“Aikido and/or self defence – Part 4” by Szilard Pal

Now it’s time to talk about the last self-defence principle. I’d like to start with an example from a movie. You might remember a film called Road house, or – in case you are too young to have seen it – it’s recommended. Apart from the action scenes and some questionable momentums in the film, there are some interesting things in it as well, such as the following:

The part I would like to highlight is between 3:00 and 3:18.

But what do I want to say with this? How does it relate to self-defence?

Many people think that self-defence is nothing else but, if someone insults or attacks you, you have to gather all your knowledge to destroy the attacker. This scene can, unfortunately, escalate into something more dangerous and unfortunate. In my opinion, and based on my own experiences, self defence should be about defending the self and not harming others. I have to do anything to avoid situations, or the risks of situations, in which someone gets injured or hurt. In other words, I can only engage in a physical ‘fight’ if there is no other way. I have read in several places that fights, or situations in which someone provokes you to get physical, can be avoided by showing confidence. So if I behave like this, the probability that someone will provoke a fight with me will decrease. Now, if someone wants to fight I think they will look for others with this kind of behaviour, and if there is not enough technical knowledge behind confidence then me becoming a loser in a fight will come easily. So the above kind of behaviour is not correct. Why am I writing this and how is this connected to the above film? If I allow my ego to win over myself and to be lead by my sudden emotions (i.e. if someone swears at me I punch them in the face) then I can easily lose. This is simply because there is no way I’m stronger or better then everyone I come across with. This cannot be decided by exchanging words. If I’m not completely aware of the capabilities of my opponent, then I’m just gambling and guessing that I’m better than them. I’m not saying that I want to be a loser or that I’m a coward. I’m just saying that staying calm results in better situations than being sudden. This thought is also presented in many books and writings, including the famous The Art of War by Sun Tzu.

Let me give a bit more practical explanation (practical examples are more understandable for the Western mind). If you think about it, when you are calm you can react much better than in a nervous state. If you are calm you can make correct decisions whatever situation in life we are talking about. Why would it be different in a ‘crisis’?

After this long introduction I’ll start discussing the self-defence principle I find very very important. We could call this ‘mental level self-defence’, and by this I mean the following: it is not only our physical skills that need to be developed in order to protect ourselves, but we need to improve another set of skills that allow us to silence our minds, and to behave without being hasty or too sudden. And it’s here where the thought of the above mentioned movie appears, which says that words cannot hurt anyone physically. You won’t suffer any bodily harm if someone swears at you. Physical injuries are the results of situations in which, being lead by a hurt ego or feelings, without thinking first, someone enters situations, fights, in which someone can get hurt physically. It might be that it’s the verbal aggressor who gets injured, but it can also be both parties or just you, perhaps some innocent bystanders. Here comes in one of the principles of aikido that states that you should try to create harmony with your environment. This harmony does not simply mean to keep myself from getting hurt, but also, that I’m responsible for the non-injury of my opponent and environment. Unless it’s unavoidable I won’t go into fights; unless it’s unavoidable I won’t injure others; unless it’s unavoidable I won’t destroy my attacker. In other words, I’m trying to live by the principles of budo.

Think about it, which situation is better? If some says bad things and you take it personal, start quarreling and then fighting, then – in a better case – your opponent gets injured, or, if there is no physical confrontation after the initial words of someone, and both parties leave the scene uninjured? I thing the answer is easy. In the second case you don’t just take care of your personal safety, by your controlled ego, but you also saved the attacker from injury. Maybe both of you got your feelings hurt but if you can overcome these you won’t be interested in taking the words of others who don’t know you. Try to create your own unification, and once this is done, you will be able to behave calmly in difficult situations.

A friend of mine who I used to train with once told me an interesting story. Our Sensei invited a a Wing-Tsun master to one of the aikido trainings (unfortunately, by the time of this I had left the dojo). One of the students asked him a question: “What can you do, what technique can you apply once a knife is pointed at our throats from a distance?” To this question, he received an unexpected answer (which was not some standard self-defence blah-blah): “No problem, you just take off your watch, get your wallet out of your pocket and give it to the attacker.” If you think this over, this is a really easy and peaceful settling of the situation. Why? I can’t stress it enough that self-defence is about preserving one’s self and health. As the risk of injury is very high and success is not guaranteed at all, our lives are not worth risking for being able to keep some material possessions. You can buy another watch, you can earn some more money you can use, but you have only one life, and you cannot just get another one if one is lost. You can also think about how you got there, or how the other person got into the given situation, and you might find that there is no point in playing the game of struggling or fighting for something that is replaceable. Think about what you can or should learn from the situation, think about what you might cause if you happen to manage to beat up the attacker, generally, what are the consequences of a fight. If you ‘win’ and your opponent gets injured heavily, how will you feel? Are you sure you did the right thing? These are questions affecting your self-conscience. (And an additional question: can you justify the level of brutality, you have just applied, to the authorities?)

In order to be able to behave calmly and to remain thoughtful we need self-discipline and a high level of consciousness. To acquire these skills, there are various exercises such as breathing exercises and some partnered exercises. However, in this post I would like to keep to the topic of mentality, so I will write my thoughts regarding the mental part of things. I often tell my students that they keep too long distances when practicing some techniques. We can use this example to discuss mental self-defence. The main point is that aikido is about love, harmony and peace. Being close physically, spiritually or mentally have to be there in the picture. Who can you get close physically, spiritually and mentally? To those you love. An aikido technique works if you get close, so you must love your attacker to make things work. This is the only way to understand, to exist together, to feel others’ thoughts and the causes of their actions. The following is a theory I use to love the opponent instead of hating them: The root of the universe is infinity. We all are parts of this, we are all one with infinity, and this also means that our opponent is a part of us, and we are a part of them. As we are able to love ourselves despite our flaws, we are also able to learn to love our opponents. If we can implement this theory we will be able to get close to others in at least the above mentioned three aspects. Once we get close it might be completely pointless to do any technique to disarm the attacker, but if we just focus on the level of techniques, we will be able to sense our attacker.

An additional thought to this theory: A thought, or visualisation if you like, how to keep calm and relaxed: we often wrestle playfully with my son, we start from various positions, and I’m usually able to get out without the smallest amount of tension. The other similar situation is when my students attack me, even choosing the type of attack freely. I still don’t see any tension when moving, I can move freely, in a relaxed way and avoid their attacks. I interpret these situations against my ‘opponents’ in the following way: all of them are close to me spiritually, so I am able to sense them using the feeling of love, and I can sense their movements better. When they attack, there is no such feeling as “I want to defeat them no matter what” but a love-dominated acceptance which allows to create harmony with my partner(s). From this, it follows naturally that if I can relive these feelings with a stranger, or even an aggressive attacker, I will be able to achieve harmony in myself and with them on a higher level. And by this, I will have made another step towards O-Sensei’s concept of being one with the Universe. And to give a quote from O-Sensei that is related to mental self defence:

“First master the techniques of Aiki
The way of the Gods
Then no enemy will ever attack.”


  1. I had the same experience last year. One of my students at school (I’m a high school teacher) was actually robbed by three thugs who pointed a knife at his throat. He asked me what I would have done and stated that ‘with all the tricks you know, sir, with all due respect, you would be in deep trouble as well’. I told him he had done the right thing: surrender the money and walk; I added that I would have done exactly the same thing. Primo, I have a wife and two young children and they don’t need a dead or injured hero, but a husband and a father. Secundo, it’s not worth taking the risk of lethally wounding one of them, you might be prosecuted yourself, which could create a financial problem for you and your relatives. Defending yourself is also staying out of trouble. I also added he should think about how this could have happened in the first place.

  2. Good stuff. I particularly like the “be nice”. Unfortunately I have to take issue with the whole concept of self-defense. It’s a poor translation of budo. Rather I feel that aikido is about giving up your life. In old forms the mantrum was “choose death”. Not a bad starting place. O Sensei said be attached neither to life nor death. That’s harder.

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