Aikido and Sparring

I apologize for neglecting the blog for some time, but the need to change locations for the dojo just took up too much time.  This post is related to a topic that came up during training recently.  I invite everyone to comment, discuss and ask questions.

Aikido is known as a noncompetitive martial art, according to the wishes of the founder Morihei Ueshiba.  He stated that attempting to dominate or defeat another in order to win violates the principles of the art, and so competition was to be eschewed.  In the mean time, Jigoro Kano, founder of Judo, employed competition and taught that one should not have a desire to win, to dominate or defeat another in the midst of competition.  So the question here is why we do not spar in Aikido.  Is there some aspect of the physical movements that preclude sparring as a training method?  Is there some aspect of the underlying principles that prevent the use of this method, or are the issues with principle more headache material that can be avoided with proper care in practice? If no fundamental problem exists, why do we not spar?  What is the impact of not sparring as a training method on effectiveness of the art?  These questions will be addressed in this entry.

The answer to the question of the techniques preventing sparring, presumably for safety reasons, is straightforward.  Kenji Tomiki, and advanced student of both Ueshiba and Kano, developed his own martial art which applied sparring to Aikido techniques.  Tomiki was a very advanced practitioner who developed the art effectively in this form.  So the answer is no, there are no inherent characteristics of the techniques that preclude sparring.

As for the principle, Aikido aspires to Takemusu Aiki as its highest objective.  This form of training can be summarized as responding reflexively to violent activity without any conceptual thought intervening.  The founder discussed some conceptual thoughts that might intervene in sparring, such as a desire to win, dominate or defeat another.  However, these thoughts are not absolutely required to take place in a competitive setting.  As a result, martial arts such as Judo employ competition and achieve the same objective, Takemusu Aiki.  So the answer here again is no, the principles of Aikido do not absolutely forbid sparring as the problems created by that training method can be avoided with careful implementation.

So why don’t we have sparring absent a desire to win in Aikido?  The answer lies in the nature of the training methods of Aikido as compared with Judo, for example.  In Aikido, we study techniques in great depth from the outset of training.  We start slowly and investigate the basics against a strong grip.  We study posture, breathing, etc.  Next we increase the speed to moderate at an even pace.  Then we go to full speed.  We increase resistance so nage must change the technique, we add counters and deal with multiple attacks.  These attacks begin against a known attack and then move towards unscripted attacks.  Not only does the resistance level increase with each new aspect of training, but over time performing each approach such as multiple attacks the resistance level increases as well.  Ultimately, we finish with completely unscripted attacks in the absence of rules from a fully resisting partner intent upon stopping us at every turn, but only at a point when we can handle it safely.  We are to respond with Takemusu Aiki, or reflexively without interference from conceptual elaborations.  The founder of the art undoubtedly achieved this level in his practice and taught this approach through his lineage.

Judo, by comparison, starts with a rather shallow instruction in technique to start.  Competition is begun immediately with some rules in place.  The job of the Judoka is to learn the techniques in the midst of competition through detailed study, but in the absence of a desire to win.  I suspect the training does not include destroying beginners, so there is probably some graduated levels of resistance perhaps at the early stages at a minimum.  However, an important aspect of Judo training as the level of the student advances is the relinquishing of the rules.  To achieve Takemusu Aiki, the student cannot rely upon the rigid requirements of competition, as a real attacker can do virtually anything.  Eventually, Takemusu Aiki is accomplished as in Aikido and taught through this lineage.

So the ultimate answer is that both Judo and Aikido meet at the top.  Both achieve the highest level of training in martial arts.  Takemusu Aiki is considered the highest level because all avenues to be defeated are closed.  Our ability to perceive an attack and respond reflexively with the appropriate action before the attacker has had the opportunity to fully engage will always yield positive results.  When we stop to consider various concepts, even minutely on an unconscious level, we close down our perception and also unbalance our bodies through inattentiveness to the sensory world.  Through training in Aikido against successively higher levels of resistance, we learn to close each and every opening.  Through training in Judo we may also learn to close each and every opportunity, but this time through relinquishing the safety net of the rules all while immersed in 100% resistance.  When ALL openings are closed, and only then, can we engage in fully effective self defense.  When only one opening exists, should an opponent find it, we can be defeated.  In that case, our survival is dependent upon luck that we will not be caught as opposed to skill.  As long as masters of each discipline live to transmit this knowledge from one generation to the next, the possibility of learning genuine self defense is present in both systems.  For this reason, one would not be surprised by learning that the founder of both Judo and Aikido worked well in supporting each other’s efforts, providing a model for us to follow as well.

Aikido does not employ sparring techniques only because it would interrupt the gradual process of increasing resistance in training.  Suddenly people who study in depth would shift to a shallow approach and learning would shift to 100% resistance sparring with rules from the graduated resistance without rules.  Other days the reverse would occur (A complete switch to competition would simply be a change to Tomike’s art – Shodokan).   The result would be a mixture of two training methods and a lot of confusion.  Learning would stop.  Switching back and forth would prevent continued learning and as a result, all openings would not be closed.  Aikido would no longer be viable as a martial art in that confused form.  Our practice in Aikido appeals to those who need to learn with graduated increases in resistance without rules.  That said, some people feel a need for the learning style that derives from 100% resistance with rules.  If they are already in Aikido, there are several options.  One would be to practice Tomiki’s art.  Another would be to take up a second martial art that employs sparring and cross train.  A third would be to periodically test oneself outside the dojo with friends who studied other martial arts.  Finally, when sufficient self control is present to prevent injury, increasing the resistance in regular Aikido training might also more closely approximate competitive training.  (Resistance might include unscripted combination attacks, pulling back, etc.).  These tactical solutions would enable the training methods of Aikido to remain intact while also meeting the needs of the student.  If anything can be learned from the study of this process, let it be a warning that one should never become complacent in their training.  In Aikido, we must continue to increase resistance.  In Judo we must continue to relinquish rules.  Failure in either case will leave openings where we really only rely upon the luck that an attacker will not perceive our openings as the only means of survival.

Back on Track…Targeting the Source of the Problem

This entry continues to lay the foundation for how Aikido training works, and we will begin to go into the actual training itself next.

So the first step in determining how to find happiness through Aikido training is to figure out the source of the problem.  An inspection of the simple sentence, “I wish happiness,” identifies the problem.  What is this “I?”  If we don’t understand that which we would like to be happy, how can we affect it?

It would seem we are born with an innate assumption that we are our body in some fashion.  Intellectually, we might have some other ideas, but imagine your arm is suddenly amputated.  Your instinctive reaction would not be passive disinterest.  From this reaction we know that any ideas we maintain are purely intellectual, and deep down on an unconscious level, we really relate to ourselves through our body.  At the same time, we have an underlying belief that we are independent, unitary and permanent.  Think about it…when you think of yourself, is this not what you somehow imagine?  Yet this does not fit the description of our body.  If we existed independently of everything else, we would never need food or water.  If we were unitary, we would be represented by our entire body, even if part was amputated.    If we were permanent, we would never die.  So we have an unconscious idea of who and what we are which is completely unrealistic.  Then when we face the reality of our mortality, we become frightened because we think this false idea of ourselves will suddenly turn from something to nothing.  When we try to make this false notion happy, obviously it could never work.  In this way we discover that ideas we have within ourselves are inaccurate and obstruct our ability to find happiness.

Based upon these false ideas, we then go out and engage the world in search for happiness.  We look for a very limited form of happiness through the senses.  For example, we think our favorite ice cream is a cause of happiness, but if you consume it nonstop for 24 hours, you would probably find it to be a cause of misery.  Even if we only have it for a few enjoyable minutes, the joy goes when we stop having it.  We cannot find a permanent source of happiness through our bodies.  Yet to get the ice cream, we may wind up doing all sorts of negative things to other people, which deep inside will cause a much more lasting form of misery.  To solve the problem, we need to go within and correct these false notions.  Aikido is a practice that targets our unconscious ideas of how we relate to our bodies so we can stop defeating ourselves and ultimately find happiness.  Tamura Sensei explained it very well when he said the point of Aikido training is to destroy illusion so we can directly perceive the truth.

The next basic step in the search for happiness is to be certain that it is physically possible to achieve the goal.  Otherwise, why waste the time when we can just all be miserable together?

To start out, let’s consider two extreme states of mind, hatred and lust, which represent the basic ideas of pushing away and pulling towards oneself in the search for happiness.  Something is uncomfortable, so we push it away.  Something is enjoyable, so we seek out more of it.  Short term we think the pleasurable physical states will bring about happiness, but we know this is not a permanent solution.  We can do the same analysis with pleasurable mundane concepts such as fame.  Eventually we will wind up with something we don’t want and become miserable again.  The search for happiness through this medium can never work permanently.  When we have great hatred or great desire, is that a genuinely enjoyable state?  If you look closely, I think the answer is that it is uncomfortable…not peaceful.  If you begin to release your attachment to the body as “I,” you will reduce the hatred and lust.  That frame of mind is more comfortable…peaceful.  Imagine effecting this reduction so that the hatred and lust we experience is zero.  If we can reduce it somewhat, logic dictates that it can be reduced to zero through practice.

So we can conclude that it is possible to find happiness…obviously it is worth the effort, so we are ready to embark upon the task of searching for it through practice…

Inter-Religious Disharmony – The Path to Peace

Our dojo is a pluralistic organization in the midst of a pluralistic society.  By pluralistic, I don’t just mean open to rich and poor alike, but people of all different religious beliefs, or none at all.  On the surface, it may appear that there are conflicts between the various religions based upon their doctrines and policies in trying to convert others to their way of thinking.  So the question arises, how can we be pluralistic and all get along at the same time?  Look at the Mideast for an example not to follow.  What does Aikido teach us here?

To answer, we should start with the stated reason the founder spread Aikido worldwide – to give humanity a practice that could foster world peace.  So this is straightforward: we are supposed to peacefully co-exist with others, even if they do not agree with our belief system.  We need to harmonize with them.  Aikido is an international practice, and even in our small dojo, we have had experience dealing with roughly 10 different religions. It is absolutely critical that we learn to accomplish this task or we cannot fulfill the founder’s mission?

Let’s start out with the big picture.  There are roughly 6 billion people on the planet, all with different cultural backgrounds, dispositions, interests, etc.  Imagine getting everyone to believe exactly the same thing?  Let’s be realistic here; it’s not happening.  If we try to force the issue, the environment would be unhealthy and we would wind up pushing more people away from what we want them to believe.  Instead, we need to develop a system where we accept people with different beliefs.  Now, some people will have no beliefs, some a mild hint of an idea but without religious practice, and still others will be devout practitioners of all different sorts of faiths. It’s actually helpful for ourselves if we know where we are.  For example, we may believe we are religious, but if we don’t practice on a daily basis (practice includes doing the difficult work as well as the easy stuff), perhaps we should consider ourselves something less.  That said, we need to include everyone here.  So we can first devise a system to organize the different practices: (1) theistic religions, (2) non-theistic religions and (3) a secular or non-religious approach.

The theistic and non-theistic approaches both have very similar attributes despite their vastly differing beliefs.  We can start with the golden rule, “do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”  This idea represents restraining oneself from harming others.  Next, they all agree that love and compassion are critical and should be actively used in helping others find happiness.  Finally, they all ascribe to some form of selflessness.  So starting with the outward behaviors first, we can see that the function of religion is to benefit the people in society because everyone winds up helping everyone else.  In this type of environment, clearly the people doing the helping wind up much happier.  So we can define the purpose of religion to make the individual happy through the practice of helping others skillfully, so the effect is very constructive for society as a whole as well.  How many people whose beliefs could be described as secular would disavow these ideals as negative or unworthy?  Common sense supports their value.  So whether religious or not, the target is the same: to become happy ourselves through benefiting society as a whole.  Well, that is convenient for our purposes, as Aikido also teaches this as the purpose of our practice.

So if ultimately everyone is trying to help each other become happy, how does it get so fouled up?  I think we forget the underlying motivation more often than not as we trudge through our daily activities.  Let’s take a sample case:  I will tell a funny story that happened to me many years ago.  I happened to be on a date with a very strange woman.  Suddenly she blurted out that she was a witch.  I did not know why, so I just sat there and waited.  She asked me what I thought of witchcraft.  I simply explained that I did not use labels.  I thought about it and asked why she practiced witchcraft, to which she replied that she wanted to learn how to manipulate the material world with her mind.  I simply said, “wrong answer,” as I recognized that as a deviant motivation. She was not looking to help others, but accumulate power for herself.   I started to relay the story that afternoon to a female friend and she stopped me quickly; “Oh my God what did you say to her…I am a witch.”  Well, that was an even bigger shock.  Two witches in one day.  So I then told her exactly what happened, and she said, “Oh, that’s good…very good.”  Then she explained that in witchcraft, you basically spend all your time praying for world peace.  She agreed the other woman was a deviant practitioner.  In our culture, we grew up with the historical hatred of witches that probably stems from the Salem witch trials.  If you look closely at what happened during those trials, I suspect you will find a group of people named the Puritans murdered a fair number of innocent people merely because they thought they had different beliefs than their own.  If the Puritans were alive today, we might not look as kindly upon them as the witches, which does seem somehow at odds with the reference to the word pure in their name.

So let’s take a look at the pitfalls if I interact with the bad witch (no reference to the Wizard of Oz intended).  The first issue is one of my own prejudices.  I was brought up with the idea that witches are evil, but I never questioned why.  The prejudice simply came through the many generations of American society, but the reason seems to have been lost.  If I react out of prejudice without consideration of her actual beliefs, she will be hurt and upset.  This apparently occurred to her often in the past and became a sensitive issue for her.  By indiscriminately pushing her buttons I would not expect to gain her trust and she would not look favorably upon my advice.  If my advice is to shift her to helping others from accumulating power for herself, her likely response would be to try to accumulate more power for herself.  I therefore need to be very careful and look at what she believes and actually does in the context of finding happiness for herself rather than my own preconceived notions.

So if I step over this hurdle and begin a process of encouraging her to help others rather than accumulate power, we will run into some pitfalls from her end.  I would need to help her understand that she is either practicing a religion or not.  If she finds she is not really practicing her religion, she might be surprised.  In either case, her objective is to become happy, but let’s take the case that she is practicing a religion on a daily basis.  I explain that the purpose of religion is to make her happy.  Most would not be upset by this idea.  Then, we go through some arguments that making others happy is the best way for her to find happiness.  In this way, religion is good for society as well.  Obviously this fact is common sense, but her religious texts and teachers should be telling her this as well.  If not, challenging her to become happier is not normally looked upon poorly.  I can tell her to investigate her religious texts and talk to her teachers.  If she is not able to find greater happiness or help others reasonably well, she should reinterpret the doctrines she follows so that happiness and the benefit of society are targeted.  If her teachers cannot produce this sort of result, why does she need them?  Her scriptures, however, should possess this information.  As a genuine practitioner, she should be in the business of improving her understanding of her scriptures on a moment by moment basis, so my request should not be difficult.

If she accepts the challenge, we are done with the problem.  However, some people get locked into positions and forget the ultimate objectives of happiness and improvements in society.  When this occurs, I simply do my best to skillfully lead her in that direction.  If the efforts fail, I do not suffer myself because my intention was good.  She will suffer to the extent her intent is selfish.  I then just deal with whatever situation arises as needed, and with a clear conscience.  On the other side of the coin, if I approach her based upon prejudice or hatred, being fundamentally selfish myself, I will suffer.  So the bottom line is that if we keep the interests of others in front of us and act on their behalf, we will be happy, and to the extent the other person feels our intent, they are more likely to listen to us.  When we go in the direction of selfishness, we undermine our happiness and increase the likeliness of failure in our efforts.  The same is true regardless of which side of the discussion I take.  We need to remember the ultimate objective of our practice  – to find happiness through helping others and society –  whether we are religious or not. We should be distracted with hatred or disputes about dogma.  This approach is the fundamental idea of Aikido, as well as all of the religions and also complies quite well with common sense.  By following this prescription, we find peace, harmony and happiness.

The same sort of approach can be taken with the proselytizing practices of the various religions, but we will save that for another discussion.

Overview – Why Practice Aikido?

After training about 20 years, my teacher told me that part of the practice of Aikido is to figure out why you are doing it.  Why did he wait so long to tell me, I wondered…

There are two factors that all beings have in common: a wish to live and a wish to be happy.  There are no exceptions.  Even those who wish to be miserable do so perversely because they think it will make them happy.  Even those who wish to die are ignoring their deeper longings.  They really wish to live and be happy, but many times just become discouraged  and think they can never be happy alive, so they then think they prefer to die.  Ultimately all wish to live and be happy.

Aikido is an activity that functions in two ways.  The physical function is to teach people how to survive a violent attack without harming the attacker unnecessarily.  The activity itself promotes life both of the attacker and attacked, one of the two factors that all beings desire.  The second function is that by learning to perform the activity efficiently, one can develop a profound sense of peace and happiness.  This happiness represents the second factor that all beings desire.

So far, this process looks fairly easy.  We wish to live and we wish to be happy.  By studying how to survive in the most efficient possible manner, we live and become profoundly happy.  The problem emerges not in the why, but in the question of how.  We have become habituated to failure and unhappiness since birth. Bruce Cockburn said it rather well…”the blues have the world by the balls…”  Do you question this fact?  Name one thing you have ever done because you genuinely wanted to be miserable?  But are you profoundly happy every moment of your life and in every circumstance?  Is there ever a worry or concern for the future?  If people were genuinely happy all the time, who needs a hobby?  Why search out a job you like or a marital partner you prefer?  If we were genuinely happy in all circumstances, we would not need to search out happiness in anything we do, but if you look closely we are always searching, in every single moment.  This is our habit.  In the same way that we fail to find a complete sense of happiness, we are programmed for self defeat in every endeavor, which becomes painfully evident to us when we train.

The problem is that we are looking in the wrong place for a solution.  There was once a story of a man who saw his neighbor searching under a street lamp for something.  He went up and asked him what he lost, to which the man replied that he lost the keys to his house.  “Did you lose them here?” The man replied, “No, I lost them in my bedroom.”  “Then why are you looking for them here?”  The man answered, “Because there is more light here.”  We look for happiness outside ourselves, but the only place we can find it is within.  We should continue our search, but we need to do it more intelligently…find a more permanent solution.

Since we don’t need to spend much time explaining why people want to live and be happy, the focus of this blog will be the question of how we get from ineffective and unhappy in our activities to effective and happy.  We will discuss the philosophy of Aikido and explain how the training methods and specific aspects of the study of technique enable one to achieve the dual goals of life and happiness.  Feel free to comment, question and challenge as we go along the way…

The Martial Art of Peace