Aikido is a martial art known as “the art of peace.” It is both a form of self-defense and a philosophy of world peace. Many of us will train for years and never “use” our Aikido skills in a physical altercation. However, what will happen, inevitably, is that we will find ourselves with a heightened awareness of conflict in non-physical areas. That is where the training really applies. The times when this has happened to me personally are too numerous to count (it can be daily), but the most recent one is what I will write about here.
As many who know me have discovered, I have become a local “goose champion” as I have tried to convince my town to abandon their plan to exterminate a flock of nine geese that reside at the Scarsdale Library pond, plus about 100 other geese, for a $5,000 contract with the USDA.
I never gave much specific thought to geese before this issue. I have always loved nature in general, but not geese more than anything else. However, when the extermination plan crossed my path, I became concerned. My first reaction was “there must be another way besides killing them.”
I investigated and found that the main reason people objected to this flock of geese was because they poop on the grass. They also were scared that absent any predators, this flock would multiply beyond control. However, it is those same people who were concerned that coyotes made the neighborhood unsafe for children and pets. I saw a disturbing trend of directing fear and anger toward anything in the natural world that interfered with suburban life. In this case, we were not talking about people “living off the land” with a deep reverence for nature, and killing animals to survive. We were talking about affluent suburbanites who wanted to handle their irritation with the tool of violence.
I learned that there were simple and cheap solutions to the issue of feces and population management, but I won’t get into them here. What I am interested in is how my Aikido training played out in all aspects of this issue. I believe it was my Aikido training that made me react so strongly, first with the objection to a violent solution, but then to the way I handled the conflict.
I strove to look for the commonalities with my opponents when trying to make my case against the killing. In Aikido, this is akin to “blending” with your opponent. As I spoke before the Mayor and Board of Trustees, I appealed to the town’s values, which we all shared: education, progressive leadership, intelligence, compassion, and wise use of our tax money. I also was certainly able to empathize with my opponent’s dislike for goose poop, because, well, it’s poop, and who likes that. And I was even able to entertain people’s desire (which I personally find totally irrational) to not have any geese at all on the library pond. I was willing to offer my assistance landscaping the area to deter geese, simply as an act of peace-building. As another gesture of peace-building, I reached out to the very people who initiated the complaint and offered any help I could in finding ways to clean the grounds.
Another important Aikido principle was re-directing of energy, particularly negative energy. I discovered that geese are a hot button issue in suburbia. Who knew? There are people who hate them, with a capital H (direct quote). There were people who spoke as if the entire species should be eliminated from the planet. Comments like “no one wants them,” “kill them all,” and “off with their heads” were disturbing. Training in an energy-focused art like Aikido, I have become attuned to energetic “vibes.” These were some negative vibes that were flying around and I was energetically affected in a negative way while in their presence. I found that it was best to get out of the way and to discipline my mind not to dwell on them. Of course, whenever possible, I would try to blend. However, sometimes people are entrenched in anger and irritation, and the best thing you can do is move out of the way and let them run themselves into a wall (which they eventually will).
My pre-Aikido self would have probably handled this much differently. I would have been more combative. I would have been irritated and focused on our differences, and recognized few similarities. I would have addressed the local government as “them” rather than “us” and most certainly have initiated a spirit of confrontation rather than collaboration. Of course, this WAS a confrontation, but at all moments open to the possibility of resolution. Most likely, however, I would probably not have gotten involved at all. I would have read the news, chalked it up to a cynical worldview that people are horrible and our planet is going to hell in a handbasket, and moved on. But it was my training that made me react with a positive, optimistic spirit of action and perseverance. And it was the influence of my training in an art that bills itself as a path to world peace that motivated me to go out and take action, rather than sit at home and grumble.
Within a couple of short weeks, I wrote editorials offering alternate solutions; maintained a constant presence on comments sections of related articles; offered education to the public about geese; helped my daughter to organize a petition of her classmates which gathered over 240 students, and personally delivered it to Village Hall; and networked with other like-minded people working for wildlife. Throughout this whole time, I learned so much about Canada geese and have developed quite an affinity for this animal. Did it work? Well, there was a small victory in that the town postponed its original plan and committed to looking at alternatives. As of this time, it is unclear what course they will take. However, one key element in my training is to NOT focus on the outcome. Moment by moment we take the necessary steps toward peace.
This is a consistent theme with many spiritual paths —non-attachment to the goal. That one is a hard one, since I truly do not want to see the geese killed. But just like in training, you keep at it, moment to moment not as concerned with the goal, but the action and the spirit. And Aikido also teaches that you never know how far the ripple effect of positive action will extend. Sometimes, in spite of everything you did, you may end up with a result that you did not want (i.e. if the town ends up killing the geese) but there may be other unforeseen positive outcomes in many areas. I know one is that I am awaiting the materials to become a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, in an effort to help wildlife. That would never have happened if I hadn’t practiced the art of peace.