In Aikido there is a Japanese term that is often used regarding distance called ma ai. The definition of this term is varied. In attempting to research it on the web for this blog I came up with several different meanings;
• Proper Distance
• Optimal Distance
• Combat Distance
• Joining Distance
Of these, “Joining Distance” stood out as one that I had not seen before. The word ai as it is used in Aikido means to blend or harmonize. But the posting that I saw went on to describe various uses of the word including its use in the word for plywood. In this case literally meaning “joined wood”. Here is what Morihei Ueshiba wrote about the subject:
“As ai (harmony) is common with ai (love), I decided to name my unique budo ‘aikido,’ although the word aiki is an old one. The word which was used by the warriors in the past is fundamentally different from that of mine. Aiki is not a technique to fight with or defeat the enemy. It is the way to reconcile the world and make human beings one family.”
In this quote, he talks about joining human beings together as one family, a much greater concept than the usual interpretation of joining with an attacker. In order to do this we must see the attacker as he truly is, not as an attacker but as a member of the human race with feelings and aspirations that are probably not too dissimilar from our own. In the potential conflict that we are both experiencing they become our partner rather than our attacker. In order to better understand our interactions in conflict, from this point forward we will use the term partner rather than attacker.
In Aikido, ma ai is the distance that the partner is far enough away from us so that sudden, quick and hidden movements are nullified. Conversely, we must be close enough so that if an attack occurs we can close the distance between our partner and ourselves and initiate the appropriate response. In previous blog posts we discussed the importance of controlling, but not eliminating, our emotions. By creating some emotional distance from the heat of the moment we may be able to discover what our partner’s intention or motivation is. However, we must be connected and in tune with our emotions so that we can empathize with our partner.
Here is an example of how improper and proper emotional distancing might affect a potential conflict:
A husband and wife are arguing over a trivial matter. Neither party wants to continue the argument but to no avail. No matter what is tried by either person the argument becomes more and more heated. Finally, the wife has had enough and says with complete disgust, “You are completely out of control. I don’t know why you are so angry. That sneer on your face is so demeaning. You must really hate me.”
The husband finally realizing the problem manages his best half-smile and says, “Is that what this is about, the look on my face? Honey, I just came back from the dentist. They shot one side of my face with Novocain. I can’t feel that side of my face let alone control it.” Suddenly, the tension bursts out of the situation like air in a balloon and both sides are soon congenial again.
Both the husband and the wife got caught up in the heat of the moment. At the time of the argument, nothing was more important than making the point and the continual escalation is an indication of increased tunnel vision on both sides. Neither party took a step back from their emotions to find out what was really going on and see the picture as a whole. Instead, each continued to drive the point home with increasing intensity resulting in greater emotional damage. It wasn’t until the husband realized from the wife’s statement what the real root of the problem was (his face) that a paradigm shift could occur and they could both see the reality and folly of the situation.
An actor, when analyzing a scene, will often examine the scene the character was in prior to the current one. They will determine the emotions that the character was feeling and how those would be carried forward into the current situation. If the script doesn’t provide an actor with the antecedent scene, the actor will make something up.
As individuals, we all know what the previous scene was like for us, but we often carry the emotions forward into the next scene without first examining them and determining if we truly wish to feel that way at that moment. By distancing ourselves slightly from our emotions and moving through our lives consciously we can enter any situation with more confidence.
In our example, if the husband had realized that he was carrying his dental visit into the altercation with his wife, he might have found a way to explain what was going on with him and thereby allow his wife to understand him better.
However, we don’t usually have the luxury of knowing what happened to our partners prior to any interaction. So, just like any good actor, we make something up. But, we don’t have that luxury in the real world.
Our wife in the above scene assumed that horrible look on her husband’s face had to be about his true feeling for her. If something out of the ordinary occurs, the best thing to do is calmly explore the events that lead up to the meeting. This is why we usually ask our partners how their day went. Partly, it is to be supportive and partly it is a matter of survival to determine how the rest of the day might go and if ducking for cover might be prudent.
In a potentially violent confrontation the martial artist will find ma ai. They will widen the field of focus so as to see the whole picture, not just one part. This gives them the best opportunity to quickly assess their partner’s intentions. Often, when they do this, they see their partner’s attack before it is even initiated.
If any of the readers think that the previous story about the husband and wife is totally made up and couldn’t possibly happen. It did, to my wife and me.
Coming up in the next post: Respect your partner.