Written by Wendy Palmer / Integration Training
“The secret of aikido is to make yourself become one with the universe and to go along with its natural movements.” –Morihei Ueshiba, Aikido founder
Training in aikido and other martial arts fosters confidence, strength and awareness, but to be whole people we need more. We need to learn how to be in relationship with the world without dominating or being dominated. Our martial confidence can give us personal strength but it is the open heart, the intention and capacity to protect and include the attacker that will allow for connection and appreciation.
The open heart gives us the possibility of transcending our survival instinct. The element of compassion changes the frequency of the shared field. Compassion has a strength quite different from that of muscle power; it is not only open and inclusive; it also has a blade like aspect that can cut through unnecessary and reactive behavior. The sword of compassion is the sword that gives life. The way a tree is pruned to cut away the clutter and unhealthy branches, the sword of compassion cuts through our survival behaviors permitting the refinement of our artistic qualities to emerge.
Aikido took me beyond survival and brought my encounters to the level of art. Art is magnetic and appeals to the part of us that yearns to be lifted out of survival and fear of separation to the awareness of universal connectedness.
For over thirty years I have had the opportunity to witness my competitive tendency while training in this non-competitive martial art. In aikido we receive promotions by demonstrating competency in a variety of techniques and dealing skillfully with vigorous attacks rather than by winning over our opponent.
There are aspects of competition that are helpful for our spirits and our survival. We become stronger, faster, smarter and more creative by looking to the champions as a benchmark and striving to manifest the next level of ability. There are also aspects of the competitive drive that are unskillful and tend to foster aggression and dominance. Dominance and aggression are used as a vehicle to gain control of a situation.
When someone throws me hard I can still feel the urge to answer with an even harder throw. My awareness of this tendency gives me the option to respond differently. Over the years aikido has taught me that I can match hard power with soft power and shift the feeling of the exchange. Soft power decreases aggression and opens the way for an equal exchange of energy. This is important because if my partner is twice my size it is unlikely that I will be able to win or dominate the interaction.
Winning over someone is different than sharing universal movements with that person. I have come to be most interested in the magnetic approach of dealing with an attack. Using magnetism involves developing a feeling for the clear fluid energy contained within the form or shape of a technique. The key is to be able to focus more attention on the feeling and form of your movement than the speed and power of the attacker. The more you concentrate on and enjoy the sensation of your own movement, the stronger the magnetic pull toward that movement will be. Thus, the energy of the attacker is drawn into your flow. If your mind wavers, however, and shifts on to the attacker, that small split of attention can be used to draw your energy into the attack instead of drawing the attacker in to your energy flow. Once you focus on the attack, you are giving energy to the attacker. If the capacity for a magnetic response is interrupted, the only alternative is to attempt to control the attack.
Most of us don’t like the feeling of being controlled. When I feel controlled, my tendency is to become feisty and look for a way to reverse my partner. Conversely, when I feel magnetized, I feel as if the person I attacked is inviting me into their being and we are moving together. There is nothing to resist.
Responding to the attacker with a magnetic approach develops soft power. Little by little, we learn to tolerate the impact of a strike, grab, wristlock or throw and be able to relax around the pressure. Without the intention to escape or control, the attacking energy can be invited into and absorbed by the space or ki of the one receiving the attack. When this happens there is a sense of moving together as one. This way of connecting is different than the experience of two separate people, one controlling the other. With soft power there is one unit of energy moving along the same path.
One of the greatest hindrances to the magnetic approach is self-consciousness sparked by the desire to be in control. We want the security of knowing that our technique will be effective. We want to feel that we are in control of our partner. The desire to be in control is a normal survival response, but what I love about the art of aikido is that we can move beyond survival to a vast and universal perspective in which all life is connected and interwoven. Such an orientation is not self-conscious. Since it relates to the connecting aspect – that of the space and energy – rather than individuals, there is no thing that needs to be observed. All awareness can be involved with the movement of energy through space, organized and contained by the form. The result is soft fluid power enjoying the beauty and purity of the form. This kind of feeling is not only beautiful and fluid, it is difficult to resist or counter which makes it effective from a martial perspective.
There is a lovely word in physics to describe the nature of a laser beam. The light is said to be “coherent.” Ordinary lenses may focus light, but a laser creates an alignment and unity of character that goes beyond that. By allowing the body to relax within the form, aliveness in and around the body becomes unified and moves along the flow line of the form.
To unify ki we need a reference point, a source or origin that allows the ki to emerge as a tangible experience. In nature, plant life is vertical, establishing a root and extending up to the sun. The human body too is vertical in nature. Focusing our attention on the vertical quality of ground and the dignity of the upright posture we establish our center. Not as a point, rather as a core of energy that includes the entire body. There may be points along the core that emanate different textures – for instance, energy from the mind has a different quality than that of the heart or the hara – but they are aspects of a unified field of life force. It is from this vertical core of life force that we extend out and include our attacker inviting them into our flow line. When we execute a technique the entire field flows along the line of the form.
What does this soft fluid power imply for how we can live our lives? How can the understanding and insights we glean from engaging in physical pressure and the intensity of attacks in the dojo inform the way we interact off the mat? What I appreciate about this state of inclusiveness is that it is equally effective in martial as well as domestic and work situations—which can be equal or more challenging than attacks in training sessions. Some people can keep cool and calm on the mat but become violent in traffic.
For a long time it has been my passion to bring the principles I am exploring in aikido into the world we encounter when we leave the dojo. I call this exploration Conscious Embodiment. It is a model that uses principles from aikido and mindfulness practice to address the challenge of how we can live our everyday lives with increased presence, confidence and compassion.
This inquiry has led to some interesting shifts in how I practice aikido. I want to practice staying on the line as well as get off the line. In our life outside the dojo, ‘getting off the line’ is not the way I would want to meet all the intense encounters in my day. In Conscious Embodiment we explore staying put and allowing others into our personal space. We practice with a double wrist grab applying pressure and notice how the survival reflex puts up a boundary in order to control the amount of energy that enters our personal space. From the point of view of the martial arts, boundaries are there to be pushed upon, with the possibility of breaking through and taking control of my partner. If the person I am attacking, however, accepts my energy into a fluid flow, rather than putting up a boundary, my whole body relaxes and I lose my desire to be in control.
In Conscious Embodiment, we practice opening our personal space and inviting the incoming energy in. This is possible because the person being pushed shifts their identity from what we call the ‘personality’ to a part of ourselves we call ‘center’. Most martial artists know what it feels like to be centered. In sports it is called being in the ‘zone’ or in a flow state. The zone is usually described as being spacious and fluid. I believe that when we are in the ‘centered state’ we relate to the situation from the point of view of how much space is there rather than the speed and power of the attack. This enables us to stay relaxed and feel as if there is plenty of time. Our focus shifts from the anticipation of the attack to the space that the attack is moving into. Science tells us that there is more space than particles in any situation. By relating with the space, therefore, we can change the feeling of the interaction. When someone applies pressure to your wrists you can think of all the space in your body, the space around you and your partner. The pressure then becomes dissipated into the space. If I am attacking some one who is centered, I feel as if I am attacking space. With no boundary to push against, I have no reference point upon which to focus my attack.
I teach this exercise as a way to practice listening. The push is a metaphor for communication. We give what is being said – the content– which is represented by the pressure on the wrists – lots of space in which to land. The result is that the person speaking/pushing feels heard and relaxes. This opens the door to the possibility that a genuine, satisfying exchange can take place.
When we shift our attention to the shared space, it is important to distinguish between being spacious and spacey. If we are spacey there is no body there to listen, which can be frustrating for the speaker and dangerous for the listener. When we are spacious there is a presence that is inclusive. Instead of a solid feeling we experience interconnection through a sense of porosity.
In Conscious Embodiment classes, we imagine that the pressure is negative content coming from someone or a part of ourselves. The idea is to recognize the tendency to stiffen or collapse, put up boundaries and shift into the control and defend pattern. We take time to examine how the pattern organizes and where it originates so we can learn to affect it before it develops momentum. I discovered, for instance, that my control/defend pattern originates in my solar plexus. Paying attention to it, I can feel a slight contraction beginning in my solar plexus region. Lengthening my solar plexus area inhibits the ‘personality’ pattern and gives me the option to shift to a centered and spacious state of being. Repetition under mild pressure develops the foundation for a centered state. Little by little, I can ask for increased pressure in order to strengthen the ability to recover center while under stronger pressure.
This Conscious Embodiment practice allows us to slow down an interaction that might take 1 or 2 seconds in normal aikido training. Instead we take 5 or 10 minutes to examine subtle shifts of attention and energy that trigger the personality’s survival reaction. We are putting ourselves under the microscope of awareness in order to probe the deeper layers of patterns developed by years and perhaps generations of our survival drive stemming from our reptilian brain. This layer of survival bases its focus on the need for fight or flight and the bandwidth of awareness involved is quite narrow. When we shift to a centered state, the bandwidth expands as we are involving the limbic and the neocortical aspects of our brain. This awareness allows us to tap into a vital adaptive aspect of our potential. The result is that we are able to process information beyond the survival level of speed, distance and power. We can also relate with textures and qualities of energy as well as the possibility of enjoyment arising from an appreciation of a shared matrix. With practice we can shift from our personality’s vigilant guardian to the nurturing caretaker of center.
Conscious Embodiment has allowed me to examine energetic patterns that activate emotional and psychological states that stand in the way of recognizing the universal picture. I can see how my energy splits into conflicting configurations rendering me weak and confused. By shifting my energy pattern, I can change the way I experience the world. Irritation and anxiety are the result of a system that is divided and overwhelmed. Awareness is the key that allows me to recognize when I am losing center. My memory of the grace and clarity of center motivates the transition from awareness to action. Recognizing the pattern as it emerges and consciously activating a centering process can reconnect us to our artistic and compassionate nature.
We are gradations of vibrating molecules interconnected by the space that we share. Mae Wan Ho, Ph.D. at the Open University in England writes, “The (human) organism is coherent beyond our wildest dreams. Every part is in communication with every other part through a dynamic, tunable, responsive, liquid crystalline medium that pervades the whole body, from organs and tissues to the interior of every cell….. The visible body just happens to be where the wave function of the organism is the most dense. Invisible quantum waves are spreading out from each of us and permeating into all other organisms.” [Mae Wan Ho, “ The Entangled Universe, “Yes! A Journal of Positive Futures, Spring 2000]
When we experience interactions from this perspective of interconnectedness it becomes ridiculous to want to dominate or defend against another. Sadly, we don’t. Before long, the ‘personality’ or survival reaction kicks in and we revert back to the control and defend pattern of dealing with pressure. Anyone who has practiced martial arts for any length of time will recognize that no one stays centered – just as no one stays in the zone. The point of training is to develop the capacity to recover center in the midst of the action.
Am I still competitive? Oh yes. My survival tendencies are still alive and well within me. The difference is they don’t dominate my life the way they used to. I have the option to shift my attention and activate a centering process. The pattern of center organizes around a vertical core and the awareness of space. For a moment there is no ‘other’ with whom to compete. Compassion replaces competition. My boundaries expand and permeate the interaction with fluid ki. Time stretches out before me opening to a universe shimmering with life reminding me that we are all in this together.