7) Training the Mind in Aikido

The founder (Morihei Ueshiba) intended aikido to be far more than a system of techniques for self-defense. His intention was to fuse his martial art with a set of ethical, social, and dispositional ideals. Ueshiba hoped that by training in aikido, people would perfect themselves spiritually as well as physically. It is not immediately obvious, however, just how practicing aikido is supposed to result in any spiritual (= psycho-physical) transformation. Furthermore, many other arts have claimed to be vehicles for carrying their practitioners to enlightenment or psycho-physical transformation. We may legitimately wonder, then, whether, or how, aikido differs from other arts in respect of transformative effect.
It should be clear that any transformative power of aikido, if such exists at all, must not reside in the performance of physical techniques alone. Rather, if aikido is to provide a vehicle for self-improvement and psycho-physical transformation along the lines envisioned by the founder, the practitioner of aikido must adopt certain attitudes toward aikido training and must strive to cultivate certain sorts of cognitive dispositions.

Classically, those arts which claim to provide a transformative framework for their practitioners are rooted in religious and philosophical traditions such as Buddhism and Taoism (the influence of Shinto on Japanese arts is usually comparatively small). In Japan, Zen Buddhism exercised the strongest influence on the development of transformative arts. Although Morihei Ueshiba was far less influenced by Taoism and Zen than by the “new religion,” Omotokyo, it is certainly possible to incorporate aspects of Zen and Taoist philosophy and practice into aikido. Moreover, Omotokyo is largely rooted in a complex structure of neo-shinto mystical concepts and beliefs. It would be wildly implausible to suppose that adoption of this structure is a necessary condition for psycho-physical transformation through aikido.

So far as the incorporation of Zen and Taoist practices and philosophies into aikido is concerned, psycho-physical transformation through the practice of aikido will be little different from psycho-physical transformation through the practice of arts such as karate, kyudo, and tea ceremony. All these arts have in common the goal of instilling in their practitioners cognitive equanimity, spontaneity of action/response, and receptivity to the character of things just as they are (shinnyo). The primary means for producing these sorts of dispositions in trainees is a two-fold focus on repetition of the fundamental movements and positions of the art, and on preserving mindfulness in practice.

The fact that aikido training is always cooperative provides another focus for construing personal transformation through aikido. Cooperative training facilitates the abandonment of a competitive mind-set which reinforces the perception of self-other dichotomies. Cooperative training also instills a regard for the safety and well-being of one’s partner. This attitude of concern for others is then to be extended to other situations than the practice of aikido. In other words, the cooperative framework for aikido practice is supposed to translate directly into a framework for ethical behavior is one’s daily life.