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Transactions on the Mat

Semi-abstract image of young and old aikidokai bowing

Recently, I've been thinking about transactions. Psychologist Eric Berne proposed in his book The Games We Play that transactions are at the core of every human interaction we have. Out of curiosity (and perhaps an unhealthy compulsion) I started applying this concept to various encounters I'd had with others. Things as simple as a greeting to a stranger on the street, or a compliment paid to a friend, I began to see as a form of transaction, a "this for that". Then, I thought about my Aikido practice. Beneath its veil of spiritual austerity, was there hiding just another transaction? Or did Aikido somehow transcend this rather cynical transactional framework that my routine world seemed to fit into so easily?

Inside the dojo, there occurs a basic exchange between two people: uke initiates with an attack, and nage responds with a technique. Uke's job throughout this exchange is to maintain connection with nage rather than trying to take back control. If uke’s elbow is in the grips of nage, uke does not try to yank it free. Just as a sailboat is moved by the direction of the wind, uke is responsive to the will of nage, and moves with them. Someone not familiar with Aikido may wonder why we sometimes lean into an attack rather than try to fight against it, and the conclusion one might draw is that we are simply helping each other practice. In other words, a transaction where I help you practice, and in exchange, you help me. 

But is there something more going on here? It may not be obvious to folks who haven’t trained before, but uke is practicing their ukemi, or the art of receiving a technique. So there's actually a mutual benefit for uke and nage. But in order for both to really benefit, there must also be aiki between them, a harmony of energy. Without aiki, training on the mat can become a conflict of wills. If uke did yank their elbow away from nage’s grip, neither person could progress in their training. Or if nage used extreme force that was out of alignment with uke, rather than gaining mutual improvement, someone could get sent to the hospital and come home in a sling. So to really practice Aikido, both parties must cooperate with each other.

Still, though, what I've just described can be seen as a transaction: I give you my cooperation and in turn you give me yours, and the result is that we both get what we want (to practice Aikido). Even if your desire is an admirable one like learning to harmonize with others, it is still a desire.

So how does the situation change when neither party desires to practice their Aikido? Why then would someone even bother stepping onto the mat? Is there a way for Aikido to escape the framework of "this for that"? Perhaps the only way Aikido can transcend the transactional is if both participants adopt a "no gaining" mind, or mushotoku as it is known in the Soto Zen tradition. Read this passage describing the “no gaining” mindset:

Mushotoku is the attitude of a mind that does not get attached to objects and that seeks no personal profit. This concept of acting without wanting to achieve a result, and giving without wanting something in return is one of the most challenging ideas for Westerners to understand as we tend to think in terms of profit: "If I give him this maybe he’ll give me that in return."

We must not practice Zen meditation, or Zazen, with a hope to personally profit. Do not practice Zazen for fame or profit; do not practice it to obtain a reward; do not practice it to obtain esoteric powers. Do not practice Zazen for yourself; only practice Zazen for Zazen. Zazen has no object and no subject; it is simply the union of the absolute Self with the Cosmos. In the martial arts, too, one must be mushotoku, without any goal or desire for profit.

In Aikido as in Zazen, could the means also be the end? In other words, "I practice Aikido because I practice Aikido." Can I let go of my desire for progression? Can I ease the impulses that have been amplified by a “gaining mind” society where nothing is enough and everything could be better? How might my life shift if I did not attach such strong expectations to outcomes? If I stopped chasing “that”, would my resentment dissipate? Would my anger soften? What would guide me forward in my practice if not for a desire to improve? If you know the answers, please send me an email. :P In the meantime, my training continues.

Ben Saff is a Philadelphia-based software engineer and digital product designer who balances his technical expertise with a passion for writing and exploring his imagination. He is the author of the poetry collection Minor League All American Dance Club and has been training in Aikido since 2021. You can find him here.

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