Effectiveness, Martial Arts and Aikido By Bruno Gonzalez

(This article was originally posted on BrunoGonzalez.com. It was translated to English from French and attached as a PDF. In order to make it more consumable via the web, I extracted the text from the PDF, fine-tuned the translation in a few areas and added some edits where needed. Of course, this is NOT my own content and all credit goes to Bruno sensei.)

Effectiveness: is it simply being able to bust someone’s nose, leave him with a painful reminder, and assume the risks and consequences? Or is it to correctly evaluate a situation, to react to it in the best possible way in order to prevent a conflict from developing?

A conflictual situation can exist in many forms (as can our relation or relationship to the cause of the conflict). With or without a protagonist, it can range from a simple feeling of frustration, a wrong word, or a bad mood, to a tussle, a sneak attack, or a drawn weapon.

The consequences of an internal or external conflict are just as varied. Stress and its negative effects, a disabling blow, the risk of being infected by contaminated blood, an unfortunate fall, judicial, penal or psychological consequences, or a dentist bill. But they can sometimes also result in honors.

A conflictual situation gives no warning signs, respects no conventions, and has no limits; and its outcome is uncertain. To deal with such a range of conflicts, is the efficiency of a punch or arm lock the solution? Sometimes physical confrontation can indeed be THE solution at the time, but it can only “resolve” a limited number of conflicts.

Wouldn’t an optimal ability to act adequately, instantly, and humanely be a more favorable ground to effectively manage any situation, whether conflictual or not? What type of effectiveness are we referring to? Do we aim solely for efficiency* that is specific and conducive to the martial art we practice? Or a kind of effectiveness** that could accompany us throughout each day? Why do we commit to one discipline and aikido in particular? What is (are) our objective(s)? Do we even know? I am often asked, “Is aikido effective?”

What does aikido offer?

Martial arts operate by providing a structured conflictual situation which serves as a basis for training or practice. As an educational system, aikido aims to resolve conflict in an optimal and humanistic way: it aims to avoid generating any type of conflict and even to prevent it.

In practice, this system is made up of training techniques (concrete actions that do not need to be realistic) and of exercises and applications (actions adapted to an urgent situation). Due to their construction and duration, these actions are not meant to be simply self-defense techniques. They form a structure that allows us to understand our conditioning as well as the anthropological and universal principles that govern us (such as the principle of economy: simplification that consists of using the least amount of energy, more precisely the right tension, for the ideal result).

The advantage of this system resides in the fact that the student develops at least three essential qualities related to the concept of effectiveness: presence, confidence, and credibility.

Presence is characterized by a sensitive and immediately enlightened vision of the present, free of any unwanted tensions.

From this vision results the capacity to immediately adapt and respond in the best (most harmonious) way. This takes place from a calm, compassionate perspective: the harmonious and humanistic resolution of any type of conflict. That is the uniqueness of aikido’s modus operandi: a lack of opposition–the idea that it is more difficult if not impossible to hold a handful of sand than a stick or a big rock. Although the latter is impressive and extremely resistant, somehow its very nature makes it possible to hit it, break it, and possibly sculpt it–the idea even that intending to destroy empty space proves absurd.

“Haven’t we noticed that the less talented the person is, the earlier he forms his ‘convictions’ and the longer he tenaciously clings to them?”1 Michael Tchekhov

Presence follows from an increased awareness which comes from studying our tensions, anxieties, certitudes, beliefs, and refusals both conscious and unconscious, in short: our fears. These fears latch onto our otherwise normally liberated actions and onto our relations with each other and with our environment. Without presence, neither a strike nor a diplomatic strategy is sufficient.

At the same time, or subsequently, confidence and credibility appear­–credibility being one’s confidence as perceived by another. Both are directly linked to our level of expertise and to our diverse and varied experiences (from “in your face” to introspection); they obviously contribute to the quality of our presence and vice versa.

A Question of Dosage

The same situation can be perceived, felt, and experienced totally differently depending on the quality of our presence, our confidence, and our credibility. Ultimately, whether the outcome is a “success or failure”, the way we act or react either arouses and contributes to the conflict or defuses it.

Some teachings focus on being effective: knocking someone out, to put it simply. Others place their accent on an educational system’s values in the large sense of the term. The two are not incompatible, on the contrary. They are even interdependent and formative. It is all a question of dosage, discernment, and, most of all, perspective. This is where the teacher’s role takes on its meaning. It is not the method that is important but the person who teaches.

To get back to aikido and the process of learning it, for beginners each technique seems unique, responding to a specific attack or priority. As their understanding grows, as they make connections, and as they put what they learn into perspective, the techniques reveal common principles that go beyond the conventional system. Differences between techniques actually bring out what they have in common. Content and form become one, as ocean waves whose impermanence and variations are only the expressions of their true nature. A wave is water before being a wave.

“Without a living process [content], there is just aesthetics; and living process which does not arrive at articulated form, is ‘soup’.”2 Thomas Richards

Thus, to study one technique is to study all techniques. To develop presence in one situation is to develop it for any situation.

That is what bridges experimental presence with real life. That, for me, captures aikido’s vocation and incredible effectiveness (a vocation that is not exclusive to aikido but that applies to the study of any art or process), leading toward the universal, ultimate, and transcendent.

A Relative Effectiveness

For many students, the effectiveness they develop in practice can also satisfy a “simple” expectation that they had when they began or that they have as they progress. The simple pleasure of creating a subtle physical communication with someone else. Of rediscovering one’s body and the way it functions, of becoming less stiff or more toned up, of meeting the need to socialize, and of freeing one’s mind of daily stress during the duration of class.

In the dojo where I teach is a student who is slightly mentally challenged. His handicap will likely prevent him from ever attaining a high level (although, one may ask, “a level of what?”), but he is determined and has significantly progressed to the extent he can. We each have our own path to follow and bring to it who we are and what we have. The effectiveness of one’s discipline has real meaning in relation to one’s own expectations and perspective, whatever they may be.

Comparisons and Value Judgements

The uninitiated and beginners often ask me this question as well: “Which martial art is the most effective?”

A martial or combat activity offers a controlled setting, with certain limits and its own specific codes: moves that are prohibited, a traditional garb, weight and age categories, referees, a lack of competition. Every discipline, even the most realistic, relies on a collective agreement. Even within a given discipline, different trends, or “styles” as some would say, can emerge. Indeed, teachers, due to their search for a better understanding of principles and to their personal influences at a given time, orient their teaching differently and even more so their forms of practice. As for students, they advance of course on the path offered.

Aikido students, like those of other disciplines, resemble each other, not in their techniques but in their principles. That is, moreover, what we should focus on when giving an exam: how many principles does the action unite? But most of the time we center on a characteristic (provoking superficial comparisons and value judgements, thus creating separation) instead of concentrating on what unites us or could bring us together (the permanency of principles). We forget that a wave is water.

When we begin to flaunt our specific characteristics (from a technical or ideological point of view), the idea is crushed by the object: we fall into formalism, forms of practice, but also forms of thought. The same is true for the concept of effectiveness. Within structured training, we aim for effectiveness that is specific to our discipline. We refine the efficiency of our moves, also specific to our discipline, according to our degree of advancement, our objectives, and the different perspectives that emerge as we progress. We forge our bodies and sharpen our minds.

To Each Art, Its Own Effectiveness

In any case, the first degree of martial effectiveness makes sense only within the structure of a given discipline. Each discipline is effective in its own way, or rather each has its own conditional efficiency. A simplistic comparison of disciplines, or value judgements between them, is a symptom of misunderstanding. It results from wanting to demand, export, and show off our more than partial point of view on effectiveness.

Who is a better, more effective pilot, a racecar driver or a rally driver? Both drive a car and share the same objective: to win a race. Their respective skills in relation to the characteristics of their sports cannot be compared in terms of value judgements. Is Loeb better than Hamilton? The question is senseless.

Constantin Stanislavski, a renowned theater expert, said: “Love art in yourself, not yourself in art”.3

A Feeling of Superiority

Because techniques exist within a certain framework, their effectiveness is relative. The limited aspect of this framework, which aims to provide a simplified conflictual setting, cannot account for the complexity and variety of conflicts outside of the framework. The sole specific expertise (from a combat viewpoint) and its demands cannot alone ensure that one can correctly manage any type of conflict. Likewise, (and here I am referring to a certain tendency among aikido practitioners) adopting beautiful and worthy ideas as one’s own, or committing intellectual theft, does not justify a feeling of superiority, whether conscious or unconscious, nor blindness of any sort. Any attempt at transcendence should only be made through know-how. Like any discipline, aikido is an art that is demanding and requires credibility and discernment.

Feeling superior or thinking it necessary to be superior, whether consciously or not, is chronic confrontation in any form: physical, intellectual, or ideological­–from the subtlest to the roughest. It is a bottomless pit and reveals a lack of confidence. To caricature, if I consider my ability to knock someone out as the way to resolve conflict and as the main purpose of my training, I will never have confidence because there will always be a doubt as to the outcome of a conflictual situation. Even if I work out until I am as big as a house, how could I convince myself that I am the strongest, the most effective? There will always be at least a secret, unconfessed fear giving place to a certain arrogance.

Someone I used to know who had spent 15 years in prison told me one day that behind bars “you don’t need to be wary of a provoker who looks like a killer (with a scarred face and a crooked nose) but watch out if he has no scars and no nickname.” Because to keep from getting your face scarred when you do a lot of time, believe me, you have to prove yourself effective, or let’s say “relationally” intelligent, when it comes to credibility and presence.

Effectiveness, or presence, does not come from some ideology, dogma, or feeling of superiority but rather from a serene clairvoyance, revealed through our own experimenting. When you have confidence, you have less to prove to others, including yourself.

Confidence and Credibility

Of course, we are never totally or constantly confident. But that is exactly why the idea of sincere study has meaning. Rather than reacting when another car pulls out in front of you, we act calmly (or not). We no longer let ourselves get carried away by an emotional reaction. Lucidity and discernment do not mix well with excessive emotional reactions, whether around a table or in a boxing ring. Even during a boxing match, this quality of presence certainly makes a difference.

In short, the efficiency of our know-how is pertinent only in relation to the framework of our studies, our needs, and our perspective. Claiming efficiency as effectiveness is to fall into the trap of misunderstanding and value judgements. Effectiveness, in the general sense of the word, results from a quality of presence which is itself characterized by, among other things, confidence and credibility. Presence, thus effectiveness which comes from studying, transcends the efficiency of one’s art and embraces any situation. Finally, the humanistic ideal of non-opposition (which, to be clear, does not mean non-action) seems a worthwhile and adequate response to the issue of conflict.

Therefore, to conclude, I humbly invite you to reflect on your own present perspective and your objectives for the future. Certain intuitive responses may emerge from the tatamis.

“Art reflects life, but life reproduced in a work of art is subject to the laws of art.” Vsevolod Meyerhol

“The best fight is the one not fought.” Gishin Funakoshi

Train with joy and discernment.


Foot Notes:

*Efficiency is making the most of tools set up to obtain a result. It can be measured by the relation between the results and the resources used.

**Effectiveness is the relation between results and objectives.

1 “On the Technique of Acting: The First Complete Edition of Tchekhov’s Classic to the Actor”

2 https://goo.gl/7cqxV6

3 www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/54455. Konstantin Stanislavski

English translation by Jill Gaston