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Aikido and Rock Climbing

This article was originally written 9/12/02 for the official Seidokan Newsletter, the Seidokan Communicator.

I had really hoped to get out and climb today. September in Austin is one of the loveliest times of the year, when we finally get a break from much of the heat and humidity. The air is cooler, and the rock is dryer. More friction, less sweat. Yum. But there's a hurricane in the vicinity, and it's outer fringes are currently dumping buckets of rain outside, and so climbing is out of the question. Meanwhile, the leaves outside my window are emerald green, and this thirsty town seems sleepy and satisfied. I could curse the rain, but the irony is that it's the water that makes local climbing possible at all. Austin sits on a limestone bedrock, an ancient sea floor where dinosaurs swam, and later walked, as the waters receded into what is now the Gulf of Mexico. The western side of Austin is the beginning of the geologic zone knows as the Balcones Canyonlands. Here rain-fed rivers and streams cut sharp channels deep into the limestone. So while other climbers look for mountains, here in Central Texas we go down to the creek beds and climb back up to ground level. The routes are short, but the comradery is good, and the moves are challenging. I'm told that Austin has the highest density of natural outdoor climbing than any other urban center in the world. The nearest crag from my house is a bicycle ride away, located on the beautiful Barton Creek Greenbelt.

Thank you, rain.

So instead of getting out, I'll sit here and write about climbing instead. Climbing, and aikido, the other thing my body most likes to do. Well, one of the other things, anyway...

Aikido is an art which is all about identifying a source of energy, and learning to utilize it in non-destructive ways. We aikido people are very opportunistic. The force of an attack, the gift of an adversary's weapon, the light and sound moving between bodies, all of these make up the sea of energy in which we swim. And not only is this the medium in which we live, it is also the current which propels us whichever way we choose to navigate. In particular, aikido has the potential to make you aware of gravity in the most wonderful of ways. Imagine being a fish, swimming and and breathing in water its whole life, suddenly one day waking up and discovering water.

(Here in Austin, it's raining. Wherever you are, stop a moment and feel it... all around you, it's raining gravity.)

At first glance, climbing is almost the diametric opposite of aikido. Climbing goes directly against the force of gravity. We swim upstream, if you will. Climbers choose the hardest way up the steepest path. Climbers will use all kinds of safety equipment, and strain with Herculean effort to get to the top of somewhere that other folk can simply walk to. Serious climbers may spend weeks working out a way to simply get to the top of a ten foot boulder that anyone else would just walk around. What's up with that? But like aikido, climbing is a serious inner discipline. And things aren't as straightforward as just doing things the hard way. It would be more true to say that in fact, we seek the easiest way through the most difficult path. Aikido emphasizes effortlessness, beauty, and economy of motion, yes, but it does so within the radically challenging domain of violence. And however much we may blend with an attack, using all our best avoidance tactics, we are still confronting a serious challenge and engaging it fully. On the mat, we are dealing with life and death issues. So it is with climbing. Though the dangerous element of the sport tends to be exaggerated and romanticized in the public mind, there nevertheless exists the very real and truly awesome experience with gravity. An aikido person will rarely fall from more than three feet off the ground. Climbers may take twenty foot free-falls from a tall boulder; forty or even eighty-foot falls onto our stretchy umbilical cord, the rope. One moment is all stillness and clarity and focus... in a lightning flash, a fingertip peels off a dime-edge, and thirty-two feet per second per second changes from a formula to a rushing visceral experience. So in both climbing and aikido, we are finding deep truths about ourselves, our relationship to the world, and seeking grace and perfection within the context of great difficulty, hostility even. Danger is a reality in our world, and cannot always be avoided. True safety, as much as there ever is such a thing, comes from a realistic assessment that life is risky, and the best way to acknowledge this is to undertake risk in a controlled environment in a disciplined manner. None of the climbers or aikido people I know are reckless thrill seekers. They tend to be passionate, sexy, energetic, and fiercely intelligent, but full of care and deliberation. That, and we love to have fun. Someone once told me that climbing is vertical yoga. I can agree with that. Perhaps aikido is ballroom dancing with demons. Regardless, each discipline deals with topologies that are both visible and hidden. If you spend enough time on the mat, you will learn that human bodies are not shaped the way you think they are. They are penetrated with geometries, singularities, axis of rotation, and symmetry planes. They are surrounded by a cloud of potentialities, much like electron shells, valences about a nucleus. You can't say for sure where a hand or a foot will be at any given time, but you learn to intuit the probabilities. Climbers also may develop this sense. While moving through the concrete world of physics, certain Platonic forms emerge, ideals which synthesize abstractions, more felt in the body than conceived in the mind. You become a living trigonometry, and when the corners all come together, magic happens. And then you realize your mind and body are much more than you ever suspected.

Still, the morphology of the body's anatomy is real, and it has physicality and limitations. The great joy in each of these arts is in learning to move from deep within one's center, while exploring the very edges of these boundary zones. Like strange attractors in chaos theory, the boundaries can overlap. My hand is upon the rock, but if I am to make this move, hand and rock must be one. My attacker comes toward me, but I am already inside them, by virtue of the light coming off my body and penetrating their eyes, their nervous system. These are the puppet strings connecting us, and whoever can best see the common reality therein is in the best position to act in accordance to fundamental truth. In both climbing and aikido, you learn that your mind extends all the way down into your toes, your fingernails, the tips of your hair, and even into the light and air surrounding you. You can't afford to live just in your head anymore. And who in their right mind would want to?

At least, these are the things that I think about on a rainy day.

The Martial Arts are often compared to the Water Way of the Tao. It is often said that water seeks the lowest place, does not oppose, takes the form of whatever vessel it is in. It gives life, has no image of its own but reflects all other images, quells fire, cleanses all things, and so on. The straight path of water from the fountain to the sea is the zigzag path of the raindrops sliding down my windows. But even martial artists tend to forget that when the sun comes out, water will do what it can to find the most effortless path to rise up into the heights, dancing with the sublime joy of wind and sunlight and altitude.

And you can bet that as soon as this damn rain stops, so will I.