Aikido As A Martial Art
© by Lawrence Novick, Ph.D.
There have always been questions about whether or not Aikido is an effective martial art, or whether it is a martial art at all. The simple answer is yes, it is a martial art in that at the physical level it addresses the issue of self-defense, albeit often in a very lofty and idealistic manner. Aikido does deal with being attacked, and does have techniques that, when executed properly, are designed to deal effectively with an attack, so we can in fact call it a martial art.
A more subtle, and more complicated, view is to look at what the essence of Aikido technique is, and how the physical level fits in with and reflects some of the deeper, philosophical dimensions of Aikido. To do this, one need look at how Aikido is practiced, and at certain principles that O'Sensei taught and see how they help explain the deeper process of consciousness that Aikido tries to cultivate and promote.
The Techniques of Aikido
It is important to understand that the Aikido techniques that are taught in a dojo are just examples of Aiki and how to redirect energy. They exist so that we have a reference for how to learn and apply the movements and concepts of harmony, Ki, connection, and redirection, and so that we have something to practice in order to build a vocabulary of possible responses according to and maintaining the fundamental principles of Aikido. The way that techniques are generally practiced, at least traditionally, can be idealistic: they are isolated moments and circumstances that allow us to see the literal application of Aiki to a given situation or movement. At a higher level of training, one learns to open the circumstances up to a more chaotic experience, thereby working towards integrating a more spontaneous ability to respond to the moment.
It is important, however, to not ultimately place too much importance on the techniques and thereby limit oneself to a system of purely physical movements and reactions. It is questionable, if one practices only at that level, whether that kind of training leads to either effective martial ability or inner consciousness development of any great depth.
Ultimately, you must forget about technique. The further
you progress, the fewer teachings there are. The Great Path
is really No Path. [The Art Of Peace, Ueshiba, M., Stevens, J. Ed. - p. 114]
The real learning process is beneath the surface, in the realm of energy, awareness, and self-examination. The essence of Aikido, technique and otherwise, is not in the techniques themselves.
The Meaning Of Take Musu Aiki
O'Sensei used the term "Take Musu Aiki" when describing the true performance of Aikido beyond technique. This phrase translates as "martial creative aiki" but we can translate that to mean the spontaneous creative experience of Aiki made conscious through the martial process. It is the spontaneous dance of consciousness and energy, directed according to certain physical and energetic guidelines of circularity and non-dissension, as it manifests in the interactive physical "self-defense" process.
This is both a physical (manifest) and spiritual (transcendent) process, and both spiritual, inner Aikido, and physical, martial Aikido are made real through Take Musu Aiki, not through the techniques themselves. Ultimately, technique should evolve and manifest from this unfolding creative process and become appropriate conscious response, not conditioned, automatic reflex reaction. To understand Aikido as a martial art, one must understand that it is generated from Take Musu Aiki and the physical and spiritual process of being in harmony with Ki, not from a sense of "doing something" about an attack or a negative interaction as such. Not only one's inner development, but also the overall effectiveness of Aikido depends in part on this principle, not just in a particular situation but in the general sense of applying Aikido to any confrontation. Then one never gets caught up in, or looses one's center to, the attack itself or some concept of what one should do, but one can flow freely with events and ideally deal with anything that may happen.
The Meaning (and Role) of Ki Musubi
Take Musu Aiki is achieved, in part, through "Ki Musubi" which is the "tying up of Ki" as in a knot. What this really describes is a process of continually unfolding connection, direction, and control which comes from the proper extension of one's own Ki, the feeling of it's connection with another person, and the awareness of different levels of physical and energetic feedback. The more experienced Aikidoist should be continually picking up information and processing it as they interact with someone to keep the connection.
But Ki Musubi is not so much a physical thing as it is reflected in the physical process. It's source and essence are on the energetic plane and within one's consciousness (which includes the physical plane but is not confined to it.) Awareness at this level allows the practitioner to feel, follow, control, and lead the flow of Ki, intention, and movement without hard, physical reference but with their own Ki, which elicits no conscious or unconscious resistance. This constant joining allows the flow to continue to unfold, and for the emergence of the proper control and redirection into a technique. This softness, connection and leading of the flow at the "Ki level" is how techniques are properly executed, and in my opinion, how O'Sensei meant for Aikido to be performed. Without Ki Musubi, there can be no Take Musu Aiki, no flowing connection, and no generation of appropriate Aikido response in the creative moment.
Aikido And The Fighting Mind
At the deepest level of Aikido philosophy it is clear that if your goal is to defeat your opponent, you yourself have already been defeated by your own fighting mind, which has taken you out of harmony and placed you back in the duality of attacker/defender, and into the negative feelings that arise when one unconsciously reacts when one's vulnerability is threatened. This is one of the most important concepts that O'Sensei taught, and it is at the heart of his philosophy. There may still be Aiki techniques that work in a particular situation, but because of the intent they become martial technique, that is, only intended to defeat an attacker. That is not Aikido.
Aikido is not about fighting. In fact, Aikido is specifically about not fighting. If you are fighting, you are not in harmony, you are trying to win. You are in the experience and consciousness of fighting, the implications of which are negative and destructive, and that is what O'Sensei was trying to teach people to leave behind, or move beyond. If you are fighting, you are engaging in conflict and feeding it. More than anything, this is a manifestation of what is happening on the inside, in one's consciousness. It is the fighting mind and its dynamics that Aikido deals with - not the opponents', but our own.
To a large degree it is one's intention that defines this process, because it not only dictates how one will respond to an attack, but the experience one has when dealing with it as well. Why we carry the intention to fight is a broad subject, having to do with physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects of our individual makeup. Suffice to say at this point that we must deal with these things in Aikido to reach a higher level of practice, experience, and understanding.
The Path of Aikido
These are some of the deeper levels of Aikido, beyond the duality of polarization and negative reaction. Duality is experienced or not, depending on the intention one holds, the experience that one has, what one's awareness of, and one's relationship to, the situation is, and the choices one makes. But Aikido deals with the dualities of this plane of existence in a unique, and a uniquely spiritual, way. The path of Aikido is a path of the inner resolution of conflict as much as anything else, dealing with that within us that polarizes with life's circumstances and co-creates conflict within and without. It is also a path of spiritual understanding, acceptance and letting go. This is an ongoing life process.
Aikido not only deals with the physical, but with very lofty philosophical and spiritual ideals that are sometimes difficult to understand let alone achieve in practice or everyday life. This doesn't make Aikido a deficient art, it makes for an incredible possibility in everyday life to strive for.
So, although Aikido deals with being attacked, it's intention is truly different than other martial arts, which for the most part aim at achieving physical victory over someone else. O'Sensei intended Aikido to be the art of peace and harmony, not destruction. I believe the goal is to leave behind the fighting mind and practice Take Musu Aiki through the process of Ki Musubi. This is what brings about the transcendent experience of Aiki. When Aikido is practiced this way, it becomes both an effective, powerful martial art and a process of inner consciousness development, even a spiritual path. Otherwise, it is learned and practiced as either an idealized art or a purely physical art, lacking, perhaps, the actual manifest realization that Aikido addresses matters far beyond self-defense.
Within this broad scope, it is important to remember that Aikido in and of itself is not technique. The techniques reflect the fundamental principles that in turn reflect the philosophy. The techniques can be, and are, applied in different ways, in different dojo, by different people, with different intentions. This reflects different personalities, qualities, and different understandings and applications of what different people consider and experience Aikido to be. The techniques also change, evolve, and reshape themselves in the moment of real interaction. It is the philosophy and the principles that do not change. This is the deeper learning, and an important aspect of the meaning and heart of O'Sensei's expression Take Musu Aiki.
As O'Sensei also said:
The techniques of the Way of Peace change constantly;
every encounter is unique, and the appropriate response
should emerge naturally. Today's techniques will be different
tomorrow. Do not get caught up with the form and appearance
of a challenge. The Art of Peace has no form - it is the study of the spirit.
[The Art Of Peace, Ueshiba, M., Stevens, J. Ed. - p. 113]