How to keep one point when doing tenkan…or tying my shoes?

“If one puts his mind in the action of his opponent’s body, his mind will be taken by the action of his opponent’s body. If he puts his mind in his opponent’s sword, his mind will be taken by that sword. If he puts his mind in thoughts of his opponent’s intention to strike him, his mind will be taken by thoughts of his opponent’s intention to strike him. If he puts his mind in his own sword, his mind will be taken by his own sword. If he puts his mind in his own intention of not being struck, his mind will be taken by his intention of not being struck. If he puts his mind in the other man’s stance, his mind will be taken by the other man’s stance. What this means is that there is no place to put the mind.”
-The Mysterious Record of Unmovable Wisdom
The Unfettered Mind, Takuan Sōhō

In the fifteenth century, a three-part treatise on Buddhist philosophy and martial arts was written by Takuan Sōhō, a Japanese monk of the Rinzai sect. The treatise was written as correspondence to Yagyū Munenori, inheritor to the Yagyū Shinkage-ryū school of swordsmanship. Given the relationship between Aikido and swordmanship, Takuan Sōhō’s work was a logical place to explore the possibly inspirations for Aikido,. More specifically, it was a place to seek guidance on how to deal with my own failings in grasping the first principle of “keeping one point”. Although the treatise is over 500 years old, it arguably provides valuable insights that can guide today’s Aikidoka in the pursuit of mastery and harmony.

The opening words above speak directly to the first of the five principles of Ryurei Aikido – keeping one point. We learn early on that if we get one principle, we get them all. As such, no single principle should dominate the others. Any of them is a door to the way of Aikido. Nonetheless, the first principle has been, at least for me, and I fathom to guess for others, an elusive principle to grasp and internalize in its truest sense.

Putting the mind at one point is, like all principles, both a mental and physical challenge. But putting the mind to one point has been, for me, like asking my mind to tell itself to sit down. As such, if it does not want to listen or cooperate…well…it can make for a long and sometimes frustrating session. Takuan Sōhō’s opening words emphasizes that letting the mind attach to anything such as thoughts and movements for example, will result in it being taken by that same thing – hence why the importance of keeping the mind at one point.

This is exactly how I perceived the principle for some time, and after some serious practice coercing and manipulating my mind to go the one point, I started to finally feel what it might take to keep the mind at one point. After all, the principle appears to be relatively straight forward – n’est ce pas?

Of course not. And Takuan Sōhō shines a light on why when he writes:

“If you consider putting your mind below your navel and not letting it wander, your mind will be taken by the mind that thinks of this plan. You will have no ability to move ahead and will exceptionally unfree”.

Unfree! Indeed, my mind was not feeling as free as I was thinking it should – so where do I put my mind now? Do I put it back to the attacker? Do I find myself a new Hara and put it there? Do I take up macramé? Then it struck me: what if I put my mind to the one point and forget about it – wait, that sounds exactly like something Sensei told me on repeated occasions. Ahhh…maybe that’s what he meant!

And so I reflected on all this and decided: what if I use “keeping one point” to simply remind the mind (or “re-mind” the mind) to go where it naturally needs and wants to go, where it is fully present and not distracted and scattered by the stimulus of the world. To assist, I attempted to apply to the first principle a Buddhist tenet I had studied for a few years: non-attachment (if it sounds like “detach from all”, you might be right). My practice of the first principle has consequently become the following: re-mind the mind to go to the one point then let the mind go free, not in a scattered way, but rather like the ripples across a quiet pond after a pebble falls in – fully detached from when the pebble went “plop”.

All this said, I also questioned why we choose the hara as the “one point”? For me, it is due to the critical importance of balance and centering in aikido, like in life in general, which makes the hara the natural place to begin – and to return to. So by re-minding myself constantly to go to the hara, at one point (yes, pun intended) I might find myself mindful enough to perform tankan or other Aikido movements with some refinement, or at the least perform daily tasks such as tying my shoes with a bit more mindfulness.

As for the 500 year-old teaching, Takuan Sōhō did speak quite clearly to the challenge of freeing the mind when he wrote:

“Well, then, where does one put his mind?” … “If you don’t put it anywhere, it will go to all parts of your body and extend throughout its entirety. In this way, when it enters your hand, it will realize the hand’s function. When it enters your foot, it will realize the foot’s function. When it enters your eye, it will realize the eye’s function.”

So don’t put the mind anywhere – and you may be one step closer to keeping one point. Just don’t get attached to not putting your mind anywhere…

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