Getting to 100%

(We’re back, with apologies for the hiatus. This insightful post comes from Todd Olinsky-Paul, a senior student at Vermont Aikido.)

I think about energy a lot.  In my civilian life, I work in the renewable energy field, focused on energy storage.  It’s not a new concept, but it is relatively new to our electrical grids, which were built around a model of centralized generation and one-way flows of electricity.  It’s a model that has worked amazingly well for 100 years, but it’s virtually unchanged from the days of Thomas Edison.

We know how to generate electricity.  And we’re pretty good at transporting it from one place to another.  But we’re terrible at storing it.  We know how to store energy in other forms – liquid fuels, for example, like the gas in your car’s tank; but we don’t yet know how to store electricity very well.  In fact, we have the capacity to store less than 1% of the electricity we generate worldwide.

Because there is virtually no energy storage on our power grids, they operate as the world’s largest just-in-time delivery system.  You might not realize it, but when you walk into a room and flip on the light switch, somewhere, some generator gets a signal to increase its output just a tiny bit, to compensate for the increase in demand.  When a factory shuts down for the night, somewhere a generator ramps down in response.

The reason for this is simple.  Our factories and appliances – the technologies we depend on for daily life – require just the right amount of electricity.  If generators supply too little power, we have brownouts and blackouts.  If they supply too much, power spikes can destroy sensitive equipment.  Our electricity grid operators are responsible for supplying the exact right amount of electricity needed, exactly when it’s needed – every moment of every day.

What does all this have to do with Aikido?  Well, I think of Aikido as essentially a practice that teaches us to work with energy – to perceive it, use it, move it around.

There is a truism in Aikido that every interaction between uke and nage requires 100% energy.  If uke brings 50%, nage has to bring 50%; if uke supplies 90%, nage only has to supply 10%, and so forth.  Much like the electrical grid operator, nage is responsible for perceiving how much energy is needed, and supplying the exact right amount at any given moment.  Give too little energy and nothing happens; too much, and we can cause damage.

Fortunately, we don’t have to generate all this energy ourselves.  My first Aikido sensei, Harvey Konigsberg, used to say that ki is not like lightening; it’s more like oxygen.  We don’t have to wait for ki to strike, it’s all around us, and using it is as natural as breathing.

So far, so good.  But how do we know, as nage, how much energy we need to bring to the technique to hit our target of 100%?  After all, 100% is not an amount, but a description of wholeness.  100% of a gallon is very different than 100% of an ounce.  So, if uke has unbalanced himself and the universe in attacking us, how much energy is required to make it, and him, whole?

Aikido is based on physical principles, and it helps to understand the science of Aikido – leverage, centrifugal force, human physiology.  But it is also an art, and part of learning the art of Aikido is learning how to gauge the energy in an attack, and how to respond to it.  It’s a trial-and-error process that can take many years, and there’s always room for improvement.

Aaron Sensei sometimes talks about “agreeing” with uke. It’s a great way to think about Aikido, because it makes personal what could otherwise be very abstract.  We often use this as a way to think about direction – uke wants to go this way, so we should agree with her – but we could also use it as a way to understand how much energy to bring to the technique: uke wants to bring a lot of force to this interaction, so I’ll agree with her and just bring a little.  Or, uke wants to hold back, so I’ll oblige by supplying most of the energy.  It’s like a pot-luck lunch – oh, you’re bringing the potato salad?  Fine, I’ll bring the beer.

An interesting practice to try sometime, when you’re not too busy working on the components of technique, is to focus on feeling the energy in the attack.  How much energy is uke bringing?  Which way is the energy going?  How can I agree with uke about this?  Often this leads us to getting out of the way – the prerequisite for almost any technique.


Why Ukemi Is Impossible, Part 1

(This post was written by Paul Norris, a senior student at Vermont Aikido. Keep an eye open for part 2!)

Why is ukemi impossible?

Of course, this is a trick question.  It’s actually not that ukemi is impossible: the problem is, aikidō is impossible.  But for now, let’s just focus on the ukemi part.

What do I mean by “impossible”?  Ukemi can be described as the intersection of several sets of mutually-incompatible criteria.  To begin with:

1)  It has to be done right, or nage won’t be able to practice the technique.  No ukemi, no aikidō.
2)  It has to be realistic: it has to begin with a “committed” attack.
3)  But it can’t be too realistic.

Learning about ukemi is partly about giving a realistic attack, in the sense of some actual threat of controlling or injuring nage.  At the same time – and this is very difficult to learn – it’s slowed down a little: enough that nage can respond to it and (ideally) perform the technique.  Giving a fully-committed slow-motion attack is an art, and there’s a lot to learn from practicing that art.

But ukemi is also unrealistic.  Typically, it’s just one attack, rather than a series of strikes or kicks.  And some of the attacks aren’t terribly effective.  As a tactic, hitting someone on the top of the head with your bare hand isn’t actually a good idea, especially if you put your whole body weight into it so that when they step out of the way you over-balance.  As a tactic, grabbing someone’s wrist and then hanging on without trying to do anything else is more likely to be used between kindergarteners than in any realistic combat scenario.

Still, at least in early training ukemi is fairly straightforward.  You deliver the attack, and then you try to – to, um, what?  Figure out what you’re supposed to do, basically.  Fall down?  Oh, I can do that!  And you fall down.  Which isn’t actually helpful for your nage: because they’ve learned precisely nothing about whether they were any part of the reason you fell down.

So gradually you learn that you’re supposed to try to keep your balance.  Sort of.  Because at the same time, you’re still supposed to end up falling down, or rolling, or tapping out.  Just that you have to be involved in the experience, so that if you actually wouldn’t fall down in real life, your nage realizes that.
One important point of training in aikidō is that your nage can learn from whatever you do.  Which is part of what’s so wonderful about the training.  As Aaron Ward sensei puts it, if what uke is doing stops the technique from working, there’s a simple question to ask: Why did uke do that?  Answer: because they could.  Not that they wanted to, or that they’re making nage’s life difficult – just that nage left that opportunity open to them, and they instinctively took it.  And nage needs to understand that, and work with that (frustrating and humbling) reality.

So if you as uke keep your balance in some unexpected way, and nage doesn’t figure out how to deal with it, that’s a valuable part of nage’s training.  Just that you can’t expect nage to realize that, or appreciate it.  And meanwhile, it’s perfectly possible that nage will get frustrated by that: possibly enough to muscle you; which can lead to injury.

And that means we tend to fall back on the basic strategy of “falling down when nage expects us to,” which is the safe thing to do.  Just that it actually isn’t ukemi.  And therefore, it isn’t aikidō.  But at least no-one gets injured; which is enough.  In the beginning.

Aikido and Medicine

ἐπὶ δηλήσει δὲ καὶ ἀδικίῃ εἴρξειν
“Refrain from both injury and injustice.”
(Usually translated as: “First, do no harm.”)
-Hippocrates of Kos

“True budo doesn’t kill.”
-Ueshiba Morihei

Aikido is not a solo art; it is practiced in pairs: Nage and Uke, the thrower and the receiver.  Uke can be thought of initiating the interaction with an attack, and Nage responding with a throw or technique. But in true Aikido, Nage is engaging Uke before the attack even begins.

“…of all the people in the world,
they have chosen you to attack.”

-Terry Dobson (founder of Vermont Aikido)

Uke is a person out of balance, physically and spiritually. Uke has chosen Nage to try to connect with, albeit in a negative manner: with an attack. A martial artist trains to respond to the situation of an attack. The response may be of overwhelming force to destroy the attacker, or it may be in kind, to merely limit the harm done. Ueshiba “O-Sensei”, the founder of Aikido, says a true martial artist has a responsibility to respond without harm. Aikido teaches us to respond in a way that limits an attacker’s options and ability to harm, not to destroy the attacker.

I have recently come to use the Aikido interaction as a metaphor for the interactions in my profession as a physician. A patient is out of balance and has an illness. The patient presents to a doctor, and the doctor must work with the patient to effect a return to balance, a “cure.” But a true doctor trains to respond in those times of crisis or tipping points of health. He or she engages with the patient, and with the disease, before the presentation of an individual interaction. Training and experience allow this sense of engagement with the disease, but engagement with the patient, the individual out of balance, must be consciously recognized.

“The Way of the Warrior has been misunderstood. It is not a means to kill and destroy others. Those who seek to compete and better one another are making a terrible mistake. To smash, injure, or destroy is the worst thing a human being can do. The real Way of a Warrior is to prevent such slaughter–
it is the Art of Peace, the power of love.”

-Ueshiba Morihei

In the same way that a martial artist can respond to an attack either with overwhelming force to destroy, or with a blending response to dissipate without harm, a physician can respond to a patient with opposing force or a blended response. I am a surgeon, and the stereotype of a surgeon is of a quick responder who attacks disease directly. I have found that taking a little time to know a little more about the patient who comes to see me, to learn their balance points and then individualize my response, creates a cooperative operative plan.

I find that my movement during surgery and Aikido has a similarity, also. When Aikido is working well, Nage moves in a way that does not provoke resistance in Uke; Nage traces the path of no resistance. Likewise surgery is without resistance. My mind traces the structures of anatomy, and my scalpel draws the line between, without resistance and minimizing trauma.

I’ve found that both Aikido and medicine are models of interactions between people with balance and grace. I plan to continue to practice both.

Thank you,
Donald Laub, MD (1st kyu)

Answers and Questions

(This post was written by Paul Norris, a senior student at Vermont Aikido.)

The people we learn the most from in our lives aren’t necessarily the ones who teach us facts, or even a set of skills – how to ride a bike, study for a test, cook an edible dinner.  They’re the people who help us find ways to achieve more in our lives, reach goals that require art: to discover the ability to navigate a relationship, or to age gracefully, or to care about other people’s feelings and understand our own.  But these aren’t arts you can learn by memorizing steps; and that means that learning them isn’t about someone showing you how to do it, as much as it is about being inspired, to explore it and learn for yourself.

In aikidō, your sensei teaches you specific techniques.  More than that, your sensei offers you their life in aikidō, everything they’ve learned: about what works and what doesn’t, how to learn aikidō and how to practice it.  In our dojō, our sensei tells us over and over that the important thing isn’t the answer, it’s the question.  He shows us techniques and we try to execute them, following his example; but we never really succeed, or at least I don’t.

In the most recent class I attended, sensei offered me feedback on my technique.  He described it in terms of being insincere: doing things because I’m supposed to.  “Tenkan, check.  Face forward, check.”  But he was clear that unless nage is sincere, unless nage actually wants to connect with uke, then just checking things off a list won’t work.  It’s insincere, and (at least this is how it felt to me, so I think this is what he meant) mechanical, and not effective, because it’s not actually aikidō.

So what would be sincere?  How do I do that, if the best I can do in my practice is to be insincere?  Maybe I have to admit that I don’t really care about uke, not yet.  I know I’m supposed to; but right now I just want uke to not overpower me.  And the only way I can imagine accomplishing that would be to triumph over uke, make them fall down instead.  Be right, and have them be wrong: that’s my answer.

And that means admitting that I don’t have the right question yet.  Because my answer doesn’t let me do anything except check items off a list, and try to make uke fall down, and hope I don’t get overpowered first, or hurt or humiliated.  Even though I know that’s not what I’m here to learn – but right now that’s all I know how to do.

Because everything sensei offers us, in all the classes he teaches, isn’t an answer: it’s part of the question.  It doesn’t tell me how to get past the point I’m stuck at: of trying to make uke stop threatening me, keep them from making me lose my center.  I know it’s not up to them to stop doing that: it’s up to me to keep my center.  But I don’t know how to act on that knowledge.  It’s an answer, and I don’t understand the question behind it yet.

But I’m starting to think that maybe that’s the question I need to ask: who do I need to be, to not be afraid of uke?  To not be afraid of connecting?


On Connection, pt. 2

(This post was written by a senior student at Vermont Aikido.)

I have been on the mat for sixteen years, and as I sit down to contemplate an aspect of the Art of Peace that I would like to share today, I contemplate what is it that I have learned over the years that has been most meaningful for my life.

I come back to one the thing: connection, and the healing power of connection. I come to understand that connection is a basic human need, and that all suffering is really the experience of disconnection. It may be a broken connection, it may be a failed connection, it may be a connection not yet made. When we break connection, we suffer. We may cause suffering, but to cause suffering is to suffer ourselves.

As a species, we yearn for connection, we seek it, and we hurt when it fails. This may not necessarily be a connection to another person, though I think that is paramount for most of us. For some, it may be a connection to the divine, found in oneself, in the stars, in the mountains. This person goes off into solitude, to commune. In Aikido, we learn that connection to the divine and connection to the other are one and the same; indeed, to connect to the divine, one must connect to the other and when one disconnects from the other, one also disconnects from the divine.

On the mat, a technique ensues because a confrontation has been created; we are attacked by someone whose suffering we cannot fathom. Only a suffering person would try to hurt another. In fact, their attack is an attempt to connect, an attempt to be healed, albeit in an unskilled way that is unlikely to achieve this worthy goal.

But rather than reject this unskilled attempt at connection, we choose compassion and love. We choose to accept this attempt, to embrace it, and show our partner that they can have the connection they seek without being destructive. Both physically and spiritually, to redirect and neutralize an attack one must accept it into oneself with love and compassion. It is in fact the offering of this compassion that neutralizes the attack.

What if we could do this every day in our daily lives? What if we could lovingly accept each person’s attempt to connect, however it is expressed, take it into ourselves, experience it as an opportunity to enrich our own lives, through the richness this wonderful person has to offer us? Do we not have so much to offer one another, and do we not deprive ourselves when we reject the attempt of another to connect? What if we could see in each interaction the reaching out of another, a call for love and compassion, and offer it up generously?
What kind of world we have then? And how rich would our lives be?

On Connection: Aikido and Crisis Work

(This post was written by a senior student at Vermont Aikido.)

I am a crisis outreach worker as well as an Aikido practitioner. I work on a team, and we go into the homes of people experiencing mental health crises. Our job is to work with them to help them get through their crisis at home so that they don’t have to go to the hospital. I do my best to take my Aikido off the mat and into the homes of the people I work with.

First and foremost, Aikido is about connection, spiritual and physical. When uke grabs nage’s hand, for example, and nage extends in order to carry out an effective neutralization of the attack, she is creating a bridge to the person’s center – both the hara, or center of gravity three fingers below the navel; and the spiritual or energetic center, where a place of peace resides in all of us. In this way, uke feels that while their intent to initiate conflict has been thwarted, they are protected and cared for by their partner, and have been saved from cutting their connection to the divine through violence. Uke attacks because they are in great distress and suffering in some way. Our loving redirection through connection helps alleviate this suffering.

In much the same way, effective crisis work is about connection. When I meet with someone in great distress I see my job as meeting them where they are, so that first and foremost they know that they are not alone. I have seen severely suicidal people emerge from this place of pain in the space of an hour, just through the sense that someone is with them, and committed to connecting to them as a human being.

In Aikido, if you stay connected, spiritually, emotionally and physically, a transformation will happen. Conflict will be transformed into love.

In crisis work a transformation can also happen: a sense of hope and well-being can emerge from despair through authentic connection to another.