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Finding the spiritual in aikido

A long term student recently told me that he felt that our study of aikido was ignoring the spiritual dimension of the art by focussing on the physical practice and asked for specific spiritual instruction. This set me wondering about what we mean by the spiritual element in aikido, how we incorporate it in our practice, and to what end?

Definitions of “spiritual” seem to cover the following elements:

  • relating to the human spirit or soul as opposed to material things

  • relating to religion or religious belief

  • the search for connection with one's true self and core reality (implying that what appears as everyday reality is not actually “true” reality), otherwise known as “enlightenment”.

The first two of these points simply focus on the meaning of the term. However the final point focusses on the objectives of engaging in a spiritual search and thus seems relevant in considering aikido's role in this quest.

O sensei clearly was a deeply religious man and started everyday with ritual purification and prayers. According to the history he also had a couple of deeply profound experiences that could be likened to religious ecstasy or enlightenment. Aikido was, in part, a product of these experiences so not necessarily a route to them. Certainly it could be argued that his ascetic discipline and meditative practices were more important in achieving enlightenment. However following these experiences O sensei adapted aikido to his new understanding of things and in that sense it can be argued that aikido both reflects and points the way towards a different way of looking at the world and ourselves.

So what are the spiritual elements of aikido practice? One element of the spiritual search is related to self-improvement, being the best we can be for the short amount of time we are living. Being the best we can be requires us to be mindful of how we interact with the world and each other. Indeed the noble 8 fold path of Buddhism is entirely to do with making judgements about how we perceive and act.

  • Right understanding

  • Right thought

  • Right speech

  • Right action

  • Right livelihood

  • Right effort

  • Right mindfulness

  • Right concentration.

Pursuing this path requires constant attention to ourselves, how else will we know whether we are thinking or acting right? The practice of aikido requires similar attention to ourselves in order to ensure that we are embodying the principles of aikido. By that I mean:

  • natural and integrated movement from the centre

  • relaxed extension

  • awareness of our own body

  • sensitivity to our partner's movement and balance

  • concern for the wellbeing of our training partner

  • truthfulness in our role as 'uke'

  • disengagement from the ego.

One of the key principles of meditative practice involves observing ourselves and our thoughts. Through this observation we can quieten the mind's constant need to impose its interpretation on events or to separate itself from the present moment by reviewing past events or planning or worrying about future events or simply chuntering on to itself for no real purpose. The quietened mind suspends this activity and presents us with the opportunity of seeing things by direct rather than mediated experience. Some may call this catching a glimpse of true reality.

In the practice of higher levels of aikido we similarly try to simply experience ourselves and our training partners and free our bodies to respond intuitively. In this type of practice we should not try to impose ourselves on our training partner but blend with them and merely guide them along a natural path towards the mat. Our ego makes this a difficult exercise, because it tells us we must get the person onto the ground or otherwise throw them. This causes muscles to tighten, and our intent becomes clear as we try to force our partner in a particular direction. They similarly respond and resist and we end up in a battle of wills and strength. Avoiding this natural tendency to impose ourselves on our training partner requires a high degree of mindfulness. So, in many respects this aspect of aikido training is a meditation in movement and if perceived from the right perspective can be a spiritual practice in itself.

Similarly aikido teaches us that there are alternatives to confrontation and conflict that permit the re-establishment of harmony, rather than the injury or destruction of an aggressor. Action oriented toward injury or destruction involves the ego in so much as it is focussed on an objective at the end of a process. So a harmonious conclusion again requires a suspension of the ego and is therefore another “spiritual practice”.

Thus the simple practice of aikido embodies within itself disciplines that support the development of enlightenment, just as certain practices in yoga or in zen support that development. Although aikido can open our minds to different ways of being and of perceiving the world, will the simple practice of aikido alone lead to enlightenment. I suspect not, unless training is so intense that it switches the mind into a different state. Few train to this level these days. Enlightenment is a personal journey and requires a more single-minded approach of regular meditation as evidenced by the fact that many senior masters of aikido do indeed practice meditation as part of their aikido journey.

In answering my student's original comment I would therefore say that the physical practice of aikido can itself be a spiritual exercise providing the practitioner is mindful of that dimension of training. The role of a teacher is to open the mind of the student to this dimension of practice. Beyond that I think it makes sense for the student to practice supplementary techniques. Just as meditation and mindfulness as part of “spiritual” development can enhance one's development in aikido, so too will the physical practice of aikido open up an understanding of the spiritual depth of o'sensei's budo.

My personal view is that if the practice of aikido itself were sufficient I would have hoped that my over 35 years of training would have led me to enlightenment by now. I'm still working on it!

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