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Managing Conflict

If you were asked what aikido was about and were restricted to using no more than one sentence, what would you say? I asked my students this and was a little surprised with how hard they found it to come up with a pithy and concise answer. Admittedly, I was ahead of the curve as I had asked myself the same question and had plenty of time to reflect on my answer, which was not a luxury I gave them.

My answer is that aikido is best defined as ‘managing conflict well’.

All martial arts are based on conflict. There is attack and defence manifested in technique and the aim is obviously to protect yourself and to defeat the enemy. Perhaps what sets aikido apart is that we are encouraged to question who the enemy is and if there is an enemy at all.

If we end up with the victor and the vanquished, then have we really managed the conflict well? I would suggest that actually all that has been achieved is the sowing of seeds for future problems. When the First World War ended, the Germans were punished by the allied forces and the result was the Second World War. Following the cessation of the Second World War, the victors sought an alternative approach of re-construction and from that sprang the European Union that has helped generate over 70 years of peace.

We also need to look at the word ‘enemy’ and ask ‘who is the enemy’? The answer is perhaps rather closer to home than you might care to admit. First and foremost, you are your own worst enemy. The real conflict in aikido lies within. The founder of aikido stated:

“True victory is victory over oneself’.”

This is worth deeply reflecting on, because perhaps the main aim of aikido is to become the best version of yourself that you can be, (a lifetime’s mission that you will never fulfil). Ask yourself, the following questions:

  • Who do you want to be?

  • What would the best version of yourself look like?

  • Who is stopping you from becoming this?

The answers may be revealing and should be kept in mind when you practise both on and off the mat. If you are not mindful of the change that you want to bring about, then it will happen by chance or not at all. It is important to know that whatever you bring to the mat; too much ego, anger, shyness, fear, pride, lack of confidence etc. belongs to you, and the only one who can change it is you. The real conflict lies within you, not outside of you, and as you work to be at peace with yourself, you will find it much easier to be at peace with the world at large.

Koichi Tohei Sensei emphasised this when he brought the principles of coordination of mind and body into the art. In Ki Aikido classes literally half the lesson is spent looking at this aspect of yourself. The takeaway from this is that before you can work effectively with others, you have to be able to sort yourself out.

But if this is not the way your class is structured and your class is principally based on the one on one practise that most of us generally undertake, the aim is really the same. It may not be so obvious but this form of training offers a huge opportunity to look at who you really are and where you are at in a very visceral and real way. To understand how, we need to examine and appreciate the role of uke, (the attacker). I will not go into this in detail here, (see for that), but in essence uke’s job is to help nage, (the person receiving the attack) to learn about themselves. Uke should bring nothing to the game other than their energy and intent. Everything after that is just a reflection of what is going on with nage.

In short, if you want to get better at aikido take a really good look at yourself. Don’t focus on the mechanics of the technique; this is just the start of the journey. Most teachers will tell you that being awarded your black belt just means that you have passed your driving test and now you are ready to make your own way in the world. Where you go is up to you! In aikido terms that means that you now should take the responsibility for your learning and development and not be totally reliant on your teacher.

It really isn’t a big leap from this, to seeing the applications in your daily life. Believe it or not, it’s still you that gets in the way of being your best self, off the mat as well as on it. Those faults that hold you back on the mat also hold you back in life generally. Developing these aspects of your personality for the better on the mat should improve how you handle yourself in your day to day dealings.

It’s worth reflecting on the fact that whilst you are your own worst enemy, this is also true for everyone else. So cut others some slack, because then it is easier not to see someone attacking you as an enemy, but instead they can be viewed as a fellow traveller. When you do this, we become more motivated to find a positive resolution for both parties.

Most of us have to experience conflict of some sort virtually every day. Every mother dealing with their tantrum toddler knows this and many a boss might feel the same way about their staff, and vice versa. Resolving these conflicts is the reality of life and the acid test of your training.

Bear in mind that whether you are dealing with someone wielding a sword at your head or a screaming toddler, the fact is, that you are much more likely to find a positive way of dealing with the situation if you can remain calm, relaxed, engaged, grounded and centred. In this state your chances of achieving a positive outcome for both parties are much higher.

Conflict in itself is not a bad thing, indeed it is an agent for change. Now, whether that change is for the better or worse is up to you. Conflict genuinely offers you the chance to grow, so grasp it with gratitude and seek to find the positives. If you do then you are truly practising aikido and ‘managing conflict well’!

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