Last year was the 30th year since I began Aikido with my father. I was 13 at the time, and he was 44; I grudgingly joined him in classes at the Harvard Aikido club. A few months later we began to train at Kanai Sensei’s dojo, New England Aikikai. By this time, I had fallen deeply in love with this path; I even found inspiration in the pungent smell of the dojo, the mixture of sweat and mildew carrying a sort of mystique through the air.
Now my beard is flecked with grey, I am married with two children, and my father is dying from leukemia. Despite the drain of illness, he still gets an avid gleam in his eye if you mention aikido. If you grab his wrist, his posture transforms, and he suddenly becomes so vital, so present. He is ready for the attack.
In homage to my father’s love for Aikido, I am compiling one hundred and eight reasons why I practice and teach. Aikido tradition encompasses tremendous variety in both styles and individual interpretation, from direct strikes and martial intensity to soft, flowing movements. “Do I contradict myself?” Walt Whitman asks the reader, and generously concludes, “very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” Similarly, I hope to portray the vastness and variety of this enigmatic art, which unifies the principles of power and sensitivity, gravity and levity, intensity and harmony. I seek to reveal the synergy of Aikido where perhaps the bystander only sees contradiction.
I should mention that this journal reflects the personal, subjective nature of my practice. While I will examine many traditional aspects of Budo (traditional Japanese martial arts), I am more interested in exploring the convergence of East and West within the body: how Japanese tradition and aesthetics shape my practice and philosophy, and how in turn, Western ideology informs my understanding of Budo.
Medical statisticians would call my father an outlier: he continues to live long after the majority of leukemia patients have died. I wonder if Aikido provides him with the energy to continue to create, love and flourish, despite the proclaimed odds of oncologists. Aikido teaches us how to harness ki -internal energy – in order to increase martial skill and vitality. I hope that this journal also conveys a bit of the life-sustaining allure of this Martial Way. I welcome comments, encouragement and criticism.
#1: Nagare (Flow)
I don’t practice Aikido for self-defense, exercise, or for the potluck parties, although I suppose that these are perfectly valid reasons to study. I train because the feeling of the art is so wonderful. The circular, dynamic movements of Aikido embody the essence of flow. You are attacked with a grab, a fist, or a slashing knife. You evade the attack, maybe shifting slightly because there is only time for a simple response. And then, using the momentum of the strike, you turn again, and the attacker falls to the ground. In this decisive moment, there are no obstacles, no hesitation or fear: you are completely present.
While you might think that by now I should be an expert of flow, this state of grace all too often eludes me, both on and off the mat. I am late to the dojo (practice hall), and my 2 year old, Kai refuses to be inserted into his car seat, his body ramrod straight in a state of rigor vitalis. I gently try to bend his knees, but it is hopeless; he screams in anguish and I have to be at the dojo in a matter of minutes because 20 children expect me to begin class on time. When we finally reach Burlington, I realize that I am wearing the old pants with a bad zipper, so my fly is down. The quotidian contains continual obstacles and frustrations. How do we achieve mastery, and overcome barriers to flow?
Aikido teaches us that flow is mainly a question of perception. Nothing is fixed or eternal. There is always movement and continual change. The opponent resists, and then attempts another attack. This constant flux is also evident in the phenomenal world: the movement of molecules, the growth of plants, death, decay and rebirth. O Sensei, the founder of Aikido, encourages us to embody martial lessons through the careful observation of nature:
Do not fail
to learn from
the pure voice of an
ever-flowing mountain stream
splashing over the rocks.
Everything changes. By recognizing this state of flux, we realize that we cannot always control external events. Yet our internal state is also motile and fluid, and therefore we can change our perception of apparent conflicts and obstacles. And miraculously, by modulating emotional and physical responses, we discover greater power and flow, both in Aikido practice and in everyday life. By changing my perception, I see things as they are, without negative attachment. The wayward zipper simply illustrates the flow of gravity, and my woebegone child manifests the flow of suffering. Everything is perfect, despite inevitable chaos and messiness.
The same lessons apply to physical conflict. It is sometimes difficult to throw or pin a person who resists an initial defense. However, if I maintain relaxed awareness and poise, I avoid resistance like the course of water around stone. Before the opponent responds with another attack, I am one step ahead, and a new possibility, another technique, reveals itself.
Ikkyū Sōjun,* the renegade Zen monk, ascetic, and hedonist, puts it best, in a poem that captures both the challenge and the ease of spiritual transformation. I think that this verse also captures the essence of flow:
Break through one impasse
there’s another one
let the sweet lychee slip
over your tongue and down
AUTHOR”S NOTE: My father, Ed Pincus Sensei, passed away surrounded by his family on his farm in Roxbury, Vermont on Tuesday, November 5th, 2013.
*Ikkyū Sōjun (一休宗純), 1394–1481. A famous Zen monk and poet, Ikkyū scorned the pretensions of the Buddhist clergy, often preferring the pleasures of sensual love to the sterile rituals and zazen of conventional Buddhist monasticism. Despite his iconoclastic approach to Zen, Ikkyu underwent extremely rigorous ascetic training with traditional teachers. The above translation is by Stephen Berg, from Ikkyū: Crow With No Mouth: 15th Century Zen Master. If you purchase this book, please try to support your small stream, local bookstores rather than Bezos and the Big River. Fight the Power and buy local!
Benjamin Pincus is the Chief Instructor and Executive Director of Aikido of Champlain Valley. Located in Burlington, Vermont, Aikido of Champlain Valley is a 501c3 non-profit dedicated to creating a sustainable community and peaceable world through the study of the traditional Japanese martial art of Aikido.
Visit us on the web at www.burlingtonaikido.org