A Brief Visit from O-Sensei by Tom Collings

tom-collings-portraitWe all need a Vision. Not dreamy fantasy, or illusion, but a vision of what is possible. Vision inspires our practice, and no lifelong commitment with passion can be sustained without it. There are transcendent moments in this life, when grace may shine on us. When a vision is realized.

I have been asked if I ever met aikido founder master Morihei Ueshiba, O-Sensei. I say no. I respond that I studied a few years with his son, Kisshomaru, grandson Moriteru, and his closest disciple Morihiro Saito. I trained hard, got in great shape, but never saw anything magical or mystical. Nothing I could not explain. My youthful fantasies about “internal powers” and martial art as “spiritual” training were dispelled. My training in Japan was 99% sweat, bruises, sprains, hard falls, and hard drinking. So, pushing my disappointment aside, I accepted that martial arts as heavy duty fun and exercise was enough.

But, denying I was ever with O-Sensei is not entirely true. The deeper truth is, I did meet him once. It was a powerful encounter, both intimate and confusing. He entered a room and showed me what aikido was:

It was 1984, after returning back to New York. I worked at a hospital as a psychiatric social worker on a locked mental ward. Four cops brought in a big, twenty five year old skinhead. He had swastikas tattooed on both arms, and a lot of scars. He paid no attention to all the cuts and blood from his fight with the officers. Screaming at the top of his lungs, he challenged them to remove the cuffs, then he would kill all four of them. As they removed the handcuffs, they quickly slipped out the heavy steel door. I remember the loud slamming sound as it locked behind them.

Now he was our patient, and immediately began pacing like a caged lion. He threatened to rip off the heads of the first nurse and doctor who tried to approach him. They backed off fast. Giving patients in crisis space and time usually helps de-escalate anxiety and anger. But this guy’s rage was off the scale, and just kept escalating.

He started tossing chairs down the hall trying to knock down staff. He was threatening to kill us all if he was not immediately released. The standoff got louder and scarier, with a dozen staff — nurses, doctors, attendants, and security guys at one end of the hall, and this human inferno at the other. “I kill the first mother-f–ker who comes down my end of the hall!” Any words spoken to him just inflamed him more, as it usually does when someone becomes irrational. He continued pacing his end of the hall, destroying everything he could find.

With all my psychiatric training, degrees, and years of martial arts — I was as scared shitless as everyone else. Adrenaline pouring in — heart pounding, palms sweating, body vibrating, mind racing, throat dry — forehead wet.

broken-glass-largeSuddenly, he ran into an unlocked room by the nursing station, that had a big glass observation window. Through the window we watched him busting up all the equipment in the room, then pushing all the desks, chairs, and medical equipment up against the door. He even picked up file cabinets to block the door. He had that super human strength that adrenaline-rage gives you. While it was frightening, the big barricade blocking the door made us feel a little safer. It separated us from him. For now, we were safe.

Then he found a heavy metal IV pole, using it to smash anything in the room that was glass. Soon there was broken glass all over the floor in that room. Seeing all the broken glass in there, I realized how easy it would be for him to pick up a pick some glass to cut his wrists or neck. Homicide and suicide are different sides of the same coin. It can change from one to the other in an instant. I realized we would not be able to stop him it time, if he tried to kill himself — that is when everything changed.

Fear of him turned into fear for him. With neither the courage, nor the skill to do what happened next — I just watched in awe:

O-Sensei slipped through the crowd of staff people almost unnoticed. He slammed his body against the door with such force that the huge barricade of desks, file cabinets and furniture came crashing down. As he moved through the door he knew everything the crazy guy would do — how he would move — where he would move — even what he would say! Like it was all prearranged.

The patient ran to the exact spot he was supposed to go — then on cue he raised his metal pole – just the way he was supposed to, like O-Sensei wanted. He was following each directive perfectly! Why ? He challenged O-Sensei — following the script — screaming “Come on mother f–ker, I’m gonna crack your f–king head open.” Why was this guy being so compliant? His position, his focus — even his grip on the metal pole — was exactly the way it was supposed to be — the way O-Sensei wanted it. None of this made any sense.

O-Sensei walked directly to him, right into that inferno of violent rage — without the slightest hesitation or uncertainty. There was no preparation and no martial arts. No blocking — no dodging — no speed — no throwing, and no techniques. He just walked, unhurried, to him. Allowing the guy to play his scripted part. It all seemed so simple and natural. Like it was nothing special.

The crazy guy was drawn in to something, as if by a magnet. As he walked right into the violent attack he ignored the steel pole swinging at his head. Then two bodies entered some kind of winding — spiraling thing. It was impossible to see just what this thing was. All I saw was O-Sensei’s hand protecting the man’s head as they both spiraled down to the ground.

The fall knocked the wind out of the guy, he was stunned but not hurt. I found myself sitting on the floor where everything had just occurred. I was holding the guy’s head. Attendants and security staff ran in, and held his arms, while a nurse gave him medication. But he was not fighting anymore. All the rage was gone. It was like he woke up from a very bad dream. Where did all that violent rage go? Almost as stunned as the patient, my reaction was “what the hell just happened?” I had no idea.

Kathleen, the head nurse, was angry. She scolded me for recklessly entering the room alone; “You would have been killed, if he had not tripped on something and fallen down! You are a professional, you know better. Don’t ever do that again.” I wanted to tell her I only came in at the end. I wanted to tell her about O-Sensei – that there was never anything to worry about — that it was not me. But I just apologized, and agreed I was very lucky.

I took a long walk outside, then sat in the hospital coffee shop, just staring blankly at my coffee cup. What the hell just happened? It did not feel like martial arts. Yet, it was not a hallucination, it was very real. Confused, excited, and shaking a bit, I sat there a long time.

Ten people watching that day saw nothing but a crazy guy swing a metal pole at Tom’s head — then “probably” trip on something and fall down. I pressed them for more detail, but only got puzzled looks. “That is all that happened” they said, and added, “You were really lucky.” When I asked how I pushed the door open myself, and what I did after entering the room — not one of them could remember. I pressed them for more detail, but got none.

I left work that day excited and inspired. But it felt more confusing than mystical. The incident left me with many questions, no answers. My biggest question is whether O-Sensei will ever come again?

Perhaps he has, in many smaller ways without the drama. I figure that time, he needed to give a cynical little bastard like me, a few mind blowing moments. Just to show what is possible.

He explodes… I accept such power
Guiding him to earth… assisting him
Assisting his fall… No one throws
Mind silent… like before dawn
Before birds speak… before dawn breeze
The mind of ancient hills… stable and still….
Stillness in motion… silent as before time
The Open Way… stops nothing
No defenses… defenses are fences…
Self-defense… miss-leads
Perfect timing… but whose timing…
Whose timing?
There are moments of Great Faith
Great Trust… when Vision is realized
And I was there… somewhere

Get Tom Collings great new book on Amazon: Searching for O’Sensei: Learning and Living the Wisdom of the Warrior

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7s Comments

  1. We train hard. We inquire. We seek understanding. When we need that knowledge it may be there for us. O Sensei talked about being possessed by the kami. On a less serious plane there was a guy who trained at old Oakland and also worked in the psych ward at a Berkeley hospital. He assured us all that our stuff works just fine.

  2. Magnificent!
    We need to stop comparing ourselves with others and realise the magnificent advantage we have over everyone else in the world — being ourselves! All potential Osenseis too.

  3. Terrific story/experience Tom. I have never had the desire to put myself in places where such incidents take place. I never wanted to be a policeman or fire fighter or first responder of any kind. Just not interested. Yet a number of the jobs I did in the military had the possibility of serious danger a lot of the time. You just didn’t make stupid mistakes.

    I did make one, but we got out of it. Almost sank an amphibious tractor off of Onslow Beach at Camp Lejeune, but we made it in OK. In the Navy I worked around 1200 psi steam systems and liquid oxygen and nitrogen. In oxygen, just a spark and you’re so much toast they don’t even find ashes.

    Nothing ever happened too bad. We had a nitrogen tank that blew something out of the gages and was spewing -320 degree liquid out. A hose fitting burst when we were pumping up a nitrogen cart to 3500 psi, but I got the pump shut down and the pressure bled off so the hose stopped flailing about most ricky-tick. There was an oil leak in the boiler room of the Barbey one night at sea which could have flashed to explosive fire but we got the whole engineering plant secured in lots less time than we ever did during our shutdown drills. I had a valve top blow out one night in the high pressure LOX plant on the Independence, but I got the plant secured in just a few minutes, then we had to repair it in about 8 hours. Some of those things were actually stimulating and fun. You just live with the dangers so much, you recognize them but don’t dwell on them.

    You took the crazy unknown mental cases. I worked in the known mechanical cases. Yours was lots worse.

    Keith still has your book, I’ll get to read it later. Thanks. Tom Huffman

  4. Chuck, thank you for reminding us of those words “possessed by the Kami.” What a beautiful phrase. The only accurate description for some experiences.

  5. Pascal Verhille

    There is this unusual interview of O-Sensei published in the newspaper Shokan Yomiuri, in 1956. Stanley Pranin posted it on this website. Replying a question, Morihei Ueshiba says:

    “In Aikido, we never hit the sword of the opponent. All we have to do is raise his two fingers and help him”.

    It seems O-Sensei wanted to show you how he – as pure spirit – “performs” such an action. Thank you Sir for sharing with us this very inspirational experience, and for the way you did it.

  6. Collings Sensei,

    Thank you so much for posting this inspirational story.

    After reading your post, I immediately ordered your book, and I’ve practically finished it (I particularly liked the passages about using Aikido as a cop on the streets of NYC. Also your chapter about Undertaker is amazingly thought-provoking).

    Thank you again for sharing all your stories. I look forward to visiting your Dojo if I ever come to NYC.


    Erwan Kergall

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