A reflection of the first module of the workshop AIKI-Based Body Awareness Training for trauma work & peacemaking by Paul Linden.
Paul Linden grabs me by the arms as he says: “don’t let me pull you”. It is Wednesday night and I just arrived in the dojo on Silver Drive in Columbus, Ohio, after a long flight from Amsterdam. The dojo will be my home for the next six days when the workshop ‘AIKI-Based Body Awareness Training for trauma work & peacemaking’ starts. My first reaction to Paul’s tug is to resist and tense my muscles. Paul relaxes his grip and repeats the instruction. The third time around I get it. I move with the pull, joining in the motion and thereby negating the pull. Paul explains that this is the essence of Aikido. My jet-lagged body is still a bit puzzled. As a dancer I know how to join another mover and sense the emerging dance. At the same time, years of competitive judo have taught me to oppose, even though that opposition might be disguised as an agreement. My first Aikido encounter evokes both the judoka and dancer and they seem to be at odds with each other.
When the workshop kicks off the following day, Paul riddles our bodies with more assignments that seem self-contradictory, like saying “thank you” while blocking a punch. To my mind it makes no sense. Yet, in practice there is more ease and flow as I block. Paul’s premise is that a soft, sensitive and open-hearted body responds far better to challenges then a tense and rigid body. We test this idea in several movement experiments and experience the power of what Paul calls a smiling heart. The impulse to oppose, though, proves hard to overcome. Paul talks about re-patterning the mind-body. By their very nature patterns are automatic and unconscious. Disrupting patterns brings them to the fore. Paul’s body riddles certainly unsettle some of my long held beliefs about strength and weakness. Moreover, they offer me glimpses of a way of harmony.
The dojo Paul co-founded in 1982, is located in a warehouse in a nondescript business area. The interior is both cozy and functional, in an unpolished way. When I enter the dojo that first night, Paul greets me in his Aikido uniform or Gi, held together by a worn down black belt. Later that week, Paul shares that becoming a sensei is quite surprising in hindsight. He describes himself as a bookworm to whom sports made no sense. Still, as a young student he was captivated when his professor showed him a video of Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido. Despite being an anti-war activist, he began studying this art of combat with great passion. Not that he had any talent for the martial art, in contrast, his lack of innate understanding made him break down Aikido in an almost scientific way. He worked arduously at testing his bodily hypotheses, gaining understanding in what others seem to do naturally. Many years later, this in-depth knowledge enabled him to reconfigure intuitive Aikido concepts into simple exercises that nonetheless profoundly puzzle the body.
The Love-Power Equation
“You can only really love someone, when you are also able to kill them.” Paul is a provocateur extraordinaire and this surely sounds like blasphemy in the worlds of trauma work and peacemaking. Paul is poking here at the general belief that love and power are mutually exclusive. Is he wrong to do this? It seems common knowledge that power corrupts and that abuse of power can inflict trauma. Furthermore, how can he speak about killing when nonviolence is the obvious way to peace? If it were a discussion, it would probably end soon, but it is not…
I’m in a dojo and about to attack my sparring partner by forcefully grabbing her arm. However subtle, she resists my grab and I notice how it feeds my antagonism. When she next executes her Aikido technique, I feel subjugated. My partner, an Aikido black belt, is aware of what happened. She takes a deep breath and resets herself. The next time I grab her I instantly feel the difference. Her flesh offers no resistance and with nothing opposing me, my aggression dissipates. This time my partner doesn’t execute a technique, but meets my force and moves along with it. It is as if I tumble down the rabbit hole. My attack is neutralized and yet, I don’t feel subdued. Still more, without resistance to affirm my aggression, I feel a bit silly for having used force. My partner succeeded in feeling loving kindness towards me, her opponent, and said yes to my attack. Even though this is an exercise, I feel how her change of state has a transforming effect.
Just like space-time, power and love appear to be aspects of each other; they are modes in which we think, but ultimately the same. This is a radical insight and like space-time, it is very hard to wrap one’s head around. Paul explains that power and control are usually confused with brutality. Love without power however, is risky and can create ‘happy, healthy victims’, as Paul puts it. So next to softening the core, having a smiling heart and being radiant, Paul trains us to be powerful. We practice postural stability, the power of intention and train ourselves in the application of self-defense techniques to protect our boundaries. Exercising power in the spirit of harmony is no easy feat. When I do succeed, the movement feels effortless and has a transpersonal quality. As if, for a moment, polarities, like me and the other, cease to exist and all that’s left, is a dance of movement and intention.
Trauma work and Peacemaking
Trauma work and peacemaking are both featured in the workshop title for all the right reasons. Violence looms large in both these subjects: sexual, physical and emotional abuse, racism, institutional violence; they can all enter the room when you work in these fields. Yet self-defense is not part of their mainstream offering. It is as if therapists and peacebuilders want to cast out violence. I’m a peacebuilder and therapist myself and willingly admit that I also see safe space as the bedrock of my practice. It’s about building a containing environment in which people feel safe to open up and take new risks. Right?
I feel the shock that goes through a fellow therapist when Paul hits him. “You expect the world to be full of nice people that act civilized. Well I’m not nice. So what do you do?” For a long time, I too wished the world could be a civilized place. Repeated falls of my moral high horse have made me relax my ideals. Paul resumes: “Would you rather feel safe or be safe?” It's self-evident that playing nice only makes us feel safe and does not equip us with the tools and training to deal with those people out there that don’t play by our rules.
There is undeniably a lot at stake in the fields of trauma work and peacemaking, which make the need for containment quite understandable. A common feature in both trauma and conflict is their overwhelming nature and the sense of powerlessness people share. In trauma, people are not able to integrate the shattering experience(s) that left them feeling frightened and helpless. This pattern of fear gets stuck in the body, unbalancing the nervous system and leading to a range of emotional and physical problems, such as mood swings and insomnia (for more, see here).
Peacemaking usually comes into play when conflicts have escalated and festered to such an extent that they become destructive and can no longer be solved by the people involved. Often there are deep, historical grievances with emotions easily running high. In working with trauma and conflict there is the risk of tipping the fragile balance in the wrong direction: re-traumatizing the person or escalating the conflict.
Slightly Terrifying Experiments
As a practitioner, it is easy to feel overwhelmed when working in the fields of trauma and peace. How do we teach people the tools to deal with nasty people and nasty stuff without overwhelming them? Paul’s Aiki-based approach grounds the work in body and in movement, for both practitioner and client. As Paul would say: “Soften your tongue, relax your muscles, and find your breath…” Paul has a knack for translating complex issues in simple movement exercises, often involving an attack and defense situation. In trauma work the attacker usually is some version of the perpetrator. If there is no perpetrator, as in the case of natural disasters, the attacker is metaphorical.
Paul Linden tailor-makes or calibrates his movement experiments to be ‘slightly terrifying’, which give clients a good bite-sized chunk of problems to deal with. He might creep up to a person in an inappropriate way, while he’s simultaneously commenting on their body posture, pointing out where the structure breaks down. The ease with which he makes up his experiments and calibrates them, is deceitfully simple. First off, Paul is very attentive to the use of language. He’s hard on shallow language that draws people away from their direct experience. He wants to know what happens in their bodies and which tendencies for action people have. This emphasis on body awareness helps to form, what Paul calls, body hypotheses which he tests in movement experiments. To measure the results of his experiments, Paul draws on another important skill.
Tasting the Body
In working with people Paul constantly reads, or in his words, ‘tastes’ the body. Touch is an important source of information. A lifetime of Aikido has honed his ability to notice tension and intention in other people’s bodies. To be honest, this skill is quite baffling. Paul demystifies it, by explaining how his hands-on work grew out of his Aikido, utilizing the soft and nonresistant touch, extending the skills of reaching into the body and projecting intentions. In addition, I also recognize influences of his Feldenkrais background.
We get a taster of these hands-on skills in various bodywork exercises. In one such exercise my partner has to focus on a specific emotion. My task is to reach in and sense her emotion. I'm pretty sure I'll get it wrong, but empty myself nevertheless, looking for a place of inner stillness. I lay my hands on her shoulder and wait for this first touch to settle. As I slowly extend my touch inwards, I simultaneously yield and make space for whatever comes my way. I'm flooded by sensations: warm, yellow-ocher and tingling butterflies in my belly. The impressions organize and I realize it must be joy. When I tentatively share this, my partner reacts with delight. My jaw drops, this time I'm bewildered by my own hands.
Since 2006 I've been intimately involved in the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), becoming a lead trainer in the experiential workshops that help build community and enable participants to deal with potentially violent situations in new and creative ways. Transforming Power is a central and yet elusive concept in AVP. It is described as the power to change what might be a violent or destructive situation into a nonviolent one. The AVP program invites participants to reflect on Transforming Power, without trying to pin it down. It is seen as an active and transcendent force. This is illustrated by placing Transforming Power in the dimensionless center of a mandala. Transforming Power is often shared in stories and in that tradition I like to share one story of mine.
Years ago during an AVP workshop with youth-at-risk, I found myself facing Tom, a boyish teenager who looked 5 years younger than his true age. Tom's looks and short stature had made him an easy target for bullying. Tom had learned to react with extreme aggression, grabbing anything he could find to attack his tormentor. My colleagues and I had just demonstrated the I-message, a form of nonviolent communication, when Tom started making sneering remarks, bragging about some guy he had knocked down. I think he half expected me to lecture him, but instead I sat down and asked him how it had made him feel. My interest was genuine and he talked about how he actually felt good when he could stand up for himself, because it earned him respect. His back straightened as he mentioned respect. Tom had laid bare a deep felt need, something which I could validate. I then invited him to consider the other guy's feelings and whether respect could also be important for him. The room grew silent as Tom softly answered, clearly shaken. It was a transforming moment, for Tom, the group and for me. I felt rattled for days after. Somewhere in joining Tom's trajectory my personal boundaries had blurred and I could feel something moving through me, guiding my actions and impacting Tom just as much as me.
A Great Gift
When I bought Paul's eBook 'Embodied Peacemaking' several years ago, I found that the exercises easily fit within AVP, complementing the program with body awareness exercises. This is one of the reasons I wanted to work with Paul in the flesh. I wanted to learn more ways of including the body in peacemaking. What I had not foreseen is how Paul's Aiki-based work brought me back to that elusive concept of Transforming Power. The movement experiments offered glimpses of nonresistance that riddled me into new understandings. More than that, the Aiki exercises confronted me again and again with the hard-nosed opposition in my own body. The biggest challenge it seems, is getting out of the way so compassionate power can move through. I think this is what Morihei Ueshiba points at when he said: 'Defeat means to defeat the mind of contention that we harbor within.'
In Aikido attacks are seen as a gift, a way to cultivate nonresistance. I think attacks are also Aikido's great gift to peacemaking and trauma work, as I've discussed earlier. So many conflict resolution models approach conflict conceptually. Talking about win-win and nonviolence is all great, until someone starts pointing the finger or rolls their eyes. Even in AVP Transforming Power remains elusive. Attacks offer a way to hone and practice compassionate power and anchor these feelings in the body. Not that this power can be grasped, but you can develop a taste for it. A taste for more.
If you want to learn more visit Paul’s website where he generously distributes his material, look on the Aiki extensions website or contact me. Since writing this blog I also learned about the work of Bill Leicht in the South Bronx where he set up a Peace Dojo, integrating AVP and Aikido. The links are provide below.
Paul Linden: http://www.being-in-movement.com/
Aiki Extensions: http://www.aikiextensions.org/
Léon Beckx: http://www.flow-force.org/
Bill Leicht: http://urbanvisions.us/
There are a few afterthoughts I'd like to share. The first is on verbal Aikido which is not a good name since it introduces a unnecessary dichotomy. Still, in the workshop Paul played out some situations concerning verbal attacks. In these examples Paul uses humor and other unexpected interruptions. These verbal interventions function like a strike or Atemi, distracting the opponent, so the conversation can be redirected in a positive direction. I see the merit in using verbal Atemi’s with people you have no real relationship with, like people you meet in the streets. I can also see how these verbal strikes can totally drive your loved ones crazy. When there is an ongoing relationship I would prefer listening and empathy as a way of 'moving in and greeting your opponent', to parafrase Morihei Ueshiba again. I would certainly wish for that myself; I know the sigh of release that comes when someone really listens and acknowledges my perspective. Often this requires patience on the listener’s side and a willingness to explore several directions as deeper needs take time to surface. Perhaps verbal Aikido is a slower and more spacious art with the occasional quirky flash.
Participating in Paul’s first module has been quite a paradigm shift. Although my martial art background proved useful when it came to punches and falls, it was my dancing body that understood the smiling heart of the matter. In digesting this immersive experience I can’t help but think about the wider ramifications. We live in a culture of fear and competition which weaves tension and contest into the fabric of our everyday lives. Sure, stress keeps you sharp, just like competition can bring out the best in people. But overall, judging the state the world is in, fear and competition create havoc. We have much to gain from spreading Aikido’s principles to other areas in life. In fact, I’d like to see it in education. Imagine all the children becoming warriors of peace. And how about politics? What if politicians start governing in the spirit cooperative action? Imagine all the people, living life in peace. You... you may say I’m dreamer, but I’m not the only one…
Okay, I got carried away there.
Léon Beckx is a psychologist, dancer and social entrepreneur working on the cross-sections of peacebuilding, community development, art and movement.