Cultivating Empathy as Part of Your Practice

If you see aikido as a martial art, pure and simple, then the idea of cultivating empathy within your practise is going to seem a bit strange. But if you see aikido as something more, where we use martial technique to learn deep seated principles that make for a positive life, then this idea won’t seem so strange.

In Koichi Tohei Sensei’s ‘5 principles of aikido’ , the fourth rule was ‘Put yourself in your partner’s place’.

It would be easy to think that he meant this in a physical sense and for many techniques it is exactly what you see. We literally blend by getting next to our partner, either by entering and turning, or allowing uke to come to us and then turning in alignment with the direction of the attack. In such situations I have always found that the closer I get to uke and the more I eliminate the physical gap between us, the greater is my connection to them and the more effective I can be in moving with my partner until the attack has been dissipated.

However, there are plenty of times where the technique we end up using does not involve getting to your partner’s side and from the outside it might look like you are in direct conflict. Techniques like ryotetori techinage or shomenuchi ikkyo spring to mind. So how do we put ourselves in our partner’s place in situations like these. The answer lies in the mental/emotional component. There must be a desire to connect, and blend and the more you develop this desire the smoother and more powerful your technique becomes. This is the empathetic element within aikido. (This mental and emotional element is equally important in those techniques where a more physical blend is apparent).

It is important to understand that power does not equate to physical strength or force, but to the ability to see and feel things more clearly. The more you know, the more likely it is that you will come up with the most appropriate solution. As they in sales, ‘knowledge is power’

It is helpful to be able to protect yourself from physical attack, but it is better if you can turn your attacker into a friend.

This is where empathy comes in. If you work purely on the physical application of your technique, you will undoubtedly become more skilful and better able to look after yourself, but resolving a violent encounter with a violent response is a recipe for future trouble. After the First World War, Germany was punished and that effectively lead to the Second World War. The response at the end of that was rather more compassionate, with the allies helping to rebuild Germany and that has led to a pretty peaceful Europe ever since. In simple terms, a violent response engenders resentment and that has a habit of coming back on you.

Generally speaking, people don’t attack without reason and seeking to understand what is going on and respecting it, is far more likely to result in a positive resolution.

On the mat, we take space, (maai), this gives us the best chance of assessing and responding to an attack appropriately. If an attack occurs, we seek to blend with the energy of the attack, rather than to block it and then direct the attack away from ourselves. This is where we reach a critical moment. If you seek to apply a particular response/technique, then you are doing no more than your attacker did to you and a skilled uke will be able to counter you. Allowing the attacker to fully express their attack, (which is their role after all), will ultimately lead to a throw or some other technique. After the event, you may be able to put a label on what you did, but you should have had no intention to go in a particular direction, just to do what was appropriate for the particular situation you faced.

The idea of attempting to fully understand where another person is coming from and at least respecting their subsequent actions, even if you don’t agree with them is what empathy is all about. It is very hard to hate someone who shows empathy and it is a path that leads to the positive resolution of most conflicts.

On the mat, I know when I have been thrown with bad intent (fortunately that has been a rare experience over the many years that I have trained) and I never forget the people who did it. I also know when I have just been thrown clumsily or with a lack of sensitivity and knowledge. Even though it hurts, such people are easily forgiven. Being thrown by people with love is an entirely different experience. It’s so powerful, yet you feel nothing. It’s joyous, energising and brings a smile to your face, even though you end up on the other side of the dojo. Those people I love.

So if you want to take your aikido beyond the mundane, empathy is an important characteristic to develop. The good news is that you will probably get the opportunity to cultivate your empathy on almost a daily basis in real life, as this is where most of us experience regular conflict. So the next time, someone says something that you perceive as an attack, take space, centre and draw out the attack, by asking questions. When you know everything that the attacker is prepared to reveal, it’s far more likely that you will come up with a calm response to solve the problem. Sometimes it’s as simple as just saying ‘sorry’.

The sequence of events is just the same as on the mat, as are the principles that we are applying. Furthermore, if applied skilfully, they lead to an equally satisfying resolution. This is why O Sensei thought that aikido could reconcile the world.

At a time when we cannot practise on the mat in the traditional way because of Covid, it’s worth thinking about how you can apply what you learn on the mat, off it and then you can practise 24/7.