Aikido and Mind-Body Integration by Curtis L.V. Adams, M.D.

“The warrior must have a profound knowledge of his craft in order to actualize a philosophy of saving his and his enemy’s life.”

curtis_adamsIn 1967, after four years in the General Practice of Medicine, I started a residency in Psychiatry. A large percentage of my general practice patients suffered from psychiatric conditions and I read psychiatric literature voraciously, as I did during my first year of residency. I became more and more mystified during that year, as we were presented so many systems of psychology and psychiatry, each of which, taken by itself, seemed to “make sense”. Taken together, those systems seemed conflicting and confusing. During a discussion of this confusion with my brother, then a graduate student in speech and communications, he suggested I learn about an epistemology called General Semantics. After I followed his suggestion, and applied Korzybski’s principles about abstracting to my studies, my confusion cleared remarkably. I enjoyed teaching those principles to students, residents, preceptees, patients, etc., over the years. It was always fun to see the comprehension bloom when I could get a student to sit long enough with a person overwhelmed, for instance, by a quandary without diagnosing or classifying so he could see the person and help him clarify his situation and arrive at a workable solution.

I discovered my second passion in 1974. That summer, my family and I spent our vacation in an isolated lake cabin. I ate a lot, fished, and read potboilers. One of those books featured a hero who used Aikido to deal with bad guys. I had a book on Aikido in my library, and got it out as soon as I returned home. Serendipitously, in September of that year, Dr. Greg Faulkner moved to my hometown of Huntsville, Alabama, to work in the space industry. He started an Aikido Class, which I joined. I have practiced since then and taught for a number of those years.

My general sense of well-being began to improve soon after starting Aikido. My body habitus changed and people remarked that I moved more freely. When one of my psychiatric colleagues attended a trial workshop, I remarked to him that Aikido had intrinsic value different from other martial arts, and different from the attendant exercise. He did not agree, and I was unable to defend my point. A number of years later, the acknowledged best fighter in our federation of martial artists, an engineer, wondered why we all continued to practice martial arts over the years. I have attempted to answer the question about the intrinsic value of Aikido, as I believe there is such, and also the question of why I continue to practice and to teach the art. I think it is a tool to help me “make sense”, especially in the face of confrontational, aggressive persons.

The human ability to conceptualize and objectify accounts for many of our accomplishments. This ability also accounts for one of the major problems that we have to solve: a dichotomy between one’s subjective or organic self and an “I-Persona” or “I-Mask” self-concept. We describe ourselves on currency subject to being overvalued and vulnerable to being blown away by the wind of events, leaving us with a diminished sense of self-worth. In this paper, I will explore this split and in particular how the practice of the Japanese martial art of Aikido helps to resolve this problem.

This split occurs as part of development. In normal development there is a reorganization of the conceptual framework to fit the reality of the person and his world at the end of each stage of development. There is a period of turmoil associated with this state of reorganization that must be tolerated and supported by the environment. Since most human environments do not support any kind of turmoil, few people have been able to complete this part of each stage of development. For that reason, most people have a mixture of out of date ideas and conclusions in their conceptual frameworks.

Charles Kelly wrote that there are two character types based on two different ways of conceptualizing: the mechanic and the mystic. The first, the mechanic, operates in concepts, deals with the world by means of discrete units, and treats the world as though it is fundamentally static and immobile. He acts and operates on an outside reality to the exclusion of subjectivity or consciousness. The mystic over-focuses on the subjective “feeling” aspect of the life process at the expense of the objective “action” aspect. He becomes convinced that subjective reality antedates and overrides the merely physical reality of the body and the external world. He develops the conviction that consciousness is independent of the body.

In his essay on metaphysics, Bergson wrote, “There is an absolute knowledge, which can only be given in an intuition (meaning coming only from an internal processing). Everything else falls within the province of analysis,” i.e., the world of the mechanic and the mystic. “By intuition is meant the kind of intellectual sympathy by which one places oneself within an object in order to coincide with what is unique in it and consequently inexpressible. There is a reality that is external and yet given immediately to the mind.” I think this is inherent in the “staying at the level of nonverbal” talked about in General Semantics.

Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950)
Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950)
Alfred Korzybski, who originated General Semantics, called this level of the intuitive the level of the nonverbal: the level of being and knowing without the use of symbols or words. He recommended that one stay at the level of the nonverbal until he comes to a complete knowledge and acceptance of a situation. We have to use words and symbols to communicate; however, being able to stay at the level of the nonverbal until we have contacted the external reality is important. This ability increases the reliability of our abstracting process by allowing us to gather more information before arriving at conclusions, inferences, etc.

These concepts relate to my work as a psychiatrist in that practically every person has a concept of self quite different from what can be seen or perceived in that person. People define themselves according to their status, their role, what they have been told about themselves years ago or out-of-date self-definitions. These same people often have a conceptualization of external reality that is eccentric and cannot be consensually validated. Psychotherapy, when done right, helps the person get to a sense of reality of self and helps him develop a consensually validateable conceptualization of external reality.

Aikido is another way a person can develop a more accurate perception of self and a more nearly accurate conceptualization of external reality. In Aikido there is a particular necessity of evaluating reality accurately.

Morihei Ueshiba, Founder of Aikido
Morihei Ueshiba, Founder of Aikido
Aikido is a modern martial art originated in Japan by Morihei Ueshiba, called by Aikidoists O-Sensei or The Great Teacher (of Aikido of course). Morihei Ueshiba was a seeker who started out early in life with a decision that he would never get beaten up. He had seen his father bullied by village ruffians and made the decision that he would not be such a victim. He entered into the study of martial arts as a young man, studying the way of the sword and the way of the empty hand, Jujitsu, and eventually ending up in a martial art called Daito Jujitsu. He was an undefeated fighter. He was capable with a sword or an empty hand of beating practically anybody in a fight and took great pride in his ability. He was sergeant-at-arms for a spiritual sect, and later a hand-to-hand combat instructor for the Japanese Navy. With all of those skills under his command, he came into conflict with a close friend, a naval officer who was a professor of fencing.

Consider the paradox. Ueshiba was a man who said he would never be beaten up and who had taken great pride in fighting and his ability to fight. He now confronted a friend who had attacked him with a wooden sword to kill him. He was faced with a situation in which his self-identification conflicted with an external and intuitively felt reality. When does your friend become your enemy? How can you kill your friend? Morihei Ueshiba fought this “battle” with the naval officer by using only defensive moves. When the naval officer moved to strike, Ueshiba would move out of the way. He continued to do evasive tactics until the opponent collapsed in a sweat. Then Ueshiba went out into the garden where he experienced a sense of lights and a revelation about the martial arts. This revelation was that martial arts are not to kill and destroy your enemy but to restore harmony that has been previously disturbed in the universe. From this experience, he formulated a new conceptualization of Budo or the Way of War.

Ueshiba’s conceptualization was based in part on the actual meaning of the Japanese character “Bu”. The idea is that an individual stops war or fighting. The top of the character is of two crossed halberds, indicating a cessation of aggressiveness. The lower character literally means to stop. The composite, therefore would imply “to stop fighting” or end battle. He originally called his method of self-defense Aiki-jujitsu and later renamed it Aikido. Aiki means harmony of the energies. The word do, which means Way in the spiritual sense, added to aiki forms Aikido that means the way of harmony of the energies. Aikido is the current designation of the Way of Morihei Ueshiba.

In addition to being an extremely effective form of self-defense, Aikido became a basis for the pursuit of the true self. This pursuit is done by the constant reevaluation in the learning and application of the techniques of Aikido. In order to do Aikido effectively, one has to cultivate an awareness of the body, the location of the body in space and the force of his movements. This constant reevaluation ideally caused a shift from the concept of opponents, as in self-defense, to partners, who would help in rediscovering the true self. Consequently he was “making sense” of a previously perceived paradox. His martial skills remained the same, or improved, but the application changed from aggressiveness to cooperation (or in the words of Trigant Burrow from ditention to contention).

The philosophy of Aikido is the culmination of a philosophy that had required centuries of evolution and was very much a part of the life of the samurai. The first step in this evolution was that of the samurai or servant warrior. He belonged to his master and if ordered, his job was to kill the enemy. The samurai learned that this kind of killing is spiritual suicide. Then came the concept of mutual destruction, i.e., of sacrificing one’s life to kill the enemy. In that situation, a sense of appreciation of one’s life emerged. It is no sacrifice if your life is valueless. Then evolved the concept of the mutual preservation of life, the idea of the saving of one’s enemy’s life while preserving one’s own life. The warrior must have a profound knowledge of his craft in order to actualize a philosophy of saving his and his enemy’s life. Otherwise he has no choice other than to kill or be killed. His knowledge must not be of a mechanical nor of a mystical nature, i.e., abstractions have no place when one is faced with an enemy skilled in the art of killing and determined to end his life. The warrior’s knowledge must be based on an intuitive perception of movement and forces. It was out of the background of the Zen considerations of the samurai that Morihei Ueshiba was able to have his enlightenment experience from which he developed his Aikido, “The Way of Harmony”.

In the world we certainly have to be able to deal with aggression that arises in many contexts. When we are afraid we will often retire into the world of thoughts and fantasies. The Aikidoist must learn the skills of containing his emotions in situations where the threat is only symbolic. When the attack is physical, however, and only then, the Aikidoist has a place to “enter the spirit” of the attacker and neutralize the attack. The skills that are necessary for self-defense can be demonstrated, but must be learned through constant practice. The first of these skills is to avoid opposition. This means blending with the attack, redirecting it, etc. The second is to neutralize further aggression with techniques such as locks, throws, etc.

Aikido practice is a different experience for most students from about any other activity. In a safe, non-competitive environment, he is able to practice dealing with physical aggression. The usual verbal world does not apply so strongly. If the student is hit, he is hurt. That knowledge does not come to the student mathematically. He does not go to his computer to calculate the trajectory, velocity, nor the mass of a fist. By the time he even thinks those thoughts, he will have felt his practice partners controlled punch. Intuitively the student learns that if he is not there when a blow arrives, he is, for an instant, okay. He is not okay forever because his attacker may have a variety of other attacks available, but the student is okay for the very present instant of time that is the only one he has. In this process the student learns to appreciate the here and now, the present moment. He must then develop skills that make his attacker fail in subsequent attacks, and must be able to sequence his defensive techniques in order to have a coherent personal self-defense. The student thereby develops an intuitive knowledge of time.

In this process, something happens to the student. He gets out of the abstract, out of the world of conceptualization, whether it is mechanical or mystical. Though the student may be trained in biophysics and be able to do intricate calculations, as long as he is doing those calculations he is not in the world as it exists at that moment. The student may be a mystical adept, but no amount of consciousness separate from action can keep him from being struck. The student practicing Aikido correctly has moved out of his mind and into his self, into his perceptions and intuition, and has developed an effective way of action.

An example of this transition can be found in a student who came to my class. One of my favorite students kept mentioning his best friend, who wanted to come to class, but was afraid, and was “a little strange”. He finally came. He would have fit into the category of persons formerly called “simple schizophrenic” with his reticence, lack of touch with his body, etc. I learned that he, at age 25, had three two-year certificates from our local junior college. He had read widely, and I was to learn, could discuss the books he read. He had never had a job, did not have a drivers license. He had had some very dangerous experiences hitch-hiking around the country alone. In class, he had little positional sense, had difficulty with tasks requiring agility, and requiring perception of the actions of a training partner. He persisted, though, and slowly learned to do Aikido rolls, punch, avoid a punch, and learned his beginner techniques. He went to a weeklong workshop with the class. At the end of that week, he had made friends with students from other classes.

When our group met to decide if we would stay for the closing party, he was very quiet. When I insisted on his input, he verbalized that he had made friends, and wanted to party with them. The others of us who had attended a number of such parties acquiesced. His eyes filled with tears, and he said that he had never been asked for his preference before. As time went on, he got a girl friend, a job, bought a car that his girlfriend used to take him to his job, which, by the way conflicted with Aikido practice. He was studying for his driver’s license when I last saw him.

Another example can be found in a young woman, the epitome of the “Southern Belle” who came to class to be with her boyfriend, an accomplished Aikidoist. We were practicing an especially hard throw that required her to be different from her usual demure self. She would do a couple of throws or be thrown hard, break into tears, sit out for a moment or two and then reenter practice. It was great over time to see her become less tentative and less appeasing. She quit, as we used to say, trying to “sweet her way through life”.

Motion is a metaphysical idea. It is not something one can deal with on his computer, especially if there is a fist coming toward his nose. The student must act and not be where the fist is going. A transformation in his way of being must occur. He can then walk around amongst men and not be totally afraid because his skills are such that he does not have to pull his .38, blow someone’s brains out and go to jail or impoverish himself spiritually. He can deal with aggression in a controlled and rational way, without having to go to the ultimate.

There is another thing that happens. There are reflexes in the human body that are elicited, for instance, when a person is choked. At the instant of this severe assault, the reflexive action is to freeze. Human beings are neither fighters nor runners; we are freezers. If a person has gone beyond the reflex, he is able to apply carefully developed techniques of self-defense. He can then render the attacker powerless.

In gathering Aikido skills, we correct the split between the Conceptual Self and the True Self. The movement into the body gives one an opportunity to find and correct attitudes and integrate stored body memories. When a person is moving and has gone back into the intuition about Self, he can feel things in himself, in his body where experiences are stored.

A personal example of this is found in an experience of mine on the mat. We were practicing defenses against chokes in an especially intense workout. I found myself frozen, unable to practice, and somewhat emotional. I followed our practice of sitting out on the side of the mat. I had a visual memory of an event that occurred in my early teens. An uncle visiting in my home and I were bantering. The jibes became somewhat cruel, and I responded by mentioning a sore point of my uncle’s. He went into a rage and attacked me by grabbing me around the neck with his hands. My chair went over, and he was on top of me choking me. I may have been killed, had not my father intervened. I remembered the event without the emotions until that point on the Aikido mat, and thought the event had been solved, but was always leery of anyone I thought to be potentially explosive. Following that, my comfort with others improved considerably.

This, then, is the Way, the Aikido, the leading away from the conceptual and back to the real. At the same time that one is developing an extremely effective self-defense, he is confronting some of the inhibitions and prohibitions that he has stored in his body under the direction of the limbic system, and finding ways of bringing them into awareness so that they can be integrated into the functioning Self.

If one has at his command such an effective defense against aggression, he is able to stay at the nonverbal longer even in the face of a bellicose bullying other, and allow his thinking to move towards a solution. In Aikido, one moves toward the True Self subjectively perceived, intuitively felt. One integrates the reality as examined by the senses and derives concepts from this process so that goals are set from the perception of one’s internal states and then sought freely without the prohibitions and inhibitions that we tend to build into ourselves.

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5s Comments

  1. CatherineStenzel

    Thank you for an unusually well-written and insightful post. Your explication sums up the inner world of Aikido and the rationale behind its philosophy. Your combination of practical examples and psychological concepts goes a long way to help us all explain why we practice and how we are developmental enriched by that practice.

  2. This post was forwarded to me by my Aikido instructor as I am a practicing Psychologist. I am interested in finding a way of taking the principles of aikido and creating an effective verbal self-defense/conflict resolution method. This article got me thinking so it is appreciated. If anyone has other solid sources in this pursuit I would be grateful.

  3. Curtis L.V. Adams, M.D.

    Aikido itself is about conflict resolution. In addition to Terry Dobson’s work you might enjoy Strategies of Psychotherapy by Jay Haley,, The Leader as Martilal Artist by Arnold Mandrell, The Magic of Conflict by Thomas Crum, Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh, The Gentle Artof Verbal Self-defence by Suzette Haden Elin
    One of my later mentors used to say, “The best tranquilizer is a calm other person.”

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