079) The Delusions of Self-Defense in Aikido: March 2011

I find the concept of “self-defense” to be a thread of delusions wrapped around a core of fear and insecurity.  Some people conveniently use this term to justify their distorted views of their world which can range wildly on a “fight-peace” spectrum of possible responses to potential threats.

On one end of this spectrum we have those who view their world as dangerous.  They perceive that the best way to survive is to be tough enough to deal with that threatening world.  They tend to promote the “We must practice hard in intense encounters in order to to be able to use Aikido as a martial art.  All that soft ki  stuff is useless and crazy….”  The more macho, tougher, beat-up you become, the safer you become.  People who practice like that over a long period of time end up with chronic injuries that prevent them from being able to continue to train in the manner that they are accustom to.  They then tend to replicate that with the next generation and reminisce about the good old days and complain about how soft the next generation has become.  They absolutely miss the proverbial boat in learning another way that is also effective, but allows you to still practice effectively in old age.  Of course, they cannot “see” this and instead talk about how the students are taking dives for that old person out of respect….What bunch of nonsense!  Their initial premise  about their dangerous world is suspect at best.  We need to explore with them what exactly they feel the need to defend themselves against?  Statistically, what are the odds of you being attacked?  Attacked by what?  You have “mastered” the ability to engage in hand-to-hand fighting only to be attacked by a machete, wielding attacker.  You have “mastered” the ability to engage in edged-weapons-to-hand fighting only to be attacked by a machine-pistol, wielding attacker.  You have “mastered” the ability to to engage in firearms-to-hand fighting, equipped with the top-of-the-line ballistic-proof shielding only to be struck by an attacker who hijacked a bus to run you over.  You have built an impenetrable fortress only to die from bubonic plague from the rats and mice within your fortress.  What they fail to see is that in trying to make themselves “tough enough” they are actually weakening themselves in the long run.  This of course is their right to continue to practice in that manner.  They can try and deny a larger reality that they ultimately will have to face.   This is all done in the belief that what they are doing will allow them to defend themselves.

On the other end of the delusional spectrum, you have people talk about the” highest level” of Aikido achievement in which you can induce a state of harmony in your attacker through your mere presence.  Their practice  of Aikido tends to resemble over-reactive, collusive and overly-compliant responses to almost anything as long as it “goes with the flow…”   I can see this higher level now….. The mugger is about to jump you from behind, stab you and take your wallet while you are left to bleed to death.  Instead, you turn and extend positive ki toward the would-be-mugger.  That mugger suddenly is overwhelmed with love and hugs you like a long-lost sibling.  The next thing you know, you two are sitting by a campfire, roasting marshmallows and singing “Kumbaya” in a perfect two-part, acapella  harmony.  This too, is a bunch of nonsense.  The reality is that there are people out there that actually like to harm other people.  There are people out there that do not care what happens to another person as long as they get what they want.  They look at these idealistic people as easy targets (and they frequently are).  These “targets” typically do not respond appropriately when the idyllic responses that they expect from others do not materialize.   These people can practice that form of Aikido into old age.  Of course it is just practice and fails soon after the opponent “decides” not to harmonize in peace.  I am reminded of a story told by one of the early, female pioneers of Aikido in the US.  She talked about an incident in which someone tried to mug her.  She put the person in a joint-lock and the mugger screamed in pain.  She released the lock because the person screamed out in pain.  The mugger then attacked her again and this time she got hurt.  She certainly learned an important lesson that she felt was important enough to share with others.

Let me cue some people into a well-known secret.  Self-protection is a far smarter area to focus in on than self-defense.  If you take the time to study “predator behaviors” you will quickly notice that the predator hunts out victims based upon some criteria.  If you study what the criteria are, you can do things to not fit a “victim profile.”  Proper preparation, situational-awareness and pro-active actions (including the use of self-protection tools) can go a very long way toward preventing ever having to defend yourself against a predatory attack.  Another aspect of self-protection is the acceptance of reality.  That means that the world will never be all loving and kind.  It also means that the world will not be a dangerous place that requires constant vigilance and defense.  Being aware in the moment, without those preconceived biases can assist you in making better decisions in evaluating and responding to potential threats.

Aikido is a martial art.  In essence, it is a slice from the larger pie called budo.  Like other slices, it tends to be stylized, with a distinct set of characteristics that can be viewed as being positive, neutral, or negative (depending upon your perspective). Needless to say, the range of styles within the art of Aikido can be quite large, each with their own unique sets of characteristics (which will also be viewed differently by different people).  The practice and study of Aikido can be a very positive experience for some people that can directly translate into better self-protection and self-defense skills.   I can only talk about what I believe to be the benefits from practicing the style of Aikido that I do.  I leave it to others to come to their own conclusions as to any “costs” or “benefits.” To date, it has worked fine for me and I only seem to be getting better at what I am doing.

I believe that the study of Aikido is not easy and takes long to be able to effectively utilize because you are essentially re-programming the person to respond to an attack in a manner that is different than what one would typically do.    I am not in a rush to defend myself.  If there was any kind of urgency, I think that a shotgun is your best bet.  I am willing to allow myself and my students the time necessary to deeply understand how one typically responds to situations so as to begin to change that response set.  Time is necessary in order to reprogram the body to respond differently when having to immediately respond under atypical, high stress conditions.  The typical response set is based on reciprocal tensions.  This is a force-on-force based paradigm that has it’s own set of “positives” and “negatives.”  I am training myself and my students to not respond with reciprocal tension to an attack.  The alternative is using a set of principles centered around “Aiki.”  This appears to be a subset within “internal strength.”  Some people simply do not believe that this stuff exists and others believe that this stuff is no different that what one can do through physical training.  Not surprisingly, those opinions are typically expressed by those who refuse to explore the differences.  I frankly do not care whether or not people choose to believe in it or not.  I have experienced it’s effectiveness for myself in martial applications and can say that it is remarkably different from other types of training.  I will admit that some of the stuff simply looks fake and can look like movements that are not “aiki” based.  Once again, people can choose to believe what they want to believe.  I personally find this “stuff” to be a more efficient and effective manner of responding to attacks (albeit, longer to learn).  This type of reprogramming is based on utilizing incoming force so as to neutralize the force while simultaneously opening the attacker up to having the openings created by the attack exploited.

Retraining your body in the above-mentioned manner can allow you to move more efficiently and effectively.  It can allow you to strike the person in a manner that this person’s body has a hard time managing the incoming force.  It allows you to unbalance a person in a manner that creates the unbalance before the person is effectively aware of that condition.  Simply put, it allows you to do more with “less.”

Retraining your body in the above-mentioned manner helps you to become significantly more aware of yourself and your surroundings.  In terms of self-protection, situational awareness is one of the foundational elements.  The sooner that you can become aware of potential dangers, the more choices you typically have in being able to address the situation so that it does not move to a self-defense situation.  If it did have to turn into a self-defense situation, the ability to be deeply aware of what the other person is doing (or potentially doing) is a major tactical advantage to have.  You should always want to respond and adapt quicker than an attacker.

Retraining yourself in the above-mentioned manner should help you become better adept at managing interpersonal interactions.  That should hopefully be able to be translated into having better relationships with those around you.  This should help you exist to thrive within a better-connected community.  That type of community typically serves as a deterrent to predatory attackers.

This type of training can and should utilize increasingly more realistic types of attacks as a person begins to function and respond in this new and different manner.  This type of practice needs to be cooperative and not collusive in order to train intensely and safely.  This practice requires a bracing honesty in how we interact with our partners.  It is not easy and takes practice to learn to be a good partner so that both people are always learning and moving forward.  This type of training can entail a wide range of response sets ranging from the neutralization of the attack to the demise of the attacker.  You need honest training partners in order to practice dangerous outcomes in a safe and controlled manner.  To me, one of the benefits of Aikido is that it is like most Chinese restaurants.  You can get Hunan, Cantonese……  Aikido can provide a person with a wide range of responses to situations with the ultimate goal of you being allowed to live in peace (even if that means that you kill another person).  This month we will look at some of the ranges of options contained with the techniques practiced.  After all, techniques are kata.  Effective utilization of these kata is what enables Aikido to be used effectively to defend ones’ self.  This can be done without having to turn yourself into a “tough person” or turn yourself into a “new-age pacifist.”

Marc Abrams Sensei

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