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There are many different processes that can contribute to a sense of certainty in Aikido. Some are very different from others, but they all can have similar consequences. In this paper, we are going to consider some illustrative stories and utilize some technical elements about language and evidence to examine certainty and its effects in Aikido practice.
I would like to suggest that putting much emotional energy into a feeling of certainty can be problematic. Certainty can close people’s minds and create barriers between people. It can result in separation from and dehumanization of people who do not share the certainty. And it can drastically limit the amount of information you take in and the effectiveness of your approach to studying Aikido. Living in and positively valuing a state of uncertainty is the place from which discovery and learning can grow.
When I was a brown belt (about 40 years ago), I was certain that I knew how to make the techniques work. (Typical case of brown-belt-itis.) However, at some point I realized that attitude put a crimp in the data pipeline so I heard less and learned less than I could have. I figured that if someone did know something I did not, in order to take advantage of their knowledge, I had to be open to their critiquing. And I don’t know why, but it was obvious to me that I had to do that opening in my body, not in my mind. I started by paying detailed attention to the body actions by which I did the feelings of certainty and bristling. Then I worked at interrupting those hard and constricted actions by constructing a soft and balanced body state. After a while, I discovered that I had almost no emotional reaction anymore to being criticized. I remained pretty calm. Then I could hear and evaluate the suggestions people made. If I had remained certain, I would have learned much less.
When I first moved to Ohio (about 35 years ago), there was a small Aikido club at the Ohio State University. It was started by the first black belt in Columbus. I was the second. The sensei invited me to teach, and the students, who had had four months of Aikido, promptly complained that I wasn’t teaching Aikido. If they had known enough, they would’ve said that my style of teaching was different from what they were used to, but they would not have been so certain it was not Aikido. As it was, the students rejected the opportunity to expand their horizons.
About 25 years ago I was at a seminar and a higher ranked yudansha wanted to correct one of my techniques, but she took me aside to do it. I imagine that she felt that it would lessen my authority if my students saw me being corrected. I think she was assuming that they needed to feel certain that I was showing them the right way to do every technique. Of course, my Aikido is far from perfect, and I feel that my authority derives from an understanding of how to engage in collaborative research with my students to discover how to do Aikido.
As another example of certainty, about five years ago, the late Don Levine (founder of Aiki Extensions) asked a senior Aikidoist to review my book Feeling Aikido. Don told me that the reviewer looked at the table of contents, saw a chapter titled “Power Delivery” and refused to even read the book because, in his view, Aikido does not use power. However, “power delivery” is a term from the study of biomechanics and refers to such things as how the legs move the body through space. Without using some power, we would just lie on the floor unable to move. This incident reminded me of the people who condemned Galileo—they would not look through his telescope because they were certain there was nothing there to see.
An aspect of certainty that comes up periodically is whether you can trust your own experience. Usually yes, I think, but sometimes no. I can give one example. I was working with a student on defenses from a roundhouse punch. With his left arm he was able to redirect my strike quite well and take my balance. But when he tried to blend with my punch with his right arm, his arm collapsed and he couldn’t move me at all. He said I was striking harder on the second side. I tried to explain to him that I was not striking harder but that he was weaker on that side. He was quite certain that I was wrong because he could feel that I struck harder. This comes down to the question of how you can tell from inside the system which interpretation is right. All I could say was that I had 45 years of practice and he had only 10. So I suggested he start by assuming that I might be right and see if that leads to improvement in his performance. Once I guided him to doing it with more stability in his weak side, he realized that I had been accurate in my perception.
About ten years ago I was conducting a training in Aiki-based hands-on body work. As the training progressed, I had people bring in friends and acquaintances with whom to practice the body work. On one day we had two trainees teaching efficient walking. At the end of the sessions, the two volunteers gave their evaluations. One said, “Your student showed me that everything I thought I knew about walking was wrong. That was so depressing.” The second volunteer said, “Your student showed me everything I thought knew about walking was wrong. That was so exciting.” Not everybody likes having their beliefs and habits tested, but without that, how can there be any progress?
Many people are certain that Aikido is an effective martial art, and many people are certain that it is not. The first question is effective for what? Without specifying what the goal is, it’s impossible to evaluate how effective Aikido is. It seems to be the unstated assumption that an effective martial art must be effective for fighting. However, that may not always be the purpose of a person studying or teaching a martial art.
What is the purpose of a hammer? Well, I could use a hammer to stir my breakfast cereal. So my purpose for a hammer could be very different from that of many other hammer users. Note that we would ordinarily say that the purpose of a hammer is to pound nails. However, that makes it sound as though the purpose is in the hammer, but it isn’t. The purpose consists of my desire to use the hammer in one way or another. A purpose is a feeling or decision made by a conscious being. The hammer itself cannot have a purpose any more than it could have a desire for ice cream.
O’Sensei, I believe, designed his martial training to create a tool for self-examination and peacemaking. It does make sense to practice with this goal in mind since Aikido was structured to convey this understanding. If your goal in practicing Aikido is specifically peacemaking, then it may not matter to you that your Aikido doesn’t fulfill a different goal such as fighting with and winning against practitioners of other martial arts.
There are two main benefits I have experienced from 48 years of practice. Personally, it has helped me learn to face difficult situations in a strong, calm and kind way instead of getting fearful or angry. One of the significant results of my Aikido practice is that the smooth, elegant and mindful movements have kept me mobile and functional even though I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease 14 years ago. Whether or not Aikido as I have practiced it is functional for combat, I don’t really know. I don’t get into fights. But Aikido has immensely enriched my life.
Professionally, I have used Aikido as a laboratory to study mindbody interactions. What I have learned in Aikido about the structure of movement I have been able to apply with clients doing anything from running to violin playing. Through Aikido, I have learned how to teach clients to manage verbal conflicts. One of my main uses of Aikido is in working with adults who were abused as children. From their abuse, most survivors have learned that they are weak and cannot protect themselves. I have black belts in Aikido and in Karate, but I hardly ever use Karate movements in working with survivors. They experience those movements as harsh and too reminiscent of what their perpetrators did to them. (Of course, traditional karate is fundamentally a peaceful martial art, but it does not appear that way to most abuse survivors.) However, the long soft flowing elegant movements of Aikido throws are deeply healing. They allow the survivors to break out of their fear and paralysis in an empowering and ethical way. Whether those throws would work effectively against a vicious street fighter has little bearing on the efficacy of Aikido as a path of healing.
But even when Aikido practitioners share the purpose of peacemaking through Aikido, peace-oriented practitioners can get into squabbles about their certainties. I have heard people state that since their purpose in Aikido was to teach people to cooperate and create harmony, the attacker and the defender should cooperate to create smooth movements. That’s not unreasonable as one form of awareness practice. However, in this way of thinking it would be bad practice for the attacker to try to execute an effective attack—that is, one which would actually injure the defender if the defender did not prevent that. (Of course in practice the attacker should adjust the attack to the skill level of the defender, and in practice both people should actually protect each other from harm.)
Another way of practicing peace would take the view that effective attacks are necessary because harmony can best be learned in situations of discord. After all, it is our enemies that we have to learn to get along with. A serious attack will probably elicit fear or anger, and this provides the opportunity to overcome those feelings and choose harmony instead. Practice starts with minimally threatening attacks so that students can afford to focus on inner body self-regulation instead of external self-protection. But at some point, the intensity of the attack must be increased to give people the opportunity to face and overcome the fear or anger that a more realistic threat elicits. I earned a black belt in Karate precisely to be able to deliver a better attack in Aikido practice.
In conducting seminars, I often suggest that the attacker needs to understand how each attack is the expression of an intention to injure the defender in some specific way. That gives meaning and precision to the attacking movements. However, a few times people have become really incensed about the idea and have refused to try it. They were certain that was cultivating violence. Their own way of thinking about Aikido as a peacemaking process was the only approach they were willing to practice. However, from a different perspective, violence could be looked at as the desire to hurt or destroy. Punching effectively with no such desire but with an intention to help a partner trigger and overcome his violent reactions would not in this sense be violent.
On the other hand, peacemaking may not be the primary purpose of every Aikido practitioner. Some people do want their Aikido to be effective for actual self-defense off the mat, whether that was O’Sensei’s goal or not. And they may reject the more meditative or more dancelike ways of performing Aikido techniques because the execution of the techniques in those styles depends on the attacker’s cooperation and doesn’t offer the defender the ability to control an uncooperative attacker. These folks may feel certain that the dancelike way of doing Aikido is not real or not even Aikido.
And the other people, who see the purpose of Aikido as peacemaking, may see the practitioners who are focused on self-defense as not doing correct or real Aikido. I would suggest that all that certainty is a waste of energy. Instead of being certain that this or that is or is not Aikido, I think it would be helpful to honor different but sincere practice and say “That is not the Aikido I would be interested in doing” and get back to one’s chosen practice. On the other hand, it might be productive to step outside one’s habitual Aikido certainties and try something new.
How can we be certain of what is the right way to execute an Aikido defense technique? I have often seen instructors teaching Aikido techniques with instructions that are very precise and detailed: put your foot precisely here, turn precisely this angle, move forward on this precise line. And everyone in the dojo accepts that the technique must be done this way only. There is a certainty cultivated by doing the techniques precisely as they have been handed down from teacher to teacher.
However, when students try the technique with somebody from another dojo or in real attacks, it turns out that coming in with a preplanned defense may not fit the attack and often doesn’t work to control the attacker. Rather than accepting the form of a defense technique because an authority says to do it that way, it may be more productive to test the technique and see when it works effectively and when it does not. In order to test it, you have to pin it down by observable data, but that is not as simple as it might seem.
The right way must in some sense be effective. But for what? The question of efficacy cannot be answered without specifying what outcomes are the goal, and with what attackers, with what attacks, in what situations, and with which defenders. And if you think of the real Aikido as being the application of principles of harmony to daily life situations, then we have to specify in what daily life situations, how the philosophy of Aiki is used, and for what outcomes the applications have been successful. Without specifying all these elements, there is no way to judge whether Aikido as a whole or even just a specific technique works or not. Further, even if all that were specified, we would still have to decide what would constitute a large enough sample of Aikidoists, styles of Aikido, attackers and situations to test the assertion that Aikido is generally effective as self-defense and/or as a path of self-improvement. Or anything else. In other words, though it seems reasonable to ask if Aikido does enable an Aikidoist to defend him/herself from attacks, there is no easy way to get clear data to answer the question. Though it seems reasonable to ask if Aikido will generally work to improve body image or create inner peace, measuring that would require some careful studies. Committing oneself to a strong opinion without the requisite data is a waste of time and energy.
There is a more restricted sense in which Aikido can be tested fairly easily and usefully. A good test will define mastery of Aikido concepts and skills by clear, observable events. One person can test his or her ability to work with a specific attack or attacker. That would not say much about Aikido in general but would indicate something about what the Aikido practitioner wanted to gain by practicing and how much progress she or he has made toward their goal.
It seems to me that people practicing Aikido often have one or more of the following goals: self-defense, better movement in daily activities, psychological growth, or spiritual growth. Improving movement includes such things as physical fitness or using Aikido movements in chopping wood. Psychological purposes include such things as stress management, trauma recovery or conflict resolution. Spiritual purposes focus on such things as discovering the meaning of life or feeling the oneness of all beings.
That fourth kind of goal is not clear to me. This is partly a linguistic issue, and it is partly an issue of what constitutes evidence to support an assertion.
The first three goals involve observable and measurable behavior. You can see somebody doing something or something else. But what is a meaning of life? What is a oneness of all beings? Such terms are strange. If you’re looking for the meaning of life, it would seem that life has an attribute called meaning just as a pillow might have the attribute of softness. And oneness would seem to point to an actual attribute of many beings. But as far as I can tell these words refer not to something outside and objective but to something internal in the person who feels the meaning or the oneness.
Meaning is like purpose or desire. As far as I can tell, “meaning” is an internal action that a sentient being projects outward onto his or her situation. In that sense, life cannot have a meaning any more than a hammer can have a purpose. Only the living person can create meaning for his or her life.
All beings are one. What evidence could establish the truth of that statement? What evidence could prove the statement false? What does it even mean? If you said “All cars are one,” what would you mean by that? And how would you test that statement? I don’t know.
Perhaps the “spiritual” statements have a function other than communicating facts even though they look like ordinary statements. “All trees are green” is a normal sentence, and it can be tested just by looking at trees. “All beings are one” seems to have an identical sentence structure, but it is really very different. I don’t know what one can observe which would confirm or disconfirm the assertion that all beings are one.
If spiritual goals are intangible and untestable, should people be so certain of them? Can we be sure that we are seeing the invisible accurately? Can we be sure we are understanding that which is beyond comprehension? And if spiritual goals are intangible, how can people logically choose between competing and incompatible certainties? How can they logically think that their certainty is the right certainty? People often feel certain about ideas that cannot in principle have any facts supporting them, but that certainty does not have any checks and balances, and it can lead to many kinds of unproductive behaviors. At the very least, it narrows people’s thinking and acting and prevents them from noticing or considering other options.
It is possible in Aikido to translate spiritual language into physical language, and then a statement becomes testable. For instance, we could describe an experience of tuning in and moving in time with an Aikido partner as the doorway to the deep mystery of human connection, and that sounds very important and meaningful. Though I don’t actually know what it means or what to do with it. But if we say, “Without practicing relaxation, most Aikido practitioners will be too stiff to feel the small movements of their partners,” that assertion I understand. It refers to some observable and measurable behavior, and it can be tested. I can try relaxing more and seeing if I can feel my partner more. If it passes the test, I can use it as an element of my Aikido practice.
If we talk about learning through Aikido to be harmonious, our practice of a joint lock, for example, should in some tangible way show the degree of harmony we are experiencing as we do the lock. Otherwise we are talking about harmony but practicing only the joint lock. It is easy to demonstrate that kindness and respect are physiological actions in the body and that the body functions in a more effective way when movements are explicitly supported by that inner physiological state. That state reduces tension and increases balance and freedom of movement. If we pay attention to this as we do the joint lock, the abstract idea of harmony becomes concrete, observable and testable.
As we progress in our practice, we can become more sure of what we are aiming at and what we’re doing to achieve our goal. However we also become aware that the farther we go the greater the distance we have left in our journey of discovery. What we are sure of one day, we later find was incomplete. Being too certain too soon is a trap.
I think that we find ourselves in the traps that we need to learn from. Certainty can be a trap. But holding our certainties lightly allows us to change them as we gain new experiences and new information. For some people that may not be as comfortable as believing in an absolute truth, but I suspect that uncertainty will take us farther than certainty will.
Copyright © 2017 by Paul Linden
PAUL LINDEN, Ph.D., is chief instructor at Aikido of Columbus (Ohio USA) and the developer of Being In Movement® mindbody education, and. He holds a Ph.D. in Physical Education, a sixth dan in Aikido and a first dan in Karate, and he is an instructor of the Feldenkrais Method® of somatic education. He is the author of a number of e-books and videos, among them:
- Feeling Aikido: Body Awareness Training as a Foundation for Aikido Practice
- Embodied Peacemaking: Body Awareness, Self-Regulation and Conflict Resolution.
- Winning is Healing: Body Awareness and Empowerment for Abuse Survivors
- Embodying Power And Love: Body Awareness & Self-Regulation (video)