The Art of Peace

An essay I wrote in 1995, as a freshman at Duke University, for my writing course.

Hot, sweet jasmine tea has made me warm after my shower. I put on my gi in a sort of morning ritual, pulling the drawstrings of my pants just enough and tying them, slipping my arms into the heavy, quilted cotton, wrapping the front left over right, and finally fitting the belt, wrapping the middle from front to back, slipping one end under the other, evening the edges, and tying. I stretch out morning-stiff muscles, sometimes lying in meditation as well. I relax my body, feeling the warm pulse creep through my veins. I know my heart is beating, and I notice my breath. It is good to be alive.

Some mornings, I walk to dojo barefoot, feeling the pavement under my feet, the mulch, the cold metal fire escape steps as I walk around to the back of the dorm, to the gym. It is good to feel the ground; wearing shoes produces a sort of detachment. On entering, I bow to the floor, already having slipped off sandals if I’d been wearing them.

 

It is the same here every day. I take Eric’s wrist, loosely, and he turns into me, under my arm, and I have to fall, turn and turn and flow to standing. We do it again and again, switching roles. Sometimes it is shomenuchi, sometimes kotagaeshi, sometimes riminage. We are always partners, though. It is always the same.

We are in aikido class, dancing on the blue mats, while the morning light flows in through the windows and casts our gis an unnatural white. Our belts are symbols of our knowledge – ours are that same bright white, pure and innocent. We are all beginners.

 

On the first day, Shihan, our instructor, asks us why we have come. For some of us, it is self defense, for others, relaxation, for others, concentration or discipline. Shihan asks Kuhlbir. “I wanna kick some ass,” he eagerly replies. “Well, we’ve gotten right to the point,” Shihan tells us, smiling. I know, as do some of the others. We are about to hear a speech.

 

One of the many translations of “aikido” is “the art of peace.” Also, ai, harmony, ki, the essence of the universe, and do, path or way, combine to give the translation “the way of life through harmony with the universe.”

Shihan asks Zack to stand, tells Zack to resist as he pushes backwards on his chest. We watch Zack strain and grimace, and finally his back arches and he steps away to regain balance. Shihan then asks me to step up and stand about ten feet away. He tells me to put out my hands, palms-up. He asks Zack to relax and “grab” my hands, hold them tighter, tighter, tighter. . .

Shihan pushes again. I close my hands, lean back against Shihan’s push, focus on Zack and on holding him up. Shihan leans and leans, but Zack does not move. Without touching him, I have held him up. I am smiling. We are all in awe.

 

One day, his assistant Jason, the yellow-belt, is not there. Shihan must demonstrate a new technique, shomenuchi ikkyo. He needs a partner. “Good uke,” Shihan says under his breath as he touches my elbow, indicating that I stay. I tug at the bottom of my gi top, pull out the slack, adjust my white belt, toe the mat. Everyone gathers. I have never done this before.

Rei,” Shihan tells me, and we come to attention and bow to one another. “Yoshi,” – good – he says, softly, deeply. He takes my arm and demonstrates the cranking motion, the ikkyo, bending my arm and pushing my elbow into my face, leaning in, which sets me off balance. I sidestep, uncertain. “Trust me,” he says soothingly, “I’m holding you.”

When he is finished, we pair off – Shihan is now my uke. He performs shomenuchi, the overhand strike, and I step in to catch his arm. “Project,” he advises me, peeking out from under his elbow. He tugs at the knot in my belt until I move in closer. He is teaching us to use ki, an inner energy very different from physical power. Ki is the “essence of the universe.” It emanates from the hara, the center, a spot on the stomach a bit below the navel. We must move, then, from our hips, always. Shihan and I are face-to-face now, only inches away, matching stances. I trust him absolutely.

 

We have all practiced projection in our stances, called hanmi. We shift back and forth, projecting with our hips, focusing on the front and back walls, mentally gluing ourselves to them. Shihan walks around pushing our chests and backs. We must not react with force. When we do, we lose our balance.

It is a different way. Shihan tells us that the study of karate goes three times faster because it relies on tension. Aikido bases itself on relaxation. We have to relearn our whole way of living. We cannot fight each other with force, cannot hurt one another. We must blend, become one.

My partner throws me and wants to know if he is bending my wrist properly – “Does it hurt?” Shihan overhears him and corrects him. The aim should not be to hurt, but to perform the technique correctly. He then tells me to perform the attack, the wrist-grab. He circles into me. I can barely feel his touch, he is so gentle. He is the nage, Japanese for “throw,” I am the uke, the attacker, from the Japanese for “one who takes a fall.” Because I have disrupted harmony by attacking him, I am destined for the soft blue mat. My wrist is straight, it does not hurt. Shihan has not conquered me with force, but with love. He takes my hand and helps me up. We bow to one another and smile, and Eric and I continue with this lesson in mind.

 

Shihan invited us to his test for seventh degree black belt in karate. After he earned his black belt, he knelt on the floor, yellow-striped black belt laid out before him. He asked that all his students gather around in one great circle, from the lowest white belt to the highest black belt. We three Duke students who went to watch him test were apprehensive – we did not belong to his dojo. He announced that we, too, were welcome, and, grinning, we joined the circle of Shihan’s students. We watched as he tied his belt about his waist. There was an energy there that I have not often felt before, a great sense of harmony and belonging.

 

Practice is over for the day, and it’s been a rough one. I am sweating and a bit dizzy from all the falling and standing. Eric feels lost. He’s missing part of one of the techniques, still. Alexi, our third partner, has been throwing us hard. I’ve been thudding on the mat for all of class, getting up more and more slowly the more I’ve been thrown. And “tapping out,” slapping the mat to indicate excessive pain. I have never tapped out before; I never needed to.

Tall Eric puts his arm around my shoulders. “Good practice,” he says, and I agree, putting my arm around his waist, hugging him. We’re both tired, feel beat up. Shihan has taught us, though, to be positive. “How are you doing?” he’ll ask, and our response should be “Better and better and better, sir!”

After a particularly frustrating day, I tell Shihan, “Today has been a difficult day.” And truly it has; it seems as though I’m losing ground. He touches my shoulder. “Today has been a great day,” he says, grinning. I smile and chuckle. Shihan is the eternal optimist.

Sometimes I wonder why this positive ki does not go outside the dojo. In our dojo, in that warm gym in the back of my dorm, we learn to relax and embrace one another. What has happened that we so seldom feel the sort of peace that we did at Shihan’s testing, in that great circle? I could feel the energy, the ki, among all of us. For us in aikido, circles are essential: the whirlpooling embrace that sends an attacker falling, the embrace of a friend. It is the spirit of aikido, according to O-sensei, the art’s founder, “that of loving attack and that of peaceful reconciliation.” No anger, no resentment. Only love and harmony. Shihan jokes about one of the techniques, saying to his uke, as he is being attacked, “Come here, let me give you a hug.” He pulls the uke in, uke’s head on his chest, and spins him to the mat.

O-sensei tells us, “The true meaning of the term samurai is one who serves and adheres to the power of love.” The path of the warrior is not in the physical. As we walk this life, it is something we must remember that often there is greater strength in kindness.

A higher education

A small bat clings to the bulkhead outside my high school’s library. Soon, a Xerox of an encyclopedia page on bats is taped to the glass door beneath it. We ponder its arrival with our physics teacher. No one ever sees the bat move, but it changes positions once or twice. In a couple days, it disappears.

 

My classmates are bright and quirky, as are most of the faculty, who generally give us as much as we can handle. In our ninth grade Civics class we read Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and some of the Federalist Papers. We memorize landmark Supreme Court decisions, volunteer with political campaigns. At 14, we know more about good citizenship and the foundations of our government than most American adults.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons we are prone to subversion, even mutiny. When we are required to attend the swearing in of an alumnus to the school board, some of my classmates walk out on the unmistakably Christian prayers. I do not, but I feel uncomfortable. My friends are Jewish, Hindu, Jain, Bah’ai, agnostic, atheist. After the event, I run into the favorite Catholic priest of my childhood. This time, I can barely look him in the eye.

In AP American History, two of us escape to the office to complain about a hostile substitute with a crazy haircut and a bright purple suit who overuses the word “apropos” and insists we debate with him. By the time lunch is over, he has been removed. It is we who are in charge of our educations, and we demand, if not to be challenged and respected, then to be left alone.

 

My physics teacher, Ira Nirenberg, is a skinny, balding, bearded vegan and animal rights activist. He is the faculty sponsor of the environmental club, and once or twice a year, he tries to introduce all his students to vegan hot dogs. He wears t-shirts and runners with his trousers, and the mental image I will always carry is of him jogging in a tight circle, his outstretched arm the radius, his downward-pointing finger the center. He is talking about electrons.

Nirenberg is my first science teacher there and my last. I have him for both Physical Science and AP Physics. He is also the founder of Physics Dress Up Day. I paint my face like a cat and carry around a small cardboard box on which I’ve written passages from The Dancing Wu Li Masters. As Schroedinger’s cat, I am simultaneously dead and not dead. A classmate from a different year dons a sombrero and serape and wraps pieces of a vacuum cleaner around himself. He has come as Pepe the Partial Vacuum.

The grand event on Physics Dressup Day is the scavenger hunt. Nirenberg takes the time to tape a Physics problem to the door of every classroom. He gives us the first problem, the solution of which is the room number of the next problem, and sends us solving.

Nirenberg spoils us by doing real science. Absentmindedly bouncing a superball on the lab table, he notices the bounce goes dead when the ball hits a piece of paper, and we wonder for a few minutes about the shock-absorbing properties of paper. When he receives some posters in cardboard mailing tubes, he puts “reduce, reuse, recycle” into action by inventing a challenge for us. We try to predict where to put the tube so that a ball bearing rolling off an angle ramp will fall in the opening of the tube.

Nirenberg hates memorization, hates what he calls “formula grunts.” He can’t stop us from memorizing the formulae for use on tests, but insists we derive them ourselves at least once.

We enter every endeavor this way, not knowing what the answers are. It is entirely up to us what we deduce and write in our lab reports, what we take our best fit curves to mean about the speed of a ball bearing rolling down the hallways. We are rewarded not so much for being right — he doesn’t know the answers either — but for how we think about the questions.

When I take my first college science course, freshman Chem at Duke University, the canned lab experiments depress me, and the lectures, memorized to the 12th decimal place by the famous Dr. Bonk, bore me. I stop attending Bonkistry altogether.

 

When I return to university after many years, the picture is still as bleak as a Vancouver winter. Sometimes, the sun breaks through and the teaching — and learning — are superb. We soak it up while it lasts.

Often, though, there is a succession of dreary days. My high school classmates would have been to the administration by now demanding an education, but no one has ever told my classmates at the university that they deserve one. Few complain. Many leave. The rest quietly accept what is offered, focus on survival, and commiserate outside the classroom.

I am too committed to finishing my degree to consider quitting, but in some courses I become the kind of student I don’t even recognize: bored, present in body only when my attendance is required, skipping sometimes when it isn’t. I do the bare minimum to get the grade I want, or settle for something slightly lower. I am too polite to text in class, but a couple times I sit in the back and hide a crossword puzzle in my binder.

I feel bad for these profs, whom I imagine being driven to drink by long sessions grading papers we couldn’t be bothered to put our hearts into and by the dearth of class participation. I get the sense from the way they talk in class that their expectations of us are low.

We do our best to live up to them.


Image of bat used under Creative Commons license from binux’s Flickr stream.

Ira Nirenberg is still kicking around. You can read his book, Living With Math, free from his website.