Aikido and Philosophy: An Interview with Alan Drengson

Alan Drengson`s website: http://alandrengson.com/

Bill Little: You taught a course in the philosophy department at the University of Victoria called an Introduction to Eastern Philosophy in which you sometimes used to lecture on Aikido. If philosophy literally means ‘the love of knowledge or wisdom’, what kind of knowledge is Aikido? What lessons can we learn from it?

Alan Drengson: When I started teaching the Eastern philosophy class at the

Alan Drengson

University of Victoria I found so many of the Eastern philosophy texts very obscure. They were written in very poetic ways and it often wasn’t clear what was being said. It wasn’t clear how to interpret a lot of this literature, including writings by Chinese philosophers like Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu and also some of the Indian philosophers. The more I tried to teach these texts, the more I realized they were connected with traditions of practice that involved, what in Aikido we call, spiritual discipline. It is very difficult to make sense of what is being said in the texts without an understanding of the practices they include. This is quite different with respect to Western philosophical texts.

It is thought that a lot of the original spiritual disciplines were preceded by meditation practices related to movement such as Chi Gong. If you see someone doing Chi Gong movements, especially the free flowing ones, they are extremely organic, supple and serpentine. Their beauty reminds you in many ways of natural patterns such as whirlpools and clouds moving in circles and other spiral forms. As you know, the evolution of Tai Chi Chuan came out of such natural forms, and the movements have names like ‘Wave Hands like Clouds’ for example. It was discovered long ago that these kinds of movements and practices, which are taken from the natural world, have a very powerful effect on the human psyche and body.

These traditions don’t make a sharp distinction, as we have done in the modern world, between mind, body, spirit and emotion. They don’t talk about the self as if there are sharp divisions between these different aspects of human nature. In Western traditions, starting with the ancient Greeks, these divisions of experience came in with the development of texts and written language. They allowed the detailed analyses and development of theories that have defined Western philosophy. But the spiritual practices we are talking about have a long history before that. They are found in the oral traditions that preceded text based cultures. These older traditions were based on spontaneous spiritual experiences both in the natural world, like spirit journeys, and in ceremonial settings. One of the characteristics that enabled humans to develop cultures of vast complexity, with sophisticated adaptation to place, was that they learned how to pool or focus their energies together. By this concentration they had very profound spiritual experiences of the different dimensions of the world. In the old shamanic traditions, the world divides initially into three dimensions: the lower world of animal spirits and helpers, the middle world which is this world, and the upper world where you meet great teachers, guardian spirits, and so on. This was not just a fantasy. It was a description of the experiences people had through ceremonial practices such as shamanic drumming, dancing, singing, chanting and so on. A lot of people think that the spiritual disciplines grew out of these earlier traditions, which we find all over the world, and which are directly connected to local places and their unique spiritual energies.

In much of Western philosophy there is no real connection with the traditions of spiritual discipline. Especially in modern times philosophy has become more intellectual and theoretical. In Aikido circles we recognize lots of different sorts of spiritual disciplines, but in the West a lot of our earlier traditions were lost for various reasons, some of them having to do with the rise of a unified and centralized church. The unified church had a specific theology based more on belief and doctrine. Its ceremonial aspects have a certain kind of limited action and emotion, but they do not encourage meditation or mystical experience. The Church system did not encourage the attainment of spiritual experiences through direct experience, nor through ceremonial practices of disciplines that realign us with the natural energies of the body and nature. Anybody who looks at the history of Western religion sees that throughout that history there have been periods of tremendous persecution of the mystical tradition. In contrast, in the East — in China, India, and Japan — the religious traditions always had as a central part spiritual practice in disciplines such as meditation. When you go into the history of these arts in the Eastern cultures, for instance to India in Buddha’s time in 500 BC, there is already this awareness that there are many Dos, or Taos, or Yogas. As you know, Yoga comes from a Sanskrit word that means to yoke or to join together — so the Yogas are ways to totally unify a person’s energies for clarity, full awareness, blissful consciousness and wellness. When this happens you have a tremendous energetic experience or sense of being. It was recognized already at that time that there can be many Yogas, Dos or Taos. The same awareness was realized in the Chinese and Japanese traditions. So in Japan we have Iaido, Aikido and Judo and so on. Then there are arts which are not Budo which are Do. So these traditions of spiritual discipline have a very long history in all those places.

O’ Sensei Morihei Ueshiba

O Sensei synthesized different martial arts practices and created techniques in which the philosophy is manifest in the technique. We practice together partly because the technique becomes whole when we’re blending, harmonizing, and complementing each other’s energies. You have the mirror images, left and right, “your energy is now coming toward me” and “I’m working using that energy.” It is difficult to do that without a partner. So by practicing with partners, and practicing with different partners, we are developing our power and flexibility and the complementary sides of ourselves. Each of us has a complementary self or side depending on what our persona is and how much of a shadow we might have as a result of different sorrows, traumas, and unresolved grief. There is fear and anger to work through. These are impurities that tend to undermine our personal integrity. They challenge us to transform our energies in ways that lead to a more expansive, satisfying, and wholesome life; a life that also helps people around us. As Budo we become strong and centered and able to practice Aiki in all situations. Through this we come eventually to realize the profound truth in O Sensei’s teaching that love is the creative power of the universe. It takes great courage and many virtues to practice nonviolence today, but nonviolence as Aikido is not weak or passive. It often requires that we act with confidence and to be clear where we stand and what we care most about.

Ishiyama Sensei said to us one time that Iriminage is the very essence of Aikido, that it combines all the elements in one Gestalt. This one movement is like a holograph of the whole art. One of the insights I take from this is that with spiritual disciplines, such as Aikido, a person can internalize the whole art. A person can become an embodiment of the art. The wholeness of the art becomes part of their whole way of being and relating. This doesn’t mean that you need to know 10,000 techniques that you’ve written down in a book. It’s something more subtle than that. From this understanding you are able to appreciate the whole systems embodied in other arts.

Bill Little: The spiritual tradition that O Sensei was most connected with was Shinto. I wonder if you could talk about that connection?

Alan Drengson: The word Shinto or Shin-Do is actually a Japanese pronunciation of Shin Tao. The characters for “Shin” and “Tao” mean roughly, “the way of spirits.” But “spirits” is sort of vague and doesn’t give us the whole picture. The Japanese borrowed the Chinese characters, I think it was around 700AD, partly to keep a record of the older stories of the oral tradition. This body of writings today is a rich source of knowledge about the older traditions. Many people I know from Japan would say it is more accurate to refer to Shinto as the way of Kami – Kami-Do – because the important spiritual presences that are recognized and people work with are called Kami. The word Kami is another word that is very difficult to translate into English because we really don’t have the sense of that at all. It is more like the understanding of some aboriginal traditions, where they would recognize a spirit in a tree, or the fox having a certain spirit entity or energy associated with it. Over time, in the different traditions of Shinto, the spiritual realm became associated with shrines, gates and local practices connected to the way of the Kami of these different places. When you travel around Japan you find a variety of shrines of all sizes, from very small ones to very elaborate ones. They are for the most part looked after by local people. I saw little ones in the woods that had flower offerings placed on them everyday. Associated with Shinto are sacred forests, sacred trees and sacred places. Sometimes Shinto is described as the way of the shrines, sometimes the way of the gates. As I understand it, the gates or “Tori” basically tell us that at any place you can enter the spiritual. So sometimes you see them and wonder why they are there; there’s just a gate by itself. However, it is there as a recognition that entering the spiritual is possible everywhere. On the other hand, it might have been put there because someone did have that connection revealed to them in that place. The gate is often associated with a certain rock, or maybe a tree…

O Sensei was a rural person, and Shinto is a rural spiritual way. There are a lot of shamanic elements left in contemporary Shinto, in my perception of it at least. A lot of the things that are built into Aikido are part of that whole knowledge and practice system that is found in the Way of Kami. O Sensei created a Shinto shrine in the Iwama Dojo where he lived. More recently we had the ceremony in the main Dojo where a Shinto priest performed the ceremony to make the Dojo a shrine. It was an amazing experience for me to participate in that. It transported me back to Japan and I had vivid memories and feelings about some of the places my friend Yuichi took me in Nara prefecture. The Shinto shrines there are so natural compared to the Buddhist temples. It’s like they grew right out of the landscape. They blend right in. They’re just amazingly beautiful.

Anyway, the founder of Aikido was deeply anchored in Shinto or the way of Kami. A lot of Aikido practices we engage in have a lot of affinities with other similar shamanic practices found elsewhere. The natural forms and natural movements that run through Aikido run through Shinto. Many people say Shinto is the “looking glass” religion because it is understood that when we look at ourselves in a mirror the divine nature of each of us is reflected. The purification practices are ways to bring us to this insight by removing impurities. These are fragmentations and internal divisions that play a role in putting us off center. By the same token there are all sorts of practices that correct that. Unlike the Christian religion that teaches that only one person was divine, in these traditions everyone is recognized as having a genius or inner spiritual power and energy, which they can connect with in the natural world. That is our rightful heritage. That is where we should be. But living in a civilized setting often creates problems. So in these traditions there are ceremonies that bring us back to the center again. They keep bringing us back to being in resonant harmony with natural forces and the way of nature.

Similarly practices like Aikido are ways of reconnecting, regenerating and renewing ourselves. That inner spiritual energy that we ultimately are is there to be energized. It’s not something we get from somebody else. Every being that is alive and has awareness is part of that. So often before practicing an art like Aikido there is a period of warming up and getting in the groove. Humans discovered that by working together in a ceremonial settings, using certain patterns of movement, sound and song, they could experience a kind of unity you see in nature all the time: the flocks of birds and schools of fish that move together in synchronous ways, and so on. These creatures are living in the present. They’re not abstracted in thought or thinking about tomorrow. They are right there together. So the ceremonial activities are ways of unifying our energies as a group and as individuals. When we pool our energies and work together in that way, we transcend our personal limitations. We realize a higher level of awareness and higher levels of energy than we can usually get in contact with on a daily basis.

O’ Sensei demonstrates Kokyu Ho

O Sensei, in many of his writings, says that the movements of Aikido are movements found throughout the natural world: the circular movements, the spirals, the movements of blending and redirection and so many other patterns . Aikido can in some ways be seen as dancing a martial art in the sense of a ceremonial dancing, where we are transported to an open awareness and become connected with the world around us. It is a tantric art in the sense that we work directly with energy. There is a direct sensitization to the energetic processes and flows all around us. This is something we have an innate capacity to do, but because of our ‘civilized’ living and the traumas we’ve suffered we are prevented from having direct access to it. A lot of O Sensei’s practice was outdoors in the natural world. He spent time doing Misogi breathing and movement practices on top of mountains and out in the forest. This changes how you experience the world. You begin to be sensitive to all the natural forces. You begin to recognize and see things differently. You begin to hear the crows in a different way. You begin to see the eagles in a different way. You begin to have all these amazing encounters with these different natural beings. A lot of O Sensei’s own personal work involved this kind of connection, the renewal of this connection for himself in the natural world through purification and meditation exercises, which he brought into Aikido practice.

Bill Little: Last week you were mentioning Rupert Sheldrake’s concept of morphogenetic fields. How do they apply to Aikido?

Alan Drengson: It’s been found in lots of different traditions that when a group of people practice a certain ceremony together, that is, an energizing and whole art, they are transformed by the practice. They create what you might call a matrix or pattern that is strengthened and extended by their practice. Even if you aren’t part of the practice, suppose you’re away traveling, they continue to practice and you continue to benefit from that. Once you have entered into that circle and become enough a part of it so that you have internalized it to a high degree, then you continue to get energy from the practitioners that are keeping it alive. And in a sense you can contribute to that yourself in your daily life by how you interact with people and in other ways.

I started to talk about the patterns of fields of energy. The leading edge work in cosmology in the West today is coming to realize what is found throughout the very early cultures, and you find it in Aikido as well. The world is not a world of static things. It is a dynamic world that is constantly changing in which there are all sorts of energetic processes that are self-directing and self-questing. Other types of beings are trying to realize themselves in different ways. Aikido is a practice that helps attune us to that reality, which is reality. The more aware and awake we become, the more intensely connected we become. We can set off cycles of positive energy that feed on themselves and enlarge, just as it’s possible to set off fields of negative energy that feed on themselves and go down. The spirals we work with in Aikido are interesting forms because they can start from a very small point and grow into something really large. Similarly, if we work together to solve a problem at the local level, once it is started in motion it can increase and feed upon itself.

The biologist Rupert Sheldrake was taken by the fact that there are all sorts of biological systems and species that seem to have awareness at levels that we have difficulty understanding. How can they know this? How can they act in this way? He thinks that it is very helpful to think about them as participating in and creating morphogenetic fields. This explains how a change in behaviour can happen with a whole species almost over night which couldn’t be explained by, “if one tells another and tells another and so on.” The Chickadees in a village in Southhampton in the 1920s learned to pull the cardboard caps off the home delivered bottles of milk to drink the cream off of the top. Then another group started to do it simultaneously somewhere else miles away and the behaviour began to spread like this at an accelerating pace until the entire English population of Chickadees was doing it. There’s something else going on here Sheldrake says. The idea of the morphogenetic field is one model to use to give us insight into it, that the world around us consists of all kinds of energetic processes, forms and fields interrelated in many ways. We live in an evolving, living systems universe where awareness is integral to all life.

The morphogenetic field is one way of trying to give a kind of metaphor or analogy to explain partly what is going on in Aikido practice as well. It is related to the insight that awareness is a field. You participate in awareness and you can create forms of awareness through ritual practice, through ceremonial practice. So Aikido is in the most profound sense a ceremonial practice in awareness and community building. It is a ritual, involving movement, breath and many other forms of energy that create something like morphogenetic fields. And the fields influence one another. So that they have found that even organisms that are separated and at a distance from one another will change together as the morphogenetic fields are changing. We can through ceremonial practices actually set in motion these energetic fields that continue to resonate and to support intentions and positive growth. Collectively we are contributing to this and collectively we are contributing to something positive outside the Dojo in terms of what we ourselves bring to our own relationships in work and personal life, but also in terms of what we can bring to the larger community. As O Sensei pointed out, Aikido is a practice that creates community and friendship.

Aikido as a Kami-Do, as part of a Shinto ceremonial practice, is working with energetic fields and presences. So through the ceremonies and rituals that are performed at the Dojo — which make the Dojo like a Shinto shrine — a certain conscious space is created, a certain spiritual space of which we are aware.

Bill Little: A lot of the ways in which you have described O Sensei and the deep ecologist Arne Naess and the Ai-Ki part of Aikido has been through the metaphor of non-violent communication and mutual understanding, being open to the other, not coming to loggerheads with the other, and so on. The other side of Aikido is that it is a martial art so it also has a martial component, some sort of relationship to violence. Even the idea of non-violent communication is oriented to the possibility of violence. How do you see Aikido fitting in with violence and the martial component of the art?

Alan Drengson: Well one of the really striking things about Aikido is that the founder said there would be no competition, no fighting with other people. He said we need to enter upon a deep meditation in which we ask ourselves, “Who is the enemy? How do enemies come to be? Why do we have enemies?” He said that Aikido is Budo for the new century, for a time when we have the possibility of total annihilation through atomic weapons and other devices. Truly the military solution to conflict is no longer viable. As the United States and the Soviet Union showed us so clearly with the amassing of weapons of mass destruction, where does that go? The logical end is that we will all be killed. So clearly in this new era we have to work at building relationships. This is why Aikido is so valuable today because it is an art of reconciliation and this is demonstrated even in its individual techniques such as Iriminage. As a martial art it has all the virtues of the warrior tradition, including those of honour and integrity, but it also cultivates our higher capacities for compassion and seeing things from many perspectives. Aikido is a global art in this sense, even though it is rooted in the rural soil of Shinto in Japan. Transcending the sectarian violence and fear associated with trying to protect your worldview from all others and making it number one is a major source of international
conflict. Aikido helps us to see that these kinds of misunderstandings are not so important that we should fight or get defensive. In this regard it seems significant that the meaning of O’Sensei’s given name is “abundant peace”.

By not competing we are not being drawn into egotistical small minds. This makes Aikido an expansive and inclusive art, which can be practiced anywhere anytime. It can be practiced with pen and ink, with a saw getting fire wood, and in discussion of deep philosophical questions. We need more Budos that uphold the sacred traditions of self transformation and ego transcendance. Too many of the fighting practices in film and in the media today set terrible examples for our young people. They do not help them to mature and find a way with heart to their own centre.

Bill Little: If you were to sum up the lessons of Aikido, how would you describe them?

Alan Drengson: One of the lessons that you can learn from Aikido is that people can come together in a ceremonial setting and practice a spiritual discipline which has very ancient roots, has a very direct connection with nature, and which leads you beyond the narrower sense of who you are. Aikido is a way to harmony with nature. You realize your possibilities are much greater than you thought. I think O Sensei would have agreed with Arne Naess when Arne says that we seriously underestimate ourselves. Each of us underestimates ourselves. We are capable of so much more. Aikido as Budo is a centered way to bring our power and strength to reconciliation with each other and the natural world.

The practice of Aikido provides you with insight into quality of experience which doesn’t depend on quantity of things. Just doing Misogi breathing on a mountaintop leads to a quality of experience that’s truly amazing. You can have that quality of experience in daily life and it doesn’t require a lot of stuff. You can have a high quality of life with a very simple life. That is one of the things Aikido shows us too. The Dojo is a very simple place, but it has many levels of complexity and sophistication that we enact by being in and participating in the practice. We set off positive cycles of change, positive energy. We can give positive energy to other people. So if somebody is depressed we can give them positive energy, and we can be healers to each other in very simple ways. The quality of our lives is directly dependent on the quality of our relationships to our selves, to the people we live with, to our community, and to nature. Aikido shows us how to improve the quality of each of these dimensions and it is an ever expanding process. It is a type of growth that has no limit unlike other types of enlargement that can become pathological.

Something else that is important to me in connection with all of these practices we have been talking about is that they open your eyes, your mind and your receptiveness, to how being judgmental closes us down. In many respects our own limitations are the result of judgments we make about ourselves. For example, if somebody says, “Oh I’m a klutz, I can’t possibly juggle” or “I can’t possibly dance.” And yet we see people all the time who have far more infirmities who are able. They are able because they don’t give up, because they keep trying, because they’re positive, they have positive energy. That’s what Aikido gives us, a positive energy. It energizes us, opens our awareness, and releases that spiritual power that each of us has.

Dr. Alan Drengson is now Emeritus Professor of Philosophy and Adjunct Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria. He is author of many articles and books including Shifting Paradigms, Practice of Technology, Beyond Environmental Crisis and an ecotopian novel Doc Forest and Blue Mt. Ecostery. He is the founding editor of  The Trumpeter: Journal of Ecosophy and Ecoforestry. Two edited anthologies will be published in 2008: Ecology of Wisdom: Writings by Arne Naess and Wild Foresting: Practicing Nature’s Wisdom. He offers workshops on the Wildway, has taught and practiced meditation disciplines related to harmony with Nature, and loves wild dancing, skiing, wilderness journeying and mountaineering.

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3 thoughts on “Aikido and Philosophy: An Interview with Alan Drengson

  1. Pingback: Reflections on Gilles Deleuze and the “Plane of Consistence” on the Occasion of an Aikido Seminar with Yoshinobu Takeda Sensei (Victoria, BC, July 21-22, 2012) « William Little's Sociology Web Page

  2. Pingback: Reflections on Gilles Deleuze and the “Plane of Consistence” on the Occasion of an Aikido Seminar with Yoshinobu Takeda Sensei (Victoria, BC, July 21-22, 2012) | William Little's Sociology Web Page

  3. “These traditions don’t make a sharp distinction, as we have done in the modern world, between mind, body, spirit and emotion.” – this is quite true, and important to understanding that Morihei Ueshiba’s speeches were as much technical description as anything else, and that his technical method was linked to his method of personal change and development – which was also specific and practically based. In order to examine those speeches in any depth, however, one has to have the correct background to understand the context.

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