Chopping wood and carrying water……

This section will be more personal and definitely less technical. That, of course, depends upon pre or post-industrial revolution views about what “technical” means, or the views of Newtonian physics versus “strangeness” strings. Up to this point we have looked at the outer edges of stillness, likened to the analogy of the still center of a cyclone. Now we will take a look at mind and mindfulness.

Let me begin with a disclaimer: I am not a Master, nor do I claim to be. I am a lifelong student and, for me, learning and practicing are embedded within one another. I have a view about Aikido, and martial arts in general, which may be different to that of other teachers. My goal is not to become more skilled but to become more empty. Since it is my philosophy, I feel no need to burden my students with it, whilst teaching the technicalities of the arts.
So, here goes.

Let’s start with this:

1st Verse

The Tao that can be told, is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named, is not the eternal name.
The Tao is both named and nameless
As nameless it is the origin of all things;
as named it is the Mother of 10,000 things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery;
ever desiring, one sees only the manifestations.
And the mystery itself is the doorway
to all understanding.

– Lao Tzu

This is one of many translations of the opening of the Tao Te Ching, the key teaching of Daoism. If you are seeking the mastery of change, in other words the constant and immediate movement between Yin and Yang, then that mastery is to be found in oneness. From Wuji (limitless) comes Yin and Yang, and from Yin and Yang come all things. Hard and soft, fast and slow, absorb and project, open and close, full and empty, sword and shield, attack and defence; all these and more are the martial language of Yin and Yang. But what comes before? What is the nature of Wuji and what is the attitude of non-action (Wuwei), which springs from it? Is the Mushin of Budo the same as Wuwei?

This is one of the great paradoxes of martial arts training: you must be aware and conscious to learn and practice techniques correctly, but in order to express those techniques spontaneously, you must be empty of the desire to win or the fear to lose. In fact, the more disciplined you can be about “only” practicing with your body, without theorising or philosophising, the emptier your mind becomes. Do you begin to see how difficult it is to use the mind to avoid using the mind? Sorry about this small Zen moment, but this is how I see practice, as the successful usage of full and empty to create “the middle way”.

Remember that the ‘Do’ of Aiki is the equivalent of the ‘Dao’ of Tai Chi. It is intriguing to me that Tai Chi often seems to be drowning in detail, whilst Aikido is starving for depth. Tai Chi starts with solo practice and only much later begins to include partner work. Working with partners introduces a source of pressure and stress, which is intended to test the practitioner’s internalisation of Yin and Yang. Aikido, on the other hand, spends years in (misunderstood) partner practice, which may or may not eventually arrive at the types of solo practice that develop the internalisation of Yin and Yang.

Using mindful intent (Yi) to work the energetic lines of body tissue is far more demanding than physical training. It is also far less rewarding, initially at least, since the results are not visible for a long time and are very hard to “incorporate” into normal practice. When the Chinese internal martial artist speaks of “investing in loss”, they could also be referring to the difficulties inherent in trying to give up physical power in favour of training and re-educating the body to be “intent first”. The didactic order of this kind of training is a matter of debate, as I have tried to indicate previously. Should you spend years learning to stand in Zhan Zhuang (post standing), achieving great rootedness, but zero martial skills (yes, I know being rooted can be a martial skill, but only when you can move and throw or hit with “root”), or should you spend the first ten years Shaolin style, training hard and only then begin your internal studies? Should you try to do the almost impossible “both at the same time” Aikido of O Sensei? Do you need to understand the meridians and vessels of traditional Chinese medicine in order to circulate chi? Do you need to practice breathing methods? Meditation? Live in a cave?

My problem is that I believe that the answer to all these questions is the same: it depends. It depends on what you want, who you are, where you begin, what you know, what you have felt, how old you are, how fit you are, how strong you are, how habit based you are, and the combination of all these factors and more.

Many of the sayings of O Sensei were contradictory at first sight, but careful consideration can yield some insights. “There is no opponent in Aikido” and “The enemy attacks and I am already behind him”. My interpretation (of a Japanese to English translation!) is that we must let go of all ideas and sensation of conflict, and escape dualism, in order to move in a state of Wuwei, so that when faced with an enemy you can move freely and instantly. There needs to be no “other”, only freedom in self. Easier said than done, but a great goal for practice. When you have time to think, fear can slip in. When you have time to realise you are too late, fear arrives. In the moment, with the moment, there is no fear. This way of being and moving is often referred to as Mushin in Japanese swordsmanship. It is action springing from a quiet mind, which fixes upon nothing and observes moment by moment – this could also be a description of a simple form of meditation. It is movement emerging from stillness that is always returning to stillness.

In closing, this has been a small, almost superficial glance at internal training, with a few useful exercises and clues for those who want them. I’m still busy with it, I have been for the last 12 years or so, and am still discovering how little I really can do. My goal, still, is to increase my wellbeing, physically and mentally, through the practice of martial arts. The idea of self-defence, or greater martial skills through internal power is far less meaningful than health and sanity, and the greatest test of the “stillness” is right at the heart of all the action and conflict that makes up living.

Thank you to all my teachers, who have helped me see how much there is to learn, and to my students for their efforts to learn.

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by: seb