Intellectualizing on the Aikido Mat

“As soon as you see something, you already start to intellectualize it. As soon as you intellectualize something, it is no longer what you saw.” ~ Shunryu Suzuki-roshi (1905-1971).

In my Aikido practice I experience this regularly both in my own training and when I listen to and work with others. However it is not something we “see” and then intellectualize so much as something we experience and then intellectualize. Aikido is a difficult martial art (as I suppose they all are) and we learn dozens of techniques from lots of different attacks and with different ways of moving. Of course we see the techniques as they are demonstrated by our teacher, but we then have to feel them and learn them in contact with another person, our partners in practice.

What I experience and hear in the dojo is the moment when one of us “sees” the technique and lets out a “Yes!” or “I got it” or “That’s it!” To me, it is at that moment when we start to intellectualize whatever it is we’ve learned. Once we intellectualize what we’ve learned or “got” then we take ourselves out of the present moment of awareness.

As Suzuki said, as soon as whatever we’ve gotten or understood or seen is intellectualized, “it is no longer what you saw.” If I’m practicing an Aikido technique, and at the precise moment I understand it at some level I verbalize that I’ve gotten it, then whatever it is I’ve gotten changes. It jumps from my body and a feeling that I’ve done something right to an intellectual understanding. That means I’ve jumped from a body awareness to me being in my head. I have to be in my head to yell out “That’s it!” Aikido is a physical practice and all physical endeavors are best left to the body. There is a time and place to intellectualize your practice, but the time is not when you are actually doing it. The time to think about Aikido or talk about Aikido is off the mat, not on it.

It is important in any physical activity, but particularly a dangerous martial art that has the ability to inflict pain and damage, to be fully present and aware at every moment. When I’m doing certain techniques I am in the position (if I’ve done them correctly) to break an arm, so if I’m thinking about whether I’ve “gotten” it I’m not thinking about my partner. My partner and my connection to my partner should be the focus of my attention.

There is also the problem of intellectualizing too early in the process. It’s like editing in writing. If I edit what I’m writing while I’m in the thick of a thought, then I can ruin the thought or idea. I need to wait until I’m done and then do the editing…the intellectualizing. If I’m doing an Aikido technique and all of sudden I’ve got it and say something, then I’ve hijacked the entire process. If I stop and think about the “eureka” moment, then I stop the forward momentum. What if I was going to keep learning and understanding at a deep level some aspect of that technique? By stopping in mid-stream and paying attention to the understanding, I’ve stopped any further understanding that may have happened further along.

I’ve experienced moments in Aikido, beautiful moments, where I’ve come to some understanding of a technique or application and fully experienced it in the moment. I didn’t think about it or remark on it. I felt it. I felt it all the way from that moment to the end. It is only in moments like that when I’ve learned something. I didn’t intellectualize it so it didn’t change. That moment of awareness in my body stayed in my body and so I was able to keep hold of it forever.

Is there something you do in your life, that once intellectualized is changed?

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