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Once you have disidentified from your mind,
whether you are right or wrong makes no difference
to your sense of self at all,
so the forcefully compulsive
and deeply unconscious need to be right,
which is a form of violence,
will no longer be there.

Eckhard Tolle – The Power Of Now

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Rolle’s 74th birthday, November 2019. Daito Ryu Aiki Jiu Jitsu Roppokai in Björkhagen. Photo by Jan Lien.

In aikido we have two parts we “play” together, kind of like a performance. Very similar to two actors performing a play at the theatre, or in front of the cameras, doing their best to make it the perfect scene; or two musicians playing two different instruments together stretching their skills to make it perfect. In both situations they are striving together to reach perfection technically, and to transmit emotions, both between each other, and to the people who are listening to their music, or watching the scene in the movie or at the theatre.

In aikido we might most of the time be less concerned about the transmission of emotional content to the spectators, but otherwise our performance of the parts are very similar. The technical stuff we are focusing on is of course different in the three situations, but the main idea remains, we work together with the partner to further our skills and try to reach higher and higher level together.

The special part about aikido is that after four repetitions, we change the roles with each other, performing the opposite part than the one we did before, and we continue changing roles every four times. In addition we change partners every seven or eight minutes or so, performing the same “piece” with as many people as possible.

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Keiko with Rachel and Tor Magnus at Trondheim Aikidoklubb in August 2019.

This is one of the most difficult concepts to explain to people who never did aikido before, because for most people the word “martial arts” or “budo” is equivalent with self defence, fighting, or competition, or all three at once. And it is just takes a look at a comment section at a YouTube video on the subject to know that the misconception that the practitioners are fighting each other is a very, very common one. “It does not work on the streets”, “it is fake”, “the attacker is not making resistance so it is worthless”. There are countless statements of this nature.

Well, you don’t see so often that people complain about the musicians lack of effort in trying to sabotage the music for each other when they perform a song together (so it is fake music, right?), or two actors not trying hard enough to make the other look bad. It is a rather unusual comment about music and about actors in a movie, but about the exact same situation, with aikido, these are quite common comments when somebody unfamiliar with aikido is watching.

The human mind is always trying to label and categorise everything we perceive, diminishing and simplifying it down to a simple combination of vowels and consonants (a word), and throwing away everything else about what we perceive. It is perfectly natural that people who never did aikido will compare it to other things which look similar for them, putting aikido in the same category.

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Tai no tenkan at home, in the kitchen, with Anders in January 2018.

Even, some people doing aikido, and have been practicing for some time, are still stuck in this way of thinking, just because they have been trapped by a word. A combination of vowels and consonants are defining their opinion about what aikido is. I strongly believe the biggest problem for aikido in the world today is due to this misconception of what aikido is. Because we are labeled in a category that does not describe what we are doing, at all, we are competing for our members in our clubs, with the arts who are really doing the stuff which is the mental conception of the man, woman and child in the street of what aikido is. Which, in my opinion, it is not.

Anyway, it was a slightly different subject I was planning to write about today. It is a ting which is easier seen when it happens to somebody else than when it happens to ourselves.

When we identify with our mental position we are in a way walking in a dangerous territory, because we will have the fear of death associated with being wrong. I find that by taking ukemi we are performing an exercise in letting go of our mental position. In my opinion, the word “attack” is very misleading in modern aikido, as it is leading our mind into labelling the situation as fighting. However, in the lack of a more suitable word we are using it.

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Keiko with Silje at Trodheim Aikidoklubb in January 2019.

So when we are attacking, our intention is to initiate the interaction with our partner, which is the beginning of the kata which we are practising together. If we are at all associating the ukemi with loosing, or defeat, or death, we will maybe even without knowing it, fall back into competition with our partner.

In an argument we can state clearly what our opinion is, and present how we perceive the situation, and our logical reasoning for our opinion. The usual problem is that we are so identified with our mind, emotions and mental position that we are trapped into a set of conditioned mental reflexes, and start fighting for our life. For the Ego (the mind made fake identity), the loss of the argument is equivalent with death, and we are suddenly in a conflict, with our friend. If the conflict is on a small scale, there might be hurt feelings, or even physical violence amongst the parts; on a larger scale there could be a war, and millions could die.

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Keiko at Stockholm Aikikai in February 2019. Photo by Jacqueline von Arb.

I think ukemi is a great exercise to practice letting go of the attachment to our mental position, and find a sense of self which is rooted deeper inside of us. Something more solid, which is not a mentally constructed fake self, but our real identity. We grab, or strike, or whatever the kata requires from our part, and try to make the best possible performance of that part, to make the whole perfect for just that situation, with that partner, at that time.

If we get stuck in our idea that we should try to “win” in the situation as uke, we have fallen into the trap of identification with a mental position. It can happen very easily in our life outside the dojo, it is more difficult there, but it can even happen during our keiko. In that case we are not really making any choices any more, but merely acting out primitive mental reactions.

Once we realise this we are “waking up”, into a new level of consciousness. However, we are usually to far submerged in the situation as it happens to see anything. If we have a high level of awareness we realise it after, if we analyse the situation. If we are totally unaware of our mental reactions we might never realise this.

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Post keiko moment after practice with Dominika and Rado at Aikido Kobukan Bratislava in December 2019. Photo by Radoslav Tmak.

I believe that our keiko should be an exercise in being able to get to a higher level of consciousness also outside the tatami. The challenges will be harder there, much harder, because there are not only two roles, and we are doing much more diverse things in our interactions with other people than the few katas we are practicing in the keiko, but the idea is the same.

And it really does not mean that we will have less of a chance to present our mental position in a way that makes sense to the other. Quite the contrary in fact. Once we have become free of the identification with our mental position, and are free of the triggered reactions and reflexes dictating to us how to act. We can see the mental position of the other, and find a way to explain our way of thinking in a way that makes sense to them. You know, instead of labelling them “the enemy”, and trying to get rid of them in any way we can. Kill them if we are able to, and can get away with it.

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Keiko with Rachel at Vanadis Aikidoklubb in June 2019.

Why are all of these things so hard? Why do we keep identifying with our thoughts, emotions and mental positions, even after we know that it makes us act like fools when we do?

The Ego need us to identify with something (anything) to have any power over us, and the entity which we call the Ego have a strong will to protect itself to survive. The power of the Ego is depending on our lack of awareness and presence. Once we are aware, we can see clearly what is going on inside of ourselves, and in the situation outside. However, we will continuously fall back into what Eckhard Tolle calls “unconsciousness”, where we are mindlessly (ironic expression as we are actually totally identified with our mind in this state) following the conditioned reflexes of our mind.

Sometimes we practise with people who have injuries; sometimes we practise with people with a rather far advanced age; sometimes we practise with pregnant women. In many cases we might have a partner who can’t take ukemi physically, and there are times we are the one who can’t perform the fall. After some years of practice I think we all will experience this, at some point in our lives. However, I don’t think this matters at all.

There is a huge difference between somebody who can’t go down, for whatever real reason, and somebody who is trapped in a mentally constructed prison of ideas. In one case we can just modify the physical form of the practice, in the other it turns into a conflict no matter how we adjust the outer form. In both cases it is impossible to change from the position of the tori. However, it can act as an inspiration to not fall into the same trap ourselves. We will not as easily see it when it happens to us, so it is great to be able to observe it happening in our partners, to gather information and check for warning signs of any defensiveness and aggression connected to our position.

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Tai no tenkan with Mark in Berlin in April 2019. Photo by Daniel Jonasson.

Of course this goes for the role of tori as well. Very often the defensiveness of one is triggered by the aggressivity of the other, and this could happen in any role of the interaction. I just focused on the uke part just now, because it brings out the idea more clearly. However, it can be applied to both roles in the keiko.

To stay present, and be aware of the activity of our mind is actually a prerequisite for enjoying the keiko, I think. If we don’t, it can actually lead to some serious conflicts, which causes fear, anger, resentment and hostility, but in that case, in my opinion, it is no longer aikido, but merely something much less developed and refined, more primitive in nature: fighting.

Enjoy your time on the tatami! Aikido makes people happy!