Everyone has Ki. Without it life would not be possible. But in the West we are not aware of it. When we become aware of it, we are inclined to view it as something other, an extra dimension or attribute that can be added to our personal resources. It becomes objectified. We think of it as a possession, something that we can get more of if we do the right things.
But Ki is not an object. In devising a new teaching model for Westerners this eminently skilled Japanese teacher had succeeded in turning an internal into an external. Yes, he understood perfectly how the Western mind worked and he constructed a rational system of teaching that made perfect sense and appealed to our need for clear explanations. But he replaced the empirical – finding out for one’s self – with an article of faith: Mind Body is one.
Ki became a reified object. In order to understand the concept, it was necessary to suspend our dualistic mode of thinking. In the resulting intellectual void, a leap of faith was required to bring mind body back to its original unified condition, eventually. All over the world students of Ki could be seen, with intent expressions, self-consciously extending Ki. From a traditional perspective, from both Budo and Zen, the cart was well and truly before the horse.
Although there were clear principles and guidelines in place to help students understand and feel Ki, in reality it takes many years before this feeling of the energy body becomes a naturalised sensibility. If one has to think about the tanden and mind body connection, then it is not fully integrated. As one Japanese Aikido teacher put it, if it needs explaining you haven’t got it.
In Zen there is a story that became the foundation of a well-known Koan (a prompt to help students attain realisation), which illustrates the difficulty inherent in too intellectual an approach. The story goes that a master came before his assembled students, and holding up a Hossu (fly whisk) demanded: “Are you in the use of it or apart from the use? Who can say a word?”
Whichever way one answers – either in the affirmative or negative – one is caught up in dualistic thinking. It is the same with Ki. It is only through practice that one becomes accustomed to the nature of the energy body as not other than one’s self. This is one of the reasons why repetition is so important in the Japanese approach to teaching.
In one sense, to say that we are learning Ki is almost nonsensical – we have always had it. Babies have it naturally. They don’t require instruction on how to unify mind and body. To test this (if you are lucky enough to have a baby nearby) place your little finger in a baby’s hand. It will enclose its fingers quite naturally around your finger. Now gently try and lift your arm and you will be surprised at just how powerfully the child can grip, with no apparent effort.
Unfortunately, as we grow older and become subject to the conditioning of a ‘being-in-the-world’ we lose this natural capacity, but it never goes away completely. Training in Aikido and many other arts can help us to recover a sensibility that remains obscured beneath the surface of our everyday consciousness.
Sometimes we can experience this in occasional ‘Ah Ha’ moments in our daily lives. A task that we had not completed, or had been procrastinating over, is suddenly accomplished without effort. “That was easy”, we might say, but when we try to deliberately reproduce the same result it doesn’t quite work out.
We know that we did it, but we don’t understand how. We scratch our heads and move on. Some may even take the time to painstakingly reconstruct the entire process and develop a system that guarantees replication each time. But it is never the same. The freshness and vitality of the initial experience has gone.
What is happening and what enables us to experience this effortlessness, is something that I first came across in relation to my own Aikido practice more or less by accident. On occasions, when working on a particular technique, I would find that the technique would flow by itself with very little effort on my part. I did not understand it at the time, but little windows of ‘not-doing’ were beginning to open up. When I intentionally tried to reproduce it, invariably it wouldn’t work.
Many years later, when teaching Aikido, I found that beginners could pick up this feeling of ‘not-doing’ far more easily than more experienced students. This was very curious. It seemed to turn the traditional learning model on its head. Why should novices be able to do something that more advanced students had great difficulty in doing? There was something other going on than just beginner’s luck. What could it be?
A few years ago, while on a trip to Tokyo, I attended the class of a high ranking Japanese teacher of Aikido. It was a small class with only a few students in attendance. Among the students, there was a young female who was attending training for the first time.
The class consisted of exercises designed to help coordinate mind and body with an element of testing. Surprisingly, this young woman had no difficulty at all, and passed all of the tests with ease.
After the class, the teacher’s higher grade students remarked on how well she had done, considering that she was a total beginner. The teacher looked at the young woman, smiled broadly at her in approval and said, “Empty is full and full is empty”. He then glanced at us, but he wasn’t smiling.
In normal circumstances training follows a certain pattern. There is a definite learning curve which begins at a base of unconscious incompetence, rising to unconscious competence. Progress between those extremes is determined by many variables, some of which will certainly include personal commitment, quality of teaching, and opportunities for regular practice.
True learning begins with conscious incompetence. We learn from our mistakes. At this level the reflective action of consciousness is vitally important. The next level, conscious competence, is where most difficulty arises.
The reflective nature of our consciousness can actually keep us stuck at this point, unable to move on. Convinced of our ability and achievements, supremely confident in our understanding, and perhaps dismissive of others, we are nevertheless unable to move beyond a plateau of complacency that inevitably leads to dissatisfaction.
The goose is stuck in the bottle. From here, paradoxically, the only way up is down. If we are honest with ourselves, we can see that we are now back to the level of unconscious incompetence – we don’t know that we don’t know. When we understand and can accept this we can move on to the next level of conscious incompetence – knowing that we don’t know.
When we come to the next stage again, of conscious competence, if we haven’t adequately learned what it is about ourselves that holds us back then the process will have to be repeated until we do. For most of us this is unavoidable. Like the raw steel in the hands of a master sword maker we are base material in the process of transformation. This is misogi, or purification.
Training in Aikido and Zen, and in many forms of Budo, is a process of continual refinement. It is a lifelong training: “Iron is full of impurities that weaken it; through forging, it becomes steel and is transformed into a razor-sharp sword. Human beings develop in the same fashion.”
This ‘don’t know mind’ is very important in both Zen and Aikido training. It also helps to explain why novices in Aikido technique pick up the feeling of not-doing so easily – there is no mind clutter.
Beginners in Aikido are not usually impeded by a self-conscious notion of technical correctness, that comes later. But when they try to reproduce a technique with the same degree of effortlessness as before, they discover that it is not so easy the second time around. Why should this be?
They seem to have lost that original spontaneous and natural quality, but can’t quite work out where it went or even where it came from in the first place – how baffling! It may be some time before they rediscover it again. The contest between self and no-self has begun. A process of refinement has started.
The ‘don’t know mind’ is easily displaced by the habitual narcissistic tendencies of our egocentric consciousness, which wants to view itself as an object and others as foils in its own fantasy projection. It can take some time for this narcissistic impediment to learning to be resolved, and will naturally vary from person to person and from level to level.
Moving up the grades in Aikido does not guarantee escape from the worst effects of narcissism, or provide a warranty against its excesses. Progress in this respect is a matter of individual conscience and choice. But training in Aikido does provide many opportunities for personal development.
Apart from learning basic technique, there is something else going on that is common to all styles of Aikido: a re-conditioning and relaxing of the physical body and development of the energy body, or Ki. This dual conditioning goes on unseen. In fact it is encrypted into the kata of Aikido. A good teacher understands this.
This is true of other related forms of training, too. It is contained in the shikan taza of Soto Zen, ‘just sitting’. In operation, it is the ‘It that shot”’in Herrigel’s Zen and the Art of Archery, the still point at the centre of effortless power in Aikido and the positive Samadhi of mind body ‘dropped off’ in the daily life of the Zen adherent.
The product of this conditioning is a quality of mind that is no-mind (mu shin), but it is not something that one can actively seek. It arises of itself through training.
In Japan candidates for the rank of Hanshi (8th dan) in Kyudo (archery) and Iaido (sword) are often in their seventies. The success rate is less than one percent. The slightest trace of self-consciousness will result in failure. It is a sobering thought, but instructive for people obsessed with grading and ranking.
Through training the body learns to adopt an improved posture that in time will become natural. Concentration and breathing improves and becomes more efficient. The body relaxes. Calmness develops and is increasingly present in the midst of activity. Ki flows from the energy body without effort, together with a feeling of well-being and respect for others.
In a very real sense, training takes us from the beginning back to the beginning, because there is no end. It is an opportunity for us to resume our true nature. It has never gone away. It arises naturally from the unification of heaven and earth.
The above is an extract from Alister Gillies new book “Tenchi: Building a Bridge Between Heaven and Earth”