© by Lawrence Novick, Ph.D.
There is a powerful and real connection between the goals of Zen and Aikido practice. In fact, I sometimes refer to Aikido as "Zen on wheels," because Aikido, to a large extent, is dynamic Zen practice. Aikido's goal is to be in the state of Aiki, or in flowing harmony with Universal Energy as it manifests life and reality, and to be completely conscious at the time and apply that consciousness to all levels of life. The goal of Zen is to be aware of and participate fully in the continual unfolding flow of the moment without anticipation, need, desire, and attachment, all of which serve to take us away from full participation in "the unfolding now."
The importance of letting go of these emotional or psychological elements in order to manifest the principles of Aikido is paramount in having the true experience that O'Sensei, founder of Aikido, had in mind. The basic principles of Aikido involve perceiving the energy of the moment, harmonizing with that in a centered way, and moving with and leading the flow toward a positive intention rather than a destructive one. Thus also the self-defense aspect of the art. The elements that Zen deals with are directly applicable to achieving the Aikido experience as well. It is important to learn to let go of, or in a sense control, these emotional responses. For instance, when you have the need to throw someone, you take yourself out of the flow and away from the ability to follow the flow fully and consciously. And you take yourself out of the moment and out of Ki due to the need to defend yourself, or prove something to someone else, or to yourself. However much you have those kinds of needs or desires, consciously or unconsciously, that is how much your attention, consciousness, and Ki will be elsewhere.
When you are attached to the outcome of a throw or you are anticipating what will happen out of an emotional response, you cease to be in harmony with the spontaneity and creative manifestation of the moment, and are therefore limiting yourself to what your concept of the moment is or should be, rather than what it actually is, and what it is becoming.
These limitations of consciousness are what Aikido works with as much as anything else, certainly at the higher levels of practice. It is part of the inner work. Self-defense technique is limited to only one dimension of the truth of Aikido. Aikido is about experiencing a continual flowing consciousness (awareness and experience) of dynamic harmony with everything, or Aiki. That is harmony on all levels: physical (external), personal (internal), spiritual (transpersonal/infinite.) This is its connection with Zen: in order to be in full harmony, you have to be in the moment fully without any act of consciousness (or unconsciousness) that will take you significantly away from the moment, or "the now."
The difference between Zen and Aikido is that there is an intention in Aikido, which in and of itself can take you out of Aiki if we attach ourselves to it from a place of need or desire. Of course, there is an intention in Zen too, that of achieving a state and understanding of Zen, which is a paradox because in Zen, an intention also takes you out of the process and the experience you are trying to get to. But practically speaking, intention is valuable in both arts. The Zen Archer, for instance, uses the consciousness attained to achieve incredible feats of marksmanship. The Aikido practitioner can use the consciousness attained to achieve a unique, non-violent, and even spiritual way of dealing with aggression. But it is not limited to this. It can be used to understand what it means to flow with the moments of life as they continually pass, and deal with them in a conscious way.