Who We Are
Aikido, Mindfulness, and Counseling
By Gerald T. Seifert
Eight years ago, I wrote of the connection I saw between Aikido and consultation (Seifert, 2003). I compared the physical blending on the mat to blending verbally with others in consultation. The Aikido philosophy for handling conflict is not responding back directly, but deflecting the energy of the attack and then redirecting it in a more desired way. This basic, subtle technique is very applicable to consultation and conflict resolution. Is there a connection, I wondered, that I can make between my personal Aikido practice and counseling?
At the center of my mindfulness training in Aikido is the practice of relaxing, focusing my attention outward, and sensing the energy of my partner, which allows me to realize the direction of the energy and what to do about it. “Keep your connection, move smoothly,” is a constant correction from my instructors. On the mat, I'm getting better at this: I can keep close to the other person and the center of the action, relaxing, and moving smoothly. In counseling, I also try to stay close and not push anyone away by being too abrupt, distracted, or closed off.
I once read Aikido described as body surfing—real body surfing: You connect physically with the person and ride them down to the mat. Counseling is emotional surfing. You connect with the emotions of your student, and then by staying at the center of the emotional energy, you try to redirect slowly, smoothly, and calmly as the student hangs on. I can feel in counseling when this connection happens and the importance of staying focused and relaxed as I smoothly redirect the energy of my counselees.
Aikido has emptied me of my self and opened me to my partner. To be able to sense how a child is doing, you have to quiet yourself enough to sense what is going on both in yourself and him. Again, this is something that I've learned physically in the study of Aikido.
Aikido makes you look at your impatience, your arrogance, your meanness, cruelty, clumsiness, cowardice—all those qualities in yourself that you may need to look at. It will show you bravery and compassion, love, joy, and sweetness, and it will show you those qualities in other people. (Dobson, 1993, p. 16)
In Aikido and in counseling, beginners are too filled with themselves, too full of thoughts and worries to sense where the other is. An example on the mat is when you grab another's wrist; you usually feel some tension, more so in beginners, as they focus on their wrist. Beginning Aikidoists get stuck when an attacker grabs them. It seems to the beginner that his whole body is captured when in fact it is only a small part. When you grab the wrist of an experienced practitioner you feel no tension; he is totally relaxed. He is not captured by you; rather, he is in control. When an attacker grabs your wrist it is only your wrist that he has and in fact this is a good thing: He has committed to an action that is not very effective to a trained martial artist. You know where his energy and attention are; you can then open and expand your own focus and do what you want.
Children who come into counseling with a pressing problem usually do extend their energy outward and grab on. I follow their lead reflecting back, giving advice, and changing the direction as we go. Kids who are being bullied, have problems with a teacher, are anxious about tests, or have home problems may come in with their energy extended, and then it is easy to meet them, blend with the energy, and redirect, all without loosing connection because there is something to work with. Kids with such obvious external problems have been thrown off balance. I can sense it physically in how they walk, sit, and hold themselves. I try to help them regain that balance. I worked with a sixth-grade boy who had difficulties relating to his peers. Over the year that I saw him, I tried to connect, to prop him up when he needed it, and to steady him so he could meet his classmates in a position of balance. I was interested in him and found him engaging and accessible. His progress was as noticeable physically as it was emotionally. He found his center and balance.
Many children, however, come to counseling with their energy focused inward. Their anxiety or anger has been turned in on themselves. These I approach very differently and more slowly as I try to make an initial connection and then not loose that connection. I worked for a short time with a girl who was depressed, and after some disturbing comments about her wanting to hurt herself, I pushed too hard for her to explain her thinking. She pulled away, and I had not made enough of a connection with her to be able to repair the break. I was not skillful enough to maintain my connection and steer her successfully to a point where I could understand the direction, force, and possible destructiveness of her energy. Most times I go slowly; this time my movement was both too swift and too erratic. I lost the connection and could not get it back. In counseling, sometimes I still get stuck when certain things happen. I lose perspective and mindfulness; my focus blurs, I tense, overreact, and go the wrong way. We can all get stuck when someone has our wrist actually or metaphorically. “Relationships are very, very fragile. The whole thing seems solid, feels solid, is solid. But it can all end in an instant. The more you understand this, the greater delicacy with which you will treat one another and yourself.” (Dobson, 1993, p. 47)
Emotions are contagious, and in counseling students can sense ours. “Psychotherapeutic presence refers to more than being in the physical company of another person. It refers to a felt sense of being with another, of mindfulness-in-connection” (Germer, Siegel, & Fulton, 2005, p. 199). Once, when counseling a young man in his twenties in my private practice, I became concerned while he was telling me about a problem and some questionable behavior he was engaging in. My attention turned inward, but I did not say anything. He calmly looked at me and said, “You don't have to worry; I'll be OK.” We had gotten to the point where not only was I sensitive to his emotions, but he was also connected to my reactions, even nonverbal ones.
When I first started in Aikido, a black belt told me, “Your safety is more important to me than improving my technique,” as he gently threw me. He was mindful of me and focused on my needs. I keep that long ago moment in mind as I am mindful of the needs and safety of those I counsel.
I think there are many activities outside of school psychology practice that make us come back in and look at things anew, that help keep mindlessness out, and that encourage you to look at each child as unique.
Dobson, T. (1993). It's a lot like dancing: An Aikido journey. Berkley, CA: Frog, Ltd.
Germer, C. K., Siegel, R. D., & Fulton, P. R. (Eds.). (2005). Mindfulness and psychotherapy. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Langer, E. J. (2005). On becoming an artist. New York, NY: Ballantine.
Seifert, G. T. (2003). Aikido and consultation: Blend with the uke. Communiqué, 31(7), 44.
Gerard T. Seifert, EdD, NCSP, is a retired school psychologist and presently a senior lecturer in psychology at St. Joseph's College in Patchogue, New York. He has a private counseling practice as a licensed mental health counselor and has been practicing Aikido, a Japanese martial art, for 10 years.