On Aikido and Viruses…
For possibly for the first time in recorded history, the human collective consciousness has been concentrated on a singular event – a viral outbreak. Nations, governments, organisations, families and individuals do their best to navigate a new way of life and prepare for an uncertain future. We have mobilised medical services, restricted travel, isolated, tested, shutdown, quarantined, locked down and whatever else the human mind could conceive to battle this invisible threat. Amongst the various consequences of our actions, a toll on the mental and psychological health of the world’s population is taking place, the likes of which we have not seen before. What will we do to assist?
Can we, as Aikido ka, offer anything? How will Aikido survive in the world of lockdowns and social distancing? How can the messages and teachings of Morihei Ueshiba serve humanity during these challenging times?
As I navigate my personal practice and that of those who I am responsible for, I am gratefully reminded of the enormous potency of Aikido. Asked by curious students and friends how practice can take place in the absence of a partner, most are somewhat surprised when I reply that Aikido is a solo practice. Puzzled and intrigued they want to know more…..so a dance proceeds that goes something like this……
“Sensei, how am I going to throw myself around my house? It seems Aikido at home by yourself is very limited.”
Why so? I thought you would be an expert in solo practice by now!
“Hey…. the lockdown just got started!”
Where was your partner when you were practicing at the dojo before the lockdown?
“On the mat with me obviously”
You mean just in front of you? *pointing to a space several feet away
“Why yes! Where else would they have been?”
Curious. Where then, am I located?
“Sensei this is the easiest koan ever!” *pointing straight at me
Your training partners, friends, family, possessions…everything…even me, are all located in your mind, are we not? You see, one can only ever experience their own mind…a fact that is true of each living being.
“Well sort of, that’s a strange way to think about it though.”
Strange as it may be, isn’t it also true? Everything is in your mind – thats all you can experience. In this way, you were always the only one practicing, no matter the number of human images present in your mind during a class “out there”. As far as you are concerned, there is no way of confirming this “out there”. You can only confirm the presence of your mind – in which a class, the students, the teacher…..your whole life is taking place.
“Actually No….I think I just lost that also for a moment or two when you spoke”
Another way of thinking about it is you are only ever “practicing” with your consciousness.
“I sort of follow – obviously I perceive everything through my mind. Sensei if you are that close to me, that makes social distancing tough!”
Ha! So, your practice is really about your relationship to your mind then. You see, only on the surface Aikido is between attacker and defender. “How can I harmonise with this “enemy” “out there” and “do” Aikido?” you ponder. So you practice moves and train your body. Clunky at first, smoother in time. Someday the penny drops and you stop forcing your body to “do” technique. We then begin to examine with more awareness and sensitivity the relationship we have with our bodies. More relaxed and calmer achieves better technical outcomes. We realise that our relationship to the attacker is largely determined by the connection we have with our own body – its quality.
“Ok…yes I have experienced such a thing…The way you move the body or relate to it…its quality is important…that’s interesting.”
Then a further question naturally arises – how can I make this even better? What is having a material impact on this relationship.
“Some days I do good Aikido, others are certainly subpar”
What is with you on such days?
“Ahh…mostly life stuff, you know…maybe I had a stressful day at work…..an argument with someone…..or I I’m generally feeling down”
The mind and emotional state are important right? Those practicing long enough map out the game through trial and error and come to this. What you think and feel definitely impacts your body and plays out as ease and dis-ease. It will swing your Aikido in a direction one day, and pull it in another the next. Aikido is harmony or union. How you are harmonising physically is a direct result of the harmonising of your mind, emotions and life energies. Aikido is not something you do. Aikido is the harmonic resonance of the various elements of the human system and the cosmos.
“It sounds like there is a lot going on beneath the surface. Hey, what about the attacker trying to poke you? How does this translate”
Of the various teachings and poems left by O’ Sensei, I was always drawn to those that talked about the person of Aikido having no enemy, or contending with nothing and thus being incapable of defeat. It seemed such a powerful message. Over many years my understanding of these teachings has changed, but the profundity of it has never left me.
You see there is no attacker in Aikido, nor is there a defender. There is simply the functioning of the now moment. Any perceived concepts of “attacker” and “defender” are abstractions of the mind. They are mental activities; psychological phenomena. Winner, loser, better, worse, right, wrong… they are all of the same order. One who is in the state of “Aikido” acts or responds naturally or harmonically in a given situation, free from all such concepts. Such a person perceives no “attacker” or “defender” for these cognitive activities have experientially collapsed.
“What does this mean?” it’s all sounding very Zen like and confusing!”
Aikido is a state in which a person has arrived at a certain level of harmony and ease within their system. It is expressed on the levels of the mind, emotions, body and energies. When you see it, you will recognise it as a state of grace and ease. It can appear as a martial arts technique, movement or action, spoken words, a gesture or even a thought or emotion – It can express and manifest an infinite variety of ways. Its quality is the key. The significance of all this in answer to your questions is that you are always practicing, or put another way, you always have a practice partner.
“Even when I am at home in lockdown?”
Especially so. The instructor who took you through your first Aikido class was also your first Aikido partner right?
You did your best to follow her or him. Class after class you practiced with many others. So many partners, all shapes and sizes! Do you remember when you first swung your new bokken around with such glee? After much sweating, splinters and blisters you began paying more attention to it and its nature began to yield – A mere object of wood began to whisper in an unfamiliar language that you slowly began to perceive. Perhaps this was your first unexpected Aikido partner! You and the bokken – partners in crime!
“We are “better” friends these days…”
When you learned to listen, the people you formerly avoided in class.. you know the ones?… the newbie, the stiff one, the old one, the difficult ones… they became wonderful partners. Now that your ears were cleaner their “voices” where louder and easier to hear! You paid less attention to “yourself” and more to what was happening with them; “The way” was clearer to perceive. They were no longer too new, or too stiff or too difficult because you were harmonising yourself by listening and yielding to “The way”. You were becoming Aikido.
“Some have sure been tough nuts to crack!”
Then one day you realise the body you are dragging to class each week is also doing its best for you and so you start paying more attention to it and how you keep it – soon it begins to smile again like it did when you were a kid.
“Sensei is that why you are so youthful looking?”
Later you realise your heart is important in “the practice” and you need it onside; it becomes your ally when you harmonise your emotions. Consequently your “practice” deepens. Later still you may realise your mind is worth working with. This partner can be a slippery fella, pesky, judgmental, cynical, overanalysing, self centered, frequently negative…… and quite unlike the others, but if you have learned to listen well you will discover its way. The last partner you will work with is your very life energy. O’ Sensei harmonised this, as did a number of other great yogis to arrive at an entirely different level of being.
“So… do I practice at home then? With who or what? How does this help in a practical sense?”
Aikido practice is in the now moment, right?
“You mean am I doing it now? I don’t even have a dogi on!”
What I am pointing out is that in every moment there is an invitation to practice whether you have your uniform or not, whether there are mats around, or people to practice with. I think though you are asking what can I do at home in ISO?
If you have any of your weapons at home, or you can fashion some, practice with these “partners”. Have you met Jo? thin as a rake, shortish in height and rather stiff looking!
“Sensei that was a good one!”
Listen to this partner carefully and follow “it’s way”. You know we bow to people and weapons in the dojo for a reason. Perceive the way of the Jo and follow it.
Or pick a strike, feel the essence of this strike in your body and harmonise with it. The strike is your partner – the “nature” of it.
Shadow the techniques you would normally practice with a partner, this time though, your body is the “partner”. Imagine you are harmonising with your body to build the Aiki between your energies and your physical, corporeal self. As if your energies are wielding your body like you were pushing around poor old Jo!
“Sensei, stand up may be a real possibility for you if the lockdown persists”
If you are performing falls, harmonise with the mat. Your job is to listen to the way of the earth and the ground. To embody this, you will need to harmonise with your mat, your body, your emotions and your mind. You will be working with your life energies this way. Do you understand?
“I think I get the idea”
Not just thinking, feeling and perceiving on every level that you can.
In this way there are innumerable opportunities to train in “ISO”. In fact, the challenge which you face on account of the virus…. not knowing what to do…. is the calling to shed your limited idea of what you were formerly doing. To break through. Even without the regular dojo space you will never be without the path in this way.
“Because the dojo was within me right…it is in my mind”
Pretty neat hey?
O’ Sensei wrote that one needs not buildings, money, power or status to practice the Art of Peace. That heaven is right where you are standing, and that is the place to train – the only place you can train.
He noted everyone has a spirit that can be refined, a body that can be trained and a path that can be followed. That your purpose in life is to realise your inner divinity. That all the principles of heaven and earth are living inside of you. So you see, even an outward journey is in fact inward. Anyway….whichever way you walk you are still on the path. Your only choice is to fight it or not. To harmonise with it or not. To make it mediocre or magical. That is the power of Aiki.
“Now about that virus….it might actually be helping us in some strange way”
Help or hinder, good or bad…such things are the realm of mind. The virus is doing its thing, on its own path to grow, flourish and die according to its nature and potential. Let’s focus all of our energies on fulfilling ours – then virus or no virus we will remain in harmony of being. If each person does the same, collectively we will realise the heaven that is this earth.
“Sounds like a great time to practice then”
How are you going to practice? Life has no room for dress rehearsals. The stage was set and curtain pulled long ago. Don’t treat your practice like a lifeless dry run – you’ll miss the whole show. Your very life is the secret of Aikido and it is happening right here and now.
Peter Koussoulis, Shinzenryu Aikido