Overview – Why Practice Aikido?

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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…


Back on Track…Targeting the Source of the Problem

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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…


Respect – The First Step Towards Practice

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As for the actual practice of Aikido, think about the first act in every class.  As soon as we enter the dojo, we bow.  When we get on the mats, we bow.  When we start class, we bow and when we engage a partner, we bow.  Aside from exercising our hip joints, what is the purpose of all this bowing?  Generally, we are told the reason is to show respect.   If we do not respect a subject, we will not be able to learn it well.  This fact is true of every subject, not just Aikido.  However, why should we respect the practice of Aikido?  In earlier posts, Aikido was established as a means to promote genuine peace and happiness within ourselves, while at the same time learning how to perform a function in the most efficient manner humanly possible.  As it turns out, the function is to preserve our life in the face of grave threat.  In this sense, Aikido touches upon the two most important facets of human life: the wish to be happy and the wish to live.

So, in essence we look to the practice of Aikido to learn how to become happy and survive in the face of a difficult threat.  We look to our lineage of teachers as setting out the path to accomplish this goal.  Dojo protocol suggests we respect this path and the lineage of teachers.  Well, excuse me for being devil’s advocate, but WHY?  Who are these people?  What do they know?  How do I even know it is possible to accomplish these goals?  Yes, in order to be successful, we need to be confident that success is at least possible and that our lineage of instruction can lead to success.  Being confident because the person sitting next to me seems to be okay with the idea is not our target level of confidence.  We need to do some real inspection.

The first question we need to address is whether or not success is possible.  The previous entry “Back on Track…Targeting the Source of the Problem” explored how we can be confident genuine happiness is possible.  We can apply similar reasoning for self defense.  Try an experiment: become enraged about something and ask your partner to punch you.  Then relax and be peaceful and do the same.  Under which circumstance can you perceive the attack earlier.  I will let the cat out of the bag here – you should be more perceptive when not angry.  So by eliminating anger and other such negative/uncomfortable emotions we can perceive an attacker earlier, and with training can respond reflexively for defense.  Taking this process to its natural conclusion, we become invincible as we become aware of the attack before someone immersed in these negative emotions is even aware of their own physical movements.  The only possible exception from the stand point of logic is the question of immovable object meets irresistible force.  Specifically, if 2 people are 100% successful in finding happiness (and also perfected their perception) and they try to kill each other, who would win?  I will let the absurdity of the question provide the answer.

Any process which can produce complete happiness and protect us from harm efficiently is worthy of great respect.  So the next question to address is whether the practice of Aikido and our lineage of instructors fall into this category.  The answer might not be as straight forward as you would expect.  The fact is that the world is comprised of an enormous number of people with different dispositions and cultures.  If we are going for the extreme result of 100% happiness, and why should we target anything less, we are going to find that different people have different ideas on the subject.  Not surprisingly, while most have not achieved 100% success, they all feel their particular approach is the correct one.  (If they felt they were on the wrong track, obviously they would change to the right track, so believing you are correct is healthy.)  The practice of Aikido does not regulate or even try to manipulate which belief system, if any, to which someone might ascribe.  Instead, the idea is more one of how to blend with different people.

So while some people might believe Morehei Ueshiba was the pinnacle of human existence, no one is really expected to draw that conclusion.  Others might take Jesus, Mohummed, Ghandi, Mother Theresa, Buddha, Jung, Socrates, etc. as their role models.  Another population might be divorced from religion, philosophy, psychology and other traditions that do target the search for peace and happiness, yet they have not lost interest in the pursuit themselves.  Perhaps the institutions representing some of these traditions caused them to lose confidence in the underlying tradition or its practice.

So for someone who wishes to follow a particular tradition, whether participating in an institution or not, they can compare the teachings of the leader, say Jesus for instance, with those of Morehei Ueshiba.  Where they are the same, they study both because they are the teachings of Jesus; where they differ, they follow Jesus.  They believe following the teachings of Jesus will lead to pure happiness and use that confidence when practicing Aikido.  When they bow, they simply consider they are showing respect to Jesus.  For someone who takes more of a secular approach, they might have noticed that individuals on the above list did seem to be happier and more effective than the average person on the street.  They might then take a common sense approach to their search for happiness: generally reducing extreme emotions is helpful, ethical conduct is beneficial, compassion for others is useful, etc.  In showing respect for the practice of Aikido, they might think “All of those people can’t be wrong.  I can show respect for the locus where they all agree.”  Such areas as compassion, the importance of ethics, etc, are examples.

So showing respect for the practice is critical in order to be successful.  And in targeting respect, merely a mundane level will be a hindrance.  Targeting complete respect and appreciation for the practice can lead to a more completely positive result.  So the answer to how to show respect does not take a rigid form where everyone follows the same protocol.  Instead, each person should inspect their own thinking and follow a process suited for themselves to gain the best result.  Since the practice of Aikido targets benefit for each participant, the approach is not prescribed based on a fixed practice but rather specifically directed to each individual according to which will produce the most positive results for them.  We blend/harmonize with each person by doing what is purely best for them.


“True Budo is love” – Morehei Ueshiba…was O’Sensei just some kinda hippie?

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This realization captures the feeling the founder had after the profound experience of gaining genuine insight into the discipline of his art.  Yet, for most of us who read this statement, we will think of it in very idealistic terms.  The founder’s realization, however, was anything but idealistic.  If we take our ordinary state and smile lovingly at a mugger, we will most likely get killed.  The point here is to transcend our ordinary state, which means the loving smile emerges from the depths of dealing with very real and extreme violence.  The founder studied self defense in a traditional and realistic setting.  He dealt with attackers who meant him serious harm.  Out of THESE interactions, he looked beyond the immediate threat and realized the point of training was not petty hatred and vengeance, but to find love for this aggressor.  With this love, he found genuine power, not of his own personal ego but emerging from universal forces.

O’Sensei used two key words in this line – Budo & love.  Budo is the path of the warrior, defined in terms of mortal combat.  Let’s be realistic for a moment.  What would be our first reaction in the face of the threat of death?  I recall speaking to a detective in the Eastchester Police Department, who upon hearing I taught martial arts, wanted to run his philosophy by me.  He explained that when in a fire fight, if you are supposed to be protecting an innocent civilian, just drop them and do whatever you need to do to protect yourself.  He felt this was the best way to insure his survival.  He did not seem to want to listen to any other point of view, so I simply did not support his theory.  But let’s think about what happens when we practice.  Many of us have experience training against a knife attack in a dark room.  If someone attacks fast in the dark and we are fearful, we generally have trouble assessing the distance and direction of the attack.  Against a real knife, we would surely be killed.  So the detective advocated hunkering down in fear to protect oneself, which is exactly what leads to getting killed.

Love, on the other hand, is the unconditional caring for the well being of others.  Aikido is the development of unconditional caring for others (even the attacker) in the midst of mortal combat.  Why does this make sense?  We can see the problems with batting down the hatches in the midst of a panic attack.  But dripping with love does not seem like much of a solution either.  Here again we can investigate the matter.  Imagine seeing your spouse threatened.  If your life was threatened, you might be afraid.  But what happens when you see your spouse’s life threatened?  Are you still as fearful of losing your own life?  Most of us would experience some reduction in fear for ourselves. (As a note, if we substitute fear of losing our spouse for fear of losing our own life, we actually accomplish no martial gain).   In class, we know a reduction in fear for ourselves translates into an increased possibility of survival.  As described above, suddenly we can perceive the distance, direction and speed of the attack with greater accuracy, and our reflexes are not so obstructed from immediate reaction.

So here we can begin to see the logic of the founder.  Caring for others (in this case the attacker) gives us the strength to relinquish our fears for ourselves.  With the reduction in fear, we are free to see and respond to an attack with greater perception and creativity in self defense.  Our response time is faster and we don’t unbalance our posture out of fear.  By extending this approach to ever increase our perception, we can discern the faults of the attacker and deliver to THEM the same sense of peace we learned to access ourselves.  When we are peaceful, the attacker may not experience our peace through a gentle smile, but perhaps a stern strike or wrist lock delivered out of caring for their suffering and seeking to correct their imbalances.  Again, the founder teaches that these skills do not emerge from our own limited ego or a wish to harm, but from more universal forces of compassion we are able to discover through this elimination of fear and increased perception.  So by investigating our own practice we can begin to see the point of the founder’s realization that “True Budo is Love” is not at all idealistic, but fundamentally logical and actually the most efficient approach for real self defense purposes.


What Exactly have we Stumbled upon Here?

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We are all very busy in our lives. We need to earn a living, take care of family, etc. In the midst of our busy lives, we suddenly stumble upon a practice that teaches us viscerally to respond to violence with compassion, and not just on a superficial level. As we have seen in previous posts, by cleansing our minds with this process thoroughly over time, we can wipe out all sources of discontent. At the same time, we can improve our ability to function in the world enormously. The objective is bold and all encompassing.One of the properties of this approach is an ability to provide an endless spring of benefits. If you plant a seed for a strawberry plant, you will get a few strawberries that year. Next year you have to plant a seed again. But this process of replacing a selfish mode of existence with a more altruistic alternative is first of all enjoyable and secondly bears fruit in geometric proportions over time.  For example, Koichi Tohei talked about his experience in World War II as a commanding officer in the Japanese army on a mission to penetrate deep into China. Imagine for a moment the psychological damage one might sustain engaging in warfare and killing other people and losing friends in the name of the Japanese Imperial cause (think Viet Nam Vets). Imagine the damage to the families of those who died. Koichi Tohei used his meditation practice to learn to center himself during combat. Yet as a practitioner of Aikido he found taking life reprehensible. When he caught a Chinese enemy, he was supposed to kill or imprison him. Instead, he disarmed and released the man. The Chinese subsequently realized his wish for peace and would simply wave at his forces in the fields rather than shoot.  He was able to accomplish his mission without losing any of his own men or killing any of the enemy. What better outcome could you desire than have no one die? One simple act of kindness led to saving countless lives in horrific circumstances. (Journey to the Center:  Lessons in Unifying Body, Mind and Spirit by Thomas Crumb pg 79-80)

Morihiro Saito explained that there are two types of people in the world of Aikido, those who talk about it and those who do it. Saito Sensei tended to use very simple language. Given the benefits Koichi Tohei experienced, we can recognize the level of responsibility he took towards his own practice and the wonderful results. Talking about Aikido is simply a lower level of responsibility towards one’s own practice, an aspiration to practice without any application of effort.  Compare for a moment a person who spends their days immersed in anger and a desire for vengeance towards anyone who trespasses their interests, with another person who wishes to develop a more altruistic attitude but has yet to act upon it. If an aggressive person ran into both of these people, clearly their interaction with the vengeful person would spark violence like a match to dry wood. But their interaction with the person who has altruistic aspirations would be far less likely to produce a violent outcome. So there are obviously some substantial benefits to maintaining only an aspiration. But next to Koichi Tohei’s outcome when faced with mortal combat, there is no comparison.

We know practice is difficult; it takes time and effort and further we need to find opportunities to train which do not always abound. We put effort into more mundane activities and find we must constantly work to produce results. The practice of Aikido, however, can produce very positive results and with a geometric response to our efforts. An aspiration to practice is at least helpful, but actually engaging in training is far more powerful.

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