The Titan, Atlas is usually depicted as a crouched figure shouldering an enormous sphere. Greek mythology states that this was the punishment given to him by Zeus for leading a failed battle against the Olympian gods for control of the heavens. He was condemned to stand at the far western edge of Gaia and hold up the sky for eternity. For many this image conjurs up the feeling of carrying a heavy burden or attempting a seemingly impossible task. When searching for the topic of this essay, the picture of Atlas popped into my head. This was immediately followed by Sensei’s voice saying “So Tense! Do you feel that?” Inspiration is a funny phenomenon. In any case, it set the gears turning and a whole string of Aikido related concepts flooded my mind. Hanmi, tai sabaki, suburi, ma’ai, de’ai, kokyu, kazushi, ukemi, zanshin…each one a star or constellation spiraling around one another in a gravitational dance to form the globe resting upon Atlas’ shoulders.
In Aikido, as in any art, we spend years acquiring skill, picking up bits and pieces of knowledge and understanding, technique and principles, trying hard to emulate the movements of our teachers. But eventually this effort must take seed so the Art can sprout from within us. The thing is, in order for that seed to take new form, we have to surrender and trust. I have heard it said that Aikido is more subtraction than addition. And to me, this certainly seems to be the case. Because laboring in residence beneath those constellations of acquired knowledge, embodied in the person of Atlas, are a whole lifetime (at least) of acquired habitual patterns, mental, emotional, physical, spiritual. Each one adding its own weight or tension, making it difficult to move unencumbered.
In the last two years since my shodan test, I’ve found that all of the breakthroughs in my practice have come from letting go and listening in the space left open, allowing mind, body and spirit to find new balance, new vitality, trusting that the sky will not fall. According to one version, later on in his life, Atlas constructed a pillar to hold the celestial sphere in his place. I picture the crouched figure slowly letting go his fear and trusting, relaxing and allowing the wisdom of the universe to fill the spaces until eventually he realizes he feels no weight and indeed he never needed to hold up the Heavens.
Brian Keaney 1/2020
Nidan essay, Green River Aikido