(This post was written by Paul Norris, a senior student at Vermont Aikido.)
There are probably as many different answers to this question as there are Aikidō practitioners. Not that Aikidō is something vague or unclear. It’s a concrete, practical approach to dealing with physical conflict and self-defense. Of course, different teachers have different perspectives on the best way to learn and practice Aikidō. Even the shihan who were direct students of O-Sensei teach slightly different forms, depending on when they studied with him: Aikidō changed over O-Sensei’s own lifetime.
But O-Sensei was not just concerned with the physical discipline of Aikidō. As quoted in The Art of Peace (a collection of O-Sensei’s writings, translated by John Stevens), “The real way of a warrior is to prevent slaughter – it is the art of peace, the power of love.”
From this perspective, Aikidō is a path towards harmony. The physical act of practice and training provides a concrete example of our natural tendency to feel threatened when we’re challenged, to tense up in stressful or difficult situations, to want to overpower our opponent. Training in Aikidō challenges us to let go of these responses.
Aikidō provides a model for how to resolve conflict. I can use this model in my everyday life, looking for ways to be centered and balanced even when I come into conflict with other people. Rather than fighting back if someone pressures me, tries to guilt-trip or intimidate me, I can turn if I’m pushed and enter if I’m pulled, waiting for the right moment to act. And in turn, I can bring those experiences of social and personal challenges back to my training: recognizing my emotional response to conflict and working to address it in my practice.
Training in Aikidō is about being centered, not getting thrown off-balance; so it can change how I think of my interactions with other people. Staying centered and balanced can only happen if I can get past feeling threatened. Thus, without necessarily realizing it, in my training I’m gradually developing the ability to see beyond my experience of other people as my enemies, threats to be counter-attacked.
But in order to let go of feeling that I’m in conflict with other people, I need to learn how their goals and my goals might actually be in harmony. Even if they believe I’m their enemy, even if they’re actively trying to attack me, I need to find another way to experience our interaction, to think of us in relationship with each other. Rather than being trapped in a zero-sum winner-take-all conflict, I have to find a way to learn that the two of us are coöperating. By looking for that possibility, by finding a way to be balanced and centered in the midst of our interaction, I’m also learning to understand the other person better, and gradually feel empathy for them. I’m practicing being connected to them, part of them: loving them.
Only when that happens can I let go of needing to win. And only then can I be free of having to choose between caring for myself and caring for others.