A Little Bit of Life and Death

Personal Note: Has it really been almost a month since I last posted here? For those who check this blog on occasion, I apologize. My intentions remain to post something on a weekly basis as often as possible. However, I’m human just like anyone else, and sometimes things get in my way. Feel free to prod me if it seems like I’ve remained silent for too long… and thanks for reading!

Martial arts is an art form rooted in violence. While many of us practice Aikido, with the character/word do generally translated to “way” or path,” we must recognize that what we study is a series of movements originally intended to prevent someone from causing us bodily harm, and usually employed methodologies to inflict harm on our attacker as punishment.

This is, of course, our history, not our present. Nowadays many people study Aikido for its multiple mental and physical health benefits. And why not? Most of us are well-protected by police and few of us are ever put into a position where physical defense is necessary. This is why, in Kokikai practice, we frequently point out that training to fight is too limiting; why train to do something that you will rarely, if ever, do?

Yet too often it seems like I am running into people who consider themselves martial artists, yet refuse to acknowledge that, as a martial artist, they must be at least prepared to cause physical harm to another. These people are easy to spot: they are the ones who retreat (even if only slightly) when they are attacked during practice. They are the ones that do not attack very well, holding their energy back for fear of either hurting their partner or getting thrown too hard. They are often the ones who stand on the mat with a detatched expression on their faces, as if to say: “This isn’t a real scenario; I don’t need to take this seriously.”

These people may learn something of calmness, they may increase their own levels of phyisical fitness. But they are not martial artists, and I try to point this out as often as possible. Not for any sense of “belittling” them, but to save them from a very dangerous misconception.

What makes a martial artist? There are likely many definitions, but the simplest one I have found is from a book, Japanese Swordsmanship. (Great book, by the way.) To paraphrase a quote I found in it:

The swordsman is one who has the ability to kill, and yet chooses not to.

When I came across this quote, I mentioned it to one of my training partners. We found that we had two very different philosophies. On the one hand, he felt that this quote did not require someone to know how to kill or cause injury. On the other hand, I felt that you had to know; if you did not know, you couldn’t be said to “choose” your course of action. After all, I know nothing of surgery, therefore I cannot choose to not practice medicine. The option just isn’t available to me. If, on the other hand, I went to medical school, passed the relevant tests, then I could choose whether or not to practice medicine.

What is true for swordsmanship, as described in the above quote, and true for medicine, as in my example, is true for Aikido. We are truly fortunate to study a martial art that allows us the opportunity to protect our attacker as much as we seek to protect ourselves. Yet, at the same time, we must study how to cause injury, how to hurt, at least in some abstract form. We must understand and respect that our attacker at the dojo might well be our best friend. But, for the purposes of training, they are now an enemy trying very hard to punch, kick, grab, or otherwise harm us. As ukes, we must also understand what it means to attack in a fully committed fashion, as this not only helps our partner, but teaches us a little bit about the “fighting mind” that we all struggle to overcome.

To offer myself as an example: I am not the strongest, the fastest, or the smartest. But when I attack someone*, I am not thinking about falling. I am not thinking about who this person is off the mat. My mind is focused solely on one thing: accomplishing my goal. That goal could be to hit, to grab, or to kick; it doesn’t matter. If I lose my balance, I think of how to get out of a bad situation safely and quickly. Only after my attack has reached its conclusion (successfully or not) do I allow myself a moment to remember where I am and with whom I am practicing.

Many of us are not warriors. I know I am not one. We do not want to fight, we do not want physical confrontation. These are fine traits to have, and we are fortunate to live in an age that allows us this luxury. However, if we wish to study a martial art such as Aikido, we must acknowledge that physical harm is a necessary concept with which we must be extremely familiar. If we do not understand it, we cannot choose to avoid it; the best we can be is lucky. And self-defense cannot have a foundation based solely on luck.

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