Aikido: an evolution of the inner being

By Régis Soavi

Itsuo Tsuda in front of the tokonoma
Itsuo Tsuda in front of the tokonoma

Aikido is an instrument of my evolution, it made me evolve, I just had to follow with perseverance and obstinacy the road that was opening in front of me, that was opening inside me.  Like many other people, I came to this practice for its martial aspect. However, its beauty, as well as the aesthetic of its movements, quickly fascinated me, and this with my first teacher Maroteaux Sensei already. Then, when I saw Noro Masamichi Sensei, and Tamura Nobuyoshi Sensei, I had confirmation of what I had sensed: Aikido was a wholly different thing from what I knew.

I came from the world of Judo, with the images transmitted to us, for example, that of the cherry tree branch covered with snow which all of a sudden lets the snow slide down and the branch straightens up. I had already gone beyond the ideas that had been conveyed by the beginning of the century and the fifties, of a « Japanese Jiu Jitsu which turns a small thin man into a monster of efficacy ».
The reality of my suburban neighborhood and especially the events in which I had taken part in the years 1968-70 had already wiped out all these images. I was just 20 when I started practicing Aikido, and if the world was surely not as I wished, it could be changed. We could move from the worldwide barbarity, with its wars, its famine, its incomprehension between peoples, towards a more humane society, a society that would be at last pacified. And  of course Aikido would enable us to do this. Master Ueshiba had just passed away, but he had left us an incredible legacy, with an amount of disciples young or less young ready to guide us, to teach us. I belong to this generation, full of these hopes, after the disappointment due to the disaster of what we had hoped to be a humanist revolution in May ‘68 in France. The philosophy transmitted by Aikido echoed in us, encouraged us to be strong in order to fight injustice. As Tadashi Abe and Jean Zin,1 E. Herrigel,2 or even a little later and in his own way  K.G. Durkheim3 explained in their books, it was a Chivalrous Art. Maybe we would be the knights of modern times… Jigoro Kano Sensei, at the dawn of the 20th century, had turned Jiu Jitsu into “an art”, a path, he had been one of the initiators of this historic change and had succeeded in making it known. Kano Sensei’s ideals were to be transmitted through education, the art of Judo being the instrument for this.
O Sensei Morihei Ueshiba had evolved too. As any man does, with time, age, experience, but much more significant than all this, was his enlightment, this moment of consciousness, which he evoked so well and in such a poetic way and which had opened in him a door to the unknown.
From Aikido which had already built itself as a martial practice, an art of fighting, he retained the form, the rigour, but the underlying philosophy was no longer the same, he was beginning to talk about love with a capital L, about « universal Love ».

Another dimension

When Tsuda Sensei who was already forty-five years old met Master Ueshiba who was then seventy-six, he immediately sized up O Sensei’s greatness, the intensity of his message. He could understand him thanks to his age, to his immense culture, and perhaps also because he did not come from the martial arts, but from Seitai, which he had been studying with Haruchika Noguchi Sensei4 for fifteen years already. A pacifist at heart, he had in adulthood also endured  the Second World War, with its train of massacres and its tragic nuclear end.
With Itsuo Tsuda I was discovering something different still from what I had learned until then. It was not about practicing or integrating techniques and repeating them endlessly. He presented us something different, another dimension. His talent was in breathing, in ki, such a mysterious notion, but with him, it became very concrete, common, almost ordinary. Because of this, and above all thanks to this, my Aikido was evolving, my practice was changing. I had heard about the religious aspect of Aikido, of the relationship that the founder had entertained with the Omoto-kyo until the end of his life. This aspect actually acted as a foil for some aikidokas. Religions were no longer in fashion and anyway things were not to be mixed up, one had to get rid of them, to go back to the origin, to fighting, to the cruel reality of life and therefore pretty much to the jungle. Don’t recent events prove them right, with their violence, and its corollaries, the whole range of protections, the tendency to withdraw into one’s own self, to focus on one’s own interests?
My master proposed us a completely different perspective. He often talked about his great admiration for Master Ueshiba. He told us that he himself was seeking in the direction that his master had given to him. He was guiding us towards the sacred, not the religious but the sacred, it was his way of teaching us the art of misogi,5 of getting across a message to this little group of French people who, at that time, were completely or almost completely ignorant of Japanese traditions and culture.

Aikido evolves
Aikido is the deepening of the perception of Ki
Aikido is the deepening of the perception of Ki

If Aikido has evolved, does it mean that we should nowadays place it among the well-being, relaxation or stress management techniques? Perhaps the philosophy of our art has not finished surprising us, for those who are able to dig, and go to the root of the human being, thanks to this formidable tool. If Aikido is evolving it is through our encounter with it, because every day, precisely every morning, during every session, we put ourselves in harmony with the other, the others, and consequently with the Universe.
Aikido is multiple but its foundation is “ONE”, it is for me a research, a deepening of my respiration, of my perception of ki. For the change that occurs inside us is the discovery of the world of ki. Aikido evolves because I evolve. My comprehension makes it evolve inside me. Our art has done much more than just evolve, it has radically broken away from its origins, it has changed orientation, it has changed “our” orientation.
Then my question is: should we make Aikido evolve because it is no longer suited to our times? The world has certainly changed, its values are no longer the same, but have the individuals really changed? Or do they want yet again to get out of the impasse in which society has led them?

To stifle our inner world to survive  or to awaken our inner world in order to live.

If so many people are today seeking in directions which are different from those offered by society, it is not to perpetuate it, but precisely because they wish to change it. To change it to move forward, not to go back. However, moving ahead does not mean making a clean sweep of the past, on the contrary. We must be able to take advantage of the experience of this past, because there are healthy roots, not everything goes out the window. In a society where individuals have become interchangeable, there are some eternal values that we can keep or find again, I mean we can make them our own again. One of these values is individuality, the diversity and the richness of people, which only want to bloom. Aikido is there to allow them this blossoming. To that end we will have to work on sensitivity, we will have to find it again in the twists and turns of our unconscious, our involuntary, in what makes us human beings, and not robots. The world of Aikido is for the majority a man’s world, its evolution will involve a genuine recognition of the feminine, as a world with its own values, so close and at the same time so far away.

This recognition of a world that has kept a connection with life in its simplicity, its primitive and  downright instinctive side, can help us find ourselves again. We will perhaps at last come to appreciate what will be a true balance, based on real equality and not dictated by old-fashioned conventions. An equality in which the understanding of the difference makes it possible to appreciate it. I am talking about the evolution which is indispensable for us to move forward. The greatest masters are neither aggressive nor violent, much to the contrary. Even if we talk about their power, we praise the sweetness of Tamura Sensei, Noro Sensei, O Sensei Morihei Ueshiba and Itsuo Tsuda Sensei. Without this diminishing them in any way, without this affecting their strength, their personality, quite the contrary. If we are to find a path that takes us to peace, wouldn’t that be the direction in which we should look ?

The love the founder talks about is not something you can learn, this universal Love emerges from sincere human beings when they have rid themselves of everything that prevented it from emerging. Their weaknesses, patronizing attitudes, fears, rigidities, and so many other things. All of us can make our own list. This love emerges from deep within ourselves, sometimes unexpectedly, always because we have let go of some of our prerogatives. It is far from being a culminating point in itself, it cannot be measured, its size is not calculable, so it can grow as  our breath deepens, as we enter a little more into what I will call a supplementary dimension: the concrete sensation of ki. Beyond the three dimensions to which we are accustomed, and without entering the fourth dimension of science fiction novels. This dimension which is the physical sensation of ki in all its forms, opens the doors to a finer and more precise perception of the world. A world somehow expanded, a world that we sense and of which we have the key. A world of freedom for us and which extends around us, which sets free all those who want to seek and to be guided by their intuition, their kokoro,6 and their intelligence deep within.
The perception of this dimension seems to me a logical evolution that must derive from the very nature of our practice and so we must direct all our energy in that direction. We must work relentlessly so that our students, and by extension the people around them, should benefit from this discovery.

Aikido: Olympic sport, art of fighting or relaxation technique?

What is the future of this practice? In spite of its glorious past it seems to be attracting less and less people nowadays. Perhaps the administrative rigidities of the French State have blocked the enthusiasm of the past generations. The schooling of society, already denounced by a philosopher like Ivan Illich7 in the ‘70s, was applied in the teaching of Aikido, with its programs, its exams, its rewards. This idea of progression based on performance has often tired young practitioners, once  the enthusiasm of the beginning was gone. Those who have been practicing for a long time and who repeat the same thing over and over again cannot see where they are heading anymore, and sometimes they are disappointed by this art which hasn’t brought them what they thought they had glimpsed at the beginning. Our masters and our forerunners who had met O Sensei, had seen something else in this remarkable man. They knew that Aikido did not come down to a miraculous efficiency you obtained by performing series of techniques faster and faster.
As an art of fighting, without the years of daily practice, it is very often a lure, and even with the intensive trainings, it remains an illusion. Even the best prepared cannot guarantee anything, because so many factors come into play in a violent encounter. You may then engage into comparisons between the various arts: English, Chinese or Thai Boxing, Brasilian Jiu Jitsu, Vale tudo, etc., everyone can claim to be the best using all sorts of arguments. This is verbal controversy, and it sometimes ends up in the ring in a confrontation quite remote from the ideals of our poor masters, whose only wish while teaching us this art was to make us fully-fledged human beings, women and men of worth. Aikido, with its humanist values, used to carry hope in the twentieth century, it found an echo in the new generation which was getting out of the old-fashioned obscurantism of conformity. Our time has changed it, it has not been able, has failed to resist the sirens of modernization, of the everyone for themselves mentality, of cocooning or moving back to shelter values such as authority, conditioning, spirit of competition.

L'autonomia non si insegna, si scopre.
Autonomy cannot be taught, one discovers it

Autonomy cannot be taught, one discovers it along with one’s individual capacities, but it takes time. You need to be guided, but not forced. Freedom is needed, but not laxity. Strength without rigidity. Finally, if we are able to propose this in dojos that are independent from states, regions,  municipalities and the various organizations, then we will see people gather and evolve together thanks to our practice. If we do not forget that the main axis of our research is ki, its manifestations, the understanding of its importance, its use through the sensation of the life which is in us. The heart of the matter lies in the discovery of the direction to take, the one leading us to autonomy, to the  fulfilment of the inner Being in simplicity.
I can thus endorse the words of Eugène Pottier’s Internationale,8 as well as those of Olympe de Gouges’ Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Citizen,9 or those of Jesus of Nazareth or even those of Buddha. As long as I make a non-partisan and open reading of them. If the West has a Manichean frame of mind, things are completely different in the East. Without idealizing one or the other, our research must lead us to grasp the best of each civilization. Our world is not one of the most cheerful, every day in the media it shows us its so often deformed face, with its share of misunderstandings, difficulties and even horrors. Though it is hard to act effectively on society at a global level, we can still act at a regional level, I mean near us, in our entourage.
Aikido, if developed in the spirit I have tried to suggest, can be an amazing tool to make our society more human, more tolerant, more welcoming too. Aikido is a wonderful art which asks for nothing better than to spread. It is for us present-day teachers to provide answers, to give a healthy direction to our practice, frankly, without hiding behind ideologies or preconceived ideas, in order to live up to what we have received from our masters.

Article by Régis Soavi published in Dragon Magazine (special Aikido n° 17) in July 2017.

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1 Jean Zin and Tadashi Abe, Victory through peace.
2 E. Herrigel, Zen in the art of archery.
3 K. G. Durkeim, Hara, the vital center of man.
4 Noguchi Haruchika (1911-1976) is the founder of Seitai.
5 For Ueshiba Morihei Aikido is a Misogi, a practice of purification of the body and of the mind.
6 The term kokoro expresses a concept, therefore it has a broader meaning compared to its equivalents “heart” “soul” or “spirit” often used to translate it.
7 I. Illich, Deschooling Society.
8 Eugène Pottier (1816-1887) author of Internationale, revolutionary song the words of which were written in 1871 during the repression of the Paris Commune, in the form of a poem to the glory of the Workers’ International.
9 Olympe de Gouges (1748-1793) left a lot of writings in support of the civil and political rights of women and the abolition of slavery.