[This article was originally published in the Aikido Journal in January 2018.]
We are in the middle of a very interesting time in human history. It’s true that violence overall has declined massively from the days of human sacrifice and laws that enshrined dueling to the death as a legitimate way to resolve grievances. However, we still find ourselves in a world where it seems harder and harder to communicate and collaborate with people who don’t share our views, and where people can still become victims through no fault of their own via terrorist attacks or bombs that were not carefully deployed in wars.
The human race desperately needs a philosophy that can teach us empathy for each other and demonstrates that even adversaries can work together for a greater good. In other words, it’s the perfect time for aikido to shine.
As a 30-year-old first dan black belt in taekwondo, a more conventional punch-and-kick kind of martial art, I initially felt out of my element when I started training in aikido six months ago. Why were we learning about the subtleties of skeletal joints and the muscular system? Why were we practicing five different ways to fall out of a throw? Why were we trying to close the distance to our opponents and adopt a “flow” style of technique rather than standing firm against them?
The answer came when I started researching the origins of aikido. From my longtime study of the Chinese language and writing system, I saw that the term “aikido” in kanji translated to something like “the way of uniting forces,” where the forces that were being united weren’t those of best friends or even regular strangers, but two opponents potentially engaging in physical combat. It turns out that it takes a fair amount of knowledge of anatomy and physics to determine how to safely position oneself against an attacker and be in a position to employ a technique. Since this knowledge can only be gained through experience, it makes sense that aikido practitioners join forces to show each other how to apply techniques on various kinds of people.
I don’t know about you, but if someone threatened to attack me physically, the last thing on my mind would be the idea of uniting forces with them, even if I’d rather be friends with someone than enemies. And yet, aikido teaches that this concept is the key to effective self-defense, both in practice and in the real world. In this framework, success wasn’t just about disabling an opponent quickly, but doing it in the most humane way possible. It takes a lot of extra work to do it right, but it leaves the door open for reconciliation and understanding when an attacker realizes that you’re going the distance to prevent serious harm to them.
This is the same spirit of aiki, because we are showing care and concern for the attacker’s well-being and thus working with them to achieve a mutually beneficial outcome where excessive violence is avoided.
Appreciating Diversity on a New Level
Genetically, humans are on average 99.5% similar to each other. But looking around, we see that people come in all shapes and sizes, ages, health status, etc. If we do not take these differences into account – that is, if we can’t intuitively appreciate other perspectives than our own – lots of problems and injustices can result. In aikido, I’ve learned that people differ significantly in terms of joint flexibility, body mass, muscle tone, strength, and more because I have actually twisted their arms or been pinned on a mat by them. An approach that might work for an opponent who’s 5’9” and 140 lbs. may be totally ineffective on someone who’s 6’3” and 200 lbs. It’s OK to fail the first time or multiple times when trying out a move on an uke, even on a kyu test, because we all know that it’s more important to show you can adapt a technique to new or changing circumstances than to get it right the first time. Everyone’s life force, or ki (qi in Chinese), is subtly different from moment to moment as well as from one person to another. If we think we can handle every uke or opponent the exact same way, the fight is already lost.
Once you start to feel out and adapt to someone else’s ki, it’s impossible not to attain a better understanding of their perspective.
The traditions of aikido communities create safe environments to essentially engage in intentional combat and help smooth out the potential pitfalls of this approach. We bow to each other deeply to show respect and assure that we are aligned in our recognition of each other’s inherent worth as human beings.
It means that although I’m just a beginner, I can trust that my second dan class partner won’t judge me for needing to go slowly through a new technique. Although we are on different places in our training, we are still both people who deserve to be honored and respected by others. When I feel that unconditional acceptance and regard for my abilities in aikido, novice though I am, it makes me more likely to pay that feeling forward in any situation where I’m an expert helping others learn about my passions. It’s a pebble thrown into a lake that starts an ever-expanding ripple of harmony and peace.
What the World Needs Now
A big problem at this moment is that hate seems to be rippling out much faster than peace across the world through global communications media and political posturing at the highest levels. We need a way to stand up to this growing emotional catastrophe in an intelligent, empathetic way – not fighting fire with fire. Even if I never attain a high rank or perform a perfect ikkyo, I have learned something very important from this community and martial art: hope.
We aikidoka all have the light of peace burning inside of us – a pilot light that may strengthen or weaken, but never goes out. We are both the stewards and the substance of this philosophy, for aikido would not exist if no one practiced it, and it would die a yet more painful death if its acolytes didn’t maintain its spiritual integrity while adapting it to a new era.
We must act to foster aikido’s growth and continued existence, not just to preserve a unique and amazing human invention, but also to show the world that an opponent need not be an enemy; that differences of opinion can be handled in mature, thoughtful ways and not just by using angry words and the threat of war.
As 2017 comes to a close, I’m sure many people out there besides me are taking stock of the year that was. It’s easy to make a list of grievances and write off these 12 months as evidence of growing chaos and disorder in the world. But when I think about this past year, I want to remember feelings of inspiration, community, indomitable spirit, and optimism even in the face of long odds. I am profoundly grateful to Ikazuchi Dojo and the greater aikido community for illuminating a well-worn but hidden path from negativity to positivity, despair to hope, and isolation to empathy. I intend to spread the word to my friends about the vision of aikido and the kind of world we’re fighting for, and I invite any and all aikidoka to join me in this effort in their own lives. To paraphrase a famous song, we don’t need more confusion and division in the world – what the world needs now is aikido.