By Sensei Guy Hagen, January 30, 2015

Aikido and Understanding the Stain of Violence

By the time I was a junior in high school, I had already studied a couple styles of Karate for a few years. I recall a particularly significant event in my martial development which occurred while I was attending a very large and crowded party.  I was enjoying myself when suddenly another partygoer – a football player much larger and older than myself – inexplicably tried to start a fight with me for stealing his beer (I had not). There was shouting and shoving, and it escalated quickly to where punches and violence were inevitably going to erupt. With a little luck, quick thinking and verbal misdirection, I managed to send the aggressor on a wild goose chase, away from the party and seeking some other fictional offender I created. Before he even made it out the door, I was mentally congratulating myself on dissipating the situation without violence; smiling, I looked around expecting to see everyone around me as relieved as I was, and congratulating me on my clever and violence-free solution. To my shock, everyone at the party was still backing away from me, with fear and nervousness in their eyes. That’s when I first learned that the way Hollywood portrays heroes is often a lie; when encountering violence, most people treat even the hero with fear, and that even then I had not escaped the conflict without repercussion.  Although I was the target and potential victim of the violence, to the bystanders I still symbolized something frightening that they did not know how to handle. Even though I had practiced what many would feel is the spirit of Aikido even before I had met my first Aikido teacher, I found that the stain of violence had still injured me.  I found that for days afterward, I was emotionally disrupted, wondering how things could have been handled differently.

As I matured and continue to mature in life, I learned to recognize many times when that emotional after-effect re-appeared.  Usually, it happened in context of a workplace conflict (a dispute with a co-worker, a political power play, the inappropriate direction of blame); sometimes it happened in context of personal relationships.  Regardless of how well or poorly I handled the situation from a professional or relationship standpoint, I noticed that when there is conflict or aggression and even when there is no violence, sometimes there would be an emotional cost that left me subtly emotionally off balance, nervous, or “sick feeling”.  Recognizing the feeling for what it was always helped me quickly regain equilibrium, and being “on the lookout” for the feeling as I entered a conflict sometimes helped me act and communicate more wisely.

Often when I read people’s opinions about the purpose of Aikido, they talk about the resolution of the physical part of violence; dissipating the attack and immobilizing (or simply evading or wearing out) an attacker. Buy my experience revealed that the physical context of violence is only half of the battlefield.

Fortunately, Aikido – more than any other art I have practiced or been exposed to – seems to have tools for interacting on the emotional and spiritual battlefields. Saotome Sensei has spoken often about the responsibility of Aikidoka to protect aggressors from the bad karma they would inflict upon themselves through violence. I believe that means we must study more than the physical aspects of violence, but also learn to see the reason and direction of violence before it manifests, to understand the wounds and pain that motivate the need to hurt and dominate or event to protect one’s own point-of-view.  In my own experience, karma (and I apologize to my buddhist and hindu friends for my simplistic use of the term) is not an indirect abstraction but an immediate and lasting wound that one can experience when situations are sufficiently conflicted and tense.


Sho Bu, “Martial Wisdom”

The Aikido Dojo is a laboratory in which we can observe our reactions, and those of our students and colleagues. When we are hit unexpectedly, do we react with anger or pride?  When our technique is stopped, do we become stubborn and forceful?  When we are injured, do we pity ourselves and cherish our wounds, or let our pride force us to ignore them?  When we tire or do not measure up to others’ accomplishments, do we feel a flash of jealousy, dislike, or insecurity?  If we are honestly and aggressively self-critical – yet forgiving – we can create moments that test all dimensions of our character on the mat within a single keiko, and test and train our emotional responses and emotional aspirations and emotional integrity more thoroughly than 20 years of sitting in a church pew.

We can seek those moments in ourselves which pride or irritation or self pity or offense occur, and learn how to recognize and dissipate those reactions. I don’t think we should chastise negative emotions in the Dojo, as that will just drive them into concealment. Instead I think we can celebrate self-examination and the opportunity to grow, heal, and move beyond our shortcomings; we can perceive, recognize and let go in time to deal with the next attack; we can be willing to laugh at ourselves and with our friends and accept their shortcomings as they accept ours. By better monitoring and challenging our emotional selves, I believe we can gain better insight into the teachings of O Sensei, into seeing beyond the physical expression of violence, into becoming more effective martial artists and becoming wiser teachers. Perhaps through this type of honest and self-critical training we can gain some perception and understanding of the psychic stains and wounds caused by violence, learn to use karma as a tool, and become the healers and uniters in society that O Sensei wished.

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