The Hammer and the Nail by Mark Peckett


I heard a soldier on the radio the other day use the expression: “When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”  I really wanted to use it in my blog, but I wasn’t sure how.

And then I saw yet another article in a martial arts magazine on real street self-defence and I saw the link with the quote.
The instructor demonstrating the techniques (glaring out of the cover with his shaved head, crazy eyes and bared teeth) looked about the size of a barn.
I got to thinking that in all likelihood he has never been attacked on the street. You would have to be mad to even consider looking at him. People probably crossed the street to avoid him, thinking he was going to attack them!
I know the social science of victimology first proposed that some victims contribute to, or precipitate their victimisation. Surprisingly the most likely victims of street attack are men between the ages of 25 and 34. I imagine this is because they are more likely to engage in high risk behaviour in high risk environments. As a rule women will avoid situations like that, as will older men and families.
The purpose of aikido is two-fold: firstly, to give its practitioners a whole tool bag instead of just a hammer, and secondly, to help them unify their body and spirit, and then extend that unity to the body and spirit of other people. In fact, it would be fair to say, that if the second is achieved, it is the only tool you will need.
There are several anecdotes related to O’Sensei’s extraordinary powers, including his ability to dodge bullets because he saw a golden flash before the trigger was pulled, and the occasion when he was challenged to a fight with a wooden sword and the attacker was unable to touch him.
However, until we progress that far, we are going to need the tool bag of techniques. Interestingly these techniques translate out of the purely physical. In the 1970s Terry Dobson (the huge white guy you see getting thrown around by O’Sensei in old black-and-white film), returned to America and wrote a book called “Aikido in Everyday Life.”
He essentially formulated the circle, square, triangle theory of aikido into a method of dealing with people. He doesn’t say that conflict doesn’t exist, or that you should claim the moral high ground and refuse to fight; he simply suggests that there are other ways to fight:

  •   You could “doing nothing”: pause, temporarily offering no response while your opponent exhausts his arguments, or even starts to argue himself round to your side. This is the square;
  • As the triangle you respond in a focussed way from a stable base;
  • Or you could choose blend with the attacker, then turning his or her energies away from confrontation to resolution. This is the circle, acknowledging that your opponent’s feelings are understandable, or that s/he might have a point and then, reframing the problem as a shared one.

This is a gross over-simplification of Terry Dobson’s excellent book, but I think it demonstrates how aikido can be moved out of the dojo. While acknowledging conflict, we don’t have to fight – aikido shows us that there are alternatives, or alternatives that can be used in combination with one another.

Many other aikido practitioners have also taken aikido principles off the mat. Wendy Palmer, for example, 6th dan instructor at Aikido of Tamalpais, teaches a Conscious Embodiment and Intuition program, which teaches integration through movement, meditation and breathing to learn to deal with our fears and aggression. Once again, through over-simplification I am not doing justice to a beautiful idea, but I think the point is clear.

Aikido teaches how to become so much more than a hammer. I could name a number of other aikido practitioners who have moved the teachings out into other fields, from John O’Neil applying it to business in “Leadership Aikido – 6 Business Practices to Turn Around Your Life” to George Leonard on “Mastery – the Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfilment.”

I have a student who practises diligently two or three times a week. He works in a profession which has the potential to be confrontational. When he started coming to classes he carried a lot of tension in his shoulders. At first, it wasn’t until towards the end of the class, perhaps five or ten minutes, that the tension left him and his techniques started to flow. As time has gone on, the relaxation comes sooner in the class. I have told him it wouldn’t matter if he never learned a technique (he has learned plenty!) because aikido is helping him to unwind, teaching him to relax through focussing on breathing and movement. If he can carry this forward into his everyday life, it would be enough. The self-defence he is learning is far more likely to be useful to him, and certainly far more often, than how to do a good kote-gaeshi.

I mentioned in a previous blog about the two times I have used aikido in real life; both times involving falls from ladders whilst holding power tools (I am a slow learner; it’s the kind of mistake you should only make once!). As I enter my sixties, I hope that the self-defence aikido has given me will protect me from that curse of the elderly – the fall and the broken hip.

Again, as I have got older, aikido has turned my thoughts towards matters of the spirit and how they affect my technique. This doesn’t mean I have become one of those aiki priests I complained about in another blog and I don’t expect my students to follow me unquestioningly, but my interests have expanded.

In the end, there are many mansions in aikido’ house and it can be as much or as little as you like, but never let it turn you into just a hammer. Certainly, if you need a hammer it must have a steel head, not gold or silver, but for most of us for most of our lives we don’t need a hammer to solve our problems.