The Technology Of Peace

For all the technological progress we have made as a species, we still struggle when it comes to resolving our differences. Our attempts at sustainability are thwarted by failing to put into practice the subtle technology of how we relate. All our accomplishments will mean very little if we don’t succeed in living together on our planet.

Seeing the urgency of this situation, I am establishing a nonviolence research lab and training group. Using repeated experimentation through a novel type of aikido practice, we investigate our bodies while under simulated attack. The aim is not to learn predetermined martial arts techniques to win fights but to become consciously aware of our automatic responses to threat, which stand in the way of embodying compassion in the conflict situations we find ourselves in, daily and globally.

Aikido is mostly thought of as a Japanese martial art that utilizes circular blending movements to throw attackers, yet in reality it is nothing less than a technology for bringing about world peace. Sadly, this fuller understanding has yet to be widely realized, but I believe this is because of how aikido has been taught and practiced so far.

Training methods adopted by original students of Morihei Ueshiba “O-Sensei,” the founder of aikido, have typically concentrated on emulating his physical movements. Repeated practice of techniques that overpower and throw your attacker using their own movement supposedly leads to a reduction in use of force, eventually culminating in nonviolent enlightenment. The trouble is, when you are attempting to throw someone using a technique, you can’t help but force your will on the situation—attacking them and relying on their collusion while training yourself away from nonviolence.

In copying only the physical movements of aikido, or at best trying to apply them within a philosophical framework of ‘minimum harm,’ the technique repetition approach leads away from actual aikido by overlooking the wellspring that aikido movements flow from. It is impossible for aikido to ‘work’ while you are forcing someone to do something against their will.

Aikido only becomes possible if you want to actually be of benefit to your attacker, which can only happen if you are not attacking back, defending yourself, or running away. This elusive, other way of connecting has not typically been taught, probably because it is hard to pin down, particularly when your training emphasis is on outer expression rather than the inner feeling creating it. Best to leave that enlightenment stuff for later, after you’ve mastered the techniques!

Needless to say, very few people get there, and YouTube videos about aikido typically abound with comments from disgruntled ex-students who know for certain that “aikido doesn’t work in a real fight”—yet they miss the point. Aikido is not about winning fights by techniques ‘working;’ it is about transforming all violence by meeting it with nonviolence in a very tangible way, a skill of ‘feeling recall’ that anybody can develop through practice. When aikido is truly embodied, there is no fight, no loser, no opposing sides, and everybody feels better afterwards.

The Aiki-Lab non-technique approach developed by my teacher, Sensei Corky Quakenbush, puts nonviolence as the starting point, recognizing that it is only because of the inner ‘beneficent intention’ towards attackers that aikido works at all.

Through partner work ranging from meditative to malevolent, we practice imposing connection while our partners practice meeting our connection with the embodied feeling of compassion. We work with role play, starting with ‘desperately imposed needs’ such as being grabbed by someone really thirsty for some water. It is similar to being attacked, yet easier to summon up the feeling of empathy. Later, we work with the idea of being a lifeguard helping a drowning person, extending the range where we can still offer compassionate support while under physical duress. Eventually, almost any attack is permissible training material.

A strange thing happens when imposed connection is met with unconditional support—the two combine and a new pathway forms in pure cooperation. With minimal coaching, it seems that most people can experience nonviolently supporting an attacker several times within the first couple of hours practice. This can feel unexplainable when it happens, like you didn’t do anything—that is because all you were doing was listening through your body.

In training this way, we can uncover the places where we put ourselves under the control of others as we react to them. We experience choice—something other than fight, flight, or freeze. In offering the connection and support that dismantles violence, we are accessing something much bigger than our individual selves.

Directly experiencing the feeling of this larger kind of victory in a way beyond words and ideas, we are equipping ourselves to go out into the world in the service of peace.