Nonviolence Doesn't Just Happen

“Nonviolence doesn't just happen. You don't just suddenly walk into the middle of conflict and know what to do. I've discovered that the people who impress me with their nonviolent behavior in violent situations are inevitably people who have trained themselves and been involved in practicing nonviolent strategies for a while. You can't do it in a weekend workshop ...one must accept nonviolence as a form of fighting, and that's very hard for people to understand. However, compassion and joy can be as contagious as war fever." Joan Baez

This June I celebrate a birthday and a 33-year anniversary of studying Aikido. When I kneel down and tuck my toes under myself to bow onto the training mat, I consider what my practice has taught me. One point stands out. While this relatively recent samurai art can be physically lethal, at its root is peacemaking.

When I started Aikido, I did not know that the solo and partner movement forms were designed to help me examine nonviolence. I did not see that each time we received a strike or punch from our partner, we might consider something beyond self-defense: how to stop the fighting in our lives. In my first year on the mat, no one talked about pacifism. The question I did not know I was asking was: how does learning to fight create peace?

Growing up in my house, nonviolence was an illusive idea. My Irish and Italian heritage did not give me the cultural disposition to find peace over argument. The dinner table was a place of warfare; what began as a dialogue often ended in a family shouting match. As a child, I learned how to narrow my brown eyes and shoot daggers toward those who might be unkind to me. I knew I would not be a candidate for a career in diplomacy.

I was unaware that a daily practice in a martial and contemplative art could change my life. The falling and flying of the training was exhilarating, and my dance background helped me to spin and keep my balance as I learned the techniques. When someone punched me, I wanted to punch back. When my partners resisted me, I searched for a way to overpower them. My defensive self was securely in place on (and off) the mat. I was skeptical that the choose peace part would take root in my life

Several months after I started my training in Boulder, Colorado, I traveled to the San Francisco Bay area and saw Joan Baez in concert. I remember how she sat on stage on a tall stool with her long black hair draped across her shoulders and belted out House of the Rising Sun in the 90-degree heat. When she finished, the audience filled the air with claps and cries. Then, a moment of silence. I was thankful for the gentle breeze that came up as she began to speak her passion about the injustice and the violence that fills our world. “They tell us the Vietnam War is over,” she said, “but the killing continues. We need to stop destroying each other.” She urged us all to consider how might we create a personal and a global strategy that highlighted nonviolent action.

I was intrigued. Just after the concert, I saw an article by Mary McGrory, a Washington Star correspondent who described Joan as “the socially conscious entertainer born to be ‘on the line.'. She loves to sing and she loves to protest.” In between concert performances, Joan spent time in Washington, D.C., at the offices of Senator Edward Kennedy and at the Human Rights Bureau, protesting the Vietnam War. She marched in Mississippi with Andrew Young and spoke at rallies in Berkeley advocating for refugee rights. Often she was criticized for her public denouncement of global injustices. McGrory wrote, “Joan can handle the hostility coming at her from all sides because she’s studying Aikido, the Japanese nonviolent martial art that teaches you to protect yourself from attack while not hurting the assailant.” The article quoted Joan saying “I don’t care an eyedrop about the criticism…Aikido is carrying over into my life. A few years ago I would have been waking up at night. Not now.” I could not believe that Joan Baez practiced Aikido. She was offering me another way to look at the art I had chosen to study.

When I returned to Boulder, I vowed to practice nonviolence as a daily routine. I spent a weekend at the library looking at famous activists who embodied the teachings. Mahatma Gandhi taught that “Nonviolence is the law of our species as violence is the law of the brute. The spirit lies dormant in the brute and he knows no law but that of physical might. The dignity of man requires obedience to a higher law - to the strength of the spirit.” That sparked my curiosity. I was also studying meditation while at Boulder. I began to link Aikido to mindfulness practice. Sitting on the cushion, I tried to quiet my random thoughts to see what existed underneath all the static. Sometimes I could feel myself in the present moment —for just a moment. From that place, anything was possible. I imagined how I might use these methods on the mat. Could I stop the fight by thinking it so? In an hour-long class, we might attack each other two hundred times. I added it up. Two hundred times four nights a week was 800 opportunities a week to end an altercation before it started. Enough for a start.

In that first year I began to see how quite often, my true training partners were the minor frustrations I had experienced that day, or my loneliness or anger. I frequently lost my composure when someone grabbed my wrist too tight or a fist launched towards my face. It was hard not to take the punch personally and it was harder to keep my cool and move off the line. And it was shocking to be actually be hit in the nose when I didn’t move soon enough and remember that the attacker was just trying to offer an honest attack. At once I was angry with my partner, but more upset with myself for my lack of skillfulness.

As my practice matured, I saw how I was my worst enemy on the mat. I began to form a pattern of apologizing to my training partners when I didn’t execute the techniques effectively. It just seemed a good ritual to repent for my general lack of excellence. (I hadn’t even gone to Japan yet to find our how many words there are for I am sorry). One of my friends Midge did it too. We decided to make a bet. At the end of a weekend intensive training, we added up how many times we apologized for breathing, standing, moving, and everything else. Each sorry equaled a quarter. We were both good at this demoralizing habit and counted up over 50 utterances in 9 hours. Fortunately, my friend was just as compelled to apologize for her existence as I was. So we broke even. Over dinner that night we examined our motives more deeply and concluded that it was easier for a sensitive ego to self incriminate rather than wait around for somebody else’s criticism. “I think I’m sorry is a good shield of sorts for protection,” she said. “Nobody can hurt us if we hurt ourselves first.” Ultimately by noticing what we doing in present time, we figured out ways to reduce our habit and subsequently tolerate our less than perfect Aikido abilities.

I found subtle ways to be kinder to myself. I got mad and I got over it quicker than before. I made countless decisions on how and where to move my body through space, and I tried to relax. My training time increased when I moved to Seattle a year later and joined a school that held classes seven days a week. The six a.m. classes with the Chief Instructor Mary Heiny Sensei intensified every aspect of practice. Sometimes I was the only one there. No escape. The evening classes were filled with serious students. I faced my partners, inviting multiple strikes and punches, trying to move to the right or the left, trying to catch their spirit, trying to enjoy it all. Over and over, I practiced not fighting back, Sometimes I battled in spite of my best intentions

Then came the day when a stout middle-aged man with a goatee entered the space with intent to show our Sensei the real Aikido. Although polite enough, once training began and Mary called him up to take ukemi, his stance said: I am going to take you out. I watched her stand in the center of the room and deflect the punches and strikes with ease. It was as if she could read his mind and move before he got any steam up. He couldn’t get close enough to tag her before losing his balance to the ground. Mary didn’t seem angry, just clear that she wasn’t going to engage at the level he had intended. It was a stunning example for me how to not fight the fight.

In that moment I saw that Aikido’s way of neutralizing conflict requires that we pay attention to how we do this physically, mentally, and spiritually. Mary met her attacker’s aggression with compassionate mind. She stayed aware in her body so that she could feel the tension in her bones and tendons, her connective tissue, and her senses, and relax around it. She stopped the fight by asserting a spiritual seniority in her space, by blending. Her actions drove home how ultimately it is compassion—the active desire to ease another’s suffering—that is the true core of the practice. Aikido’s founder, Morihei Ueshiba O Sensei, urges us to operate from the heart. The goal of practice is to train as though we are a family–a united, global family. It’s his idea that daily practice asks us to resolve our differences and recognize our commonality as human beings.

All these years later, Aikido training continues to invite us to study peacemaking with a reverent spirit. The more we practice together, the more we create opportunities to up level our fighting habits. When a strike comes to the side of our head we can choose to get present, establish a calm demeanor and enliven our internal energy field so that we can dissipate the energy astutely and honestly. The more we study this on the mat, the more we can negotiate a conflict wisely in our interactions off the mat. The more we practice loving ourselves the more capable we are spreading peace in our interactions in the world. Joan Baez had it right. We need to invest in nonviolence as a form of fighting, and that's sometimes hard for us to understand. Because it doesn’t just happen; we need to practice.

Kimberly Richardson Sensei, Two Cranes Aikido, Seattle, WA ~ December 2009

Kimberly Richardson