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New Lamps for Old by Mark Peckett

P1280765-aOne of my not-so secret pleasures is haunting second hand bookshops.  I like finding old editions of books I read when I was young, so I can recapture my youth, and keeping a lookout for unusual martial arts books, particularly aikido.  As a result I have a small collection of quite early aikido manuals.

As I flick through the yellowing pages, enjoying the smell of old paper, hoping to find a variation on a familiar technique, I am often struck by one particular thing.  Some of the techniques demonstrated in the old photographs do not look particularly good.

I know this may be considered sacrilege in some quarters, but I don’t think that old is necessarily better.

As I write I am looking at a kotegaeshi demonstrated in a book published in 1966. Tori has just checked a punch with his left handblade.  The instruction goes on:

Tori now turns to face Uke.  He does so by taking sweeping step with his right foot in a half circle and following this with a smaller step back with his left foot.

In the photograph this leaves tori face to face with uke.  Now according to Stanley Pranin of the Aikido Journal this leads to:

At this point, nage becomes vulnerable to uke’s counterattack and is only spared an unpleasant outcome by the cooperative nature of his interaction with uke.

It’s important that I now make it clear that I am not being critical of the author of the book I am quoting from.  He held high dan grades in judo and aikido as well as kendo.  At different times he fought for both sides in in the Japan East-West Contests and had been team captain. He was invited by O’Sensei to study under him at his home in Wakayama prefecture and in Tokyo.  Kenji Tomiki writes a very complimentary preface to the book.

There is clearly no doubting the writer’s credentials or his martial knowledge.  And yet his representation of kotegaeshi is not one modern aikidoka would approve of, being in Stanley Pranin’s words “From a martial art standpoint, [this is] a major strategic blunder.”

You can see similar faults if you look at old photos of most techniques – shiho nage where uke’s balance has not been disrupted, nikkyo applied directly in front of uke leaving tori wide open to a punch to the face (or worse!) – the list goes on.

How it is possible that there are other things going on here.  With older books, it may be that the camera wasn’t good enough to capture the moving images clearly – and if there is one thing you can say about aikido, it moves – so instead, the photographs are posed.  Unfortunately a posed photograph is never going to accurately reflect uke’s broken posture at the moment just before s/he falls.  I have books translated from Japanese and to quote Dennis Clark, the translator of “Enlightenment through Aikido” by Kanshu Sunadmari:

… the differences between Japanese and English are significant, and nuances of meaning tend to get lost in the process of translation.

He goes on to say anyone seeking to truly understand the words of the Founder should ideally read them in the original Japanese, but even a perfect grasp of Japanese or a perfectly accurate translation would not necessarily ensure full understanding.

Let me repeat here and now that I am not criticising the authors of these works; I am more fascinated about the way our perceptions of how techniques should be done has changed.  After all, at the time the book was written it must have been believed that the technique was being performed correctly and effectively.

Now this leads me to question the way we practise aikido now.  There is plenty of discussion on how effective particular techniques would be “on the street.”  What I am speculating  is whether in 60 years’ time the techniques that we are now  sure are the best, the most realistic will be regarded with the same degree of contempt as we have for some earlier techniques.

After all, before Copernicus most people thought the sun went round the earth and for much of the Middle Ages the earth was believed to be flat.  If aikido teaches us anything, it shows us that nothing stays the same.  In his book “The Spiritual Foundations of Aikido” William Gleason says:

Aikido is the study of Nature’s laws … The basis of natural law, as of every individual’s existence, is the principle of change, or movement.

Indeed, aikido would look pretty ineffective if we didn’t move.  Fairly early on we learn that the energy from an attack can change and we have to change also to accommodate it, or we’ll end up with a punch in the face (or worse!).

And obviously this lesson transfers into life, where we have to learn that what upsets and frustrates us most is trying to cling to things – either real physical objects that we have, or emotions or relationships.  We convince ourselves that if we have this car, this watch, this house we will be happy so we cling to the need to have that thing, and if and when we get it we are happy for a while, but we soon go back to our original level of dissatisfaction.

In 1978 researchers interviewed Illinois State Lottery winners and compared them with non-winners.  They asked a series of questions designed to measure happiness levels.  It was found that the overall happiness levels of lottery winners spiked when they won, but soon returned to pre-winning levels.  In terms of overall happiness, the lottery winners were not significantly happier than the non-winners.  This seems to be that this is because we become attached to getting, having and holding instead of accepting change, both good and bad, and working with that.

In short, to quote one of my favourite authors, Pema Chodron, “There isn’t any hell or heaven except how we relate to our world.  Hell is just resistance to life.”

So let’s enjoy our aikido, teach and practice the best techniques we can, but always be prepared that tomorrow may bring a new or different variation on what we do that is better … at least for the next couple of months.




10001392_600051626755332_109218248_nDo you remember the film “Full Metal Jacket”?  The first half is a grim portrayal of the boot camp training a bunch of raw recruits receive at the hands of a brutal drill sergeant before they are shipped out for Vietnam.

Although it is a dramatic recreation it seems to reflect the nature of army training at the time, which was to break down the trainees both physically and psychologically and then rebuild them as required.  And of course, the requirement was to follow orders without question and kill on command.

But it turns out that it doesn’t work.  At least, it works in the short term, and the recruits become soldiers who serve as the blunt instrument of governments’ foreign policy.  Where it doesn’t work so well is when the soldiers come marching home again.

In the United States, between 11% and 20% of the veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and 30% of soldiers develop mental problems within three to four months of returning home.  An estimated 20% of returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans turn to heavy drinking or drugs once they return to the US and In 2010, an average of 22 veterans committed suicide every day. The group with the highest number of suicides was men ages 50 to 59.

It is at least partially in response to statistics like this that the military have revised their training methodology and put their some of their emphasis into resilience.  There are a number of different kinds of resilience (amongst them):


  1. Physical – the ability to physically accomplish all aspects of a mission while remaining healthy and uninjured.
  2. Spiritual – adhering to beliefs, principles or values needed to persevere and prevail in accomplishing missions.
  3. Mental – the psychological fitness required to effectively cope with the mental stresses and challenges met in preparing for and carrying out missions.
  4. Social — Social fitness is the ability to engage in healthy social networks that promote overall well-being and help optimise performance.

These aren’t the only definitions of course.  These additional ones come from the National Guard and Air Combat Command website:

  1. Emotional – Being self-accepting, self-aware and able to handle emotions constructively.
  2. Family – This involves supporting your children, spouse, partner or parents and maintaining the health and unity of the family.


It goes on to expand on these resiliences, mentioning such things as the ability to identify and express your feelings when needed, cultivating an awareness of unity with something greater than themselves, whether that ‘something’ is a cause, a positive emotion, God or humanity as a whole and contemplating questions like, “Who am I?  Why am I here?”

It seems to me that this is the move from “martial” to “martial art”.  The Collins English Dictionary defines “martial” as:

of, relating to, or characteristic of war, soldiers, or the military life [originating from the Latin word martialis which derives from Mars, the Roman god of war].

When you only train soldiers for war, they are useless for peace.  Resilience is about training for the aftermath of war as well as the war itself.

And this is where, I think, resilience training dovetails with our aikido practice.  O’Sensei referred to aikido as “the Art of Peace” and he had this to say about it:

The Art of Peace begins with you.  Work on yourself and your appointed task in the Art of Peace.  Everyone has a spirit that can be refined, a body that can be trained in some manner, a suitable path to follow.

This expresses concisely the concept of physical, mental, spiritual and social resilience.

Let’s start with the social.  By this I don’t mean the well-honoured tradition of heading for the pub after practice.  To me aikido is a social art; it’s hard to practise on your own.  Certainly you can do weapons kata, and rehearse moves without a partner, but the essence of aikido is how we respond to someone holding our wrist, or punching at us.  It’s about how we receive their energy, what we do with it.  In the dojo we become frustrated, angry, joyful, bored, dispirited, and because we are in contact with our partners we share these feelings and emotions with them, and they with us, through a look or some tension in the body.  And we learn to encourage each other and share in each other’s joy.

Certainly aikido is physical conditioning.  It starts with the warm-ups, which we can do half-heartedly, or commit to as part of the practice, and it continues into the lesson proper.  I’ve never stopped to calculate how many times in a class we take a breakfall, but it could easily be over a hundred.  And if that’s not body conditioning, I don’t know what is!  As I’m fond of saying, “it’s not the being thrown that takes it out of you, it’s the getting back up again.” It’s like step aerobics, which burns fat and improves cardiovascular fitness, with the added difficulty of getting back to your feet from a prone position.

Mentally, I think aikido is wonderful.  What has kept me coming back to it for over thirty years is that I’m always coming across some new wrinkle, some new interpretation that someone has come up with.  Just an inch one way or another and a technique won’t work, and your mind rolls that around going “Why is that?”  Then a light bulb goes on, and illuminates something else you’ve been puzzling over, or it makes you realise something you thought you knew was right is completely wrong.  I’ve got a shelf full of books on aikido, and I’ve only got to pick one out and read a page to have enough to mull over for a week.

And finally, spiritually.  I want to leave the last word to O’Sensei:

All life is a manifestation of the spirit, the manifestation of love.  And the Art of Peace is the purest form of that principle.


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.

I Like Driving in My Car by Mark Peckett

10001392_600051626755332_109218248_nThis blog comes in two parts.

Part One:

We’ve bought a new car. Well, technically it’s a used car since it was pre-registered by the dealer. But with only 10 miles on the clock when we got it, it’s new to me.

It’s larger than any car I’ve owned before, although I’ve driven a few hire vans and people carriers – but let me tell you, when it’s your hard-earned cash which has bought the thing and you own it, you’re a lot more careful with it than if you’d just hired it!

I’ve written before in another blog about how good driving requires us to extend our awareness beyond our hands on the steering wheel and the end of the bonnet of the car, to include the road ahead of us, and what’s going on all around us.

Now let me tell you, nothing makes you more aware about what’s going on around you more than driving a new car. Well, possibly redecorating your house. You’ll be amazed how small a crumb of food you can see falling off a plate onto a new carpet!

You notice every pothole and bump in the road, and you drive carefully around them. I have a friend with an expensive Jaguar, and in the past I have mocked him for driving around horse droppings in the road, because he didn’t want the mess sprayed up into his wheel arches. Now I find myself doing it as well.

I’m intensely aware of how everyone else is driving too – whether it’s good, bad or indifferent, and I give them plenty of room to do whatever it is they want to do. In fact, I’ve become ultra-careful and ultra-polite.

I’m patient with the unsure, and no longer angry with the queue jumpers and aggressive drivers. In fact, my main concern is taking care of my car, and in order to do that, I have to take care of everyone else.

Part Two:

I recently became irritated over something trivial and reversed my new car into a wheelbarrow (don’t ask!), thereby putting a scratch on the rear bumper which it is costing my £120 to have removed.

And is there a lesson here? Oh yes there is. Can it apply to aikido and everyday life? Without a doubt.

There is a famous about Hakuin, the renown Zen master:

Hakuin was once visited by a samurai warrior named Nobuchika. “I want to know about heaven and hell,” said the samurai. “Do they really exist?”

Hakuin looked at the soldier and asked, “Who are you?”

“I am a samurai,” announced the proud warrior.

“Ha!” exclaimed Hakuin. “What makes you think you can understand such insightful things? You are merely a callous, brutish soldier! Go away and do not waste my time with your foolish questions,” Hakuin said, waving his hand to dismiss the samurai.

The enraged samurai couldn’t take Hakuin’s insults. He drew his sword, readied for the kill, when Hakuin calmly retorted, “This is hell.”

The soldier was taken aback. His face softened. Humbled by the wisdom of Hakuin, he put away his sword and bowed before the Zen Master. “And this is heaven,” Hakuin stated, just as calmly.

Or as the Buddha said, “You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger,” and I certainly was. So what did the anger do? It took away all the awareness that owning a new car had generated, shrank me to a tiny knot of anger inside my body which meant I failed to notice the wheelbarrow behind me.

It also, for a period of time took away the kindness I was showing other people. Now it could be argued that the way I was treating other users was “enlightened self-interest”. I was being nice to them in order to gain benefits for myself.

Or as Richard Dawkins put it: altruism is simply a hangover from a time when the communities we lived were so small that anyone we ran in to would most likely be genetically related, or, alternatively, in a position to harm our survival if they weren’t on our side.

I would say, it doesn’t matter why I was being kind, it simply mattered that I was. And as a result of my actions everyone benefited.

Remembering how much better I felt when I was being more aware and more kind, I am making efforts to get back to that place.

And is it transferable into my aikido practice? I believe it is, and in some fairly obvious ways.

When we are irritated or angry, we are tense. When we experience loving-kindness we relax. And I mean this in two ways: first of all, we ourselves are more relaxed in our bodies when we are being kind, and when someone is being kind to us, we relax.

Have you noticed how even mild tension and irritation between you and your partner when practising makes techniques awkward and jarring, for both uke and tori? Obviously the first and most obvious solution is to tell our partner that he or she “was stiff”. There is a disharmony here which is contrary to the principles of aikido. At those moments I believe it is better to assume it is one’s own fault for not being kind or charitable enough, not your partner’s fault. After all, as Systema teacher Mikhail Ryabko says, how can you follow your partner’s movements if you are not kind to them?

Morihei Ueshiba himself said, “To injure an opponent is to injure yourself. To control aggression without inflicting injury is the Art of Peace.”

And he went on to explain how to do it: “As soon as you concern yourself with the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ of your fellows, you create an opening in your heart for maliciousness to enter. Testing, competing with, and criticizing others weakens and defeats you.”

Now nobody said it would be easy. If it was we would all be buddhas, or O’Sensei, or saints. But it strikes me that a good place to start is trying to drive our car every day as if it were brand new!

Mens Sana in Corpore Sano – by Mark Peckett

10001392_600051626755332_109218248_nIn a previous blog I talked about the importance of the stability of the head.  That is, maintaining the stability of your own, and de-stabilising that of your uke’s. There is a nice image used in tai chi.  You must think of your legs and pelvis as a table, and your upper body as a precious vase full of water resting on that that table.  The object is not to spill the water from the vase.

Morihiro Saito shihan believed that the basis of all empty-handed, sword, and staff techniques was the mastery of aikido’s basic posture (hanmi).  In his book “Aikido”, the previous Doshu, Kisshomaru Ueshiba states that all the flexible and natural movements of aikido originate from correct posture.

He writes interestingly hidari (left) and migi (right) hanmi. “The entire body should be flexible without tension and ready to counter any changes.  In Aikido when you assume this position, your body needs to be in sankakutai (triangular form).  (An equilateral tetrahedron is the most stable form, and one which changes into a sphere when turned.)” Standing in a triangular stance, you have a stable yet flexible base to move from.

Obviously, in the end there are no stances in aikido, as you are in continuous motion, but in order to learn the principles and techniques it is necessary to learn from static forms. So you have a relaxed stance, knees slightly bent and weight evenly distributed between the feet.  You are balanced.

This is external or physical balance, which could be characterised as relaxation in the body and a lowering of the centre.  This stability on the outside should reflect an internal balance.  On the inside there is a quietness in the mind and a stillness of the emotions which means that the mind is open and receptive, able to receive the attack, blend with it and return its energy to uke.

There is an interesting passage on this in a book called “Living Aikido”: This scenario holds true for all practices … It is a good practice to study a technique and find the points were uke is soft and nage [thrower] is soft, where these roles begin to shift, and where they are fully reversed.  What is important is to maintain the balance of positive and receptive between partners within the technique.

It is interesting to note that the word “receptive” is used  as the opposite to “positive” rather than the more common “negative”.  I think that receptive is a more accurate translation of the concept of “yin” in the famous Taoist “yin-yang” symbol. A stable base thus becomes that from which all things are possible.  It is infinite.

Now this must apply equally to uke – again, it is interesting that the word “uke” derives from the verb “ukeru” which means “to receive”.  A good attack must be made from a stable base.  For example, if the attack is tsuki (punch), then it must be made with intent and energy in order that tori can practise their technique; if the punch is weak and does not even make contact, or is actually aiming to miss, or if the attacker over leans, on these occasions, the attack is very yin and has no value.

Linda Holiday, chief instructor of Aikido of Santa Cruz, and direct student of Motomichi Anno sensei, teaches that throughout the technique uke should continue to maintain a connection with tori by trying to keep their centre connected with the person throwing them.

This is not to say that they should actively resist the technique, but rather that they should turn towards tori rather than away from them.  This reflects the understanding of the word “uke” as “receiver” or “receptive.”  It is very difficult to receive something from or be receptive to someone or if you turn away from them.

Terry Dobson’s book “Aikido in Everyday Life” (which when it was first published in the 1970s was given the less attractive, but more self-help style title “Attack-tics – the Art of Giving in to Get Your Way”) addresses the same issue of inner balance. He applied the principles of aikido to the conflicts we experience around us all the time.

Usually they are not life-or-death, but our body through the autonomic “fight-or-flight” reflex behaves as though they are, and we automatically go into full-on confrontation mode instead of handling those conflicts in a way that is positive, humane and mature.

If you treat a friendship, job or marriage like a contest, and try to score points until your friend, colleague or spouse admits defeat you might win in the short term, but the long term damage to the relationship may prove to be a loss.

Not all conflicts are a zero-sum game where one side wins by making the other side lose. To some extent the writing reflects the psychoanalytical approach which was prevalent in the 1960s and 70s; the ideas of Freud, Jung and Adler that problems could be solved from the inside out.  People came to them with physical symptoms which were regarded as external manifestations of their inner problems.  Solve these internal conflicts and the external problems would go away.

I would suggest that working on stability in the body, an upright posture but relaxed posture, with a lowered centre and attention paid to the breathing can have a calming effect on the mind and emotions. To explain the title to this blog: the Latin phrase “Mens sana in corpore sano” is usually translated as “A healthy mind in a healthy body”, but sometimes as “sound mind” and “sound body”. Sound in the sense of “whole”, or mind and body as one.

So next time someone irritates you by asking that tired old question “Yes, but have you ever used aikido in real life?” you should breathe, find your balance and say “I’m using it now.”

How to Bounce Back By Mark Peckett


In 2009 the Pentagon rolled out a multi-million dollar programme called “Comprehensive Soldier Fitness.” In the words of the programme’s promotional video, the aim was to teach American soldiers to “take control of your emotions, before they take control of you.”

Essentially, they are teaching how to respond instead of react.  Or to put it another way, giving soldiers a choice.  Before its introduction, what was basically required of a soldier was that he could kill on command without hesitation.  This training, the first of its kind in the military, was meant to improve performance in combat and head off the mental health problems, which included depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide, that plagued about one-fifth of troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.

It attempts to defuse or expose common habits of thinking and flawed beliefs that can lead to anger and frustration by mentally disputing unexamined thoughts and assumptions.  Quoted in the New York Times article by Benedict Carey dated 17 August 2009, one veteran of several deployments to Iraq, said he was out at dinner the night before when a customer at a nearby table said he and his friends were being obnoxious:

“At one time maybe I would have thrown the guy out the window and gone for the jugular,” the sergeant said. But guided by the new techniques, he fought the temptation and decided to buy the man a beer instead. “The guy came over and apologized,” he said.

The training is based in part on the ideas of Dr. Aaron Beck and the late Albert Ellis, the Founder of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy.  The concept behind CBT is that we: (a) experience an event, then (b) interpret it and finally (c), experience an emotion in line with our interpretation.

This in itself refers back to the philosophy of the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus born in C.E. 55 who said: “Men are disturbed not by things, but by their opinions about them”, and his belief that it was possible to remain calm and mentally strong in times of trouble and uncertainty by reminding ourselves what is in our control and what is not.  And essentially he only thing he regarded as under his control was his beliefs.

Basically he devised an intellectual process for the examination of his emotional reaction to external stimuli, which is broadly also how CBT works and what American soldiers returning from combat were being taught.

So what does this have to do with aikido?

Well, there is an equally compelling argument that emotions can be worked upon from the outside in, through working on the body.  The mystic Gurdjieff said:

We do not recognise to what extent the intellectual, the emotional and moving (body) functions are mutually dependent, although, at the same time we can be aware of how much our moods and emotional states depend on our movements and postures.  If a man assumes a posture that corresponds, in him, to the feeling of grief or dejection, then within a short time he will actually feel grief or dejection.  Fear, indifference and so on may be created by artificial changes of posture.”

If we think to a time when we became extremely emotional about something, we will probably recall how our physical body also became contorted.  It’s also true to say there are days when we turn up for practice feeling lousy, and by the time the class is over we feel better.  And vice versa.  And these bad classes are just as valuable, if not more so, for they allow us to work on our problems in a controlled environment.

Wendy Palmer, sixth dan aikido black belt and senior instructor at Aikido of Tamalpais writes in her book “The Practice of Freedom – Aikido Principles as a Spiritual Guide”:

Training allows us to see our aggression and fear, so that we can begin to examine … how the patterns affect our daily behaviour.

She goes on to say that training has taught her that when she is relaxed, she is more powerful and natural: “A calm and settled state allows a natural, organic power to move through us without interference from our mental agenda or biases.”

In aikido, a lot of time and talk is spent on centring, that idea of putting your attention on your physical centre of mass, and point in the abdomen about an inch or two below the navel in the centre of the pelvis because in any conflict situation the natural response is one that has evolved over hundreds of thousands years: the so-called “fight-or-flight response”, although technically I suppose it should be called a reaction as it is an instinctive response triggered by the autonomic nervous system.  Lots of physical things happen as a result of the reaction being fired, including increased heart rate and breathing, release of adrenalin, and blood routed to the muscles and away from the skin, the stomach and frontal lobe.  In martial arts imagery we might say our inner energy travels upwards, and we “blow our top” or we “lose our head”.

So by working on this exercise of moving towards the centre and developing a strong connection there, we counteract the upward movement of fear in the body.  Which brings us back to resilience.

According to the Stoics, the world divides into two parts – that which we can control and that which we can’t, and mostly it is everything outside ourselves over which we have no control.  Where aikido empowers us is that it teaches us to take control of ourselves, our thoughts and emotions, and then gives us a little bit extra: it shows us how we can control some of the outside world.

In the dojo we provide, in graduated practice, a simulation of the chaotic world outside which allows us to practise our centering, which leads to mental and emotional calmness and in turn allows us to perform an appropriate response to the level of attack.  We start with paired practice, moving up to multiple and continuous attack, from basic ai-hanmi katate dori to randori where we don’t know what’s coming, and then gradings, which may come as close to the simulation of true conflict that most of us will ever experience.

There is an old Japanese saying Hobo Kore Dojo which means “The world is my dojo”.  While we train in aikido, we are also training our minds and bodies to respond calmly to whatever the world throws at us.

The Hammer and the Nail by Mark Peckett


I heard a soldier on the radio the other day use the expression: “When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”  I really wanted to use it in my blog, but I wasn’t sure how.

And then I saw yet another article in a martial arts magazine on real street self-defence and I saw the link with the quote.
The instructor demonstrating the techniques (glaring out of the cover with his shaved head, crazy eyes and bared teeth) looked about the size of a barn.
I got to thinking that in all likelihood he has never been attacked on the street. You would have to be mad to even consider looking at him. People probably crossed the street to avoid him, thinking he was going to attack them!
I know the social science of victimology first proposed that some victims contribute to, or precipitate their victimisation. Surprisingly the most likely victims of street attack are men between the ages of 25 and 34. I imagine this is because they are more likely to engage in high risk behaviour in high risk environments. As a rule women will avoid situations like that, as will older men and families.
The purpose of aikido is two-fold: firstly, to give its practitioners a whole tool bag instead of just a hammer, and secondly, to help them unify their body and spirit, and then extend that unity to the body and spirit of other people. In fact, it would be fair to say, that if the second is achieved, it is the only tool you will need.
There are several anecdotes related to O’Sensei’s extraordinary powers, including his ability to dodge bullets because he saw a golden flash before the trigger was pulled, and the occasion when he was challenged to a fight with a wooden sword and the attacker was unable to touch him.
However, until we progress that far, we are going to need the tool bag of techniques. Interestingly these techniques translate out of the purely physical. In the 1970s Terry Dobson (the huge white guy you see getting thrown around by O’Sensei in old black-and-white film), returned to America and wrote a book called “Aikido in Everyday Life.”
He essentially formulated the circle, square, triangle theory of aikido into a method of dealing with people. He doesn’t say that conflict doesn’t exist, or that you should claim the moral high ground and refuse to fight; he simply suggests that there are other ways to fight:

  •   You could “doing nothing”: pause, temporarily offering no response while your opponent exhausts his arguments, or even starts to argue himself round to your side. This is the square;
  • As the triangle you respond in a focussed way from a stable base;
  • Or you could choose blend with the attacker, then turning his or her energies away from confrontation to resolution. This is the circle, acknowledging that your opponent’s feelings are understandable, or that s/he might have a point and then, reframing the problem as a shared one.

This is a gross over-simplification of Terry Dobson’s excellent book, but I think it demonstrates how aikido can be moved out of the dojo. While acknowledging conflict, we don’t have to fight – aikido shows us that there are alternatives, or alternatives that can be used in combination with one another.

Many other aikido practitioners have also taken aikido principles off the mat. Wendy Palmer, for example, 6th dan instructor at Aikido of Tamalpais, teaches a Conscious Embodiment and Intuition program, which teaches integration through movement, meditation and breathing to learn to deal with our fears and aggression. Once again, through over-simplification I am not doing justice to a beautiful idea, but I think the point is clear.

Aikido teaches how to become so much more than a hammer. I could name a number of other aikido practitioners who have moved the teachings out into other fields, from John O’Neil applying it to business in “Leadership Aikido – 6 Business Practices to Turn Around Your Life” to George Leonard on “Mastery – the Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfilment.”

I have a student who practises diligently two or three times a week. He works in a profession which has the potential to be confrontational. When he started coming to classes he carried a lot of tension in his shoulders. At first, it wasn’t until towards the end of the class, perhaps five or ten minutes, that the tension left him and his techniques started to flow. As time has gone on, the relaxation comes sooner in the class. I have told him it wouldn’t matter if he never learned a technique (he has learned plenty!) because aikido is helping him to unwind, teaching him to relax through focussing on breathing and movement. If he can carry this forward into his everyday life, it would be enough. The self-defence he is learning is far more likely to be useful to him, and certainly far more often, than how to do a good kote-gaeshi.

I mentioned in a previous blog about the two times I have used aikido in real life; both times involving falls from ladders whilst holding power tools (I am a slow learner; it’s the kind of mistake you should only make once!). As I enter my sixties, I hope that the self-defence aikido has given me will protect me from that curse of the elderly – the fall and the broken hip.

Again, as I have got older, aikido has turned my thoughts towards matters of the spirit and how they affect my technique. This doesn’t mean I have become one of those aiki priests I complained about in another blog and I don’t expect my students to follow me unquestioningly, but my interests have expanded.

In the end, there are many mansions in aikido’ house and it can be as much or as little as you like, but never let it turn you into just a hammer. Certainly, if you need a hammer it must have a steel head, not gold or silver, but for most of us for most of our lives we don’t need a hammer to solve our problems.

Monkey See, Monkey Do by Mark Peckett

10001392_600051626755332_109218248_nSomething I heard years ago came to my mind recently and prompted me to do some research.  It was a statement, probably by David Attenborough, that when monkeys were x-rayed, a surprising number of them turned out to have healed fractures.

A trawl through the internet lead me to Episode 8 of “Life of Mammals”, indeed narrated by David Attenborough and called “Life in the Trees.”

It turned out he was talking about gibbons which swing from branch to branch for distances of up to 50 feet at speeds of up to34 mph so when a branch breaks or a hand slips researchers estimate that the majority of gibbons suffer bone fractures one or more times during their life!

This means that those monkeys we see swinging so beautifully through the trees on nature documentaries actually also manage to swing not so beautifully, missing the branch they’re aiming for and take a hard landing.

This is bad news for the gibbons, but good news for us because it means that gibbons do not have an innate ability to be the beautiful, agile creatures we see swinging through the trees – it is a skill they have to learn.

It also means that just like us, they can be plain unlucky.  Sometimes a branch just breaks.

So we have a lot more in common with gibbons than some shared DNA.  We have to learn our skills and we need our fair share of luck.

Think of the first time you learnt tai sabaki (or irimi tenkan).  You probably got the first step and turn right, but when the whole class went back the other way, you probably carried on going forwards, or spun round on the spot, or ended up facing the wrong way or with the wrong leg forward, or a combination of all the above.  That was certainly my experience – and sometimes still is if I don’t pay attention.

George Leonard, aikido 5th dan and president of the Esalen Institute, explains in better in his book, “Mastery”:

You feel terribly clumsy and disjointed.  You have to think (author’s italics) to keep the parts of your body synchronised and thinking gets in the way of graceful, spontaneous movement.

In “The Aikido Student Handbook”,  Greg O’Connor is a little kinder, acknowledging that it’s not just ourselves that get in the way, but the rest of the world doesn’t help either.  He gives the following answer to the comment “I’m afraid I’ll be too clumsy and get embarrassed” in the chapter called “Common Questions”:

… we all experience clumsiness whether we are on the mat or not (it happens all the time).  Teacups spill on occasion and feet so trip on all sorts of mysterious objects … if you think this doesn’t happen to everyone – think again.

Failing is part of the human (and gibbon) condition.  As the American novelist O. Henry wrote:

Life is made up of sobs, sniffles and smiles, with sniffles predominating.

I think this is a fairly accurate description of much of everyday life for most of us.  Occasional extremes of happiness (smiles) or sadness (sobs), but mostly it is the commonplace irritations that cause us to sniffle – driving to work, shopping, relationships and so on.

I don’t think however that gibbons look at it that way.  Obviously they can’t be happy that they’ve fractured a bone; it would be a real ‘sob’ for them, but they can’t afford to dwell on it or they will die.  They have to work out – and quickly – ways to deal with the injury until they recover.

But in an aikido class we tend not to think this way.  When something goes wrong with our technique, a tiny fracture turns into a major break.  Of course I’m not talking about actual bones here; thankfully in aikido we don’t get too many of those – painful joints maybe and stretched ligaments, muscle pulls and bruises – but not too many broken bones, because aikido emphasises the need to care for uke.   People who want to hurt others tend not to stay very long.

No, I’m talking about the psychological fractures we are all familiar with, and seem to encounter on a regular basis in aikido.  We struggle with a technique and feel like we might as well give up, we think we’re spoiling everyone else’s practice because we can’t get it right, we get embarrassed because we think we look so bad.  The list goes on.  And as a teacher, I can walk out of the class thinking “That was a terrible lesson.  I wouldn’t be surprised if no one came next week.  I bet they’re all talking about me in the changing rooms.”

But of course, none of that is true.  To use some terms from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy we tend to:

  • Catastrophise – taking relatively minor negative events and imagining all sorts of disasters from that one event.
  • Engage in “All-or-Nothing” Thinking – where we are completely right or completely wrong.
  • Start “Fortune-Telling” – because it was bad this week, it’s sure to be just as bad (or worse) next week.
  • Mind-Read – thinking you know what other people are thinking.
  • Over-generalise – “if it’s this bad now, it will always be like this.”
  • Reason Emotionally – rather than relying on hard evidence.  Actually if you look back, you are getting better at aikido.  My students do come back next week.
  • Label – good/bad, success/failure when in fact we are all of those things and everything in between.
  • Make demands – “I must get better at this technique”, “I need to pass this grading”.  You want to get better at the technique, and you will; you want to pass your grading, but even if you don’t, there’s always next time.  It’s not a catastrophe (see above).
  • Disqualify the Positive – you might not be very good this week, but if you look back, you’ve come a long way.
  • Filter Mentally – the opposite of rose-coloured spectacles.  Because you think you’re doing badly you don’t notice the good techniques you’ve done in the lesson.
  • Develop Low Frustration Tolerance – we forget how we pushed ourselves to walk in the dojo in the first place, how we took that first grading or that first high breakfall.  We are stronger than we think.
  • Personalise – briefly, it’s not all about you (or me)!

So let’s not make the mistake of the King of the Swingers, the Jungle VIP, and consider ourselves a failure if we don’t have the secret of Man’s red fire – let’s rejoice in the fact that despite all the failures, we’re still up there swinging!

What’s in Your Paintbox? by Mark Peckett

MarkIn her book “The Writer’s Life” Annie Dillard quotes the artist Paul Klee as saying:

You adapt yourself to the contents of your paintbox.

And, of course, like everything else I write about, I see that as a metaphor for aikido and life in general.

For example,although I still do shikko, hanmi handachi waza, kokyu ho and Suwari waza, because some years ago I broke the big toe on my left foot and now arthritis is setting in, I can’t perform them in what might be called the classical manner.  And I have to warn my students of that so that they don’t end up copying me (reproducing something I have written about before: “old man’s aikido”).  I wouldn’t want a young man in his twenties to do some weird hobbling thing simply because that’s the way his teacher in his sixties does it.

And I’ve already written in a previous piece about a man I practised with many years ago who had suffered a brain aneurism which had affected one side of his body, making it difficult for him to move his left foot.  This meant he could not step back when he performed kotegaeshi.

To overcome this problem, instead of drawing the technique past him by turning his hips, he turned into it and rooted himself.  This meant you came round his body very quickly and literally ran into the technique with the full momentum of your body.

The first time you experienced it, it was devastatingly painful and after that, aware of what was coming, you tried to control your speed and even fling yourself backwards to protect your wrist.

Needless to say, the technique is a colour I’ve added to my paintbox.

One of my early instructors once had a one-armed student.  He said he enjoyed the challenge of working out how aikido techniques could be applied one-handed.  I can’t say whether he added any of the techniques to his paintbox.

Of course, what Klee is actually talking about is not adding to the paintbox, but working with what we have.  He goes on to say that adapting one’s self to one’s paintbox is more important than the study of nature.  Although I would say that the contents of the paintbox actually is nature.  For a poor artist with a limited palette, it is the nature of economics.  For an isolated artist who has to make her own paints, it’s the nature of geography.

To start mixing metaphors, we all have to play the hand we are dealt.

So as the years go by, my palette becomes more limited physically.t has changed and the pictures I paint now aren’t the same as the ones I did in my twenties, thirties or forties.

Another of my favourite newspaper columnists is Clive James.  Many years ago he used to write an acerbic television review (which is why to this day I think of the TV series “Poldark” as “Old Krap”), and in 2011 he was diagnosed with lymphocytic leukaemia.  The column he now writes for The Guardian comes from a palette coloured by the fact he did not expect to see the end of 2015.

In fact, he wrote a poem about it, published in the New Yorker back in September 2014, which I am going to reproduce here in full:

Japanese Maple

Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.

So slow a fading out brings no real pain.

Breath growing short

Is just uncomfortable.

You feel the drain

Of energy, but thought and sight remain:


Enhanced, in fact.

When did you ever see

So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls

On that small tree

And saturates your brick back garden walls,

So many Amber Rooms and mirror halls?


Ever more lavish as the dusk descends

This glistening illuminates the air.

It never ends.

Whenever the rain comes it will be there,

Beyond my time, but now I take my share.


My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.

Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.

What I must do

Is live to see that.

That will end the game

For me, though life continues all the same:


Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,

A final flood of colours will live on

As my mind dies,

Burned by my vision of a world that shone

So brightly at the last, and then was gone.


Although I enjoyed the wit of his television reviews, I find the columns that he writes now, living on borrowed time thanks to a new chemo drug, of greater depth and wisdom, speaking directly from the heart, although still filtered through a sharp intellect.

He writes poignantly of the song “Hurt” sung by Johnny Cash towards the end of his life, and how the song seems to say his life has come to nothing.  “But,” says James, “we know that he can’t be right, or he wouldn’t sound like that. It’s an untrained voice, but regret has brought depth to it.”

Cash’s palette had changed and he was using it to produce what in the end may be his most memorable work, San Quentin and Folsom Prison notwithstanding.

O’Sensei’s palette changed.  The difference between his pre- and post-war aikido continues to reverberate in the aikido world as we argue which was better, or more effective, or whether he simply introduced the spiritual aspect of aikido after the Second World War in order to make it acceptable to the occupying Allied forces.

For whatever reason, his palette was different and he painted different pictures.  They weren’t worse or better.  After all, aikido is a dynamic art and the definition of “dynamic” is “characterised by constant change, activity or progress.”

I myself hope to continue to paint aikido pictures for many years to come, but I don’t expect them to remain the same.

I will leave the last word, however, to Clive James:

Feeling old can have its own style. I shuffle quite dynamically. It can get tough, though, when you see the young fizzing with the same energy that you once wasted.

What Might Have Been Might Not Have Been by Mark Peckett

10001392_600051626755332_109218248_nSome time ago I wrote a blog quoting the line from the poem poem by American Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier which goes:

“Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been.”

I went on to say that kind of regret was something we had all experienced at some time in our lives. “If only I hadn’t done this,” or “If only I had done that, or done it differently”.  I said the poem was a nineteenth century version of the twenty-first century truism, “Live every day as if it were your last.”

But I’ve been thinking a lot about it recently, and I wonder if it means completely the opposite.

Is there anything more useless than regret?  It hurts us in several ways: we regret what we’ve done that we didn’t do and wish we did because if we had we would be happy in the present, or we regret what we did and wish we hadn’t and regret can paralyse from acting at all because we are always acting carefully so as to have nothing to regret.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition focuses more on the former and less on the latter:

To feel sad or sorry (about something you did or did not do).

One of my favourite newspaper columnists, Oliver Burkeman, recently re-evaluated Robert Frost’s “The Road Less Travelled” in a similar manner.  It tends to be regarded as the poster boy poem for taking risks and seizing your destiny, when it could equally be regarded as a warning that it is pointless to try.  Burkeman counsels that it that it’s both, that we have to make choices and we’ll never be sure we made the right one:

After all, the narrator admits that both paths look roughly similarly well-travelled. And how could he be sure he took the right one? He’ll never know where the other led.

You can make exactly the point about Whittier’s poem.  It may not be a hymn to lost chances, but a warning against wasting your time regretting things that you can now do nothing about.  And yet we seem to have no control over those regrets.

The business magazine Forbes lists twenty-five!  Among them are:

  • Standing up to bullies at school and in life
  • Breaking up with my true love/getting dumped by them
  • Worrying about what others thought about me so much
  • Living the life that my parents wanted me to live instead of the one I wanted to
  • Spending more time with the kids

The list goes on and it makes me feel sad just to read it, not least because some of them resonate with me, but because even on the ones I got right, I know there are people out there regretting that they didn’t.

The nature of regret actually seems to spring from comparison.  When we think “What if” we are comparing a fantasy of what might have been with what is.  6th dan aikidoka Wendy Palmer, addresses exactly this point in her book “The Practice of Freedom” when she says “… comparison opens the door to judgement … ”

In “How to Become a Buddha in 5 Weeks”, a psychological analysis of Buddhism, Giulio Cesare Giacobbe explains that the thoughts which produce suffering are not voluntary:

How often have we tried not to think about what we have lost, our failures, our disappointments, our mistakes, but to no avail … We are incapable of avoiding thoughts that make us suffer … Because it is automatically [author’s emphasis]  produced by our memory (our unconscious).

Giacobbe’s solution is to use Buddhist techniques, which he breaks down in to five principles:

  1. Control of the mind
  2. Presence in reality
  3. Awareness of change
  4. Non-attachment
  5. Universal love

These five principles also embody much of aikido practice because aikido teaches us to embrace things as they are.  This is particularly noticeable when, during the course of a class, we practise with a number of different people, and inevitably there are some we like less than others.  When we do this, there are times when our practice is enjoyable and times when it isn’t, because we begin to take things personally and wish for things to be different.  To quote Wendy Palmer again:

… it is difficult to detach our personal experiences without retracting our feelings and our spirit … our awareness begins … racing toward what we think will end our restlessness or uneasiness … lead[ing] us out of the present into the future or the past …

This is precisely the nature of regret: not living in the present.  Obviously there are ways in which you have to live not in the present, reviewing things that you have learned in the past so as to replicate or not replicate them in the present – you only put your hand on a hot stove once, if you’re sensible; but regret encourages us to dwell in the past and wish for things to be different.  “That class would have been so much better if I hadn’t had to practise so much with so-and-so.”

And yet if you continue to practise aikido for a long time, you will spend a lot of time practising with a lot of so-and-so’s, and your techniques won’t be the techniques they are today if you don’t.

There is a rock on the very cliff edge somewhere along the Pembrokeshire coast that was carried all that way by a glacier 100,000 years ago.  Now it rests on soft grass, sheep grazing around it, warmed by the sun and weathered by the wind and the rain.  Seagulls wheel around it, and the sea stretches out to the horizon.  Along its sides are deep gouges where the ice pushed it over harder rocks.  Each of those scars is a mark of the journey that brought it to the beautiful place it is now.

Why should we regret the things which have given us our scars and brought us to where we are now?

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