A review and response to “The First Jedi”

A few months ago, Allen Baird wrote to me courteously to tell me he had written a book about some experiences running a Jedi Course at Queen’s University, that I was tangentially involved in. I discovered the book was available about a week ago, and obtained the Kindle copy and read it over a few days. This is partly a review of the book as I see it, and some ideas the book triggered me to discuss.


The book “The First Jedi“, due to its title, runs the risk that the course did of instant derision and dismissal, but that would be a mistake. This is not some sort of fanboy gushing excess, but some quite serious content lurking under a whimsical title. It contains significant quantities of psychology and philosophy than can be applied to daily life, delivered in a vehicle of story telling based in real events surrounding his training courses in Northern Ireland and alluding to the “jedi / sith” archetypes from the Star Wars universe. Big ideas in a sugar coated pop culture shell if you will. You don’t have to be a geek to read it, or to fully get that dynamic, but I would imagine it helps to fully get it. It is both funny, educational and serious in appropriate measure, and I imagine most people will very much enjoy it.

Still Here?

Allen runs his own training, writing and coaching consultancy business alongside his partner Dawn. Some years ago he ran a “Jedi Training Course” as a one day event at Queen’s University, Belfast. Again, note that this whimsical title belies some serious content. This is a tactic I fully approve of, and one I have used myself. My own talk titles tend to be a bit whimsical too. There’s plenty of dry stuffy, self-important nonsense already. The world doesn’t need more. Allen relates the story of running this course, and the media frenzy the title caused within the book. He also manages to get across much of the material.

As I mentioned before, you don’t need any detailed knowledge of the Star Wars universe to get this. I think Allen would be the first to acknowledge that plenty of people know more detail about that universe than him. Indeed, checking again, I find he describes himself in the book as a “Minor Star Wars fan”. This is a vehicle, a metaphor. And of course it’s exploring the fact that the Star Wars universe did not grow in a vacuum. You can find likely inspiration for its ideas littered all around in classical philosophy, and sometimes religion too.

Allen approached me for some help in bringing a martial arts element to his successor course. He covers his initial meeting with me in his book, and I’ll perhaps decline to comment on that overmuch. I wasn’t put off by the whacky title, because I bought into the usefulness of the underlying material, and I could see the linkages to aikido very clearly. Plus, I was supportive of his ideas to bring people to continuing education who would otherwise not think twice about it. I may have been more enthused, but cautious, than he realised ;-).

The book is semi-autobiographical in the sense that the plot is based upon real events, but with some added fictional aspects. Early on in the book Allen talks about a technique called the “Gollum Effect” to describe how one can have a conversation between the two halves of the brain. Largely you could describe this book is being delivered by that conceit. There are two characters who give a “jedi” and “sith” perspective on the events and concepts being discussed. One voice is the largely factual voice of Allen – to what extent this aspect is fictionalised I cannot tell – while the other is presumably largely fictional. I could say that I cannot tell to what extent this other character represents factual thoughts and feelings too, if at all.

Having established this groundwork, the main portion of the book explores the course, its genesis and construction, which is both amusing and interesting. A fair amount of time is given to the media treatment of the course, and this is worthwhile and amusing, though it does inevitably lead to some minor amount of repetitive information being conveyed. I think this has been done to help anchor the book in the evidence of the original course being a real entity. He links this in nicely with the Jedi census phenomenon in the UK, which aside from the humour of it, reveals some underlying attachment to these ideas at some level. Star Wars, like it or not, is a major cultural influence, resonating with other more ancient ideas from both Western and Eastern thought.

Sensitivity and Flow

The book then moves on to the initial course, and submerges the reader in it. You get the course itself for free with the price of the book. It talks about the idea of the Highly Sensitive Person, and the psychological idea of Flow which is integral to education and which I have delivered talks on myself. This idea of flow is, incidentally, alive and well in aikido (and other martial arts no doubt) where it is often described as “moving meditation”.


Here again we move into territory that underlines why aikido was an excellent choice to convey the concepts of the course. Assertiveness, as an important part of every day life, is a vital part of aikido, and obtains a good treatment in the book.

As an aside, and response, I will note that Aikido is often described as a defensive martial art. I think that’s fair. However, many will conflate the ideas of defence and passivity. In fact, to become an excellent aikidoka, one has to learn that point of assertiveness that is beautifully described in the book as lying between aggressiveness and passivity. Neither of these latter states will help in aikido, one’s mind must remain clear and free of aggression (since otherwise, neglecting any other aspects than the physical for the moment, the adrenal response will rob the body of fine control and the mind’s ability to see the whole situation clearly), while passivity will rapidly end in disaster. You must enthusiastically meet your opponent with neither reticence or an urge to dominate them.


Allen next explores the Jungian idea of synchonicity exploring how the mind has a tendency to conflate events that are not causally linked. I’ve explored this a little in another long article on perception and especially how it can link to the martial arts.

He discusses practical ways to overcome fear. He misses, I feel, a golden opportunity to link in another great Sci-Fi franchise, covering the Bene Gesserit litany against fear. Perhaps the Bene Gesserit training course will be next. The similarities of idea are huge, and possibly even more aligned to Allen’s content.

This material reminded me somewhat of ideas I have taught in aikido classes to deal with pain. When pain is inflicted upon you, there are two aspects, the physical underlying pain, about which you can do little, but there is also an overlay – the mental expectation of pain. Learning to relax into that can greatly reduce the amount of apparent pain felt.

Control over one’s mental state, and attempting to overcome adrenal response, is a big part of aikido for me. While aikido is not Chinese in origin, Chinese martial arts masters have described aikido as an internal martial art for that reason, and I agree with them. The late Alan Ruddock describes in detail in his memoirs how the ancient story of Monkey is a parable about how the various aspects of one’s mind can be brought into harmony, even if control is too strong a word. The Star Wars generation may know this story better from its TV series, which might just occasionally have been light on philosophy and heavy on action. The book is well worth a read (both Alan’s Memoirs and Monkey incidentally).

Fear turns to Anger

It would be hard to talk about the Jedi/Sith dichotomy and not write about anger. Allen treats it well, working in some Aristotelian Ethics which is hugely pertinent to life, and reinforcing the importance of assertiveness as a midpoint. I cannot recall if this is the point where he also introduces a bit of Stoic philosophy, perhaps the school of Roman thought that resonates with me most. Marcus Aurelius, one of my favourite philosophers gets a pertinent mention. You can read his meditations at a browser over lunch time.


And so we come to mindfulness. To me, this is the concept most obviously born out of Buddhist philosophy. Buddhism is in many ways more of a philosophical system than a religion as we often describe it, but in any case, there is no need to consider the whole cosmology and religion to cherry pick some its good ideas. Though, in passing, when I first watched the Phantom Menace, I was very taken with the idea that Qui-Gon Jinn was somewhat based, in name and concept, on the Bodhisattva Guanyin.

References to Jedi being exponents of compassion reinforces the feeling that some Buddhism is behind the scenes. I have written before about the apparent dichotomy of compassion in a martial setting.

Anyway, mindfulness brings us back to those ideas of Monkey, and Meditation (whether in movement or not). I think the book implicitly emphasises a truth often overlooked by the want-to-be-spiritual; that mindfulness can be practised as you sit in the lotus position in a silent dark room, but it doesn’t really matter a damn if your thinking all goes to pot as soon as the outside world becomes disturbed. One can practice mindfulness anywhere. Indeed, it’s the only practice worth doing in my opinion. (Much to learn, I still have).

For some more thoughts about this in the martial arts, you can look at my article on the concept of fudoshin.

Shadows and Darkness

The book explores, the again, Jungian idea of our Shadow selves, and the extent to which our failure to acknowledge the truth about them can lead to greater problems.

It also explores the ideas of attachment, which is one of the bits of Buddhist philosophy I think is the most interesting and emotionally understand poorly. I would be interested to chat to Allen about this bit some time.

The Sequel

Allen then deals with his attempt to produce a more ambitious version of the course, along with Rory O’Connor and myself. Rory to bring some thoughts about the “Force” into it (or at least real-world parallels) and myself to bring some aikido and potentially some kumi-tachi work too (sword to sword). This isn’t as weird as it sounds since many of these ideas are present in both physical and “normal” interactions and confrontations between people, and sometimes some people can learn through the body more effectively. I roped in John Donaldson, a far superior swordsman to myself, and also something of a Star Wars fan. This was years before John would take to dressing up as a storm trooper or the best Captain Jack Sparrow this side of the Atlantic. Possibly Allen’s second course would have been more successful otherwise.

We did a certain amount of planning for this new version of the course, and everything was good to go, but it was not to be. Things did not proceed as we had foreseen. Allen talks about this and wraps the story to an interesting conclusion, taking the Jedi / Sith conversation to its final conclusion and bringing a nice sense of closure to the proceedings.

But of course, I won’t give away the ending, you’ll have to read the book!

Aikido in Dead Straight Lines

There’s been an elephant in the room on my blog for quite a while now, and it has prevented me completing a number of articles that I have had in draft for some time.

A bit over a year ago, my friend and mentor, Alan Ruddock died. I’ve been trying to articulate what that meant for me, and what I thought about Alan, but I have repeatedly failed. This doesn’t fully resolve that issue, but at least I can put down some thoughts about Alan here now, or at least about Aikido

Disclaimer: this post probably badly needs some photos, and I’ll try to retro-fit that at some point.

I was kindly asked to present an hour at this year’s Galway Aikido Summer School, where Alan Ruddock and Henry Kono traditionally taught together for many years. This year Henry continued with his excellent classes in the morning and other instructors that knew Alan took an hour each in the afternoon. I confess I was a bit daunted by some of the others teaching in these slots, particularly the inestimable Lorcan Gogan of PSAC, with whom I shared a session. When I said to him I would have to follow that, he simply replied “Hey, I had to follow Henry!”. A fair point. But I did find myself more reticent than usual in my teaching style.

I chose to try and present some thoughts that have arisen from Alan talking about his “dead straight line”. That is that Aikido is often thought of as being circular in nature but Alan was keen to stress it was not at its heart.

In Aikido, we often see uke (the attacker) whirled around nage (the defender) in circles. There are beautiful diagrams about this, and allusion to circles everywhere. Our own club is called the Belfast Aikido Circle. So it’s impossible to deny circles don’t appear. Indeed, there are semi-physical, semi-mystical links to squares and triangles too.

But what Alan meant, in my opinion, (all disclaimers apply) is that you always behaved as if you were operating in a dead straight line.

Aristotle believed that objects, in a perfect (celestial) environment travel in perfect circles, but many centuries later, Newton thought otherwise.

A body will continue in its state of rest, or uniform motion in a straight line, unless acted upon by a resultant force.

is better known as Newton’s First Law of Motion. In Aikido terms its consequences are simple, if an attacker comes along a straight line, and is subsequently diverted off that straight line, Force, and Energy has been added by someone. Not in some kind of mystical sense of the use of these words you might see in other places, but in their elementary definitions in Physics. So the Force has been added, the big question then is by whom, followed up by why, and an analysis of the consequences.

Let’s look at the question of “whom” first. In a previous article, I wrote at some length about the spectator problem in Aikido. Sitting at the side lines you can never know for sure just who is doing what to whom. You can see the nage’s hands rise, move or turn, but you cannot know, from outside, whether this is nage initiating these things, or a reaction to uke’s movements and attack.

In fact, we can take it a step further than this and say that at best only the two involved can fully know, since it is entirely possible that neither of them will fully know either. In other words, the problem of “whom” is a really knotty one; it’s altogether possible that no-one knows.

In theory, at the beginning of a “technique” the nage first moves to a position of safety from the immediate attack and then “blends” with the attack. Even this is an over simplification since nage can be more proactive, but let’s set that side for a moment. This moment of initial blending is pivotal. Alan used to tell a story about O-Sensei coming to watch a class of aikido at the Hombu dojo, and after watching, smiling, for some time, he announced “you are all doing a wonderful job, after having your heads cut off.” The analysis of this could be that, especially when facing an armed attack, even if the blend if a bit out, there may be more than a bit of you missing by the time you start your technique.

Aiki means the harmony of ki, or energy, so your blend is the moment where you, and your attacked end in a position of aiki, where both your energies are pointed in the same direction. If the uke’s energy was directed at you in a dead straight line, as it often is, then in theory, you should both be pointing in the same dead straight line.

But this is often not the case. You can immediately see deviation from the straight line. Why is this? From Newton, the answer is obvious, one or both person(s) have put extra force into the situation.

This may have been uke, who immediately realising things are not going as planned, starts to react and often turns towards nage to strike them; this being the case nage has to move off the original straight line too to provide space for uke, and to keep the aiki principle, continuing to move with the uke. If that’s all it is then this is fine. The force and energy being contributed by nage are minimal, it is necessary and sufficient.

But all too often, the honest truth is that as nage, we anticipate the move from uke, or worse don’t even think about it, and just start whirling them around us. It may not be immediately clear why this is a Bad Thing. There are two reasons; one is that the aiki principle has been immediately broken, you are no longer in harmony with the attacker but attempting to direct them. The second is why the aiki principle itself matters; when you inject force and energy into the situation a skilled opponent can make use of it. In fact that’s practically the central principle of aikido. Probably 90% of the time, particularly in training, your opponent may not even notice, so we all get away with it, and we probably never learn.

So here are some thoughts on training to enforce honesty on this.

Try and do some techniques along a straight line on the mats. You’ll need your uke to be initially very well behaved. Don’t even think of it as an attack, imagine that you meet a friend at the gates of a park. You see them as they approach and you walk backwards, then sideways, then alongside them as you extend your hand to shake hands with them. They key here is not to make it a conflict. This is astoundingly easy to do when you aren’t worrying about having your head punched; just practice the naturalness of this first.

Then, as you walk along your straight line, just allow your hand to rise across the line, the analogy I used as if you are pointing at a squirrel in a tree. It’s a simple, gentle irimi-nage that requires a compliant sensible uke who just has to keep walking straight, even into the “throw”.

It’s a silly exercise, and you can play with greatly shortening it, but the big deal is, practising doing the throw along a straight line.

The next phase is to allow your uke to, once every so often (and without prior warning), lifting their free hand and turning to – well – lovingly caress your face shall we say? This changes the dynamic, the uke wants to move off the straight line, and so you have to as well. But the key of this exercise is:

  1. do you actually pull them off the line on occasions where they do not turn;
  2. can you really convince yourself you don’t move off the line with a little extra force?

It may be a useful exercise.

Another example worthy of note is Shomen Uchi, Ikkyo (tenkan). Or that when your opponent tries to strike your forehead, you turn, contact their arm and bring it, and the uke to the ground.

Traditionally this is often done by grabbing the arm as it descends and whirling your uke around you. There can be real consequences to this because their other fist is being whirled around you too. There are other problems too: you can have a tendency to pull the arm so closely into your space that uke can merely step behind you and topple you over their leg. It isn’t a nice fall. It also provides, ironically, a slow descent of uke into the ground, since you provide them with a lot of implicit support.

So try, from the moment of Shomen Uchi contact where your hands meet, to step to the side, and without gripping contact the arm with both hands (the other hand at the elbow). Let your uke continue on their straight line straight forward and downwards. Potentially this is a hard fall, you are providing no force or breaking but just allowing them to sail majestically (potentially teeth first) into the mat. Some care needs be taken with this initially! It is most important that you do not push them down, just act as a ratchet so as they descend they cannot rise.

Again, in real life uke will often start heading towards you early on, trying to recover their balance, and also because in aikido, the tendency for uke and nage to start running around in circles is ever present, and once again, that’s fine, the issue is not to interfere with this, but also not to seek to amplify it by hauling them around.

At an early stage you may find it useful not to grab their wrist; this can, in any case, cause all sorts of postural problems, and once you grab something the urge to pull it in is not far behind.

A suitable training for this can be found at your local Supermarket. Find yourself an empty trolley, and as you move it around, you will probably grip it with both hands and pull in one while you push out the other. If you are really mindful to your body you may notice muscles in your abdomen and spine taking the strain. But then fill the trolley to the brim, you will rapidly discover that this trick is not so easy. It’s also not so wise, your muscles will shriek in protest at you, and if you do this kind of thing with a large opponent you will likely both be unable to move them, and injure yourself trying.

These are some simple thoughts on the Dead Straight Line that Alan used to talk about. There should always be a delicate positive pressure in that straight line in front of you, so that as things move and the gap appears there you will be immediately slot yourself into it. It is the spike in O-sensei’s “Ki” calligraphy; it is the imaginary sword held in front of you that tells you always where you want to go.

Your curved movements are still a succession of Dead Straight Lines.

There is a nice, and relatively elementary parallel from Einstein‘s General Theory of Relativity. The curved paths that objects like planets make, as commented on by Aristotle appear circular and curved, but actually they are Dead Straight Lines (geodesics) through curved space-time. When the Moon travels around the Earth, it does so in a series of Dead Straight Lines so that it keeps missing the Earth and it perpetually falls towards it. If you do decide to have uke orbit around you, then this is the same principle you need to prevent them spiralling into you, complete with their body weaponry.

But anyway, try playing with Dead Straight Line. I hope you will find it rewarding.

Interview with Alan Ruddock and Henry Kono

I spent a pleasant weekend last week in Dublin at Fiona’s Dojo. It was good to see lots of people, including Aureli, who has started up a new dojo in the north west. The course was being given by Alan Ruddock and Henry Kono, and Alan heads the Aiki No Michi, the organisation to which our club belongs. It was a great course, packed since the space is quite small and lots of people showed up, and we had probably the clearest summary of particular Henry’s ideas so far, at least for me. Despite some of Alan’s comments I did feel some of that connected to what I do in Iaido, and it’s something interesting to look at.

Daithi send an email to some folks after the class, indicated that Guillaume had posted some English versions of an interview he had conducted with Henry recently, as well an older interview with Alan. Some nice articles, which show an insight into their practice.