On differences between aikido and competitive martial arts: a dichotomy

Written by Janko Lovcanin

To individuals who have had the opportunity to witness aikido in practice, and perhaps to have engaged the training personally, there will arise an acute awareness of the different and often difficult concepts found in the tradition. This has lead to many questions. Here, in brief, I try to analyse the inherent and practical focuses of aikido, while being juxtaposed to contemporary competitive art forms.

Competitive martial arts are found throughout main stream culture. From television to national Olympic teams, its current forms are plentiful and variegated, and have had a very large impact on our perceptions when it comes to men and women wearing the gi (uniform). But what are the similarities and differences with aikido.

90% Mind, 10% Body

Engaging in competitive martial arts can be likened to playing chess. There is a struggle taking place between two opposing forces. They are both vying for control and, ultimately, victory. Even though the movements can be fluid and focused, like in aikido, their inherent intentions are quite the opposite. There is a continuous struggle which is not only engaged on a physical level, but also on a mental one as well. Throughout the match, there is a reliance on mental constructs, and intellectualization; a more or less need for linear thought, and a constant development of covert strategy. Hence the phrase, “90% mind, 10% body”. This being necessary for victory, it unfortunately impedes the energy of body and mind from stilling. It can be likened to stirring a container of water with mud at the bottom, preventing clarity/focus beyond the mundane level of everyday activity.

Aikido vs. competitive martial arts

This, being obviously necessary for competitive practice, it is an inherent impediment to some of the most important focuses of practice in aikido: namely, stillness and silence of the mind, open blending through contact, and centeredness, which are the art's key factors. This point is crucial and it’s where aikido and competitive martial forms begin to diverge. The lack of ‘empty mind’* in competitive arts is created in the form mentioned above (mental constructs, intellectualization, etc.). This form of training doesn’t allow for the simplicity of or natural state of mind to manifest, where factors such as stillness, and focused pointed concentration are inherent. These factors are needed for a basic meditative mind state to develop, which is crucial for a complete and intuitive connection between nage and uke.

The practices of centering the body and breath at the lower abdomen, and fluid and unbroken contact between both practitioners are the main conduits for the state of ‘empty mind’* to manifest itself. The former allows for harmonious breath and balance of the body/mind energies, creating stillness, and the latter contributes to a one pointed focus of mind on a single object of awareness (contact). These two strands are actually not two separate training forms but are, precisely, two sides of a coin. Each side co developing one another eventually creates what the sages of old referred to as, a ‘peaceful abode’**. A non dual*** abode actually, which can only be peaceful because of its simplicity, hence the phrase ‘empty mind’*. The stilling of the mental process and the allowance for ‘empty mind’* to be achieved will halt the dual mind*** state that is normally an avenue of daily function. With the cessation of duality*** (nage and uke, I and him, victory and defeat, good and bad) comes union with both practitioners. Oneness can be achieved where an emphasis on separation has disappeared. This I believe was the intention of not only O Sensei, but many of the martial sages of the past. This oneness is the breaking down of the ego, which O Sensei seen as a hindrance to or true capability. The disappearance of a small self based on ego allows for one's true self to manifest.

Of course, it would be foolish to think that any focus art, other then aikido, which entails the use of body and mind could not create such deep and rich life practice. There are many instances of competitive masters developing to such a degree; O Sensei being one of them. However, it also is of crucial importance for a practitioner to understand these deep and subtle facets of aikido as the tantamount point that the art was based on. Perhaps it is only a point of minor reflection. But I have come to believe otherwise.

* Empty mind
** Peaceful abode
*** Duality//non duality

Some of the concepts in aikido can be complex or ambiguous. Indeed many of the facets of O-Sensei’s philosophical practice can be difficult to tie together. Shinto, itself, is a store house of wealth from many different contemplative templates. This being said, the phrases above can’t be understood fully without an intellectual understanding of some of o-sensei philosophical practices. For simple clarity on the subject, I recommend Zen literature. Zen has a strong intellectual explanation of duality/non duality, and is one of the few contemplative practices that have been tied to martial forms of East Asia. Thich Nhat Hanh is a renowned Zen author, that comes to mind.

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