On Aikido, Power, and Humility

In the Spring of 1925, swordsman and martial arts expert, Morihei Ueshiba had a vision.  For some prior period, he had been training hard and engaging in a rigorous routine of spiritual cleansing (misogi) in the mountains near his home.  One day, the ground beneath him began to vibrate, he was bathed in streaming light from above, and surrounded by a golden mist.  He later said of his experience that, "I saw that I am the universe. All at once I understood the nature of creation; the way of a warrior is to manifest divine love, a spirit that embraces and nurtures all things. I saw the entire universe as my abode, and the sun, moon, and stars as my intimate friends. Tears of gratitude streamed down my face.”

“The way of a warrior is to manifest divine love.”  What a fascinating idea, and one at the heart of the martial art of aikido that Ueshiba founded and which I have practiced for many years.  It is a defensive art in which one makes use of an aggressor’s balance and momentum to throw, pin, or immobilize them.  The name itself means “the way of harmonizing energy.”  

I happened upon this practice – and my dojo -- quite by accident, walking to the Metro one sunny morning 20 years ago.  Intrigued by a beautiful martial arts dojo on my quiet Takoma street, I wandered in and immediately felt as though I had come home.  I was captivated by the beauty of the movement and the idea of actively engaging an act of violence in a way that kept both the attacker and attacked from being (seriously) injured; a process that involves learning how to keep myself centered and balanced in the midst of confrontation.

These are lessons that, obviously, apply to more than physical combat, and ones that I have found to be a power gift in many (all?) areas of my life – particularly church work!  I sometimes get asked how I stay calm in the midst of a conflictual church meeting, and my response is I spend so much time learning how to be calm when someone is swinging a fist (or a sword) at my head, that keeping calm in the midst of a verbal attack seems pretty easy.

Last week, I had the opportunity to join in my dojo’s annual summer camp, in which over a hundred students from all over the world join together for a week of intense practice.  Our senior instructor, Mitsugi Saotome, is a world-renowned aikidoist, and was a disciple of the art’s founder.  As he reminisced last week about his time with Morihei Ueshiba, he spoke of meeting Osensei (“Great Teacher”) for the first time.  He said, “His humility stole my soul.” 

One of the lessons of aikido (and Christianity!) is that humility is not a sign of weakness. Truly powerful people do not need to demonstrate how powerful they are; their power manifests itself in a multitude of unspoken ways.  Ironically, it is generally those who are weakest (or feel themselves to be weak) who engage in demonstrations of their own power.   And acts of violence always come from a place – metaphorically and physically – of imbalance.

I am so grateful for my dojo community (my “other church”) and this wonderful discipline that has shaped me in such profound ways over the years, and taught me more about my faith.  And I get to play with swords!