How to Bounce Back By Mark Peckett
In 2009 the Pentagon rolled out a multi-million dollar programme called “Comprehensive Soldier Fitness.” In the words of the programme’s promotional video, the aim was to teach American soldiers to “take control of your emotions, before they take control of you.”
Essentially, they are teaching how to respond instead of react. Or to put it another way, giving soldiers a choice. Before its introduction, what was basically required of a soldier was that he could kill on command without hesitation. This training, the first of its kind in the military, was meant to improve performance in combat and head off the mental health problems, which included depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide, that plagued about one-fifth of troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.
It attempts to defuse or expose common habits of thinking and flawed beliefs that can lead to anger and frustration by mentally disputing unexamined thoughts and assumptions. Quoted in the New York Times article by Benedict Carey dated 17 August 2009, one veteran of several deployments to Iraq, said he was out at dinner the night before when a customer at a nearby table said he and his friends were being obnoxious:
“At one time maybe I would have thrown the guy out the window and gone for the jugular,” the sergeant said. But guided by the new techniques, he fought the temptation and decided to buy the man a beer instead. “The guy came over and apologized,” he said.
The training is based in part on the ideas of Dr. Aaron Beck and the late Albert Ellis, the Founder of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. The concept behind CBT is that we: (a) experience an event, then (b) interpret it and finally (c), experience an emotion in line with our interpretation.
This in itself refers back to the philosophy of the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus born in C.E. 55 who said: “Men are disturbed not by things, but by their opinions about them”, and his belief that it was possible to remain calm and mentally strong in times of trouble and uncertainty by reminding ourselves what is in our control and what is not. And essentially he only thing he regarded as under his control was his beliefs.
Basically he devised an intellectual process for the examination of his emotional reaction to external stimuli, which is broadly also how CBT works and what American soldiers returning from combat were being taught.
So what does this have to do with aikido?
Well, there is an equally compelling argument that emotions can be worked upon from the outside in, through working on the body. The mystic Gurdjieff said:
We do not recognise to what extent the intellectual, the emotional and moving (body) functions are mutually dependent, although, at the same time we can be aware of how much our moods and emotional states depend on our movements and postures. If a man assumes a posture that corresponds, in him, to the feeling of grief or dejection, then within a short time he will actually feel grief or dejection. Fear, indifference and so on may be created by artificial changes of posture.”
If we think to a time when we became extremely emotional about something, we will probably recall how our physical body also became contorted. It’s also true to say there are days when we turn up for practice feeling lousy, and by the time the class is over we feel better. And vice versa. And these bad classes are just as valuable, if not more so, for they allow us to work on our problems in a controlled environment.
Wendy Palmer, sixth dan aikido black belt and senior instructor at Aikido of Tamalpais writes in her book “The Practice of Freedom – Aikido Principles as a Spiritual Guide”:
Training allows us to see our aggression and fear, so that we can begin to examine … how the patterns affect our daily behaviour.
She goes on to say that training has taught her that when she is relaxed, she is more powerful and natural: “A calm and settled state allows a natural, organic power to move through us without interference from our mental agenda or biases.”
In aikido, a lot of time and talk is spent on centring, that idea of putting your attention on your physical centre of mass, and point in the abdomen about an inch or two below the navel in the centre of the pelvis because in any conflict situation the natural response is one that has evolved over hundreds of thousands years: the so-called “fight-or-flight response”, although technically I suppose it should be called a reaction as it is an instinctive response triggered by the autonomic nervous system. Lots of physical things happen as a result of the reaction being fired, including increased heart rate and breathing, release of adrenalin, and blood routed to the muscles and away from the skin, the stomach and frontal lobe. In martial arts imagery we might say our inner energy travels upwards, and we “blow our top” or we “lose our head”.
So by working on this exercise of moving towards the centre and developing a strong connection there, we counteract the upward movement of fear in the body. Which brings us back to resilience.
According to the Stoics, the world divides into two parts – that which we can control and that which we can’t, and mostly it is everything outside ourselves over which we have no control. Where aikido empowers us is that it teaches us to take control of ourselves, our thoughts and emotions, and then gives us a little bit extra: it shows us how we can control some of the outside world.
In the dojo we provide, in graduated practice, a simulation of the chaotic world outside which allows us to practise our centering, which leads to mental and emotional calmness and in turn allows us to perform an appropriate response to the level of attack. We start with paired practice, moving up to multiple and continuous attack, from basic ai-hanmi katate dori to randori where we don’t know what’s coming, and then gradings, which may come as close to the simulation of true conflict that most of us will ever experience.
There is an old Japanese saying Hobo Kore Dojo which means “The world is my dojo”. While we train in aikido, we are also training our minds and bodies to respond calmly to whatever the world throws at us.