Aikido is non-competitive. That's easy to say. The practice is not about defeating an opponent, but about both participants being victorious by finding a truly peaceful solution and growing as human beings in the process. That, too, is easy to say.
Still, there's a lot of competing going on in aikido. Numerous aikido students hurry along the way in an effort to surpass their fellow trainees, in skills as well as grades, eager to take a teaching role when working with whatever partner, reluctant to learn as equals.
But it doesn't stop at the individual level. It happens that dojos compete as well, to attract more students from the streets, maybe even hoping to lure some over from the other dojos. And the rings on the water widen. Groups of dojos, connected by little more than a common organization or by their definition of a style of aikido, might also show the hostility of a porcupine towards other groups or the outside aikido world as a whole, insisting that none is closer to the truth.
There are no medals handed out in these kinds of competitions, but those involved race in order to call themselves superior and everybody else inferior. That's usually the bottom line, and it's not far at all from what takes place in just about any sport.
So, honestly speaking, there's a lot of competing going on in aikido -- although just about all of us happily and sincerely support the non-competition principle at the core of it. But it's easier said than done. Why?
Survival of the fittest
What immediately comes to mind is the Darwinian idea of the survival of the fittest. In any species, its individuals compete to procreate. This, the biggest competition of them all, is supposed to promote the development and refinement of the species. Such a mighty force is likely to affect just about everyone, in spite of our individual preferences or convictions.
But we seem to have done away with a lot of those Darwinian instincts in our society. We not only allow the weak or disabled to live, but we put great efforts in assisting and supporting them. We insist that their lives should be just as fulfilling as everybody else's. Nor do we hurry to reproduce, but quite the contrary. Although welfare brings the possibility to support a lot of offspring, nativity rapidly decreases when welfare increases. That's true also for individuals who are very successful at attracting mates.
There are many anomalies to the Darwinian paradigm. Nowadays, biological science tends to place the urge of reproduction in our genes, and not our whole beings. I'm not sure to what extent that's a question of plain semantics, but it meets with just about the same anomalies.
Well, I'm not trying to redraw the map of zoology. I just have my doubts about the survival of the fittest being the root to our urge to compete with one another.
The meaning of life
Instead, I think it boils down to one frustrating circumstance in human existence: we are all going to die, and we know it. That's the koan implanted in our conscious minds. We will die, and we don't even know what that means.
So, we have an insatiable drive to do the very most we can of our lives, to reach the farthest and the highest, to gild our days in the hope of making them mean more, maybe even one day making us at peace with the unavoidable outcome.
It's not exactly what makes us compete, since winning over others has precious little to do with making our own lives full. But it's what makes us hate losing.
In the limited time span we have at our disposal, we don't want to waste it doing what's second best, or finding that others use their time better. We don't need to come first, but we don't want to come second, because it implies that we failed in making as much of our lives as could have been done. That would make the moment of death one of utter failure, an interruption before completion.
Practice makes perfect
If so, then what to do about it? There is no competition in aikido, but how to avoid competing?
Like everything else in aikido, it's a question of practice. We train the aikido techniques in order to perfect them, and thereby somehow also our minds. Non-competition is an attitude, not just the lack of fighting for medals, and should be trained as such. Only by diligent practice can we become non-competitive.
I believe that the aikido techniques are the keys. Their nature is such that they promote non-competitive thinking, and their solutions show the rewards of it. But then it's important not to practice them with an attitude of using them to defeat an opponent, but to find a solution that both participants find better than any one's victory.
Again, that's easy to say.
Stefan Stenudd is a 6 dan Aikikai aikido instructor, member of the International Aikido Federation Directing Committee, the Swedish Aikikai Grading Committee, and the Swedish Budo Federation Board. He has practiced aikido since 1972. Presently he teaches aikido and iaido at his dojo Enighet in Malmo, Sweden, and at seminars in Sweden and abroad. He is also an author, artist, and historian of ideas. He has published a number of books in Swedish and English, both fiction and non-fiction. Among the latter are books about aikido and aikibatto, also a guide to the lifeforce qi, and a Life Energy Encyclopedia. He has written a Swedish interpretation of the Chinese classic Tao Te Ching, and of the Japanese samurai classic Book of Five Rings. In the history of ideas he studies the thought patterns of creation myths, as well as Aristotle's Poetics. He has his own extensive aikido website: http://www.stenudd.com/aikido