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Returning is the motion of the Tao.
Yielding is the way of the Tao.
The ten thousand things arise from being.
Being arises from not being.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 40
Lao Tzu, translated by Gia-Fu Feng

As a kid I used to have an extremely annoying addiction which I was very ashamed of, but struggled with getting rid of. For some reason I could not see at that time I had an extreme need to shake my hands intensively. To add weight to my arms I were holding on to some small sticks. I could be stuck deep in my mind for an hour or so, shaking the sticks, while my mind were chewing on some kind of unconscious pattern.

What was going on in my mind could be anything I were normally thinking anyway, but by letting out the energy by shaking the sticks around I could be submerged deeper. Not allowing myself to physically express the thoughts were a torment beyond imagination, so I spent an hour in my room every day, shaking the sticks.

Barcelona Claes August 2013 Katarina Gullberg

Katate dori tai no tenkan with Claes on the roof of Casa Milà in Barcelona in August 2013. Photo by Katarina Gullberg.

I might possibly have found drumming a natural road to take, but instead I found fitness training. From around the age of twelve, pushups and running were replacing the shaking, and I think it was my first step, unknowingly at the time, to get into a road to gain freedom from my mind. During my training sessions I thought less, and had a deeper sense of joy, not knowing why, but I was naturally changing to a way which made me feel better in daily life.

I saw a commercial for some kind of education on the metro the other day saying: “You decide who you will become”.  It almost cut me in the heart how cold, and wrong in my mind, the common point of view is for who a person is. I believe that we are, and nothing can either add or subtract from that, regardless of what we do, or don’t do, in life. Our achievements can of course be an expression of something, but it should never be mistaken for who we are, in my opinion.

Who am I? This is a subject I have touched a few times (actually a lot of times) in the past, in my posts, and it intrigues me. In my case, I am driven by an urge to solve a problem/sickness within myself, so naturally I tend to focus on this part, hoping to find some kind of solution.

Saku May 2012 Tomas Svec

The Saku Dojo seminar in May 2012 (I was not there). Photo by Tomáš Švec.

In Tao the manifested and the unmanifested are often mentioned as connected opposites. During keiko we often get an idea of what this means, but it is difficult to put into words, somehow. I am not sure if this is a correct way of using Yin and Yang, but in my mind these are behaving in a way that is described by that theory. Yin and Yang is like the sunny side and the shade side of a hill. If we have one, we always have the other. We can’t really increase one and diminish the other, because they rise and fall together.

The manifested is the easy part, because we can easily interact with it. It is physically there. Our body belongs to this realm, and even our mind, representing the hardware and the software of the mind-body system. However, what is the unmanifested? It is something which we normally don’t notice. However, our real Self, not derived from our own mind, the presence behind the thoughts and emotions, who we are in the deepest meaning of the that word (the part that the Ego very often usurps), comes from the realm of unmanifested, in my opinion.

Like I said, these are things I have difficulty with putting into words, because I have a sensation of how it is connected, but only from experiences, mostly on the tatami, and sometimes, during challenging times in life outside the dojo.

Duisburg Johan ten year january 2018 Aikido im Hof Duisburg

From the 10 year anniversary of Aikido im Hof Duisburg, Johan’s class. Photo by Aikido im Hof Duisburg.

Jiddu Krishnamurti said in one of his talks: “When there is attention, there is no centre from which you’re attending“. I found this quote a very neat way to define the difference in state between an Ego-trapped situation, and the free situation where you are able to observe what happens. The observer is not attached to any specific point in the system, and thus we are able to see the whole. So we are from the realm of the unmanifested somehow, while we have a manifested body (and mind). Some teachers use the words dimensions to describe this, but for me that does not fit, as it is something else in mathematics and in physics (where my vocabulary comes from), so I am at a loss for words for it.

This is all very abstract, I know. But how should we approach this practically in the keiko? In the practice we very often have situations where we start moving our free parts, not connected to our partner if the parts connected to the partner is stuck. This could be a situation where we are trapped in the desire to throw the partner, and the very desire is preventing us from succeeding. The movement of our free parts, very often the head (or the hip or shoulder), at a moment when the grabbed part is stuck, is a very clear symptom of this “disease” caused by the Ego.

Sjøholt Marius December 2017

Keiko at Sjøholt with Marius in December 2017.

Let’s assume we are doing morote dori (katate ryote dori) kokyu ho with a very firm grab. Our first movement in the role of tori is to raise our arms, both tori’s held arm and the two arms of uke, holding on. Assuming that we are in the situation of tori in this case, naturally we would not be able (without using leverage, or without being twice as strong as our partner) to move our partner’s two arms with our single arm. That is where normally our head will move, in an unconscious way, during our attempt to lift something heavy by muscle. This is what I would believe the Tao would define as action.

I think the first step, which is extremely fundamental to solving this problem, is to realise this situation. Without a mirror, or a video of ourselves, we might not notice that our free parts are in a involuntary “symptom-showing” movement. What we do notice, however, is that some partners will stay, and we will have to depend on leverage and strength to be able to raise our arm.

The system is quite complex, if we start to analyze it in the way I described above. Uke and tori are both a Yin and Yang system by themselves, with manifested and unmanifested parts. At the same time uke and tori are a Yin and Yang system together. Each of these four parts needs to be able to flow freely for any “correct” shift to be possible. If these are blocked in anyway, anywhere in the system, all we can do is mechanically push and pull each other around on the tatami.

Like I said in a previous post, this might not necessarily be a problem, as we still get the physical exercise, building our posture, and learning about using leverage to make the structure of the physical form of the kata.

Prague Martin December 2009 Pavel Novak

Keiko with Martin at Aikido Karlin in Prague during the seminar with Seishiro Endo sensei in December 2009. Photo by Pavel Novak.

If we are ready to move on from that part, however, we can find something more profound from this. And there are steps. All we have to do is to find them, and be willing to climb them.

0.   Is there a hidden fear for failure?

Yes, it is not a typo, it is step number zero.

So our arm is stuck. Is that a problem for us? Are we suffering because your buddy is fixating our arm to help us study? Does it cause us any physical pain to stand there doing nothing while our friend is holding our arm? If our partner is hurting us we could always communicate to the partner, in a friendly way, that we would prefer a non painful grab in this situation.

If we still struggle with the situation, then we have to search inside ourselves what we want and what is the reason we want that. We could let our partner hold on, and stay for a few minutes, studying our emotions and thoughts during these minutes. We could let our partner hold on firmly while we slowly move our legs sensing the neutral extension and slacking of the muscles in our upper body caused by the shifting of distance to the fixed point. We should notice if our muscles becomes active during any point of this exercise.

To make the situation more extreme we could ask our partner to lift our arm firmly upwards and hold it in a steady position, and we do the same things as before, walking around sensing our body, our mind and our emotions. During this time, can we get some kind of idea of which parts of us are manifested and the unmanifested? The manifested being the body, the mind, our emotions, our ideas for the future, our past, and so on. The unmanifested being the presence behind all the manifested stuff, the awareness which is us in the deepest sense of the word

We could also change the situation so that uke moves around while holding, or even moves tori around (gently) while holding on firmly. Very often it is easier to perceive subtle things when we are not ourselves active. Where do our manifested parts stop, and where do our unmanifested parts continue? We should try to keep our posture, and always stay straight, while letting go of all tension, both in our body, our mind, and beyond. Very often we can see in a person’s eyes if this has happened or not.

The partner holding should of course likewise (as always) observe what is happening inside his/her system during this time, so that we study the situation from both sides.

Are we comfortable with not being able to move our arm? If so, we might go to the next step.

Lillsved Andrea July 2015 Katarina Gullberg

Post keiko with Andrea in Lillsved in July 2015. Photo by Katarina Gullberg.

1.   Adding a temporary movement

Very often we can’t solve a problem directly, so we have to separate it into different parts. One idea is to add a movement to the form, which is not really there in the final kata, but it will help us reach some kind of idea which will be helpful to make the movement required in the “clean” kata.

One of these additions, is already in the previous point, where we added the lifting part, by uke, to make our stress more visible for us. By being aware of our fear, we can transcend it.

Now we could again ask our partner to lift our arm up, and we make the kata (not the basic one but an newly invented one) only to lower our arms until they are hanging straight down. Our idea is to be able to just extending our arm to our hips. The position should be static. Nothing is physically moving, except of course our internal movements inside, which always will be there as long as we are alive.

Prague Franck Jiri October 2014 Aikido Praha Vinohrady

From the seminar with Franck Noël sensei in Prague in October 2014. Photo by Aikido Praha Vinohrady.

We could now add 4 different movements to create flow in the static system:

  1. Stepping away from the partner
  2. Stepping into the partner
  3. Turning from side to side
  4. Sitting down

All of these are now building on the state reached in the previous step, where we have no problem or fear whatsoever with being stuck. If we are still afraid to fail, our Yin and Yang system are stuck, so none of these movements will cause dynamic in our system, because we are clinging on and preventing the turning of the wheels. There is no hole in the middle of the wheel so it is totally fixed to the wagon. Nothing rolls. We are just pushing the wagon around in the mud.

However, if we are free, the partner will also be free, or at least we can affect the partner in a tremendous way towards freedom, because flow on one part causes flow in the other part, just as the sun on one part of the hill will cause a shade on the opposite part of the hill. That is of course also why it is such a huge help to have as many training partners as possible, and to study both in the role as uke and as tori, to “steal” each other’s freedom.

These ways of creating dynamics in the system is also very educational in ushiro ryote dori. However, in the case of ushiro I would exchange number four with leaning forward until the hips and wrists are on the same axis, fixating that axis, and rising again.

This is of course a continuous study of our own system, locating stress, fear and similar emotions caused by our thoughts. By bringing them into the light of our consciousness, we will first of all accept that they are there, and by continuing our repetitions with awareness we will clean up the system so that our “machine” works without any parts stuck in sand.

In my opinion we should be perfectly comfortable with doing this with the added movements before we move on to the next step.

Saku Martin May 2012 Tomas Svec

From the Saku Dojo seminar in May 2012 (I was not there). Photo by Tomáš Švec.

2.   Removing the temporary movement and moving from stillness

As Christian Tissier sensei sometimes says: “What is a solution on one level, becomes a problem on the next“. We now added movement, where there was not. Breaking our own rules, we used leverage to free ourselves from the idea and fear of being stuck. It is a way to present some kind of steps leading in the right direction, avoiding the pitfall of competing and struggling with our partner with strength, to push and pull each other to the floor.

We should now do exactly the same as these four movements, only we do them in the unmanifested, not the manifested world. At first it could work to do it not physically, but only in the mind. However, if the partner is awake, they would not let us move neither with our body nor with our mind. That is kind of the definition of stuck. However, the unmanifested is always free. WE are always free. The only way WE could be stuck is if we believe we are the manifested.

My suggestion is that we try to do the same exercise of lowering the arm without moving our body or our mind, but using the experience and dynamic achieved in the previous point. At first we can use the memory from the four different movements, and trying to find out what is common in all of them, beyond the fact that they all increase or decrease the physical distance to the point where we meet the partner. If we are present we can perceive the movements of our emotions and thoughts as well as our bodily movements.

Vanadis Fabrice September 2018 Mattias Bäck

From the seminar with Fabrice and Helene at Vanadis Aikidoklubb September 2018. Photo by Mattias Bäck.

We keep our axis, our posture and our physical position. A mirror is very helpful, or a third partner who puts a finger on the parts we tend to move, usually the hips and the head. It is also nice if we look at our own eyes in the mirror and check our state of consciousness. Or we ask a partner to let us know when our “eyes stiffens”. That usually indicates that our Yin and Yang system is locked, the cog wheels are not turning because they are stuck in the “sand of the Ego” which tends to stop the mechanism.

From this situation we should check if we can get a sensation of dynamic in the stillness. Usually it happens once we give up. As long as we try to do something we are lost, but once we stop, everything starts.

If we are unable to do this, I would suggest spending more time with the previous steps, or focusing on other aspects of aikdo for a while and return at a later time. It does require a bit of awareness, but every hour spent on the tatami brings us closer to this no matter how we are spending our time. In my opinion there is no wrong way to practice (as long as we don’t get hurt or hurt our partner, or quit, or take a break from aikido). All roads leads to higher awareness.

Lillsved Julia Timofej Ion July 2016 Alexander Minidis

Post keiko with Julia, Timofej and Ion at Lillsved in July 2016. Photo by Alexander Minidis.

3.   Returning to the kata

So returning to morote dori kokyu ho with a basic grab (without lifting and without movement), we should now use our experience in lowering the arm to elevate our arm in exactly the same way.

In Yin and Yang there is never a struggle between good and bad. The sunny side of the hill is neither better nor worse than the shade on the other side. It is just two opposites. It is important to remember this when we are working with our partner. Neither of us is the good guy, and neither of us are the bad. We are just representing opposite sides of the kata.

If we have the dynamic of our own Yin and Yang system, we will inevitably have created a dynamic in our friend’s system, and we will also have a dynamic in our common system. I believe we either have none, or all.

The challenge is of course that when we want to elevate our arms, we will easily associate it with lifting. And in lifting we will put our mind up. We are doing, with our mind, even if we are not physically lifting (because we learned many years ago that it is a mistake) we are still lifting in our mind. The solution is actionless.

Berlin Jorma september 2019 Sara Wang

Tai no tenkan with Jorma 5 seconds after waking up in the morning, in Berlin September 2019. Photo by Sara Wang.

Very, very often we have a partner who indicates some kind of direction, if not in the body, they are pointing the way with their mind. Very often because they expect an action of some sort. Knowing which kata we are practising, they are holding harder, or softer in that direction, depending on the psyche of that partner. Remember that this is not who our partner is. Our partner is beyond the body and the mind. Both the body and the mind are the form, but it is not who the person is. If we have a direction, we could use it. It would be exactly like using timing to make a movement. It is like flowing with the current.

Still, if we have a very aware partner, who is also observing their mind and emotions, the grab will be neutral. I believe this is the best situation for this study, because we can’t use any momentum which is already there to make our movement effortlessly. We could start in any direction, and it will be just as hard, or just as easy.

Another stepping stone which I found useful in the past was to remind myself that it is always a circle. So for something to go up, something else needs to go down. The image of water flowing down on my back side helps me imagine a turning point inside and a elevation in my front, something flowing in under the partner and he/seems to rise by himself/herself. However, one should be careful with these images, because they are in the mind, and it is easy to get stuck in there if we don’t keep at least part of our awareness outside, and staying present in the body, noticing if the grab changes in nature during the path of the form (we are searching for grab conservation throughout the movement).

There is also the idea of starting out in the opposite direction of where you are going, but it is again a limitation by changing the original kata. Any movement needs to starts somewhere, and if we need help with the first movement, we are still stuck. In addition it needs to turn somewhere into the correct direction, and this turning requires another circular motion. So there is a lot of doing, and we are adding things which we have to subtract again at the next level.

Sandakällan April 2020

Sandakällan in Nacka April 2020.

All of these stepping stones are nice to use as portals into a new understanding, or level, but I believe that once we are there, we have to let go of them to look around and see what the situation is around us in the new environment. It is easy to get stuck with strong ideas which was helpful in the past. In the end all of them are actions, which we are seeking to eliminate. And all of them are from the mind, so they are trapping us inside. So all of what I have written here is a product of the mind. We should all beware of it’s pitfalls. The keiko will show us the way.

I believe that what we are looking for in aikido, described in a very simple way, is cooperation. We would like to learn to cooperate with our partner. Our partner might want to compete with us, but we should be able to cooperate with them nonetheless. The partner should receive the satisfaction they were seeking in the competition, but we will be doing the kata with their full cooperation. Both partners should experience joy, in my opinion.

Actually we are not doing the kata. The kata happens as a consequence of a returning movement which was always there, long before tori, uke, the dojo, or the world, existed.

Enjoy your keiko! Aikido makes people happy!