Posted by: aikithoughts | June 12, 2006

You can’t just think it

This may be a topic that I have written about before; however, it has been on my mind a lot over the past few weeks so I’m writing about it again.

Lately, my Aikido training has been taking some very interesting philosophical and mental turns. It began, I think, with a unique training opportunity with Sensei Bannister. It grew exponentially when Sensei Berry came to visit. And it continues evolving as I find more reading material (including other blogs, in fact!) on Aikido. The purpose of this particular post is not to describe these philosophical musing; instead, I’m more concerned about the disconnect between words and reality.

Let me try to explain. Our society is, for the most part, entrenched in intellect. We pride ourselves on our supposed depth of thinking, our capability to comprehend. Yet, as most experienced practitioners of aikido already understand, understanding a subject from an intellectual standpoint does not equate to mastering that subject. I can study aerodynamics, for example, to the point that I know how and why a plane flies; that does not give me the skill to actually fly a 747 from Seattle to Boston. Most people know this is true when the subject matter with a tangible or quantifiable result: I can either fly a 747, or I can’t, for example. But when the subject is something less concrete, it seems that the line between intellectual understanding and actual, real understanding becomes blurred. And this is frequently true in Aikido.

Here’s a personal example: one of the zen koans that Sensei Bannister asked me–around the time of my 3rd kyu test–was “How do you defeat the man in the mirror?” It was question, he told me, that Sensei Maruyama put to him. Knowing already that this was a zen koan, I immediately figured the answer was not going to be obvious or straightforward. I thought about it for about a week, and then came up with what I thought was the “right” answer: “I can’t defeat the man in the mirror, because I am the man in the mirror.”

The problem is not whether the answer was correct; the problem is that this answer was born purely out of intellect. It had no basis in reality. Consequently, my understanding was purely superficial at best. And I probably would have continued on my way, quite happy that I had answered the question, thinking that I had achieved some measure of enlightenment. Chances are, in discussions with many other martial artists, my intellectual blustering might well have been enough to convince others that I actually understood something. Ha!

Fortunately for me, there was (and is) a senior student at the Seattle dojo named Greg Norman. While I give Sensei Bannister credit for teaching me, I give credit to Greg for pushing me to learn. Greg holds nothing back when we train together. One day, after catching me in the ribcage pretty good off of tsuki kotegaeshi, he looked at me and said: “You can’t just think it. You have to do it.” When he said that, something clicked. Not just in my head, but in me. Since then, I try to recognize that words and thinking are only part of the equation. To paraphrase Sensei Berry: aikido training is “a collective experience in mental exploration done physically.”

The challenge I face now is that some of these ideas difficult to describe in less-than-abstract terms. I worry that, on the rare occasions that I try to mention one of these ideas to my students, I risk having them confuse intellectual understanding with actual understanding. Yet, if I say nothing at all on these ideas, I limit the open exchange of communication that seems to have become one of the hallmarks of our little dojo.

Perhaps it is this challenge–to foster actual understanding of ourselves and the world around us–that makes randori and testing so useful. Those are two opportunities that I can think of in which one must demonstrate actual understanding. Intellectual comprehension (and, for that matter, physical skill) alone do not cut it. But I will challenge myself further: to encourage my students to seek actual understanding of the topics that interest them and, to again use Greg’s words: “You can’t just think it. You have to do it.”



  1. Conceptual thinking can be a hindrance, especially on the street. I suppose your solution to your Sensei’s koan was correct – isn’t the idea of “defeating” anyone antithetical to Ueshiba’s teachings? Then again, koans are by their nature insoluble.

  2. John: Agreed. It’s a bit like a cooking recipe: you can read the recipe, understand the ingredients and how to prepare the dish, but it’s not the same as actually getting into the kitchen and cooking! Plus, good chefs stop looking at the recipe altogether; they just know how to prepare the dish based on a combination of learned skill and experience.

    Cooking and martial arts… who knew they were so similar?

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