Aikido – The Art of Peace

I had been practicing Aikido for about two years, which is a dangerous time. You know just enough to think you know what you’re doing. This was the state of my Aikido experience the morning I exited the coffee shop and saw a man harassing a woman.

I had always felt weak as a kid, humiliated by bullies. I stuffed my anger, opting for physical safety – stay small, don’t stand up for yourself, give in. As an adult, I learned Aikido to defend the frightened child still inside me.

Aikido is a martial art with outer and inner elements. Its outer form uses balance, footwork, joint locks, and your opponent’s momentum. Aikido’s inner form uses ki, the abundant life force that exists and flows through all things. 

My Aikido teacher explained that cultivating ki was the true power behind all the physical techniques of Aikido. I wondered if ki was real or just a poetic metaphor, but my sensei assured me it was real and powerful.  

There is no fighting in Aikido. Your movements circulate the ki between you and your partner and release the energy without violence. At its best, Aikido maintains peace without ever using a move or a throw. The founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, said, “The way of the warrior is to establish harmony … it is the art of peace, the power of love.”  

I liked Aikido’s peaceful, spiritual aspect, but what I saw that morning did not put me in a mood for peace.

A large man in dirty clothes was panhandling. A woman was telling him ‘no’ as she tried to squeeze past him. The man leaned his arm on her car, barely giving her room to get in. He kept pressing her even as she closed the door. I felt a spark of anger ignite my protector gene. I walked over to him and squared up. He turned his attention to me as the woman drove away.

“Hey, you got some change for a brother in need.”

“No, I got nothing for you,” I answered in a slow, even tone as I looked him in the eye. I’m not sure what I expected to happen. I felt the familiar fear of physical confrontation, but I was going to stand in that fear and not back down. I wanted him to know it was not ok to harass people.

“Come on, man, a guy’s gotta eat,” he continued.

“I said no,” louder this time, and continued to meet his eye. My body, voice, and gaze were hard as I stared him down.

“All right, man,” he said. I turned to open my car door.  

And then he continued, “But at least you got something. I got nothing.”

I turned to face him again and moved closer, “I told you no. Are you going to keep asking?”  

He was silent. I waited a beat. I was ready if it came to blows, but nothing happened. I got in my car and closed the door. I felt sticky inside, my heart thumping but my chest hollow. I wanted to feel I was taking a step toward justice, but instead, I had only compounded the misery. I didn’t feel powerful or honorable. I had become the aggressor.  

Then the man spun his head and made a spitting motion at my car. I was already wound up, and now my anger sparked again. I opened the door and stepped out. I looked at my car. There was no spittle.

The man took a step back, “Hey, I was just playin’ with ya, man.”  

He seemed honestly frightened as if he had gone a step too far, and he knew it. We stood there a moment, a few feet apart, our arms hanging at our sides.

It was then that a familiar body memory flashed across my mind: this was the beginning stance in Aikido training. I recalled the hundreds of times I had stood exactly like this with a partner in the dojo. I felt myself soften. I remembered something important – I have ki running through my core and out into the world. And so does he. 

Until that moment, I had been giving him hard stares, seeing only his outer form. Now I looked into his eyes for the first time. He looked more like the frightened kid than the cruel bully. He was not an opponent. He was my Aikido partner.  

Then the words, softer now, came out of my mouth, “You feel disrespected, don’t you?”  

“Yeah, a little.” He was caught off guard but seemed to soften as well. “It’s hard, and I’m just trying to make it.”

“I don’t want you to feel that way.” Without thinking, coming from the space between us, I added, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for making you feel like that.”

“Hey, it’s ok, man. Yeah, it’s ok. It’s ok.”

“Ok then. Take care of yourself.” I got in my car and drove away, feeling I had taken a step toward peace.  

Caligraphy by Morihei Ueshiba

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