On November 10 and 11, I had the opportunity to share the art of aikido at Summit LA, one of the world’s preeminent idea festivals. The Summit community is comprised of global leaders across a range of disciplines, as well as up and coming influencers, innovators, and thinkers. Having a clear and compelling “big idea” to share with this group was essential.
A great work of literature or a great painting can be interpreted in many ways. Sometimes vastly different, but equally valid interpretations are developed by experts. The interpretation of aikido I shared at Summit LA is certainly not the only valid way to look at aikido. Some may argue that it may not be exactly what the founder had in mind. However, I feel it is an authentic, focused, and internally-consistent take on the art.
Throughout the weekend of Summit LA, I shared this interpretation of aikido with people privately, in small group discussions, and on a broader stage in the form of large group sessions on aikido movement and philosophy. This story of aikido was compelling and engaging to the Summit community. It appealed to Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, and the Baby Boomer generation. It resonated with CEOs of major corporations, people who held senior level White House positions, world renowned entertainers, and leading scientists.
Here’s the story of aikido I shared at the event.
Welcome to the Aikido experience at Summit LA. Over the next hour, we’ll explore the art of aikido, a unique and profound, but often misunderstood, martial system. Aikido was developed in Japan in the first part of 20th century as a form of Budo, a category of martial arts designed as educational systems as opposed to hand-to-hand combat systems.
So what kind of educational system is it? And what’s it teaching? We believe Aikido contributes something unique in the martial arts, and even the broader educational world — something that can make a real impact on how our global society faces the great challenges of our time, including a polarized political climate, growing inequality, and an existential environmental crisis.
Aikido is not an “application level” training system. We’re not teaching self-defense or discipline. Instead, Aikido can be thought of as an operating system level upgrade for humans. One that encodes us with the disposition and capacity to create collaborative, non-zero sum relationships in every interaction in our lives — with ourselves, another person, an organization, or even an idea. In this worldview, these relationships center persuasion and freedom of choice and displace coercion as a mode of engagement.
Aikido gives you power over someone, but trains you to transform “power over” into “power with.”
Coercive relationships, those that achieve an outcome by force or threat, are used far too often. They’re easy to wield if you have power, but they leave wreckage in their wake — both for the person being coerced, as well as for the one who uses coercion to win or dominate. For most circumstances in our world, it’s far better to create collaborative relationships that generate value in every interaction.
Aikido is a powerful training ground that forges the disposition and capacity to create non-zero sum outcomes in every encounter — powered by persuasion and freedom of choice. Aikido is brilliant in its design — in the way it’s fully optimized for this purpose.
The Roles We Play
Before we get started, we’ll need to define two terms. Over the course of our practice together, we’ll take turns in the roles of uke and nage. While the true nature of these roles is deep and profound, we’ll describe them as simply as we can while providing you enough context to start training. We’ll consider the uke as the partner who’s providing an attack. But we won’t think of the nage as the defender.
By defending, we are not only propagating an attack/defend/counterattack paradigm, we are limiting our own freedom of choice. To defend, we must react to an attack, which collapses our full spectrum of options into a narrow band of responses. Instead, we will think of the nage as the one who transforms the attack into something else.
Quite often in life, when we encounter an obstacle or an attack, we perceive the entire relationship as an attack. The aikido worldview tells us that the relationship is not reducible to an attack, but instead that there is an attack within the relationship. By reorganizing the relationship, we can transform the attack into something else — leaving us a new relationship with mutually viable pathways forward.
Technical Architecture: Exit Pathways
The techniques in aikido never “finish the opponent” or terminate the relationship, but instead protect our own interests while establishing the conditions for our opponent to choose a viable path forward. The technical architecture of the aikido system is built on the premise that we must always provide our partner with a way out, a way forward. This is a critical part of the training system.
As we train in the role of uke, we are conditioned to always find a way out — to unlock a deadlock — even in the face of a powerful and sometimes unexpected threat. We have to find creative solutions under pressure. In the real world, there may not always a way out, but far too often, we give up or don’t look hard enough. Aikido rewrites your operating system to assume by default that there is always a way out, a way forward.
And from the perspective of the nage — we train ourselves to respect our partner for taking an out. By choosing an “out,” our partner has saved us from needing to do something worse to protect our own interests: something that would change who we are; something that would create negative consequences that radiate out to touch the lives of many.
More specifically, the technical architecture of aikido is aligned to protect the nage from the uke’s (actual) aggression and simultaneously protect both the uke and the nage from the nage’s (potential) aggression.
“Aikido displaces the dynamics that produce winners and losers in the first place. It attempts to transform the conditions that would allow us to become enemies to one another — past, present and future.”
Some ask why such a training system should be embodied in the form of a martial art. And this is what I find to be the true genius of the system design. To face a high-stakes challenge in life, to truly embrace and attune to hostile people and circumstances, to see without bias, to trust in a creative process of collaboration with shared vulnerability instead of forcing an outcome, can be absolutely terrifying.
The martial techniques in aikido can break bones and kill. They wield real power. And it’s these very martial techniques that turn aikido into a “terror simulator” — one that trains us at a fundamental level to have the courage and faith to pursue collaborative outcomes in the face of real anxiety and fear. Humans have not evolved much in the last 100,000 years. We can learn a lot about purely intellectual pursuits by exchanging ideas with each other, or through individual contemplation and reflection. But to change our disposition — to upgrade our operating system instead of just adding a new skill, we have to access and forge our primal selves. We need another human being interacting with us physically, emotionally, and psychologically, at a visceral level — both pushing us and caring for us in a process of creative tension.
Aikido gives you power over someone, but trains you to transform “power over” into “power with.” If aikido loses its martial integrity, it cannot achieve this function.
Today, you were introduced to a few techniques and training exercises from the aikido system. Aikido does not preserve and reverse the aggression of an attack by channeling back the same aggression in the form of a counter-attack. It is not, therefore, primarily a martial art of attack and counter-attack, at least not in the sense of a contest where one wins and one loses.
In creating something more like a non-zero sum situation, aikido displaces the dynamics that produce winners and losers in the first place. It attempts to transform the conditions that would allow us to become enemies to one another — past, present and future. It insists that if you engage me, it will not be an episode in which one of us secures victory and walks away; it will constitute the beginning of a relationship that will change you from a competitor into a collaborator.
I’d like to close with a story told to me by one of my friends and mentors. She’s now a 7th degree black belt in aikido. Many years ago, after returning from a grueling training regimen in Japan, she was practicing at her home dojo in the Bay Area, when one night, a homeless man walked in. He was visibility agitated and walked right onto the tatami mats with his shoes on in the middle of class. She took initiative and escorted the man out of the dojo very respectfully. His anger swelled and he pulled a knife on her.
This is the part of the story where most people expect me to say that she disarmed him, threw him on the ground, and immobilized him until the cops showed up. But that’s not what happened. Something very different unfolded. She looked at him and said, “I’m sure you don’t want to hurt me, and I don’t want to hurt you either. Let’s go for a walk together.”
This gentleman was in his 30s and had been homeless since he was six years old. This young, attractive woman took him by the arm and started walking down the street with him, together. He was so disoriented, he put the knife back in his pocket. She asked him about his life story and she listened.
When they’d made their way around the block, she told him, “You’re better than this. You’re better than the kind of person who walk into somebody’s community and frightens people.” He nodded his head, and walked away in peace.
“The aikido worldview tells us that the relationship is not reducible to an attack, but instead that there is an attack within the relationship. By reorganizing the relationship, we can transform the attack into something else — leaving us a new relationship with mutually viable pathways forward.”
Later that evening, he returned to the dojo and asked for her by name. When she came out to see him, he told her, “I wanted to thank you for what you said to me.” He pulled out the knife and said, “I want you to have this.” He went down on one knee, like a European knight, and with both hands raised, presented her with the weapon.
Not only did this approach avoid a high-risk physical altercation where injury of some form would be inevitable; but the man became a hero- in his own mind, and in reality. It wasn’t even that this aikido teacher turned him into a hero. Instead, she created the conditions that allowed the man to transform himself into a hero.
This is aikido. Thank you.
Questions and Answers
Aikido, Judo, and Jujutsu: I hear the terms “verbal judo,” “verbal aikido,” or “verbal jiujitsu.” Does it all mean the same thing? What’s the difference between the approach of these arts?
These are all sister arts with common roots, yet they are distinct, as well. Let’s use a relationship with an asymmetric power dynamic as an example to explore the differences. We can make it very simple and look at a scenario where a physically stronger opponent attacks a physically weaker person. Of course all of this can apply to any type of relationship — physical, emotional, legal, economic, and so on.
When faced with a stronger opponent, jiujitsu uses leverage to allow a weaker person to prevail. Judo harnesses an opponent’s power and redirects it to turn it back against them. In contrast, aikido, when a practitioner is faced with a powerful aggressor, transforms the conditions of the relationship so the attacker chooses not to wield their their power against us in the first place.
Aikido vs. MMA: Does aikido work in an MMA ring?
No, it doesn’t. MMA is predicated on a coercion-based interaction model — using force to submit an opponent in a win/lose paradigm. Aikido practice is predicated on a cooperative training model. Aikido is optimized specifically to avoid, and provide alternatives to, interactions that use force to create a zero-sum win/lose outcome.
People can easily misunderstand aikido because some of the same techniques seen in MMA also appear in aikido. Aikido is a legitimate martial art that uses authentic and powerful techniques that can, and have been used effectively in hand-to-hand combat. However, they are curated into the aikido system to achieve a completely different purpose. So no, aikido does not work in an MMA ring, but it does do something else. Something that many people find to be profound and transformative.
Of course, many aikido practitioners train in other arts or training modalities that are optimized for hand-to-hand combat against a resisting opponent. We want and need martial artists like this in the aikido community — as students and teachers. Not everyone needs to do to this, but it keeps us grounded and reminds us of the purpose and focus of what we do, while teaching us to respect our sister arts and appreciate them for what they are.
The weekend at Summit LA was filled with fascinating conversations about aikido. Almost everyone left our discussions inspired and reflective. Many asked me for referrals to aikido dojos in their cities. Everyone from CEOs in major metropolitan areas to young up-and-coming musicians from the rural South.
This story of aikido resonates with many. It also solves a lot of problems and contractions we’ve faced when communicating about our art. And finally, it gives us a focused purpose and a role to play in forging a better global society.
With this as inspiration, I’ve formed a new aikido-based nonprofit, Budo Accelerator, with Mark Tercek, a friend, fellow aikido practitioner, and titan in the nonprofit sector, who for a decade served as CEO of the world’s largest environmental nonprofit. We took the opportunity to announce this exciting news at Summit LA.
We have big plans for Budo Accelerator and we’ll need your help to bring them to life. We’ll share more news on this new initiative soon.
I’d like to extend a special, heartfelt thanks to the aikido community for their support and insights, to the Summit team for allowing us to present aikido to their community, to the Ikazuchi Dojo team who brought the event to life, and to the important behind the scenes collaborators without whom this would not have been possible. With our combined efforts, I see a bright future for the art of aikido.