About thirty years ago, still a few years from my fiftieth birthday, I read of a martial art that was described as non-violent, resolving conflict through skillful relationship. It came from Japan, where a man named Morihei Ueshiba had questioned the destructive purpose of the martial arts he had mastered. He had gone on to transform old techniques in order to create a new art that provided effective self-defense while protecting both the attacker and the defender. He came to call his art aikido, which can be translated as “the way of harmonizing energy.”
A seed of interest in aikido had been planted, but for another six or seven years I kept to jogging as my chosen exercise, doggedly pounding the sidewalks in my San Francisco neighborhood. I finally visited an aikido dojo
, or training hall.
Watching the pairs of people practicing on the canvas mat, I was impressed by their sweeping, circular movements, into which attacks were blended and absorbed. The light falls and rolls that one partner took at the end of the technique seemed to confirm the reconciliation they had achieved, and I eagerly anticipated experiencing these graceful yet powerful movements. I enrolled at that dojo
As I began to practice aikido, there were indeed moments when my own energies blended with those of another person and I had a taste of what I had hoped to find. But often I reacted unthinkingly when someone grabbed at my arm or struck toward my head. I’d try to muscle through or, just as tensely, hold back from moving. As I witnessed these automatic outbreaks of fear and hostility, I began to recognize the truth of Morihei Ueshiba’s assertion that the “mind of contention” within myself was the real, or even the only, enemy.
Eventually I earned a black belt and later became an instructor at my first dojo. After I retired from a career as an English teacher in a community college, I was able to practice at my dojo almost every day, a habit that I have continued since then.
In the mid-1990s, David O’Neill, the head instructor of the dojo, retired, and fewer people came to train. I had learned much from David and my fellow students, but eventually I recognized the need to find another place to train. A fellow aikidoist had a recommendation: why not visit a dojo across the city called Suginami Aikikai? Suginami felt welcoming, he said. I visited Suginami and found a handsome training hall with nearly one hundred members and close ties to Hombu dojo
, the Tokyo headquarters of the Aikikai, the international organization founded by Ueshiba. Suginami offered teachers of impressive quality and I once again became primarily a student.
The practice at Suginami is vigorous. I’ve been challenged every morning, five days a week, to extend my limits. Though I’ve occasionally followed my own lead into physical difficulty, I’ve never been injured by anyone. I’m nearing eighty now, and when my teacher, James Friedman, speaks of aikido as a benefit to health, I can gratefully affirm his words.
One day my tensions overflowed into a violence that seemed far from anything I could call aikido. This book springs in part from that unforgettable moment and my gradual awareness of how hopeful and nourishing it really was.
A Sincere Attack
I had been brought up to be polite and not hit people. My partners, more advanced aikidoists, had a uniform reaction: “Hit me,” they said, then stood and waited until my strike connected with their body. It didn’t have to be a hard strike, but it did have to connect. When they decided I was getting the idea, they’d step out of the way as the blow approached.
Gradually I realized why this was important. When I strike with full intention to make connection, my partner has to be skillful and accurate in responding to my motion. If he doesn’t move correctly, he’ll be hit. By striking sincerely and precisely, we provide our partners with an essential risk. This demand for sincerity goes to the heart of aikido.
One of the instructors at Suginami sometimes ruminated on the subject. What if the attacker is no hero but someone with evil intent? That didn’t matter at all, he said, for at least it would guarantee his resolve to strike hard—just as it’s said that God prefers a determined sinner to someone who’s lukewarm. To inject extra energy into our exchanges, he sometimes instructed us to become “ukes
from hell,” striking at each other much more aggressively than usual. The Japanese word uke
(pronounced oo-kay) doesn’t literally mean “attacker,” though it’s generally understood that way.
An Attentive Response
is lucky, he’s had some intimations from life that change is inevitable, that in certain moments he needs to give up an old equilibrium and accept a new balance to suit new conditions. In aikido, it means to be willing to let go and fall. It’s up to nage
(nah-gay), the defender, to confirm and support this attitude.
I vividly recall such a moment while practicing with Ben, one of the uchi-deshi
or live-in students when I first joined Suginami. Ben is a big bear-like man, strong yet generous and responsive. He stood relaxed and open as I stepped forward to strike his head, then almost imperceptibly changed his angle, taking no more than a half-step to one side. As our bodies connected, I felt my center of gravity moving out from under me; I simply didn’t have my balance any more. Ben had drawn me off-center into the current of his own flowing motion. There was no coercion, Ben didn’t “do” anything to me, yet I had no alternative but to follow his curving lead right into a fall, with Ben keeping me at the tipping edge all the way. I fell backwards, all the unfurling length of my spine, then bounced back to my feet, re-balanced and ready to begin again.
I had played my part by striking with sincerity and determination. I didn’t need to know or do much beyond that. Ben’s equally sincere response, on the other hand, was more subtle and required considerable foresight and knowledge; it’s as if the role of nage
, the defender, calls for someone who’s a little wiser than uke, the attacker. Ben played that role, welcoming my strike and joining it firmly and without hesitation. In a way, he was simply attending to his own integrity, his own stable posture. Getting me to fall was the least of his concerns.
Under the Persimmon Tree
The founder of aikido, Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969), came from a well-off family in a southern district of Japan. Short and slight as a youth, Morihei built up his body and trained in a number of martial arts, eventually becoming widely respected for his great strength and skill. At the same time he followed a meditative discipline, influenced by the Omoto-kyo, an early 20th century religion derived from ancient Shinto and shamanistic sources and emphasizing a benevolent, spirit-filled world of nature.
Challenged one day by a young naval officer to a duel with bokken
, or wooden swords, Ueshiba opted not to strike the man at all. He simply evaded his attacker’s blows until the officer dropped from exhaustion, not once having touched him. As Ueshiba rested afterward under a persimmon tree in his garden, he felt his body enveloped by a “golden spirit” that sprang up from the earth. He received a vision of the universe as a divine and living being, a network of vibrations that included and harmonized all seeming oppositions. He realized that he himself was a replica of that greatness, capable likewise of an inner order and harmony. These and other revelations influenced Ueshiba to
turn away from any purpose of inflicting harm in the martial arts.
For Ueshiba, aikido was a meditative art that required an all-round moral effort in its practitioners—both on and off the mat of the training hall. It was meant to influence all the other parts of one’s life and was not to be separated from them. It was not a religion, and Ueshiba never proselytized for his own faith, but he did believe that aikido provided a serious model for living a life of respect and love for oneself and for all other people—indeed, all other beings. Aikido is now practiced all over the world.
Ueshiba spoke in a new way. He declared that the only enemy lies within, that is, with the fearful, greedy ego. “True victory is self-victory,” he said—victory over the parts of oneself that insist on ruthless defeat of another being. Photographs of Ueshiba taken toward the end of his life (he lived well into his eighties), show a frail man whose body seems filled with light. From the evidence, his body had also accumulated powerful energy. In his last days he was still able to send his students hurtling into the garden. Such power can be misinterpreted. Though Ueshiba had been known as the strongest man in Japan, he carefully pointed out that “the power of the body is always limited.” Something else was needed: “Empty yourself,” he said, “and allow the Divine to function.”
The Gift of Danger
As I walk down the street, small tensions, scarcely noticed because they’re so common, arise as I pass near another person, another dog, another beeping car, as I hear another siren. Many times these tensions don’t reach the level of awareness. They rise and fall, without entirely going away; I carry low-level tension around as part of my neural equipment, like background noise. And to that can be added all the anxieties about the past and future. Something in me is always crying “danger,” and I’m more or less habituated to ignore it. In a moment of real physical threat, I need this alertness of response, but what happens then? If I’m overwhelmed by the neurochemicals of anger or fright, I may do something ineffective, or unintelligent, or deeply regrettable.
The samurai were interested in this question. They had seen an essential problem of violence: being taken captive by emotional tensions in a moment of danger. They had found a way to act precisely and effectively without being swallowed by emotion—but then so have many cold-blooded fighters. Could there be a way to provide necessary self-defense and protection without being consumed by the urge to destroy, and without exceeding the amount of force needed to control an aggressor? Was there a way to use and even appreciate the presence of danger without being destroyed by the violent reactions it so often led to? That was the direction in which Ueshiba took his search.
The importance of danger in practicing aikido was something that it took me a while to appreciate. Risk-taking on the mat has taught me a distinction that I might not have learned otherwise in the relatively safe city where I live. My tensions and fears usually concern the past or future, and there’s no real place for them when I face a present danger with every ounce of skill and attention that is needed. In that sense, outward danger is a gift we give each other in aikido every time we strike as true as we can. That’s when it becomes possible to see that another danger lurks inside.
Some years ago I arrived at my old dojo still tense with resentment toward Sylvia, a fellow student. Nevertheless, I still wanted to practice aikido—and that meant not giving in to my emotional state and the physical tensions that went with it. For that whole hour I did my best to keep to the relaxed, erect posture of aikido, joining and blending with my partners, not allowing my mood to take over my body. Meanwhile, I sensed an ache of resentment like a hot cinder in the solar plexus. But I had many other things to be aware of, and the hot cinder was only a part of the whole. As the hour went on, the ache faded into the background, and not long afterwards, I noticed that my resentment toward Sylvia, too, had mysteriously melted away.
In aikido the willingness to move includes the willingness to fall. Sometimes a technique ends not with a fall but with a roll, an aikido somersault where you leap forward from a standing position, flip over and land on your feet. It took me a long time to learn that one, given my body’s well-established habits of constraint.
Jimmy Friedman says that he feels peculiarly happy when he does a high fall, where you flip over in mid-air and land rather hard on your side. That high fall is mostly done by younger people. I’ve tried it a few times though, and it’s as if you’re going past your fears into a new liberated zone, so I see what he means.
There’s Always an Opening
Years ago I watched while a visitor to a local cultural center struggled to open a large paneled door. He pressed the latch and then pushed hard against the door, to no avail. Seeing what was happening, I stepped up and opened it for him. I pulled the door toward me, since it opened that way. Aikido teaches that there are always options or openings. The main thing is not to be hypnotized by the one place where you’ll meet resistance.
A Good Day To Go All Out
Waking the morning following an anniversary memorial for Paul, an artist and teacher whom I’d known for many years, I found myself remembering moments of joy and discomfort shared in his presence, wondering how the past might translate into the future. As I sat at home in my customary meditation place, the inner conversation became more obvious and more problematical. What if I were at aikido, where it’s essential to stay so watchfully in the body that there’s no room for anything else? I’d be quieter there. Maybe it’s really just as urgent now, here in my room. There’s a need for watchfulness here too, not for physical safety or the wish for skillful aikido but for something else having to do with the way I spend this life I’ve been given. Why don’t I feel responsible here at home for living in the present and abandoning distractions the way I do in aikido? Why don’t I feel the inward danger here too?
I’m older and am going to die, maybe not today but not that long from now. I’m just like everybody else. The wish comes that I could die obediently, the way animals seem to, quietly accepting the common lot of all physical existence. The usual concerns of the ego drop away just then, and it’s a relief to see how the tensions relax in body and soul.
Open Your Heart
A few years ago one of Kato-sensei’s pupils, a Frenchman named Dominique, visited our dojo. He held a high rank in aikido and was also a skilled practitioner of kyudo, Japanese archery. Dominique led our practice one morning and watched me meet up with a vigorously striking partner. “Open your arms! Open your heart!” he called out, stretching wide his supple arms as if embracing the atmosphere of the dojo. The timing of that dramatic command, delivered in a French accent, brought an instantaneous awareness of how closed-in and tense my chest was. Everything relaxed, and I felt reconnected to myself.
In one way or another, I have received that reminder many times. Each time there comes a moment of denial. Wasn’t my chest already open? Wasn’t I already aware of the need for that? “Yes, but not aware enough,” the answer keeps coming. “You’re not as open as you think you are. Look, and you’ll see that.” There’s a kind of joy in these moments when I take that in and can welcome that bittersweet recognition. For a little while something in me will be more open.
Off The Mat
One day Robert, an officer in an organization I belong to, marched up to me and angrily accused me of mishandling a document. My face flushed, and I wanted to defend myself. I felt that there had been a misunderstanding and that I didn’t deserve his anger.
It was reminiscent of a morote-dori
attack—the two-handed grab I had worked at so long in aikido. My shoulders and chest kept tensing with the urge to justify myself and to reject Robert’s accusations. But even though Robert was practically shouting at me, I had the odd impression that underneath his outburst of anger lay human warmth, and there arose a vivid sense of our shared presence. I wanted to stay with that, so I let go the urge for self-justification each time it arose, and said only that I definitely shared his concern. I tried to keep my posture open and relaxed as we stood facing each other.
Unappeased, Robert indignantly repeated his accusations. I repeated my agreement with his concern, and continued my efforts to listen, relax my shoulders, and stay in touch with the simple awareness of standing there with him. Suddenly his anger dropped away. Without another word, he smiled at me and walked away.
Mary Stein's The Gift of Danger: Lessons from Aikido
was published in 2009 and is now print.