The Psychology of Aiki
by Lawrence Novick, Ph.D.

Part I: Vulnerability

One notion of Aiki implies having a sense of the unfolding direction and intention of a situation, blending with that flow, and leading it to a positive conclusion in a conscious and empowered way. The psychology of Aiki emerges from applying the subtle and underlying principles of Aiki to oneself and to life situations.

There is a basic concept in psychology when explaining people's reactions to aggressive or threatening situations, well-known as the "fight or flight" response. This refers to the unconscious, instinctual and learned reaction patterns that we fall into when we perceive some behavior as an attack or a threat. Simply put, we seek to get away or to confront, in an attempt to make things "safe."

There are many things in life that we perceive, consciously or unconsciously, as a threat. This creates conflict, as it invokes the fight-or-flight response. In times of conflict, we naturally establish a negative bonding pattern with the person who initiates threatening behavior towards us; a bonding pattern between our vulnerability, which is the part of us that can be open and therefore hurt, and the other person's "power," as defined by their behavior. The important aspect of the process, at the psychological level, is that when we feel threatened, the natural thing for us to do is to identify ourselves with (or become) the part or parts of us that we learned to protect ourselves with when we were young, and then react accordingly to the present situation.

Let's back up a minute. As we grow up in this relatively unsafe world, we quickly find out that we need to learn how to protect our vulnerability. This can be on a physical or emotional level. There is a mechanism in the psyche that seeks to avoid pain and protect us. If our feelings get hurt or we fear for our safety, we find some other part of ourselves to "be" at that moment, or to focus on. That way we don't have to feel the pain, we don't have to be vulnerable, we don't have to stay in an uncomfortable, disempowered, and often self-critical position. We take on many different "ways of being" in the service of our own protection: we can become extroverted, introverted, confrontive, avoiding, whatever our unconscious correctly or incorrectly feels will allow us to be safe.

We perpetuate these patterns in life, because in a relative sense they work for us, they keep us safer than if we were wide open. These ways of being become dominant parts of our personality. As we get older, even if we no longer need to be identified with some of these patterns, they grow so big in our psyche, that is, we become so used to them, that they become an integral part of who we consider ourselves to be, and how we react in life, how we deal with things. The downside of this process is that not only are we not reacting in the present moment, but also our identification with these parts distances us from our vulnerability, and therefore our essence and real feelings. A certain amount of our behavior in life comes from compensatory reactions to feeling vulnerable.

When we get into relationships that call for us to be open and vulnerable, we find ourselves faced with a reflection of our own consciousness. However much we stay identified with those parts of us that compensate for our vulnerability, it is to the same degree that we cannot be intimate and vulnerable with other people, and with ourselves. We stay defended, and in fact may not be responding to the situation at hand at all, just to our unconscious, threatened interpretation of it. When we do respond in this manner we don't learn anything, we don't grow, we don't get closer to people. We perpetuate our own unconsciousness. Without vulnerability, there is no intimacy.

How does this relate to Aikido? When someone grabs our wrist or attacks us in Aikido practice, or in life for that matter, they are setting up a negative bonding pattern with us. They are threatening our vulnerability. We, in turn, ordinarily react with the energy of whatever part of us we learned to protect ourselves with: fighter, victim, pleaser, child, avoider, caretaker, etc. When this happens, we get caught up in, and react to, the "area of conflict", rather than relate consciously to the real source of the conflict: vulnerability.

What Aikido teaches us about this system is that, one, we can get in touch with and understand the patterns that we go into to protect ourselves, both physical or emotional, and two, that there is an alternative to this behavior; that of conscious response and choice, rather than unconscious reaction. Aikido shows us that we don't have to be trapped in the bonding patterns, our own limited self-concepts, or the conflict itself. By being aware and accepting of our own vulnerability, and by also being aware of our own power, i.e. our own center and our own Ki, we become more conscious, and start to let go of our identification with the negative process. By adding to that the awareness of the other person's intent and vulnerability and blending with that, we begin enter into the experience of Aiki. Within this, there is a balance of vulnerability, power and freedom of choice, rather than fear and unconsciousness. This doesn't mean that we will always be totally loving and completely embracing of another's aggressive behavior, it means that we will have a chance to deal with it consciously.

This awareness of vulnerability is important for two reasons. One, it is at the root of our own feelings and responses, and two, when we know our own vulnerability, we are aware of another persons' as well. Knowing what it would feel like to have our own feelings "violated", we then do not go out and violate someone else's. We can also be aware that most people act aggressively or defensively because they are responding unconsciously to their own vulnerable feelings. When we understand this level of Aiki, we can make other choices as to how we treat that kind of situation; we can come from a more tolerant and empowered place because we feel protected in a more conscious way and we understand what's going on at a much deeper level. I believe that this is primary to O'Sensei's view that Aikido is loving protection for all living things, including ourselves, including our supposed attacker.

So, in Aikido, rather than block and punch or hurt and maim, we blend with the energy/intention/movement of the aggressive act out of a respect for the underlying vulnerability on both sides, and redirect it to a more beneficial conclusion. Being centered, extending Ki, blending, and leading: these are basic to Aikido. The nature of Aikido movements are designed so that we actually move from a different place, from Center with Ki, and can address the larger truth of the situation, the nature of the interaction, rather than getting completely caught up in the attack itself. This is fundamental to the philosophy and actuality of Aikido.

At a psychological level, we can also "move from a different place" and respond more to the vulnerable and spiritual essence of relationship instead of just the negative aspects that arise in life, that is, "the attacks." Then our perspective of interpersonal relationship broadens towards a more compassionate and "win-win" experience. When someone "grabs our wrist" at the emotional level, we need not be at the mercy of our own past or our unconscious patterns, we don't have to "run", we don't have to "fight", we can stay present and make clearer choices about our behavior in accord with our sense of the true needs of all involved. The duality that the unconscious defense of vulnerability creates, falls away when the situation is approached consciously, and the experience of Aiki that the Founder held paramount emerges.

But how is this really done? I recall a quote from O'Sensei:
[Aikido] . . . . is an act of faith based on the desire to achieve total awakening.

He didn't say that it is a series of techniques that bring "enlightenment", or an austere training method, or the following of a particular religion, but an act of faith. To me, at a fundamental level that means the faith to trust and let go to the vulnerability and power of the consciousness of Aiki; the awareness and experience of the joining of the Hara, or Center, with the feeling and extension of Ki, of energy itself. This allows one to be both consciously empowered, and harmoniously extended into and fully dancing the dance of life. Balanced in one's own awareness of vulnerability and sense of empowerment, this dynamic consciousness naturally finds it's own harmony, it's own flow, it's own understanding and truth.

Aikido then becomes a form through which the practitioner can learn to let go to the thing inside of them that awakens them to the harmony and true nature of all things big and small, personal and spiritual, and apply that knowledge and experience to anything they wish in life, be it self-defense, music, work, walking or talking. Aikido practice then truly becomes a transformational process from unconsciousness to a conscious state of dynamic being, of harmony and balance, of self-protection and conscious choice, and of the co-existence of vulnerability and power which is the foundation and meaning of consciousness, the hallmark of the new age, and the essence of the new, conscious warrior.