The Caretaker’s Test

The above picture comes from Scott Carlton’s recent 5th kyu test—the first demonstration a person gives to establish their rank as a beginner. The first time they truly come to Aikido’s front door and knock, knock, knock.

At first glance, the photo seems like an innocuous and typical first test snapshot, and yet, it actually captures a puzzling contradiction. Besides having just achieved 5th kyu rank, Scott also became an official, certified, and bona fide Registered Nurse. He passed all his tests and even landed a real nursing job at a local hospital.

So what’s a caregiver doing bending someone’s elbow in a funky direction in order to hold them on the ground? Indeed, what a nurse doing studying martial arts at all? One is devoted to preserving and protecting life through compassion and care. Isn’t the other bent on destruction and victories won by inflicting physical harm to an opponent?

As it turns out, the latter is entirely false…for Aikido, at least. As a martial art, Aikido strives to do exactly what a nurse must do: care for others at all times. Protect and preserve life while offering compassion.

“To injure an opponent is to injure yourself. To control aggression without inflicting injury is Aikido,” O’Sensei once wrote.

More than any particular technique, the primary lesson Aikido’s founder labored to pass on was to love. Love fearlessly. Love all. Cultivate a love so big that it could swallow up an attacker, just as water swallows all it encounters. If you can love someone who intends to do you harm, then you are invincible. You can protect yourself and everyone and anyone else you come into contact with.

It’s a radical, unconventional notion.

Earlier this summer, fellow blogger Nate B. and I saw just how ludicrous this idea sounds to the average person. We were out with friends at a busy outdoor venue. Seating was scarce but a kind couple invited us to join them at their umbrella’d table.

After a while of chatting, Aikido entered the discussion. The couple had heard of it, but were eager to know more from people who actually trained.

I said something like, “It’s a peaceful, nonviolent martial art.”

The husband wrinkled his whole face with skepticism. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

He went on to explain his military background and the various forms of martial training he had received while in service. “Not one was nonviolent or peaceful,” he insisted.

Nate and I did our best to explain Aikido’s emphasis on harmony and how we never push when the attack pushes, or how we blend movements if the attacker pulls. But, it felt a lot like explaining algorithms to a bumble bee—a creature that has flourished and thrived for millennia, easily identifying the fastest nectar routes without any algorithms, thank you very much!

“Is it like karma?” the wife asked.

“Yes!” I said.

She nodded but her eyebrows remained in a knot.

The husband shook his head. “If someone tried to shoot me…I dunno, man. I would destroy them.”

And yet, for those who train, for those like Scott, who dare to knock on Aikido’s door, the felt experience of the oddball notion is unforgettable. Throughout his entire test, Scott demonstrated utmost care for his attackers. Not just because they are also his training mates and pals, week in and week out; but also, because he has felt the difference between shoving and allowing. Between opposing and accepting. Hating and loving.

He, of all people, already understands his role as aikidoka and caretaker are one and the same.

 

Featured image: “Magician’s Hands” CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; all other images courtesy of the author.

Jenny Mason is an award-winning writer and devoted aikidoka. By day she authors children's books, magazine articles, and even promotional content for local businesses. By night, she rolls, pins, and swirls on the dojo mat. She started training in 2007 and is currently ranked shodan.