Life Force

By Régis Soavi

Why talk about life force while the topic seems old-fashioned (it is considered today as a kind of ideological remnant from the 60’s), or remains apparently in the privileged field of a small quantity of people looking for mysterious effects?
If physical force remains for many reasons and in many cases an important area, it is not a permanent and inalterable state. There are many factors that we must take into account: the person’s age, health, mental state, social situation, world outlook, etc. The same applies to the so-called mental force, or more commonly speaking, the strength of character.

Itsuo Tsuda showing the ventral points during a conference
Itsuo Tsuda showing the ventral points during a conference

The spectacular

It has always been a dream for young people to have the body of a god or a goddess, the state of the body being clearly supposed to be reflected by its appearance. A way for evaluating someone’s health status, strength or power is her/his figure. Statues from ancient Greece or Rome would provide as many models. The focus was on aesthetic of shapes and proportions. The same applies today, but models have changed, since they now belong mainly to trendy circles of the “celeb society”: actors, high-level athletes, models, etc. Even when they have not been retouched, the images of these new models we are being offered dangle before us a completely unreal world of innocent young people, bubbling with health, hopping, and performing “exploits” with utmost ease. “The whole life of societies in which prevail modern conditions of production announces itself as a huge accumulation of spectacles. All what was directly experienced has moved away in a representation” (1). In this world of sham, no wonder we are considered troublemakers when presenting other values than those acted by advertisements devoted to Economy and a few people’s will to power – all of this at the expense of majority.

A society issue

2019 society is not the XXth century society, and even less the XIXth century society. At that time physical force had a natural – would I dare say primitive – aspect but it is no longer the case. If, for instance, medical breakthroughs in the West could save people and enabled to extend lifetime, as a backlash they made many people dependant on treatments and drugs, thereby creating a society of assisted persons whose life force seems to have sorely weakened. Pharmaceutical companies are not shy about producing profusely more and more substances, new molecules, supposed to make life easier.
One of the examples that recently caused a scandal is that of drug-addicts on prescription. Opiate-based painkillers, through the addiction they generate, have not just brought already two million people to dependance, but also hundreds of thousands to addiction, not knowing any more how to get their dose, and even – dramatically – more than forty-eight thousand people to death in the US in 2017 (2). In some countries, sports medicine too has drugged athletes without hesitation for decades in order to get their country a medal. Records are continually surpassed in sports, as well as in any place where competition is raging, but it seems difficult to win – or even just to be selected – without having body and medicine specialists in one’s technical staff.
Natural physical strength alone does not suffice any longer, more, much more is required today. Food supplements are being offered, cocktails of ever more sophisticated substances to exceed natural human limits and even sometimes simply to be always in shape, or at least to appear so, and when the consequences of treatments – or rather the ill treatment – of the body occur it is already too late to turn back.

Human Ecology

A part of the new generation becoming aware of the state of the planet could be the trigger for a more global awareness. The absolute necessity to reconsider not only the production of consumer products but also the patterns of this production should – if pushed a bit further – lead society to understand this imperative need for a change of orientation.
If technology has convenient aspects, should we give up thinking by ourselves and follow the tracks pre-printed by software, algorithms, or web-browsers? Western medicine, which is no science but an art, has progressed a lot in understanding and treating certain human diseases, but is it a reason to give up our free will and place ourselves in its hands without seeking to understand or feel what works best for us? Society over-feeds us with recommendations which, if they do not make us laugh anymore, often leave us indifferent: “Eat move”, “Eat five fruits and vegetables a day”, “Watch out your cholesterol level, eat low-fat products”, “Respect scrupulously the number of sleeping hours”, etc. The modern human being comes to follow directives from people who think for him about his health, his work, his relationships, everything is prepared, pre-digested, for the sake of our well-being, in order to realise what writers like Ievgueni Zamiatine, as soon as 1920, Aldous Huxley in 1932, or George Orwell in 1949 had described in their so-called anticipation novels, that is, “an ideal world”. Are we already living in the world Huxley predicted in his 1961 conference?
“There will be, in the next generation or so, a pharmacological method of making people love their servitude, and producing dictatorship without tears, so to speak, producing a kind of painless concentration camp for entire societies, so that people will in fact have their liberties taken away from them, but will rather enjoy it” (3).
Far from me the idea of carrying forward reactionary or backward-looking ideologies which tend to bring their solutions with the blow of “there is only to” or advocating the resurgence of patriarchal or racist values which fortunately are – or hopefully should be – exceeded. The steps to be taken belong to a completely different dimension. It is nothing less than recovering human values and this seems to be the real revolution. Aikido carries this hope, but we must not take the wrong direction.

Respiration Ka Mi: activation of life force
Respiration Ka Mi: activation of life force

Life force

Popular expressions such as “intestinal fortitude” or “to have guts” express well how important this region of the body was considered by most people who lived not so long ago. Courage did not originate in reflexion but rather in action from the bottom of the body.
Life force was a field well-known to martial arts masters and all of them paid the greatest attention to make it one of the main matters in their teachings, if not their backbone. All those who had the opportunity to know the first generation masters after O Sensei know that the value of Nocquet Sensei, Tamura Sensei, Yamaguchi Sensei or Noro Sensei, as well as so many others, did not originate in their – obviously flawless – technical quality but rather in their presence as a mere reflection of their personality, their life force.
Itsuo Tsuda Sensei, an Aikido master, also belonged to this generation but he was also one of the first generation masters after Haruchika Noguchi Sensei in the art of Seitai, a field on which he wrote quite significantly ever since his first book The Non-Doing, from which I have taken a few excerpts.
“From the point of view of Seitai, the abdomen is not merely a container for various digestive organs, as we are taught in anatomy. Already known in Europe under its Japanese name of ʻharaʼ, the belly is the source and storage centre of the vital energy.” (4)
“[L]ife acts as a force which gives cohesion to the elements we absorb. […]
This cohesive force is what we call ʻkiʼ. […]
Seitai is not interested in the details of the anatomical structure but in the way each person’s behaviour reveals the condition of this cohesive force.
As it is, this cohesion is spontaneously searching for balance and it manifests itself in two diametrically opposite ways: in excess or in deficit. When ki, cohesive force or vital energy, is in excess, the organism automatically rejects this excess in order to regain its balance. The confusing thing is that this rejection, far from being simple, takes many different and complex forms. We can see its manifestations in the way a person speaks, makes gestures or acts. On the contrary, when ki is in deficit, the organism acts to fill the deficiency, by attracting towards itself the ki of others, i.e. their attention.” (5)
In Seitai, there is a way to perceive the state of the koshi and life force, namely just by checking the elasticity of the third ventral point which lies approximately two fingers under the navel. If the point is positive, that is, if one feels it bouncing when pressed on, then everything is right, one will recover rapidly in case of difficulty or disease; on the other hand, if the fingers go deep and come back only slowly, if the belly is soft to the touch, then the body is in difficult condition and this lack of tonicity reveals the state of life force. I prefer to give no more details, so as to prevent presomptuous or ill-informed handymen from beginning to touch everything. Anyway you can try on yourself, but not on others even if they agree, the risk of disrupting their biological rythm and therefore their health is too great, it is no use playing the sorcerer’s apprentice.
Life force is what makes us rise again after sinking. It is what enables us to bring to reality projects that sometimes seem unrealizable.

 Representation of the hara, Basilica Saint-Sernin in Toulouse, France
Representation of the hara, Basilica Saint-Sernin in Toulouse, France

The Seitai technique: an orientation

Seitai provides in our daily life the tools we lack to take care of our life force. Practising Katsugen Undo (Regenerating movement), as well as the suitable Taisos according to Taihekis (bodily habits), or first aid techniques is just the visible part of it, its essence is to be found in its philosophy of life and understanding of human being. All attention given to the education of young parents, the baby care, how to make the ki circulate, to respect everyone as an individual rather than referring to general standards, all this makes it a science of the particular, as Tsuda Itsuo Sensei liked to qualify it in his so-entitled book.
If workshops are occasions for me to provide practical indications which enable people to recover a good health condition and get their life force back when weakened, I am always relying on the indivuals’ capacity to react, to understand that this implies a need for a different path, instead of dismissing their ability in favor of a technique, an idol, or a guru.
Without life force, physical force labours in finding a way out, it goes round and eventually disturbs the individual her/himself who does not know how to find her/his balance any more.
Life force has no moral standards, it can indeed be used in a relevant or irrelevant way but if it is gone, it is no use discussing about the value of the aims to be reached or about the prospects society is offering to us.
There are lots of questions about its nature, its origin, even its domestication. Some wish they could measure it thanks to highly developed technological devices, like for example, sophisticated electrodes capable of recording the subtle answers emitted by the brain. Unfortunately, or rather fortunately – considering the high risks of manipulation –, that seems impossible for the time being. Life force is of a totally different nature, one can understand it when one recovers the sensation of ki in one’s own body. But what is ki? In order to rediscover it, Tsuda Sensei offers us a clue in a few words:
“Ki is the motor of all instinctive and intuitive manifestations of living beings. Animals do not try to justify their actions, but manage to maintain a biological balance in nature. In man, the extraordinary development of the intellect threatens to destroy all biological equilibrium, to the point of total destruction of every living being.” (6)

Aikido: an art to awaken life force

Aikido is easily at the heart of many polemics about its refusal of competition, its ideal of non-violence, its lack of modernity, even its alleged inefficiency. It seems to me that it is precisely time to affirm the values of our art – and they are numerous. In the practice of Aikido, what is determining is not physical force, it is rather the ability to use it; similarly, as far as technique is concerned, the most important thing is adapting it to the concrete situation, and this is impossible without our life force been awakened. To be put in situation on the tatamis day after day, session after session, if without concession and at the same time without brutality, opens our eyes and enables us to develop and find again what animates the human being, namely a force, a vitality too often allowed to atrophy. The power that can be developed but also the tranquillity, the inner quietness that can be found again are the visible manifestation of it, the reflection of what is called Kokoro in Japan.
No need to compare with other practices because, whatever criticism is made of it, even if Aikido merely helped to allow the awakening, the maintenance or improvement of life force, would it not have fulfilled its duty to practitioners? Would it not be relevant to consider it one of the main martial arts?
Life force is at the heart of all disciplines since the origin of time and, if all martial arts evolve, it remains the essential element to their practice.

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« La force vitale » un article de Régis Soavi publié dans Dragon Magazine (Spécial Aïkido n°26) en octobre 2019

References:
(1) Guy Debord, La société du spectacle [The society of the Spectacle], éd° Buchet/Chastel, 1969, p. 9
(2) “Médicaments antidouleurs : overdose sur ordonnance” [Pain-relieving drugs: prescription overdose], newspaper Le Monde, 16th October 2018
(3) Aldous Huxley, speech pronounced in 1961 in California Medical School of San Francisco (available online on https://ahrp.org/1961-aldous-huxleys-eerie-prediction-at-tavistock-group-california-medical-school/)
(4) Itsuo Tsuda, The Non-Doing, Yume Editions, 2013 (1973), p. 191
(5) ibid., pp. 195-196, 201
(6) Itsuo Tsuda, The Dialogue of Silence, Yume Editions, 2018 (1979), p. 101