it’s the juice

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.

2 comments

  1. Many people think the Chinese term “kung Fu” has to do with martial arts. But actually it means more to be “very well practiced’. One can thus be operating a cash register in a super market and be so fluid and “well practiced’ that they can multi task effortlessly . That is talking to the customer in front of them while getting on the microphone for an instant to say “clean up on aisle two!’. And never making a mistake of any type nor even thinking of that concept really.

    This is Kung Fu, and it demands “KI’. In particular, in allowing one’s KI power to flow. The sushi chef is not ‘showing off his skill’, he is allowing his KI and Kung Fu to flow effortlessly and without thought.

    Our martial arts need to be this way as well. But the dojo is different from the real world outside the dojo too. In the real world out there, and always in potential conflict that might demand self-defense skills, there is both fear and disharmony and violence.

    Can our fluid KI or Kung Fu work there? My life has shown me that it can if we are prepared. Let me make this perhaps crude example back when I was a bouncer.

    I learned early on to show even hostile and aggressive and threatening patrons respect. Another way of saying this is I never disrespected them in any way. De-escalation and ‘violence avoidance’ were the essence of my strategy.

    But at times, and each of them sticks well in my mind too I discovered my unconscious ‘KI projection’ made the difference between a fight and no fight. This I no easier to explain that the very concept of KI itself perhaps, but in my own vulgar way I will try.

    When I had used all my strategies to de-escalate a hostile and threatening person, and then re-iterated my effort, and the person mistook my being reasonable with weakness, I perceived this shift in their consciousness within them.

    Having perceived this shift in the person thinking (though he may have spoken no words to make me aware of this shift) the one thing I always knew and tried to avoid, being of reactive mind and thus allowing the enemy to partially control my mind, well it broke down in an important way.

    When I perceived this shift in the person’s consciousness by mistakenly seeing my being conciliatory behavior as being ‘weakness’ or even ‘fear’, a lower part of my brain kicked in and that was the my non-self aware ‘survival mind’.

    But having dealt with this before and actual combat itself, there was some small communication established between my self-aware and non self-aware mind. This is a tremendous survival tool too to develop too.

    So my conscious mind shifted too so as to select the best way to drop him immediately when he went for it. In doing so my self-aware consciousness was actually clam and not rattled. But even so, somehow this change in my plan and thinking was perceived by the potential enemy!

    It was at times as clear as throwing a light switch which is either ‘on’ or ‘off’, but that switch was now in his brain and it was turning on his survival instinct.

    Suddenly he changed totally. He might say something like “Heh, I was just fucking with you man to see how you’d jump, but your OK”. Then he might just walk away, or even stop the unacceptable behavior that brought me over to him in the first place.

    I saw this as a projection of my KI. Perfect intention is more important in the real world than is perfect technique. I think these people perceived my perfect intention to drop them in that “KI’ moment. Yet it was not really a hostile or angry projection at all on my part.

    It was in a strange way almost like the ‘sushi chef’ or the ‘cashier’ allowing everything to just flow. But with that was the perfect dispassionate intention to drop the man immediately and fluidly when he made his move.

    Many people go through half asleep. Some are even either totally oblivious or totally reactionary and thus never in the actual moment. The human predator is seldom like that though. He notices things he can percive your KI.

    • Peyton, it’s great hearing stories about actual, real-life martial situations and how, at that level, if applied with full commitment, Aiki is effective on a very real level. Thanks again for sharing your experience.

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