Photo by Thao Le Hoang
A homeless man suffering from mental illness pulled a knife on me two years ago in front of the Austin Recreation Center. It had been years since I trained in the martial art Aikido, but I instinctively measured my options. Fortunately, he gave me a warning, and therefore a chance. As he came up behind me and muttered gutturally, “Are you going to keep f(ool)ing with me?” I turned slowly while simultaneously stepping off the curb to get further from him.
I looked into his eyes and in a calm, soothing voice answered, “No, baby, we’re not going to keep f(ool)ing with you.” He glared at me a minute or two longer, the moonlight glinting off the knife, then turned and went back to where he was sleeping.
I studied Aikido for twenty years off and on. I stopped at age 60, but am starting back again at South Austin Aikido Sunday in Garrison Park, Austin, TX.
Tom Crum, the Sensei who introduced me to martial arts said about attacks, “Throw open your arms and say yes.” A bit counter-intuitive, but the very basis of Aikido is to accept the attack and the opportunity it gives you. It’s good advice for life in general.
Fist, say yes
I'm a small woman. Embracing an attack seems like a conterinutuitve move. Until I start training and a large man rushes at me on the mat. I open my arms, take the attacker into a bear hug, turning at the same time, and throw him in the direction he's already headed, which also happens to send him past me. I use his energy to move him beyond me.
If I attempted to not move and withstand the attack, I’d be bowled over, or worse, attacked on the ground. If I tried to run away I’d likely get caught. If I fight back I’ll get hurt. By embracing and throwing, or “sending them on the way they’re already going,” as another sensei put it, I’m blending with the attack and neutralizing it.
The tone of voice and words I used with the man with the knife at the Austin Recreation Center were the verbal form of the Aikido bear hug. I didn’t scream, run, get angry or fight. Instead, I heard him, knew he needed to know we weren’t going to continue bothering him with whatever he thought we were doing and answered that need. I blended with him and neutralized the attack.
Second, build rapport and connection
It’s possible that my calling him the baby had the potential to make him angrier. Instead, maybe because I’m an older woman, it apparently worked to reach deeper inside him to a place where he needed to be heard and even nurtured. It built a kind of rapport.
When I teach communication, I use an Aikido move as a metaphor for establishing rapport. As someone grabs my arm, I step to their side and lower my arm to take them off balance. In that position, we’re both facing the same direction. From there I can lead them, put them in a joint lock, or throw them.
The trick here is to move to their side first and look at things from their point of view. Looking at things from another’s point of view throws them off balance, but also builds rapport. True communication begins when you find something to agree on with those wanting to fight or argue with you..
Granted, Aikido and my training as a therapist taught me most of my skills. However, rapport and connection came instinctively to me when I was attacked by a group of other teens when I was a teenager.
The small Texas town where I grew up was all white and had a winning football team. Neither fact won the town any friends, including me. I lived to get out of there. Fortunately, through my liberal church, I met People of Color and learned connection and compassion.
The group that attacked me after a football game had lost to our team on their home turf. My attackers were all Black. There were girls and guys. A girl grabbed my hair and threw me to the ground. The group formed a ring around me. From the ground, I turned my face up to the guy who stood directly over me, looked into his eyes and asked very calmly, “Why are you doing this to me?”
For the first time, I experienced the stopping of time that comes from looking deeply into another person’s eyes and connecting. And then he motioned the group to back away.
I’ve always felt it was best that this happened to me and not to one of the others in my group who would have reacted in a strongly negative, racist way. Things could have escalated quickly. As it was, I was able to join the others and though shaken, reassure them that the group didn’t hurt me.
The way I handled myself after being attacked as a teen was an example of release. I chose not to ride a wave of outrage or pain, and instead to defuse anyone else’s reactions.
Aikido throws are about releasing. When we throw someone, we’re choosing not to hang on and grapple with them. As another sensei says, “Send them on their way to do better next time.” I’ve often thought the guy whose eyes I looked into will at least have thought twice about attacking someone unprovoked since our shared connection.
In Aikido, sometimes we also do a joint lock on the attacker. It sounds like the opposite of release, but in fact, it’s the precursor to it, and a chance to state our case. Or simply to “hold” the person until they calm down, or help comes.
O’Sensei Morihei Ueshiba who developed Aikido, said, “Hold your (training) partner as if you were cradling a baby.” Aikido is about extending love and peace and then releasing.
You do this in a verbal altercation by staying calm yourself, listening to their point of view and finding something in their viewpoint with which you can agree. Once the altercation is over, you release the topic and move on. You release feelings of animosity toward your verbal “opponent,” and any lingering feelings of hurt or anger inside yourself. Sometimes this takes the form of choosing not to get involved in the argument in the first place.
Release is a form of forgiveness. It also means letting go of our sometimes desperate need to be right. Ultimately, it means releasing ourselves from having to continue the altercation.
When the homeless man in Austin, TX pulled the knife on me went back to where he was sleeping on the bench at the Austin Recreation Center, I soon left. One of the others with me called the Austin Police Department, who took his weapon, but ascertained he was mentally ill and off his meds. They didn’t take him to the hospital or to jail. At that point, I had to release him to the others and the police. It didn’t solve his issues and, indeed, he attacked someone later. At least he no longer had the knife.
I like to believe that he finally got some help. I feel sure my response kept him from harming or killing any of us that night.