Friday, September 11, 2015

The courage to find the Way through martial arts and mindfulness in modern life

No one has ever tried to punch me maliciously; I will probably go the rest of my life without encountering such an assault. We spend a lot of time in martial arts class preparing to defend ourselves against just such an attack. In daily life, however, I have emotional conflicts with myself and others that have a measurable physical impact. This post is about how martial arts and my Buddhist practice are helping me work with it.

Have you ever noticed that emotions have physical sensations? In mindfulness practice one can sensitize one's awareness of sensations in the body, not to get rid of them or prolong or intensify them, but to know what is happening here and now. In the Buddhist teaching on unconditional kindness this constancy of mindfulness is celebrated as "living in heaven here and now!"* When one is being verbally attacked, whether the attacker is face to face or in a recording or phone call, one may feel sensations in the body including heaviness, paralysis, searing pain, heat, constriction in the chest, heart pounding, shortness of breath, sweaty palms, etc. These stress responses might be helpful in a predator-prey situation where one's life depends on stillness and readiness to flee or fight, but in modern life they hinder well-being and conflict resolution. As we evolved as fish, lizards, and tree-climbers the stress response would be discharged once the threat disappeared, but how can we discharge these high-energy sensations in modern life with a modern brain?

One technique is to apply mindfulness to the acute sensations in one's body at that moment. They are just passing sensations, so they are not worth acting on unwisely. In street self-defense, as in the wild, we learn to use our own alarm and excitement as a source of speed and energy for measured, protective responses. In taekwondo we learn to control facial expression so we can choose whether to show pain when attacked. We learn to feel pain without aversion and reaction so our actions continue to be consciously chosen. In a street or competitive fight a flat affect can discourage an attacker, and when someone who loves us attacks us in anger, sometimes seeing our pained expression can help slow and disarm them. Doesn't it escalate anger and frustration in you when someone to whom you are speaking harshly appears unresponsive? In that moment what would you like to see and hear that would restore your forgiveness and kindness?

Another technique is to apply mindfulness to a deliberate, unaggressive movement such as shifting weight from one foot to the other, touching one's own face, even lifting a finger. The consciousness of this apparently insignificant motion reminds the body that one is still in control and not physically trapped or immobilized; it might be perceived by the attacker (if present) as a non-threatening sign of engagement, "I'm listening." This technique connects to somatic therapy, which uses awareness of sensation and the body's ability to discharge pent-up trauma through natural movements. In situations of emotional distress the Buddha directed those present to "follow the breath," a sensation source that connects us to all life.
Me breaking for a Triangle Martial Arts Association demo in 2010.
There's a common misconception about martial arts training that I had to overcome in my first year of taekwondo practice. When one walks into the school, immediately rituals and rules snap into place. Remove one's shoes, change into a costume, bow to the flags at the threshold, bow to each other, address senior ranks and black belts as "sir" or "ma'am," line up in rank order, etc. At first this seems contrived. I personally rebelled internally against the hierarchy of rank.

As I practiced more and watched other students, though, I began to understand that not only was rank earned through effort and physical, mental, and spiritual skillbuilding, the entire format exists to cultivate the Way, "do" in many martial arts styles (aikido, judo, hapkido). Self-consciousness and pride can fade as the Way to interact and communicate with every situation becomes clearer. In the real world any situation may arise; the school provides an orderly container to cultivate the ability to see right Ways and opportunities to respond appropriately. Eventually I experienced this in the joyful ease of giving guidance to new students when I saw a need, without a thought or sense of pride.

For a crude example, if I am so unfortunate as to meet someone who tries to punch me, I see a Way to help him stop harming himself and me and engage in stepping out of the way, calling his attention to this unnecessary violence, and if necessary immobilizing him. If I am skilled I will do so with kindness and not hatred because I understand ignorance, not any one person afflicted with it, is the enemy. I understand that society currently rewards greed and promotes false views, and as a member of that society I get to interact with that norm and its consequences. When a gunman burst into their train car Sadler, Skarlatos, and Stone saw the Way was to take him down, without heroism and without hate. They could have killed the man, but they simply saved him from the terrible consequence of murdering and injuring others. I believe they didn't have to think about consequences, debate how appropriate it was for foreign tourists to engage, or weigh whether protecting the others in the car was worth the personal risk. They saw what needed to be done and just did it.

We can practice in our everyday lives so that if severe physical and emotional misfortunes do befall us, as they eventually do, we can be ready to see the Way and act with conviction, kindness, and skill. Every "difficult person" can be a spiritual friend in a situation that shows us more of the Way. Every challenge is an opportunity to look hard at ourselves, know and befriend all bodily sensations that arise without discrimination, and keep the steering wheel steadily in hand.

Our worst tormentor is our own mind and our ultimate liberator is also our own mind. It's up to you to use your precious time to work with the mind. May we all have the courage to face the reality around and within us, with mindfulness, without preference or aversion, and with the freshness of the present moment that is the touch of every bodily sensation.

* Pali: Brahmamettam viharam idamahu

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Abandon the twin engine of oppression

I have decided to abandon hatred and greed.

All summer I have been investigating intensely the following, and am becoming convinced that the hatred when I think hateful thoughts, say hateful things, and act from a place of hate is made of the same material as all human hatred. I have become aware of the impact of hatred and greed on myself and on others, and its effect of destruction on the world. I am becoming convinced that hatred and greed in my own heart and mind are the twin engines of oppression. It is Augusto Boal's "cop in the head:" there need be no cop physically restraining me, beating me, or searching my home when my mind does all that work constantly. Indeed, the source of ill-will toward others is a long-time dwelling self-hatred that denies the common humanity and potential for freedom of myself and others.

With this awareness I have begun to cultivate kindness and generosity. I resolve with strong determination to abandon hatred and greed. I will notice every time these old habits repeat and remember that they are not worth my time. With this precious human life I will practice kindness toward myself and others. This is the most important work that I can do to stop oppression and needless suffering here and now.

If oppression doesn't end in this lifetime of work that's fine. My ancestors started this work thousands of years ago and future generations will benefit from my work and continue it. What matters most now is that I pay attention to the manifestation of hatred and greed in my mind, speech, and actions and abandon it again and again, to turn toward any suffering and offer kindness and generosity instead.

In the teaching on goodwill there is a beautiful line "it is said this is living in heaven here and now," that is, maintaining constant awareness and wakefulness (except in deep sleep). May we all see hatred and greed for what they are, and turn in kindness toward long-time suffering in ourselves and others.