By Richard Strozzi-Heckler
When I was twelve years old my mother enrolled me in Judo. Being from a Navy family I moved regularly and as the “new” kid I would be the object of catcalls and shoves. I was the type of personality to shove back, which often ended in fights and from this my mother feared I was a bully. I didn’t feel like a bully, I was simply afraid. When I was physically confronted an indeterminate heat would immediately capture me and it would hold onto me and I acted without consciousness. My only response was to strike back. Even then I knew that I was reacting without choice and this vulnerability compelled me to strike out even more. I didn’t know what else to do. I was caught in a circular pattern of aggression. With my father on a six-month cruise to the Far East my mother was at a loss and didn’t know how to navigate this unknown territory. A vice-principal suggested I take Judo as a way of learning self-discipline. My mother worried it would only make me fight more. I was grateful that my father was at sea and the discipline didn’t come from him.
I was enrolled in a Judo class that took place in a gigantic airplane hangar on a Navy base. Marines and Sailors who had studied in Japan taught the classes. Like young men everywhere they joked and had fun with each other but they were sincere about their teaching. The moment I saw them practicing I was spellbound and I never once thought about how I could use it to protect myself or beat someone up. It seemed like poetry to me. Wearing thick, white cotton pants and jackets tied by a black belt at their waists they effortlessly and confidently threw each other over their hips, like water flowing over a cliff, smiling and laughing and thoroughly enjoying what they were doing. It wasn’t like fighting at all, but moving in a graceful, economical, and dignified way with each other. It was harmony I saw, not conflict. I wanted to be able to do what they were doing. This moment changed my life and I have been training martial arts ever since, over fifty years ago.
This led to Jujitsu-the gentle skill-and then on to Karate-empty hand-and I taught hand-to-hand combat in the Marine Corps. The irony was that once I began to practice martial arts I stopped fighting and it opened the doors to meditation and the healing arts. Thirty-nine years ago I began Aikido and though I train in other arts, Aikido is the art that I am wedded to and it informs everything I do. Everything. When I saw Aikido it was like the moment I encountered Judo those decades ago-pure poetry.
Aikido-the Way of Harmony with Universal Energy-is a modern, non-violent martial art. The founder, Morihei Ueshiba, who was a national living treasure of Japan, claimed that Budo, the martial way, was to bring people together. Aikido is both a martial art and a spiritual practice. An ambitious claim and Morihei Ueshiba, O Sensei-Great Teacher-as he is called embodied this ideal. People came from all over the world to challenge him and he would defeat them without hurting them and they stayed and trained with him. His story is not a creation myth but an exemplar of how we ourselves can awaken.
The practices of the Aiki path are a way of connecting our mind/body/spirit unity to Universal Energy. This is a warrior’s possibility of awakening peace and harmony.