An intention I’ve been playing around with while training has been unity.  Unity can be achieved on many different levels, all of which we can work on.

Separateness is the opposite of unity, and this is a state of being that I’d, personally, like to consciously grow out of. In the world out there, it seems just about everything is separate and self-defined by its outline. This especially is the case the closer we look at things.  As we zoom in, we see separateness in something that looks whole from further away.  If we look at a rock with a magnifying glass, we might see individual pieces of sand that make up the rock.  Zoom in a little further and you see things from maybe a molecular level and see billions of separate molecules, each doing their own thing.

Zoom back out to the perspective of the naked eye, and it’s still the same rock.

So here we have something which can be seen as divided and whole, all at the same time.  The only difference is perspective.

It seems that when we start out in Aikido, everything is in a state of separation or duality.

Lets take one technique, say shomenuchi iriminage, and at first we’re trying to figure out where the foot goes, and then the hand, while at the same time keeping in balance and moving the hips correctly.

With your training partner in the mix, you have a whole other entity to deal with and as you progress, you’re trying to affect his balance, grab his right wrist with your right hand and move in this direction, all while staying relaxed and breathing fully.

After some practice, this becomes unified and is then performed with less effort and the ability to see the whole movement in one snapshot, neatly labeled with a name of the technique.

So progression goes from duality to non-duality, or unity.  The thing is, it’s all a matter of perception, really.  All the while, we were doing shomenuchi iriminage, it’s just that our perception or focus changed.

At first, we could barely make a step without fumbling over ourselves, while a month later, many different movements came together to create this one technique.  If you take that one technique and combine it with the almost infinite number of other techniques you can do in Aikido, it’s all one Aikido.

From separation to unity as a progression, but all being one.

In Aikido, it’s really easy for some of us to think too much about our practice from the brain’s perspective. The brain is a tool used for separating and disseminating things, which in some cases is quite useful.  When we’re working on unity, it may not be the best tool for this purpose.  We start analyzing our Aikido and questioning ourselves like “Hmm, am I more a hard-style aikidoist or soft-style?  Is my Aikido more creative and spontaneous or textbook basic and an intellectual?  Should I think about what I’m doing or just feel it?  Do I like to have soft feather-like ukemi or fall with a dramatic flare slapping the mat intensely as I go down?”.  Maybe it’s just me that does this, but I have a feeling it may be common.  The question I have is, why do I have to label it and define my Aikido with such strict guidelines?  Why pick one way or the other?  Isn’t this extremely limiting?  Hard/soft, left brain/right brain, creative/intellectual, rigid/flexible, iwama style/hombu style…  Unify.  Get your whole being on the same page.  Do both…all at once..  Look at these as co-workers instead of opposites.  Why do we assume it has to be one way or the other.  We only limit ourselves.  We have the ability to experience all of it.  That’s what’s so great about this art, we can consciously work with this stuff and play with this energy in as many ways as we’d like.

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walk the line

Connection is an interesting thing.  Stepping off the line of an attack too much leads to loss of connection.  I know we’re told a lot to step off the line, and obviously you do need to (or you get hit), but too much off the line makes it really difficult to connect with your partner, and forces you to reach for the technique as opposed to it being sitting there in your lap.  The getting off the line part, I like to think about as a subtle thing, mostly mental but slightly physical.  If you have the guts to stay in there a bit more and not listen to your defense mechanisms all that much, it’ll make your Aikido much tighter and more effortless.  Make an effort to do it.  Take the gift of energy that your partner is providing you and really connect to it.  Don’t run from it or try to dodge it.  Get yourself in the aiki state and join with the attack to make something new out of it.  It’s amazing what comes up if you don’t try to move away from the attack so much.  It’s a fine line.  In real cases, it can be the difference between life or death.  Walk that line in class.  Play with it and see how it goes.  We’re practicing so it’s okay to get a tsuki to the solar plexus every once in a while to tell you when it’s not enough.

The aim for a lot of what we do in Aikido, I believe, is to break down those barriers.  There are many barriers that we need to break down.  First there’s the barrier between you and your partner.  Whether you’re uke or nage, there’s always that mental barrier there where you’re not fully unified with your partner.  You don’t want to fall or you really want to make uke fall.  You’re fighting them.  Even a little bit.  The big barrier though is the barrier within you.  You know you have that perfect aiki-self inside.  We all do.  That perfect aiki-self comes out at certain times and we are shocked at what it does.  Everything is effortless.  You enjoy training with the partner you’re with at the time and there are no struggles involved.  The attacks are very real and committed, but you don’t think much of them.  The faster they come in, the more solid your aikido is.  Your ukemi is so solid that you feel that connection with your partner the whole time, even as you stand up to attack again, you still feel that connectedness.  As you do the technique, your partner knows that you are totally in control and can come in as hard as they want, and you will be there supporting them through their ukemi.  As you go through the repititions of the technique, have an intention to break down those barriers bit by bit.  It goes unsaid that this also applies directly with life away from the mat as well.  When dealing with anyone face to face, whether it be someone you have a natural resistance with or maybe it’s someone you always mesh well with, you can always feel that barrier while dealing with that person.  You can feel it in your center.  Let that go.  Meld with your center first and then it’s automatic that you meld with that person too.
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speak your truth

Speak your truth peacefully.  This is a great aim of Aikido in communication.  When faced with someone who is speaking what you deem to be nonsense, it’s easy to do one of two things which are totally opposite of each other, neither of which is effective or healthy.

Option A is that we get upset and attack them, thus stirring them up and breaking down communication further.  We say things we don’t mean to say and have to go back later to do damage control if it’s a friend or loved one.   If not, we have an enemy out there wounded by our words.

In so doing this, we feel like we’re standing up for ourselves, and winning the argument, but in reality we’re reacting in accordance to them, therefore putting them in charge of the outcome.

This reaction is usually followed by remorse and guilt which is then oppressed.  When oppressed, it usually sprouts up in later interactions with people (or ourselves) and comes up more violently.  It then becomes a habit and a belief, and is then just the way we deal with things in life.

Option B is performed by the passive types, and in this scenario we feel it’s best to just not say anything in fear of option A occurring.

This is usually followed by driving home later in the day wishing we had “stood up for ourselves”.  We beat ourselves up over it.  We see ourselves as weak and this is usually oppressed, sprouting up later and becoming a belief, soon becoming the way we live our lives (see option A).  Although this reaction seems totally opposite than option A, it is the same in that it is a reaction.   This reaction, too is doing the same thing which is putting them in charge of the outcome.  They have shut you up.

All is not lost though, as there is a third option which is the “aiki” way of dealing with someone giving you resistance.   Let that person talk and really study them.  Give them 100% of your attention and try to see their point of view no matter how difficult that may be.  Just because you see their point of view doesn’t mean you have to accept it as yours.  Relax your shoulders and the muscles in your face.  Focus on your breathing and control it taking long slow breaths from your abdomen, in through the nose and out through the mouth.  Find your physical center and focus on that point which is about 2 inches above your navel.  Breathe into and out of that point.  Lighten your gaze.  When you feel the most natural opening, coming from center, speak your truth peacefully, but fully.  This comes out in the essence or character of your words.  It carries forth in your intonation and body language.  It may be best to not go in direct opposition to what they say, but instead to take what they’ve said completely out of the equation and speak your truth, in a comfortable and inviting way, and usually with a smile.  Not a condescending smile, but a sincere smile.

If you do this, and they still take offense, it’s totally their deal.  In most cases, after they think about it and cool down, they’ll at least respect you for the way you handled yourself.  You’ll be able to sleep better because you’ve taken control of your presence which is all you have control over anyway.  You spoke your truth powerfully, not forcefully.  You came from a place of, “this is what I believe regardless of what anyone else thinks” not, “you’re full of s**t”.  Which one seems like the most fulfilling mindset?

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be the flow

I think an important and helpful thing to do at times, especially when we’re really training a lot, is to stop where you are and think of O’Sensei.  Take a look at some of his pictures, read some of his doka, watch some of his films, whatever you can do to take a glimpse of what he was trying to do with this wonderful art.  It’s really easy, especially these days in our UFC-infused society, to go a different direction.  Not necessarily the wrong direction if that’s what you’re trying to do, but Aikido is Aikido.

The main focus of our training, according to the founder, is self-mastery.  He also said to not worry about watching his technique, but to listen to what he said.  (see “training with the master”) Aikido is a wonderful self-defense mechanism, but it is also very easy to get too engulfed in the mindset of worrying if your technique will “work on the street” or not.  “Am I taking uke’s balance?” “Am I leading uke correctly?”  “Can Uke hit me from here?”  “Is this yonkyo really putting the pain on?”.  These are common concerns with ours that we can easily get way too caught up in.  We totally leave our own center and start worrying about….them.  Stop.  Come back to center.  You are the center.  Don’t go with the flow because if you think this way, you’re separating yourself from the flow.  Be the flow.  Bring them to your center.  You are here and alive and aware right now.  If you get fear out of the way and BE in your body, your beingness isn’t going to allow you to get hit and knows just what to do for the best outcome…you’d be amazed.  It sounds impossible, but it’s fun to shoot for.

When you see O’Sensei or read his writings, you realize he never got outside of himself.  You’ll never see a picture of him with a strained expression throwing someone hard.  You’ll never witness him “trying to take balance”.  He’s always relaxed, stable, and looks like the center of a top with uke flying around him.  In still photographs, he’s never blurred like he’s moving fast.  His grip looks solid but not hard.  This is the “aikiness” that he has blessed us with and we need to embrace it to truly reap the benefits of this art.  If that’s not what you want, it’s not what you want.  There’s other great martial arts out there that show you how to disarm a guy and break his face in a matter of seconds.  Just remember… Aikido is Aikido, and if we want to regain purpose and intention in our training, it’s helpful to recognize the founder of the art and see where he was coming from.

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insight from the founder

In the excellent book “Training with the Master”, I read an excellent quote from the founder which follows:
“In order to practice Aikido properly, you must not forget that all things originate from One Source; envelop yourself with love, and embrace sincerity.  A technique that is based only on physical force is weak; a technique based on spiritual power is strong.
The practice of Aikido is an act of faith, a belief in the power of nonviolence.  It is not a type of rigid discipline or empty ascetisism.  It is a path that follows the principles of nature, principles that must apply to daily living.
In good Aikido training, we generate light (wisdom) and heat (compassion).  Those two elements activate heaven and earth.  Train hard and you will experience the light and warmth of Aikido.  Train more, and learn the principles of nature.  Aikido should be practiced from the time you rise to greet the morning sun to the time you retire at night.
Aikido is good for the health.  It helps you manifest your inner and outer beauty.  The practice of Aikido fosters good manners and proper deportment.  Aikido teaches you how to respect others, and how not to behave in a rude manner.  It is not easy to live up to the ideals of Aikido but we must do so at all costs – otherwise our training is in vain.”

We have to realize that this is a translation, and because of the limitations of words, we can play with some of this a little bit.  It is open to some interpretation as long as we keep the big picture and our good intentions in mind as we do so.  It does us no good to try to change the art, but we also have to make it our own.  O’Sensei’s writings are a big part of the mystery which is so great about the art.

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