Ways of Learning

A friend of mine is working on a book that gets at the heart of the principles and philosophical side of Aikido. Several of us who have trained in Aikido for many years have been reading and discussing it during the process.

One of the pleasures of this for me is that my friend, who is a philosopher as well as a high-ranking Aikido teacher, is very good at putting into words in both Japanese and English concepts that I understand with my body. That deepens my understanding of Aikido, a valuable thing for me at this point in my life, when my aging joints (not to mention the pandemic) have kept me from training as I would like.

She has also incorporated the spiritual and other influences on Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido, usually referred to as O Sensei, and connected them to the principles in a useful way. The book will be out next year and I will write about it more when it is available for preorder.

She sent a piece today — a last minute addition — and it opened some doors for me into deeper personal thought. This particular piece was on ma ai, which is usually translated as distance, or perhaps as spacing and timing, but is much more complex than that. A lot of what I took from her words today had to do with connection.

In reading, it occurred to me how much I apply that principle, on multiple levels, especially in conjunction with the principle of zanshin, which has to do with awareness.

These are things I know, but rarely put into words despite being, at my core, an intellectual. And that’s because when I took up martial arts — Karate before Aikido along with a bit of Tai Chi — I gave myself over to learning with my body.

That’s true even though one of the reasons I ended up in Aikido was that the best writing on martial arts in English (at least) has been done by Aikido people. I have done a lot of reading about Aikido, but the truth is that most of my core understanding is in my body.

It is often very difficult for me to put that understanding into words that make sense to someone who doesn’t train.

I have made an effort to do so to teach some self defense, because I know that most people are not going to spend many years in a dojo to learn these concepts and I want to spread them as widely as possible. The off-the-mat principles of Aikido are core to living in balance in a complex world.

Also, I hate it that people are scared in situations which should not be frightening.

But it is a lot easier for me to explain my thoughts by using Aikido terms to people who get what I’m talking about. It’s even easier if I just show you physically.

I mean, I can demonstrate using the technique of ikkyo to show why banging at someone’s strong point doesn’t work and also how to shift that into changing their direction without provoking a reaction, but explaining that in words so you can apply it at, say, work, is a great deal harder.

I can see it in the real life situation. I can sometimes even apply it in the real world situation, but telling you how to diagnose it and shift things is something that I find it hard to put into words.

My body’s aware of it — even when the interaction isn’t physical — and I find ways to do it, but those are instincts built into me by years of training.

I’ve never been one to take notes after an Aikido class, though I know people who do and I imagine that it can give you useful information. In all my years of training, I gave myself over to learning with my body, to watching and listening and being aware.

Words can be part of that. One of the best teachers I know has a gift of saying just the right thing when you’re struggling with a technique, using words that open something else up. But those aren’t the kind of words you memorize. It’s the timing of what he said that mattered, not the actual words.

Looking at Aikido in more intellectual terms helps me at this point to understand both what it is that I know and how much I know. But if I did not understand it with my body, that knowledge wouldn’t help me much.

I have frequently said that I have to move to understand something.

I should point out that I did not start with any great talent in movement. I was never flexible physically, even as a kid, and learning physical things by physical process came slowly to me. There is still a great deal I’d like to learn, even as I know I have to work around joints that no longer give me the range of motion I once had and others that hurt if I do something that used to be easy.

I do not say these things as criticism of intellectual pursuits. I am a writer — and in fact, I also write to understand things — and I understand the importance of reading and discussing and writing about important ideas.

In truth, I think the balance between the intellectual and the physical has been of major importance in my life. I am very grateful that I have had the opportunity to explore so many ideas in my life and I would like even more opportunity to pursue those ideas in intellectual conversation.

But I am also very grateful that I managed to take up martial arts as a physical practice without trying to bring my intellectual skills onto the mat. The combination has made me who I am and I like that person.

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