All the World’s a Metaphor by Mark Peckett

10001392_600051626755332_109218248_nI have written before how practising aikido makes me think how different techniques and concepts can be applicable to everyday life.  You know by now that I don’t mean doing irimi nage on the double-glazing salesman who comes to the door, but for example, in a disagreement seeking “confluence” by conceding that one’s opponent’s feelings are understandable and that she might have a point, and then reframing the problem to find a shared solution.

And I went on to say that things that happen outside the dojo will often make me reflect on something I’m doing in the dojo, such as expanding my awareness when I’m driving my car, or trying to maintain the vertical when I’m gardening.

But all this thinking in metaphors is not necessarily a good thing.  There is a famous, but probably apocryphal story about Sigmund Freud.  In 1950 in an article in the medical journal “Psychiatry” titled “The Place of Action in Personality Change” the author Allen Wheelis discussed the importance of considering both the conscious and the unconscious aims of an action. He stated that sometimes the conscious aims were largely a cover for the unconscious aims, but he cautioned in a footnote that the analyst should not always assume that is true:

This is still an occupational hazard of psychoanalysis—thirty years after Freud’s famous remark that “a cigar is sometimes just a cigar.”

Now no doubt a cigar can symbolise the penis.  After all, it is cylindrical and has a hot red end.   But this doesn’t mean that everyone who smokes does so because being weaned left them feeling castrated!

The same applies to some of my thinking about aikido.  Sometimes a kotegaeshi should be just a kotegaeshi and sometimes a drive in the car should be just a drive in the car.  If everything becomes aikido, it loses its flavour in the same way that the obsession with sex in Freudian psychoanalysis made it seem ridiculous.

It can be easy to fall into the trap of over-thinking things.

The philosopher Alan Watts tells a nice story:

There was once a shopkeeper who lived happily with his family on an ordinary street, ate three meals of rice a day, smoked his pipe and chatted with his neighbours.  One day a priest told him that at his age he should seek out a sage who could show him how to become one of the Immortals free from the limitations of mere humans.

After much seeking he found a man taught him how to follow all sorts of rules and precepts and read from the classics, but after twenty years he felt no different so he set out again.

He found a man in a cave who taught him how to survive on one grain of rice a day and to breathe only twice a day, but at the end of twenty years he felt no different.

After much seeking he bumped into an ordinary trader on the road who told him he had seen two Immortals up ahead of them, but when they hurried they could not catch him.  The trader then told him that one of the Immortals was often invisible.

“How do I make him visible?” the man asked, and the trader replied:

“Eat three meals of rice a day, smoked your pipe and chat with your neighbours.”

And at this moment the shopkeeper discovered the second Immortal.

The moral of the story being, I suppose, that you can seek to hard when what you are looking for is right where you are.  Watts’s story springs from the Taoist tradition, but nearly every major world religion in the world has a variations on the same tale.

You can seek the world over, but what you are looking for is on your doorstep, or even closer.  As Psalm 46 says, “Be still and know that I am God.”  Restlessly seeking doesn’t necessarily let you learn anything.

It’s like the advice we all give to beginner students when they get caught up in the initial excitement of learning aikido.  They want to practise with lots of different teachers and start studying other martial arts.

We say, Just stick with this one thing for the time being.  Too much information will just confuse you.  Later, practise with other teachers in our organisation, and later still you recommend that they go to seminars taught by sensei from other organisations, other countries.  And finally, look at cross-training.

I remember when I left the very first association I belonged to, which was, if you like, very ki based, to one with a strong Iwama influence.  For the first few weeks I could barely move anyone as they locked onto my wrist.

The same thing happened when I started to practise karate to improve my atemi skills as a direct result of studying Iwama style aikido.  We are taught to unleash a full-blooded attack so that tori can use that energy in the technique.  Karate taught me to deliver a punch or kick that was sufficiently controlled that I remained on posture and focused for the next attack.

Recently I had the pleasure of practising with Linda Holiday, 6th dan Chief Instructor of Aikido of Santa Cruz at her dojo.  She spoke of uke’s responsibility to maintain a connection with tori.  This is done by trying to keep your centre turned towards your thrower throughout as much of the technique as possible; and once thrown to get up again quickly, turn back to face tori and re-establish the connection.

I doubt I could have grasped that concept thoroughly without my karate training.

This reflects the teachings of the late Zen teacher, Shunryu Suzuki in his book “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”:

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s there are few.


The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner’s mind.

It’s good to think about aikido, but in the end we go full circle.  In the words of the old Buddhist saying:

“To him who knows nothing of Buddhism, mountains are mountains, waters are waters and trees are trees.  When he has read the scriptures and understood a little of the doctrine, mountains to him are no longer mountains, waters no longer waters, and trees no longer trees.  But when he is thoroughly enlightened, then mountains are once again mountains, waters waters, and trees trees.”

And kotegaeshi is kotegaeshi.