Being substanceless it can enter
even where there is no space;
That is how I know the value
of action that is action-less.

From Tao Te Ching, Chapter 43
By Lao Tzu, translation by Arthur Waley

Have you ever experienced being stuck? We can be stuck both as tori and as uke. Very often there is a lot of emphasis on the situations where tori is stuck, and not so much of the reflection of that situation in uke. Very often we are not really stuck, in the literary definition of stuck. Because we can change directions and do something else, going around our problem; or we can structure our body to solve the situation by mechanical leverage; or some of us can even muscle our way out of most situations.

Tai no tenkan with Marius at the Halsafjord ferry in December 2019.

These solutions are of course also useful. By changing forms we learn to be flexible and adaptable to be able to immediately change the form of what we are doing to find the path of least resistance; by using leverage we structure our body in a good way, building our posture as well as understanding the technical parts of the kata; or even if we are using physical force we have a physical work out with our partner.

Still, I find it very interesting to study the moment where we are “stuck”. This moment contains a truth which can be a stepping stone to the next level. And like I mentioned at the beginning, when we are stuck, both parts are stuck. There is never a situation where only one is stuck, although it is presented in that way very often. The reson for this is probably historical, with the art coming from a perspective of fighting, where it is the one’s sole responsibility to solve any situation which is encountered, and the other is just an obstacle in the way, not really included in the practice in the way we do today.

Very often the solution is more a mental one rather than a physical one. Even though for the first thousands of times it is also physical things which are changing. As we progress the physical form does not change much any more (of course we can decide to practise something else, but if we try to do the same form but naturally at a higher level), but we have arrived at the core, which is our mental state.

Tai no tenkan with Christian Tissier sensei in Helsinki in March 2020. Photo By Nadezda Boltaca.

I used to study physics in my youth. It was a rather big part of two decades of my life, dominating how I were thinking, and it still does. Knowledge, is what it is, you know. It creates possibilities to see certain things, but it blocks us from seeing other stuff. Even before I started practising aikido, I heard Bruce Lee saying that we should be like water, in his famous quote. He was very expressive in the video, and it made a strong impression on me. Flowing everywhere, into every crack and taking any form. There is always an opening big enough for water to enter, and it will flow into the space there, and fit into any shape. Many, many of my teachers in aikido has used the image of water. It is a good image and I like it.

However, water has substance. One liter of water requires one cubic decimeter of space. You can’t get around it. Even by immense pressure you can hardly compress water, at all. Ok, then we can of course evade the problem by thinking of a gas instead, which can be compressed, but water or gas is not the problem. The problem is the problem.

Very often I find when I am stuck, both as uke and as tori, that there are maybe some openings, but there is no space inside those openings, and what I am trying to push in there has “substance” so it does not fit in the space inside. What is this “substance”? Why do I experience being stuck? Even if I try to adapt the quality of flowing water? Maybe water can flow around the rock without any problem, but it can’t flow through the rock, and sometimes, in aiki, and in healing works, we need to be able to flow through the barrier to let stuff happen.

Tai no tenkan with Daniela and Jaroslav, at their wedding in Orava in November 2019.

I believe that the “substance” is Ego.  The Ego always wants to DO something (because if nothing is done, and it appears as it happens by itself, there will be nothing for the Ego to take credit for). Our presence containing desire has substance and will be contained within the limits, while presence free from desire can reach beyond. At least in my experience, the times when the “magic” happens, is when it seems like nothing is being done (neither by me nor by my partner). Action that is action-less. What is that? It is a contradiction of itself, you know?

Lets look at three different exercises we do. Shomen uchi suburi, aiki age and tai no tenkan.

  • If we make shomen uchi suburi with a bokken, of different weights, we will of course do something. We lift the bokken above our head and let it drop in a cutting motion, stopping it at the horizontal level. There is no partner. Only wood, gravity and all our internal struggles. How we make the suburi changes as we continue to practise, over the years. We subtract, and subtract from what we are doing. Different axises start to develop, and parts which were earlier moving around are now stationary. The way we hold the bokken is different from the firs time we picked it up. It is almost part of us, whereas in the beginning it was a foreign object. The repetitions polish our movement and our mental state, making it more and more clean from pollution. We are doing less and less. Still we are doing the suburi.
  • The same goes for aiki age. We find a partner and he or she is grabbing our arm or we grab his or hers, and we raise our arms. We have the same challenges as in the suburi, but now we have two bodies, two Egos, a lot of possibility for creating a big mess. I believe we should attempt to use the state we received from the suburi to find the idea of doing less and less also with the partner. However, the Ego will naturally receive a lot more attention now, as we have a partner, with his/her own Ego. Whatever we do together, both have to accept, or it will not happen. Because we are restricting ourselves from going outside the form completely, or partly by using leverage, and by deciding to not just lift harder when we reach one of the difficult spots. So every time there is an interference from the Ego we will see it, and we have a chance to change our state. Also here, we are subtracting and subtracting from what we are doing, but we are still raising the arms, so it is not non-action.
  • Let’s also take a look at my very favourite kata in aikido: katate dori tai no tenkan. This is a much more complex movement than the previous two. It really gives us a possibility to construct an artificial conflict for us to study. Both partners should have good positions throughout the form, with perfect integrity of the body and no exposed parts from start to finish. This is a perfect situation for studying how to use this actionless activity, because really, if we both have the perfect form, there is no space to enter. And if we, technically, try to create a space to enter, we kind of have to make an agreement with our partner, that we should let it happen so that we can make the movement, so the partner have to accept the opening of the space, which she/he normally would not. However, if we agree to not accept, what then? And it was even the same with the aiki age, but with tai no tenkan it is just more apparent.

After keiko mutual kill, with Marius and Rachel in Trondheim in January 2020.

And with all exercises we keep doing the actual exercise, but we are studying non-action. All the practice can be used to study this, but we are doing something. However, what all of the exercises are pointing towards is some kind very high quality state which I do not really understand.

Presence is without substance, and love (and do not mistake it for biological drive), and aiki. Maybe these three are the same thing in the end? All of these can flow anywhere unhindered no matter what stands in the way. Our will to do something has “substance” and will be stopped, if there is no space for whatever we want to do.

What is action? To understand non action or actionless activity we should maybe consider what an action is? Usually, in one way or another an action is making something greater, at the cost of something else. Actionless activity should then refrain from this, thus maintaining the balance of the system. Everything happens naturally, without any force.

Post keiko pile at Vanadis Aikidoklubb with Radoslav and Klaus. Photo by Alvaro Campo.

I believe that all our exercises can work as road signs towards something like this. They are not actionless activity themselves, but they lead the way towards a state of high quality.

Even cleaning the dojo points towards this. Nothing is as meditative and healing as removing physical stuff from our place of practice. As we remove the dust from the tatami, our mind settles down and clears up. It is by action that we learn non-action, by removing a little bit, every day.

Enjoy your keiko! Aikido makes people happy!