Going for a walk in the world: The Experience of Aikido


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The Experience of Aikido

By Ralph Pettman

The dream that makes us free
is the dream of an open heart
the dream that there might be
one world
lived together while living apart.


  • Introduction

  • What is aikido?

  • What is aikido for?

  • "Cutting through spiritual materialism"

  • Ends and means

  • A way to harmony with the universe

  • The physical dimension

  • The mental dimension

    • deep weight

    • the centred self

    • extended strength

    • body ego and mind ego

  • The spiritual dimension

    • a kind word and an open fist

    • conflict and conflict resolution

    • stress management

  • Three dimensions in one

  • About the author


Doing aikido I often feel it's more a matter of aikido doing me. My partner and I take turns at being attacker and defender (this is standard aikido training procedure). Our movements get faster and more open, the ebb and flow seems to intensify, and we begin to lose any sense of time and place. There is a feeling of renewal and this feeling begins to grow as new energy seems to rise up within us and through us.

Moments like these are very affirmative and very invigorating. They are very creative too. The whole experience is a joyful and a liberating one. Every moment feels comprehensive and alive. From a distance we look like we are doing a kind of dance. Aikido is a dynamic art and when it is done in free-form the locks and throws follow each other in rapid succession. Trainees come together and move apart, their "hakama’s" snapping and swirling. ("Hakama’s" are the pleated culottes that black-belt students wear over their judo-style training suits). Like a dance the movements can look rather contrived. They can confuse those who have never seen aikido before, not least because what the onlooker sees is actually a training method, not a form of combat. There is no winner or loser in an aikido class or demonstration. What you are watching is a lesson in sensitivity. Training partners are not trying to prevail. They are trying to become more aware. The self-defence capacity they get is almost a by-the-way one. Compassion, not combat proficiency, is the point of the training process.

I have talked to many people who do aikido and they give very different answers when I ask them how it feels. I have given one brief account above. Here is another by a friend of mine: "It must have been about a year after I started. I was being thrown ... when for a tiny second there was a sort of endless expansion. I had the sensation of floating in a place where there was no up or down, left or right, and although I was aware that such things still existed, they no longer seemed relevant. For such wells of renewal do we train!"


Aikido is a modern Japanese martial art. It was created in the 1930's and 1940's by a Japanese martial artist of rare skill and dedication. His name was Morihei Ueshiba. He died in 1969 at the age of 86. I never met him. All I know about him I've learned from what he wrote, from demonstration films he made, from films made about him, from books by his students, from conversations I've had with some of those he taught, and from practising the art he bequeathed.

Ueshiba was a farmer, a soldier and a master of many traditional Japanese fighting arts. He was also a very religious man who looked long and hard for an answer to life's mysteries. The answer he finally found inspired him to create aikido. He came to this answer over a long period of time, though there does seem to be one moment that was decisive for him. Accounts differ as to what happened at that moment. All of the accounts agree, however, that Ueshiba was being attacked by a swordsman. While the attacker tried to cut him over and over again Ueshiba found that he was able to avoid the cuts without having to fight back.

This incident seems to have marked a turning point in his life. In a book later written by Ueshiba’ son there are a few sentences, by Ueshiba himself, about that key incident. "At that moment" he writes "I was enlightened". At that moment he believed he understood the true source of every fighting art. That source he called God's love. What did Ueshiba mean by "God's love"? From his writings, in this essay and elsewhere, it is apparent that for Ueshiba "God's love" meant "the spirit of loving protection for all beings". Such a spirit, he said, was everywhere. For him it filled the universe. He felt that he had come to embody it himself and in doing so he felt that the whole cosmos had become his home. The earth and the moon, the sun and the stars had become his personal domain. In one luminous instant, he had felt it all.

The sense of universal love, Ueshiba said, was a uniquely liberating one. "I had become free" he later wrote "from all desire, not only for position, fame and property, but also to be strong".

This freedom was not detachment. It was not the objectivity and lack of passion of someone who doesn't care. It was non-attachment, which sounds the same as detachment, but isn't. Non-attachment means objectivity minus emotional concern. Detachment means objectivity plus emotional concern. Detachment means standing off from everything, like someone aloof. Non-attachment means being free to love all beings with understanding and compassion.

Using this feeling of freedom and love Ueshiba began to synthesise all the fighting arts he knew - a synthesis so original and so compelling that it became a whole new martial art. Using his new-found awareness Ueshiba began to research his knowledge of sword, stick, spear and unarmed fighting techniques. He began searching for natural ways to move. He began looking for loving rather than hateful ways, protective rather than aggressive ways, ways that encouraged reconciliation not counter- attack, ways that fostered a universal sense of space and time rather than a local sense of swapping threat for threat. Ueshiba was far from the first martial artist to have had such a realisation and aikido is far from the first martial art to be built upon the principle of love rather than hate. Aikido is one of a long list of alternative martial arts. This alternative tradition has always been more than physical or mental. It's always been part of a spiritual quest that sees in the martial arts a way of enlightening the soul rather than simply overcoming an opponent or remaining calm in combat. To quote Ueshiba, to study the martial arts is to "... take God's love ... [and to] assimilate and utilize it in [y]our own mind and body". Those who study in this spirit don't have to be told that mere fighting is bad. They come to this awareness through the practical effects the training has on their bodies and their minds.

The spiritual basis of his work placed Ueshiba squarely in the alternative tradition of what he called "true Budo". This alternative tradition has never been as popular as other sorts of budo but the millions of people who practice aikido today bear witness to the sort of interest there is world-wide in martial arts as a meditation-in-movement. Ueshiba set out quite deliberately, in other words, to develop a way of educating the soul. In doing so he was carrying on the work of many fine martial artists who had preceded him. The originality of his contribution singled him out, however, as one of the greatest martial artists of all time.
At first Ueshiba only taught private students. After World War Two, however, he made aikido public. He wanted Japan rebuilt in a constructive and affirmative fashion and aikido was his contribution to that project. He gave many demonstrations and with the help of his senior students he quickly established aikido as a new martial art. In this way he was able to show, over and over again, Aikido’s relevance not only to the body and the mind but also to the spirit. He talked of transcendent awareness and transcendent power and his demonstrations were convincing manifestations of both.

Since his death Ueshiba’ students, and now the students of his students, have continued to teach and to give demonstrations of the art he founded. They teach, as did Ueshiba himself, by direct and indirect means. They show how to do aikido, and they explain what it means, in both word and deed. Physical demonstrations are more compelling than prose (though watching a demonstration is nowhere near as convincing as doing the art for yourself). Unless you do aikido movements you can't actually know how they feel and what they ultimately mean. No amount of talk about love or compassion will get round the limitations of language itself. Nor will just watching others train. It's like learning to play the piano. You can read a hundred books about playing the piano and you can go to countless concerts but unless you actually practice at the keyboard you won't know how playing the piano actually feels. You won't know what piano music means to someone who plays it for themselves. Aikido is the same. Aikido can be shown. It can be described and explained. But there is no way to feel the movement other than to do it for yourself.

The photographs reproduced here, for example, show a range of aikido movements. The photographer is a student of aikido himself (he also studies the tea ceremony) and he has tried to show not only the outside form of aikido but its inner feeling as well.

Note how in every photograph the defender looks very calm and still. He looks like he is going for a walk. The defender in the photographs is Yoshinobu Takeda and he is a contemporary master of the art. The picture of each of his partners is often blurred. The speed and power of every attack is obvious. But so is the extraordinary composure of Takeda under attack.

It is also obvious at a glance how well, in fact, the defender understands each movement. The moment on film is only part of a much longer and larger process but it's easy to see in that frozen moment how Takeda is simply there. He is watching what happens. He is not caught up or confused. He is poised, relaxed and aware.

There are a number of poems in this book that also describe aikido techniques. By saying what is meant in poetic form the writer is trying to come, like the photographer, a little closer to how these techniques feel.

Aikido is a physical, mental and spiritual art. In plain words this can be very hard to show. It can be said, of course, but saying it does not show it. Saying it in a poem, however, can help convey what is meant in a way plain words often can't. Prose is literal. Poems are more lateral, giving us many different feelings at one time, just the way aikido can do.

There are also some examples of Japanese calligraphy made especially for this book by an old Zen monk who lives at the foot of Mt. Fuji. The spiritual themes he addresses and the free flow of his brushwork parallel precisely the meaning and form of aikido itself.

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