Ukemi and Ceremonial Initiation

Written 2013

Ukemi is the art of receiving. It is the means by which we make ourselves available so that another can learn their own art of movement. Initiation likewise, creates a canvas upon which the initiate can see and grave his own story.

Martial Uke and Nage


Some time ago, when I was in my first Aikido class, a young instructor introduced me to the roles of “Uke” and “Nage” as the “Attacker” and the “Thrower”. I had only know the term “Uke” as the receptive partner in a gay relationship, and found this apparently contradictory definition troubling. (and more than a little humorous) On asking the Sensi, I was told that Uke means the person who “receives the technique” which is much more in line with my previous understanding.


Since then, I have learned of the existence and importance of the art of “Ukemi” or, being a good Uke in Aikido. A truly good Uke has two responsibilities:


Firstly, they must set the stage for the Nage to work. They must attack, so that the Nage can defend. In Aikido, you will often hear the terms “sincere” or “honest” associated with good ukemi. The attack must walk the line between being real enough that the training has value, and being gentle enough that the Nage can deal with it. Were the Uke to just beat the Nage up, it would be useless. Likewise, were the Uke to throw a technique so unrealistic that the training does not apply to real world situations, they are doing nothing more than deluding the Nage. The best Uke’s walk this line, performing the attack always with proper form, but varying the speed, power and intensity to meet the nage’s need; slowly and gently as the technique is being learned, and then more realistically as training progresses.


Secondly, once the stage is set, the Uke becomes the Nage’s canvas. The Nage, being confronted with this attack, must respond. The Uke must be good enough at falling and rolling that the Nage can act without fear of hurting the Uke, and be free to carry out his technique to the best of his ability. A great Uke here is not only able to preserve himself, but is also able to provide resistance anywhere a real opponent might, without risk to himself or his Nage. He provides the perfect level of antagonism, while never interfering with the technique. In short, in this second stage, the perfect Uke is transparent, a perfectly clear canvas on which the Nage’s technique can be painted.


What then are the attributes of a good Uke? The Uke must, firstly, know the attacks he is supposed to execute, and be able to execute them in an honest fashion. He must be able to understand the Nage, and perceive what speed, power, and “intensity” of attack is appropriate. He must have control and power, in perfect harmony, to deliver the attack just so. Once the attack is delivered, he must understand both himself and the technique the Nage is attempting, knowing when it is appropriate to resist, and when it is necessary and appropriate to go with the technique. Finally, he must be flexible and innovative enough to deal properly when something unexpected happens. These elements, in combination, make the perfect Uke, which, arguably, is also the perfect teacher, if we presume that the role of the teacher is not just to rattle off lists of facts to a student to memorize, but rather to engage them and get them working.


While the Uke apparently takes a very active role, it is still the Nage who is performing the technique. “All” the Uke does is set the stage, and be there for reflection, as a tool for the Nage to understand the workings of the technique, and of himself. It can be argued, and is by a number of Aikidoka, that the real battle is not between the Uke and Nage, but rather inside the Nage himself (“Masakatsu Agatsu” translates roughly to “true victory is self victory”)


This brings us to ceremonial initiation.


What is initiation? Etymologically, to initiate is to begin. Practically, to initiate is to break through the old shell, and to start a new phase of your life, having experienced a period of drastic and immediate growth, where you gain a new understanding of the world, and a new way of dealing with it. Taking a cue from Harner’s “The Way of the Shaman” I split initiation into “natural” and “ceremonial” initiations. The “natural” initiations are crisis which come up outside of a controlled environment. For many cultures, natural shamanic initiation includes illnesses which almost kill the individual. If I were to break them up more in line with our more linear, western traditions, I might include things like birth, first time climbing big mountains, dealing with the ocean when she wants to be testy, races, fights, and other tests of human Will.


These secondary natural initiations I’ve listed are often situations we put ourselves into. We have time to prepare, to seek out as much knowledge as possible, and to train. We must do these things, because one has no guarantee of survival. Also, as the real secrets being transmitted are both unknown and even when others have experienced something similar, the secrets are still incommunicable, there is no risk of “blowing” the initiation. There are downside to this type of initiation. Firstly, there is often a very real chance of death. Secondly, it is, by its nature uncontrolled, and the chances of successfully “initiating” can be very low.


So having covered “natural” initiation, what is ceremonial initiation? Lets go back to martial arts for a second. In a real fight, your risk of death is high, and your chance of some “fight club” like epiphany, outside of movies, is amazingly low. So in the training hall, we simulate real fights. We attempt to create a situation which approaches the real, while still providing a modicum of safety and a chance to learn. Further, in the training hall, you can find a number of people who are actively seeking to learn about fighting, not just to kill people, which is the use of fighting in the external world, but for this type of initiatory experience. They are looking to grow. I believe this is quite analogous to ceremonial initiations. We seek to provide the system shock, the chance to make that “life or death” decision, and to learn and grow through experience, not merely through second hand learning. Still, the situation is by its nature contrived in either case. The fighters are working With and not against each other, and each seeks the growth of those around them, so that their own training can progress.


I’d like to look at the roles people play in these situations.


Who is the initiating? Earlier I said to a friend, “I believe that the effect of an initiation depends on who is initiating.” I was, fortunately, not as clear as I should have been. They thought that by “who is initiating”, I meant the facilitator, who we often refer to as an “initiator”, which makes perfect sense, but brought up an interesting conflict. What I meant was the candidate, as to my mind, they are the one who is actually “initiating”. The one “doing the work” is not the initiator, who already knows the formula, but the candidate himself, as he is the one who is actually starting a new phase, and hence “initiating”. Everyone else is there to create a situation in which the candidate may initiate. The work, however, is his own.


Our Uke from above, is the one who initiates the attack. They set the stage, but it is the Nage who performs the technique. The Uke is not there to do a bunch of falling so that the Nage “feels empowered”, they are there to provide a sincere crisis for the Nage. Socrates did not transmit, he received. He taught by creating a crisis, and then allowing the “Student” to deal with it.


When initiating someone, are we leading them and showing them a drama, or are we setting a stage where they can reach a crisis point, and make their own dynamic and important decisions? The answer to this question will, more often than not, depend on our skill in Ukemi.


If we are unable to provide an honest attack, they will have no reason to respond. If we are unable to deal with their initial reaction, they will be unable to complete the formula of the “technique” or specific initiation.


Ideally, we must be free from concern over how they will respond, knowing that we can deal with any response gracefully, and come back to the essence of the moment. Ideally, we must know the initiation inside and out, not just the framework, but the underlying principles involved, such that whatever their action, we can react sincerely and with honesty. Ideally, we must be capable, and trust in ourselves to deal with the inherently dynamic environment of initiation.


While I’m enjoying this study greatly, it’s not perfect. There are places where the analogy begins to fall apart.


In Aikido, the Nage is expected to know the technique. This can not be so in initiation, yet we can prepare the candidate, and feed them on a symbolic diet which prepares them for the initiation.


In Aikido, the Nage is responsible for the Uke’s well-being. In an initiation, the initiator bears the whole of the responsibility, and as such can not necessary trust that the initiate will behave, yet still there are some safeguards, and by ensuring that those who sponsor initiates understand the weight of their decision, we can trust that the candidate will not approach the situation lightly, and will come with more than a modicum of respect and deference for the situation.


In Aikido, a technique will be repeated endlessly, starting slowly, but with the Nage and Uke working together to approach a full speed, full power, full “intensity” approach to the technique. An initiation only happens once, and must be “batteries in” the first time around. This is, I believe, the largest flaw in the analogy, as the trust built up through constant practice is just not available on the first initiation. Still, as a group, one hopes that each initiate will progress through the degrees, and that the candidate can come to trust in the ability and intent of his initiators, whoever they be, and that the initiators can expect that those of certain degrees are committed to the material, or would not chose to advance further.


While I have tried to present some caveats to each exception, it’s still not a perfect analogy. Still, despite these, and other differences, I think the analogy is worth examining.


Here I had initially started trying to list similarities and “lessons learned”, and went on at some length, but I think the individual points are all apparent once an understanding of Ukemi is approached. In the end, I think the big take-away for me is to remember the analogy, and the next time I take an initiation, to take it boldly, remembering that I am the Nage here, and that while my initiators are willing to work with me, and to help me, they are there to help me with my own internal realizations, and to allow me to learn and understand the formula of the initiation. It is on me to initiate. Likewise, when I am privileged to help facilitate an initiation, I will bear in mind that it is not my job to initiate someone, merely to present them with a situation, and to be there for a canvas on which they can see their own initiatic experience.


Thank you.



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