Aikido: Powered by Kindness

7 06 2017

Some of what follows may sound childish and fanciful. I realize that. Please bear with me.

I practice Aikido. Sometimes I imagine scenarios in which I am forced to use it. I suspect this goes with the territory for any kind of self-defense training. And I suspect all those imagined scenarios share a similar emotional atmosphere. Namely, the defender is in deadly danger, and acting with controlled desperation to incapacitate the attacker as quickly and as fully as possible. The attacker is at best aggressive and unreasonable, at worst murderous and terrifying, but always contemptible, undeserving of mercy.

Well, I was at practice last night, and for no reason I can discern, it struck me: Aikido is joyful. Aikido is kind. Aikido’s power comes not from the desire to crush your enemies, but the impulse to embrace your friends.

Let me stop here for a second and reiterate the caveat that goes with all decent self-defense training: real life situations are no joke. It is a huge mistake to imagine yourself as the hero of an action movie. Real fights happen fast and do not follow a script. The Portland stabbing is tragic proof. That event has rattled me in a lot of ways, which I might write about in another post.

But for now: in Aikido, we practice blending, throwing, joint locks, and pins. We practice conscientiously, to protect our partners from injury, but often note the opportunities to break a joint, cause excruciating pain, or otherwise incapacitate an attacker who threatens serious harm. In my imaginary scenarios, that’s what happens. I perform a technique forcefully, past the safety threshold, because some asshole is threatening my life and that’s what he gets.

But here’s the thing. In that scenario, I’m scared. I’m angry. I’m tense. And even as I go through the imaginary motions, I know that tension is what sabotages Aikido. In practice, over and over again, I find that staying relaxed and loose makes techniques far more effective. Last night, I noticed the connection between that relaxation and the playfulness of training with friends who I enjoy.

Aikido is really not a self-defense art. It’s really an art of letting the air out of fights. When done expertly, Aikido is extremely powerful, because it reframes the dialog.

So here’s another scenario, every bit as irresponsible and unlikely as the others. What if we could see the attacker as a friend? What if we could recognize his aggression as a symptom of personal distress, however deeply it has perverted his behavior? What if we could understand him as a human being, someone who’s company we would enjoy if circumstances were different? What if we could enter into the confrontation in the spirit of fun, of play, of dance, of friendship? What if we could happily blend with the attack, joyfully redirect the energy, cheerfully move to a place of safety, and kindly put our upset friend in a time out?

I’m not there yet. I most likely never will be. It would take an impeccable warrior to enter a potentially deadly conflict with that kind of relaxation.

But maybe it’s a useful thing to imagine, in preparation for other conflicts. Maybe it’s a helpful approach to personal arguments. Maybe it’s a way to reach across the gulf of our fractured society. There is real power in kindness.