidly and continually returning to normal.
This is one aspect of exploiting the intransitive. We find out how and under what circumstances acting only on ourselves is advantageous. However, there is another aspect which is often overlooked, and quite interesting.
First let's start by understanding that we can't perform transitive actions without simultaneously doing things to ourselves. You can't hit or grab someone without changing your own posture. You can't twist someone's arm with without twisting some part of yourself. The actions taken by an attacker to fulfill their goal can and should be exploited by the defender. To set up and deliver an attack requires a person to make certain changes to their self, both in mind and body. In defense, we should learn to recognize this and take proper advantage.
In advanced aikido, we sometimes hear about or witness someone "throwing without throwing." It can be said that the attacker just threw their self. Or sometimes we say that "they just did the technique to themselves." How is this possible? More importantly, what can we do to make it possible? Can we actually make a study of this that doesn't require it to just happen magically after decades in the discipline?
One of my favorite exercises provides an example. This study will reveal one instance of when and why a person might twist their own arm, and how we can take advantage when this happens.
Let Solid approach Empty, who remains aware, receptive, and fluid. Have Solid perform a cross-handed ikkyo on Empty. Empty will allow ikkyo to happen, and receive the pin. Repeat. Each time, Empty should be asked to identify any moments when they thought their Solid partner was doing ikkyo to their own arm. In my experience, it's quite common for the receiving partner and even other observant students to miss the moment completely.
Yet it happens nearly every time in the setup. Let's look at it from the perspective of Solid. Let's say you want to grab a person's right wrist or forearm in order to twist it (in this case, twisting in a pronation motion, which is what the anatomy of ikkyo really is). In order to do this efficiently, you will need to reach across your partner's wrist and with your fingers grasp the ulnar (little finger) side. Very likely your own thumb will now be pointing down.
Do you see it? You've just done ikkyo to yourself. In the attempt to do ikkyo to another, it's very common to first have to do ikkyo to yourself. It's like winding a spring, where you wind your own arm in the process.
The person playing Empty can easily capitalize on this. This time when we do the exercise, we will ask Empty to simply observe the shape of the attack as it unfolds. When they see Solid reach for the targeted arm, and when they observe Solid's arm winding up in order to grasp for ikkyo. Empty should say "now." Once this is established, Empty should then delay saying "now" until the approaching arm is only inches away from the target.
In the final phase, we want to replace verbalizing "now" with movement. When Solid's arm is about to make contact, Empty should turn their attention to the space just to the side of Solid and move their whole body into it. Specifically, if the right hand is being grabbed, movement should be forward diagonally to the right. Solid should do their job properly and grab the moving target in the position necessary to do ikkyo, If the timing is right, Solid's arm will now be in a more exaggerated instance of ikkyo, their posture will be quite displaced, and in fact their whole body will have to turn nearly 180 degrees to keep up with the moving target. To a knowledgable student of aikido observing the event, it will look like one of the most efficient and effortless examples of ikkyo irimi they've ever seen. And in fact, that's exactly the case. It's effortless and efficient from the standpoint of Empty because Solid did all the hard work.
Of course, in this case usually no throw or pin occurs without something extra. For the sake of this exercise, that extra thing should be avoided. Any time, however, it should now be trivial for Empty to apply small amounts of pressure to take their partner the rest of the way to the ground, preferably by still moving everything into emptiness (ground notwithstanding).
Here we see a beautiful example of aikido happening where all the action is intransitive. The attacker intended to do something to another, but the cause-and-effect was subverted by the defender taking action only on the self. Because of this, the attacker is caught in the middle of the action they took on their own self, unable to complete a motion that otherwise would have resulted in a transitive exchange.
Once you've fully absorbed the implications of this, your next question should be "What about other techniques?" Not all the answers will be obvious, but the quest for figuring out what other forms can be exploited while an attack is still in development is one of the most fruitful pursuits.
Before long, you will notice that your own postures dynamically effect how your are being approached. This is a more active approach, and done correctly it will have profound consequences for the attacker. Is this becoming transitive action? Possibly, but done well it's quite subtle. Regardless, it has its roots in the intransitive.
Remember those vibrating strings? If a guitarist plucks a string, that's clearly a transitive action. It's worth noting, though, that the guitarist would never do that exact action and get the same results if it were not for the guitar. All good musicians know that there is a weird sense in which the instruments -- passive things though they are -- play the musician.
To complicate matters even more, when one string is plucked, other strings at the right frequencies begin to vibrate on their own, a phenomenon known as "sympathetic resonance." is the action of these strings quivering in sympathy transitive or intransitive?
Perhaps one way to look at it is that it's all intransitive and it's all transitive. If guitarist, string, and sympathetic strings are all one, with everything simultaneously affecting everything else, then the distinction between transitive and intransitive becomes meaningless. Guitarist, fellow musicians, and even audience all form a feedback loop, and it isn't always possible to tell what is causing what.
This is the aikido that I'm describing. Solid and Empty become one, each shaping the other. Different organs in a system, but synchronized and entrained.
We get to the other by way of the self. We most truly find the self by encountering the other.
Still Point Aikido Systems
Austin TX, USA