Aikido: An Academic’s Perspective

When I started aikido classes in December of 2008, one thing that I was initially drawn to was the philosophy explained in the introductory class—neutralizing without causing harm to the attacker or attacked.  I was also drawn to the idea of getting out of my comfort zone—previously, I’d only done armed, mostly sword, arts—but not too far (since the school I saw and stuck with does a fair bit of sword and short staff work).

I stayed because I enjoyed the people and the practice.  And I saw, over time, changes in my awareness and in other areas.

The longer I’ve been with the art, training and sometimes lightly instructing, the more I think another key reason that I like aikido, and the school I’m with in particular, is that it has many parallels to my academic and professional training.  Some, but not all, of the principles that I see as being key to good aikido are adaptability, movement options, and awareness of the little things.

Adaptability

For me, and this is not necessarily true for all aikidoka, I find that an important element of aikido is adaptability.  This comes in a couple forms.  First, if a technique is not working, the nage (thrower) may need to alter their technique, from little detail parts to major positioning or movement elements.  Likewise, the technique may not be working because uke (the thrown) moves or responds in a different way, or doesn’t respond, in which case flowing into a different technique may be called for.  Second, every aikidoka needs to adapt to ukes with different heights, sizes, ranges of flexibility, in short different body types.  And degrees of energy—fast, slow, hard, soft—in attacks.

I find this emphasis on adaptation, or at least a need for adaptation, in my professional life.  In teaching and, even more, tutoring, the educator needs to adapt to different students.  Each student grasps certain concepts faster or better than others.  One example or analogy may click with four students, but not with three others.  Seven students may come to a tutor with the same assignment, but one needs help with organization, while another needs to work on grammar, and the third has written an “argumentative research” paper that has no thesis (the most important element).  Adaptation is of particular importance, for me, in tutoring.  In any given eight hour day (sixteen sessions), I have had days where I saw sixteen students, with twelve different assignments, from eight different fields (ex. composition, biology, nursing, psychology, philosophy, business, history).  Needless to say, thinking on the fly and changing (styles, formats, citation formats, etc.) rapidly is of utmost importance.

Movement Options

In aikido, many of my instructors from new shodan all the way up to the top leaders of our national organization have emphasized the importance of not focusing on the point of contact.  They stress the need to remain aware of what else can move.  For example, if the wrist is trapped in a strong grab, it may not be mobile; however, the elbow, hips, and legs, for instance, can still move.  Each of those creates different options for changing the line of strength, escape, techniques, or otherwise resolving the problem.  But, focusing on the point of contact (the grabbed wrist) limits motion and can make the situation more difficult or impossible to resolve.

This, in many ways, reminds me of my academic training.  In particular, cross-disciplinary studies come to mind.  For example, my literature dissertation involved literature, history, theology, psychoanalysis, and a bit of law.  If any one of those was missing, the whole piece would not work as well or in the same way.  Likewise, in teaching writing, we often encourage our students to consider, understand, and present counter-arguments.  There are many reasons for this, but a key one is to show the reader that the writer has considered many options and chosen their particular view as the best (rather than being blindered).  This availability of options is also the philosophy underlying the liberal arts education system as a whole.  We argue that having a broad range of knowledge, including at least introductory familiarity in a number of fields, is helpful to the individual, thus the required coursework outside an individual’s field of study.  Why is this important?  Because training in each academic field is really training in a particular style of thinking and approaches to problem solving, ex. a biologist, a psychologist, and a sociologist are all going to approach the same situation or question differently.  Being aware of different options, of how different fields think, can help the individual look at problems in their own field differently.

Awareness of Details

Over the last decade in aikido, I’ve often told new students, “If it looks easy, it’s not.  If it looks hard, it is.”  Part of this difficulty of the art is that, often, changing a minor detail in a tiny way can make a huge difference in technique.  Sometimes this means nage turning their hand over, or opening their hand, or breathing, or pointing a finger.  These, hundreds of, tiny changes can individually have an enormous impact on the ease, power, and energy use of a given technique.

Similarly, over two decades of writing, studying language, and teaching/tutoring writing have shown me that the little details in writing—spelling, syntax, punctuation, grammar—can make a huge and significant difference in the written word.  These seemingly tiny things can greatly affect meaning (ex. “my parents, Bob and John” vs. “my parents, Bob, and John”), effect on the audience (ex. use of the word team vs. gang vs. class), effectiveness of the piece, quality of the piece, and engagement of the audience.

All of this is simply from my perspective, my experience, and my understanding of both aikido and my academic background.  This is not necessarily true for all aikidoka, or academics, or academic aikidoka.  Everyone’s academic experience is different.  Everyone’s aikido experience, and technique, is different (what works for me won’t necessarily work exactly the same for someone smaller or bigger).  Everyone’s reason for studying both is widely different.

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Letting Go of the Stick: Ego and Attachment

In aikido, we have a practice called jodori, or staff taking. Similar principles appear in sword taking (tachidori) and knife taking (tantodori). In these practices, it is very easy for the two training partners to turn the exercise, the technique, into a wrestling match over the stick. Neither is willing to relenquish their hold on the staff, bokken, or tanto as they struggle to retain control.

On the surface this becomes a battle of muscle or leverage.

Beneath the surface, though, it is a battle of ego. The mind, ego, says, “It is my stick. As long as I am holding it, I win.”

That is not, necessarily, true.

Rather, it is better to release the stick, to let it go. At some time, this may be physically letting go of the staff, but more often it is a matter of removing the ego’s attachment to the stick. Releasing the ego’s hold on the stick keeps the body from clamping down, from becoming static, a fixed point. Releasing the ego’s hold on the stick allows the body to move, to flow, to reposition, to act . . . and that way lies “victory” and “winning” . . . that way allows the aikidoka to reposition and execute a throw (which may strip the staff, sword, or knife from the opponent’s hands, or may send the opponent across the mat or to the floor still clutching the stick).

In training, I find that I am at least moderately good at this, probably because I cannot out-muscle most of my training partners.

Off the mat, out of the dojo, I need to work on applying this to life in general.

For instance, for a long time I held that the one who had the last word in a debate or argument was the winner. That was ego talking, being attached to control, to “winning”. This is not true though. Sometimes, the “winner” is the one who is willing to let go of the debate, to release attachment, to walk away, to move on with life.

Social media, despite its benefits, I think, makes ego attachment much easier. Not necessarily for the reasons commonly cited (tweets or such about where someone is or what they’re eating), rather for likes, reblogs, retweets, and all the other little numeric metrics social media is rife with. They create something measurable that ego can attach itself to, a stick by which ego can measure itself against others, if one becomes attached to the numbers.

A Zen koan comes to mind as well:

Two traveling monks reached a river where they met a young woman. Wary of the current, she asked if they could carry her across. One of the monks hesitated, but the other quickly picked her up onto his shoulders, transported her across the water, and put her down on the other bank. She thanked him and departed.
As the monks continued on their way, the one was brooding and preoccupied. Unable to hold his silence, he spoke out.
“Brother, our spiritual training teaches us to avoid any contact with women, but you picked that one up on your shoulders and carried her!”
“Brother,” the second monk replied,
”I set her down on the other side, while you are still carrying her.”

(Swiped from  http://goto.bilkent.edu.tr/gunes/ZEN/zenstories1.htm)

Voice and Authority (part 2?)

A sort of add-on to my last Writing post:

The question of authorial voice, tone, genre, and the like also gets into one’s adaptability as a writer.  This is, really, one reason I quoted Darwin and Morehei Ueshiba (O-sensei) for writing earlier, even though they were discussing natural selection and aikido respectively.

Being able to adapt to different tones and perspectives is a very important skill in writing, I think.  It may also be required, depending on the writer’s situation.  I’m likely biased here, thought, since I’m a fan of adaptability over all, which is one reason I’m a big fan of liberal arts education (but that’s another story and post) and aikido (an apocryphal quote from an anonymous aikido sensei goes, “Your mistake was assuming there are rules”).

Acquiring experience writing in different genres and undertaking different types of writing helps improve one’s writing.  Likewise, reading both in quantity and variety is helpful for writers.  On one hand, both practices enhance vocabulary.  Reading also exposes the reader to different styles, voices, and methods.  Reading a variety of works also exposes the reader to myriad subjects, positions, and points of view, from which synthesis and new solutions and ideas are born.  I’ve also found in the last decade of teaching that those who read a lot tend to write better over all.

All of the above should ultimately bring us back to authorial voice, tone, genre, and perspective.  Why?  Because through practice and reading, the developing writer’s (and we are all developing writers, no matter how experienced) voice and style, even writing and pre-writing method(s) evolve.

(By evolve, I do not necessarily mean to imply steady improvement or advancement, but rather evolve in the biological sense of adapting to better suit one’s environment.  And this is a good thing.)