The Riddle and Paradox of Aikido

Written by Dr. Mabel Hsin, MD

Aikido is a riddle. It is also a paradox.

The riddle

Is Aikido a martial art? If so, then is it a practice in the art of war? If so, then who is at war? Is it the war within ourselves, our internal war, or is it a war against others?

Perhaps it is a form of Ki practice? Or perhaps a mindfulness practice? Perhaps a spiritual development?

Developing the knowledge

The practice of modern medicine can learn much from the practice of aikido. There has been an unfortunate emphasis of modern medicine in the dualism of the mind and body as separate entities rather than multidimensional interconnectedness which one can glean from the practice of aikido. Since our bodies are connected to our minds, might it be possible that the development of efficiency, fluidity, and freedom in movement during aikido translate to efficiency of the mind?

Rational knowledge is linear and sequential. This is analogous to martial arts such as karate. We go from point A to point B to achieve our goal. On the other hand, aikido is one of infinite complexities. It is multidimensional without consistent straight lines or regular shapes. Very much like quantum physics, it is abstract and conceptual. As such, rational knowledge and thinking can be limiting.

Coming from a scientific background and priding myself on my rational thinking, I now have come to realize that this has been one of the detriments in my practice. Aikido is something that needs to be felt and embodied. Hence, the essence of aikido can never be adequately described in words because it is beyond the realms of our intellect where our words are derived. Words are often ambiguous and possess meanings that are different for each individual. Nevertheless, words are necessary in pointing the direction to increase our understand of concepts.

Developing mindfulness

When I began my aikido journey, I assumed that just like other forms of combat, it is about developing skills to defeat your opponent.

During my journey of inquiry to this riddle, I’ve come to recognize aikido as a mindfulness practice. Dr. Jon Kabat Zinn, who is credited to have brought Mindfulness to the western world over four decades ago, was an aikidoka himself. He describes nine attitudes of mindfulness practice. Here is how I envision these nine attitudes manifesting themselves in aikido practice.

  1. Equanimity — accepting of our own flaws and limitations. Accepting that my body no longer moves as well as it once did. Accepting that I may not be able to grasp certain concepts as easily as others. And that’s okay with me. Each mistake is an opportunity to learn from. We need errors to learn. Hence, equanimity allows a release of sense of struggle so that we can embrace our imperfections with self-compassion.
  2. Trust — that with continued practice, skills will improve. Trust that as we continue with the practice, our bodies will come to move more efficiently and effectively. When we pay attention to our bodies, and not let our intention to get in the way, there is freedom in movement.
  3. Non judgement — of ourselves, our mistakes, and of others. We cultivate compassion for ourselves and others. We are all flawed, but we can embrace the flaws that make us human. They are neither good nor bad. They just are. It is learning from the flaws that bring growth. As long as we show up, we are trying. Perfection is overrated and banal.
  4. Gratitude — grateful for the dedication, patience, and insights of our sensei and sempais. Grateful for our partners lending their bodies for us to practice. Grateful for all the parts of our body that are working to allow us to perform the movements. Grateful for our minds being able to constantly learn.
  5. Beginner’s mind — assuming that I know nothing every time I come to class. Every class is an opportunity to learn something new. In doing so, curiosity and openness ensues.
  6. Patience — in practice and working through difficulties. Patience with my seemingly slow progress and inability to get it exactly right. Focusing on the process, not the goal. “Drop by drop, the water bucket gets filled.”
  7. Letting go — practising non-attachment, whether of our ego, or beliefs. Letting go of our need for perfectionism because perfectionism does not exist. It is an illusion. It hinders progress because it leads to frustration and reduces enjoyment.
  8. Generosity — give and take. We give ourselves to those who need our help, and we accept help from our partners, who we learn from.
  9. Non-striving — it is being, instead of doing. Striving signifies intention. Intention leads to constraint. The more intention we have, the more rigidity. For example, when striving, we think: “I need my body to do this. Why is my body not doing it?” This is very much like trying to quiet the mind to go the sleep. The more we intend and strive for the mind to quiet down, the more chatter there is. When we instead simply pay attention to it, observe it, let it be, then it quiets down. Instead of intention, cultivating attention allows fluidity in the system. Feeling. Being. Not trying to make something happen.

It is my hope that by applying these nine attitudes, with each class I can suck a little less than the previous class. The “Art” of Aikido needs to be embodied in order to attain mastery. Knowing is not the same as feeling. Knowing is easy. Feeling is challenging.

Common humanity

Aside from the nine attitudes, one of the most profound aspects of aikido practice I discovered during my journey is this: The connectedness of the aikidokas. Rather than dualism of the mind and body, this is the multidimensional premise of humanity. It is one of the biopsychosocial keystones of our wellbeing. For many of us, aikido class is a lifeline, a chance to escape from the stresses of personal and professional life. For one hour, we can put aside our regrets from the past, our concerns about the future, and focus solely on aikido.

Unangam is a tribe in Alaska. Perhaps there is no better way to embrace our interconnectedness than to look at the Unangam word for “you”, which translates to “my other self”. There is no actual “you” in their culture. There is “my other self”. There is no “me”. It becomes “mwe”, a word coined by Dr Dan Siegel. When this happens, a shift in consciousness occurs. Consciousness becomes collective. What happens then?

No winners nor losers. We are blending with the other person to become one. We do this with compassion, both for ourselves and others. This is the true power coming from the cohesiveness of the community.

In the end, Aikido for me is about becoming a better person. It is the ethos of conflict resolution. The most difficult conflict is the conflict within ourselves. Many of us go through life wanting things to be a certain way and wanting others to be another way. It is only through mastery over ourselves that we can develop mastery over others. For me, this is the paradox of aikido.

“You have not conquered anyone significant until you conquer yourself.”
― Matshona Dhliwayo

About the Author

Mabel Hsin is a member of Naka Ima and one of the instructors at Aikido Newmarket Mabel is a licensed family physician and the Executive Lead for Wellness and Health with Altitude HCM.