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    Training Across Borders

    kaiwayI recently returned from a life-changing “Training Across Borders” (TAB 2015) Aikido seminar, held at Loutraki SportCamp just outside of Athens, Greece. TAB’s purpose is to enable people in conflict to venture across borders that divide us, whether mental or geographic. By providing opportunities for seeming ‘enemies’ to meet on and off the Aikido mat, we are physically giving the philosophy of peace a chance!

    The first TAB seminar was held in 2005 on the island of Cyprus, in the U.N. Buffer Zone created to stop the Turkish-Greek war there in 1974. Sponsored by our non-profit Aiki Extensions, it was an unprecedented experience. Participants came from the U.S. and Iraq (during the war), Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Turkey, Greece, Serbia, Bosnia, and Ethiopia. Just 4 days of training together in Cyprus served to launch the Middle East Aikido Project, establish Aikido in Palestine and Ethiopia, and inspire new cross-borders projects including ‘mini-TAB’ seminars and many fruitful collaborations with Budo (Martial Arts) For Peace programs.

    TAB 2015 successfully celebrated these achievements, and set the stage for even greater and wider Aikido peace-building activity in the decade ahead. Loutraki provided a beautiful, communal venue for 5 days of joy-filled Aikido training, breakout sessions, camp-style eating and bunkhouses, and evening cultural activities. Aikido demos from every country, singing and dancing, and a Saturday night banquet and Talent Show added awesome flavors to the seminar. Plus an outdoor Mediterranean café (with Wi-Fi!) became the perfect place for people to converse over coffee and sweets throughout the day and into the wee hours.

    I’ve been involved with the TAB project from the start, as a core organizer and instructor. And I can hear you wondering—how can fighting arts be a vehicle for cultivating peace between people/s?!

    All martial arts deal with the nature of power, and how to respond to attack and conflict. The Ai in Aikido is a Japanese and Chinese kanji (character) that actually means love, harmony, unity. Ki means life-energy, and Do means The Way. The techniques of Aikido connect and move with an attacker rather than counterattacking, so that aggression can be neutralized and no harm need come to anyone. The larger aim is to cultivate inner wholeness, and peace within the entire human family. Typical outcomes of ‘I’m okay and you’re not,’ using muscle-power and often brute force, are just not good enough or acceptable!

    So what we have is both a non-violent philosophy and practice for deep personal growth, and win-win conflict resolution. Aikido training, by its very nature, builds bridges. Imagine learning to respond to attack or threat by engaging your full power of integrated body-mind-emotion-spirit action—knowing that it is inherently loving and ultimately the greatest force on the planet! Picture yourself facing a strike or grab, or punch or kick, or nasty words, by developing the centered skills to keep yourself safe as well as even the misguided attacker. You could become an embodied force for effective peacemaking. This may sound like a stretch or a tall order, but it’s do-able. And transformative. TAB is living proof that finding empathy and cooperation within conflict can lead to all kinds of unexpected fun and friendships, healing and healthier relationships.

    Aikido specifically brings humane values into physical practice. Dedicating to physical fitness and open-heartedness tend to be good things for everyone. Sports For Peace is now a growing social movement, with more players in many sports creating transcultural, non-political, safe ‘relational spaces’ for people in conflict to actually meet. They appreciate the shared collective experience, non-verbal communication and direct physical contact that sports can provide. With the simple aim of coming to play and work together, they know that fear-filled separation can be transcended, and tensions and violence reduced.

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    United Nations peacekeeping operations make great use of sports to generate reconciliation. They effectively rebuild health and trust, and support both children and adult combatants and civilians in the re-integration process as the horrors of war subside. The U.N.’s Sport For Peace & Development home page states:

    “Sport as a universal language can be a powerful tool to promote peace, tolerance and understanding by bringing people together across boundaries, cultures and religions. Its intrinsic values such as teamwork, fairness, discipline, respect for the opponent and the rules of the game are understood all over the world and can be harnessed in the advancement of solidarity, social cohesion and peaceful coexistence.”

    My experience through TAB is that people would much prefer to mix things up and ‘fight it out for fun’ on a playing field than to maim and kill each other for real on bloody battlefields. It’s just amazing to be with Christians, Muslims and Jews rolling around together on the Aikido mat, within the harmonizing influence of Buddhist philosophy and eastern body-mind practices! Back home in Amman after Athens, a dear Arab colleague of mine said:

    “At the beginning of TAB, people didn’t know so well how to meet the other people. But then on the mats, we met and expressed ourselves doing Aikido and we just knew each other. We felt: I can do this, I can know you and you can know me. We saw each other as a human, as a person, not as a nationality or religion. Then we could talk! Now we have friends from other places, and we know them as people.”

    I doubt anyone at TAB 2015 will ever forget the demo by a teenage Bedouin girl in hijab (Muslim head scarf) with several Israeli and Palestinian boys, showing how to handle unwanted harassments. Or her karate teacher rolling smoothly and loving Aikido. Or the Greek woman teaching internal Chi Qong, then sharing fast combat-form T’ai Chi. Or seeing two slightly-built, gorgeous teenage Bulgarian girls being tossing around their burly instructors. So many awesome moments and images happened in Loutraki. Personally, I just love when reality blows away any preconceptions I may have in my mind. My eyes and heart open, and I am expanded into much better truths than I could have imagined!

    Apart from sports or special events, “Training Across Borders” is really a concept. Whether local or global, it’s about stepping out of our comfort zones and reaching past limitations. Dissolving harmful divisions. It’s about opening up our thoughts, and releasing stereotypes and judgments. Expanding possibilities. Allowing in new experiences, ideas and beliefs. Joining hands with others and ‘the other.’ TAB can happen through sports, or theater, or business, or volunteering, or everyday conversations and actions. Or you may want to try Aikido. There are so many dojos (schools) and good teachers in the Bay Area that I’ve always called it ‘Aiki mecca’!

    As we move together into the season of thanksgiving and miraculous birth and light, let’s cherish the hope of positive social change and of peace, knowing these are ours to create. As LGBT people, we know how powerful it is to ‘come out,’ so that everyone can meet and appreciate one another in the realities and rights of our very beings. ‘TAB’ just might change all our lives, and the world.

    Jamie Leno Zimron is an LPGA Pro, Aikido 5th Degree Black Belt, and Corporate Speaker-Trainer. Please check out her website: http://www.thekiaiway