Aikido, flow and the pursuit of self-mastery

Aikido, flow and the pursuit of self-mastery

In each of us lies the ability to reach a state of optimal experience. A state in which the tasks required to conquer the challenges that we face become effortless. Our mind and our body are dissolved by the intense focus on the task at hand, leading to the feeling that we have become one with the task, one with the challenge. A chemical cocktail of endorphins and neurotransmitters flood our system, leading to the ability to physically and mentally respond to dynamic situations with seemingly transcendent precision, vigour and ease. Once the task is over, the challenge done, this chemical cocktail changes slightly, evoking an emotional state of joy, serenity and a dopamine laden sense of satisfaction and achievement. In this state, we have the charge that we need to move from accepting the word that we were given, to creating the world we want. Artists can sculpt masterpieces from nothing, athletes break impossible records, and soldiers become heroes. Psychologist Mihaly Cziksentmihalyi determines that human happiness is dependent on our ability to access this state, and the frequency in which we do it. Cziksentmihalyi and other leading researchers have coined this state Flow. Flow is what entices us to seek challenges, to evolve, and to master our elements.

The ability to reach a state of flow is dependent on 2 circumstantial factors; 1- the level of challenge that we face, and 2 – ones competency (skills) to meet that challenge. To reach a state of flow in any circumstance, the challenge that we face must exceed our level of competency. In seeking a state of flow, we must therefore work to continually surpass our ability. This will in turn improve our level of competency in any aspect, eventually to a point of mastery. This is where my exploration into the relationship between Flow, Aikido and Self-mastery begins.

A state of flow requires absolute presence in the moment, an intense level of focus which enables alignment between mind, body and the moment. Given that one of Aikido’s objectives is harmony, harmony between mind and body, harmony between uke and nage, harmony within oneself and the universe, Aikido could be considered a perfect conduit for reaching states of flow, and, in combination with this flow, a perfect tool to develop mastery. This is what Aikido has become for me. I do not see Aikido as a martial art, physical exercise, a form of communication or something that will build my confidence. I see Aikido as a tool to help me in my pursuit of flow, and as a tool that will facilitate my journey towards self-mastery. It can help me to develop what I need to align body and mind with situation, to hold my presence, and lift myself into a state of flow when the moment demands. If Aikido and flow are used together regularly, the end result, the product of their work is self-mastery – and true self-mastery is the pinnacle of human existence.

Much has been written on the topic of self-mastery, and what we must do to achieve “master” status. Author Malcom Gladwell has explored the “10,000 Hour Rule” (to achieve mastery in something takes 10,000 hours of application and learning); Robert Greene tries to develop a recipe for self-mastery by studying the life and movements of masters in their fields, and neuroscientists the world over are developing theories around the physiological mechanisms for self-mastery in an attempt to hack the mastery state. To me however, the achievement of self-mastery comes down to 2 simple factors, and the way they combine to form the ultimate mastery mindset.

The first of these factors is an unrelenting charge to become a master in a field, the drive and ambition that will see you make the sacrifices and put in the work to achieve the pinnacle. Living in a state of “charge” means that we are not hindered by what stands in our way, but we are focussed on the virtues of our vision and our life’s work. By its nature, Aikido is a tool that teaches us to harmonise with hindrances. It teaches us to engage conflict with presence, and to redirect the energy that conflict brings towards effortless resolution. In this capacity, Aikido is a tool that can teach us to overcome obstacles with ease, and to deal with conflict in a way that allows us to keep our focus on the greater vision. It therefore helps us to maintain a state of charge in our life, further enhancing our journey towards self-mastery.

The second factor contributing to the development of mastery is the mindset that you have not (and never will) reach a point where you have mastered your field, that there will always be more to learn. Aikido teaches us that with every milestone we reach, with every new technique we grasp, every time we feel more centred, more engaged, a new door to deeper discoveries and understanding is opened. I still remember, like it was yesterday, the wonderment of watching some of the people in this room engaging effortlessly with their Uke’s. As a beginner that sense of wonderment drives our learning. As we progress however, we run the risk of beginning to see ourselves as an all knowing expert. As Shunryu Suzuki puts it in his classic “Zen Mind, Beginners Mind”; “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” Aikido helps us to maintain this sense of wonderment, this “beginner’s mind”, by showing us that the more we know, the more there is to know. The deeper we master something, the deeper we need to go. Aikido requires us to maintain a high level of continuous effort, discovery and wonderment as we progress through the grades.

In summary, the greatest human endeavours that this world has ever seen have been encapsulated in a state of flow. This pinnacle state of human awareness and ability, accompanied by a mindset charged with vision, discovery and wonderment, drives us further towards the mastery of our endeavours. Over the eons humankind has searched for ways to hack both flow and self-mastery, and I believe that within the teachings of Morehei Ueshiba, O Sensei, lie the secrets to this. Aikido is not simply a martial art, or means to an end, but a conduit to self-mastery and the state of flow.

In signing off I would like to give thanks to the teachers that I have encountered throughout my Aikido journey so far. I would like to think that I have done you the honour of accepting that every encounter holds potential learnings that are than more than I can ever absorb, no matter how little or how much interaction we have had. I need to give heartfelt acknowledgement to my family, Rebekah for becoming a widow, and Ethan an orphan, as I try to quench my thirst for self-mastery. To the rest of the world, there is no method of interaction, with anyone, anywhere, that doesn’t influence our being or shape who we are. But the form we are moulded into depends on the mindset that we choose to adopt in shaping our future.

Focus not on what stands in your way
Nor the fears that Weaken your resolve
But set your focus on what you stand for
And the dreams that charge your soul

Brendon Tod
Roban for Nidan
December 2014