O Sensei is quoted, in The Art of Peace, as saying “No matter how heavily armed your opponent is, you can use the Art of Peace to disarm him (or her). When someone comes in anger, greet him with a smile. That is the highest kind of martial art.”

This video shows so clearly how our actions, little things each of us do individually, can affect the world. A well-timed smile or hug can change someone just a little. They can affect those around them, and so on. Juan Mann, in the video, maybe affected a few thousand people directly. Over 10,000 signed his petition. Over 100,000 commented on the video on YouTube. Over 56 million people have watched just this version of it. 56 million!

Much of what we do is like dropping a pebble in an ocean. We may never notice the affect of the waves we create, but we do create them. Practice peace.

I’m Destroying Aikido.

The comments on YouTube, about my 5th kyu exam, got off to a predictable start with “good luck in a street fight no offense” [sic].

From looking at the person’s recent comments on other people’s videos, this is one of the nicest things they’ve said to anyone. Most of their other comments are downright vulgar.

My reply: “None taken. In my 47 years I’ve never been in a street fight, and don’t intend to go around starting any scraps in pubs. :-) My practice of Aikido has nothing to do with fighting.”

That apparently hit a nerve with someone in Poland, who said (ellipses his – I did not edit this): “..and that this the reason this unique, interesting and demanding martial art is dying….cause people like You practice aikido with firm belief that it has nothing to do with fighting..sad…”

I could just delete their comments, but what the heck, let’s see where this goes. I’m sure I won’t change their minds, but others coming along and reading the comments might find the discussion interesting. I responded:

“Aikido is not dying, never mind being killed off by ‘people like me.’ Yes, it comes from centuries of fighting arts, and yes, it is effective. But O Sensei did not create it to help people become better street fighters.

The goal of most non-sport martial arts is not fighting. It’s interesting that even in my video comments field you are trying to start one. If you want to fight, find others who want to fight, and have a great time. I’m not opposed to that, it’s just not what I’m up to.”

I’m pretty sure that won’t be the end of it. There are a lot of people who are certain that becoming a better fighter is the primary, and only valid, purpose for practicing martial arts, and they typically try to promote that view through rudeness and bullying of anyone who practices the arts for any other reason. I wonder if fencing, kendo, tai chi, and archery catch the same kind of flak? Dressage actually does, on occasion, when people point out that a not-quite-perfectly-responsive horse could mean one’s death on the battlefield.

I am no scholar on the subject of martial arts, but in my very limited experience I’ve not met any serious student or teacher who felt that fighting was the goal. Engaging in fights is never a desirable outcome. But if you must defend yourself or others, of course you should be able to.

So far, I’ve mostly been able to. Perhaps it’s whatever confidence and presence I gained from a summer Judo class in 3rd grade, 6 months of Tang Soo Do in high school, or a very physical self-defense course in college. Maybe it was my practical, moral upbringing in a stable home. Could be a bit of street smarts from walking, biking, skateboarding, and taking the bus everywhere, and working a paper route for 3 years, as a girl, alone. Or knowing I can handle myself coordinating convoys of rigs rescuing livestock in the face of raging wildfires. I don’t go looking for danger or confrontation, but I don’t run, either. Attackers love weak, fearful targets. I’ve never been weak or fearful. I’ve been jumped and beaten once, by a predatory gang in junior high school, but I’ve never gotten into a fight, on the street or otherwise. I consider avoiding fights to be the bigger victory than being proficient in winning them.

According to Kevin Blok Kyoshi (7th Dan in Yoshinkai Aikido), weak people cannot enforce peace. Blok Sensei teaches defensive tactics for police officers, and non-physical crisis intervention. He is an expert on the effective, practical application of Aikido. But even with that background (or maybe because of it) he speaks of Aikido as a path to peace and happiness. In his interview for the “Aikido – The Way of Harmony” podcast (which I highly recommend listening to), he speaks at length about bliss. He says that true budo is about love. (Listen especially starting at the 43 minute mark.) “You want to change the world, to make it a better place.” … “It starts with you. The center of your universe is you. Don’t go to try to make other people happy, and blissful, and loving, and caring, if you can’t do it with yourself.”

George Ledyard Sensei put it plainly on his Web site, www.aikieast.com:

It’s not about fighting.
It’s about not fighting.

Aikido takes a disproportionate amount of criticism, but the goals of promoting harmony and not fighting are not unique to Aikido.

In high school I practiced Tang Soo Do – Moo Duk Kwan (a “hard” Korean art), for all of 6 months or so. I came to it to learn how to be violent, effectively. Instead I learned how not to be. Yes, there was sparring (which is great fun), and tournaments (including the requisite smashing of concrete blocks, demonstrated by the Master of our school), but it was made clear from the outset that we weren’t to be engaged in any fighting outside of class. Self control and good character were the goals. It was an art in the budo tradition, even if it included organized competitive fighting.

I still have my notebook from 30 years ago. In it, along with several lists of Key Points, Principles, and Creeds, copied earnestly by hand from the sign on the dojang wall, is the Tang Soo Do Pledge:

We pledge to contribute to the happiness of the human race with the sword and the pen, using any ability we possess in pursuit of justice for everyone, attempting to unite the perfect harmony and further the traditions of Tang Soo Do.

I took it that pledge seriously then, and I still do.

I learned decades ago to resolve conflict without physical violence, intimidation, or rude behavior. I came to Aikido for a lot of reasons, none of which were about becoming a better fighter, or even for self defense. I wanted to learn to relax and breathe, to have better balance, and to be able to stay focused and take effective action in the face of overwhelming physical threat. I am getting those things from my practice, but there is so much more available.

I am learning there are a lot of kinds of “fighting.” Fighting what is. Fighting what I feel. Fighting who others are. Resisting. I still have a lot of fight in me. I’m not practicing Aikido to develop that, I’m practicing Aikido to let that go.

Aikido smiled…

In 2009 I came to the dojo. I intended to be serious about Aikido, but could only spare one night a week. I was busy, you see. I was just there to learn some skills I could use.

Aikido smiled, offered a wrist, and I grabbed.

And now, here at the beginning of 2010, without having felt any force to struggle against, and without quite knowing how I got Over Here, I am facing a new direction, looking back with new eyes at who I used to be, and looking forward to a new year of continuing discovery.

An Aikido Dream

I usually don’t dream weird dreams. I usually dream about work, or about something I have to do the next day. Boring. But last night I had a really strange dream. I’ll tell you about it first, and then what I think it represented.

The dream started with me arriving, as if by transporter, or warp in the space-time continuum, in a room. It was obvious there was no way of going back where I’d come from. There was a doorway or hall, and women were coming in or walking through in small, quiet groups. I was pleading with them to tell me where I was, who they were, where I should go, what I should do. They could see I was lost, and seemed sympathetic, but couldn’t understand what I was asking, and I couldn’t understand them. They took me to another room where I met with an older woman who seemed to be their spiritual leader or counselor. She could see I was very upset by this time, but she too could not give me any answers. Through body language and touch she let me know that I was safe there, and that she understood, if not my story, at least what I was feeling, and that I was OK.

At first glance I figured I must be watching too much Star Trek, and didn’t give it a lot of thought. But as I started going over the details in my mind I came to a different interpretation. The rooms were simple and plain, white and wood, with no decoration. The women were soft-spoken, and clearly part of a tight community where they knew and understood each other without a lot of talking. They were all dressed alike, in loose-fitting cotton garments in subdued tans and beiges. I was in a new world, with a new language, and it was clear I was going to be spending the rest of my life there. I felt utterly lost. I couldn’t understand what was going on, or what was being said, and was sad and frightened about that. I didn’t know what to do, what was expected of me, or how to find out. Their leader, who clearly had the confidence of the others, was kind and sympathetic, but could not give me any answers, only reassurance and support. I knew they were good people, that I was safe, and that they were willing to accept me into their community.

Given my frustration in class yesterday over feeling completely incompetent, along with the past week’s sense of feeling closed off or guarded, I’m thinking the dream was showing me a picture of Aikido. It’s a new world, a new language, a new community. Most answers can’t be gotten by simply asking. My usual ways of learning don’t work. It’s understood that I’m lost. But I’m safe, among friends, with a caring, perceptive leader, and in time will feel at home.

The weirdest thing about the dream might have been explaining to Sensei tonight before class that in it he was a wise old woman. :-)

In tonight’s class we played with being relaxed, staying unified, and flowing. It was a wonderfully focused and pleasant class, actually very relaxed, unified, and flowing in its own right. What was particularly nice was the effect it had on my energy.

I’ve been in a sort of mysterious “energetic funk” for the past few days. Not tired, not sick, but feeling sort of physically and energetically closed and guarded about something, the way one’s muscles can be tight to guard a painful joint. In class on Friday I was really stiff, nothing felt smooth, and simple movements eluded me. I felt ungrounded, off balance… I found myself holding my breath and scrunching my eyebrows. It was evident enough that I got feedback twice in class (as Uke) about relaxing into the technique instead of fighting it. Saturday was a little more fun, but still with something “stuck” that I could not identify. I sort of lived in the question over the weekend, of what “it” might be that was keeping my gut and my energy in knots, but I never happened upon an answer.

Whatever the cause, tonight’s class was the cure. I found myself breathing freely, standing solidly, moving smoothly, and smiling easily again. What a relief! And when I find myself feeling off balance next time, now I have some things I can play with to try to get back in sync with myself. :)

“Learning by Feel” – My first column on AikiWeb

“Learning by Feel” – My first column on AikiWeb

Taking Aikido with Us

I love going to the dojo. It’s a centered, focused, bullshit-free experience. The etiquette, aesthetic, and whole feel of of the place make being there a real pleasure. The people are friendly, supportive, committed, and working toward shared goals. There is structure, but there is constant discovery and newness, too. At the end of a trying day it’s wonderful to walk through that door, take a deep breath, and put everything else aside for a while. I love being there, and I miss it when I can’t go and train.

The obvious solution is to go and train more. And that’s not a bad idea. But it’s not possible to train all the time. There are also family, work, home, animals, community, and other interests. Oh yeah, and sleep.

More important, the point of training is not to escape from the world, it’s to make the world a better place. I’ve been thinking lately about what I can take from Aikido training and apply to other areas of life.

I’m not talking about what people typically mean by “off-the-mat Aikido,” which is more (as I understand it) about using Aikido principles to resolve conflicts in other areas of life. Blending with someone’s point of view in a business meeting, for example.

I’m thinking more of what it is about training that makes that such a compelling and rewarding experience. What works – practically, logistically, spiritually, personally – about doing Aikido that makes being at the dojo such a joy? What practices can be applied to work? To horsemanship and riding? To relationships and community? Even to daily chores? Everything from the mundane, like doing stretching exercises before engaging in strenuous activities like riding, to the bigger pictures, like creating and nurturing a sense of community.

I’ll be posting some thoughts on this from time to time, and would love to hear yours, too.

Love, Seduction, and Aikido

Have I got your attention? Good. ;-) It’s not a trick. This really is about love and seduction. And Aikido.

I walk at lunchtime. One day while I was walking, I was writing a haiku in my head. I went through a dozen or so versions, from various perspectives. It was shortly after an experience in class where Sensei demonstrated being connected with one’s partner. It was very disconcerting, but in a very pleasant way. It got me thinking “this must be what it means to look into someone’s eyes and steal their spirit.” It was disarming enough that poetry was rattling around in my head long after the class ended.

You look in my eyes.
Breath leaves me, balance is gone.
You steal my spirit.

It wasn’t (only) that my ability to resist the technique had been overcome. More like my will to resist it just crumbled. Or maybe even the desire to resist. I wanted to go with it. And then was left wondering what on earth that was that he had done.

Maybe everyone above 5th kyu and up is having a good snicker that I’m just figuring this out. ;-) Snicker away. I’m always happy to create a little merriment. Is this the whole point, of all the blending, and joining, and getting inside the technique?

Look into his eyes.
Take away his breath… balance…
And steal his spirit.

It started to gel a little for me tonight, when Sensei was coaching my partner, kind of jokingly taking him aside, saying that the blending we were working on could feel like seduction. And that people like that, and are more willing to go with your energy, and resist less. It was a brilliant point, of course, well illustrated. It was also kind of embarrassing. Essentially, “Here, try doing this technique as though you are trying to seduce her. Go.” Now seriously, I hang out with lots of older horsewomen – a raucous and earthy bunch. There’s not much you can say or do to embarrass me. But I think I might’ve blushed a little.

It’s funny, culturally, that we are comfortable bringing forth aggression, fury, conflict, and hatred. We think that’s normal. We wouldn’t think twice about producing a loud and fearsome kiai or well-placed atemi to evoke terror and throw our partner’s concentration off, if that were called for in a class. But somehow it’s terribly awkward, and a little unacceptable, to project gentleness, longing, warmth, and love, and to evoke the same in others – even when the end result is still to unbalance them, to our advantage. That’s a kind of weird dichotomy, and it’s kind of a shame.

When I finally arrived at a version of the haiku I was satisfied with, I realized it wasn’t about kokyu ho anymore. I ended up sending it to friend who was intellectually determined not to fall in love with a woman he’d met, but his heart was telling him otherwise. I was cheering the heart on, of course:

This time I won’t fall.
I take your hand, brace myself.
I fall anyway.

Aikido is obviously an art form that is expressed through the body, which gets information from our sensory awareness. That means feeling. … Feel what’s happening now, act on that information, and trust.

Dave Goldberg Sensei, from his blog post “The Case for More Body Awareness

There is so much of value just in this one post from October that it’s worth reading again from time to time. And if you haven’t been following Sensei’s blog, here’s your chance to start.