“Martial Arts, Aikido and Peace?” by George Ledyard

george-ledyard-thumbThe one thing that is absolutely assured in this world is change. Change is constant, unstoppable. The entire Universe is in constant flux. At each instant structures are being created and structures are passing out of existence. And yet, nothing is separate, nothing exists in isolation from the Totality. The fundamental problem for mankind is that very few people ever actually get to truly understand this fact. The ones who do are called “spiritual”, “saints”, or Enlightened Ones. The rest of us go through our lives stubbornly acting “as if” we were really separate individuals. We have a love of what is known what is stable, what is predictable. We don’t mind a bit of change as long as it isn’t rapid or too drastic.

But fundamentally human beings consistently show a preference for the belief that what they have and what they know is somehow permanent; that it has some reality. This is one of the essential causes of conflict. We want to protect what we have, we want our view of the world confirmed because the very idea that what we think we believe and we “know” may not be real in some fundamental sense would open up the doors to chaos. If what we believe isn’t necessarily true, then one’s very sense of one’s existence is challenged.

Mankind has shown over and over that it would rather slaughter each other in vast numbers, to cause the most unbearable hardship to itself, rather than accept this fact. Protestants and Catholics have murdered each other in untold numbers over issues that most people today couldn’t even recount. Today, some Shiites and Sunnis, while ostensibly sharing the same faith will butcher each other over differences that first came to light more than a thousand years ago and no one outside their faith finds the least important. We will do each other in over the color of our skins, over the slightest perceived injustices, over the vaguest perception of a threat.

What is at the heart of this violence? Fear; pure and simple. No matter how complex the reasoning is behind some individual fight, societal conflict, large scale war, the basic cause can always traced to fear. Fear of what one might ask? Fear of everything, really. If we essentially cannot come to terms with the nature of reality, then almost every aspect of that reality can cause us to be reminded of what we are trying so hard not to acknowledge.

As a culture we worry that we won’t maintain our position as the richest nation in the world. We are willing to kill our fellows, spend more on war than education, spend more on rebuilding what we destroy than on our own health care… We would rather make war to protect a way of life that everyone acknowledges is unsustainable than make the adjustments required to flow with the inevitable forces of change. Why? Because of fear. The rich fear that they may lose their riches. The poor fear that they may get poorer. We see something someone else has that we want and we fear that they will be somehow “more” and we will be somehow “less” if we don’t have it.

The crucial thing to realize about the nature of the universe is that there is a fundamental balance of the whole. Change is constant in that everything within the system is in a constant flow but the whole has a balance. On an energetic level, if some element of the system goes to one extreme, there will be another which goes precisely to the opposite extreme. In fact they create each other. It is at the center where one finds balance. Although the location of the “center” is ever shifting, there is always a balance point within the system. If one is interested in understanding how to live with as little conflict as possible, in having as much harmony in one’s life as one can attain, it is this “center” which one needs to find.

One of the essential truths revealed through millennium of spiritual experience is that the microcosm is a direct reflection of the macrocosm. All of the conflict we see in the world today exists inside of each individual. In fact, it is the conflict inside the individual members of the collective that produce the conflict ones sees in the world. If people understood how to find that “center” within themselves that allows them to know where they are and who they are no matter where the winds of change would blow, there would be no conflict, there would just be flow.

So what does any of this have to do with martial arts training? How can training in the arts of destruction possibly have anything to do with creating Peace, removing the causes on conflict? The answer is that there is no necessary, fundamental connection. The martial arts developed as the tools of conflict, a direct result of the fear that we have talked about. It is quite possible to train with the wrong intention and merely get good at defeating other people. Saotome Sensei, my own teacher, said that if one simply masters the techniques of fighting, without having a corresponding spiritual underpinning to balance off the “dark side,” so to speak, one just becomes a thug.

The Japanese, through geographical and historical circumstance, managed to preserve their traditional martial culture longer than any other culture. It wasn’t until the 1850’s that the West imposed the realization that their martial culture was hopelessly outdated. In an historically unprecedented period of drastic social upheaval, the Japanese went from a feudal society ruled by a warrior class that still used bows and arrows, spears, swords, etc. to a modern technological society and, by the turn of the century, they had defeated a major European power militarily on both land and sea. They discontinued the Samurai class whose members had to find other ways to earn their livings in a society that suddenly didn’t need them.

Understanding better than anyone that their traditional martial arts had no real function in the world of modern technological warfare, why did the Japanese not only keep training but create new arts out of the old traditional forms? Most of the martial arts that are practiced in Japan and known in the West are fairly new creations. Karate-do, Judo, Kendo, Iaido, Kyudo, and Aikido have all come into being since the late 1800s and the early 1900s. Why did the Japanese leadership feel the need to keep the martial arts as they entered the modern world?

It was because the people who were responsible for taking Japan into this modern world understood that the qualities that training in the martial arts was capable of producing were necessary for the citizens and leaders of any country. Hard work, discipline, self sacrifice, and courage are values appreciated in every culture. Traditional training in a martial arts dojo can produce all of these qualities. Many of the leaders who took Japan into the modern era trained in the martial arts.

It is not my intention to turn this talk into a history lesson. Suffice it to say that the Japanese personify both the light and the dark side of the martial arts. The history of Japan leading up to WWII shows a right wing, racist, military using martial arts as a way to inculcate their extreme values within the populace as a whole and to create the kind of discipline required to take the country to war. The militarists perverted the traditional martial arts training of the classical samurai and the results were disastrous. This is not the aspect of martial arts training we wish to discuss.

Some of the modern Japanese martial arts are sports. They have competition as the main component of their practice. Originally, this competition wasn’t about winning and losing, trophies and championships, but rather it was called shiai. In Japanese this means essentially perfecting oneself by testing oneself against another for your mutual benefit. As many arts have focused more and more on winning over the opponent, on strategies to use the rules for advantage, etc., this sense of training being about polishing one’s own spirit has been lost.

Some arts like Aikido, Iaido (sword drawing), Kyudo (archery) have, for the most part, not become sports. There is no competition and practice is focused entirely on perfecting the art and as a by product of pursuing that end, perfecting one’s own character.

In 1969, the Founder of Aikido died. He had taught martial arts since the 1920’s and his art had changed many times over the years as his spiritual understanding developed. My teacher, Mitsugi Saotome Sensei, trained under the Founder for fifteen years. After the Founder’s death he came to the United States where I encountered him in 1976. I have been training ever since.

I had done some martial arts in college… some Karate, some T’ai Chi, but nothing serious. I saw a poster for a demonstration of Aikido and I went. Thirty years later I am still doing this art. I have been on the mat almost every day in that time. I have spent most of my adult life trying to understand this art. I have never, for one instant, been bored. What I saw when I first set eyes on Aikido was an art that seemed effortless. The power was mysterious, the movements beautiful. Looking at Saotome Sensei one knew that one was looking at a modern day samurai, but the art didn’t seem to be about fighting… it looked, fake, actually. It was clear that something was going on in Aikido that went well beyond what my shallow exposure to martial arts had provided.

I now know that there are many arts which can teach these same principles. Aikido may be one of the most popular and widespread, but the lessons that can be derived from Aikido training can be had by training in other arts as well. It just depends on the teacher…

But Aikido was specifically created to provide these lessons, they are not just a by product of learning to fight. If anything, Aikido is about learning not to fight. Now, I don’t mean that the way many of you would take it. Aikido can be a very effective form of self defense. But it is an art whose principles involve connection as the foundation for all defense. Every technique in Aikido involves setting up a communication with the attacker and a complete acceptance of his attack. It is about relationship and sensitivity; not normally terms we associate with fighting.

Martial arts training can be one of the most intimate things one can do with another person. A few months of daily training with an individual and one knows virtually everything important that there is to know about someone. Sure you may not know any of the details of his life but if you chance to find them out, you are seldom surprised. You cannot hide doing martial arts, especially one like Aikido. The training requires that you come to terms with the things which make you fearful, starting with simply the fear of being hurt and the fear of pain, but later all of one’s fears… the fear of failure, the fear of your teacher’s disapproval, the fear of not looking good, and on and on. Aikido is designed to bring out the best parts of one’s self, but the training will also show you every unresolved issue you have yet to deal with.

Many people get into martial arts because of their fears and weaknesses. In fact, the number of martial arts greats who started life as sickly children or had some traumatic experience early on is amazing. These people started out trying to become invincible. To be so strong that no one could make them afraid or feel powerless again. Many folks who do martial arts are doing them for just such reasons. If they do not encounter the right teacher or the right art, they can go through their entire martial arts careers using the power and knowledge they have developed to hide from the vulnerability they experienced early in their lives. These people have not overcome their fears or come to terms with them, they have covered them up, driven them deep and papered them over with the illusion of power.

Aikido is an art in which it is very hard to get very good at all if one’s motivation is to escape from the need to deal with ones fears. It’s not impossible, but it is difficult. It is impossible to get to the highest levels of the art without starting to deal with one’s issues on some level.

The Founder of Aikido was a Shinto mystic. His expression of the spiritual foundations of the art was difficult for even modern Japanese people to understand. One of his essential principles was that ultimately we are all part of the whole. There is no real separation between us. Conflict is caused by the ignorance of this fact which allows people to keep on acting “as if” we were separate. He knew that we are all integrally connected, pieces within the movement of the whole, but not in any way separate from the whole.

The techniques of Aikido are based on just this understanding. When one stands across from ones partner in training, the first thing one does is establish a mental connection between the both of them. This is essentially just a placing of the “attention” on the partner. This brings the connection between them to the conscious level. If one can stay relaxed when connected like this (not fearful) one can become attuned to the partner to the point at which it is impossible for him to start moving without you feeling the formation of the intention to attack. It’s as if a balance has been attained between the two of them which resembles on old time scale (like the scales of Justice). If the balance has been achieved, and the two sides of the scale are equal, then even the minutest change on one side of the scale will be reflected instantly on the other side of the scale in the exact same proportion.

If one can relax one’s mind enough, to shut up the internal dialogue, and quiet down the urge to be fearful and attack or flee, one can attain just such a connection with the attacker / partner. When the attack actually starts to initiate, instead of having to worry about the speed of response, one is already moving. Speed isn’t really a factor since one moves at the correct time. Movement of the Mind must precede any action. It is movement of the Mind which moves the body. If one is connected on this level with another person it becomes almost impossible for them to move faster than you can respond. In fact, it would really be correct to say that one is not responding. One is already there, at the attacker’s center with ones mind before he ever even starts to attack.

An attacker who is highly skilled might even recognize that someone who is that connected isn’t actually open for an attack. He might very well decide not to attack because he can feel that the attack has already been defeated before it has formed. This is because the mere thought of an attack is fundamentally a mistaken understanding of the relationship between the two parties. An attack is the result of ignorance of the essential connection between the two people in the interaction.

If the attacker is not so attuned, he will manifest his ignorance by initiating an attack. So now the defender will reveal his understanding of this already existing connection by totally accepting the energy of the attack. If he has dealt with his fears enough to not let them produce tension in his body, he can accept the attack and join with it physically, keeping the balance he established on a mental level when he first placed his attention on the attacker.

The doing of this is both simple and very difficult. It is simple in that the actual motor skills involved with accepting and joining with the physical attack are not complex at all. But the relaxation of the mind that is required is very difficult to attain. It requires a lot of hard training and a willingness to deal with the one’s fears which create tension in the mind and therefore, the body. Most conventional martial arts focus on defeating the attack. They are essentially dualistic in their approach. The attacker is the enemy and we must defeat him. The only way to restore harmony to the system when there is conflict is to remove the conflict by defeating to enemy.

In the Aiki arts, defense is accomplished by letting the attacker defeat himself. One uses the connection with the attacker’s consciousness to move his mind so that he moves his body. There must be no physical effort to force the technique. It must be allowed to become what it wants to be. One accomplishes this by moving oneself. Because of the connection between you and the attacker, he will move if you move. But if you just trying to move him, he won’t move, or it will take a vastly superior application of strength for you to move him. So to reiterate, in Aikido we move the partner’s mind to get his mind to move him.

So what does this have to do with non-violence and Peace? Everything really… One will never be able to be peaceful with others until he is peaceful within himself. Aikido is about placing oneself over and over in a situation that is calculated to push one’s buttons. The tension that fear creates makes it impossible to accomplish the physical connection of the attack required to do technique with aiki. One must keep dealing with these fears and progressively letting go of them to be able to keep progressing in the art. Every time you do a technique you find those places where you are still insisting on forcing things, where you can’t simply let the energy find its proper path.

As we stated before, the macrocosm is within the microcosm. The very same principles at work in the techniques that take place between the two partners in Aikido training govern the large-scale relations between people in the world. We can easily see that almost all of the world’s conflict is a reaction against change that people insist on resisting. It works its way over decades and decades as actions and reactions keep going back and forth through time.

If one takes a snapshot of our current international situation, who are the great enemies we fear the most? We just invaded Iraq whose dictator we virtually made one of the most powerful people in the Middle East because we wanted to use him to fight the Iranians. We did this despite our knowledge of just what an odious character he was. Why did we need to be in conflict with the Iranians? There was no historic reason for tension between us. In the early nineteen fifties Iran elected a President. It was a time of Arab nationalism and their President set about nationalizing their oil industry on the radical assumption that the country ought to benefit more from their own oil. Our CIA engineered a coup in which we toppled the democratically elected head of state and we put in our own guy, the Shah. The Shah ruled for decades as dictator of this non-democratic state and maintained his power in the face of great opposition on the part of the Iranian people. When the Shah finally was deposed, he was so identified as a creature of the US that the new government of Iran depicted the US as the Great Satan.

So in reaction to such a clear statement of enmity we decided that we couldn’t live with these guys so we supported a ruthless psychopath in next-door Iraq to counter their influence. But our guy in Iraq didn’t play ball the way we wanted. He wouldn’t behave. So after the deaths of many hundreds of thousands Iranians and Iraqis in the war which we supported, Saddam took to attacking his ethnic minorities and then invaded another neighbor. So we had to go in and intervene again in the area. We set the economic development of the country back by decades. We enforced an economic embargo that prevented the recovery of the country and caused the people great hardship.

Of course, the main conflict going on at the time was our ideological fight with World Communism (which didn’t actually exist). So after the Russians supported the Vietnamese in throwing us out of their country, a conflict in which more than a million Vietnamese were killed, a couple of million Cambodians, who knows how many Laotians, all over the concept of spheres of influence, we decided that the Russian invasion of Afghanistan was a great opportunity to get them back. So we threw millions of dollars and a vast array of high tech military hardware into this feudal society, covertly backing a group of Islamic fundamentalists who shared virtually none of our values. We did so because they were willing to fight against the great foe of the century, the Soviet Union. We gloried in the defeat of the Russians in Afghanistan in the same way that they gloried in our defeat in Viet Nam. I have no idea how many Afghanis died in that one.

So today we find ourselves in a worldwide struggle with the very Islamic fundamentalists whom we supported and trained in Afghanistan. We have now invaded the country of Iraq for the second time, this time removing the dictator that we had previously left in power because we didn’t have anyone to replace him with (had something changed?). And the Iranians, whose leaders remember us as the guys who put in the Shah and deposed a popularly elected leader are more powerful than ever. We can’t deal with the Iranians from a position of power because they rightly see us as completely bogged down in a war in Iraq that in our arrogance, we didn’t anticipate. How dare they not be grateful to us for deposing their leader, who used to be our buddy, despite the atrocities he was committing?

Does anyone fail to see the pattern here? We throw our power around, force our will on the world and then are repeatedly surprised when the result isn’t what we had intended. We use overwhelming force, whether military or economic, to move things the way we want with no understanding that the whole structure is a connected energetic system. We increasingly feel the need to impose solutions rather than find the path of mutual benefit. Diplomacy is now seen as almost the equivalent of wimping out. Real men take names and kick ass. We now feel it is ok, not just to go to war with someone who had attacked us, or looks like they will attack us soon, but we feel ok about attacking someone on the basis that some day in the future they might have the means to attack us. Is it not clear that our current world is ruled by fear?

Our government knows that as long as we stay afraid, we will let hem do as they will. Every time we rise up and get a bit uppity, suggesting that perhaps we might like a different course, the threat of cultural annihilation by hordes of Islamic fascists or armies of undocumented brown skinned non-English speakers rears its head.

If one understands the basic principles that govern the art of Aikido, the futility of continuing in this manner is abundantly clear. If we are terrified of losing or oil supply, so much so that we are willing exist in a state of continuous conflict, wouldn’t it simply be the path of balance to develop an alternative to oil. We could take a fraction of the money we spend trying to maintain the international status quo, which is nothing more than the fear of change we spoke about, and we could put it into research and have a replacement in fairly short order. We took ten years to put a man on the moon. We could certainly solve our energy issues.

In Aikido we move ourselves in such a way as to lead the opponent where we want him. We could accomplish the same thing by taking our country forward by solving the issues that plague us as a country… lack of money for education, lack of money for health care, lack of money for social security, lack of money for innovation, etc. If we spent our resources moving forward in a positive manner, the world would find us to be almost irresistible. They would follow us because we moved ourselves.

This is all so very clear if one looks at the principles in action in Aikido. Efforts to force the opponent to do anything simply result in his ability to resist. If one’s own fear governs one’s actions, one simply cannot achieve the joining that allows a technique to proceed effortlessly. In fact, the act of forcing a technique provides the energy for the attacker to defeat it.

Globalization keeps hitting us over the head with the fact that we are all part of the global whole yet we insist on acting as if we are separate. Let’s build a fence to keep them out. Who is “them?” Why are they trying to come here? Could it be a result of the much touted market forces so revered by the same folks who want to shut these people out? Market forces are just another way to talk about energy. When there is an imbalance, the system will work to correct it. We found out that price controls didn’t really work, they represented an attempt to resist the natural flow of energy within the system. But we think we can create the same kind of barrier to the flow of the human components within the system to balance the huge inequity of wealth that exists. This is readily evident in the Aikido microcosm. But we keep on acting as if we can get away with it in the macrocosm.

In Aikido training we learn to let go of our fear and our need to force things to our own vision to make ourselves feel safe. Safety actually lies in acknowledging our essential connectedness. If we diminish someone else, we diminish ourselves. Maybe not immediately, but at some point it comes back to us. If we enhance someone else, we enhance ourselves, at least some day.

Tens of thousands of people die on our roads every year. Many tens of thousands of people die from diseases that come directly from our own lifestyle choices. We live with these problems and avoid really dealing with them because we don’t want to change. Change is fearful. But three thousand people die in a terrorist attack and we are ready to rewrite the Bill of Rights, rewrite the Geneva accords, invade other countries, neglect our social requirements in favor of trying to be ever stronger, putting up barriers to keep out the “great unwashed.” More weapons, more laws, more surveillance, more barriers, more prisons, more consequences… This is fear at work. No sustainable balance can ever be achieved by approaching things this way.

It is certainly not the case that one person choosing to train in an art like Aikido will change the world in an immediately observable way. But that one person taking his insights out into the world can influence many more. When truth is in front of us it is very persuasive. We intuitively recognize that there is power in the truth that isn’t there in the lies that we constantly tell ourselves and each other. How many people would it take, who started to act without fear, who could change as required in an ever changing world, who understood that communication is the beginning of conflict resolution… how many before the system actually started to shift?

I can’t say that I am personally optimistic that the knowledge that is contained in an art like Aikido will ever be widely understood. It takes work, which most people don’t want to do, and it requires willingness to change, which people want to do even less. I can only say that, as one attempts to do some good in the world by acting in accordance with the principles learned through a martial art like Aikido, one’s own life will be better, one’s relationships richer, one’s relationship with one’s self more content. Living without fear makes one a very powerful person in a society in which people are generally fearful. This power is the power to do some good, to help people get through their lives with just a bit less pain and suffering. Perhaps that’s all this training can do. That’s enough to make it worth doing.

George Ledyard may be contacted via Aikido Eastside in Bellevue, Washington.


  1. Sean Conley says:

    This article is more important in 2015 than ever before as we discuss the Iran Nuclear Treaty.
    I just saw Paul Chappelle speak on Waging Peace. Very fitting.

    Great article.

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