Sunday Seminar 02 July 2005
Connecting .... and connecting ... and connecting
Every time uke attacks tori a relationship is created - and like any relationship it should never be a one-way street. Any good relationship requires both parties to be alive to the needs, expectations and the aspirations of the other. This does not mean that hose needs, expectations or aspirations HAVE to be fulfilled by the other partner; s/he should at least be aware of them, before deciding how to respond. So too in Aikido must the parties be aware of each other.
In order to execute any Aikido technique effectively it is crucial that the relationship between uke and tori remains a dynamic, vibrant one. Should either uke or tori become stale and stiff either in their attack or their defence, the technique equally becomes stale and stiff and forced.
In order to respond to the needs of uke, in order to fully respond to uke's attack, tori must remain alert, aware and above all connected. This notion of connectedness is central to any understanding of Aikido. O-Sensei often speaks of an attacker being already defeated in the moment of the attack because s/he is out of synch with the universe (and equally that tori is completely in tune with the universe) - so without this awareness, without this connection, there can be no aiki relationship.
At the risk of thinking in a linear (non-aiki) way, perhaps it's useful to think of the connection as having three phases: before, during and after.
The first time you meet someone, subconsciously you size them up, your brain registers all sorts of details about them, you also decide whether you like them, want to get to know them a little (or a lot) better and whether they pose a danger to you or not. You also have any number of physiological responses - from sweaty palms to abject fear to utter joy - to them.
It is in this tumultuous moment that your relationship is born; how it develops is up to both of you. And that is why your response is so important. Intuitively, we step back in the face of an attack; aiki training teaches us instead "when an opponent comes forward, move in and greet him; if he wants to pull back, send him on his way"
What we do in this moment before the first physical touch, how clearly we connect with our uke will set the tone for the whole interaction. At a technical level this means getting the timing, body placement and breathing just right for our first irimi or tenkan movement; at a whole different level it means opening up our very being first to the possibility of, and then to the reality of the interaction and in that split second to embrace the moment joyously. And to move.
During the attack, from the moment of almost touching to the resulting throw or hold down, tori's awareness must be constant, maintaining the connection with uke for it is at this point that uke is most likely to want to change tack as the surprise at tori's response settles in. Tori should be aware of the messages coming to him/her from the points of physical contact but also from the stiffening of uke's body, his/her breathing etc.
It is often at this point, once s/he has taken the initial control that tori will lose the connection. The temptation to carry on through with what tori has decided will be the technique, will be great, its execution seemingly pre-determined. It is also at this moment, if we withdraw our awareness of uke, that we risk hurting uke through a misplaced projection or an inappropriate take-down. O-Sensei teaches that "to injure an opponent is to injure yourself. To control aggression without inflicting injury is the Art of Peace".
But the connection remains even after the throw or the hold-down is complete. Just as the connection began before the technique was formed, so too it lives on after the physical technique is performed. Ongoing awareness, zanshin, is necessary after an attack to ensure that the attack has indeed ended - both in the physical sense, and in the mind of uke. It is necessary in a higher sense to enable us to achieve a deeper sense of humanity, of engagement and of interaction with the world and the people around us. Zanshin in one sense is the notion of ubuntu that we cherish at the southern tip of Africa - I am who I am because of the quality of my relationships with others. Being sensitive and aware of others and of what they mean to us (on the tatami I cannot practice without uke and therefore cannot sharpen my skill and my soul) means that I become a better person. We need to appreciate that even in an attack - or in a death or departure - there lies a gift from uke as it shows us something to work on or something to celebrate. So the true zanshin, the real follow-through lies within.