Aikido: For an Undeferrable Spiritual Awakening

In a time full of questions regarding separatism and radicalisation, and with the rise of religious fundamentalism or secular tensions, the Way (Do) of Aiki could provide adequate answers if it were to be explained and not just confined to the dojo


21st-century individuals, when looking for values ​​on which to base their identity, turn to extremes, with the consequent inevitable increase in divisionism within a society that unfortunately is already afflicted by numerous partitions.

The themes of equality and individual freedom are constantly proposed. The more we talk about them, however, the more the facts show that these themes remain no more than wishful thinking, as they invariably withdraw when faced by the collective interest fictitious omnipotence – a pretext for better serving the interests of entities whose salient features are certainly neither philanthropy nor humanism.

As always happens every time our identity is threatened, we experience a defensive reflex that leads to withdrawing into oneself. When we cannot find the means to feel safe, the subsequent choice of a “superior” subject provides a refuge for those who endure this lack of identity condition. As a consequence, religious and/or ideological dynamics are triggered.

In a society where we receive contradictory indications from all sides, people find it greatly difficult to relate to a system that could both provide them with reassuring connections and with a navigable framework. The inability to produce a thought that does not arise as a reaction to another opinion marks the functioning of exchanges in this world, where the urgency of communicating seems to have prevailed over everything else. Have we become intermittent in our lives, beings who have to communicate to be what they say, their words intended to demonstrate what they are not?

Polls define political choices, which, however, arrive always late, because they respond to what has already happened, rather than anticipating and foreseeing. Still, shouldn’t governing consist precisely in predicting? This collective problem is the result of the inability of individuals, politicians, specialists of all sorts, of all those who have various voices in the media, to find within themselves the resources necessary to carry out their tasks. They no longer find anything outside, except the fleeting approval of an audience that no one can really distinguish.

The contradictory injunctions that are imposed on us by pseudo-elites equally represent reactions to situations capable of questioning the part of identity rooted in their role. To be honest, the various experts and alleged elites who govern us are in the exact same condition as any other person lacking reference points. Their elitism does not rest on any specific competence other than power.

Kobayashi Sensei said that “power should never be entrusted to the weak”. Nonetheless, we are forced to note that an increasing number of countries have placed quasi-dictators in top positions. Just as a terrified student swears allegiance to the loudest-voiced bully during recess, so today, individuals afflicted with identity crises put people in power who reassure them with arbitrary methods. In the absence of valid points of reference, these methods are considered an expression of strength. They are instead the exact opposite: the expression of a weakness that arises from a lack of values ​​capable of structuring ethical thinking. The latter element is indispensable to ensure the development of a stable identity. In fact, identity is the basis of ethics.

The public position masks a withdrawal on oneself which is typical of our time and is based on the “me first” principle. Our identity, unstable, constantly oscillates between what one needs to be in order to belong and the need to oppose a reality in the making that is already obsolete when one thinks of it.

To say that this could partly explain the lack of political idea, the government of lies and big brothers, the merciless struggles between parties and within them, and certain abuses is only a step away, a step that I will not take in the context of this article.

Kobayashi Hirokazu Sensei (1929-1998) was an uchideshi of the founder of modern Aikido, O’Sensei Ueshiba Morihei (uke: André Cognard)

Rather, my purpose is to demonstrate that what happens at the collective level is the exact reflection of what happens at the individual one and that behind every function there is an individual. Elite or not, they have no solution except to hide behind an ideology, to compensate for the lack of substance of which they are victim, like everyone else. All they have to do is believe and hold on to their power. Ideology feeds wars and starves people. A dictatorship disguised as democracy is stuffed with opinions as evanescent as the decisions they elicit.

The shortcomings of Man in the so-called “modern” world, and this regardless of his origin, culture and political opinions, are the result of identity flaws that should force us to re-look at our stories and how they don’t fit together. Nevertheless, the truth always agrees with itself, and if we are to accept this disagreement – to which we are bound by the clashes between peoples and within them – we should accept the idea that this that we call history is an a posteriori account of events that do not agree with the values that had legitimized them.

We are facing a division imposed through mystification, and over time this leads to an identity split that is increasingly necessary for social groups to continue to live with an ever less definable “I”. This raises questions such as “what does it mean to be human?”.

The individuals who make up these peoples no longer find in the group the means to structure their social identity, unless they get to deny their own history – since it is not separate from the history of the group. When this denial is expressed about the history of humanity as a whole, the individual must question his own identity foundation and is inevitably confronted with the existential question “How can I be a human?”.

Regrettably, some find a possible answer in feeling superior and being able to dispose at will of everything that is in reality other than themselves: it is on this basis that the dictators come to power and the kamikaze take to the streets.

To a lesser extent, before we get to the explosives belt, there is “me first”, the implicit assertion that otherness is an object.

Kobayashi sensei offers physical support to Morihei Ueshiba

To deny that the other is a subject is the result of a projection. In fact, the individual is tempted by the denial of the subject in himself, which leads him to the unconscious export of his self to a fantasised being, whose superiority is acquired because he is the invincible guardian of this “I” who is entrusted to him. This chosen one allows his “vassal in subjectivity” to believe in his own superiority characterised by the denial of his finitude. From here derive pagan religions like that worship stars, that are super-humans raised to the level of demigods. And, must I repeat, religious people and not religions usurp the divine voice to ratify this submission, entering head-on in competition with secular religion. The adept forced in complete submission gets ready for the ultimate sacrifice and the promised resurrection.

In reality, the Way of Aiki (and more generally Budo) could offer concrete and precious answers to all those who suffer from the absence of valid points of reference, advocating inequality reduction and greater social cohesion.

Come to think of it, all people are equal: they are born, suffer and die.

No one escapes this journey and the question of equality revolves around the ways of being born, suffering and dying. This is a paradox when we focus on the general discourse whose real object is to push finitude to the limits of consciousness, to reject suffering as an evil to be eradicated and to hinder any real birth.

To truly be born is to free oneself from all beliefs in order to become one and only responsible for one’s destiny. The birth of an individual is a transformation of the world and living in freedom means being able to continue to make changes in it.

To be free is, therefore, a spiritual duty, but how and in what context can this freedom be expressed?

Kobayashi Sensei used to say that Aikido is the Way that consists in putting the other in front of oneself” The above beautiful image, which portrays O’Sensei and Kobayashi Sensei outside the dojo and practice context, testifies to that attitude of attentive vigilance that informs the enunciated principle

Samurai means servant. Kobayashi Sensei used to say of Aikido that it is the way of putting others before oneself. Being the servant of a modern daimyo goes against my beliefs, but making everyone else – each and everyone – a subject worthy of consideration, to whom to express respect, is the main tool to restore a type of equality capable of soothing the wounds of a free-falling society.

The Way of Aiki is devoid of doctrine and dogma. It is made up of practices whose content and ultimate purpose consist of “how to harmonize with what is” and “how to harmonize with the other”.

Contrary to religion or political ideology, the Way does not lead to exercising power over others, over subjects who constitute an otherness. Instead, it is handled exclusively through the relationship one maintains with others. The founding principle of any relationship is never “the other must change”, “the other must be different”. From this point of view, there is a big misunderstanding about education: education has become the art of training others. The word formation is indeed omnipresent in today’s world, but the true sense of education (from the Latin educare, intensive of e-ducĕre, “to draw out”) is very often forgotten: it consists in leading the other outside one’s limits, offering them effective tools to be in harmony with his new being, and not with another being.

To return to the context of the dojo, the technique does not consist in changing our partner (aite) but in harmonizing the relationship with them, no matter the attack they have undertaken. The same should happen in everyday life. The true practitioner is imbued with the rule “everyone is subject without limits”, a concept that Kobayashi Sensei expressed when he said to me “you have to look at students for what they really are: perfect”.

Indeed, not seeing that what makes the subject is his perfection, his perfect definition, is to have already made him implicitly our object.

Both the teachings and the masters of all spiritual paths should never aim to change the practitioners. This does not imply to include Aikido within alternative sports or practices of leisure – quite the contrary.

Modern Aikido was given to the world by Ueshiba Sensei as a path of spiritual awakening. He was a follower of Omotokyo but never said that an aikidoka should follow any religion, not even that one. All his legacy is however a cry of hope: that of a renewal of humanity whose driving force would be the tireless search for harmony. Aikido has already undergone the crystallisation to which any concept is exposed when not entering as it is in the general consciousness – and the mass is made up of all those who drive to the bottom. Aikido must remain what it was when it was given to the world: a path of spiritual awakening.

I have already presented this opinion in other writings: spiritual does not mean religious. Spirituality is the expression of the spirit that gave us birth and makes us live in daily life, especially in the relationships that weave our lives.

When Kobayashi Sensei says “put the others first”, he is giving the main clue. He speaks of being what I have called a helpful Aikidoka.

Respect for the subject in all, and therefore the expression of respect for everyone, is a way of addressing those who share our life, those we meet, the substance that solidifies identity. Because we follow a path, our identities are established, and even though they are not flawless, they are solid, solidified by the relational experience repeated forty thousand times on the mats – I’m saying forty thousand times because Kobayashi Sensei told me “you have to have received nikyo forty thousand times to grasp how to do it”.

Hirokazu Kobayashi sensei closing nikyo

Observe how often in everyday life you are brought to notice and harmonise relationships with those around you. Most of these stick to a status quo based on the first meeting, while in just one Aikido class you question the way you relate hundreds of times. Thus, my suggestion to be a useful aikidoka is simple: to share this experience in everyday life, to give everyone else access to their spiritual depth by addressing this dimension at home; to transcend the technique to make it an expression of respect and put it in relation with what is essential in humans. Implement ki no musubi in everyday life – just like in the dojo, in a way not to relate to the superficial consciousness of the other, and not to relate to them with our own superficial consciousness, the one that discriminates and rejects.

In this image, taken from a 2014 seminar in Padua, the students apply the principle of ki no musubi (literally: ki knotting, connecting the energy of the two people involved in the interaction) by performing kokyu nage in hanmi hantachi waza

Our spirit must be active in every moment of our life but spirituality is about intimacy. It concerns exclusively the relationship of the individual with himself. If a belief shapes an individual’s identity, it should remain in the private sphere. Any public demonstration of the religious dimension is obscene: the religious component should remain strictly personal, unacknowledged by all. And I am not referring here to religious rites invented by psychotics but to a conscience open to the world, aware of its limits.

Perhaps an anecdote will clarify my point. In a theatre writing symposium organized by the Ministry of Culture to which I was invited as an author, I argued the following idea: Mythology is the pornography of consciousness. Why would it ever be? Because mythology conveys the concept that subjectivity is constitutive of the birth of peoples, and in doing so reduces the identity of the individual to his belonging to the collective. On the other hand, the essence of pornography is to put the subject in the background behind sexual objects and acts: it consists of depersonalizing the acts shown.

I do not doubt that mythology has represented a necessary and founding element of culture. I am also aware of the paradox of a statement according to which an individual subject could exist outside the relationship with the human collective. What I argue, however, is that the profound changes taking place today lead us either to obscurantism or to the awareness that everything is subject, and that being human means being responsible for this universal subjectivity.

André Cognard – Image taken during a 2019 seminar in Warsaw

The Way allows you to take on this responsibility. I have developed the concept of effective harmony elsewhere and explained several times that harmony is not about adapting, turning the other cheek, denying violence. Aikido students cannot allow themselves any weakness: armed with a conscience that enables them to see the antagonist in his perfection, they can find the path that leads to the soul of the adversary.

The Way of Aiki makes it possible to live a non-religious spirituality whose foundations are endlessly repeated questions: “Am I really capable of expressing respect to everyone else?”, “Am I capable of putting the other before me?”, “Am I doing all the good I could do?”.

These are the same questions that are put into practice in the dojo: “Am I able to interact with my partner (aite) in a non-aggressive way, despite his aggression?”; “Am I able to express respect for my partner even when he tries to subdue me through attack or technique?”; “Have I converted my defensive reflexes into a peaceful technique, bearer of an ethics and capable of expressing compassion for every living being?”.

Ultimately: “I entered into myself sufficiently to be able to forget the questions: ‘Am I?’; ‘Who am I?’; ‘How can I be myself?’ “.

Kobayashi Sensei used to say: “Aikido is the path that leads to forgetting oneself” (wa ga wasureru no michi: 我が忘れるの道). “The problem of the ego is dealt with by ignoring the question it asks”.

Copyright André Cognard ©2020
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