What Does it Mean?

So, I was doing some research on Aikido the other day, and I discovered something that totally changed my perspective on the art. I hate getting too caught up in terms, but this was really eye-opening for me, so please bear with me. Most definitions of Aikido out there claim that the “Ai” in Aikido means “Harmony”. This is what I’ve read and heard for a while. However, after checking out the wikipedia definition, I learned that it actually means “joining, unifying, combining, or fit”. This is different than “harmony” in some ways. Harmony implies duality. Being in harmony with something, we have that thing, and then we have us, who is in harmony with that. This is a powerful concept, but at a certain point, limited. When we start looking at the meaning of “ai” being “joining, unifying, or fitting”, we see how this implies a “unifying with” as opposed to a “going along with”. Now, please understand, I realize my search for the meaning of this term will probably take a lifetime. I’m not claiming to have figured it out, and really, I’m not quite sure if there is a solid ‘meaning’ or ‘definition’ of it. Constantly striving to define things can be futile, but when we experience awakenings of certain conceptual things like this, I believe they should be reflected on and used as tools for growth.

In clarifying the definition (I understand that a lot gets lost in the translation from Japanese to English and vice-versa), we move from a relative or dualistic perspective to a oneness or absolute perspective. This is, from what I’ve read and heard, where O’Sensei was. He was dealing with the absolute when working on Aikido.

Now the concept of Irimi (entering), which is a huge concept in Aikido, makes way more sense to me. To fully meet, join with, combine with, and unify with the energy is a much more powerful intention than merely going along with it (although going along with things is an important principle). It implies much more power as well.

Going within, we can take it to another level of meeting the energy of our higher selves, or best ability, rather than just going along with the whims of our ego. This can be done via meditation, contemplation, or perhaps while doing an activity where we can really focus on what we’re doing. Some people can achieve this through playing a musical instrument, others by writing, playing a sport, hiking, whatever. I do, however, think meditation is the best route to take in order to achieve this because you’re forced to sit with…yourself. No activity to get distracted by (our wandering thoughts are enough distraction). But that’s just it, in meditation, we’re forced to let go of those distractions and push through in order to achieve this inner unity. Way easier said than done, but well worth it. Anyways, I’m definitely looking forward to applying this new perspective both on and off the mat. Trying to go into things and achieve unity with them as opposed to just going with them, I believe, opens up the door to many opportunities.

 

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Bowing

In the dojo, bowing is traditionally very important. We bow to our partner(s) before we begin the training exercise and after the exercise is over. This is done out of respect for our training partner and acknowledges the fact that we appreciate them letting us use their body during practice and vice-versa. This is something that should not be taken for granted. Being Americans living in the culture where simulated, entertaining, mindless violence is a part of our lives from childhood, we can very easily take this ritual for granted. Back in O’Sensei’s day of training when he was a young man, in the early 1900’s, training was very, very serious. He and those he trained with were preparing for very real survival situations. Martial Arts were such a big part of Japanese culture, not because of huge marketing campaigns and kids wearing Tapout shirts, but because the culture had to embrace it in order to survive. This is where the essence of bowing came, and I think we should try to be as conscious of this as possible when we train.

Here in America, most of us have had the luxury of being sheltered from real violence. Other than the occasional Friday night out with friends where the guy at the bar has too much to drink and threatens to beat your friend up for looking at his girl, it doesn’t automatically click with us to think too deeply about our training much past the competitive level. Training in a traditional Japanese art like Aikido is very healthy because it instills in us the respect for others and humility in a simulated environment. Not to get too deep about this, because I am kind of straying from my point a little, but if our culture embraced this respect and humility as a whole, it may prevent future conflicts in our society. This scenario would be better than our sloppy, comfortable, spoiled behavior leading to conflicts down the road where we have to embrace this mindset, but under not so comfortable circumstances due to our actions. I dunno, food for thought.

Anyways, this brief but sincere acknowledgment of others before we interact is a great thing to take into our daily lives. This especially works well at the workplace or in business. There is always a defined time before the verbal part of the conversation takes place and begins with eye-contact. When we mentally thank this person for the interaction before we speak as well as at the end of the conversation, sincerely of course, it’s interesting what it does to the underlying current of the interaction. This is incredibly difficult to do, especially during heated arguments, and I’ve personally only been able to do it maybe a time or two in application. When I’ve done it, it really does make what could have been a bad conversation much better. The best way to practice this is to bow sincerely to our partners in the dojo. While in public, try mentally bowing to strangers without even making eye contact. It would be great for this to become a habit and will only help our relationships as well as our training.

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Undercurrent

In Aikido, we’re especially practicing the undercurrent. I’ll explain what I mean by this in a bit, but it’s the reason why, when people see Aikido practice, they sometimes discount it for an unrealistic martial art not practical “on the street”. They may not realize that when we practice the physical techniques, we use these techniques as guidelines for more important principles, and the martial functionality of the physical manifestation of the techniques pale in relation to the non-physical work we’re doing. I just read a great article from Jay Lindholm Sensei from South Austin Aikido that helped me with this. I’ve been pondering this concept for a while, but he put it very well.

Everything we do is about the undercurrent. It’s not what we say, it’s the state of our undercurrent at the time which we’re actually communicating to others. If we have an undercurrent of fear or greed, no matter what we say, we are communicating fear or greed. Even when we’re merely in the same room as someone else and no words are spoken, our undercurrents are communicating. If we don’t like that person, we (and others in the same room) can feel the state of that undercurrent, even if we fake nice. If we’re upset with ourselves or not confident, this comes through in our undercurrent as well. On the flip side of that coin, if we have awareness, confidence, calmness, control, and we carry ourselves well, this also is communicated through our undercurrent. This, I believe, is why O’Sensei didn’t seem to focus his instruction too much on physical technique. This undercurrent is where we’re all united and are constantly communicating with eachother whether we know it or not.

The techniques of Aikido are vessels carrying the principles of Aiki which help us refine our spirit (undercurrent). In Aikido training, I see a big purpose of our training being to purify this undercurrent with Aiki. When we do this, and we keep in mind why we’re doing this, we’ll see just how ‘practical’ this art really is to so many aspects of our lives.

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