Evolution of Response

by Miles Kessler (integral aikido)

miles kessler
The Evolution of Response
When we look at aikido put into an integral context, one of the perspectives we need to take is that of levels of consciousness. Admittedly, speaking about levels is a tough sell as it ranks into higher and lower which seems to go against Aikido's philosophy of harmony and oneness. However, I am convinced that opening up to this perspective gives us a valuable orientation that helps raise above and transform our lower tendencies, and then develop and actualize our higher potentials in the art.

Most people will accept the theory of evolution, that everything from organisms, to societies, to technologies, to organizations evolve. But when we apply evolution at the level of consciousness, that  there are higher perspectives and lower perspectives,  there are those who have a harder time accepting this.

The following is an attempt to look at this evolutionary trajectory  as applied to  our aikido practice. Specifically, I want to look at our  primary  field of  practice in aikido,  conflict and stress. And how we choose to respond.

To do this I will use a scale with 7 levels of response to stressful situations (these roughly correspond to the 7 chakras). These levels are loosely based on a teaching by Deepak Chopra in a workshop of his I attended. As he laid out the 7 levels I was struck at how accurately they corresponded to the development I see both in myself and in working with aikido students. In places I have elaborated on the original teaching to more accurately reflect what I see in aikido. I also added the "low-road/ high-road" distinctions to create a clear differentiation of what is "path" and "not path" in aikido. However, I must admit that this is still a work in progress for me and that a working understanding of the higher levels 6 and 7 is still evolving. So, here they are:

The 7 levels of response:

  • The Flight/ flight response
  • The Emotional reaction
  • Centered Awareness response
  • The Intuitive response
  • The Creative response
  • The Higher Guidance response
  • The Divine response

The Low Road - The first two levels of response are called the "low road" because they reflect our lower tendencies require no discipline on our part. We are all quite developed at these levels and they arise automatically in the face of conflict and stress. When we take the low road in responding to stress there is no transformation, nor resolution of conflict.

1. The Flight/ flight response

At this level of consciousness when faced with a stressful situation it is perceived as a danger and a threat to ones very survival. All responses are driven by the need to survive and the options to respond are very basic and limited. At this level of all responses are driven by FEAR. This is our basic survival “operating system” of which we are all hardwired. The world view is about survival, the values are win or lose, live or die. When we become stressed by something, we either fight it, or we run from it.

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Survive or die

What is aikido like at this level? Well, it's not really like aikido. There is no room for awareness of self, or other, and no room for harmony. Fear is the primary and effective motivator here. Simply survive, or die. Admittedly, aikido techniques can be applied at this level but almost certainly they will be void of any aikido principles.

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2. The Emotional reaction

Having developed the ability to overcome (or, more accurately, suppress) fear and control physically acting out of the fight/ flight response, one evolves to the level of emotional manipulation in response to stressful situations. In other words, using our emotions to get our way. At this level of consciousness we are identified with our emotions and we enter into an emotional drama as a response to survive. Four generalizations of the emotional drama are:

  • Nasty, or angry
  • Nice, or falsly cheerful
  • Stubborn, or indifferent
  • Playing the victim, or poor me
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Whether active or passive in response to stressful situations, the emotional drama is the operating system at this level.  Here the fight/ flight response is no longer socially acceptable and the emotional dramas become the reference in personal, professional and social relationships. They are very effective in getting our way in conflict.
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The truth is that more often than not, these emotional responses to stress and conflict become our primary operating system against stress. When these tendencies sneek into our aikido training they set an emotional context that is highly manipulitive, inauthentic, and fragmented. The combination of aikido's techniques with the emotional dramas makes the context of the tranining very personal and the affect is often toxic.
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These first two levels of responses are centered in the reptilian brain (300 million years old) and are deeply conditioned within our biological make up. We are hard wired to fear and go into emotional dramas. It should be self-evident here that these first two levels of response are not designed to resolve conflict, nor are they transformational. Rather, they are designed to protect, defend, control, manipulate and maintain the status quo. They are lower functions within us all that are pre-operational and pre-aikido ways of dealing with stress and conflict.

When these level of response are activited in our training, then aikido as a "high level discpline" gets reduced to low level, pre-aikido, low road tendencies.

How do we evolve?

Fear must be overcome. Emotions must be mastered. This is not by denying nor suppressing these tendencies, as they are us. Denial and suppression will only fragment parts of ourselves and push these tendencies into our shadow (only to come back and bite us in the ass when we’re not looking). To transform these tendencies they must be accepted, worked through, and integrated into our sense of self. To transcend these tendencies there has to be awareness and there has to be choice. This is the first step on the path of the “high road”, of aikido, or any awareness based discipline.

It begins with choice.

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Do you dare?

The High Road - The Choice Maker

The following levels of response are called the “high road” responses because they are the way that lead to higher responses and transformation of stress and conflict. By consciously choosing to go beyond our basic, yet lower, nature we actively step onto the “high road”. This is the “do” (path) that all must walk in aiki-do. And it begins with waking up.

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3. Centered Awareness response

This is the beginning of our path, and aikido practice begins with awareness training. It begins with ourselves. When we step on a "path", any "path", we are walking the path towards ourself.

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What are characteristics of the “centered awareness response”?
  • When stress arises you have the ability to stay centered in yourself.
  • The flight/ flight may arise as a knee jerk reaction but does not overwhelm the centered awareness.
  • The emotional response arises but you have the ability to stay centered in your awareness.
  • The “capacity” of our awareness is greater than, and inclusive of our “low road” tendencies.
  • Fear is significantly reduced

Ways of developing Centered Awareness:
  • Establish a daily meditation.
  • Create in your life a controlled and quite environment, a “home base” of centered awareness. Ex.: the dojo, the yoga studio, quite time for contemplation and retrospection, communing with nature.
  • Feel the body, feel the breath (especially when stress arises).
  • Be aware of getting pulled into our “low road” tendencies.
  • Be like a “mirror”, choicelessly reflecting on all that is arising.

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When established in centered awareness our aikido takes on an impersonal quality. The identity shifts away from self and into awareness itself. Only to the extent that we can be aware of ourselves can we connect with another. All the higher stages on the path begin with ourself.

Zanshin (sustained awarness),  shisei (posture),  chushin (center),  balance and relaxation are some principles  developed at this level.

4. The Intuitive response

This is the beginning of our connection practice, the beginning of “awase” (harmony) in aikido. Being established in centered awareness one can then begin to connect with the other. Knowing oneself, one can then begin to know the other.


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Ways the intuitive response manifests:

  • Not only am I centered in the body but I actually know what is going on.
  • The ability to know what the other is observing, feeling and needing.
  • Not only is one aware, but also aware of the context in which the situation arises.
  • Intuition is a form of intelligence. Not a rational intelligence, but rather contextual, holistic and relational. It does not have the win/lose orientation, nor does it rely on cause/ effect explanation.
  • One has the ability to both "be" and "be with". One is both deeply present and deeply connected.
  • Responses arise appropriately as a reflection of the others actions.
  • Fearlessly connecting with other.

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How to access:

  • Create a grounded centered awareness.
  • Connect with other. Physically and non-physically, relationally, emotionally, energetically, contextually, and so on.
  • Fearless eye contact.
  • Scan and sense the needs of others and, or the environment.
  • Go beyond the content by sensing what is going on in the context.
  • When the intuitive solution arises, act.

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In aikido when we relate to other from this level it is impersonal, honest and direct. In our training there is a cooperation and an understanding of where to meet in ability. The "awase" becomes more refined at this level and it manifests in smooth and functional techniques. This is the beginning of our "jiyu-waza" training. We begin to develop a spontaneous fluency of the body of techniques, and there is a clear and inclusive application of the principles of the aikido relationship.

Ki musubi (energetic connection), awase (blending), maai (combative distance), and metsuki (visual contact) are some principles to establish at this level.

5. The Creative response

At the level of the creative response “systems intelligence” comes into consciousness. One has the ability to take multiple perspectives and increasingly see complexity. Responses at this level are radically impersonal and are informed by the "intelligence of the system".

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Multiple perspectives

Ways to develop the creative response:

  • It is necessary to have a vision for a desired outcome.
  • Open to all perspectives as channels of information.
  • Increase the ability to drop into no-mind, or Being.
  • Holding the vision intuitively tap into the context.
  • Embrace uncertainty. Accept that you don’t know what the outcome will be, or when it will come.
  • Trust in the process and let go of the need to control.
  • Make yourself available for insight to arise out of the context.
  • When the creative response arises put it into practice immediately.
  • Recognize we a are part of a larger system in stress. We are an integral part of the stress allows us to become an integral part of the solution.

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Multiple solutions
At this level in aikido one is highly integrated in mind/ body, and form/ priciple. Being grounded in self/ other awareness and having reached technical profeciency, the principles of aikido have come more fully on-line. Conflict is understood as the "system in stress" and solutions unfold as a process that is informed by the intellegence of the system. Knowing that we are a part of a larger system gives us the ability to align with its intellegence and gain the information necessary to bring balance to the system.

At this level of development on is established in "muga, mushin" (no self, no mind). The principle of "takemusu aiki" awakens and one's aikido becomes a spontaneous and creative expression of harmony in relationship.

6) The higher guidance response (Sages and Seers)

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  • This is the ability to tap into the “archetypal energies”
  • When the archetypal energies come on-line synchronicity orchestrates through you.
  • The visionary leader
  • The archetypal/ mythical leader
  • Absence of selfish motivation
  • Represents the highest aspirations of the collective consciousness

When operating at the 6th level:
  • One understands non-locality (emptiness).
  • One understands the role of critical mass of consciousness.

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Emptiness is form, form is emptiness

Seers and sages understand this at a deep level.

7) The Divine response


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  • The internal reference point is universal
  • Transformation of the personal self into the universal Self
  • "uchu soku ware, ware soku uchu" / "I am the universe, the universe is I" - O Sensei
  • Ability to see the universal in the particular, and the particular in the universal
  • Being-in-Love

*Without practice 99% of the time people will follow the first 2 types of responses. 1% of the time they will have the capacity to be grounded in the higher responses. To evolve, we must practice.