Spiritual Aikido?

by Bob Wilcox
Chief Instructor, Kingston Aikido.

First of all - a disclaimer: The following essay is simply my opinion from experience, and I do not claim it is the "truth" or "right". Nobody can tell anyone what that is - one has to discover that for one's self.

"Aikido develops mind, body and spirit..." what exactly does that mean?

We all know the benefits of exercise for the mind and body - such as physical conditioning, flexibility, better balance, stress reduction, increased circulation, etc. It is a bit harder to define the element of spiritual growth present (or not present) in Aikido training.

According to what we read, and what the Shihan tell us, O-Sensei, the founder of Aikido, was a deeply religious and spiritual man. To O-Sensei, Aikido was a practice to unite the world and polish the spirit. While O-Sensei practiced religious rituals, he did not impose them on others, it was his own personal practice. Aikido was his creation, intended to unite the world harmoniously, and foster a spirit of loving protection for all beings.

To be clear, sometimes people do confuse religion and spirituality. To be religious is not necessarily to be spiritual, and vice versa. One can adhere to religious dogma, go to church, pray, perform rituals, and all that, yet still not have a clue about spirituality. In addition, one can be spiritual without ever setting foot in a church, temple or mosque or reading a single line of scripture (written by people for people). A beautiful sunset, an act of selfless generosity, or the wonder of life itself evokes a sense of spirituality. There is the sense that there is something more to life, a deeper meaning which overshadows everyday occurrences and petty differences.

Spiritual improvement does not, contrary to popular belief, mean you will glow with a radiant halo, wear robes, manifest rainbows, or turn water into wine.

Loving kindness is the essence of spirituality. Yamada Sensei made a great analogy recently about how aikido is like standing in the sunshine. To me, all of Aikido is like the sunshine. It's up to you whether you go outside and feel the warmth of the sun on your face - but the sun shines for everyone just the same. If you stand in the shadows that is also your choice. Life and all that live are miraculous and deserve our utmost respect. To be "spiritual" is simply to be in harmony with others, with the planet, with all creatures, and to be kind and not be selfish. It has nothing to do with organizations, symbols, crosses, incense, statues of deities, or sitting in lotus position.

The martial art of Aikido, paradoxically, is based on compassion and resolution of violence without harm. The way we practice non-competitively requires a certain letting go of egocentric behavior. If we continue to compete, we never let go of the root of all troubles - the self. If we never put our partner's practice, benefit and advancement above our own, and all we think about is how good we are getting, how powerful we are, we never will understand the depths of Aikido, or what it means to be spiritual.

The mind and body are inseparable, and it is not possible to affect only one and not the other, or to train one and neglect the other and expect holistic results. That is why both mind and body must be trained together. People, by their very nature are violent and selfish for ancient reasons related to survival. Aikido, by its very nature is harmonious and natural, selfless, kind and compassionate. An attacker approaches us and tries to hurt us. We move out of the way and defuse the violence with loving kindness (which may be painful sometimes). To understand this - it is like if a child is crying because you won't let them run out into the street or stand near a high cliff. Just saying "yes" is not always kind. If people want to hurt us, we do not say "ok" - rather, we redirect that violence with careful techniques and a loving attitude.

Aikido allows us to retrain the instinctive emotional responses of fear and insecurity which reinforce selfishness. And it does it not at the expense of the other people, but in harmony with them (as much as is possible). Fear and insecurity go to the very core of one's being and behavior. If they are not addressed on some level there really can be no substantial, lasting spiritual change.

It can be difficult to understand why aggression is a necessary ingredient for learning Aikido. Some people misunderstand that, and their Aikido practice degenerates into a meaningless dance. Without the real threat of attack, there is no opportunity to develop a repatterning of instinctive responses to fear. There is no opportunity to turn aggression and conflict into peace. Without this stimulus, the opportunity to make the change at the core level which allows tranquility and compassion to be the response to aggression will never arise.

It is not possible to be competitive and be kind at the same time, since the very core of competition is putting yourself first (or trying to). I believe O-Sensei recognized that competition, advancement at the expense of another, would never result in spiritual refinement of the individual. Elimination of the element of competition, to me, was the true genius of O-Sensei's creation of Aikido. By training together in this way, if we stand together in the sunshine, we can all make some kind of positive changes to mind, body, and yes, maybe even spirit as well.


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