Conditioned responses: living on autopilot

Lightning-fast reflexes make my favorite action hero look so cool on the movie screen. I’ve always wanted to be like THAT guy!

Until very recently, I always believed that conditioned responses in aikido, and in life, were a good thing. Certainly, muscle memory has an appropriate place in the dojo, and in life.

But almost 18 months into my aikido training, I’m beginning to recognize some of the ways that conditioned responses in my life are acting as barriers to my happiness. Becoming impatient. Losing my temper. Wanting to “correct” others or change things in my exterior world in order to preserve my concept of comfort and safety.

Rather than urging me to simply memorize techniques “automatically” then forget them, my sempai remind me time and time again to do something very different: return to the present moment. They tell me that in this fresh, ever unfolding present exists the only “place” I can ever respond to what is actually happening right now. They tell me this is related to body-mind unification.

“The Founder realized that it was necessary to unify mind, body, and ki. From that individual integration, one had to link oneself to the universe as a whole, and manifest the tremendous power of the life force. Ultimately, that harmonization (between ki, mind, and body) will result in true enlightenment. This is the purpose of Aikido.” (schoolforthemind.com)

 

Katate kosa tori kokyu nage tobi komi is the technique we are practicing. Uke attacks with a cross-hand grab to my wrist.

Will I pattern this kokyu nage on my memories of past kokyu nages I have initiated, with the expectation that since it worked before, all I have to do is repeat the same precise movement and I’m guaranteed success now?

Or will I connect as deeply as possible with uke and respond to the attack that is actually taking place now? To the pressure of her grasp on my wrist? To her posture? To the present extension of her ki?

In this way, I am learning to recognize my conditioned responses before they actually take over and run their course as I shift into auto pilot yet again. Taking a breath and pausing before saying the words, “I know.” Keeping my mouth closed and hesitating before responding to someone with indignation. Noticing anger and frustration as they arise, and simply experiencing the sensations involved without making a sound with my voice.

Which begs the question, how much of my life have I been living on “auto pilot” mode? Disengaged from the present moment? And can that actually be called “living” at all?

How often can I interrupt automaticity in the next 60 minutes? How often can I recognize urges… desires… fears… before conditioned responses take over and dictate my behavior?

How can I become more present on the mat and off, so that I might bring the full spectrum of my being to the moment?

As a beginner, the best I can come up with right now is to keep practicing a return to right now. Again and again.

Tim started practicing aikido in June of 2016, at the age of 48. He is currently ranked 3rd kyu.