What, exactly, is ki? Ever since I started reading about Aikido, many years before I started actually training in a dojo, the books I’ve read have said that it’s very difficult to translate the Japanese word ki into English. It’s mostly equated to energy and the Japanese symbol for ki resembles steam rising from rice as it cooks. Still, us westerners are always looking for cut-and-dry definitions and labels for things, and I happen to fall victim to that mentality. The name of the art Aikido implies working with ki – yet how often do we actually consciously do this?
I’ve touched on this before, but when starting Aikido, we learn the technical aspects of the different techniques. We then take that into more flowing movement, and then finally make our own out of it. I know, easier said than done. Personally speaking, it’s so hard to step out of the technical part of Aikido. When a technique doesn’t work right, what’s the first thing I do? I usually ask myself, “What am I doing wrong here? Where should I step or move my hand to make this technique work better?” This is okay on some levels, but it’s so easy to completely overlook what it is we’re there to do, which is to work in the way of harmonious ki (yes, loosely translated of course).
The thing is, you can’t really teach ki. Ki is something that has to be felt and experienced on our own for it to be applied. After training for a while, I really do see how it’s so difficult to explain the meaning of ki. Teachers can teach physical things such as body movements and motion. In Aikido, these things are very important and are the ground floor and foundation of the art. From here, it’s our responsibility to mix those movements with our ki, thereby getting the full experience of it.
Ki, to me, is the juice of the movement. It’s the underlying intention, direction, and life behind the technique. Without this, all you have is sloppy Jujutsu (thanks Dan Messisco Sensei for that term). Vince Sensei said it so well when we were working with our Black Belt material this last week when he told us to make it “sexier”. A few of us were working together and getting really stuck in what we were doing and getting way too cerebral when he came by and told us this. I think his intention for saying this was to have us make it more alive. The way to do this is by extending ki. Staying stuck in the technical parts of this beautiful art is very limiting at a certain level, and it’s great to let that go for a while (although it’s good to revisit the basic technical part of it at times as well), and work on putting ki, or life, into our technique.
We can see ki in all great artists, and I believe it’s what makes them artists. Look at the world-class chef for example. What are they doing? They’re preparing a meal. At the base, technical level they are preparing a meal. Wait… I can do that! What’s the difference between me preparing a meal and, say, Makoto? Makoto is a good friend of mine and is the head sushi chef at what I honestly believe is the best sushi restaurant in the US, which is Samurai Sushi located in South Lake Tahoe. I’m totally biased, but I’ve been to sushi in Chicago, San Francisco, and several other places, and I’ve never seen an artist like Makoto. Don’t get all riled up, I’m sure they’re out there, but I haven’t had the honor of meeting them yet. Anyways, not only does he make good sushi, but he puts his life into it. He lives right across the street from the restaurant and cures (again, please excuse my lack of technical jargon) the fish himself. When I go there and eat, I make sure to sit at the bar as close as possible to where he’s stationed at, and I am enthralled watching him prepare sushi. It’s ingrained into his consciousness. The fluidity of movement and relaxed, but fast pace in which he prepares the dishes is absolutely amazing. There’s no waste and his area is always clean. I would cut my finger off within a week of even trying to do what he does with that knife. Is making sushi hard to do? Maybe, maybe not. If he gave me all of his recipes, and I stood there and made the same dishes he does, I’m pretty sure we’d be out of business in a couple of weeks… if we were lucky. The ki he puts into his art is amazing. He’s past the stage of copying and learning, and is on the path of creating. If I came in there and duplicated the technical aspects of what he does, it would be an absolute failure. Why? My ki’s not there. His is. He has put his life into his art of making great sushi for people and creates the atmosphere to go along with it. People would be able to tell that I wasn’t authentic after a while.
Now, if I truly wanted to give myself over to the art of sushi making, and I took on an apprenticeship from Makoto, and I put enough of my ki into the art, after some time, I may be able to be great at it. There’s a lot we can learn from great teachers. At first we have to look at technical things involving any new undertaking, this is the only way to start. We have to emulate a lot for a while to get the hang of things. If my ki was really into the whole sushi making thing, I could probably even get really good at preparing the dishes the way he does. That’s just the first step though. We can’t stop there (well, we can, but we wouldn’t have gotten much out of it). We have to take it to the next step from learning to the level of making it our own, all the while adding our ki, or life, to it for it to be authentic.