“Arising Naturally,” by Alister Gillies

The Founder of Aikido talked of “Takemusu Aiki”, the spontaneous creation of form. It comes naturally from the study of basic technique. Basics are basics, but departing from basics and doing what comes naturally is frowned upon in many martial arts organisations. This is understandable, people doing just what they like all over the dojo mat would be unworkable.

But Aikido, like other martial arts, is constantly evolving. Change is not only inevitable, it is fundamentally necessary. It is built into the system. It is what makes Aikido a medium for personal transformation.

The organisational structure of Aikido is a vertical one, and is based on the ‘trickle down’ principle. That is, excellence and innovation are passed down through the hierarchical strata to the bottom. Usually it works very well. Difficulties arise, however, when pressure, dissent or innovation comes from lower down. In Japan, it is expected and predictably they have a convention for its occurrence. It is called Shu-Ha-Ri (keeping the form, breaking the form, and departing from the form).

An experienced teacher, one who has gone through the process of Shu-Ha-Ri themselves, will identify its onset in their students. The teacher now has two choices, both of which can have a positive outcome.

The teacher can accommodate what is a pivotal point in their students’ development and help them through it, incorporating whatever changes may emerge from the process into the system; or they agree that the changes are incompatible with what the teacher wants to do as a teacher, and they amicably part company.

Both are good, win-win results. In the former case the school or system benefits; in the latter, the teacher takes a proud interest in a new offshoot going out into the world to set up their own school or branch. In the West it is different. Few Western teachers have actually gone through the Shu-Ha-Ri stages of development, and people become teachers for very different reasons.

In Japan a student branching out on their own is usually the result of a very long apprenticeship, often not ending until the infirmity or death of their teacher. In the West students are encouraged to start up their own dojos with relatively little experience, and much less instruction than their Japanese counterparts. This Western ‘fast track’ approach has greatly assisted the rapid spread of Aikido throughout the US and Europe. But maturity takes far longer.

As one becomes more aware of the energy body, the practice of Aikido techniques and its prescribed forms will necessarily become more refined. Change is inevitable. The forms themselves may even change.

As Aikido is a way of non-resistance, this means that not only do we not resist our partners in training, but that we also accord with universal principles as they become apparent to us in our own training and development. We become aware of the teacher within and learn to trust ourselves and our insights. This is Shu-Ha-Ri.

In Aikido, as in life, there comes a time when we become responsible for our own development, and while this is a natural progression it can also be a very unsettling time for teachers and students alike.

Some students never reach this stage; they are content to follow living vicariously in the reflected light of a charismatic and skilled teacher, content to be directed; others forge boldly ahead, using the experience of past teachers as a source of inspiration and innovation. In between those extremes, there are many more whose practice is motivated by a myriad of different reasons.

Aikido reminds us that we are a universe in miniature. Within that universe we learn to build a bridge between heaven and earth. No one else can do this for us. This presents us with fresh learning opportunities and challenges. For serious practitioners of Aikido the day will come when they cannot rely on their teacher for guidance.

Each person’s practice will mature and they will have to find their own way. This does not mean that they have no contact with their teachers, but both teachers and students have to learn to let go. Resisting this process is inimical to genuine growth, and can lead to endless frustration and disappointment.

In Zen Buddhism there is a story of a man hanging by his teeth from a branch jutting out from a cliff face. Nibbling away at the branch are two mice, one black and one white. A Zen master approaches the cliff edge, and bending down close to the unfortunate man says, “And what is Zen?”

If we are concerned about success or failure, we are caught up in dualistic thought and attachment, symbolised by the mice and branch. To understand is to let go. In order to let go, first we must realise that we are holding on. Usually we are holding on to fear of one kind or another, and fear generates resistance.

When I first began practicing Aikido I could not understand Ki. Training partners referred to it as if it was some sort of mystical quality that one came to comprehend in the fullness of time. What I felt, however, was mostly physical tension and brute strength, allied to the intent of flooring one’s training partners. To win without fighting was a noble philosophical principle, but it was not something that was commonly understood at the time.

It seemed that few were able to appreciate the internal content of the form, so it was only natural for most practitioners to concentrate on the outward or objective form of the art. Things have changed somewhat, but this was how it was in the early days.

The Japanese, on the other hand, took Ki for granted and could not understand why we foreigners were so stiff. To compensate, they trained people to the point of physical exhaustion so that they could relax. Often this had the opposite effect, and many people simply became good at hard physical training. Nowadays there are a few Western teachers teaching Japanese Aikido students, but it took many years of dedicated and sustained effort to get there.

For the average Westerner training was all about technique, and it often looked like the ultimate object was to get someone down on the mat as efficiently as possible. Ki and subtlety would come, we were assured, at some obscure point in the future.

As I looked at my seniors, models of the future transformation that was to come, I had my doubts. Perhaps it happened for some, but not many. Most of us continued to practice in the hope or expectation of some future epiphany. But, as Sir Francis Bacon reminds us, “hope is a good breakfast, but a poor supper.”

One Japanese teacher of Aikido had shrewdly observed that foreigners understood things differently. In Japan they accepted that mind and body were one. If you didn’t recognise it now, it would come in time. In the West, on the other hand, foreigners were mind body dualists. Their mind-set got in the way and they were therefore unable to appreciate the true nature of Aikido.

In order to help Westerners better understand Aikido, this teacher developed a system of teaching and practice with the US market in mind. It was to prove hugely successful. But not all Japanese teachers approved. From the early 1970’s the teaching of Aikido became polarised, with one style concentrating on Ki. The other main school, of course, had Ki as well, but they didn’t talk about it so much – they were very traditional.

Attracted by this new approach, I began to practice a style of Aikido that focussed more on Ki. In lots of ways it was an excellent teaching system. It was a style that emphasised non-resistance, harmony and relaxation, and not just thumping someone down on the mat. It was definitely ‘softer’ compared to the ‘hard’ style I had studied previously, but something was missing.

It had a self-conscious quality to it that left me vaguely dissatisfied. But I persisted for many years with this style, and put my reservations to the back of my mind. What was missing, and ultimately what I was looking for, though I couldn’t see it at the time, was naturalness.

Intuitively I felt that it was lacking. I was later to realise that naturalness was not something a teacher or style could pass on to their students – it comes from the ‘teacher within’. I was also to understand that there were no shortcuts. Aikido, of whatever style, takes time to learn.

Since that time, I have had the good fortune to travel around the world practicing Aikido with many different people from many different styles and backgrounds. Occasionally, I have practiced with individuals who have this natural quality in their practice. It is unmistakable and a joy to experience. It has nothing to do with style. It is a quality that transcends stylistic considerations, national boundaries, gender, age and cultural differences. For me it is at the very heart of Aikido.

To be continued

The above is an extract from Alister Gillies new book “Tenchi: Building a Bridge Between Heaven and Earth”

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  1. Charles Humphrey says:

    Cheers on some good reflections. I take exception to one part though because I think it leads to a lot of futile searching. That is the idea that Japanese, and East Asians in general are naturally more relaxed and free of mind-body dualism. I feel like this kind of Orientalist assumption is harmful both to Western and Eastern practitioners. Maybe this was the case back in the 60s, perhaps the situation I see in the region is new, the symptom of a kind of memetic virus which originated in the West and is now taking over the world. In any case, not only are the Japanese I’ve met and trained with some of the stiffest people I’ve come across (and I mainly trained in Hokkaido….a pretty laid back place by Japanese standards), but with a few notable exceptions of one or two particularly great masters or advanced journeymen I’ve met more relaxed fighters in a Western context far removed from any oriental arts. Just stop by a decent boxing gym to see what I mean… or watch some of Prince Naseem’s fights before he got into blow. I think this notion that East Asians somehow naturally “get it” is highly pathological for all involved.

    I’ve trained with loads of Japanese and Chinese, some people who have trained for years and are somehow convinced that having black hair and epicanthic folds makes them naturally good at martial arts. This is an illusion often bought by many Western practitioners, leading to erroneous emulation of stiff and deluded practitioners. In my experience, Hokkaido, Honshu and in various parts of China, East Asian practitioners are just as stiff, blinded by dualistic thinking and eager to smash someone’s face into the ground as even the most nutso expat (and there’s plenty of those as well.) I remember visiting the Yoshinkan Hombu and there was a senior instructor there who had a reputation for not being satisfied unless he gave people concussions. If anything, I would say that the prevalence of this delusion that East Asians are naturally in tune with qi/ki is due to the cultural vulnerability to hypnotic suggestion prevalent in these cultures. I’ve seen numerous kohai students throw themselves all over the room because they’d seen others do it before and didn’t want to break the “group spirit” by not tanking. And they believe they are really being thrown. And their sempai/teacher really thinks they are very relaxed and very good at what they are doing. Just look at that Anagyuriken guy. One of my Japanese buddies who is actually a good martial artist went to watch it live. The guy had his teeth knocked out and was swallowing blood but was foolish enough to stand up for another pasting because after magically throwing around several hundred students, he really couldn’t believe that it was all bs. The guy had wagered 5000 dollars on his skill and took a serious pasting that could have left him permanently injured if it had gone on much longer.

    Beware of folks who go on about their ki/qi at great length. Anyone I’ve met who has sufficient kinesthetic data to formulate some relationship with this concept (and it is a concept like any other….a word, an idea…not an innate physical reality) keep their mouth shut about it because they have sufficient experience with the opacity of kinesthetic data to the intellect’s classifications that they realize that any attempt to formulate complex utterances on the subject will inevitably lead to obfuscation rather than clarification.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Charles. What I was describing was what we ‘bought’, or was ‘sold’ to us, at the time. I don’t see it that way now. Yes, we were convinced that the Japanese had all the knowledge and even today there is considerable deference shown to Japanese instructors, and not always warranted. But of course, you are right. These things are relative. And things have changed. But I still detect an abiding assumption that the Japanese have the edge when it comes to Budo. To some extent this is understandable, it is part of their culture. In much the same way Americans are good at ball games that involve handling, but suck at soccer – although I hear they are improving:)

    I agree, there is not much difference between a stiff oriental and a stiff occidental (or a loose one), and I suppose there are some white men that can jump.



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