To understand how a martial art works, all you really need to do is understand one simple equation:
x + y = v
That’s it. You can go home now (if you’re not there already).
Okay, so perhaps some explanation is in order. Let’s try this again:
x + y = v
x is the result of your own efforts,
y is the result of your opponent’s efforts, and
v is victory.
When I think about training, and what my goals are, and what I need to accomplish, it all comes down to this simple equation. But, for the sake of clarity, let me attempt to describe each of these components.
X and Y
X, in this equation, is intended to represent you. I mention above that X represents your efforts, but this is not exactly true. It simply represents who you are at the moment this equation is being resolved. Your state of mind, your physical condition, your commitment to the moment–all of these things are wrapped up in this symbol. It does not just represent your physical power, nor the number of years you have been training, nor the level of calmness you have achieved in your own mind. It is a combination of all these things, at a specific moment in time.
Y, as you can probably guess, represents your opponent. Everything I mention about what X represents for you also represents your opponent in Y. Again, it is not about how strong they are physically, or their experience, or their mental state. It is the total of all these elements and more. And again, to make it clear: it is not about how present these factors are in general; it is about how present these factors are at the specific moment.
The plus sign here is also used deliberately. The result of a martial art encounter is not your own ability minus the ability of your opponent. This is not an issue of subtraction or dominance; at least, not in aikido. It is a matter of addition. Myself, plus my opponent, equal v. (I’ll get to v in just a moment.) In aikido, this is very important; you do not accomplish what you what by attempting to overcome someone else. You get what you want by combining (sometimes referred to as blending, although I haven’t really adopted that term as my own yet) with your opponent. This simple mathematical symbol can, in many ways, be a strong representation of how aikido differs from other fighting systems. In aikido, we look to how we can employ both our own abilities in combination with our opponent’s in order to achieve a desired result.
And what is that result?
V, in my mind, stands for victory. But clearly simply saying “victory” isn’t enough, because victory can come in many forms. Out on the street, victory can mean successfully defending yourself against an attack. Victory could also mean, however, being able to avoid that attack in the first place, without compromising yourself. It could also mean getting to the point where you can run away, or where you are able to protect someone else who needs it. In most cases I define victory as the best outcome possible for a given situation. (We can debate the definition later, if you like.)
(Update: Okay, maybe we won’t debate it later. Let’s debate it a bit now. Some folks have mentioned that they’d prefer to see the word “winning” over the word “victory.” I disagree. Winning, in my mind, implies that someone loses. This leads one to what we often refer to as a “fighting mind” mentality, which results in poor aikido at best. Victory, on the other hand, encompasses a much wider range of options, and leaves open the possibility that we can defeat our opponent without making them “the loser.” Consequently, I prefer to use the term victory.)
In the dojo, I have a specific idea in mind when I speak of victory; I mean technique. Often, then, I think of this equation more as:
x + y = t
Where t is the technique we are studying at the moment. Part of martial arts training is understanding how certain moves work, why they work, and how to apply them. Therefore, victory on mat results in the execution of a specific technique. This is why, during most practices, we “correct” not just ourselves, but our opponents. The idea is not to teach our opponents that resistance is bad (it is not, but that is another post). It is to ensure that we are able to understand the parameters in which a given technique applies. At the beginning levels, we correct both the nage and the uke (the x and the y) equally. As we progress, we encourage the nage to study how to adapt so that, in most cases, the result of an attack is the technique we are studying. But even this has limits; an uke who does not commit to an attack, for example, prevents the nage from really studying how a technique works. Likewise, an uke who anticipates a response when, in reality, no such anticipation is appropriate. (When we start having to deal with clairvoyance on a daily basis, all of our martial arts studies will need to change!) My point is this: in the real world, victory means preserving the wellbeing of yourself or someone else. On the mat, it means studying specific scenarios and techniques so that you can recognize and apply them when appropriate off the mat. There are those who do not make this distinction; that think that victory out on the street is the same as victory on the mat; I understand this mentality–I think it stems from the idea that you don’t want to delude yourself on the mat. But even the most combat-oriented mixed martial artist understands that drills and such are essential if you are to understand how a technique works and how it might apply in a real-world situation.
Maybe this equation, x + y = v, is so basic that it doesn’t seem worth discussion. But it seems as though we can easily get either too wrapped up in the physical movements of an art, or get so engrossed in the abstract concepts that underly the techniques, that we make our studies harder than necessary. Sensei always states that you should “be prepared to find out how easy it is.” Distilling your training down to a simple concept can, and often does, result in a clearer idea of how to practice effectively.