“Some retreat from violence and instead become immature pacifiers; this is the one who puts up with it all, the one who suffers in silence, the one who hides from conflict…”
Some starting points: How do we hold the realities of violence? How do we interact with the suffering and trauma of violence? How do we transform and heal in the face of violence? What do dojos and budo (martial arts) have to do with all this?
We are all touched by violence. No one comes through the door of a dojo who has not been marked by this fact. Some are victims, others are victimizers. Some want relief from fear, others want to gain more power and control over their world in the face of chaos. Some dream of becoming a hero, wielding power like a weapon and doing violence for “good and just” purposes; vanquishing evildoers for the greater cause. Others just enjoy the paradoxical dance, the dance that turns so beautifully on the edge of something so ugly– the dance that somehow, transcends.
All must look deeply into the shadow of violence in order to transform it. To Heal. This is the price we pay for the power that we gain by learning this potent dance. The price is high, but necessary, for what we do not look into deeply, what we keep in our shadow and continue to neglect will inevitably come out— too often in some sideways and tragically inappropriate way, and we find ourselves asking, “Why did I just do that?”… “What is wrong with me that I would do That?” “How could I be the perpetrator of violence?”
So, how do we enter this dance? Insight requires reflection.
Some may pursue the path toward becoming the Ultimate Bad-Ass — As my friend Larry’s old t-shirt said, ”For yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, Because I AM the Baddest S.O.B. in the Valley!”–a tragic response to deep fear that plays out as an immature, posturing warrior. The bully archetype–cowardice and impotence dressing up like power, and it is sadly true that dojos certainly can play into these fantasies. Young men climb into octagonal cages every day at an alarming clip. Ultimate warriors abound. How sad.
Some retreat from violence and instead become immature pacifiers; this is the one who puts up with it all, the one who suffers in silence, the one who hides from conflict, the one who embodies fear under the guise of “keeping the peace,” but who is really just keeping the status quo. “Don’t rock the boat, stay quiet, we don’t wake the sleeping dragons. It will all work out some day.” Stoic and long suffering, dying inside by degrees. Tragic as well.
Some dream, of becoming the Hero. Frankly, they have seen too many movies and become confused; they often think that heroes are the ones solving the problems in the world with violence. They sadly mistake wielding power with “being heroic.” The aspiration toward the archetype may be good, but those attracted to the path of the hero in its modern forms are in need of more deep education on what “heroic” means. And more pointedly they need specific education on the peculiar tendency for violence to breed more of itself—solving naught. Just making more problems. In the truly heroic world, force is a last, last, last resort, and the hero carries sacrifice, not glory. Heroes make swords into ploughshares.
For myself and my own tragic journey, I wanted both the power and the fearlessness that the dance of violence could give me. I became infatuated with confidence, enthralled with the more efficient way to do the deed.
When I remember first entering training about 27 years ago, seeing aikido was love at first sight. Here was power and truth and violence wrapped up in beauty and ethics. Here is what I had been seeking since boyhood; all contained in a magical place called the Dojo.
I can tell you, that even in the dojo, I felt touched by violence: as a green belt, the first time being thrown against my will in a big fall in toshu randori—Very Scary—so out of control , so sudden and final; then later, around sankyu having the ugly energy of violence visit me again in randori as my “partner/sempai” knelt over my pinned shoulder, pulled my head up by my hair, straining my neck, to whisper in my ear with a voice dripping with malice, “You love this shit? I love this shit!”
I can still hear his voice. My blood turned cold. Fear coursed through me, “He’s going to kill me.” was the thought.
Lessons in violence, Lessons in fear, and Lessons in power.
From these early experiences, my training turned toward greater and greater refining of skill—this is what drove me as an uchideshi, class after class, day after day. I felt compelled to appropriate that power that had so controlled and threatened me. The power that had been employed upon me, I HAD to become capable of wielding that weapon in my own hands. The drive was overarching. It was a passion, obsession.
Years go by… and sure enough.
One day, I find myself trying to explain to a ex-army ranger how yes this wakigatame will really hurt you if you fight it (fight ME I should have said) and he reflexes, and I reflex and BAM!– I am in the flying arm bar… and he will be in a sling….
Later, my buddy and I are playing judo and he cuffs me in the jaw from his collar grip—I complain —- he blows it off–I get pissed then BAM I am slugging him in the jaw. “Tit for Tat” I say….
Later still, I am practicing randori with a high brown belt and he is fighting off-balance and ducking out and I loose my patience and BAM! My Shomen-ate planes him out 12 feet through the air flying head first to the floor. “Strength begets strength” I say to him glaring down. In truth, I am lucky I haven’t broken his neck…..
Later as I plunge into judo, some big mouth punk in judo class rubs me the wrong way and BAM I am foot sweeping him with no grips-—his fall is predictably awful…. another one head-butts me in shiai, BAM I am trying to decapitate him with a side choke… a third gets my gander up in newaza, BAM and I am trying to stuff his head into the gutter at the edge of the mat when Sensei Chuck pulls my leash… “Dam-it Chuck I was just getting into it!” He pulls me back from the brink.
Only a few years ago some brown belt fool speeds up in toshu randori and BAM I’m spinning him like atop and stuffing him into the floor with ushiro ate and thumping him a little on the way down…
A white belt is fighting me and I am crushing him to the floor…
What am I doing? Where is this coming from? Is this what all this time and training have been for?
For awhile a part of me smiled at these incidents. I actually celebrated this stuff. I gloried in the fact that Now I had the Power in my hands to wield upon the world around me. I felt Big and Strong and Bad, and meanwhile, I also played at justifying myself, “ It was self-defense”- “It was for his own good.” “He brought it on himself” “He was just an asshole” “It taught him a lesson” “After all, I showed restraint, it could have been worse…”
All these ways to try to slip around the hard fact of responsibility, and the deeply disturbing feeling that in each case, real ugly energy of violence had erupted unbidden and suddenly in my own hands. Mr. Cool flipping out and now I have manifested the body of violence and visited it upon the world around me. OUCH. “That looks like it hurts…” Bad Karma…
This is not who or what I wanted to be. This is not what I was after. Where have I gone off course?
Violence is a sticky dark polluting thing and it tends to occur and reoccur. The more you do, the more you get. It feeds forward. It reiterates trauma. That is how it works.
What we don’t know is that whenever we find our lives touched by violence we Really need Purification. We need a means to transform and heal it, otherwise we just tend to repeat the imprinted pattern– unconsciously reliving and reiterating the trauma. Victim becomes victimizer. Again. again.
In traditional cultures, warriors returning to the tribe from war would go to the shaman to be cleansed. In heat or dance or isolation, they would endure the ordeal, and they would receive purification, and then be readmitted to the tribe; otherwise the War would come back to the tribe with them. Those touched by violence who do not purify tend to slide into off-balanced lives often seeking to self-medicate or self-destruct, or simply fall into cycles of perpetual violence themselves. War tends to come home.
So often our “martial arts” and “dojos” are just more of the same. They play unconsciously in the shadow dance of violence and the perpetuation of violence. They become shrines to the bigger badder ego, the bigger badder bully. They fail to embrace or embody the deep contradictions of their own nature, of peace and violence.
They forget that there is a way that transcends and includes. The character “bu” in Budo (usually translates as martial art) but actually symbolizes the act of stopping a spear, stopping the violence, ending the cycle of trauma. Few martial arts or artists or dojos do this. But it is always already there. It is waiting just beneath the surface for them all the time. The martial arts and their deep nature do offer purification, transformation and integration. They do heal.
At its best (and I would argue that Now is the time for our Best), the Dojo is an alchemical container for the transformation of the energy of violence in our lives. For it to function in this capacity requires that the energy of the dojo itself stay Clean and Pure. Once dojos become degraded with ugly energy, the container gets leaky and the good healing energy medicine gets lost. This all sounds wildly esoteric, but I assure you it is completely real, completely palpable and obvious for those who have eyes to see it. Ever notice the light and beauty and space in the traditional dojo? Slow down, tune in, allow your feelings to feel the shape of the energy and you will see it too.
To heal the violence requires that we look deeply into our own basic goodness, our own awakened nature. It requires that we envelop ourselves in our own positive qualities of being and then bring the strength and beauty and light of all of that to bear on the trauma. We must awaken to the good and true within ourselves to face the darkness. If we try to face the darkness from out of our own darkness — an abyss calling forth an abyss of our own broken, hollow, and confused nature — then have what my good friend Larry describes as “a recipe for spiraling depression,” and the perpetuation of more of the same, the same.
To dance on the edge of violence and transform it in the world and in our selves; turning it from an oxymoronic “toxic asset” into a real empowerment of compassion is the ultimate point. So often we think that dojos are places to build a bigger better self, a more powerful version of Me. But that is a cul de sac, a ghetto of a destination. You can stop in there if you like and plenty do…but really, if we allow them to, Dojos transform us by healing our hearts and balancing our energies, by awakening our perception and clarity, by softening the hard and rigid places within us, by calming the turbulence within our souls, and by functioning as safe refuge in times of fear and turmoil.
Fight Clubs do not do that. Sumo stables, MMA clubs , and shiaijo (competitive halls) do not do that. Gymnasiums and weight rooms do not do that. In this way, the Dojo is more akin to a temple, to a zendo, a zen practice hall, than to a workout facility.
The Dojo carries magic. For here is a place in the world where the hardest, scariest, ugliest darkest, meanest, worst energy in our natures can be brought to light and be held with clarity and compassion– with humor even. Where the tragic expression of deep suffering can end and be turned around, not by mere words or good intentions, and positive thought, not any sort of whitewash covering it over, not by playing into it with justification and escaping responsibility, not by flimsy fantasy or wish fulfillment; but rather through real physical sweat and motion and breath–through awareness and embodiment in practice of the “art” that stops the violence. That transcends and transforms the violence with play; that purifies the repetitive nature of violence with its own intractable, endless purposeful repetition of principle; and finally integrates all of our energies, dark and light, into the greater flowing stream of energy of the tribe, the sangha, the whole magnificent catastrophe of life itself.
It’s a lot of magic , but it is the good kind, and it will work on you whether you believe in it or not.