Three ways to train freedom

At least in words, everyone desires freedom. Anyone wants to express his choices without constraints and thus determine his, her own life.

The last years, with the pandemic first and with the war re-emerging in Europe, have also brought to light the fragility of freedom, together with its importance, in the Western world.

A condition that has unfortunately always been present in history and which awakens people from their torpor just when it hurts them.

What does a martial discipline, such as Aikido, have to offer women and men seeking to define their freedom?

We thought about three elements, three pillars on which we can base training that is awareness of freedom. Let’s see them.

1 – The Dojo as a detachment

We are too used to the pay-choose-command paradigm. From the time we open our eyes to the time we close them, most of our occupations are framed into a hierarchical order, often dictated by their usefulness and economic return. Especially at the beginning, it is difficult to conceive the moment of training in a different perspective from the habit of paying for a ticket to enjoy a show. Or a fee to join a gym for fitness. Or paying for the services of a professional.

Sometimes -and not only referring to a beginner- it is difficult to communicate the importance of continuity with a respectful small amount of hints. Because, in one way or another, changing clothes, entering a place with different rules from those of the rest of the day, being able to dedicate ourselves to understanding the exercises, increasing concentration and reducing mental buzz, all this allows our body and also for our mind to detach itself from routines.

2 – The new routine as a catalyst for change

This is apparently a contradiction. Formal training, that kata geiko that exclusively involves incremental repetition of forms is an excellent catalyst for change. Under three conditions. The first is that the explanation of the form should be clear, in its geometries and its purposes. The famous saying that repeating zero a thousand times returns zero means exactly this. The second is that those who practice should have the patience to be able to follow that path that makes them aware that something is actually changing. This requires time and a certain skill for self-evaluation that we can develop only by remaining within the path.

The third condition is…Knowing how to get out of the routine. The so-called traditional schools have always stood out for having precise, repeatable teaching, always the same. This is a value. However, for many it slowly becomes the implicit belief that there is nothing new or better or experimentable anymore. And this is where formal training damages people, because it doesn’t change anything in the person. Nothing that isn’t already happening.

If the mind, very often, takes refuge in the past to have its certainties; if personal change often doesn’t happen due to the fear of facing a new perspective or simply a different version of ourselves… What benefit can we derive from formal training alone? In the end, we call freedom a reinforced concrete bunker which, keiko after keiko, consolidates technique and through the technique, kills the freedom of choice.

3 – Choosing to go beyond “no mind”

All in all, many people don’t like knowing that the engine of our mind is always active. Disciplines like Aikido, with much respect, slam in the face of a beginner as well as an expert who practices new forms, that in everyday life you can be a person with a very fine brain but, required to coordinate the movement of the right arm with your left foot, you find yourself clumsy, not skilled. Not free.

Such people are often attracted by the evocation of a method – in this case the Martial Arts – which allows them to reach a state of “no mind”, 無心, mushin. Movies about samurai and in general about spotless heroes who, with a few well-performed techniques, make justice triumph, have thrown fuel into the fire of our imagination.

The mushin contains a great truth: to be able to respond to stimuli in a functional way, the body requires a calmed mind, capable of being there when needed (残心, zanshin).

However, choosing requires freedom and freedom is the fruit of a present and calm mind but also and above all of a mind that knows what it wants to achieve.

If we go back to formal training, we can see that a beginner, very often, gets stuck “because he/she doesn’t know what to do”. Even if he/she saw it and even if it was explained to him/her many times. A mind that knows how to lead the whole physical and internal world of a person from the beginning to the end of an action is a mind that is practicing choice, and therefore freedom.

In fact, in those training sessions less rigid from a formal point of view and closer to a “real” combat condition, the clear and attentive mind listens to what is happening and the response shows up spontaneously. In a fight, premeditating a response makes you slow and therefore a loser. Yet not knowing what happens a fraction of a second after we take the attacker for instance on his shoulder is also dangerous. Again: staying in the past, searching through the list of techniques for the “correct” answer is counterproductive. And being in the future doesn’t mean knowing what happens if I apply an imbalance to a person.

In conclusion

Few experiences like Aikido allow a person to revolutionize physical habits and behavioral patterns. Knowing how to listen to how we function, how our emotions and thoughts react to situations is the highest objective of training. And that’s where change can really begin.

A change that teaches us, for instance, that our progress is very often sabotaged by our negative thoughts: about ourselves, about our presumed inabilities, about the expectations of others, about the relationships we live outside and inside the Dojo.

And it is here that we experience freedom, starting to understand its meaning. Too accustomed to conceiving freedom as that context in which we believe we can do what we want, we actually end up in new routines, which follow the previous pattern that accompanied us before…doing what we wanted.

A functional physical response to absorb a technique will perhaps never be of any use if it does not prevent us from getting hurt by our practice partners. However, it will educate us in the use of freedom there where it can be expressed and in the conditions in which we actually are and not where we would like to be. This is the infinite value of the form.

And, for the obvious reason why a change in physical habits is also reflected in mental habits, our thinking process will be increasingly skillful. Capable of choosing, capable of distinguishing what is needed and what is not, capable of telling the body and the person who inhabits it to change.

Disclaimer: Picture by Jimmy Chan from Pexels

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