Actioning ACT

I like to read, and I read from a wide spectrum of sources. Over the past 12 months I have been reading a lot about ACT: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. The basis of ACT is that we find it challenging to find harmony and happiness in our lives when we constrict the space around our problems. The remedy, and it sounds almost counterintuitive, is that we give our problems more space, not less. Sounds odd when you first hear it, but it’s remarkably obvious when you think about it a little. To use a flippant analogy, would you prefer to be sharing a confined space with a very angry bull, or would you prefer the ring to be kilometres in diameter?

Our Aikido training benefits immensely from good use of physical space. Our training partner, uke, presents a “problem” for us if we let her/him break ma-ai (safe distance). Conversely, if uke is beyond ma-ai, then we’re more or less safe. But training would be a weird experience indeed if we spent every class just standing 3 or 4 metres from our training partner. At some point on the mat, we have to deal with broken ma-ai and the (potentially) very angry bull. What then, in the absence of safe distance? Does ACT’s central premise no longer apply?

From my limited understanding, the ACT model as applied to Aiki can be thought of as prophylactic in terms of space, and antidote in terms of mind. We seek to create space between ourselves and those who would do us physical harm by putting distance between us – this is largely a preventative measure. But once safe distance is broken, we must not concentrate wholly on re-establishing it – this might not be possible, and we have to therefore deal with the physical confrontation that has entered our sphere. This is where the mind comes into play. This is where we sometimes experience a limiting mind rush: “Aaaaargh, what was the technique again?”, “Oh no, I’m going to look bad doing this!”, “This person scares the heck out of me!”, “Mummy!!” etc. These are symptoms of a temporary lack of space in one’s mind. What to do, then? Apply the antidote, or at least practice doing so. Many years ago I was taught a neat trick, and it’s precisely about creating mental space. Instead of letting the panic get hold, think zealously to yourself, “Aha! Now I have a chance to practice!!” Sound simplistic? Good. It is. And it works. Perhaps not 100% of the time, but it has a much higher success rate than the constricted panic way of doing technique. I find when I apply this antidote, the confrontation pervading my mind dissipates considerably, and I can concentrate better on the task at hand.

I am always amazed to see Aikido masters demonstrate techniques; I never tire of it.  You can see by the wonderful expression on their faces that panic is not a state they entertain very often, if at all. I see the techniques working out for them time and time again. But that’s not what repeatedly grabs my attention. It’s the sense of grace, and calm, and happiness, and acceptance that powers their infectious smiles. I cannot say for sure that they’re thinking “Aha! A chance to train” every time they demonstrate, but I can safely bet there’s no negative inner dialogue dominating their minds. They have created sufficient inner space to deal with whatever uke throws at them.

Space… Something to think about before bowing on to the mat. And off again.

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