(The following essay was submitted as part of my sandan exam)
Looking at this world
Only a coward complains of what he sees
As for me
Let me stand courageously
In the face of God’s rage.
— Morihei Ueishiba
In most Aikido glossaries, metsuke is described as ‘soft gaze’ or an ‘open gaze’ or ‘mountain eyes.’ In those glossaries, the idea is of a gaze that is the same as looking out towards mountains that are very far away. The idea of such a gaze is shared by a number of martial traditions and is listed as one of the basic principles of the Daito-Ryu Jiujitsu out of which Moreihi Ueshiba developed the Aikido. The essential martial principle is that if my gaze is focused one any one thing, then I may miss important details where I’m not looking. By focusing on nothing, I make it possible for me to see everything.
An everyday example of metsuke comes when driving. When driving, I do not allow any specific thing to capture our gaze. This would be dangerous. When I look at something, I instinctively drive towards it. Instead, I look at everything around me, prepared that something unexpected may happen: prepared to respond to anything that does. In Aikido, similarly, “if you look at the punching arm, it will hit you” and “keep your gaze where you can see all your partners weapons — his arms and his legs — simultaneously.” I avoid focusing on any one thing because my gaze will drag me in the wrong direction. I want to see everything because in this way I can be prepared for the unexpected.
The idea of “see everything, focus on nothing” is an example of the larger Aikido principle of the connection of two extremes. You can see this principle at work behind many common Aikido ideas. There is obviously the Aikido technique of tenshi nage. There is the paired principles of centered and zanshin. I am fully in my own center, but also extended away towards the infinite. Aikido encourages us to resolve these extremes not by balancing between them but by encompassing them simultaneously. However, balance does play a role. It is our internal balance that allows us to reach towards two extremes simultaneously. The different extremes feed into each other through my own internal balance. If I am centered in myself, connected to the ground, clear about my direction and with full extension, metsuke follows naturally.
Perhaps it’s possible to think of metsuke also in terms of the metaphorical meaning of gaze and not only the literal meaning. Can I bring a mountain gaze as I “look at” the things I need to do today? Can I bring a soft focus as I try to “see” and understand a problem that I’m working on? It may be helpful to introduce a concept that I learned through meditation training: one strives to see each thought without getting lost in any particular thought. As each thought comes, accept its coming. When it is time to let it go, allow it to leave. This is similar to metsuke, but it is not the same. Rather than see everything together, I see each thing in its turn. This principle is familiar in Aikido in going from attacker to attacker in randori. In both sorts of gaze, I am not trapped in the immediate problem, but metsuke refers to a stepping back from my problems to see the big picture while the alternative refers to stepping in to my problems in order to go past and on to the next. The gaze of metsuke has a feeling of stasis — there is no movement in being everywhere at once — while the gaze of randori has a feeling of flow. Again, to understand an aikido principle, I must be willing to encompass extremes.
One of the applications of these ideas, a place where they can become concrete, is in reference to my own training. When I look at my own Aikido, there are many things to work on. I must be soft and powerful. I must flow with balance. I must know the kihon and be ready for variations. I must be with my partner and also in my own center. The principle of metsuke is that I do not see these as separate ideas. I do not work on any one thing, neglecting the others. Rather, I gaze at my own practice with a soft focus that sees all aspects at once. Sometimes, I may find this difficult. Perhaps it is easier to put my focus momentarily on one thing: for instance, the feeling of connection. As soon as I’m ready, I can allow my attention to shift to something else: for instance, the extension of my arms. Thus, I move through the technique — and from technique to technique and from practice to practice — allowing my focus to shift constantly among the many things that make up my Aikido. I wonder if, as my internal gaze becomes more free to shift and flow, this does not also become a form of metsuke.