Aikido and Meditation


David Foster Wallace tells an old Zen story:

"There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, 'Morning, boys, how's the water?' And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, 'What the hell is water?'
The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about."

I came to Aikido through my study of meditation. In meditation the focus is on the witness of the breath. Through this inner observation, there is the realization of some thing that remains constant and the same, no matter what goes on in the external world or with the body, emotions, or mind.

It is easy to see that although there is a ‘talking mind’, a 'thinking mind' going on, there is also an 'aware mind', a silent Awareness that is always here, always free and spontaneous. This Awareness is automatic and inclusive. It relies on knowingness rather than on thinking or figuring things out. Its function is spontaneous and silent rather than calculating. 

We become aware of this inner Self, the Witness, a state of total freedom and the silent state of Awareness that underlies all sound, feelings, and thought.

Once identified with this Awareness, we are no longer at the effect of the world, the body, or the mind, and with this Awareness comes an inner calm, stillness, and a profound sense of the unity of all things.  One can then just observe and 'be' with everything as it is. 

It was with the profound understanding of the unity of all things, that my  teacher Swami Muktananda would ask us to meditate. He said, "Look upon the unceasing flow of images that arise in the mind as nothing but the mind, and you will be free."

For Muktananda meditation was a matter of correct understanding. It was not concentration or any other technique, but rather the effortless awareness of being.

In meditation we simply rest as the Witness of all that arises. As a technique, we were instructed in the art of breathing called pranayama.  Prana is the vital force, ki in aikido.  Muktananda taught using his ki  and his deep understanding of the nature and cause of bondage and the means to liberation. Baba often referenced the Siva Sutras as the most important scripture in the Trika system of Kashmir Shaivism.

Pranasamachare samadarshanam (Sivasutras 3/22)  - evenness of prana brings equality consciousness. 

Muktananda said: 

"Prana is the most important thing in the body; it keeps it alive. Without it even the individual self will have no force; it is the power of animation. All beings, sentient or insentient, owe their existence to prana. When the prana becomes uneven, the sense of duality arises. When the inner shakti awakens by grace, prana is purified and becomes even. Prana and apana (in-breath and out-breath) become equal and then consciousness and matter, subtle and gross, are seen to be one, even as one sees the different parts of his body as one. The awareness of the equality of all things dawns." 

The joke is that meditation is not what you think. 

As a mindfulness practice meditation can be used to empower oneself even while engaged in intense activity. In the martial arts we are trained to empty our mind so we can meet whatever attack our opponent mounts, freshly and appropriately. 

Of course stories of other Masters were a frequent topic in the ashram. I heard about O Sensei's experience with unity-consciousness and how he had created a physical art out of his spiritual experience with the ki. He called it Aikido, the Art of Peace.

My first opportunity to see Aikido came in the spring of 1981, when my teacher went back to India for the last time (he died in 1982).  I had heard there was a dojo on 18th Street in New York City where a direct student of O Sensei, Shihan Yoshimitsu Yamada Sensei, was teaching. 

I remember the afternoon I came into the dojo accompanied by a beautiful Italian woman who was also interested in Aikido, and we sat on the bench at the end of the mat to watch. Yamada Sensei was away. Butch was teaching and came by frequently to answer any question the young lady might have.  I was amazed by the students’ relationship with the mat and by the senior students’ calm demeanor while under attack!  I remember thinking this is what is meant by "Spirit pervades matter; matter provides the medium for spirit." "How elegant!  What a beautiful flow of energy.  Ki in action!"  I saw Aikido as part of the universal awakening that is emerging. The young lady never did take up Aikido, but I signed up that day and with great eagerness began my meditation with the aiki movements. 

We begin each class with the breath-watching technique and as we repeat the exercises in rhythm with the breath we begin to feel the subtle intoxication of pure awareness. Even without any understanding of meditation we have all seen this effect many times. Any activity that brings the mind to "one point" - listening to music, painting a picture, watching a movie, being in the presence of the one you love - allows the inherent joy of existence to arise naturally. Harmonizing with the energy (aiki) is revealed as calmness in action, coming from this one-pointed awareness.

Aikido is non-resistance, letting go. The object of letting go is the elimination of limiting mental and emotional programs. It is the attainment of an unconditional mind and ultimately, transcendence of the mind itself to higher states of consciousness of love and peace.


The current doshu and grandson of O Sensei, Moriteru Ueshiba, says in his new book Progressive Aikido the Essential Elements: "The Founder Morihei Ueshiba, who researched the concept of aiki (harmonization of ki) deeply, explained ki like this: "Ki is the vital energy of the universe, and the subtle functioning of ki enlivens the five senses. Employ that force, with unity of body and mind, and you can move freely as you will. 

How can we employ the subtle functioning of ki? First of all, we need to learn how to use our breath power (kokyu-ryoku). In Aikido, ki is actualized through breath power. The Indian philosophical term prana means "breath." It was an understanding of that eternal truth (the nature of universal breath) that led to the enlightenment of the Founder Morihei.

The Founder realized that it was necessary to unify mind, body, and ki. From that individual integration, one had to link oneself to the universe as a whole, and manifest the tremendous power of the life force. Ultimately, that harmonization (between ki, mind, and body) will result in true enlightenment. This is the purpose of Aikido."

Although we don't talk much about the subject of breath or meditation, this is the foundation of our AiKi practice. O Sensei left few writings on the subject, preferring to teach his students by direct example. To this day the master teachers put us in the right posture over and over again. This centering - an art, a science, a practice - changes everything in your life: the way you sleep, the way you wake, the way you sit, the way you stand, the way you walk, the way you move, the way you breathe, the way you feel, the way you think, the way you create. It is a way of being in the world. In order to do the techniques properly we must rest in the still center. Aikido practice develops this strong still center from which we can deal with whatever arises.

O Sensei if understood correctly, tells us every moment of life can be an occasion for coming into contact with the artist of creation and can be a way to touch that source of joy and ecstasy that underlies the entire universe. One can sense the interconnections that link everything in the world, and one can directly experience that each action one performs resonates throughout the entire universe. 

An Aikido Story

There is difficulty in describing the Aiki life force and how it works for the practicing student, but I think the following example from my own experience sheds some light on the deep meaning of Aikido.

I was living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and had been practicing Aikido for more than twenty years, and meditation for many more years than that. As part of my training it was my habit to ride a bicycle to the dojo, even though the ride to 18th Street in Chelsea from my 83rd Street apartment was 40 minutes in heavy traffic.

On that fateful day, I slipped into my backpack with all my Aikido gear in it, hopped on the bike, and headed down Ninth Avenue to catch the 12:15 class. This route avoids the heavy traffic of Times Square and because 83rd Street is on a much higher elevation than 18th Street, it is basically a downhill run. Ninth Avenue is also one-way, has 4 lanes, with parking on the right side of the street. Unknown to me, just past 40th Street outside a convenience store, a heavyset man was pulling into a parking spot behind a parked truck. He didn’t pull up close to the curb. He sat there waiting.

I was in the center of the far right lane. I always try to keep one side open so as not to have moving traffic on both sides of me. I was standing up on the pedals just coasting down hill, flowing with the traffic that was beginning to get heavy as it approached 42nd Street. I glanced over my shoulder and saw a cab coming up fast behind me in my lane. I saw that I would be able to get over after passing the parked truck coming up on my right. What I experienced after that happened outside of normal time.

The heavyset man was not waiting for me, but his timing was nevertheless impeccable. Just as my handlebars came parallel to his car door, he kicked the door open striking the right handlebar and my right hand, twisting the handlebar a full 90 degrees, and dislocating a joint in my ring finger.

Pain shot through my right hand as the bike came to a sudden halt in the middle of the lane. I was still balanced on the pedals, now looking this surprised man right in the eye as he tried to eject himself from his seat.

Adrenaline pumped into my blood stream and gave me super-powers. Everything was unfolding in slow motion. I could hear the first sounds of metal against metal as the grill of the cab came into contact with rear of the bike. I was still balancing on top of the bike, but now I felt it being pulled out from under me.

My mind calculated the event: me falling in the lane and the cab running over me. I could hear the crushing of the bike under me as it continued to go under the cab that was slowly eating up the space I now occupied. I let go of the bike, straightened up, and waited for the impact.

My feet had not yet touched the ground when the cab hit me full-on on the left side of my body. I used the energy of the impact to fly ten feet into the air, as if a two thousand pound Sumo wrestler had just flung me off of him. Already calculating a landing spot in front of the car that hit me with its door, I turned over in mid-air and landed on the pavement, on my back and cushioned by my backpack full of Aikido gear.

I lay there for a few minutes surveying what had just happened. My bike was crushed under the back wheels of the now-still cab. But, except for the dislocated finger and a massive bruise on my left side which would appear later, I was unharmed.

The source of strength, balance, pure awareness, and the ability to take a safe fall in the face of death were all automatic responses as a consequence of my years of training in meditation and Aikido. They literally saved my life.

The bike didn’t fare as well, only the frame was salvageable. I dropped it off at the bike shop. The guys were shocked to see its condition. I picked it up the next day just before class time, slipped into my backpack, hopped on the bike, and headed down Ninth Avenue.