by Patrick Augé Sensei
According to the Langenscheidt Japanese Dictionary, Ki means:
1- spirit, soul; 2- feeling; 3- intention, inclination.
The mystical sense means the life force that animates the universe.
Ki is part of many compounded words in daily Japanese language, such as "ki ga au" (feel comfortable or compatible with. Same ideograms as Kiai and Aiki!), "ki ga chisai" (timid, literally "has small spirit"), "ki o tsukeru" (be careful, literally "put on spirit"). All these expressions have different meanings but originate all from the same source. Ki is a common word of the everyday Japanese language, and most people use it without knowing its deeper meaning. For this reason, foreigners are often surprised at the evasive answers they receive from native Japanese speakers whenever they question them about Ki. Like many beginning Budo students, I too was curious about this subject.
Thirty years ago, shortly after my arrival in Japan and settling at the dojo, I found a book in English on Ki in daily life. The book gave many interesting explanations and practical exercises to develop Ki. My teacher saw me reading the book and laughed: "Very strong man!" he said of the author, exposing his own biceps, "but strange here!" he added poking a finger at his head. It took some time before I learned through the Japanese Budo network that the author of the book did not live according to his teaching, in spite of his great technical skill.
In the meantime I practiced some of the book's exercises. One exercise recommended that one should taste food before adding salt to it in order to develop an awareness of its real taste. I applied the same principle to some other ingredients we often mindlessly add to food. As a result, I started to like more things, even foods that many foreigners tend to avoid. The same principle could be applied to other senses, such as hearing for example: living in silence, listening to sounds and music with mindfulness. It could be applied to seeing: surrounding oneself with natural colors, using peripheral vision, watching nature, stars. It could be applied to smelling: avoiding perfumes and cosmetics, cigarettes, chemicals etc., noticing smells while breathing in. It could also be applied to feeling such as shaving without mirror and changing hands while shaving; because of total presence and awareness, it resulted in a better quality shave and fewer cuts.
These are exercises to help tune up the physical senses. But how can honing the physical senses apply to Aikido training?
First of all, we need to have a clear understanding of what Aikido is in order to find our direction and stay on track. My understanding is based on my teacher's teaching, his example, and my own study and practice. It may not apply to everyone outside of our group although I believe that many students of Budo may benefit from others' experiences.
Aikido is the path to be consciously connected with the universe through Budo. Budo is the path to transform the body-mind-spirit in order to become a compassionate, wise, and strong person for the mutual welfare and prosperity of all living beings. Consequently, Aikido and Budo are one.
One may ask the question: can't one become a compassionate, wise, and strong person for the mutual welfare and prosperity of all living beings without the use of martial techniques?
If we develop compassion only, we may misuse it (due to ignorance) and not be able to achieve our intended goal. This is why we need also to develop wisdom in order to know when and how to use it effectively. But we also may be unable to use it if we are perceived as weak. Thus, we need strength. This is why martial techniques, such as Aikido techniques, which are not intended to cause any unnecessary damage, are essential.
We learn and practice these martial techniques in the dojo. The dojo is a laboratory of human behavior. We can test and practice new patterns of behavior such as kindness, respect, patience, etc. without having to worry about others' reactions. When we are completely familiar with the new patterns we can apply them with confidence in our daily lives. This may be quite difficult to do in our daily environment.
Most aikido schools have their own versions of Ki exercises. I am familiar only with the Yoseikan style. In Yoseikan Budo, Tehodoki, their variations, and Nigirikaeshi are the kinds of exercises we use to develop Ki. Next, after being able to perform fundamental techniques with one partner at a time, we have Shitei Randori (designated practice) and Jiyu Randori (free practice), which are done with several partners attacking from different directions. In order to be effective and lead to progress, these exercises require mindfulness on the part of the partners. This means that Uke (the attacker) must be sincere and apply the proper amount of determination and energy according to his partner's level and needs. Mochizuki Minoru Sensei is famous for scolding students who lack mindfulness on and off the mats.
When training, our body should be like a transmission "in drive, " firm but not stiff or flabby. This is the meaning of filling oneself with Ki. Our eyes should be level, in peripheral vision mode, in order to be sensitive to any move or signal (body language) on the part of our partners. If our partners are sincere in their intention to attack, they create a sense of urgency, and we learn to read the signals, just like a new driver becomes very soon "one with his car" since mistakes in appreciation of space, speed and timing (maai) can result in disaster. For this, driving is also a good opportunity to practice Aikido.
When we look deeply into phenomena and analyze their nature, we become aware of the fact that everything is connected with everything else, that nothing occurs by itself. Every phenomenon is the result of causes and conditions, both direct and indirect, which are themselves the results of other causes and conditions, and the deeper we search for their origins, the more causes and conditions appear endlessly, like a huge mesh. After training ourselves to look at phenomena in this way, we become much more sensitive to details that escape the untrained person. We see people and events differently, and we have more control over our emotions, which clears the way to make better decisions.
Sensei taught us the following story, which dates back to the time he was an uchideshi at the old Kobukan Dojo. "Ueshiba Sensei was able to sense our level of concentration by observing us. One night we (the students) went out and came back late, laughing and making noise. As we entered the dojo, the first fellow in got hit with a bokuto. Ueshiba Sensei went back to sleep. After that, we became very careful to be quiet and would check before entering the dojo and got in without problems. However, a couple of weeks later, Sensei must have noticed something, for when we came back that night, we forgot to check and someone got hit again. It never occurred again. This was my best lesson in Ki training ever." This kind of Ki can be developed.
Some of the old members of the Yoseikan remember also another story. Ueshiba Sensei frequently dropped in at the Yoseikan Dojo in Shizuoka when he traveled back to Tokyo. One day, after practice, the students were sitting around Ueshiba Sensei when suddenly he said: "There is someone looking for me at the station; could one of you go to pick him up?" The Yoseikan is several kilometers from Shizuoka Station. A student drove to the station, asked around if someone was looking for Ueshiba Sensei, found him, and took him to the dojo. According to Mochizuki Sensei, Ueshiba Sensei could perceive people's thoughts quite naturally, even at a distance. However, he insisted that Ueshiba Sensei was the only person he knew who had that ability, which explains why he could defeat his attackers with quite simple techniques. Can this sort of Ki be developed? Everyone at a time or another receives an extra sensorial message. This is something I have felt consciously a few times in my life. It always occurred with people with whom I had strong affectionate ties. And in all cases, we were thousands of miles apart. We receive a lot of messages of this kind, but our lifestyle is the major factor in determining whether or not we are in "receiving mode" which makes the difference between being aware or not.
If we take life's experiences as opportunities to develop ourselves, we become more sensitive to the signals that precede what is going to happen. Also all those exercises have little meaning if their application stays within the confines of the dojo. Life provides plenty of opportunities to practice mindfulness. Another major obstacle is material comfort. This kills our desire to improve and makes us dull. I have noticed that students who face hardships with determination show much better awareness while training and this results in sharper techniques. The problem is to maintain the momentum after things have become normal again. For this reason, we should train ourselves when everything is calm in order to stand a better chance to face difficulties when they occur (and they will).
According to Mochizuki Sensei, the more we rely on intellectualization to learn, the more stupid we become. That is why he has been discouraging his students from learning with books and tapes. It's only through experience that we can internalize knowledge. After that, it's all right to use books and other media.
That still does not answer the question whether or not we can cultivate Ki. However, by maintaining a simple lifestyle, caring for others, and striving to develop our human qualities along with our martial skills, we stand a better chance of being receptive to this phenomenon. But this is only a by-product that occurs as a result of developing other qualities. Otherwise it is nothing more than an other obsession.Patrick Augé Sensei, November 2000