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Aikido and the Power of Lightness

For more than 20 years I have been practicing stabilizing upward instead of grounding or rooting into the earth. I sometimes joke that what I suggest is ‘aiki heresy’ as generally there is a lot of emphasis on grounding in aikido teaching. Here is an excerpt from my book, The Practice of Freedom published in 2000, which describes my experience and my thinking at that time and continues in the present.

Between Heaven and Earth

“A number of years ago, I sustained an injury to my right knee during an evening practice. I tore my anterior cruciate ligament and the cartilage inside my knee. For a year, I wore a brace made of stainless steel and fiberglass that had been fitted to my leg. Its design was such that I couldn’t fold my leg underneath me in the normal seiza, or seated, position. I had to sit with my leg to one side in a way that torqued my right hip and ankle.

The approach that I had always taken in my training was to ground incoming energy by taking it downward, toward the mat. This approach was based on the premise that grounding it would neutralize it. I was often able to do this. But as my knee improved and I started practicing more intensely again, the combination of the torquing and my approach of redirecting incoming energy created pain and weakness in my right hip, knee, and ankle.

Throughout many years of practice, I had developed an ability to take pressure. I experienced myself as being strong under pressure. My right side, however, continued to be painful and weak. I changed to a lighter brace, which allowed me to fold my legs in a balanced way, but the pattern of discomfort remained. Neither Western nor holistic medicine could change or affect the condition. The situation began to change only when I started to find ways to “lighten up.” In retrospect, I probably had many hints encouraging me in that direction, but it was so contrary to my thinking and my training that I ignored them.

During this time, I was investigating Native American practices. I participated in sweat lodge ceremonies, in which spirits of the four directions, north, south, east, and west, as well as spirits of above and below, heaven and Earth, are invited to hold, protect, and inform the process of the ceremony. At one point during one of these events, I received a strong impression that O’Sensei’s spirit was trying to send me a message. Perhaps it was my inner wisdom disguised as O’Sensei. In any case, the message was that I was to consider myself “between heaven and Earth.” The heaven part seemed to be emphasized.

At first it was difficult for me to really receive the message that heaven, or above, was a place of healing and power. I had always tried hard to be “grounded” and not “spacey.” My understanding had been that down was where a person was strong, relaxed, and powerful, and up was where a person was lightweight, weak, and a space cadet. But the message was clear: I needed to cultivate the upward direction of my practice. One way to do this was to focus on balancing my energy field. I kept inquiring, What it would be like if the energy above my head were equal to the energy below my feet, the feeling of the gravitational pull? I made progress, but when I wasn’t paying attention, I would slip back into my habit of over-weighing or loading my system. Little by little, however, I was able to focus more on the upward flow.

It was the increasing physical discomfort that inspired me to pay more attention to how incoming energy was organizing itself in my body. It was during a class with a friend, Paul Ciske, who was teaching about posture and body alignment, that I finally felt and understood the strength of the vertical flow. Paul has a wonderful way of helping people find a posture that is light, clear, and balanced. I discovered that when I was in proper skeletal alignment, a strong pressure exerted from above allowed me to feel light and strong. I experienced what they talk about in physics: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. When another person would exert pressure, there would be an automatic upward flow of energy. As long as I didn’t involve my muscles and simply allowed the skeleton to hold the pressure as it was designed to do, my system automatically balanced the pressure in an upward direction. All I had to do was enjoy it.

Gone was the feeling of “taking it,” “loading up,” or “handling” the pressure. Instead, the pressure was handling itself. It is important here to remember the principle, energy follows attention. By concentrating on the downward direction all the time, I was unintentionally creating an energy imbalance. By allowing my energy to flow equally up and down, the energy could organize and balance itself. Prior to this realization, I had thought that the only alternative to taking the energy down was an option that I had tried to inhibit for years: the “right back at you” option, a reflex only too familiar to my reactive temperament. Allowing the energy to move up and down through me instead of down and into me was a liberating shift.

In receiving energy, it helps to think of the energy pattern as vertical rather than horizontal. From the horizontal viewpoint, the energy pattern tends to come into me or go right back at you. In the vertical way of receiving energy, there is plenty of room for the Earth and sky to absorb and organize the pressure. I now enjoy the sensation of lightening up under pressure. I tend to smile more, feel softer, and be able to accept the situation without feeling that I have to endure it.

Vertical and Horizontal Energy Flows

The core of the body is primarily vertical in nature. From the cortex to the perineum, the lines of movement, from gross to subtle, flow in helixes within the verticality of the head, neck, and torso. From this established central column, energy moves out, expanding into the world of people and things. Equally, energy moves inward from the external world toward the central column. A person’s response to incoming energy is usually a matter of conditioning. A person may either attempt to repel the incoming energy or absorb it by taking it into himself or herself. Or the person may do both. By studying himself or herself carefully, a person can observe his or her own responses to incoming energy. In most cases, the conditioned tendency is not the most efficient, compassionate way to handle this incoming energy.

We can use the principle from posture practice to deal with incoming energy. If we align ourselves between the natural gravitational pull and the dynamic upward response to it, then we can be in a situation of pressure without “loading up.” We don’t have to take the pressure: instead, we can allow it to move through us. As it comes into us, it is dispersed upward and downward equally. Through practice, we can recover long-forgotten pathways of energy flow. If we keep relating to the energy helixes, to the vertical flow of life moving through our systems, then we can receive intensity without it overwhelming or damaging us.

Energy itself is not a problem. Essentially, it is simply the vibration of the life force in our bodies. It is only when it meets resistance and is not able or allowed to organize itself that it can become difficult and dangerous. When this happens, the sense of coherence is diminished and the sense of anarchy is increased. When energy meets resistance, it increases rather than decreases. We think that by resisting pressure, we can make it stop or go away. This is an illusion. The more we resist, the stronger it gets. And so the dilemma arises: if we don’t resist, then we will be overwhelmed, annihilated; if we do resist, then what we resist will become more powerful.

Looking at it in another way, the gravitational pull created by the Earth’s core is balanced by the upward, vertical pull of the Earth’s rotation. The Earth is spinning at a speed of 1,000 miles per hour. This creates a strong centrifugal force that would fling us into space were it not for gravity. By focusing our attention on both the centrifugal and gravitational forces, we can perceive that we are perfectly balanced between the two, that we can be grounded and light at the same time. This sense of balance creates a feeling of acceptance. We recognize that there is room for us, for whatever is happening; that there is no need to resist. What comes toward us can be directed up or down equally. It doesn’t need to get stuck inside us or weigh us down.”

Lightness is a kind of power and I believe that we need to cultivate this kind of power in these times. I invite your thoughts on lightness and wish you joyful, light and powerful training.

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