On Experimentation in Aikido: The Wedge and the Wand

IMG_8221The Aikido seminar or Gashuku always has the feel of a totemic gathering of the tribes in which one gets to meet and practice with members of other dojos and sometimes try different styles or lineages of Aikido. Some of them stand out as occasions where one not only refines technique or learns principles but reaches in to the deeper mysteries of embodied knowledge. Below are some reflections on a three day Aikido seminar lead by Takeda Yoshinobu Shihan in Victoria, BC (September 22-24, 2017), which marked the 25th anniversary of Aikido Kenkyukai International (A.K.I.) in Canada.

Embodied knowledge refers to types of knowledge that are learned through the body. This is central to Aikido and the martial arts in general. But what do we really mean when we say we learn something through the body? The philosopher Spinoza argues that “we do not know what a body can do” (Ethics, III, 2, scholium). In a commentary on Spinoza, Gilles Deleuze adds, “Lacking this knowledge, we engage in idle talk” (Deleuze, 1988, p. 18) when we talk about the body. What we do know about the body is limited with respect to the body’s full potentials and possibilities. There is a knowledge in the body that always exceeds our conscious knowledge at any particular time. As a result, we can know things and learn things through the body for which cognitive types of learning are unsuited.

This should not come as a surprise to practitioners of the martial arts who wrestle with the mind body relationship every day in practice, both literally and figuratively. An experience of being centered or off balance, for example, can be described conceptually but we need to feel it to “know” it—to know what happens when one is centered or not. Nevertheless it would be a mistake to say we know these things “naturally.” We train to know about center and balance. It is the product of a different sort of knowledge and experimentation, one that is accessed through the body directly.

Spinoza’s point about the body follows from his theory of parallelism in which mind and body coexist, albeit on separate tracks. The mind does not control the body nor cause it to act. Nor does the body control the mind or cause it to act. Neither the mind nor the body has primacy over the other. They move together. “According to the Ethics … what is an action in the mind is necessarily an action in the body as well, and what is a passion in the body is necessarily a passion in the mind. There is no primacy of one series over the other” (Deleuze, 1988, p. 18). This suggests, as Deleuze says, that if we do not know what a body can do, we do not know what a mind can do either.

img_21151.jpgInterestingly, Spinoza’s observation—“we do not know what a body can do”—falls roughly in line with the theme of Takeda’s recent seminar. Without it being explicitly announced, the seminar’s focus was precisely on learning to take the body seriously as a site of knowledge. Takeda framed a number of exercises during the seminar with the theme of bodies moving together, (a phrase, which in a nutshell, translates the Ai and Ki in Aikido). How can we understand Aikido, if we do not know how bodies move together?

In order to develop his emphasis on experimentation (kenkyū) in the martial arts, one of the more “out there” of these exercises was one we could call “The Wedge and the Wand.” In this exercise Takeda asked a number of Ukes (attackers) to form a wedge shaped clump, holding on to one another, behind a leader at the apex of the wedge. The Ukes have to learn to move together as one; to feel where the leader or apex is going and follow. The Nage (defender) faces them from several paces away, either with a Bokken (wooden sword) or bare-handed. The Nage creates an opening for a line of attack from the Ukes by holding the Bokken or arm to one side, leaving the body exposed, or closes the line of attack by bringing the Bokken or arm forward to block or threaten. For the purposes of the exercise the Bokken or arm are taken to be both lethal and infinitely long and straight. Thus when the Nage opens the line of attack, the clump of Ukes see an opportunity and move forward as one to initiate an attack. When the Nage threatens or closes the line of attack by gesturing a strike, the Ukes must move as one out of the way or fall together to avoid the lethal slice of the infinitely long sword.

IMG_8217 (3)There is a certain level of discomfort in practicing Aikido this way. Someone simply has to wave their arm like a wand and everyone in the wedge falls down. To huddle together in a clump doesn’t “make sense” as an attack and the exercise does not involve any explicit techniques in the Aikido repertoire.  Yet Takeda seemed very keen on using the exercise to develop his emphasis on experimentation as we repeated it several times over the course of the weekend seminar. In these cases it is best not to think about things too much (see below) and just do what the sensei says. In the end the exercise turned out to be a fascinating lesson in the problems of learning things through the body, one which could not have been conducted through a more explicit, verbal explanation of principles and goals. It was arguably not until one started paying attention to what was going on in one’s body—putting the body’s experience in the picture and trying to follow where it led—that one was able to get insights from the exercise.

I have broken the insights from the exercise into four points about embodied knowledge. These are idiosyncratic to my own experience of “bodying forth” to learn something through the body, but I would guess that others had similar experiences. I have coupled each point with a line from Deleuze’s essay on Spinoza in the hope that Aikido might teach me something about Spinoza as well.

First, “the conditions under which we know things and are conscious of ourselves condemn us to have only inadequate ideas, ideas that are confused and mutilated, effects separated from their real causes” (p. 19); the mind resists and closes down new avenues of knowledge when it encounters discomfort.

One typical symptom of the mind body problem in the martial arts is the issue of over-thinking a technique or martial exchange. What does it mean to “over-think”? Usually it means that one has an idea, schema or plan about how something is going to go or how something should go, which is disconnected from the actual situation at hand. There is an excess of thought. By imposing the idea on the situation, the technique becomes mutilated; the martial exchange is messed up. Something that should be “as simple as riding a bicycle” becomes hopelessly complex and impossible. Of course riding a bicycle is not simple; it involves a complex bodily knowledge. It is only after one has learned how to ride that we get the idea that riding a bike is simple.

A similar principle was at play with the Wand and the Wedge. As an exercise, it interfered with the idea one had about what proper Aikido training looks like. It was uncomfortable. One did not know where it was going. To the degree that one stuck with one’s preconception—one’s “idea”—or with the confusion that results from “not having an idea” about what the exercise was about, nothing could be learned. The body was blocked, clumsy, half-hearted, rigid, and stupid.

The exercise was therefore a visceral means of demonstrating how the mind, which we so often rely on to know and learn things, can in fact be a vehicle for resisting learning. It illustrates the case of the learner who puts the cart before the horse, the idea in the mind before the knowledge of the body. Just as with over-thinking, the idea imposes itself upon the body. As Deleuze says, “In this way it will take itself for the first cause, and will invoke its power over the body” (20). However, if the body is the site of knowledge, then it is the way the body moves together with others, composing and decomposing larger unities, which generates the idea, not the other way around. Consciousness just Conatus“registers effects” (19) of different bodily configurations, which are felt into through the body. It does not cause things to happen. Again, it is not that the body should have priority over the mind, but that one’s ideas are contingent on a bigger moving situation that involves both bodies and minds. One gets adequate ideas to the degree that they express how body and mind move together.

Second, “determinate affections are necessarily the cause of the consciousness of the conatus” (p. 21); mood or affect opens a new path for consciousness to follow.

Typically the affect or attitude in which one approaches learning technique in Aikido is seriousness—the martial arts are about life or death matters and therefore a certain seriousness or heaviness of intent seems appropriate.

IMG_8208 (2)However, some of the physical practicalities of the Wand and the Wedge exercise began to alter this. For one thing, trying to move together as a clump of Ukes looks funny, like a very tight and clumsy Rhumba line. Not only that, but the way in which one has to move one’s feet to avoid them getting stepped on by the others becomes increasingly ridiculous as well. The best movement seemed to be to one of rapidly stamping from side to side as the clump moved forward or back, or left or right. In this way one didn’t lift ones feet high enough from the mats for someone else’s toe to slide beneath, nor did one commit ones foot to one spot long enough for it to get crushed by someone else’s. It looked funny and it felt funny.

On the wand waving side, in the absence of real magic, it became clear that not every wand waving gesture worked—some were too fast and impossible to follow, some were unreadable, some were caught up with the Nage trying to think too much about what to do. But others became quite theatrical, like the Nage who decided to lasso his group, turn, and haul them across the dojo over his shoulder, each step grimacing with the weight of his cargo.

As the exercise shifted from seriousness and confusion to lightness and laughter, it became clear that the affect of joy opens a different type of learning through the body than the affect of seriousness. A lightness in feeling enabled one to pass from the earlier resistance to study the exercise with fresh eyes. From this angle it became possible to recognize the different types of learning and the different range of movements that are possible when bodies become light and fluid. The feeling in the body became so prominent that it became difficult to ignore that in fact in joy one was inhabiting a different body altogether, one with different potentials and possibilities.

Third, “consciousness is only a dream with one’s eyes open” (p. 20); sometimes it is good to close one’s eyes.

The exercise began to kick into a different level for me when I realized that when I was in the middle or the back of the clump of bodies, there wasn’t much I could do to affect the direction or course of the movement. Often one could not see the Nage at all and everyone more or less depended on following the person in front of them to know what direction to move in. This is when I decided that I should try just closing my eyes and follow the movement by feeling where the flow of bodies went. This was the feeling of allowing oneself to be carried away by the moving bodies; not exactly passively but by actively seeking out and following the center of the movement as we train to do in more formal Ukemi practice.

IMG_8205 (2)I think the first thing that became evident was that there was actually a flow to the moving bodies rather than the hesitant, shifty, somewhat flustered, back-and-forth-shuffling-about-then-falling-down that was the dominant sense of the exercise at the beginning. This still existed on the visible surface, but it was also possible to feel the aggregate center of the wedge’s momentum behind the uncertain hesitancy of each individual over-anticipating the movements and over-compensating for missteps. Moreover the center itself was always smooth, massive and unwieldy with inertia. It was a heavy irresistible force, slow to change course and hard to resist when a course was set. Yet as we worked on the exercise, the movement became less cumbersome, more responsive.

Fourth, “what is an action in the mind is necessarily an action in the body as well, and what is a passion in the body is necessarily a passion in the mind. There is no primacy of one series over the other” (p. 18); if mind and body are to move, they must move together.

It was hard, in other words, not to reach the conclusion that we were participating in what might be called in a Taoist or Shintoist idiom “earth energy.” The idea of earth energy has its complement in sky or heavenly energy. Where earth refers to the inert and heavy forces of matter, sky refers the light and mobile forces of spirit. The life of the body, it is said, exists along the line dividing earth and heaven, the S curve within the ubiquitous yin yang symbol, the Taiji pole that corresponds to the vertical alignment of the body within the horizontal plane of ground and sky. As everything moves or cycles the problem is to keep balance within the tumult.

Heaven and earth seemed to me the appropriate categories—at once metaphors in the mind and affective dispositions in the body—to feel in to the experience generated by the exercise. If the experience of being an Uke in a clump of bodies was a means of studying how bodies move together according to the properties of inertia, gravity and mass (earth energy), the experience of being the Nage who waves the wand was a means of studying the difficulty of working with unrestricted movement, lightness and form (heavenly energy). The Nage’s power to move the wedge seemed unlimited, in principle. By gesturing one way or the other the clump of Ukes moved. Yet it was a power circumscribed by connection. It was very easy to disconnect and make a gesture that the Ukes could not follow. The problem was one of keeping ones perception of the variable forces, directions and vulnerabilities of the Ukes connected to their physical reality.

The power of heavenly energy is seemingly infinite yet fragile. The mind exists in relation to the qualities of the sky and the heavens as the site where things appear, where patterns and the logic of relationships become visible, where the density and opaqueness of things may be penetrated. As opposed to the inertia of the earth, in the heavens there is the potential to move at infinite speed from thought to thought, image to image, place to place, concept to concept. Movement is unimpeded, except by the structure of ideas themselves. The mind is therefore both incredibly light and incredibly flighty. It passes unhindered through open celestial space. Its power is one of being able to conceptualize something and then bring it about in the world; its fragility is one of becoming disconnected and frivolous—of over-thinking, of forming false representations, of taking itself as a cause rather than an effect.

IMG_8213 (2)The truth of the exercise therefore returns to the truth of bodies moving together. If mind and body are to move, they must move together. There is a bigger picture, which is not a “picture” at all but a configuration of embodied knowledge and mental perception: “what is an action in the mind is necessarily an action in the body as well, and what is a passion in the body is necessarily a passion in the mind.” The question of how to orient oneself to this bigger configuration was the object of the experiment. What can a body do? How does the body become mobile and overcome its tendency to inertia? How does the mind harness power and overcome its tendency to flightiness and disconnection?

The answer seemed to be to drill until one could take oneself out of the equation, to make the situation impersonal. On the side of the Ukemi practice, one became a body among many bodies, an impersonal piece within a configuration of a multitude. To combat the tendency in martial arts practice to use one’s body to try to make someone do something, one surrenders this sense of the-individual-body-at-command to a bigger collectivity of bodies that to all intents and purposes is beyond any individual’s command, yet moves together. One does not become passive as a result. One does not surrender the spark that responds, strives, animates, calculates and seeks advantage—one extends it into a bigger field that is characterized by a multiplicity of moving parts.

On the side of the Nagemi practice, it was a question of how one learns that the idea is not a cause, (as noted in #1 above). The consciousness wants to see itself as a cause not an effect, in the sense that one thinks of oneself as acting freely on an idea, putting it into action, and making things happen. But in the exercise, the idea of what to do to get the Ukes to move effectively was more like what we mean by a perception, namely the effect or product of a wider set of contingencies and circumstances. It might be trite to say, but this meant setting aside the self-concept of the individual ego—in particular, the self backed against the wall, the self imperilled by dangers and challenges of the outside world. Instead, the Nage needed to align his or her consciousness and perception within a bigger configuration, a kind of Copernican shift to seeing the situation in terms of the geometrical lines of force that carried not only the Ukes but the Nages away as well. Take oneself out of the equation; make the situation impersonal.

Some concluding thoughts about theory and experiment in the martial arts.

The theoros in ancient Greece was the one who, by contemplating the immortal order of the universe (theoria as “looking on”), sought to bring him or herself into internal alignment with that order. The theoros molds his or her life and conduct in accord with ordered motion of the universe. In the study of Takeda’s exercise, the categories of heaven and earth occurred to me to be appropriate metaphors of embodied knowledge.  They characterized the parallel between the universal order of the cosmos and the mind and body of the subject. They laid out the lines along which a systematic exploration of how bodies move together could be conducted. It is entirely possible that other metaphors of embodied knowledge could apply as well. These ones admittedly have some baggage of an orientalist nature and yet they struck me as appropriate and meaningful.

As a body in the world, we must learn from the inside about those things that Descartes dismissed as purely material res extensa. As “extended beings” we must learn what extension means—to extend or contract along vertical lines and horizontal lines, within expansive and compressed spaces, according to  forces of gravity or forces of muscular exertion, on the peripheries of circles or at their center. There is a bodily reason that does not await the idea in consciousness to become clarified. It thinks through the qualities of touch, orientation, movement, threshold, intensity, lightness, gravity, speed, tension, slack, confinement, freedom, fluidity and so on. It has its own way of feeling in to things, of perceiving differences, of following a sense. There is therefore a difference between orienting oneself in thought versus orienting oneself in the body that is central to the practice of the martial arts. How they move together comprises the nature of research into what we might call embodied knowledge.

Some further concluding remarks

Some of the more vexing issues that come up with regard to the formal or ritualistic aspects of training in Aikido and other martial arts can be illuminated if we consider the difference between learning things cognitively and learning things corporeally…

Gilles Deleuze. 1988. “On the Difference between The Ethics and a Morality.” Spinoza: Practical Philosophy. San Francisco: City Lights Books


One thought on “On Experimentation in Aikido: The Wedge and the Wand

  1. Pingback: Aikido: Learning things cognitively vs. learning things corporeally | William Little's Sociology Web Page

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