Oh My Ma-ai

Ma-ai is a concept that is often described to Aikidoka as meaning “space-time”. It is taught as a beginning concept of ‘safe distance’ typically measured by both practitioners extending their arms from a hanme stance so that they cross somewhere between the wrist and the fingertips. This “space”, if you will, represents the “time” it would take an attacker to reach the defender… the time required to take the step that spans the distance. This “time distance” provides the defender with an interval to react and thus effectively respond.

Such an elegant a formulation because of its economy and simplicity, but the equation E = mc2 (another space-time continuum) also appears simple but is about as conceptually complicated as you can get. And ma-ai has its complications and nuances as well.

First maai is not a fixed single concept. It is neither a fixed space nor a fixed time. For example if two opponents are of different heights or different arm lengths or different leg lengths then the maai is different for each of them in the same instant of encounter. The taller individual or the one with longer arms may not need to take a step in order to touch the opponent and thus is ‘closer’ and the opponent needs a longer distance for effective maai.

Conversely if one of the opponents has exceptionally fast reflexes and is the speedier of the two then the slower combatant needs more distance to maintain safety. But this requirement also brings with it the problem of giving the slower opponent a greater distance to cover when attacking, which in turn, because s/he is the slower of the two, gives the receiver of the attack an even longer time to respond.

These complications of the “space-time continuum” thus lead to another dimension, a dimension of mind (insert “Twilight Zone” music and the narration of Rod Serling… but I’m dating myself! However, it is where I’m going with this though… more later… with a sudden twist at the end.)

There is a maai of consciousness… the steadiness of attention, the constancy of focus, the point of breath at either inhale or exhale.

To gain a better understanding it is helpful to observe that maai is not just one thing but at least three things. The basic description of maai given above is actually a combination of two types of maai and blurs their differences a bit. When one is keeping a distance that allows for some reaction time this distance can be more specifically labeled as “to-ma” or perhaps called “long distance”.

But when one can strike the other only by covering the distance of one step then that distance is more specifically called Issoku ittō-no-maai (Itto-ma or “chuma”, middle distance). With this physical space there is very little time to react and so concentration must be unwavering. At this distance, all other factors being equal, the advantage goes to the opponent with the stronger steadier mind. Indeed it is possible that a stronger steadier mind that can identify and exploit lapses in an opponent’s consciousness may in fact more than compensate for the opponent’s advantages in reach and/or reflex speed.

The third kind of maai in this categorization scheme is “chikama” or short distance. In this situation an opponent has gotten too close, too far inside, in order to allow for any reaction time and there is nothing that can be done to defend oneself. An example of this is an instance in which a man brandishing a knife has gotten within 10 feet of a man with a holstered sidearm. The man with the knife has an overwhelming advantage. In fact in law enforcement training the safe distance here, the maai, is deemed to be a minimum of 21 feet.

In this last category an aware and “intuitive” mind could still have an advantage by moving ahead of the attack or specifically leading it to a pre-determined spot chosen for its defensive advantage. This is one of the meanings of the concept of “leading” an opponent’s mind.

We deal with maai constantly in everyday life. It is as simple as the time elapsed between the knock on the bathroom door and the same hand then turning the knob to open the door. It seems rarely, if ever, does the “knocker” allow for any time for the “current user” to respond before s/he tries the knob. If this occurs on an unlocked door in a public place like an office or garage restroom the “current user” soon discovers that there is an “opening”!

More dangerous is a failure to maintain a safe following distance between cars on a highway. Here severe tragedy can result from chikama, maai that is too close and inappropriate. This situation is exacerbated by texting while driving. Here there is a lapse in consciousness that allows great distances to be breached before there is even an awareness of danger and response and reflex speed remain as factors after initial awareness.

And then there are the more subtle nuances of maai that are manifest in body language and the cultural overtones embedded within non-verbal communication. If you are adventurous, experiment with the invisible boundary that represents the half way point on a shared table. Spread out across that line in a cafeteria or a library… what’s the body language (or possibly the spoken language) of the “sharer”. Or what’s your comfortable speaking distance? How close do you allow a boss or a co-worker? Where’s your line? What’s your maai?

Culturing an awareness of details and allowing for the healthy sensitivity of “relaxed alertness” is the way one can take advantage of “kokoro-no-maai”… a lapse of spirit, a wandering of the mind which leaves a momentary “tsuki” or opening. Such moments are said to exist at certain points in the breath cycle such as just before an exhale is completed. One would unleash a most successful attack if coupled with a “ki-ai”, a spirit yell, an exhalation at the moment of the strike. The same would be true at the moment of response. However if one has not quite finished an exhale then this has to be completed, followed by an inhale before there can be a powerful exhale again. Thus there is an “opening” at that specific point of the breathing rhythm.

But none of this has anything to do with my point! Or maybe it has everything to do with it.

This all started while I was listening to a discussion on my car radio as I drove to work in congested morning traffic with an aggressive driver tailgating me as she did her lipstick in her rear view mirror. One of the contributors speaking on the radio used the phrase “the problem with the world today”… when it occurred to me that this was a confluence of issues in space and time that could be eliminated with an awareness of maai.

Technology has become a virulent attacker to the act of living in a relaxed manner in the here and now. Multi-tasking and web surfing and television with “57 channels and nothin’ on” and a 24 hour hyped news cycle, and tweets and postings and a virtual community that frantically devours bits of minutia like piranha in a feeding frenzy leaves no time or space for solitude… just a zombie crowd engulfed in a steady numbing drone.

The dialogue on my car radio had lost its sense of real context and seduces the listener to journey to conceptual abstractions. The “world” is the space we live in… that is immediately around us. I cannot describe the world solely as this commute. The discussion of the “world” was a provincial look at a microcosm and reduction of urban America. It certainly was not the universe. It was not the world of medieval burgermeisters, or the Omo tribe in Sudan, or for that matter of a farmer in the Midwest USA.

And “today” is just that… a “moment” that is “here”. It is not eternity… it is not “all of the time”. And yet “now” is all we have… and it is only “here” and it never goes away so it is “eternity”. A Roman gladiator only had “now”, a mugging victim only has “now”, a runaway slave only had, or because it still exists somewhere on the planet and probably in more than one place, they only have “nows”.

Sure we have memories and we have goals and plans but these too are abstracts. They change according to the now. The humiliating moment last summer when a co-worker accidently walked into the bathroom you were using becomes the funniest story at the office Christmas party. The righteous argument you had in college with the dorky disheveled and disorganized weird kid because of how much space he was taking and the noise he was making in the library becomes patty and sickening when you found out he jumped off a bridge later that day. The happy goal of buying that house suddenly becomes a burden when you’ve be laid off and your home mortgage is under water. And the lay off becomes the best thing that ever happened to your career because it created the opportunity where you stumbled into your dream job.

Practice Aikido to develop penetrating awareness… to find your place in space and time… to guard your maai… and to see the openings… to stay in the now… in big things and little things… like maybe I shouldn’t be texting this while I’m driving!

Robert A. Whelan

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