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.

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

真武不殺
“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)