It forms the central part of Aikido training. In Kokikai, it has so much significance you can’t even say the name of our style without mentioning it twice. It is often the subject of whispers, occasionally the subject of scorn, and always the subject that any aikido student, of any skill level or experience, struggles to understand.
By this time, it should be obvious: I’m talking about ki.
But what is this ki? How do we define it, work with it? Does it even exist at all? Or is it just some sort of metaphysical mumbo-jumbo? “In Kokikai, we define ki as mind-body coordination.” That’s the standard line, and it’s true. But what does it mean? What is mind-body coordination? Aren’t we just switching an undefined phrase for an undefined word? Truthfully, it’s been made clear that, in Kokikai, the understanding of ki is a personal one. You’re meant to figure it out yourself. There are some good reasons for that, which I hope to get to in time. But for now, I thought I’d at least try to help by pointing out a few things that ki is not; perhaps that way, we can have a starting point for trying to discuss what ki actually is.
Disclaimer: These are my thoughts, as most of you know. No doubt discussing ki is akin to discussing religion; there are likely to be many opinions, and mine is only one of them.
First, ki is not magic. You’d think this is pretty obvious, but I want to make it clear. Magic, according to Webster’s, is “the art that purports to control or forecast natural events, effects, or forces by invoking the supernatural.” This is not ki. There is no magic going on here. There is no mystical forces at work, no secret enchancements that activate it. I’m actually often surprised at how many people think of magic or the supernatural when they think of ki. I won’t digress into a discussion of what I think ki is just yet, but I will say that there is nothing in ki that is magic; therefore, there is nothing in ki that does not make some logical sense. Some people may use terms like “magic” or “mystical energy” or “universal energy” as terms of convenience; however, the connotations associated with these terms paints an incorrect and highly-distracting picture of reality.
Second, ki is not religion. You do not have to “believe” in ki. It is not a faith to which you subscribe, there are no tenets that you must follow. Again, there may be a great many people to whom ki is a fundamental part of their belief system. Yet I do not think that ki is, in and of itself, its own religion. A part of religion is faith which, again turning to Webster’s, is a “belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.” We know that ki cannot be a belief or religion, then, because we have seen both logical proof and material evidence that it exists.
Third, ki is not an intellectual concept. This again is a common trap for many practitioners of Aikido. It is very easy for us to mentally process the words “ki,” “mind-body,” and “coordination,” and say to ourselves, “Ah yes, I understand now.” Such an understanding exists only in the mind, and does not permeate through the rest of one’s consciousness. All too often I see people mentally process a concept like ki, only to demonstrate that their understanding is superficial at best. This attempt to treat ki like a textbook subject always reminds me of a certain relative of mine. This relative will tell you, at every opportunity, that they feel “at peace.” Every day, all the time, they mention that they’re at peace. Over and over again they repeat this phrase, like it’s a mantra. After a few conversations, you realize something: this person probably has no real understanding what “being at peace” really means. Consider such individuals like the Dali Lama. He doesn’t exactly walk around, telling everyone: “I’m enlightened! Did you know that I’m enlightened? I’m telling you that I’m enlightened!” No, he simply is enlightened. It permeates his entire being, and therefore there is no need to explain it. Being able to mentally and intellectually process the limited words and expressions that we can use to describe ki is not the same as actually understanding it.
I think that’s a good enough start, for now. Later, I hope to discuss some of the things that I think ki actually is, as well as what tools we have through which we can understand ki further.