(Content note: this post discusses violence at length).
Lately I’ve been away for aikido for a while; my area was absolutely buried under a mountain of snow for most of February, and I went on vacation to get away from some of this snow, so between being out of the country, practices being cancelled due to blizzard, and just not wanting to go outside, ever, I ended up missing 4 weeks of aikido. Afterwards, it was hard to get back on the mat. I finally went back, promptly got injured, and had to miss another week of practice. I’m finally back on a regular basis — I hope.
This is all a long prelude to saying that this sort of long-term absence is actually quite unusual for me. I have been practicing aikido for about 4.5 years, and for a while, I would barely miss a practice, ever. I would schedule work trips around going to practice; when I absolutely had to be away from my dojo for a week or more (to go see family, for example), I felt like I was falling terribly and irreparably behind.
Looking back, I think this sort of stringent attendance came from a feeling of inadequacy coupled with a firm belief in grinding. I am three paragraphs into this essay, and I haven’t even reached my intended topic yet, so I’ll keep the background short. For a period of about eight years between graduating from high school and being most of the way through grad school, I didn’t exercise regularly, at all. I played lots of video games and didn’t take particularly good care of my body. I played lots of World of Warcraft and got very good at doing repetitive tasks.
I abandoned physical exercise partially because I was convinced, by my peers and my coaches in high school, that I wasn’t going to be very good at sports, so, my brain went — why bother exercising at all? Towards the end of my eight year period of non-exercise, however, new friends and the Internet convinced me that, even if I wasn’t going to be a Champion Sportsperson, taking care of my body was a good idea, and, furthermore, that I already possessed an important skill towards achieving Fitness — grinding! That’s right, I could apply all that patience and dedication I had for leveling up my Shaman to going to the gym, and over time I would level up into more Fit, Stronger Vlad!
I went to the gym and was kind of bored with it. Then, one Fall day in the UK, I went to an aikido club and completely fell in love with it. I applied the full strength of my dedication to Getting Better at aikido; when my time in the UK was up, I came back to grad school and found a dojo there; when I graduated, I moved cities and found a dojo at my new place. I took and passed tests, and my one frustration was that my senseis wouldn’t let me do the tests sooner. I knew how to do the moves, but they would insist on a perfection that I found irrelevant. OK, maybe I’m not moving my arm *exactly* the way you’re saying, but you say it three different ways anyway, and the sensei who teaches on Wednesday says do a fourth way, so what is even the point of getting it right?
Here, six paragraphs in (woo), we finally come to the point of my post. That point being Luke Skywalker’s training with Yoda in the Empire Strikes Back, naturally.
Luke, too, applies himself to get better at the Force. He has a wise teacher, Yoda, who constantly reprimands Luke for being too confident, for rushing ahead. Yoda warns Luke about the Dark Side of the Force and its temptations. At one point, they have the following dialogue:
Luke: “…Is the dark side stronger?”
Yoda: “No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive.”
Luke: “But how am I to know the good side from the bad?”
Yoda: “You will know… when you are calm, at peace, passive. A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, NEVER for attack.”
I have watched the Empire Strikes Back many times, and grew up fascinated with the idea of the Force and the Dark Side. I even played in a roleplaying campaign where I was a Jedi in training who fell to the Dark Side and then had to, slowly, redeem himself. Still, I always thought of these concepts as cool fictions — exciting and intriguing, but relevant to a Long Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far Far Away, not to the here and now. In the real world, you don’t move rocks with your mind or shoot lightning out of your fingers.
Then, slowly, I started making the connections between the Force and aikido. My first step was not going to practice for a month. At first, I felt terrible. I thought I would fall behind, grow weak and unfit, return to my old non-exercising ways. That didn’t happen. I stayed active, thanks to the privilege of having Wii Fit at home; I danced in my kitchen; I did yoga when it wasn’t too snowy. When I came back to practice, it took me hours instead of days or weeks to remember the moves, to catch up to where I had been.
Then I started to wonder — why was I still doing aikido? I definitely still enjoyed the martial art; at the same time, I clearly no longer felt a compulsion to do it just to stay fit. In fact, I started to get more picky about the practices I went to, skipping occasionally when my body was saying, you should stay home, or when I was stressed out by work, or when I just wanted to do other things. My aikido didn’t suffer. To the contrary, I found each practice I went to to be more fulfilling and enjoyable.
Now that I was no longer going to practice for the sake of fitness, I found myself concentrating more on what my teachers were saying, and my techniques improved. They taught me to throw more precisely, more powerfully, more smoothly. At the same time, they encouraged us to attack more forcefully, more directly. A lot of beginner aikido moves involve no weapons; the martial art, however, is at its core about disarming and defending against (blade-) armed attackers. My senseis hammered the point again and again — attack as if you were going to cut your opponent’s head in half, or pierce them straight through with your sword. I started to practice more with wooden weapons, to emphasize the importance of the attacking moves. As the attacks got faster and stronger, when I found myself on the receiving end, I had to move faster and more smoothly, and by this point I had the training to keep up. My techniques started feeling like actual combat and less like techniques.
All this while, I spent a lot of time thinking about the nature of aikido, why I liked it so much. I kept coming back to the idea of non-violence and trying to figure out how it was non-violent to do everything in one’s power to divert and control an attacker running at you with a heavy wooden stick (or, in the real world, a sharp blade). I learned to throw people at great speed on the ground, how to lock their joints, how to put them in a choke hold. How was any of this non-violent?
Then I finally got it. Aikido, like the Force, gives you magical-seeming powers to control the world around you. It exists in a contest of war. People who practice aikido, like the Jedi, are no strangers to combat or violence. Furthermore, their training gives them the ability to control the bodies of other people, to hurt or kill them, and they are constantly in situations where the easiest thing to do is to break the arm, twist the neck (throw a rock or zap your opponent with lightning). The Dark Side is not some cool-sounding fiction — now that I have learned the techniques, I can see the quicker (easier, more seductive) shortcuts towards taking out an opponent. Break their bones. Suffocate them. Throw them into a wall. If I am sloppy, or angry, or straight up violent, I can hurt or kill the people I practice with.
Thanks to my training, and my non-violent nature, I can see the immense amount of hurt and evil those shortcuts would bring. But that doesn’t mean I automatically ignore them. They are part of my training, too. To be a good aikido student, just like to be a good Jedi, is to exercise constant self-awareness, to maintain a sense of inner peace and to practice, without fail, the use of your skills for defense or knowledge, not for attack. The reason I go to aikido practice now is to practice non-violence, and when I am not in physical or mental shape to do that, I shouldn’t go, because of the hurt I could cause. Instead, I can practice aikido right at home, by being peaceful, aware and humble in the rest of my life.