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“He Does Not Seem to Move Very Much”

Arvin Lee, Tendoryu Aikido Singapore

writing from Harvard University, USA

Mar 21 2005

Last Monday a classmate of mine, Haruko-san, a judge from Japan, came by to watch a clip of Shimizu Sensei on my laptop. She made an observation that really ‘clicked’, which is “Your teacher does not seem to move very much.” Such a simple observation, but one which I missed completely, and to have her say it to me made me reflect on its philosophical ramifications. This article is my attempt to articulate some of these.

If you look only at Shimizu Sensei, then it is obviously untrue that he is moving little: which nage doesn’t have to move to execute his technique? Look at him with reference to the ukes, however, and you will notice that the ukes are moving much more relative to him.

The ukes are rushing up to attack him, feinting here and there, and making the various atemi motions which define the moments of initial confrontation (de-ai). Shimizu Sensei reacts only at the last possible moment, and just so. No wasted movement. No unnecessary flashy motions. Just so.

This apparent paucity of movement can be conceptualized in a more abstract way, using geometric terms. The lowest common denominator of most Aikido techniques is about making oneself the axis around which the uke is moved. Now visualise a circle: a point making a 360 degree turn close to the centre would describe a locus that has a smaller magnitude than a point that does so near the circumference. So Shimizu Sensei, being the nage and hence the axis of the circular movement, would by definition move through a smaller distance than the uke, who by definition is the circumference of the circle.

But I believe that the observation has more than just perceptual ramifications. The ukes rushing up and all the feints and attacking motions they make can be metaphors for life events that seem to come rushing headlong at us and threaten to engulf us, or our wants and desires that seem to invade our consciousness and give us no respite within ourselves. Many of us tend to conduct ourselves reactively, only to make things worse in the process. It could be a misunderstanding with someone close – or not so close. We may go around trying to explain the circumstances, and in our desire to correct things actually make things worse. If a man gets drunk and goes around telling the women around him that they are ‘the most beautiful chicks I’ve ever seen”, isn’t the worst thing he could possibly do the next day, to make amends for making them uncomfortable, is to say “I was drunk and didn’t mean anything I said”? Leo Tolstoy’s fables included the tale of a monkey with peas clutched in both hands. He dropped one, tried to retrieve it, and dropped a few more. He tried to pick these up, and spilt them all in the process. In a fit of rage, he threw them far and wide and stomped off. When in a hole, stop digging, as the old saw goes.

Sometimes we want something very much – such as a coveted job, and we try to get to know this person and schmooze with that in order to get to know yet a third person who may be able to arrange a quick meeting with a fourth who knows the decision maker in the firm which we’d like to work in. We lose so much energy doing so, that when we actually get to meet the person who matters – if we ever do – we don’t have any clearer idea how we can convince that decision-maker, or worse, whether we want that job at all. Sometimes our actions can take on a life of their own, and the tail wags the dog.

Take a simple example: that of executing irimi-nage. How many times do we end up in a contest of wills that culminate in a shoving match? Is it because we have done too much? The astute reader may interject at this point, “I know what you’re driving at: but surely your causality is faulty, it’s not because we do a lot that our techniques don’t work; it’s precisely because we fear that our techniques don’t work that we do so much to get it to work. Aikido masters can afford to move little only because they have the ability to do so and still get uke down.”

But do we know for sure that is how the causality runs? Think of irimi-nage from uke’s perspective. Human beings are inbuilt with the instinct to resist exogenous forces. This instinct is even more alive when uke is being restrained by his neck against a nage who demonstrates, through his demeanour and movements, that he is hell-bent on powering his way through with uke’s head cradled against his chest. What does the hapless uke do? Try to thwart nage’s every movement, of course. Nage would respond by holding on to uke’s neck in an even tighter hold, and the latter would in turn react further by trying to move away from nage as much as possible to relieve the pressure on his neck, and this breaks the common axis that is so necessary for the throw to succeed.

The crucial issue that is often missed is that of the dynamic of action and reaction. In doing too much, we get other people to behave in precisely the opposite way we intended for them to. This in turn raises the deeper underlying question: why do we want certain results so much? Is it possible to train oneself not to want something so much? Does Aikido enable us to do so?

I’ll address this question by starting with an anecdote. When I flew back to the US on New Year’s Day to start my Winter Term, I took advantage of Singapore Airline’s excellent inflight entertainment system and watched a recent Jackie Chan action movie, the title of which I cannot recall. He played the role of a police inspector, who was an expert martial artist (as usual), leading a special operations team. However, he was not prepared to come up against a gang of police-hating teenagers who were computer game fanatics. This gang designed intricate arcade-style booby traps which they placed at various locations in a run-down building into which they lured the police, and controlled the workings of these traps remotely. In the result, all of the men under Jackie Chan were suspended by their wrists from the ceiling, and the teen gang projected images of this scene and the process by which they were reduced to such a state on the walls of the room he was in, disorientating him tremendously as he watched these images. When he finally saw his men, his self-control deserted him; when challenged to play various ‘games’ in exchange for the lives of his men, he could not concentrate and lost, suffering the agony of seeing the ropes suspending his men from the high ceiling being cut, and to hear the sickening thud as they fell thirty feet through the air and slammed onto the concrete floor, one after another.

After he had lost four men in this fashion, he was challenged to an unarmed combat bout, which he was supposed to excel in. But when he was trying to execute a shoulder throw with his opponent grabbing him from behind, he realized that he was unable to do so, despite two attempts. We all know that to execute such throws, nage’s centre of gravity must be below that of uke’s – the fact that he failed was a realistic allusion to the fact that when a person is tense, his centre can no longer remain low and stable.

This story is an illustration – albeit an extreme one – that the quality of our training falls to the level at which we have learnt to control our emotions, and hence perhaps it might be said more accurately that curbing our desires would help our Aikido more than the other way round. In other words, emotions and desires may be something that are exogenous to martial arts training, although this has to be qualified by saying that such training helps us attain a higher level of equanimity, which would to an extent allow us to curb our desires.

Sometimes we think we want something, but these desires may be based on flawed assumptions. One of the greatest takeaways I obtained from a Negotiations Workshop that I took here is that it is a fallacy to think that we have ‘succeeded’ only if we manage to hold on to our starting positions after the talks are over and the smoke has settled. Positions are often, although not always, merely manifestations of underlying interests. Such interests can be served even by meeting our counterparties halfway, and sometimes they might even be better served by doing so. An anecdote in one of our readings told the tale of two siblings who had to divide ten oranges, and after much haggling each went away with five. The one threw away the rind attached to his oranges, and ate the pulp; the other threw away all the pulp, and proceeded to use his rinds to bake a cake. The point to be made is that what we think we want is different from what we really want, and before we waste energy striving toward what we think we want, we need to take a hard look at whether we have been honest with ourselves as to what these are and whether we have expressed them clearly. The implications of this insight for Aikido is, why fret when, for example, you cannot do shiho-nage from ryote-tori when you are feeling cramped in by a taller and heavier uke, when you can just as easily still feint an elbow to his face and, when he raises his free arm to protect his face, tenkan and do an ikkyo? The underlying interest here is to subdue him, and it’s met just as well by doing the second technique, isn’t it?

I am afraid that my starting observation, although ripe with many promising insights, has been hijacked and made to go on a rambling discourse, which has raised more questions than it has answered. How much action is optimal? Obviously the correct level depends on different situations, but surely there might be some gauges, rules of thumb, that we can use to intuit whether we have already reached it? I cannot claim to know the answers. But that’s the privilege of being a junior disciple of the art – I will be excused for saying so, and perhaps even praised for my humility.

But I cannot abdicate my responsibilities as a thinking individual, and I would conclude with two tentative thoughts. Firstly, we could achieve more by doing less if we have ‘direct mind’ (jikishin). I cannot, however, suggest how this can be achieved – such is the level of my immaturity at this point in time. All I have is a gut feeling that we need to start by appreciating that our actions are superfluous to the extent that we are not honest with ourselves – what we really want and wish to achieve – and that we can increase the quality of our ‘direct mind’ by regularly taking hard looks at what purposes our actions fulfill. Secondly, and finally, I would like to turn the initial observation I started this article with on its head, and suggest that just as it is a mark of a master to move very little, whether one is a master may be determined by how much one is prepared to economize on one’s reactivity.