These past few months, I have been thinking about the use of energy in daily life and Aikido. I decided to write down some of these thoughts, even though they are far from coherent. So as you read this, please consider this as a work in progress and an exploration.
When we talk about energy in daily life, we tend to talk about quantity: the number of calories in food or the output of a power plant, for example. When we talk about people, we say things like “I am low on energy” and “she has a lot of energy to get things done”.
Incidentally, I see this focus on quantity as a broader symptom of modern society. We tend to focus on the ‘how much’ of things, such as the speed of a car, the height of our salaries, or the amount of time we have before something needs to be done.
When talking about energy in Aikido, I hear people talk about direction and intention more than quantity. This reminds me of what someone once told me, which is that “energy flows where attention goes.” In sword fighting we speak about Ki-Ken-Tai, which I think in essence means the same.
So there is direction and there is quantity, but there must be other ways of looking at energy. And in doing so, I have been inspired by an idea that I believe originates with Dr. Stephen Gilligan, a US-based therapist, trainer and former Aikidoka.
Rather than just talking about quantity, Gilligan talks about the quality of energy. So rather than the amount, it’s the kind of energy that is of interest. And Gilligan distinguishes between three archetypical energies: tenderness, playfulness and fierceness.
Tenderness is the energy of the lover. It is expressed by being gentle, careful, caring and sympathetic to yourself and others. It is a quiet, soft connection between two people, like when a parent embraces a child.
I think tenderness is also a receptive energy, a willingness to open up to and connect with another person. The way I see it, good ukemi requires tenderness. Ukemi is the ability to blend with nage (musubi), to constantly connect and to be attentive to every movement.
Too much tenderness, however, leads to what Francisca Sensei calls “being too civilised”. It can lead to insincere attacks – say, a shomen that does not really strike the partner – or the uninspired execution of a technique so that it lacks martial merit.
Too little tenderness, on the other hand, creates Aikido that is egocentric. Executing a technique without (enough) tenderness means you force a technique onto someone or execute a movement without regard for your partner’s ukemi. There is no Ai without tenderness.
Playfulness is the energy of the joker. Playfulness emerges when you let go of dogma/boundaries and allow spontaneous movement to occur. It’s the energy of curiosity and creativity, of acting out of freedom. Children, for example, are naturally full of playfulness (at least as far as we adults allow them to be).
Playfulness is also a state of lightness, of not being attached to a preconceived outcome. I think playfulness is a great energy to have when doing juwaza, because you have to create something in the moment without thinking about it beforehand.
Is there such a thing as too much playfulness? I think so, if it undermines the discipline and consistency of your practice. If Aikido is only playful, it ceases to be a martial art and becomes a dance instead, in which movement only exists for the sake of itself.
And too little playfulness? I guess that means you stay stuck in form. It makes you oblivious to ‘what else’ is possible and means you force a form unto you and your partner, instead of adapting to the unique conditions of the moment. Without playfulness, Aikido ceases to be a creative art and instead becomes a bunch of clever techniques.
And finally there is fierceness, the energy of the warrior. It’s a powerful energy that protects self, others and the boundaries in between. To be clear: fierceness is not aggression, which is fear turned outward across another person’s boundaries. Rather, it’s an unwavering commitment to one’s personal integrity.
In Aikido, fierceness is expressed in a wholehearted attack or the ability to step into the line of attack. Fierceness is taking the centre line or advancing towards an opponent during randori. Fierceness says “This is me, this is my boundary, respect it.”
Too much fierceness may make Aikido effective but harsh, say a tenshi nage in which you bash your partner’s face, rather than connect with it. Your partner will feel manhandled, which makes it hard (and unattractive) to perform safe and smooth ukemi.
And yet without fierceness you cannot be independent and whole, because people will cross your physical and emotional boundaries. Without fierceness, you cannot step into the line of attack to perform irimi tenkan (say, in katatedori ikkyo) and you will retreat and crumble during randori.
With this idea of tenderness, playfulness and fierceness in mind you may find it easy to notice these energies in yourself and others. And I am sure you can think of people in your life who are predominantly tender, playful or fierce.
Perhaps you can also imagine situations in which you rely on one type of energy. When our integrity is threatened, we may need to respond with fierceness. Playfulness is a good way to get unstuck from old patterns. And tenderness is crucial in any kind of intimate relationship.
At the same time, I wouldn’t be surprised if many of our personal problems are rooted, in part, in our reliance on one type of energy only. Fierceness may not be the best strategy for dealing with an anxious partner. Tenderness is not helpful when people are doing things that hurt you. And sometimes we need to confront issues head on, instead of beating around the bush.
Personally, I believe that we can become happier and more fulfilled if we balance our three energies. If we are tender and fierce at the same time, we can be clear about our boundaries without being aggressive. If we are playful and fierce, we replace struggle with ease when dealing with life’s challenges. And tenderness and playfulness combined can give any relationship the creativity and intimacy on which it thrives.
When you think about it, you could even see the development of Aikido as a shift in the balance of energies. Daito-ryu Jujutsu, one of Aikido’s roots, is fierce but not very tender. In part because of the influence of the Omoto-kyo religion, which emphasises love and compassion, O-Sensei transformed Daiti-ryu into Aikido. My personal opinion is that beautiful Aikido shows tenderness, playfulness and fierceness.
On the mat
I have tried to apply this thinking on energies to my own Aikido. Sometimes I am too fierce and not playful enough, and I am only now beginning to discover what it’s like to be really tender with my partner. It’s way for me to give myself feedback and to help me learn.
I wonder whether it might do the same for you. So ask yourself: what energy is dominant within you? Which energy would you like to cultivate more of? How would this change your Aikido and day-to-day life?
Again, what I have written here is an exploration. I wonder about the relationship between ki and these three energies. Perhaps it’s better not to call them energies, but ‘inner states’, because it relates to how we are in the world. If you have some thoughts or feedback that can help me, then by all means let me know!