From Old ATM Issues 5

Ukemi – The Foundation of Aikido’s Ethics by Ellis Amdur

This system was taught, as were all pre-modem martial arts, by the teacher taking, ukemi for his students. In this method, the instructor provides the intensity of attack that allows a student to execute the technique at the outer limits of the student’s skill. As the student becomes more adroit, the degree of difficulty of the teacher’s movements also increases, forcing the student to continue to improve.

This method has profound moral implications. The teacher is “at the disposal” of the junior and, in fact, risks injury for the sake of the junior’s learning. Thus, self-sacrifice, the primary ideal of samurai morality, is deeply embodied in this method of training.

When a student of Judo or Sumo throws his or her senior, the response is usually a laugh followed by the request,”Let’s see you do that again.” When a student of Aikido throws his or her senior, however, the senior often becomes angry and explains to the junior what he or she did wrong. Not infrequently, I have seen the senior go on to hurt the junior. Perhaps such seniors fear that it appears to others that the emperor has no clothes.

Aikido practice is unique. Based neither on kata (form) nor on free-style movement, it. rests on an appreciation of how two individuals support and inhibit each other (and themselves) in situations of conflict. How unfortunate then that, as people advance in rank, this conception of the reciprocity of practice is often abandoned!

Certain ideals can be more distracting or obstructive than others. The issue is more about how to “hold” ideals than the ideals themselves – some ideals can bring attachment more easily, seductively, unwittingly, etc. than others. One is of course the ideal of becoming strong. Another is the ideal of taking care of those who have or know less than oneself. In the article, the relevant ideal seems to be the one of becoming “aiki heavy” as one progresses. (Of course others may be moving more “wisely” and consequently having fewer openings, “seeing” more clearly and consequently being more responsive.) In any case, the common implication is that, as one becomes more advanced, it is more difficult for someone who is not as advanced to execute technique on the senior person.

The disconnect is when the person thinks (or the thought is held by other people) that because he has been practicing for a long time, he is advanced; or, that because he is more advanced than person A, then person A should have x degree of difficulty executing a technique on him. Just because a person has spent time doing something, it doesn’t mean he is advanced in any or all dimensions. Just because a person is more advanced than someone else, it doesn’t mean that he is absolutely more advanced than that person nor that the other person will always be the same “distance” behind. (A common thread for both of these misunderstandings is being captivated by oversimplicity.) And, reciprocity, which is mentioned in the article as potentially lost, is inherently complex.

In the case of the short-term (eg one class, one ’round’ of practicing a technique, or even one interaction), do you have the stance of “listening” or grasping what the other person is giving, or do you presume it is a one-way street? Or that you know ahead of time what they’re going to be giving you? Do you have the stance of discovering how the interaction will turn out, or instead have an expectation of how it will or should end? If you have the conception that it should be a one-way street with an expected end, are you investing energy and attention in the other person getting on the same page as your conception, or should (according to you) something already be apparent to and accepted by that person?

In the long-term (eg teacher-student relationship, senior-junior relationship), do you acknowledge your wish for that other person to be more or less close to you in “distance”? If there is margin for error, do you, as far as it is in your control, let them error on the side of being more or less successful with you? and what is your rationale for that course or philosophy of action ie what is the result to be reached by it? How do you want the other person to see you? to see the other people in the group?

In martial arts practice, non-violent people try to develop the strength to distinguish violent responses from the appropriate, non-violent one. That is why Aikido, when properly practiced, can be viewed as a martial art rather than merely as meditation- for-two: proper Aikido practice forces one to face up to the responsibility to protect the cycle of life of which one is a part.

Cultivating the ability to distinguish and discern, related to the cultivation of awareness. On one hand there’s the external eg is that thing dangerous or not? On the other hand, there’s the internal eg what is my feeling, state, or thought process when I see that thing, or see that thing as dangerous?

Also, there may be a categorization of types of groups or schools of aikido. One is where the priority is for people to feel comfortable and happy; the cost is being more susceptible to not seeing or resolving one’s misunderstandings and maintaining some level of inattentiveness. Another is where the priority is for people to become disciplined and cultivate seriousness and concentration; the cost there is to become sensitive (or overly sensitive) idiosyncratically to some things but not others, and conversely numbed to some things and not others.

My experience with people from both backgrounds is that there is potentially an idiosyncratic ability to distinguish that they’ve apparently cultivated, or possibly more accurately, inculcated. “Inculcated” because any person inherently absorbs the worldview and rationale of the group in which they are forming their senses, and end up having a particular “common sense”. Making sense of the world in which they live is an endeavor every person potentially has in front of them, and it is an endeavor that can be done well or poorly, as well as excessively or lackingly.

For most people, if you can form a “common sense” and corresponding distinction of danger/safety, close/far, etc. that functions sufficiently for your world in which you live, then that is sufficient. For some of the more serious people, they choose to take on the task of developing a sense that can account for things that do not appear usually in their world. For both groups, there is the danger of developing a sense that is just short of sufficient, or rather, the stated “sufficiency” and apparent “sufficiency” don’t match in that most people are settling for less than what they say they want (or think they have).

Relative to the topic of distinctions, most people seem to settle for something less than free even in their limited world. That is, even leaving aside uncommon occurrences, people don’t distinguish (and accordingly have the option to respond freely and comfortably) 100% well in their world. So when it comes to a practice like aikido, in which one has the potential to nurture one’s capacity for distinguishing (and becoming better able to respond freely and comfortably), one instead chooses to do the activity so that it fits one’s initial level of freedom and comfort (not to mention sensitivity, attentiveness, energy, etc.)

Those people who would put themselves in the more serious category often tweak their definition of responsiveness so that a) their capacity for distinction stays stable (ie despite “developing” their capacity to distinguish, it stays congruent with their initial capacity to distinguish), and b) responsiveness does not necessarily entail or have as a priority freedom and comfort, often instead engendering efficiency, sparseness, reserved-ness.

One possibility that is often overlooked is the change in one’s distinctions, partly due to changing perceptions and sensitivity, and also due to changes of perspective and the person seeing. Related is change in one’s sense of comfort and potency. For instance, a common view of the development of comfort is for one to develop so that one becomes more accepting of previously uncomfortable situations, thereby expanding one’s “category” of comfort. However, another possibility is for a person to continue to potentially be uncomfortable but become less perturbed or captivated by the discomfort. This latter possibility seems more in accordance with the cultivation of distinction and discernment than the first possibility.


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