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Aikido in the Age of Uncertainty

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by Midori Yamamoto

Aiki News #35 (January 1980)

The present age is called the “age of uncertainty”. International economist John K. Galbraith, in a work of the same name, reflects on the historical processes of world economics and states that former philosophical ideas capable of inspiring confidence such as the “unseen hand” of Adam Smith or Karl Marx’s doctrine of the “collapse of capitalism”, have now ceased to exist. He goes on to say that the only thing for certain is the fact that “… this small planet cannot survive a nuclear exchange …” Today, when all sorts of established ideas which were regarded as absolute have disintegrated, economies and societies are undergoing change on a global scale, and religions and ideologies are losing their luster, it can be said that humanity of the present age is living in a world of bewildering flux, totally engulfed by waves of “anxiety” and “uncertainty”.

The distress of people in the modern age who mirror the confusing phases of society while unable to find a reliable guiding ideology is also vividly reflected in literary works. As a student of American literature what I often observe in contemporary American fiction is people who, after escaping from the shackles of the past and obtaining a tremendous a-mount of freedom, have strengthened only their social, sexual, and material desires, and who are so intent on looking for an external “bluebird of happiness” that instead they are caught in their own desires and have become unable to move, people who agonize unable to achieve new breakthroughs in self-realization, and young people who wander about without a clear self-identity.

For example, the university professor who appears in Philip Roth’s The Professor of Desire (1977) is attacked by feelings of unspeakable emptiness, unable to find ideal love in any relationship with a woman. Intense grief echoes in the monologue in which he says that the thief who goes forth to take a lover is, in the end, nothing other than his own insatiable desire. The main character of An American Dream, by Norman Mailer (1964), achieves worldly success, however, he doesn’t know how to recover his inner balance except through eliminating the external obstacle by an act of violence (the murder of his wife). The picture on the cover of the book (Dell paperback edition) — a paper bag stuffed full of a jumble of television, the Stars and Stripes, a model car, whiskey, stockings, a gun, and jewels—suggests nightmarish social conditions fully loaded with power, material desires, sex, and violence. In Jerzy Kosinski’s novels, the names of the protagonists are vague, and the characters are not even clear about who they themselves are. They are strangers who do not belong to any social system; they drift along in apathy and amorality with no awareness of a specific objective, in a world whose reality, originally thought to be secure, passed through the turbulent period of the 1960’s, reached a phase of confusion and unreality, and in a sense ended up becoming surreal.

It seems that the common trait shared by many of the characters in these kinds of modern novels is that they are controlled by external situations, desire happiness which comes from the outside, and are dependent on this, or drift along; they lack an attitude of inner reflection to go on living resolutely through inner discipline and the realization of a new self in this unpredictable age in which “anything can happen”. This lack of introspection is also sorely felt in the real world. Especially with the advent of the 1970’s in America, as young people frantically sought “meaningful and solid values and standards”, Zen, Yoga, and other sorts of Eastern “mysticism” began to gather attention. However, interest in these disciplines was usually characterized by a counter-culture mentality with deep implications of anti-rationalism, anti-commercialism, and anti-intellectualism. Regrettably, it is difficult to say that the positive significance of this Oriental spirituality is widely enough understood. Zen should not be taken as merely the antithesis of existing Western culture; certainly, its fundamental concern is that of “being oneself” and the “existence of individuals as free, independent beings” which can be described as at the very heart of present-day culture. That is to say, I think that Zen and Aikido, which is called “moving Zen”, can surely make deeper contributions to the lives of modern people as fundamental life disciplines—or rather, as ways of life of sincere practice itself, so that individuals may strive for self-realization giving maximum play to their own desires and abilities and lead full lives.

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