The study and practice of medicine as a profession can consume and challenge your time, attention, energy, psyche and relationships. Most people emerge from medical training changed from who they were when they entered and even who they thought they would become. There will be efforts in both your training and work to mold you into a practitioner that adheres to protocols, standards of practice and the demands of productivity. Thus, it is important to establish and maintain a core of individuality and personal integrity before being thrust into the gauntlet of your medical training. This can be done in a variety of ways, some covered in other posts on extra-curriculars, time-management, etc. For me, Aikido was a vital part of my survival from graduate school through medical training and into my medical practice.
Aikido is a Japanese martial art that is often translated “The Way of Harmony of the Spirit”. It emphasizes dynamic movements that promote self-defense while also protecting the attacker from injury. This is done by redirecting the opponent’s attacking momentum with various throws, joint locks and pinning techniques. It places emphasis on the development of internal as well as physical integrity and character. For me, as a prospective physician/healer, Aikido was a means of transcending the conflict of wanting to improve the health and well-being of others by not practicing aggressive techniques such as kicking or punching typical of most martial arts. Aikido was not only a source physical exercise but taught me different non-physical aspects of balance and flexibility. It also provided opportunity to escape the mental exercise of study; to get outside of my head and into a world of sensing, feeling, moving, anticipating. Thus, practice in the dojo became a metaphoric laboratory for my life outside of the dojo, including my medical training.
There are three philosophical principles taught in Aikido: Agatsu, Masakatsu and Katsuhyabi. Agatsu means ‘victory over one’s self’. The true source of most conflict you experience is the conflict within yourself. The most difficult opponent to achieving success is your self — your ego, your dark-side motivations and weaknesses. In the end, Aikido was an active means of dealing with my internal conflicts and becoming more clear about my perceptions, desires and goals. In order to help others, I had to help myself become the best person I could be. I learned to see myself in others and then help them to achieve their highest potential in health.
Masakatsu means ‘true victory’ or ‘correct style or method of victory’. This does not mean that there is only one correct answer to every problem. Rather, in a spiritual sense, it means that victory will always be achieved if the intention and purpose of our actions are to harmonize with the world around us. If we practice a particular technique the same way every time, we may become very skilled, but only with that one partner in that one situation. The same is true for the practice of medicine. One treatment may not work will for all patients nor can you treat any one condition the same way in every patient. Dr. Albert Schweitzer said this in another way, “The method to unite a man of active existence and the world is for him not to live for himself, but to regard himself and all creation that comes in contact with him as one body. He experiences this destiny within himself and gives all the assistance he can to others. Thus, when one advances the life of another and gives assistance with one’s own power, one feels the taste of the utmost happiness within one’s self.”
Katsuhyabi means ‘early victory’ or ‘victory faster than light’. If we wait for conflicts to occur, then we are already on the defensive. Rather, our efforts and awareness should be directed toward anticipating and preventing problems before they occur. Clearly, this is important in your premedical studies and application process to training programs. You are trying to correct your deficiencies and weakness to become the best applicant you can and, in turn, the best physician you can. Similarly, the goal of the optimal physician is to empower their patients to prevent ‘dis-ease’ before it occurs and to foresee the complications of any treatment plan you may recommend.
So, should Aikido training be a pre-requisite for medical school or even yet another elective for medical training? Of course not. I am not even advocating that Aikido is a martial art for everyone or a practice that surpasses others. My intention is simply to provide one example of intentionally finding some practice outside of medicine that creates and reinforces in you a sense of wholeness, individuality, meaning, creativity and integrity. Whatever that practice is, I guarantee it will bring some sense of refuge and fulfillment that medicine alone will not.
Chris Hatlestad, MD