–by Mary Stein (Oct 21, 2016)
About thirty years ago, still a few years from my fiftieth birthday, I read of a martial art that was described as nonviolent, resolving conflict through skillful relationship. It came from [the part of the Planet we call] Japan, where a man named Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969) 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.” […]
Under the Persimmon Tree
The founder of aikido came from a well-off family. Short and slight as a youth, Ueshiba 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 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 him 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 he 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 him 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 [the part of the Planet we call] 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.