Practicing Non-Violence in Aikido

Growing up in the 1970s, and attending a Jesuit high school and university, I heard a lot of talk about “practicing” non-violence.  This was the era of the anti-war priests Dan and Phillip Berrigan… of Catholic Worker protests… of James Douglass (author of The Non-Violent Cross) and his wife Shelly.  Everyone was a pacifist, everyone talked about Gandhi and “practicing” non-violence.

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But I could never really figure out what that meant, how you would actually “practice” non-violence.  Eventually, I decided I could never be a pacifist either philosophically or temperamentally. Pacifism could be a moral choice for an individual (such as a Buddhist or Christian monk or nun who chose martyrdom rather than act in self-defense) but never as a philosophical stance.  That’s because pacifism as a philosophical stance requires that you choose suffering, not for yourself alone, but for other people who might not agree with or want to embrace your high-minded philosophical principles.  It would require you to stand by while a woman was being raped and, because you’re so spiritually evolved, not kick the rapist in the teeth.

Also, I’m Irish… which makes me temperamentally rather ill-suited to pacifism.  When someone attacks me, or someone I love, my natural reaction is to, well, fight back.  Preferably with a head butt.

But here’s the thing:  Because of my Aikido addiction, I’ve ended up actually practicing non-violence on a regular basis.  Every week I go to my Aikido class and practice having someone take a swing at me… and not punch back!  In fact, I’ve learned that punching back is actually the least effective thing you can do if you want to avoid getting hurt.  (That is why police hand-to-hand combat is largely based on Aikido:  cops want to control a suspect, not trade punches with him.)

As I’ve pointed out before, I’m not very good at Aikido precisely because my natural inclination is to resist, to fight back, to muscle my way through a technique.  If someone resists when I try to do a particular move, I typically try harder! I use my strength to force my way through it.  This makes for lousy Aikido.

Aikido is not wrestling.  It’s not even jujitsu.  It’s an attempt to paradoxically control and neutralize an attacker without resisting, without using strength.  This is why it’s so difficult to learn… why people seem so fascinated by it… and why it’s not very practical as a street martial art.  Nonviolence truly is not easy.

Aikido uses a lot of mystical-sounding explanations involving “center” and “ki” and “blending,” but in essence what you’re trying to do in Aikido is to re-direct an attack, using timing and your body’s own momentum, so that neither you nor your attacker is hurt.  To do this, you have to first “take someone’s balance,” typically by “entering” into their “space” with your whole body weight or, alternatively, with a distracting smack in the kisser (known in Aikido as “atemi”)… and then, again using the movement of your entire body and your hips, to move the attacker in the direction where his or her balance is weakest.  When it works, it’s amazing:  a tiny wisp of a woman is able to toss a big guy across the room.  (I know, I’ve had it happen to me dozens of times!)

Where I get bogged down is that my first reaction, when someone resists me, is to use my (sometimes greater) arm strength to force them where I want them to go.  The problem with that is that there is always a bigger fish in the sea… and eventually, when faced with a bigger guy, the technique simply won’t work that way.  What you learn eventually is to not resist resistance... not to force anything.  (“Resist nothing” is what Eckhert Tolle heard in his moment of enlightenment.)  If some big galoot grabs your arm, hard, you simply let him have it.  You move your whole body around and away.

Actually, the Aikido techniques that I love the most, like nikkyo (shown above), are the ones where you specifically allow someone to do something to you… and then do it more! For example, say someone grabs your lapels with both hands.  Your (my) natural reaction would be to pull away, to resist.  But the Aikido thing to do would be just the opposite:  To put your own hands over the attackers hands and arms, pull him tighter toward you, and then lean forward into him with all your body weight, easing him to the ground in a way that makes him scream from the pain in his wrists.  (You gotta love that nonviolence stuff!)  The wrist locks of Aikido are famous for this.

Eventually, though, the regular physical practice of nonresistance does have a spiritual effect of sorts (at least theoretically).  You become less reactive.  That was, I think, what the founder of Aikido had in mind in his vision of Aikido as some sort of mystical technology for universal brotherhood.  Rather than meeting an attack head on, butting heads, an Aikido person tends to move out of the way instead… and sort of redirects the aggression in the way he or she wants it to go.  Pretty soon this becomes second nature because you do it 40, 50 100 times a night in Aikido practice.  I won’t get all Zen on you and claim Aikido has all sorts of practical applications in business and home life… but a little of that is undoubtedly true.

P.S.  The big bald guy in the photo isn’t me… but someone who knows what he’s doing.

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Robert J. Hutchinson is an author and essayist. His most recent book is Searching for Jesus: New Discoveries in the Quest for Jesus of Nazareth (Thomas Nelson, 2015).