I have been training at the Komyokan dojo in Birkenhead for the past seven years and my understanding and relationship to aikido has changed and developed over this time.
Aikido is both a physical and a spiritual discipline and when I began training at Komyokan I saw these two aspects as somehow separated from one another. There was the physical training incorporating the learning of techniques, both as tore and uke, and separate to that: meditation, chanting and spiritual development. During the physical training, I initially learnt where to put my hands and feet and how to break fall properly. Which is an important part of my aikido training in which I am still involved. It has and continues to offer me access to a very effective martial art and a system of self-defense. It has improved my sense of timing and reflexes, and offered me an access to my body’s inner rhythms.
During the early stages of training I thought about the concept of blending with my uke as they attacked, but I now see that this was a concept in my head that I was unable to execute. Then as my training has developed, I have tried to start to incorporate the principles of leaning, to maintain the right level of connection to partner, moving from body first, instigating movement from the lower body, and the challenging paradox of relaxing without collapsing. These principles, along with others that I am probably not yet able to articulate clearly, underpin my sensei’s system of training at the Komyokan dojo. My attempt to apply these principles in conjunction with my sensei’s teaching has made me realize that aikido, for me, is an attempt to become more self-aware. Each time I attempt to apply the above principles I engage in an opportunity to observe myself, and the gap between what I think I am doing and what I am actually doing. At this stage of my training I do not always take this opportunity; my ego often reassures me that I am doing it well, or remonstrates with me that I am doing very badly but my sensei’s rigorous approach ensures there is nowhere to hide!
What aikido offers me in this situation is the opportunity to challenge both myself, and the image that I hold of myself. An image which has been sorely tested over the last few years. This might sound like a painful process but it is also a liberating one, because with it comes an understanding that when you are upset by someone else you realize that it is you generating those feelings not ‘the other’. Then, as a result, you can observe those feelings and watch them diminish. A realization, that, I have been able to apply to most of the significant relationships in my life.
As I begin to apply the above principles I am beginning to understand that when uke attacks I need to be relaxed and connected enough to them to ‘feel’ what they are doing in terms of the strength of their attack, where their weight is leaning, the amount of tension in the body etc. to understand how best to apply the technique and in a real practical sense blend with partner. This self-observation has fundamentally altered the way I see the relationship between tore and uke. When we are attacked, we tend just to see the attack and not the person behind the attack and in our heightened state of fight or flight we try to conquer and dominate this attacker as a threat, even if, as in the case of the dojo we know that these people are our fellow aikidoka. I have realized that I need to listen to the energetic body of uke. I have understood that each attack is different because each attacker is different and that each attacker often makes subtle changes to his or her attack. I understand this act of listening as an act of respect towards the other that will, hopefully, in time, overcome the fight or flight response I have to being attacked and allow a relaxed, open and fluid response to uke. For me this is the meaning of harmony between two bodies in space and is at the heart of what aikido means for me. One thing of course is understanding this is one’s head and another is being able to apply it to the encounter between uke and tore which for me is why aikido is the attempt to put these principles and beliefs into practice in a ‘real’ encounter.
I have tried to apply this principle when listening to people speak, for example. When involved in conversations in the past I became aware that I was waiting for an opportunity to speak rather than listening to what the other people were saying and the way in which they were saying it. I now really try to listen to both the words and how those words are said, and as a result have a much better connection to my listener and in turn am better understood by them.
Looking towards the future, I can speculate how this awareness in the moment of the encounter, could be taken beyond my relationship with uke to encompass a wider awareness and understanding of the space around me both within and beyond the dojo. Perhaps this is what O’Sensei meant when he talked about being one with the universe. Having a wider awareness of what is happening beyond oneself in any given moment, and that the self is in relationship with all of it. I would just like to clarify at this point that I do not see myself as anywhere close to this level of awareness but rather that it is a direction for further development.
In conclusion, aikido for me is about developing my self-observation and self-awareness and to then extend that awareness beyond myself and to connect in a real, deep and spiritual sense with uke and by extrapolation begin to try to connect with other humans and the wider universe. All of my above thoughts about the meaning of aikido would not have been possible, were it not for my sensei’s teaching for which I feel deeply indebted.