The Culture of Fear and what we can do

I believe that something has happened over the last thirty years in Aikido that reflects the macrocosm of the society we live in. We have been imbued with a default setting of ‘be scared’ in our day to day life. Thoughts are focussed on protecting what we might lose or, if not preventing bad experiences, then making sure we can afford them or even profit by them!

My own experience on the mat has seen the emphasis of practice as a celebration of life, something spiritually uplifting, change to an overriding priority that we must defeat our ‘opponent’. In my early days efficacy was the monitor of our practice that kept our feet on the ground and prevented us believing we were doing better than we were. It is easy in an isolated closed practice to collude together to create a system that works on each other but is not explored with people of different reactions and responses as well as people who receive technique from different stances and agendas.

Taking the practice to others can give us confidence if we find ourselves able to throw and pin others whilst their technique feels as if we could resist it or negate it. The difficulty for me with such a stance is that it defines efficacy as the ability to win the fight. Although at times I have found myself practising in such a way, it is not for such reasons that I continue to practise. Neither does it make sense to me in the light of the philosophy of Aikido that the founder wrote about and spoke about. Aikido is non-competitive and non-aggressive?

In my early days the experience of what we felt on the mat, both as Tori and Uke, whilst exploring the dynamics of what was being offered to us, created an excitement and a culture of trust, warmth, care, enquiry, and fraternity. This inspired us to take those feelings out in to our everyday lives which in turn enriched our experience of others.

There was a respect for big powerful technique which encouraged us to continue to work on our ability to receive technique. In this way we could practise without too great a risk of damage, both physically and psychologically. Injuries were accidents and we all empathised with another’s inability to practise and received them back warmly on to the mat upon recovery.

I think I was lucky in those days because everywhere I went Aikido was practised in such a fashion. I started in 1974 and have always been able to practise and find practices that have maintained such an ethos. However I have also become more and more aware of the practices that produce a different feeling.

I remember attending a coaching course where three high grade instructors came together from different parts of the country and the majority of their discourse with each other was around the injuries they had received from a certain Japanese instructor. It seemed the more damage he had inflicted on them the more kudos they expected to receive! Is this Aikido, the way of harmony with the spirit? As Uke I gain my greatest thrill in being thrown effortlessly and with no experience of pain forcing me to submit to predetermined responses. To be lifted on the whirlwind and come up laughing and invigorated is a sure sign of good practice to me. Whereas to be nursing a painful joint and pondering how to avoid connection with that Tori again suggests to me that we have not achieved the harmony we seek. I must say that perhaps, at times, this has been due to my inability to receive technique appropriately. But I would add that I feel it is our responsibility as Tori, especially as Dan Grades, to be able to deliver techniques to the level of Ukes’ ability to receive them. Also people make mistakes and do over exert themselves in technique by accident. However if someone is developing a reputation for delivering powerful or damaging techniques that cause practitioners to be in fear of them I think this goes in direct opposition to the principles of Aikido. There is room for awe and inspiration but I find no place for the creation of fear or the actions of a bully on an aikido mat. There is a fine line to be walked.

Respect is only of any use if it is mutual.

This I believe to be a basic principle of aikido.

It has been inspiring to practise with Aikidoka outside the UK tradition in recent times and I feel a connection with how things were when I first started. There is awesome technique but there is also a gentle understanding that this is not the endpoint. This is either the start point or the point before the start. We look for something more. A mutuality of experience for Tori and Uke that is an uplifting and energising experience of joy and laughter that empowers both and promotes healthy bodies and healthy minds. I believe that healthy minds look to open and share rather than seek to overcome and criticise. Healthy minds are aware that there is always more to learn than we know. The only thing that stands in our way to learning is the stance we take. I believe this to be the basis of ‘beginner’s mind’. When we engage in Aikido it should be to find out something we don’t know, not to teach somebody something they don’t know. The latter can quite easily be done by searching for the former.

If the world was such an unsafe place as we are being lead to believe how come we are still here? How come these demons are not actually visiting us on a more frequent basis? Or are the fears that others would project upon us a reflection of the fears we put upon ourselves in some strange attempt to control ourselves. They keep us in line with others, moving in the same direction. But how do we know whether the herd is moving towards a watering hole or a cliff?

I think that those who engage in explorations such as Aikido journey along with the herd for mutual benefit but by maintaining their individuality are, to some measure, protected from immersion in it or being subsumed by it. This creates conflicts that at times are difficult to release. Sometimes it is easier to sink into the herd and we only become aware of the difference again when awoken by another ‘spiritual’ experience that in some way reminds us of what unconsciously we have lost. This particular dynamic is wonderfully explored in Herman Hesse’s allegory ‘The Journey to the East’.

Recently I feel similarly awoken with a need to get back on the path or the ‘way’ as I originally experienced it. This way is laid out in front of me rather than already trodden behind me. I am certainly not in the same place, but I can walk in the same way and open myself to the same and similar experiences. And the things that knock me off the way? I come to think nowadays that it is when I am saying one thing and doing another…………..

I would suggest if I cannot find something to respect in someone else I am probably not looking hard enough.

If I listen first I am likely to hear something I don’t know. If I talk first I am likely to hear something I already know.

Bob Sherrington


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