ESSAY: The Myth Structure that Grounds Our Practice

AUTHOR : Robert Kent

Background : Aikido West requires Ni Dan candidates submit a brief essay on an Aikido-related topic. As a former English teacher, I've always been fascinated by how the stories we tell shape who we are.

As with any essay posted to this site, this represents just one person's view of what Aikido is. If you have different ideas, you are encouraged to submit them for consideration.

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The Myth Structure that Grounds Our Practice
What in Heaven’s Name Do We Think We’re Doing?


I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness,
nor the arrow for its swiftness,
nor the warrior for his glory.
I love only that which they defend.

Faramir, in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings

We, as fairly dedicated martial artists, should understand why we train. Even if we never found ourselves having to “explain” aikido to our friends and family, we should be able to articulate, at least to ourselves, just what keeps us coming back to the mat day after day. Examined from the perspective of a “normal” contemporary American life, what ever that might be like, we have to admit that what we do - dressing in funny foreign clothes and attacking each other with wooden sticks, for instance - is pretty unconventional.

But we do it anyway, despite, or perhaps on account of, Aikido’s unconventionality. And we do it as often as our bodies allow us to, and sometimes more often than we should. Aikido is not a drug, though some have jokingly argued that it is nevertheless an addiction. So, again, why do we train?

Some part of the answer lies in the realm of the physical, in the way it feels to get tossed around and work up a good sweat, in the way that everyday movements are informed by, and made perhaps more graceful by, the motions of our training. There are many activities that offer graceful movement and a good sweat, however, and it seems clear that the attraction of Aikido is not limited to what our bodies actually do during training. There is, integral to partnered practice, the opportunity for connection with another, and therefore the opportunity to create, and participate in, something (in this case a movement) larger than ourselves. Aikido, though dance-like in this regard, seems more than just dance. Though this seems self-evident to an Aikidoka, articulating just what it is that is within Aikido that extends beyond dance is not so simple. The obvious point that aikido is a martial art while dance is a form of social entertainment obscures the fact that aikido is both entertaining and social; but it does suggest that something in the nature of a martial art, something beyond social contact and entertainment, holds the answer we have been seeking.

What makes movement martial is not, strictly, in the realm of the physical. Every movement we make on the mat could be part of a dance - it is what we mean by these movements that is or isn’t martial. As uke, we are asked to attack with sincerity - and this instruction makes sense to us. Imagine, on the other hand, how we would respond to a dance instructor who told us to jitterbug, waltz, or tango more sincerely. There simply is no contextual basis for attributing “sincerity” to one dance step or another. In aikido, however, there is a context with which to derive such judgements of authenticity. When we attack shomen the way we are supposed to, we enter and strike as if we intended to cleave our partner in twain; and it is this intention, which would be misplaced on the dance floor, that makes our practice possible. To attack with sincerity is to act as if you were not in a warehouse but on a battlefield; and it is this invocation of a martial context that makes an art of movement martial. What sets aikido apart from dance is the same thing that changes a mat in a warehouse into a dojo - the conscious decision to act as if life and death hung in the balance. There is no as if in dancing - no invocation of another context, no consciousness of a harsh reality where life and death hover, almost incarnate, close by, watching.

This itself does not tell us why we train; it merely suggests that part of the answer lies in this process of invocation, but it does not tell us why invoking a life and death struggle on a regular basis is a good thing to do. A real answer, if there is one, to our original question must do just that; a real answer must, in effect, show us how training is good for us, and good for us in ways that other activities - dancing and skydiving, for instance, are not. Informed by this concept of the invocation of a martial context, but aware that it is not itself a sufficient answer, we can return to our original question - why do we train? - and focus our thoughts for a while on what is good about training.

As I mentioned above, some of the "good" of training is physical - exercise, sweat, and graceful arcs of bodies curling through the air. I don't want to talk much about the physical aspects of Aikido, however, because talk about the physical always seems to miss the point, and thus my understanding of the physical, such as it is, will have to be demonstrated on the mat and not in some essay. Yet I must talk (this essay is, after all, a required portion of the ni-dan exam), so I will talk about the intellectual and emotional rewards and purposes of training; I will attempt to answer the question of why we train by answering the question of why training, for our intellects and our emotions, is good.

Let us begin simply, with the basic fact that we do train, and many of us train regularly -say three or more times a week. One of the clear uses of Aikido in today’s world is to work out the stresses that our lives outside the dojo have generated. In this sense, Aikido is an antidote - a counter balance to the emotional environment we have created for ourselves out in the real world. The Aikido dojo is more than a space in which to work out, of course; it is also a community of practitioners who, much like the congregation of a church, synagogue, temple or mosque, gather regularly to be in each other’s company and to partake, with a reverent and joyful spirit, in shared ritual experience. The similarity between a dojo community and a congregation in this regard, however, demonstrates that Aikido does not have an exclusive claim to reverence, joy, or ritual.

Religions, typically, are in the business of telling us what “good” is. The religious context that serves to assemble a congregation offers its participants an ethical context with which to examine how they live and to decide whether they are doing so well or poorly. Such a context provides meanings for “good” and “evil,” and provides reasons why to act in accordance with the former and not the latter. The full nature of these contexts offered by major religions are delivered in a largely parabolic way: that is, they are created with parables - legends and stories full of good and evil deeds as performed by heroes and villains. Though there are also ethically prescriptive elements - commandments and rules - within these religious traditions, I would argue that since it is the stories that make the rules make sense (it requires a story, for instance, to demonstrate that it is better to follow the rules than to break them), the narrative element within a tradition provides the most significant ethical guidance. The persistence of religious narrative traditions, traditions which often outlast the religions that spawned them (the Greek myths are still recounted even though no one actually believes in Zeus, Athena, and Heracles) suggests that we as a species continue to have an inherent need for the kind of stories religions can provide. These stories, by creating a context with which to examine how we live, serve to generate an ethical center and identity for those who listen to them.

Though Aikido is clearly not a full-fledged religion, Aikido does provide an ethical context in much the same way a religion does. The ethical context of Aikido, like the religious context, is delivered parabolically. Instead of the Noah, Job, Jonah, and the Good Samaritan, we have martial stories - tales of heroism and gallantry - that fascinate us and guide us. Some of these tales are Japanese legends of great Samurai like Musashi and Tesshu. Many, of course, are of O’Sensei or his students. The martial context, however, is not unique to Japan; other cultures have their own stories to tell, and whether those stories portray historical figures or literary ones is less important than if the values that the stories embody contribute to our sense of how we should be. Odysseus, Beowulf, Galahad, Roland, Cyrano, Aragorn or Obi wan Kenobi can inspire us as much as Churchill, Gandhi, Kennedy, or King. All of these personalities, and all the stories that represent their lives to us, contribute to our understanding of what “good” is. Good behavior, for an Aikidoka, resembles, by definition, the behavior of our heroes that these martial stories have made familiar.

By training in Aikido, we become part of this martial narrative. As martial artists, we thereby belong to the stories that we tell - we exist, albeit on the periphery, in the same world as our heroes and mythical evocations of the values we seek to live by. This is part of what is good about training - training connects us to how we know the good - connects us to, and encourages us to participate in, the stories that teach us what good is in the first place. These stories form our ethical center, and training in Aikido allows us to connect to that center, our center, by placing us within the outskirts of the narrative in which our heroes live. We do not supplant O’Sensei, Musashi, or Gandhi in the stories, but we look on their achievements from the closer and connected perspective of participants rather than the distant and disconnected perspective of observers. Even if we do not feel heroic, training in Aikido allows us to live in an age of heroes, because we walk the same Earth, face the same dangers, and swing the same sword.

©1994 Robert Kent. All rights reserved