“To injure an opponent is to injure yourself. To control aggression without inflicting injury is the Art of Peace.”
-Morihei Ueshiba, founder of Aikido, in The Art of Peace
I don’t remember how young I was–10? 11?–when my Aikido sensei started teaching me to use a boken, a wooden training sword. I remember the first first lesson. He showed me a strike (maki-uchi) that sent the wood arcing through the air, and then stood a long step away. He told me to stand still. I nodded.
“Don’t move,” he repeated.
I think I knew what was going to happen, but it was still surprising: he moved like a wave, like a whip unfurling. I watched his hands but couldn’t see the wooden blade itself as it flashed through the air. And then I could see it again, motionless, an inch from the side of my head.
After that I started learning how to strike with my own boken.
He never explained the lesson, at least not with more words. Most of his explanations had more actions than words: “Lead with your mind, not the blade. I’m going to tell you that again and again, and again, and then one day you’ll do it, and say, ‘Why didn’t you tell me to lead with my mind instead of the blade? And I’ll just look at you, and smile.” Or: “I can’t teach you the right way. You’ll keep finding ways that don’t work. I’ll teach you not to do them. And then eventually you’ll stumble on the way that works.”
Recently my students read Le Guin’s commencement address, her comments about our society’s infatuation with hierarchies, competitions, aggression, violence. Half my students didn’t see what she was pointing at, and the other half started listing off moments when they’d seen someone admired for hurting someone else. The moments when hurting was seen as showing power, as showing superiority. And then I was back, a ten year old kid, trusting my teacher while he swung a training sword.
Imagine a society in which hurting someone is shameful. Not just wrong: shameful. A failure of attention, of control, of responsibility. Whenever we trained with a partner, my sensei made it clear that our goal was to help our partner get better. We understood that we should be as proud of each other’s progress as we were of our own. We understood that, if someone trusted you to throw them and keep them safe as part of your learning, and you hurt them, then you’d failed in your responsibility. You’d stepped away from the path, from the Art we were studying.
In swinging the sword, I think my sensei said: I’m teaching you to be strong. And as I teach that, you will learn to hold onto your strength. You will learn to control your movement. Because we are learning together, we are responsible for each other, and “to injure an opponent is to injure yourself.”