Thursday, 14 January 2016

I don't want to fight

"Have you ever used martial arts in a fight?"

I looked at him with suspicion.  I didn't like the question, or the tone in which it had been asked.  He hadn't been coming to the class for long, and his attendance was erratic, at best.  I'd also heard him asking similar questions of the instructor, who had the sense not to be drawn into the conversation, and some of the other students.

"Yeah," I replied, reluctantly but truthfully.

"Wing chun?"

"No.  Not wing chun."

"What, then?"

"Judo, karate, some other Japanese stuff.  It was a long time ago."

"Did you win?"

"What makes you think anyone ever wins?"

The look on his face suggested that he didn't like this answer.  He tried appealing to my ego.

"I'll bet you won," he continued, "Come on, how many fights have you had?"

"I'm not answering that one."

"Why not?"

"Because one fight is too many."

I wasn't surprised when he left the class, although he stayed with it for much longer than I'd anticipated.  He might come back some day, but I doubt it.

I've often written about martial arts, and my experience of them, on this page.  You might think I don't know what I'm talking about, and that is your right.  You might think I'm not a fighter, and I would be happy for you to think that.  Maybe you think there have been few, if any, times when I've had to defend myself against malicious intent.  I'm happy for you to think that too.  In short, if believing that I am weak, defenceless and no threat allows me to live in peace, I am happy for you to think it.

The truth is that I spent more years than I should in a town in Northern Ireland - a town which was on the border with the republic - and I have an English accent.  There were people who really didn't like that combination of factors.  All I will tell you about those years is that, after many years away from martial arts practice, I started to learn everything I could about jeet kune do, absorbed martial arts philosophy, principles and techniques from as many sources as possible, and eventually joined a jujitsu class.

In that class were many students who had so little faith in the Japanese roots of their art that they added movements from the modern Brazilian interpretation of jujitsu, via nights spent watching MMA contests on satellite TV.  To counter this, I went in the opposite direction, towards being hyper-traditional, to the point where I traced the roots of the art back to Chinese wrestling (shuai jiao) and started adding those movements, and others from simultaneous study of tai chi, into my game.  Pretty soon, I had to face the humiliation of being left alone at the edge of the mat, with no other student wanting to train with me.

Was I forced to fight, outside of the training hall?  Why did no one want to train with me?  I'll leave you to fill in the blanks for yourself.  Before going to Northern Ireland, I lived the kind of life that led to me being seen as a geek, a nerd, or whatever the latest term is.  In those days, it wasn't cool: it meant I was alone, and it made me a target.  Again, I was pretty much obsessed with martial arts at the time, and I'll leave you to work out my reasons for being so obsessed.

I have to question that past, and also my current involvement in the martial arts.  What is the purpose of my current practice?  Why, when some of the other students focus on hitting each other, is my focus more on avoiding being hit?

If I were to tell you that I've had to fight, that these were the kind of fights which might have ended in me going for a ride in an ambulance, or even a hearse, what would be your thoughts?  Would you expect that I know a thing or two about self protection?  Would you expect that I had gained some wisdom from the experience?  For the record, I'm not telling you any of that.  I'll leave you to fill in the blanks for yourself.  If those things had happened, it would not be something of which I would be proud.  Quite the opposite.  I would regard it as a failure, either of my own ability to reason with others, or of their ability to behave with basic human decency.  Either way, it would be something that brought shame, rather than pride.

A few months ago, I went for a night out with a friend.  She told me of an encounter she had with another female, and demonstrated the ferocity of the slap with which she had hit the aforementioned female, barely missing my face in her eagerness to show the power with which she had struck.  I made no attempt to block it, even though the momentum of the strike would have caused no small amount of pain.  Her proud smile faded when she noticed me looking down, saddened that she had taken so much pride in hurting another human being.  Nothing more was said about the incident, and the subject was quickly changed.

I would much rather bring a fight to an end before a single hand is raised, before a single blow is struck.  I wish others felt the same.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Removing the mask

She started to laugh.  Displaying what appeared to be a distinct lack of empathy, she was laughing at something that, for the other person, was a very serious issue.  As the subject was explored further, she gradually edged toward the point where tears were streaming down her face, and she appeared to be hysterical.

When the laughter had subsided, and she duly apologised for her behaviour, I pointed out that it was likely to be an example of a defence mechanism: somewhere within, the subject made her deeply uncomfortable, and her outward display was an attempt to mask this inner feeling.

Later, practising my counselling skills, I managed to tap into an emotion that my partner in the practice was trying desperately to repress.  The tears rolled down their face, and I asked if they wanted me to stop going down that rabbit hole, as it were.  With the next partner, the same thing happened.  I questioned why this kept happening, and how, even outside of my work supporting those in distress, so many people had stated that they told me things they had kept hidden for a long time.

Some history

Before I started using counselling skills in the voluntary sector, or studying the subject of counselling skills and theory, I got about half way through studying for a degree in psychology with The Open University.  There are many reasons why that line of study came to an end when it did, but that's not important.  What's important is that my study, up to that point, had a clear focus on the psychodynamic perspective of psychology.  After my studies came to an end, I did further research into the psychodynamic approach, and became especially interested in the theories of Carl Jung.

Just as my early experience of Japanese martial arts has affected my study of every combat art in the time since, early exposure to the influential figures in the psychodynamic approach to psychological theory and practice have affected how I interact with those who come to me as a client, as a study partner, or as a friend.  Special attention is given to the pace of speech, the terms used and the deeper feelings which may be exposed by these things.  Add body language into the mix, when I'm able to observe the visual cues given by this non-verbal behaviour, and you have a situation where I am able to hear not only what is being said, but also what is not being said.

Maybe some people are not comfortable with me being able to see behind the mask they choose to wear.  I don't know if the empathy I feel for others has always been there, or whether it developed over time, but it's there.  Sometimes, I wish it was something I could switch off.  Spending time with people, notably where there are a lot of people present, can be extremely tiring.  Unconsciously picking up what people are feeling, even some of the feelings they are trying to hide from the world, sounds like a tremendous gift, and there are times when it can be.  A lot of the time, however, it feels like a roller coaster ride that I desperately want to stop.

The dance connection

I started learning to dance a few months ago, and it's a style of dance that requires me, as a male, to lead a female partner.  Some of the ladies have said I'm a good lead.  I'm not sure how far I can agree with that suggestion, but I guess the ladies are in a better position to judge.  What I can tell you is that I use a great deal of empathy, even when dancing.  At every point of every movement, I'm concentrating on what I do, but the focus is on how it is affecting my partner's movement, and how she is feeling.  Does it make me a good lead?  I don't know.  A considerate lead?  Yeah, I guess that's accurate.

Even when dancing, I'm removing my partner's mask, in another way.  As much as I'm supposed to lead, I also allow a lady the space to express herself.  Some respond well to this; some seem to lack the confidence, at this point, to make the most of it.  One of the things I love about dancing is that the experience of dancing with a certain partner will always be specific to them, and I have to mould the way I lead to each individual.  If I get it right, regardless of the simplicity or complexity of the routine, they seem to appreciate it, and it's a good experience for me too.

In essence, I try to let people know that it's okay to be themselves with me.  There's no need to wear a mask.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Letting it go

"SHUT UP!"  The deep voice, for which I'd been ridiculed as a teen, tore through the building in the form of a guttural roar.  The neighbours who had been irritating me for months immediately fell silent.  I sat silently too, shocked by the power in that voice - MY voice.

I'd been carrying a lot of things around with me, for a number of months.  The neighbours were just one part of the problem, helped in no small part by a landlady who had decided that soundproofing was an unnecessary expense.  Too many other things had also happened to reinforce a suspicion I'd held since childhood that I could trust no one, that people would always let me down, and that no one actually cared how I felt.

You're probably thinking my neighbours didn't deserve to get all of that stored anger but, believe me, they had been banging around, arguing and generally provoking my anger all day, and I'd been deprived of sleep by way of them banging randomly at 2, 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning for weeks.

I'm usually quietly spoken.  A voice with such a concentration of bass frequencies can sound quite forceful at even low volumes.  Ramped up to the point where it had the full power of my lungs behind it, it felt and sounded so very, very powerful, and more than a little intimidating.  Did it feel good?  Absolutely!  People had been pushing me around, treating me with no respect and generally messing with me for a long time, and I'd let them get away with it!

I thought about what I'd heard, how powerful that voice had sounded, and questioned where it had come from.  My behaviour towards others, the calm acceptance of things which I should not have to tolerate, suggested someone weak, powerless and beaten down by life.  The roar which reverberated around the building suggested something else entirely.

It felt good to let go of all that anger.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Defence, defence, defence

I knew that sparring wasn't going to go well, but in some ways, possibly unnoticed by those watching, it did.

I can make every excuse in the book about my head guard, my gloves and the old chestnut of my disability, but I was simply out-gunned and out-manoeuvred.  The instructor was correct in his observation that I needed to move more.  All I proved, by going head on, was that I can still take a punch, as I did multiple times.

So, where did it go well?  At a few points, dazed as I was, I focused on defence.  I've recently developed a way of training good defence in solo training, and it seems to be working.  When I focused on defence, I effortlessly batted each punch away - it was when I went for an attack that I came unstuck and got hit.  In this way, I seem to be different from the others: they seem to go in and blindly try to knock each other into tomorrow, with the angle changes and footwork accounting for defence.  Being less mobile, having one leg affected by illness, I rely on having a fast defence in a straight line.

So, I know my strengths; I know my weaknesses.  What I don't know is what to do with this information.  Fortunately, I know that, outside of the sparring sessions, things are different for me.

Sunday, 6 December 2015


Earlier today, I talked to my fiancĂ©e about some of the issues I'm currently having with other people.  She listened patiently, and then said I can't assume that others are as empathic as I am.  I instantly felt better.

It's always good to have such a positive quality recognised, especially by someone we love.  Importantly, she not only understood the problem, but how I was affected by it and, in turn, how an aspect of my character was involved.  She displayed, maybe without realising it, a great deal of empathy.


At the moment, for a multitude of reasons, I'm feeling hurt, confused, frustrated and disappointed.  It's important that I recognise this, because these feelings are driving a more powerful, potentially destructive emotion that I'm feeling right now.  What they add up to is a whole lot of anger.

I have a strange relationship with anger.  It's a feeling that I tend to push down, or repress.  Pushing it down only compresses it, however, and makes room for more anger to be stored.  When I reach a point where I'm unable to take any more pain or frustration, all of that stored anger comes to the surface, and the results can be devastating.

As a part of something else I was doing at the time, I once found myself on an anger management course.  The basic premise of the course can be expressed simply: anger is a valid human emotion, and it becomes appropriate or inappropriate in the way it is expressed.

It's not good to carry such a negative emotion around with us.  In an ideal world, we would tell people they have hurt or disappointed us, and they would acknowledge it.  If this option is not available to us, or it would be unwise to be so open about how we feel, as it so often is, we might try to let the feeling go, but the feeling might not let us go.

I said it's important to recognise the feelings that are at the root of our anger.  In my case, the feelings are directed towards others who I feel have let me down.  Many people fit that description right now.  Tempting as it is to generalise those feelings, to become angry at the world around me, I see that a few friends have been consistently supportive and don't deserve to be in the firing line.

Some people deserve my anger, and I refuse to keep pushing it down.  I expect that they, in turn, are about to feel hurt, confused, frustrated and possibly disappointed, if I choose to express my anger inappropriately.  Whether that happens, or I express it more appropriately, depends on how much they continue to let me down.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Thought for the day: stormy waters

I sat down on a bench, overlooking the sea.  It was a stormy day, and I was looking upon an angry sea.  I watched as the waves crashed against the sea wall, then spilled over onto the promenade, calmly rolling back to become part of the angry sea once again.  What was turbulent became calm, then became turbulent once more, before becoming calm again.  I thought of how much this resembled life.

Sometimes we feel like we have been swept along by events, like they have their own momentum and we have lost control.  As much as we resist the current of life, it pushes us back further, until we feel we are making no progress.  Then, the waters become calm once more, and it is easier for us to get to the shore.  We can focus on how far we have been pushed back, or we can concentrate on getting to where we want to be.

Recently, I've been struggling against a strong current in my own life, unaware that, given a little time and patience, the strength of the current will decrease, and I should just allow myself to be pushed back.  In essence, I was pushed even further back by struggling against it.  Now, the storm is passing.  Enough of a calm has taken hold for me to realise that I just have to let things be, take the time to repair my damaged vessel, and find my way back to shore.  The storm may rage again, but I will at least be back on dry land.