According to the website, the purpose of Aiki Peace Week is “sharing the peacemaking potential of Aikido.” Aikido is often referred to as an Art of Peace. At least one of the books by its founder, Morihei Ueshiba (usually called O Sensei), carries that name.
But Aikido is a martial art, a study of budo, which means the way of war. It was developed out of martial training practiced by the samurai; many of the empty hand techniques came from sword fighting.
How can we use an art of war to get to the way of peace? The idea seems inherently contradictory.
For me, that’s a rhetorical question. I know the answer. It’s embedded in my nerve endings after 26 years of studying Aikido. But I find it difficult to explain my understanding of the relationship of Aikido and peace to people who don’t train in Aikido or are beginners in the art. I’m a writer; words are my medium. But finding the right words for this — words that don’t involve a mishmash of Japanese Aikido terms and Aikido shorthand — is tricky.
Still, I’m going to give it a try. I’m in the process of planning a couple of Aikido classes for seminars in honor of Aiki Peace Week, so I’m thinking about the relationship of basic techniques to nonviolent resolution of conflict.
Conflict is the place to start, because while I can conceive of a world without war, I can’t conceive of one without conflict. Human beings are a diverse lot. They bring a multitude of ideas, opinions, beliefs, and understanding to their interactions with each other. There will be conflict.
How do we resolve that conflict without violence? That’s where Aikido comes in.
If you attack me physically, I have several choices. I can meet your attack head on, guaranteeing that we will end up fighting. If I meet each punch you throw with an equivalent punch, we will fight until whichever of us is stronger or more skilled pounds the other into the ground.
Of course, that doesn’t end our fight, because the person defeated is likely to want revenge. At best, our relationship will continue to be strained.
But suppose I simply step off the line and let you go by me? I haven’t stopped your attack, but I have kept you from hurting me.
Or suppose I move forward, letting your attack go by, but taking charge of the situation. I have still kept you from hurting me, but I have also controlled where the next action is likely to occur.
Both these situations can lead to a resolution of the differences between us.
Of course, sometimes they aren’t successful. Sometimes it’s necessary for me to throw you to protect myself. Sometimes I will misjudge my movement and get hurt. It can be risky.
But the opportunity for a peaceful resolution is there. And the more you pay attention to that, the more choices you can see in a difficult situation.
Since physical fights are not all that common, let me put this in the context of a different kind of attack. Take climate change. If you think, as I do, that we need to take steps to curb carbon emissions and find other fixes for our warming planet, you may find yourself with a short fuse when someone claims it’s all a hoax. You’ll want to yell at them.
But I suspect we all know how useless that is. There’s nothing like being yelled at and called names to make a person reject anything you have to say.
Maggie Koerth-Baker, who does science reporting for boing boing, has a new book out about energy and climate issues, Before the Lights Go Out. She found in interviewing people that some folks who don’t think climate change is a problem still drive Priuses and want to save energy.
If my goal is to reduce carbon emissions and encourage cleaner forms of energy, I don’t need to hammer on people who agree with me that it’s a good idea to save energy just because they don’t think climate change is real.
That’s Aikido in action.
On a personal note: I have a reputation of being an aggressive person. There have been times in my life when I pushed other people to do what I wanted to do by sheer force of personality. That might sound great, but it doesn’t tend to work after you leave the room. I once had a legal client who got on the witness stand and said the exact opposite of what she had told me she was going to say. It turned out that she was scared to tell me she had changed her mind.
But lately, I’ve found myself playing the peacekeeper role more often. I’m the one who tries to find the middle ground when tempers flare, who looks for the point of consensus in a jumble of emailed opinions.
Don’t get me wrong. There are still situations when something will set me off. But Aikido has changed me. These days I’m confident that I can handle a tense situation. And there’s just a chance I’ll be able to handle it without anyone getting hurt or feeling abused.
That’s my definition of peace.