When I was in primary school we had some swimming lessons, and at one point someone asked us to swim a length to decide which “stream” we would be in.
At this stage I enjoyed swimming and was reasonably OK as a swimmer. I was so determined to get in the better stream that I hammered down the pool in a fury of froth. I got to the end in short order and was promptly put in the lower stream. I was there for a while till they started showing us some ways to swim better and when they saw me swim the length like that asked why I hadn’t done it like that in the first place as I was plainly capable. I’d been afraid of messing it up.
I was reminded of this by an incident tonight. This is an article written for some of my aikido students, but the transferability of many of the principles is obvious.
I was preparing a class of aikido students for a Kyu Grading that is coming up, I have previously set out some thoughts about grading. They wanted to look at a couple of techniques, tenchi nage and shiho nage for those interested but this isn’t the point of this post. About 50 minutes into the class I decided to sit in seiza at the side of the mats and just call out techniques and observe. And suddenly I realised that despite frequently imploring people to relax I was looking around the room and seeing many people grimace and struggle, trying to push through techniques with speed and force. We all (even those not doing martial arts) have this problem to some degree or another, and I am certainly not immune.
What was the issue? Well, I guessed at the core of it all was fear, fear of losing, fear of being seen not to be able to do the technique, fear of being beaten by the other person. This is an entirely natural response to a conflict or simple tense situation, and in a few weeks these people would be getting themselves nice and tense in a grading.
Fear Escalates Conflict
It’s an easy loop to get into, you get a bit concerned that something isn’t working, so you focus harder, put in more “power and speed”, and paradoxically, it works even less well so you put in more “power and speed” and so on. Except from the sidelines it’s clear that what you are watching is at best a mockery of the intended technique. And it certainly isn’t ai-ki-do, since ai-ki means harmony with the other person’s energy.
It’s curious, in an attempt to demonstrate an aikido technique you have great sensible people demonstrating a complete lack of aiki. You might think that would be important in an aikido grading, and you’d be correct.
Stepping out of Victory and Defeat
So we all sat down at the side of the mats to talk about this. A few years ago our teacher and friend Alan Ruddock died, and recently our teacher and friend Henry Kono died. It maybe helps to remind us that there is no such thing as absolute victory for any of us, but there doesn’t need to be a defeat either, especially when we can find the resolve to let go of fear and step out of the conflict.
And so in a physical confrontation, or indeed a non physical one, sometimes extraordinary things happen when you let go of the fear and even very surprisingly perhaps, step out of conflict.
This maybe sounds very passive. Perhaps defeatist. It might even sound weak – you step out of the conflict to avoid defeat. But it’s more profound than that.
Between Passivity and Agression
First of all, I like to say that aikido occupies the midpoint between passivity and aggression, let’s call that assertiveness – a nice observation I first saw explicitly made by Allen Baird – though he wasn’t talking about aikido as such.
So we aren’t talking about disengaging from the other person. Very far from it. The analogy I normally use in class is a handshake. When you shake someone’s hand you extend yourself out towards that person – pushing into them is, well, odd, but so is holding back and failing to put your hand out in a friendly way. We stay with the other person, we just don’t insist in dominating them by imposing our chosen outcome, and when something doesn’t work, we have to let go of the fear and change what we are doing to something else.
O-Sensei set some training rules (which were later tweaked, but I prefer the originals) and one of these was:
“Training should always be conducted in a pleasant and joyful atmosphere.”
The great news is that after our chat, my class went back to training, and I saw smiles on their faces, enjoyment, but most of all, I saw effective techniques occurring around the room. It was really great to see how good they were, as well as enjoying a pleasant safe atmosphere in the class.
And I believe it shows real bravery to admit the possibility of vulnerability, to admit that what we set out to do might “fail”. It’s hard to let go of those labels.
This is also a reminder why it can be useful in aikido to have no pre-conceived plan, no road map to a “victory”. If you don’t have a plan you can’t be attached to it, and it’s hard for the other person to counter it if even you don’t plan out what you intend to do to them, but just flow with them.
True Victory is Self Victory
We aren’t trying to beat the other person, but to stay engaged with them until matters resolve themselves and to protect ourself, and quite likely them, in the process. The person we are competing with is ourself – that’s where it usually gets really tricky.