Martial artists in movies often overcome overwhelming odds to meet their goals, from taking on hordes of black-garbed stuntmen to fighting a deadly showdown with a megalomaniac master. In The Way of Aikido, George Leonard overcomes an obstacle no less daunting: sidestepping the media-fueled perceptions of martial arts to describe the way its practitioners use their training every day without fighting. In this slim volume, Leonard lays out the spiritual benefits gained by practicing the Japanese art of Aikido, which he describes as protecting both the defender and the attacker. And he presents these benefits in a way that anyone can incorporate into their lives to achieve spiritual equilibrium.
The do in aikido means way, indicating that study of a martial art is a lifelong path. Leonard pulls no punches in describing the intensive physical training required to achieve competence in what is considered one of the most difficult martial arts. But the real lesson is the sense of inner peace and confidence that comes with following the way. In this philosophy, seeing oneself as the center of the universe is not an ego trip, but the ultimate act of humility, as one then becomes in harmony with the universe and conflict is not possible.
Leonard breathes new life into concepts as familiar as chop-socky film cliches. In asserting that conflict with others is essentially conflict with oneself, he recounts events in which an aikidoist prevents an attack merely by standing, calm and centered, while the aggressor's inner turmoil turns to impotence. He returns frequently to the central concept of ki, or spirit (the ki in Aikido), the reservoir of energy that martial artists envision as residing in the body's center of gravity. And there's action, too, as aikido masters seem to disappear from in front of slashing sword attacks or a circle of charging black belts, only to be seen standing calmly to the side as the attackers look up from where they've fallen. Readers unfamiliar with martial arts may be surprised to read Leonard's emphasis on avoiding conflict by blending with an adversary. Leonard recounts numerous martial artists who overcome adversaries both on the practice floor and in tense business meetings by seeming to yield, but in actuality allowing aggressive thrusts to dissipate far from them. Leonard urges his readers, martial artists and otherwise, to apply the principles of blending and centeredness to everyday life. Simple experiments demonstrate the power a change in mental focus can provide.
Gregory Harris, a writer and editor living in Indianapolis, is a third degree black belt and instructor in Taekwondo.