Updated: Jan 17, 2022
Several years ago, I was training at Aikido of San Jose (California), the dojo of my old friend and former student Jack Wada. I was training with John, a white belt who was close to my own age. I always enjoying working with John. He trained well and had a nice dry sense of humor. We often chatted together after class.
In the middle of our training, John suddenly changed. He put up his fists in a boxing stance and started jabbing toward my face. I didn't bother blocking his jabs, which all fell far short. I stood there my hands at my sides, dumbfounded at his behavior., “What is going on with you?” I asked.
“Last time we trained together you hit me!” John snapped, jabbing into the air, “I'm sorry, John. I don't think I did. If I did hit you, I apologize.” I was sure, though, that I had never struck him.
The last time I hit someone in Aikido was years ago. It was shortly after I had gotten back from six months training in Shingu, Japan. My training there has been fast paced, intense, and highly martial. I brought back a lot of that focus and intensity with me. Unfortunately, I overestimated the capacity of my young American training partner to respond quickly and I did strike him in the face when he left himself open. But that was a long time ago. I was positive I hadn't hit anyone since, on or off the mat.
John barked, “OK. Let's go. Let's rock and roll!” I realized he really wanted to fight. At that moment, I could hear in my head the voices of my martially oriented Japanese aikido teachers. “He is only a white belt and you are a fourth degree black belt. Take him out. He is disrespecting you and disrespecting aikido and he deserves it.” At the same time I realized fighting with John would violate all the aikido ideals I had been teaching and practicing for decades. I became aware that every cell in my body was opposed to fighting with John.
I stepped back and said slowly and emphatically, “I will not fight on the mat.” Then I turned my back on John and left him standing there, fists up, ready to fight.
I felt good about walking away. At the same time I knew if John came after me as I turned away or if he tried to start a fight outside the dojo, I wouldn't hesitate to defend myself..
As I began to train with another partner, I felt adrenaline continue to course through my body. I may have seemed calm on the outside, but I was definitely unsettled inside. I hadn't been in a physical fight for decades and the whole situation seemed surreal. It felt a little bit like I was back in high school.
I could still hear my teachers' voices telling me to take John down. At the same time I knew I had done the right thing. My body knew it was right to walk away, even if my head wasn't sure.
After class I talked with Jack Wada about what had happened. He told me that John was experiencing a lot of stress in his life. He had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder since Vietnam. Jack also mentioned that John taught some form of combat-oriented jiu jitsu and had been arrested several times for fighting in bars. I thought to myself, “It's certainly a good thing I chose not to fight. It could have been pretty messy.”
A few weeks later, I returned to the San Jose dojo. The first person I saw was John, who was warming up on the mat. As soon as he saw me, John came running toward me. For one tense moment I thought he was charging to attack me, but then he opened his arms and gave me a huge hug.
“Bob, you never did anything," John said "It was all me. I really need to apologize to you and also to thank you for your patience with me.”
Had I become angry and fought with John, he might never had understood his anger was all about himself and not about me.
It was also a wonderful revelation to me that my body had incorporated enough of the Founder’s aikido that I knew viscerally that I had to refuse to fight. I was deeply grateful that aikido had become such a profound part of me and I realized this was probably the best aikido I had ever practiced.