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I posted the following in response to a thread asking how aikido might have changed my life:
When I first started aikido in 1999, I read a lot about the spiritual aspects of the practice and aikido's status as a "do" or spiritual way. What I got from reading this board, Aikio Journal's web site, and books like "Budo" by O Sensei, "The Spirit of Aikido" by Kisshomaru Ueshiba, and "The Magic of Conflict" by Thomas Crum was the ideal of aikido as a metaphor for conflict.
The idea of aikido presenting a third option to either fighting or running away appealed to me. I particularly liked the concept that one needs to establish a connection with an attacker in order to properly execute a technique, and that the more committed the attack and throw, the better. Conversely, if two (or more) people only tentatively engage, then true conflict resolution is very difficult.
That concept has helped me a lot. I'm 35 now, but when I was 25, I tended to be a lot more rigid in my thinking about the "right way" and "wrong way" to do things, which made personal relationships rather difficult at times. Learning to apply the idea of establishing a connection first and then being receptive to my opponent's arguments actually made it a lot easier for me to get along and stay happier. That attitude has helped me to respond to arguments with my wife, attacks from my former boss, and tantrums from my 3-year-old by saying, "I understand you're frustrated by ..." (establishing the connection) "...now please hear my point of view."
My actual aikido practice, both at my first school and the one I joined six months ago, tends to be more of the "hard" style with a lot of emphasis on atemi, strong attacks as uke, and good off-balancing and control of uke by nage. The schools differ (often greatly) on the technical details, but the attitudes are remarkably similar. I personally feel that the "aiki-bunny" attitudes I express above are really only worthwhile if you've got strong, effective skills to back them up.
Finally, I think I've had a little disillusionment with aikido over the years, although that's not necessarily a bad thing. I initially bought in to a lot of the stuff that O Sensei was quoted as saying about aikido being the expression of a loving, universal god or some sort of universal truth about relationships. However, in the past several years there's been a lot of excellent analysis by Stan Prannin, Peter Goldsbury, and Ellis Amdur that provides a lot of the historical and cultural context of O Sensei's development of aikido, his religious beliefs, and the post-war development of aikido.
The historical analysis revealed that aikido is not necessarily the cross-cultural, feel-good, lovey-dovey art of peaceful reconciliation that it seems to be on the surface. On one hand, aikido is a martial art based on the concept of loving protection of all living things that seeks to protect one's attacker from harm by blending with his attack and controlling it. On the other hand, aikido was a religious expression of O Sensei who saw himself as a shaman dedicated to the divinity of the Japanese emperor and associate with right-wing militarism.
I'm not saying that aikido doesn't have the lovey-dovey stuff, I just think it's a lot harder to project onto aikido the relativist notions of universal love and tolerance and the expression of love as "soft" technique when one knows more about aikido's history and development. In short, I'm a lot less likely to see O Sensei as a saint, and much more likely to appreciate him as a man.
P.S., I sought out aikido for a number of reasons. I learned about it as a kid from a mixture of Steven Segal movies, AD&D, and GI Joe comics! I decided to start training as an adult when I felt I needed a way to protect myself that bridged the gap between running away from an attacker and shooting him. During my practice, I've found an art that is deep, rich, and immensely rewarding. It offers effective self-defense, but also a lot more.