Wednesday, June 2, 2010

How to become a better person

I have long wandered and wondered, searched and contemplated the best way to move through life on our city streets, in my culture and neighborhood, among my fellow citizens. Violence follows the unsuspecting. Bad things happen during good times. One should be prepared for anything and should pay some degree of one's waking life to become better prepared for whatever may befall you.

You have to know, that's the truth. Yes? To ignore it, is to delude oneself. To pretend it does not exist, does not make it go away.

In pursuit of that, and having studied Martial Arts most my life since childhood, I finally fell into the study of Aikido my first quarter of college. It is one of the few Martial Arts that has a real philosophy (some say a religion but I disagree).

In point of fact, its philosophy is so basic to its concept, that it is woven through all of itsthe teachings and techniques. The philosophy can be transmuted into the movements and vice versa.

Aikido has been called "The Art of Peace" for many years now. For good reason.

There is a black belt at Kitsap Aikido, in Poulsbo, Washington, our dojo (Martial Arts school, actually a legal 501c non profit school). This black belt is our lead Sensei (Teacher), second only to our Head Sensei.

Lew Sensei is probably the best Aikido partner I've ever had. They say that a great "Uke" makes for a good "Nage". "Uke" (Oooo Kay) is the one thrown (Aikidoists do not have attackers, even someone trying to kill you on the street, is considered a partner, as you can both learn from the interaction); and a "Nage" (Nog Aay) is the one throwing or receiving the technique (or what other martial arts would call, the attacker).

In Aikido however, we do not consider an attack on the street or anywhere, as an attack, or even one carried out by an enemy. To an Aikidoka, or Aikidoist, its always just another opportunity to practice; albeit in this case, with a total stranger who is having evil thoughts about another's safety. In Aikido, we only want to show them the error of their ways and offer them a better way to think, to be and to act. With no desire to harm them, their person or their psyche.

There are no enemies in Aikido, there are no opponents, only potential practice partners in life.

O'Sensei, the founder of Aikido, Morohei Ueshiba, was one of Japan's greatest swordsman and Martial Artists. By the end of WWII he felt that Aikido could bring Peace to the world, if only everyone or most everyone, would simply practice it. He refused to be involved in WWII, as he has lived in Mongolia through the Japan/China war years before that. He came to believe that Love was the key element in our survival. Competition was a negative, especially, as in Aikido, someone could be hurt or killed. He as well did not believe in opposition to force; one should blend with the environment, become one with nature and others and show by example how to convert negative energy to positive and good energy, in order to make it more productive.

Let me give you an example of all this.

Many years ago, I was attacked while walking down a street in Tacoma, Washington. I no longer remember why, or if I ever really knew why. We were just two guys approaching each other on a sidewalk, when suddenly this man came right at me with quite obvious violent intentions. He did not try to hide it. He just came at me, perhaps to at first intimidate and unbalance me.

Having already had years of Martial Arts experience behind me, having fought in Karate tournaments before, and having had hundreds of fights in the dojo and more than one or two out of it, I didn't react with fear, but movement. It was natural. It wasn't that I'm brave or anything like that, but when you are trained how to handle something, and it suddenly is right in your face giving you no choice about how to act, your automatic reactions take over and hopefully, you were trained properly and you react appropriately.

Perhaps this threw him a little off his game.

The whole thing lasted, as most fights like this do, less than perhaps ten seconds. We went back and forth a few times trying to gain control of one another, then I tired of it and slammed him backward and down, hard, into the sidewalk. Had I wanted him dead, at that moment there would have been little more to do. His head would have hit the concrete with smashing force and it would have been over. He may have survived to get to the hospital but I doubt recovery would have been complete.

At this time in my life, I had taken only a single college quarter's worth of Aikido training. I had taken classes from a tiny Japanese lady who always smiled. She had gotten her black belt from a Japanese gentleman who had studied under O'Sensei himself in Japan.

In Aikido, there are two colors of belts: white, and the much desired, black.

Up to that point, I had studied Okinawan Isshinryu Karate and a few others. Isshinryu was a form that came to be because of the Japanese evasion of the island of Okinawa. It had pitted small Okinawan farmers against their impressive invaders, the Japanese Samurai. Samurai had weapons, the farmers had farm implements. And so they learned to use what they had as weapons. Farm tools and an empty hand. In event of a confrontation with a possibly fully armored Samurai, they had to learn to kill quickly, instantly, or they themselves would be killed.

Having studied Isshinryu Karate from a young age, all of my life I had known only one way to fight, and that was to fight toward the inevitable conclusion of very likely killing my opponent. This was such a possibility that our Sensei, had instructed us to give up to three verbal warnings (if possible) to indicate that they were about to fight against someone who didn't believe in fighting, and who was trained only to kill in a fight, using a deadly martial art.

"I know Karate, I know Karate, I know Karate," spoken fast, could suffice in a pinch. If possible, just talk it out. Talking it out worked for me on many occasions. But not always.

Our Sensei, Steve Armstrong Sensei, was a red-white belt when I knew him, which was one belt from the singular, top red belt in this style of Martial Arts, in the world. Armstrong Sensei, eventually earned a red belt before his death at a respectable age. He believed that any opponent of his students, in this style of Martial Arts, deserved fair warning to inform them that they didn't know what they were getting into. I found many of the tenets of Aikido were familiar to me from Isshinryu and Armstrong Sensei, a former Marine Drill Instructor.

This style, of Isshinryu has many philosophical elements similar to Aikkdo, with the clear and primary exception that one was designed to kill and one to convert death into life and a better way: to Love this other. The Founder's of both styles even had similar elements in their lives: both refused to fight in WWII for reasons of ideals and a belief that killing was simply, wrong; especially as was true in that case, since Japan was the aggressor.

Now, getting back to that street the time my "partner" in this impromptu practice, was about half way on to his path to permanent head trauma. I suddenly realized what was going to happen, in a flash I saw the conclusion. In a fight, your mind is racing, fueled by adrenalin and fear, and it wasn't so much as things went into slow motion, as things were processed so rapidly and without thought, that it merely seemed like time slowed.

I grabbed the "gentleman" (which in this case, really was a misnomer) and pulled him back up very hard, so hard that his body and head stopped their downward motion in a snapping jerk, about two inches from the very hard surface. At that point, he realized what I had done and perhaps he also realized how the fight had been going, and how it was going to end.

He looked up at me in some amount of amazement and asked,

"Why did you stop me? I attacked you."

I told him:

"If I hadn't, you could have been killed. I have no right to kill you. Not if I can avoid it. Perhaps I even knew you couldn't win. I do have the training to kill quickly, which gives me a responsibility that I can't ignore, even for you, even for someone trying to hurt me."

He just stared quietly at me. We stood there staring at one another.

This was not bravado on my part, it was not ego. I appeared to be able to counter his moves. It wasn't that he was a bad fighter, but I'm sure that he was used to taking people down quickly and was not used to his moves being neutralized so easily, or at all. This is why people say that muggers are cowards, because they take the advantage, they cut the odds as best they can, to be in their favor as much as possible, no matter what their victim has to experience.

When I threw him back as I had, we were up against one another very close and it was only a simple matter for me to shift my weight and apply pressure at a certain point on his body and thus he flew back with force. My movement, my application of this technique, was out of a desire to end the situation, as I had found it disgusting to be involved in it at all. And I knew someone could get hurt. Perhaps I was thinking in the back of my mind, that it could also be me suffering the damage. A small thought on my part at that time.

So I didn't think, too much was happening too quickly for much thought, and I simply executed the appropriate moves at and for the appropriate moment, doing what would most quickly end the fight one way or another. It was at that point that I realized that I had a split second to comprehend how the fight was about to end. I realized that I could not let things end in such a way, with such responsibility laid squarely at my feet. Even though he had initiated things, had been the one to contemplate them ahead of time, had obviously done this sort of thing before to others and would have again if things all stayed the same for him. I still didn't have the right to take his life over this.

And this is where the primary difference between many Martial Arts and Aikido comes in. Aikido gives you options. Isshinryu by design and necessity, did not.

When I had helped him up there was no question about continuing. He didn't say much, and after our words, he but walked away. He was obviously quite shaken and I hoped that the experience had made a point. There may have been a few words more spoken before he walked off, but I can no longer remember as those words are lost forever in the ripples of time.

What I do remember saying, was: "Don't do this again."

If you look at this tale on the surface, you may wonder why, or how this could have affected a "thug" like this, so much. I would argue, that it was in the detail as the devil always is. It could have been my body language, our eye's watching each other and gaining meaning, or in how I handled myself physically, in relation to him, and beyond our fighting interactions.

But something got through to him, and it was obvious. I do not know if he quit his life of crime that day, maybe he didn't. But maybe he got a wake up call and shifted his crime from violence, to something non or less violent. I had no way at the time of calling the police, and further violence would have lead to someone getting hurt, I'm sure. But in times like this, where its kill the criminal, or do nothing and allow him to go on unchanged, I think this was a good alternative. I didn't set out to change him, but in my actions, in my desire to live my life a certain way, following a certain philosophy, I think it lead to the right thing happening.

One can only hope.

The point of all this is this: violence begets violence and in most instances, just showing someone their misunderstanding in life, can be a lesson and a practice of a possible new habit.

And so we should be in our daily life. In order to lead by true example, just as real life happens around us and to us, so we should consider our actions and make them an integral part of our very Being.

It cannot but pass from one to another.
So, pass it forward my friend.
Share the love.

Tomorrow's Blog: Time Compression: How old age affects the memory

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