… Saotome Sensei has three significant points that he consistently made about “connection”:
1) enabling the flow of ‘ki’
2) removing expectations, and
3) discovering ‘aiki’.
Second, in my personal instruction by Sensei, I was many times scolded to attack with no expectation, no plan, and no idea of what ukemi I should be taking. There was a period in my training where Sensei would incrementally make my ukemi more and more difficult by changing his response to my attack at the last possible moment, switching up the throw in mid-technique, even adding another technique while I was “mid-air” falling from his first nage. Saotome Sensei has said that the purpose of ukemi is “to prepare the student for receiving knowledge”, and if I had an idea of what was going to happen I would fail to receive the lesson he was trying to give me. Cultivating a sincere attack means intentionally “forgetting” what technique nage is practicing, each time, and holding nothing back to “save yourself” from the likely outcome. The only way out is through; the ukemi that comes from each technique should be spontaneous, completely committed, and with an utter investment of awareness that at any instant things may change. This is true for nage as well. Thus, the connection should be filled with a deeply focused awareness free of expectation.
Finally, Sensei has said that the goal of both uke and nage is to discover aiki. Sensei uses the term “ikkyo” to describe the moment of meeting, in which both uke and nage discover each other for the first time. “Would you try to apply yesterday’s technique to today’s attacker? Each attacker is unique, each attack is unique.” Unfortunately, we all become programmed as beginners that uke has a job to do (to resist, stop, or defeat nage), and nage has a job to do (to overwhelm uke); we feel we have succeeded in our training when we accomplish these goals. Sensei says there is no room for aiki to happen in this type of relationship, only waza (technique) and contention. In contrast, Sensei defines Aikido as the art of discovering harmony with the forces of nature and the universe; that means that an important part of the successful manifestation of aiki requires something more than ourselves. I understand this to mean it is important for both uke and nage to “redefine success”; instead of trying to defeat an opponent, success is achieved when a spontaneous moment of aiki surprises both uke and nage. Success is shared between uke and nage, and requires both of them to create. “Discovering aiki” means that both uke and nage must approach each attack/technique with a sense of anticipation, as if both are holding a lit firecracker. Within the connection is aiki, a gift which can be allowed to manifest and be celebrated, or crushed out and abandoned because of one’s own need to win.”
Guy sensei describes what I appreciate about Saotome Sensei’s teaching regarding connection. It allows us to be open to new information, and flexible in our movement. There are no preconceived notions, and no reliance on fixed technique. His approach to studying connection requires development of freedom to sense and receive signals from our partners. It facilitates creativity and surprise. That way technique is never stale.
Having no expectation and discovering each moment are goals/guidelines I agree with. In fact, I think they are the central goal of attaining no-mind and doing a “do” practice. However, as for how to attain such a goal, nowadays I am very much on the side of traditional forms practice, in which a person practices a very specific form over and over, striving to go through the process of becoming free and attaining no-mind. From the outside, I would be the first to agree that that kind of practice must look very set and limited, and even overly cooperative.
However, I think that there is a significant amount of room in which to experiment and push boundaries. It is largely mental/internal. The way that Saotome sensei’s way of presenting this is directed toward very advanced people. It is a teacher or senior person’s intervention to challenge a person’s expectations and lack of freedom. At times, it is fitting.
If a person who is still needing to consciously consider the right/wrong aspects of the forms, then it would be very inefficient and misguided to try to do things with no expectation. The person should really be trying to learn good habits and practicing to concentrate with less and less mental tension and refining their sense. If a person is well on their way of embodying good habits and responses, and is well able to concentrate with little mental tension, they are more and more free and closer to being themselves. For that person, of course they should challenge themselves, perhaps beyond what their normal everyday practice environment does. As Saotome sensei himself said, his job at seminars is specifically to do things out of the ordinary, to challenge us. I wholeheartedly agree. What he does should just be an opportunity for assessment, a reality check. Can our normal, everyday practice be extended to what he does at a seminar? Or does it feel like something entirely different?
The fundamental process of becoming expectation-free has a few pieces that I think can start early and probably continue forever. In this respect, I believe Endo sensei directs us to a core question (though he, also, speaks of many things, rarely clarifying that they are more advanced practitioners): “What is happening in the here-and-now? Why? Is X really happening? Perhaps I should observe more carefully.” Endo sensei further gives two instructions that I continue to consider core: 1) concentrate and relax and 2) be supple.
Regarding the martial character of our practice, in the above excerpt, the students are instructed to approach each interaction as if holding a firecracker. This sense of danger and necessity are valuable. For Endo sensei, I think it is unspoken but true for him also, although in his case the motive contains a strong element of curiosity and meaning-seeking.
Here, I would interject the importance of ambition and, relatedly, competitiveness. When both nage and uke cooperate to complete a kata, they are both using and leaving alone specific elements, such as openings, space, timing, etc. If it is predictable and safe (e.g., it is a dojo where only specified forms are practiced or that they each know that the other person will only do the form), then the elements that are left alone are not simply left alone but may be neglected. This way of executing the form would be without the firecracker, no danger, or curious meaning-seeking piece, no searching or examination just because everything is going well.
How does competitiveness and ambition figure into this? When doing a form, we are making some effort to realize a specific movement or certain interaction with partner. We could call that effort, “ambition”. One may not be able to realize that ambition whether it’s because of partner’s lack of competence or cooperation, or because of one’s own mistaken grasp of the situation or lack of ability. A central point here is that every person, both in nage and uke roles, is presumably grasping the situation imperfectly. Accordingly, each person’s task is to polish their ability to see and grasp as well as reflect on their ambition that arose. “Why is it hard to ‘just’ do the movement? Why and how did I become trapped in a ‘do it now! this way!’ compulsion?” By continually working at the same forms, we can work on observing and noticing, and thereby becoming free our ambition, our conscious effort, our efforts to do what doesn’t fit, and refining our sensitivity to the here-and-now. This brings us gradually closer to being without expectation and appreciating the actual reality of the moment and just “being”. This process can occur for both nage and uke with no emphasis observing, noticing, mindfulness, but not necessarily on danger.
As uke in particular, because one is “just following” and not in the role of determining how things will go, it is a big opportunity to practice “no-mind” and the role of ambition is important. As uke, various expectations, ambitions, together with an imperfect grasp of the situation may lead me to go too far ahead or fall too far behind, press in when something won’t go any further or disconnect from something just because it moves, etc. In the initial (long) stages of refining one’s ukemi, perfectly fitting the situation – by not thinking, not having expectations, and increasing sensitivity – is a very appropriate goal. Furthermore, there is predictability, and consequently safety and reassurance in forms practice. This should give uke all the more “space” and opportunity to work on working on the self, as opposed to other, aspects.
Since uke and nage’s respective ambitions may be in conflict with each other, competitiveness enters the equation. If one person is aware of the others’ conflicting ambition, then they encounter their own competitiveness also since they are still trying to reach a certain goal yet someone is trying to prevent that. In an ideal world, nage responds to uke’s conflicting ambition with a change in technique that fits. Or uke responds to nage’s conflicting ambition by changing and making possible whatever nage wants to do. For the most part these is not possible because a) there is not enough physical room to make this adjustment, b) there is the task at hand, which is to execute the given form at that moment, and c) there are physical/athletic and physiological limitations. Also, a person’s ambition may simply be unrealistic. If nage adapts well and does something outside of the prescribed technique, uke may not respond appropriately, whether due to physical ability or some attachment to their ambition. This lack of response may increase the danger to uke. So, the only way for nage to deal with this and remain within the practice situation is to accept failure.
The non-competitive aspect of aikido practice is such a gift! We are allowed to fail and continue studying the same thing! Of course, the rub is, can you perceive things in terms beyond success and failure? Most people get caught up in the failure of their ambition. They use the opportunity of aikido’s repetitive practice to just “keep working at it, give it another try”. Thus, mentally observing one’s attachment to success and ultimately becoming able to let go of success/failure is crucial, as is studying the how and why of the interaction with uke. With less and less attachment to success, nage can simply do what fits the situation and fail when it becomes impossible. Failing and trying can lead to becoming able to realize alternatives, whereas struggling and fighting to succeed futilely cultivates more attachment and fixation. Refining a skill or craft is tricky, because one must inevitably start on this path of attachment to results and improvement, just not be captive to it.
In principle, introducing competitiveness into the interaction should increase some risk and danger because now we have consequences. What happens when one does something arbitrarily and selfishly? Of course one possibility is the partner dealing with it and doing all the work to put things back on track. But if we don’t allow that to be our main approach, less cooperation should help people learn about risk and openings/weaknesses, that is, the “bu” aspect. Openings/weaknesses are what occur when one is continuing with attachment or ignorance/not-noticing while the other person is freer and more viable. Practicing with overly cooperative partners doesn’t lead to better noticing, better sensitivity, and one remains ignorant of openings/weaknesses. So, it is perhaps most beneficial to practice the forms specifically, deeply, and thoroughly while maintaining an awareness that the form at the moment doesn’t have to necessarily be the only way the interaction can occur.
Uke can not cooperate and make nage’s action difficult in various ways. This includes ways that are not threatening to nage – they simply thwart nage’s efforts, not to take over and gain the advantage, nor to present danger to nage. Of all the teachers I have met, most of them do not view this type of uke behavior as worthwhile to train or cultivate. It is done only by people without “sense”. While often confusing and ambiguous, the actions to thwart nage to some degree should be expected in uke’s behavior, however unintentional. Conversely, uke increasing the difficulty for nage within the confines of doing one form, or doing aikido forms, is a skill in itself. Increasing the possibility of taking over and gaining the advantage while fully interacting within the form at the moment is not easy.
In more advanced stages, one is simply trying to act (e.g., do ikkyo) to truly fit the situation while being very perceptive and without ambition. That person’s grasp of “fitting” is very refined and precise, and does not get caught up in whether the other person is intending to do this or that. Every moment is spontaneous and fresh. The need to remember one is handling a firecracker becomes less and less necessary. As well, one is more accepting of non-threatening, thwarting actions as there is less preoccupation with categorizing a situation as dangerous or not.
IKEDA SENSEI’S APPROACH:
Ikeda Sensei frequently uses the term “unity”. He devotes a great deal of his teaching to establishing Aiki between nage and uke. He emphasizes the importance of connecting energy with that of our partner at the first moment of contact. Ikeda Sensei talks about a line of connection with no slack. That “tight line” allows nage and uke to move together. When it’s absent, we miss the principle of Aiki, and are just relying on a good will of uke to take the fall. We are performing a technique on our partner, instead of moving together.
The above, about the difference between overly cooperative practice and practice that has the right amount of competitiveness, is a lot to explain and even then may not be communicated to people who don’t have at least a partial understanding. I think that Ikeda sensei knows this intuitively and opts to teach people to establish “tightness”, which in my lexicon is very strong atari. This atari has become more and more subtle, judging from feeling and observing Ikeda sensei. However, the atari that is characterized by tension on uke’s part is still the easiest way to tell people to do. Although Ikeda sensei emphasizes strong, static practice, I clearly remember in his more normal, everyday practice he clearly seemed to value and prefer vigorous yet adaptive, sensitive movement. It is unfortunate that some people interpret his appeals to be honest and not simply fall down to mean, refuse to fall down and even more significantly, in their normal, everyday practice, not cultivate being able to do vigorous, adaptive ukemi.