“O-Sensei introduced confusion and sensory overload in the mind of his attacker, thus completely dominating the exchange.”
The term “Go no Sen” is frequently used in Japanese martial arts as part of a theoretical framework to describe a particular circumstance where an attacker initiates a martial encounter. One definition of “Go no Sen” might be “to regain the initiative after being attacked”. Thinking this through for a moment, what must be true in such a case?
To begin with, the attacker has chosen the timing, circumstances, direction and intensity of his offensive move. The person on the receiving end is forced into a defensive mode. In that an attack involves rapid aggressive motion, the time remaining for the defender to respond may be measured in milliseconds. For this reason, the defender’s odds of safely emerging are greatly reduced. This is why I dislike describing aikido as an “art of self-defense”.
Of course, unskilled practitioners of martial arts are rarely able to escape the world of “Go no Sen” in their practice. They have yet to develop the ability to initiate their response earlier, before the attack has gained momentum. They are psychologically overwhelmed by the ferocity of a determined attacker. Nor have they reached an even higher level of skill where they can assess, control and neutralize a potentially violent encounter before its physical manifestation.
Is there no place for “Go no Sen” practice in our training? There decidedly is. In fact, it cannot be otherwise. Practicing against a prearranged attack and learning the mechanics of a particular technique are necessary to build basic skills. Such training is appropriate especially at the beginning and intermediate levels of aikido training. Yet It is common for advanced practitioners and instructors to never venture beyond this defensive mindset. I believe we must at some point transcend the dimension of “Go no Sen” to tap the art’s higher potential.
Recently, I watched a video clip of a legendary aikido shihan and was surprised to observe that he was responding to attacks by uke. This was possible only because the attacks were weak and slowly executed. Such performances may look very good, even amazing, to the casual observer. But a high-level martial artist would recognize that such a response would not serve well in a violent scenario, particularly involving one with an element of surprise.
Contrast this to what Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba would show in his demonstrations. O-Sensei would execute feints, give verbal commands, offer a hand or shoulder, shift his weight to and fro, execute atemi and kiai, etc. He introduced confusion and sensory overload in the mind of his attacker, thus completely dominating the exchange. For this reason, observers often commented that his demonstrations were “faked”! My take is that he set the stage so that no effective attack was even possible. O-Sensei enveloped his uke in an energy dimension where no aggression could arise. Uke was psychologically and physically neutralized.
Think about O-Sensei’s admonition on shomenuchi attacks recorded in his 1938 training manual titled “Budo”.
Initiate the movement by advancing with your right foot while vigorously extending your right tegatana into your partner’s face, and at the same time, execute an atemi to his side with your left hand.
This is not the description of a scenario where uke attacks. Nage is the initiator and overwhelms uke with a vigorous attack to the face accompanied by a rib strike. This may seem counterintuitive in the thinking of most aikido practitioners. I recommend that you reflect upon this deeply and consider its far-reaching implications.
The late Michio Hikitsuchi, 10th dan, describes this line of thinking using these words:
I am always going first. I am moving forward first every time. I initiate and let him take my hand. I initiate and let him grab me. It never happens that he grabs me first, after which I start to figure out what to do. I am always going first. I must not wait for the other person to act.
I sincerely believe that an awareness of the existence of this higher world of interconnectedness with others, and how it can be cultivated in our training is the key to reaching aikido’s most advanced state of “Takemusu Aiki”, O-Sensei’s most enduring legacy. To remain mired in the world of “Go no Sen” is to embark upon a certain path to defeat.