For certain kinds of magic, you gotta dress the part

Talk about your Saturn-return phenomena. I just had a sneaking suspicion that drove me to check the ephemeris. Indeed.

In January of 1985, after my first semester as a graduate assistant at UC Davis (a school infamous for being cut-throat competitive), I decided I had to do something to relieve my stress. My coping strategy of choice was tai chi, or so I thought. I don’t know how many days or weeks beforehand I thought I was going to sign up for The Experimental College’s tai chi class. But when the day came for sign ups, on my way across campus a small poster caught my eye: Aikido at The Experimental College. It just struck me at that moment that this was the class I was supposed to sign up for. On what many people would see as a whim, but I held to be inspiration, I changed my mind in a flash. I can be that way sometimes. Drives some people around me crazy.

That decision turned out to be fateful. Graduate school ended up only being two years out of my life, since I bailed on the PhD, taking the MA and high-tailing it out of there. But aikido became the passion of my life, to which I dedicated seven years of my life, eventually inheriting a small dojo from a training buddy, where I taught for over a year.

I played with teaching an English-language class in Budapest for a little over a year, but life got too complex and I dropped aikido in the autumn of 1994. In the intervening years I kept in shape as best I could with yoga, chi-kung and tai chi, but to tell the truth, somewhere in the back of my mind I always missed the rigour of aikido. As I mentioned in my previous post: there’s something about rolling and falling on the floor and getting twisted up like a pretzel that just toughens you up. And there’s the element of touch. It’s good for everything about you that’s human to spend that much time in physical contact with your brothers and sisters. I had a complex itch that only aikido could scratch.

Fast forward to August of this year, when the father of one of my son’s kindergarten mates started raving about how much he loves his aikido class. And then he said, “Actually, the dojo is only about 15 minutes from your apartment.” I went to observe a class, and I was sold. So, now I’ve been back on the mats for two months. I’m hardly even sore after a good workout now.

Two things happened that I never expected.

The first was that I didn’t anticipate the bug biting me again. But it’s bit. Hard. It’s like it was when I was in my twenties and early thirties. I count the days between classes. I watch aikido videos on YouTube. I trade techniques with my fifteen-year-old son who’s been taking aikido at a different school for two years (he knows some cool techniques!). I live to be on the mats.

The second thing is that I can now see aikido through the eyes of a Western magician/mystic, and through the life experiences I have gathered over the last 18 years. And what a difference that makes.

Back in the day, I’d just had my fill of a bunch of scalawag occultists in West Virginia who had been the friends of my teens and college days, including my ex wife and my former best friend. When I went out west to go to graduate school, I didn’t want to have anything to do with magic or occultism any more. Aikido was comfortably far-eastern and divorced from the kitsch and clap-trap of occidental hocus-pocus. It was pure and zen-like. Or so I thought.

Holly, one of my training buddies in California showed up for a belt test one morning and confided in me (sotto voce), “I had a dream last night that O Sensei was teaching me aikido. It was awesome. I feel really confident about my test now.” I smiled and humored her. Back then I thought the whole thing about bowing to a picture of The Great Teacher was a quaint form of far-east Asian ancestor worship. I went along with it out of respect, because I agreed with everyone else that creating this art was an amazing feat. But I was kind of skeptical about the  practice. I was also aware that after O Sensei (his name was Morihei Ueshiba) passed on they referred to him as aiki no kami, or The Great Spirit of Aiki. It was information I knew intellectually, but didn’t dwell on much.

But the first time I stepped back on the mats two months ago and saw the picture of O Sensei at the head of the room, I realized that there was a powerful bit of magic going on here. Every day, in thousands of dojos around the world, students of aikido begin and end class by bowing in reverence to an image of O Sensei. Teachers of a more mystical bent say that aiki no kami is present in the room whenever people are training; that he indwells the very ki we use and circulate around the room when we are practicing. Once, when I interviewed Jack Wada sensei for our dojo newsletter in Sacramento, he said he didn’t plan classes. He just let the ki tell him what to teach that day.

I don’t want to give you the impression that all aikidoists are heavy mystics. The majority aren’t. Some are even materialists who just think it’s a cool martial art. But there are always a few dyed-in-the-wool mystics lurking in every dojo.

So class begins with everyone sitting in seiza in a line facing the teacher. The teacher indicates it is time to collect oneself. Everyone sits silently and lets their mind settle. They become fully present and fully focused on why they are here. My new practice is to imagine a living breathing O Sensei walking on the mats in front of us, laughing, and radiating his light throughout the space. I ask him to abide with us and teach us. We perform the same ritual at the end of class, at which time I again visualize him as a living radiant being among us.

Each time I have done this visualization it has become stronger and more vivid. The aikido egregore is strong and easy to tap into using all the associated symbolism, ceremony and mythology.

The hakama is one such symbol. It is not universal when students are permitted to begin wearing it, but generally in the higher ranks. It has a symbolic and a practical function. Symbolically, as the traditional clothing of the samurai class, it represents the student’s adherence to the highest ideals of warriorship: bravery, loyalty, dedication to truth and beauty, reverence for all life, and integrity in the face of death.

Its practical purpose is to teach the student flowing circular motion. The legs of the trousers balloon out very elegantly when the aikidoka moves correctly.

It’s also a typically complicated piece of traditional Japanese clothing that requires a lot of care and maintenance. It has a lot of pleated folds that have to be arranged just right when it is being put away. After class the black belts gather on the tatami to chat while they attend to this chore. I once heard someone joke that the hakama was a conspiracy to keep black belts in the dojo longer.

Beyond the many pleats to be folded, it also has four long straps that need to be tied into a complicated knot so they don’t become a snarled mess in your athletic bag (or in the chests they were traditionally stored in).

After my first recent training I sheepishly tried to remember the knot I’d learned over two decades ago. After attempting several clumsy-looking variations, I just gave up and stuffed it in my bag.

But one day, after a particularly vivid visualization of O Sensei’s presence, at the point in folding up my hakama when I needed to make the knot with the straps, my hands just started moving by themselves. I wasn’t trying to figure the knot out, my   hands just did it. I looked at the knot (pictured on the left), and my jaw dropped open. Where did this sudden “knowing” come from? Then I realized. I turned toward the open mat and said, “Thank you, O Sensei.”

My new understanding of this phenomenon is that it’s the same as other types of “ally” one might use magically. Who is O Sensei other than the Heroic Dead? The mythology is that he transcended and became a wise tutelary spirit who teaches anyone sincerely training in his art. He sounds a lot like a Japanese St. Cyprian to me.

My scheming sorcerous brain has been picking up some waves associated with this phenomenon.

  • How about making an O Sensei mojo bag to take to the dojo with me? What would it charge from? The energy (ki!) released in the dojo by training, of course.
  • Sigils sewn into the inside of my hakama? After all, O Sensei said, “The art of Peace I practice has room for each of the world’s eight million gods, and I cooperate with them all. The God of Peace is very great and enjoins all that is divine and enlightened in every land.” Keep in mind that the Japanese word “kami” is often translated as “god”, but many times the word “spirit” would be more appropriate.
  • Astral travel to the heavenly dojo to learn higher technique?

The possibilities are endless. But it took eighteen years away from the art, and refining my understanding of magic, to be able to see these things.

But I began this posting with a reference to Saturn returns. Well, when I checked the ephemeris, I saw that in January of 1985, when I began learning aikido, Saturn was somewhere around 24 degrees into Scorpio. When I recently began training in aikido again, Saturn had just returned to Scorpio again (27 years).

Time for me to take this to another level.