The Evolution of Aikido – Aikido and Spiral Dynamics

This article explores the past and future evolution of aikido and will explain why arguments about aikido go around in circles.

It uses a system called Spiral Dynamics, developed by Don Beck and popularised by philosopher Ken Wilber. I was introduced to Spiral Dynamics by aikido teacher Miles Kesslerof Tel Aviv, whose piece on “is aikido a martial art” as answered by different levels of development, was my inspiration.

First some basic theory: As people grow up they develop through distinct stages. For example, a child of a certain age will not be able to see something from another’s point of view, while an older child will. Morality grows through a pattern from egocentric (me) to ethnocentric (my group) to worldcentric (everyone). Both experience and research show that while there are individual, cultural and gender differences, change never-the-less follows consistent patterns (see Piaget and Kohlberg for two classic examples). Just as children grow up acting in different ways as they learn new things, so do adults, and development needn’t stop at voting age – though sadly it often stops well before. The stages people and cultures go through are given coloured labels by Spiral Dynamics which is a simple map of a very complex territory. People can do different things on different levels and move up and down levels temporarily, though they will tend to centre on one. Levels include and advance from previous stages but also bring fresh problems.

I have been fortunate enough to travel widely in the aikido world and have seen patterns that I’d like to share based on this model. Let’s start with the development of aikido itself. The oriental martial arts originally came out of a shift from a level labelled red to one called blue (the colours are just convenient tags). The characteristics of red is that it is concerned with power and dominance, is egotistic, selfish and driven by getting what it wants – others’ concerns are irrelevant. Some aikidoka are still operating right down there on a scary unhealthy red level, and in a way the healthy red level is sill the basis of martial arts – which are fundamentally concerned with power over life and death after all.

The next step up is blue, characterised by conformity, hierarchy and orthodox truth. Samurai culture is a classic example of blue structure and Japanese martial arts in general express this conservative way of life. There is no questioning of authority, boundaries are clear, discipline and etiquette the order of the day and change is bad. Unhealthy blue fundamentalism shows up in all styles – though in some more than others – if your style claims to be “traditional” or the one true way it is probably centred at this level. “My Sensei is better than yours” is an all too common argument that will go nowhere as long as both participants are operating from blue. This being said I don’t want to be too hard on blue as it provides necessary order to learn and the safety to study red concerns. Perhaps one of the great appeals of aikido is its offer of a reassuring dojo environment where the individual can replace their own thoughts with that of the group/art, and examine the primal issues of survival and dominance in a controlled way.

The evolution of blue is orange. This level really started to blossom in aikido when it was exported to the West – which values orange principals of rationality, meritocracy, and individual achievement. Orange level Senseis tend to be concerned with what works above what is traditional and explain the reasons techniques are effective. Discussions about aikido are starting to be formed in orange terms online, though can sink rather rapidly! Examining what actually is aikido history through research and which techniques “really” work, irrespective of blue orthodoxy, are orange concerns.

After orange rationality evolves the green level. In some ways the essence of aikido as a practice, green is just emerging in the aikido world politically and is characterised by support for diversity, sensitivity and empathy. Green listens and appreciates different way of doing things and can been seen emerging at some of the cross style seminars held in recent years, that did not exist in the past. Green is anti-discriminatory and supports gender, race and sexuality equality – often much need as the aikido world is largely blue still and therefore deeply prejudiced. Where green gets stuck is in stating everything is equally valid (even when some stuff is ineffective, ugly, or cruel) and in denying the developmental process that created it. As one green dojo teacher said to me, “We joke students should train with traditional (blue) schools for the first five years, then come here, that way they get a good foundation.”

Aikidoka can embody any of these stages fully and there is great variety in the aikido world – so much so that despite having a common name, many of us would object to all “aikido” being lumped together by the uninitiated as different people and groups are doing such different things. Aikido Evolves.

Perhaps this is the time to be absolutely clear about the potentially controversial central point of this article – some ways of practicing aikido are more developed than others. Better martially, better for health, for personal development and even aesthetically. By “more developed” I don’t mean the people doing them are necessarily morally better – but that the practice has moved upwards and onwards from previous forms – much as O-Sensei himself developed aikido as he learnt. There is an evolution to aikido.

The next question might then be are some styles of aikido better than others? Yes and no. On the one hand there is a definite growth out of stupidity and brutality, into open mindedness and sensitivity explained by the theory and expressed stylistically. As thinking develops up through the stages, there is technical and ethical growth – normally a softening and an emphasis on non-violence. On the other hand softer styles which may have evolved from higher level thinking and practice often have a lower level structure supporting them, and individual teachers may have developed well beyond the culture of their style. If you want to know where on the scale your own dojo may lie, ask yourself what is its central concern? Is it dominance (red), correctness (blue), efficiency and practicality (orange) or sensitivity and personal development (green)?

Confusingly, there is also a tendency to confuse the lowest and higher levels which often look and sometimes act similar. This “pre/post conventional fallacy” means that where there is green there is often a fat dollop of red (mean smelly hippies, lacking basic blue standards) and purple, the animistic magical level even lower than red that tends to believe any new-age nonsense. Genuinely healthy transcendental levels above green can also look like regressions as mystical spirituality re-emerges. Esoteric Shinto activity in aikido for example could be either primitive or advanced, depending on how it’s understood and practiced.

My next point is that the people within aikido often develop through the levels themselves in their practice and as people. They might come in because they want to defend themselves or feel powerful (red), get self discipline from solid orthodox kihon training (blue), then examine the techniques rationally (orange) before coming to appreciate different styles and expressing themselves creatively through the art (green). Crucial here, as my friend in the green dojo alluded to, is that you can’t skip stages – which is why every great teacher has gone though a “hard” or “killer” phase.
Note that development can be both technical and personal. Red level kids (and that’s all children of a certain age) can really benefit from growing into blue discipline for example and very rational orange Aikidoka can rediscover a sensitive or spiritual side through the art. People may return to stages in martial arts they have passed through in life – as a wild green university student I benefited from returning to blue to reinforce a foundation of order and discipline for example.

Note that each level when fully realised includes and transcends the one before it, becoming more effective. In this way while brutal red level aikido can seem the most “martial” to the outside observer, in fact it is the least martial as is not informed by lineage (blue), rationally (orange) or sensitively (green). One of my teachers once said about taking ukemi for Yamaguchi Sensei:

“Yamaguchi one could consider an abstract style, you were never sure which technique he wanted you to do, as he’d adjust the technique according to the feeling he got from his uke…But because his movement and contact was so good he was extremely martial. If you took ukemi for him you couldn’t stand up really. He was never in front of you and you were never on balance.”

To me this is a description of truly developed aikido that I’m a LONG way from embodying! Understanding spiral dynamics may help one understand the journey, and know when to move on, but it doesn’t remove the leg-work! Disclaimer over.

So where are these levels leading? Well, after the green level is yellow – the first integral and “second tier” level, meaning it can take into account both the process of evolution and the strengths of all the different levels. Before this, levels try to destroy those not like it them, hence the online rows and organisational splits. I predict that this article won’t win me many friends as blue level folks will be criticise it as non-traditional and be asking with contempt who I trained with and what grade I am. Critical questions from that perspective. Orange aikidoka will be looking at the logic and asking for evidence and references. Again crucial from that angle. Green folks will most likely be questioning the idea of levels which will offend their idea of equality where we’re all unique wonderful snowflakes and Saddam Hussein is just misunderstood.

My argument to blue is O’Sensei himself was a radical who helped his art evolve so let’s follow that tradition. I’d ask orange to examine my logic and read up on Spiral Dynamics and for green to consider that hierarchy need not be prejudicial or repressive. In a way I don’t expect any of those levels below green to be able to listen (if you’ve read this far you’ve likely got a dash of green at least), as this would require too big a shift. That’s not to say that my argument is necessarily right, only that for us to have a discussion about it we need to speak the same language.

So what about the future of aikido? Can we imagine an aikido world which encourages the growth of individuals through these stages? Perhaps in some way it already partially exists. Attempts to start with solid basic practice and move on up are very much in line with this model. Where most organisations diverge is by stopping at some point they consider to be the top and stifling further development. Also while it is helpful for beginners to focus on basics they will also benefit from experiencing higher levels and I suspect that asking people to wait ten years before they do freestyle or flowing practice is more of an indoctrination period than a foundation. The other common error is to imagine people can “jump-in” at the top, with intermediate stages being skipped. The exception to this may be people who have already developed in cruder arts and come to aikido as a sophisticated “next step”.

If a genuinely “spiral friendly” structure can’t be found then what I see happening in the majority of cases will continue – groups getting stuck in their favourite ruts and going nowhere fast. This means that anyone developing through the stages will need to move dojos, organisations or to other arts (ju-jitsu at orange or Systema at green for example). However I’m not overly despondent as the nature of this evolution is that it is only ever a minority on the growth edge and I’ve seen significant progress in the aikido world in the last few years. Evolution is inevitable and the availability of information online and opportunities to train with different groups that now exists means that it’s gaining momentum. The dinosaurs will not become extinct as they’re part of the process, though they will get less common and the spiral will move on regardless of their complaints. The challenge is how to incorporate or differentiate the many activities that come under the banner of aikido, each expressing different stages of the growth process.

So what’s my conclusion? Know where you come from, know where you’re going, know where you are perhaps. Love the red meat-heads, blue bores and the green fluffsters equally – they’re all part of the process. In conclusion…there isn’t one, it’s an upwards spiral.