When we come to the topics of people stress and difficulties in communication in the stress clinic, sometimes we have the whole class break up into pairs to do a number of awareness exercises originally adapted from the martial art of aikido by the author and aikido practitioner, George Leonard. These exercises help us to act out with our bodies, in partnership with another person, the experience of responding instead of reacting in threatening and stressful situations. We get to simulate different possible energy relationships between the two people and to look at these relationships and feel how they feel “from the inside.”
In aikido, the goal is to practice maintaining your own center and calmness under physical attack, and to make use of the attacker’s own irrational and imbalanced energy to dissipate his or her energy without getting hurt yourself and also without harming the attacker. This involves being willing to move in close to the attacker and actually make contact with him or her while at the same time not placing yourself directly in the path of greatest danger, that is, right in front of the oncoming person.
The way we do these exercises in class, the partner who is “attacking” always represents a situation or person who is “running you over,” in other words, causing you stress. The attacker comes at the other person with arms outstretched in front and going straight for the other person’s shoulders, to give that person a significant “hit.”
In the first scenario, as the attacker comes at you, you just lie down on the floor and say something like, “It’s okay, do whatever you want, you’re right, I’m to blame,” or “Don’t do it, it wasn’t my fault, someone else did it.” We observe what that feels like with a partner, with each of us taking each role in turn. People invariably find this scenario distasteful in both roles but admit that it is frequently acted out in the “real” world. Many people share their stories of feeling like the doormat in the family or feeling trapped in their own passive behavior, intimidated by powerful others. The attackers usually admit feeling pretty frustrated by this scenario.
Then we proceed to a scenario in which, when the attacker comes at you, you move out of the way at the last minute as fast as you can so that he or she goes right by you. There is no physical contact. This usually causes the attackers to feel even more frus¬trated. They were expecting contact and they didn’t get it. The people who got out of the way feel pretty good this time. At least they didn’t get run over. But they also realize that you can’t relate like this all the time or you will be constantly running away and avoiding people. Couples often get into this kind of behavior with each other, one pursuing contact, the other rejecting or avoiding it at all costs. These aggressive and passive (and sometimes, as when you are always avoiding contact as a way of getting back at another person, passive-aggressive) roles, when they become deep habits, can be very painful for both parties because there is no contact, no communication. It is lonely and frustrating. Yet people can and do live out their lives relating to other people through these basic passive and aggressive stances, even toward those they are closest to.
In another exercise, you push back when you are attacked instead of getting out of the way. You dig in your heels and resist. Both parties wind up pushing against each other. To intensify the situation and make it more emotionally charged, we might have people yell “I’m right, you’re wrong” at each other as they are doing this. When we stop action, close our eyes, and bring our attention to our bodies and feelings, people invariably say, after they have caught their breath, that this scenario feels better than the one in which one person was being passive. At least in this one there is contact. They discover that, while struggling is exhausting, it can also be exhilarating in its own way. We are making contact, standing up for ourselves, letting our feelings out, and that feels good. When we do this exercise, it always seems a little clearer why so many of us are virtually addicted to—and stuck in—this way of relating. It can actually feel good, in a limited way.
But this exercise leaves us feeling empty too. Usually both people in a struggle think they are right. Each is trying to force the other to see it “my way.” Both know deep down that the other person is not likely to come to see it differently, not out of forcing and intimidation and struggle. What does happen is that either we adjust to a life of perpetual struggle or one person submits every time, usually claiming that he or she is doing it to “save the relationship.” We can even get caught in thinking that these pat¬terns in our relationships are the way things have to be. Even if they are painful and exhausting, in some ways we might tend to feel comfortable and secure with what we already know, with the familiar. At least we don’t have to face the unknown risks of choosing to see or do things differently and thereby threaten the status quo.
Too often we forget the physical and psychological costs of living like this, not only for the two parties in the relationship but for others who are connected to it as well, such as children and grandparents, who may be observing this kind of relating day in, day out, and even taking the brunt of it. In the end, our lives can become bogged down in a very limited view of ourselves, our relationships, and our options. Perpetual struggle hardly seems a very good model for communication or for growth or change.
The last exercise in this series is called blending in aikido. This option represents the stress response as opposed to the various stress reactions we have just reviewed in the other scenarios. It is based on being centered, on being awake and mindful. It requires that we be aware of the other person as a stressor without losing our own balance of mind. We are grounded in our breathing and in our seeing the situation as a whole without reacting totally out of fear, even if fear is present, which it very likely is in our real-life stressful encounters with people. Blending, or responding, involves stepping into the attacker, positioning your feet so that you step toward but also slightly to the side of the attacker at the same time that you take hold of one of his or her outstretched wrists. This movement is called entering in aikido. By entering the attack, you manage to sidestep the brunt of it at the same time that you move in close and make contact. The very positioning of your body is making a statement that you are willing to encounter and work with what is happening, that you will not be run over. You don’t try to control the attacker with brute force. Instead you take hold of his or her wrist and “blend” with the attacker’s energy by turning with his or her momentum so that you are both facing in the same direction, still holding on to the wrist. At this moment you are both seeing the same thing because you are looking in the same direction. In blending, you avoid a head-on impact, in which you might be badly hurt or overwhelmed by the sheer momentum of the other person, yet you do make firm contact and also show, by moving with his or her momentum and turning, that you are willing to see things from his or her perspective, that you are receptive and willing to look and listen. This allows the attacker to maintain his or her own integrity, but at the same time it communicates that you are not afraid of making contact nor are you willing to let his or her energy over¬whelm or harm you. At this moment you become partners rather than adversaries, whether the other person wants to or not.
You don’t know what will happen in the next moment, but you have a lot of options. One possibility is to turn the attacker as his or her energy winds down and show that person how you see things now by both of you facing another direction. What happens next becomes a dance. You are not totally in control and neither is the other person. But by maintaining your center, you are at least in control of yourself and much less vulnerable to harm. You can’t have much of a plan for what to do next because so much depends on the situation itself. You have to trust in your own imagination and your ability to come up with new ways of seeing right in that moment.
I once had an immediate supervisor whose way of relating was to say things like “you son of a bitch” with a big smile on his face. He caused me a lot of stress because his hostility prevented us from having an effective working relationship. But I came to realize that he had no idea that he was being hostile. He would drive many of the people he supervised to distraction and often they would have terrible arguments with him and go away feeling angry, hurt, and, above all, frustrated at not being supported. One day, when he smiled as he said something hostile to me, I decided to call him on it. Very gently but matter-of-factly, I asked him if he was aware that every time he related to me he put me down. I also told him how it looked from my perspective, that I felt he really didn’t like me and disapproved of the work I was doing. His response to this was utter amazement. He genuinely had no idea that he had been calling me names and had been giving me the feeling that he didn’t like me and disapproved of the work. As a result of this conversation, our working relationship improved a good deal and became much less stressful for me. We had come to understand each other better, in part because I chose to blend with his attacks rather than resist them and mount an all-out assault of my own in return because I felt angry, hurt, and frustrated.
The path of blending obviously involves taking certain risks, since you don’t know what the attacker will do next nor how you will respond. But if you are committed to meeting each moment mindfully, with as much calmness and acceptance as you can muster and with a sense of your own integrity and balance, new and more harmonious solutions often come to mind as you need them. Partly this requires being in touch with your feelings and accepting them, even acknowledging them and sharing them as appropriate. When one person in an adversarial relationship takes responsibility for doing this, the entire relationship changes, even if the other person is completely unwilling to engage in this way. The very fact that you are seeing differently and holding your own center means that you are much more in control than if you were merely reacting and forcing. Why let the momentum of another person’s agenda catapult you into your own imbalance of body and mind just at the moment when you need all your inner resources for being clear and strong?
The patience, wisdom, and firmness that can come out of a moment of mindfulness in the heat of a stressful interpersonal situation yield fruit almost immediately because the other person usually senses that you cannot be intimidated or overwhelmed. He or she will feel your calmness and self-confidence and will in all likelihood be drawn toward it because it embodies inner peace.
When you are willing to be secure enough in yourself to listen to what other people want and how they see things without constantly reacting, objecting, arguing, fighting, resisting, making yourself right and them wrong, they will feel heard, welcomed, accepted. This feels good to anybody. They will then be much more likely to hear what you have to say as well, maybe not right away, but as soon as the emotions recede a little. There will be more of a chance for communication and for an actual communion of sorts, a meeting of minds, and an acknowledging and coming to terms with differences. In this way, your mindfulness practice can have a healing effect on your relationships.