Alan Drengson, Deep Ecology and Aikido

Carolyn and I, and I am sure many other of his former students, were sad to hear of Alan’s passing last March. We were both profoundly affected by his classes on the philosophy of environment, technology and Eastern religion in the mid-1980s. Much later I came back and interviewed him on the topic of Aikido and ecosophy. He gave a marvelous spontaneous discourse on the theme, so reminiscent of his philosophy lectures, which I was horrified to discover my recording technology had failed to record. So I came back and recorded another interview, which he was gracious enough to give without complaint. The following is a small piece out of a larger essay on the politics of the martial arts that I was working on last year.

My introduction to the martial art of Aikido was in an undergraduate philosophy course on deep ecology and the philosophy of the environment in the 1980s. My professor, Alan Drengson, presented Aikido as a type of Lebensphilosophie, or a way of living. Aikido addressed the question of how to live. It was not just a martial art that one might practice as a hobby or for exercise and recreation, but a “whole art” that had profound ontological and epistemological implications for being in the world and knowing the world. In particular, it embodied the conduct of “right livelihood” based on principles of deep ecology, non-violence, reconciliation, community building and self-realization. 

Deep ecology’s signature distinction was between “shallow”, reformist ecology and a more radical “deep” ecology. If the former was based on the idea of sustainable, but nevertheless anthropocentric, use of natural resources, the latter was based on a non-anthropocentric, “eco-spheric egalitarianism” in which all members of the eco-system have equal and intrinsic value. In deep ecology, as in Aikido, the eco-system and members of the natural world are not resources to be used; neither is one’s body or one’s self a resource to be used. All beings are equally important members of a biospheric community on inviolable paths to self-actualization (Naess, 1995).

In this context Dr. Drengson presented Aikido as one amongst other whole arts that could transform a student’s relationship to the world at a fundamental level. This made philosophy and Aikido exciting.  Much as the French philosopher Michel Foucault was describing in his lectures about the care for the self around the same time, philosophy and Aikido were practices of the self–“an exercise of the self on the self by which one attempts to develop and transform oneself, and to attain to a certain mode of being” (Foucault, 1997, p. 282).  

Thus Aikido was more than a martial art or a set of fighting skills, but an embodied practice of philosophy, or as Drengson preferred, ecosophy, in which the self-realization of selves would be attained “by and through direct appreciation of the ways of other beings” (7).

Thus, Aikido is said to be a Way to harmonize ourselves with the universal energy of nature. The various meditations, movements, evasions, submissions, exercises, postures and throws that form its practice have as their unifying principle the realization of our oneness in nature. In Aikido the participants express through their movements the fundamental principles of the natural world (Drengson, 1992, p. 60).

In affiliating Aikido with deep ecology Dr. Drengson presented the martial arts in the guise of an earth first, ecologically centered practice of cultivation of the self: the martial artist as eco-warrior or eco-monk.

This deep ecology paradigm person is balanced, integrated and developed in all parts of self. He/she is aligned with, centered in, and in harmony with, natural processes, both within and without. They are non-violent in their approach to all of life, themselves included. They do not seek to bow or bend nature to their will, but instead bow or bend to fit nature as it is (Drengson, 1983, p.64).

What Dr. Drengson presented was a practice of the self in which a different use, or in fact non-use, of the body becomes the site for a reconfiguration of politics.

Today, when the urgency of the issues compels us to take immediate political action, there seems less space to discuss Lebensphilosophie. Nevertheless, how might we begin to think about martial arts politically?

Martial arts can be, and frequently are, “shallow” to borrow the term from deep ecology. They are often practiced as a hobby, physical culture, sport, or vocational training, etc. in a way that allows them to be compartmentalized  and separated from a practitioner’s or a community of practitioners’  “politics” or “ultimate values.” In these venues they can be put to use for various purposes. In contrast to the idea of whole arts as a means of integrating one’s life, Theodore Adorno pointed out long ago that we are all accustomed to leading fragmentary, and therefore “damaged lives.” Life itself—the manner of life, forms of life, “life style”–  is externally structured  in a way today that makes almost anything we do (or feel) outside the requirements of work—including politics–to be an inconsequential hobby, recreation, or leisure activity. Similarly the martial arts can become aligned with the various “preoccupations with which one becomes mindlessly infatuated in order to kill the time” (Adorno, 2001, p. 188). In this regard the martial arts do not affect the practitioner’s fundamental relationship to the world and have an arbitrary effect on their political engagement.  

But Dr. Drengson’s work offered a second take on the issue.  With respect to the possibility of a “deep” practice of the martial arts as a budo, a way of liberation, or a “whole art,” a life centered in a different relationship to the world will have a different politics. I do not think the insight that lead Dr. Drengson to bring together seemingly separate things, like ecology and martial arts, should be underestimated.  It was a distinct moment in time and opened up a unique path for many of his students to follow. I would like to think that somewhere in the conjunction between deep ecology’s practice of harmony with nature and Aikido’s practice of harmony in martial technique, a form of life opened up in which ecology shifted from the shallow to the deep and martial arts shifted from the preparation for violence to a freeing relation to violence.

This form of life is a politics, maybe the only meaningful kind of politics in an age when political action has disappeared into Twitter pronouncements, Facebook trolling and increasingly fabulated divisions between people.


Adorno, Theodore. 2001. “Free Time.” In JM Bernstein (ed.). The culture industry: Selected essays on mass culture. JM Bernstein (ed.). London: Routledge.

Drengson, Alan. 1983. Shifting paradigms: From technocrat to planetary person. Victoria: LightStar Press

Drengson, Alan. 1992. “Aikido: Its philosophy & application.” Journal of Asian martial arts. 1(2): 58-69

Foucault, Michel. 1997. “The ethics of the concern of the self as a practice of freedom.” In Paul Rabinow (ed.). Michel Foucault: Ethics, subjectivity and truth. NY: New Press.

Naess, Arne. 1995. “Self realization: An ecological approach to being in the world.” In Alan Drengson and Yuichi Inoue (ed.s). The deep ecology movement: An introductory anthology. Berkeley, Ca.: North Atlantic Books.

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