Aikido and Self Defense – How to Acquire the Skill

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All martial arts talk about self defense benefits, yet they can be very elusive.  Some people offer self defense classes where you learn a couple of techniques in a day and go off certified as equipped to handle yourself if someone out there really attacks you.  Chances are the student will become overconfident in their abilities and get themselves into trouble without knowing how to get themselves out of it.  So how do we approach acquiring real skill in self defense?  What are our responsibilities as a student?

As in any martial art, Aikido teaches the notion of non-attachment.  To the extent you are attached to any phenomena, that phenomenon becomes your weakness.  As a reference, Takuan explained the matter well.   So to become truly effective in self defense, we must release our attachments to all phenomena, and anything short of complete success will leave us open to defeat.  Once open, a perceptive attacker will always be able to harm us, and so we may only rely upon the fortune that they do not figure out our weakness.  The ability to defend ourselves will not be based upon skill.  So if we begin our practice hoping for self defense skill, that wish will act as an attachment and we will fail.  Instead, the initial approach to training should involve dropping that motivation and simply practicing.  Through practice one learns to drop all attachments, including the fear of being harmed if attacked, and this approach is the fastest way to accomplish the goal.

Over the years, I have heard people from virtually every martial art talk about how they believe their training would never work in real life, and the grass is always greener in some other discipline.  Aikido does not work because you do not start out with 100% resistance.  Judo does not work because you don’t deal with people striking.  Tai Chi does not work because you spend all day doing these weird forms.  Karate does not work because if you miss and the opponent gets up close and personal, you are at a complete loss.  MMA does not work because if there are two opponents or one is armed you are clueless.  Proposed solutions?  Do Aikido, Judo, Tai Chi, Karate and MMA.  Each method teaches the same principle: nonattachment.  If you achieve the goal of nonattachment, any of these methods will work.  The point is that one should not become frustrated at the intermediate levels of practice and give up training for nonattachment or success will never be achieved.

There is, however, another point.  In Aikido I was taught that there are two methods of study.  One is to study Aikido itself.  Another is to study other forms of knowledge and use what you learn there to see and understand what you are learning in Aikido.  To the extent someone finds certain avenues of study helpful, approaching self defense via cross training in another martial art can be very helpful.  One steps outside the Aikido world and attempts to examine the same principles through a different lens.

This opportunity addresses the student’s responsibility in achieving success.  No martial art is designed as a method to spoon feed information to the student.  In fact, in olden days they used the term “steal the technique.”  Stealing the technique does not refer to taking something which does not belong to you.  I would reference the article in Hoa Sensei’s book for further interest, but basically the idea is the student is responsible to investigate matters and find the solution themselves.  The teacher is not responsible to offer up everything on a silver platter.  The student must investigate on their own with 100% thoroughness, or success will never occur.  So the student must investigate the points completely and simultaneously be completely unattached.  Perhaps you can get a sense for why genuine skill in self defense is considered to be elusive.

The decision on whether to cross train or not is completely personal.  If someone, in the process of diligently studying the notion of nonattachment, feels examining the matter through a different lens would be helpful, they should certainly pursue it.  If they find a school that can help them and have the time and opportunity, the process can be very productive.  If they are not interested or cannot find the appropriate opportunity, continued study of nonattachment in the midst of self defense related activity in Aikido can work as well.  Again, the decision is completely an individual matter.

So in summary, the student of Aikido, in order to learn genuine self defense skill, must take on complete responsibility to examine the principles of the art down to their very core.  The principles teach nonattachment, and so the study must also employ complete nonattachment in the process.  The task is difficult and the goal is elusive, but the effort along the way is designed to provide benefits of all kinds as we continue to transform ourselves.  Some of these benefits are described in earlier entries of this blog and more will be posted later.  Some wish for the alternative of instant self defense, just add water.  The idea that someone else will take responsibility to give you the skill you wish immediately without any responsibility on your part simply does not exist in any martial art.  Anyone who makes such a claim, if believed, will only bring trouble.  You will expect to have a skill that you really don’t possess and make poor decisions based upon false information.  Depending upon circumstances, the results could be devastating.  The only sane alternative is to relax, drop the attachment to the wish for self defense skill, enjoy the basic practice of Aikido and study hard.  That approach is the most direct path to acquiring many benefits, including self defense skill.




8 responses to “Aikido and Self Defense – How to Acquire the Skill”

  1. Kim Avatar

    With so much emphasis on the notion of non-attachment, does any particular martial art bear any responsibility for technical effectiveness? For example, if a particular art proclaims that you can fend off attackers with a circular waving motion of the hand (or some such silly technique) and the students study that method with non-attachment, will they then acquire self-defense? Even in light of the fact that the technique is not effective?
    And also, what is this non-attachment you speak of? It is a necessary component for training, but very few people could probably define it? Is it just not caring? Not being concerned with the outcome?

  2. Administrator Avatar

    A martial art does take responsibility to be produced out of the mind of non-attachment. The founder would have a significant realization and therefore produce a method designed to be the most efficient and effective approach to achieving a goal. Takaun indicated the improvements in effectiveness that comes with non-attachment, and they would need to be present in the training methods of a given art. The advanced practitioners currently in the system also must take responsibility to pass down the notion of non-attachment in their practice from generation to generation. If you study self defense with Fred, the very obstructed dance teacher down the block, you will not be able to defend yourself very well. Care should therefore be taken in picking up training in some system invented by a low level practitioner only interested in making a fast buck.

  3. Administrator Avatar

    Non-attachment discusses the matter in negative terms. That which must be missing is obstruction to success. For our purposes, it primarily reflects non-attachment to the body as a false notion of self. Discussing the matter in positive terms is difficult for two reasons. First, the positive concepts may inappropriately provide something to attach to. Second, after one releases their view of the body as a false notion of self, several possible paths exist and we do not favor any one over another.

    That said, overemphasizing the negative aspect of the discussion by thinking “I just don’t care” can be very harmful. The notion of non-attachment is singularly not nihilistic. We do care. In fact, we may feel great compassion for the person attacking us and act out of a sense of responsibility to help that person stabilize themselves and find peace (usually done by stopping them from harming us). We can only accomplish such a goal by being unattached to our false notion of ourselves and then acting positively.

  4. Ric Avatar

    We cannot discard non-attachment completely , because as humans we are primal in many ways. We are carry a lot of baggage which is not easy for everyone to get rid of just like that. These bagage come in many forms, mentally, physically, etc, the list can be long. One thing is in stilled in us from the begining, example fight/flight. While most people go through life without having any confrontions wih others, there are some that are not as lucky. I go through life with this in mind, (I am no better nor any less then any other human on this planet, yet I respect, but am not a welcome mat for anyone to wipe off their feet on.) No matter what is being taught in any dojo of any style of martial arts, one= people will get out of it what they want, two= nothing in life if full proof.
    A comment with regards to stealing the technique,I believe Jeet Kune do founder Bruce Lee did that, and thaught that to his students , and said you do what works for you even if its the same thing over and over, and thus we Practice, Pratice so we will never have to use what we learned.

  5. Kim Avatar

    I just think to speak of non-attachment…it is out of the reach of most of us to conceive of. To bring it in to a discussion about effective self-defense doesn’t make sense to me. Since most of us will not achieve a state of non-attachment to this false sense of self, then most of us will not have effective self-defense? Is there no discussion about self-defense outside of the issue of non-attachment?
    Regardless, I view self-defense as a side effect of training, rather than something I target. Who knows if or when I will ever have to defend myself, and then who knows how I will be attacked. So I just train for my own personal development.

  6. Administrator Avatar

    We do discuss self defense in the presence of attachment. If you have attachment, you are open to be defeated. The only way you can survive is if the attacker does not perceive your weakness. So ultimately you need to rely upon luck in order to survive. That answer may not be the one you are looking for, but there is no martial art that will work any differently.

    If I were you, I would want to reduce the chances of being attacked specifically because if attacked I can only rely upon luck to survive. The best way to do that is neither to be afraid of being attacked nor believe it to be impossible. So instead I would spend my time promoting a peaceful state of mind and helping other people by preventing them from being harmed. The more one quells the hostility within, the more likely one will be able to approach a potential attacker with a peaceful state. Since the attacker often wishes to provoke anger to escalate a situation into violence, if you are not provoked, the attacker might want to look elsewhere.

    All else equal, over time this approach should reduce your chances of being attacked. The implications of these points are also clear. Under no circumstances should one give up on the pursuit of 100% non-attachment.

  7. Greg Avatar

    The non-attachment we are talking about is a very Zennish thing. A notion like that takes a certain level of Zen training to start perceiving. I think most of us instinctively do grasp the concept of non-attachment, gradually building up the level of its assimilation. I would compare it with the art of breathing during practicing or real life self-defense situation: although one can be explained how the lungs and diaphragm should move uder stress, yet it still would not work until many hours of training have passed. Blending is an acknowledged cornerstone of Aikido, and I take it that it is not only blending with the opponent, but as well blending with new concepts that we encounter in the course of training. Therefore, the caviat is practice, be perceptive, and it will eventually seep in… Basically it looks like Takemusu itself, doesn’t it?

  8. Administrator Avatar

    Sorry for the late reply Gregory. I just found this post. The founder of Aikido explained that the real enemy is not the attacker, but the real enemy lies within. Why would learning how to defeat this enemy be any different than defeating an attacker in terms of the practice of Takemusu Aiki. There is a difference in that when you defeat the enemy within, it does not come back, but if you defeat an attacker without killing them (usually it is a bad idea to kill others), they can come back…

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