Monthly Archives: June 2012

Freedom means being able to choose how we respond to things

~ A. Olendzki

aikido, like buddhism, seeks to clarify the mind, find harmony, and uncover peace in the present. in many instances, these are only achievable if we have freedom.

freedom in such an instance, or the ability to chose, is not only being able to chose how we respond to things, it is choosing. by choosing, you’ve given yourself freedom. do not choose, and you abandon freedom. simple – yes. easy – not really.

hence why we practice.

to close, another wonderful referenceto freedom is invictus (by william ernest henley) which inspired nelson mandela…

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.



During a more introspective interlude in his life, the great Japanese swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi, was communing in the mountains with his friend, the legendary Zen priest Takuan Soho.

As they were meditating by a mountain stream, a poisonous viper happened upon them.  The viper, calmly accepting Takuan as part of the natural surroundings, slithered across his lap and moved on.  When it encountered Musashi, the snake felt the power of Musashi’s fearsome character, and fled into the bushes.

Musashi was greatly troubled by this encounter.  Takuan, sensing something amiss, questioned Musashi about his feelings.  Musashi confessed that the fear he evoked in others disturbed him.  He was feared, yes, but the menace he exuded also made him stick out like a sore thumb.

He aspired to be like Takuan, whose ordinary calmness allowed him to blend into his surroundings. Takuan did not fear, nor was he feared.  He existed in a state of extraordinary ordinariness known as heijoshin. It was heijoshin that Musashi aspired to, and focused his future training on achieving this state of constant calm.

Hei jo shin consists of three kanji characters.  Hei means calm or peace.  Jo means constant or steady, and shin means mind.  Put together, heijoshin refers to a mind in its normal, peaceful state.  The peaceful, undisturbed mind provides the proper medium for clarity in thought:

The undisturbed mind is like a calm body of water reflecting the brilliance of the moon.

~ Yagyu Jubei.

Whereas zanshin refers to awareness, and mushin is a mind free of thoughts and preconceptions, heijoshin provides the stable vessel in which all these other states can co-exist.  These states are complementary, and refer to different facets of the same stone.  Heijoshin, through calmness, enables the other states of mind.

Anger and excitement are states that are not normal to everyday life.  Heijoshin maintains that the mind be free of these feelings in order to be truly effective.  All those whose livelihoods put them in situations of duress train to be in a state of heijoshin.  Whether it is a paramedic treating an accident victim or Captain Chesley Sullenberger calmly nursing his stricken plane down to a safe landing on the Hudson River, heijoshin was achieved through countless hours of training.

It is with this intent that martial atists need to approach their training.  Like many things in life, training for heijoshin is a circular process that needs to be joined in mid-cycle.  Heijoshin leads to better training, and better training leads to heijoshin.

And when the moment of truth arrives, the martial artist can meet it with a mind at peace.

Aikido-: The word “aikido” is made up of three Japanese characters: AI; harmony, KI ; universal energy, DO ; the Way. So the proper definition for Aikido is “The way of harmony with universal energy.”

I recently finished reading the article Manage your Energy, not your Time, by Tony Schwartz and found myself drawing many parallels with my aikido practice, most notably with respect to how the four energy forms outlined by Schwartz overlapped and might in fact coincide with the four principles of aikido.

The four energy forms outlines by Schwartz included:


In summary, Schwartz argues that the various energy forms are constantly in flux and our challenge is to seek a level of balance and harmony between them. Schwartz contends that if you manage your energy, your productivity and output significantly increases. He also contends that in this context, you don’t manage your time, since time is finite and limited. Your energy is for all intents and purposes, much more abundant, renewable and can be accessed once we know how to balance it.

In assessing Schwartz’s work, a question came to me: could the four forms of energy be in fact one energy taking four different forms? Could the energy that Schwartz was advocating we manage better be in fact one energy, the life energy, manifesting in four different ways? If so, there might be a way to represent Schwartz’s four forms of energy against the Aikido principles that provide the way to harmony of mind, body and spirit.

At Ryurei Aikido, the four principles developed by Koichi Tohei are extended to include a fifth principle in “detach from all”.  Again, the principles are:

keep one point
keep weight underside
relax completely
extend ki
detach from all

Through some reflections of my various moments on the mat when the ki was or was not flowing, and harmony was blocked by some issue with energy (ki), I’ve come up with the following proposed relationship between the Aikido principles and the four energy forms. I’ve observed that primary and secondary relationships may exist as well – in essence, each energy form is primarily associated with each Aikido principle, and an alternate energy is also associated, although on a secondary level.

As an example, keeping weight underside (Aikido principle #2) is primarily impacted by the balance of our physical energy. Poor physical energy may result in difficulties in manifesting keeping weight underside. Similarly, weakened spiritual energy may also interfere with achieving effective keeping weight underside.

Although I’ve observed in my own practice the blocking of energy leading to difficulties in manifesting certain principles, I’ve been much more intrigued by the opposite implication: that achieving one of the four principles (and hence all of them, since if you achieve one, you achieve them all) leads to a balance of the four energies. In other words, achieve harmony of mind, body and spirit through full manifestation of the four + one principles, and one can achieve harmony and balance of the four energies outlined by Schwartz. Interestingly, achieving the fifth principle – detach from all – may bring all four energies together at once – possible given that detachment from all in effect liberates us from all external factors, allowing internal energies of mind, body, spirit and heart (mental, physical, spiritual and emotional) to naturally fall into equilibrium.

Observe how your energies are harmonized during practice and note how each may or may not be impacted by your choice of principle, or vice versa, how the four + one Aikido principles bring one or more of the energies into a balanced state. I propose that you consider Aikido as the way of harmony not only with the energy of the universe, but the various forms that universal energy might take in our daily live. In that context, a further dimension of the impact of Aikido can be explored.

I recently read “this is aikido” by Koichi Tohei, and was struck by one portion where he wrote about the relevance of the four principles to one’s state of mind and the behaviors anchored by each of the principles. Although simple to list, I find a resonance between the principles and the challenges I sometimes face on the mat, or off it. For example, when not feeling positive, extending Ki appears to bring a positive mindset quickly to the fore. Keeping weight underside is hugely helpful when there are tough decisions to make at the office or at home. Relaxing completely makes me open and receptive to ideas or thoughts that may not at first glance align with my values and principles. And keeping one point appears to keep one’s mind focused and in the moment.

In summary, from this is aikido by Koichi Tohei :

keep one point

unity of mind

immovable mind

extend ki

positive mind

power of will

keep weight underside



relax completely



Letting go is not a technique, it is a result of a shift in attention

~ wendy palmer

As Sensei always reminds me, “detach from all”, and the principles will come to me. Letting go of habits and ingrained reactions is not trivial – and I’ve recently started to become aware that seeing it as a technique to be learned may be the root of my difficulty with the fifth principle. What if it was never a technique in the first place, but rather a mindset – a way to see the world and the moment.

As buddhist literature and masters the world over have taught for a long time, non-attachment

is necessary for enlightenment. But as I’ve come to appreciate, there is a difference between an instruction as “prescription” versus “description”. In the former, it is a technique – in the later, it is the consequence of practice and being a specific way.

Letting go, detaching from all and being unattached are descriptions of a way of being – a way of being in attention – not a prescription to be followed.

Bring a quality to your attention, and letting go will manifest. Apply “technique mind” to letting go, and you will be attached the idea of non-attachment…an ironic, vicious circle if there ever was one.

… perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away …

~ Antoine de Saint Exupéry

During a recent session, I was given the opportunity to work with Sensei for the whole of my session. At first it was intimidating, because Sensei is so well versed in the Art. But then it became evident that this was a chance to explore an idea I’ve been wondering about for some time – that coordination of mind, body and spirit is always with us – and that it is our habits and conditioning that overwhelm and obscure our awareness. In essence, the art of aikido is in us all – and what we learn is to remove the pieces that obstruct or block us in achieving the state of coordination and harmony.

It was during a particularly difficult segment attempting to simply stand in coordination of mind, body and spirit that the awareness of coordination was fleeting and coming and going – like a golf ball floating on water – mostly underwater with some occasional surfacing if the waves and conditions enable it. At that moment, the frustration was palatable because I could not get the state of coordination of mind, body and spirit to “stick”. The harder I tried to make it happen, the more the state of coordination just faded away. I kept trying to learn and “do” coordination – to no avail.

It was at that point that Sensei said “let’s try something else” – sitting. The simple act of sitting rather than standing opened up a space where for a brief moment, the thought of “taking away the pieces” came to mind. And so the next few minutes were followed by a state of coordination of mind, body and spirit that I’ve not experience before – calm, steady and relaxed – I wondered if this is what is referred to by some as heijoshin?

The biggest discovery at this moment was that harmony and coordination felt like it was always there –  all I needed to do was to remove what was in the way. In essence, to unlearn rather than learn was the mindset I found myself in – the need to undo, remove and simplify.

As such, my practice experienced what George Leonard would say was a “breakthrough”, as outlined in his wonderful book Mastery. It is after relentless effort and dedication that unexpected moments emerge when the simplest yet most wonderful lessons manifest. Lessons that are more about awakening and discovering what is already there, rather than thinking more needs to be added.

Thank you Sensei for the great session.

Be like a ball floating down a roaring river. Thrown about, sometimes taken by the undertow, maybe floating aimlessly, the ball never ceases but to float and respond to the moment, in a state of dynamic balance.

Some years ago, I read Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere, and of the many ideas and lessons I took from the text, the one that stuck most with me was the idea of flowing like a ball along the earth. By imagining the hara as the center of the ball, I’ve come to see myself somedays on the mat as having a stable, relaxed core, surrounded by a dynamic shell of kI that can adapt to the moment and the motion of my center. By thinking, or even better, feeling, that my hara is always supported by some shell of Ki, I’ve recovered myself more than once in moments where balance or attention have waned.

More recently, I’ve taken the practice of envisioning myself as a ball floating down a roaring river. Unlike the hard earth, feeling like I’m floating is, for me, more like the feeling I frequently get when on the mat. There is a buoyancy that comes when the feeling if the one point is balanced upon the ground immediately below. As I’m pushed or pulled by Uke, I remain afloat, maybe sinking a bit, maybe bobbing, but always in a state of dynamic balance.

As a dynamic sphere floating on the torrents of the moment, I don’t worry about the big waves, the impending waterfall or the roaring rivers ahead. The feeling of being in dynamic balance is enough. At that point, technique emerges from the point of calmness and stillness, seeking to maintain and support this state of balance.

So next time you step onto the mat, or into the world, enjoy the feeling of the dynamic sphere and float.