Look again by Mark Peckett
I saw a squirrel in the park. Or to be more exact, I saw a rat that turned into a squirrel in the park.
I love squirrels, even the grey red squirrel-murdering ones, and I’d have to say I’m not so fond of rats when I see them in the wild (scuttling around dustbins on the street, or worse, in my garden) although they’re cute when they’re in a cage in a zoo.
So I saw this rat scuttling the way rats do in the park and my first thought was (you’ve guessed it), “Ugh! A rat in the park.”
But then it suddenly started doing that loopy sort of squirrel jump and its tailed fluffed out, and it scuttled (in a non-rat-like way up a tree, and my thought process went, “Oh, it’s a squirrel! Awww!!”
It was the same creature but because I thought of it in a different way, it was transformed.
In a book I’ve referred to several times in these blogs, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” the author, Robert M. Pirsig, addresses a similar issue. He is motorcycling across America with his son and a married couple, and at one point the woman comments on the rush hour traffic they were passing:
“It was all those people in the cars coming the other way,” she says. “The first one looked so sad. And the next one looked exactly the same way, and the next one, and the next one, they were all the same.”
It had made her feel sad. Pirsig explains it was Monday morning and they were all driving to work: “Who goes to work Monday morning with a grin?” He goes on to say he was watching the flocks of red-winged blackbirds on the other side of the road and it made him happy. He encouraged her to do the same.
This, and my squirrel story (or my rat story), are two examples of what is called Cognitive Reframing. It was coined by Aaron T. Beck who developed Cognitive Therapy in the 1960s. Boiled down to its essence, Cognitive Therapy says it’s not how things are that’s important, it’s how we perceive and react to them that is important. The main aim of what Beck called cognitive restructuring is to rethink negative thoughts and turn them into positive ones.
Applied to the world outside the clinic, this cognitive reframing has been used in many areas, such as with patients with breast cancer and children with disabled children. It is a conscious change in a person’s mindset, and although it is generally positive it can also be negative.
And we are all very good a negative reframing. Here are some examples of those negative thoughts that keep us awake at night:
• “Something always goes wrong.”
• “Anyone could do what I could do.”
• “So-and-so hasn’t called. Why are they avoiding me?”
• “I’m not appreciated.”
• “No one’s going to like what I’ve done.”
technique, but a mental one. He used to say, “Tell me five things about yourself, but don’t use any negative statements.”
This is not as easy as it sounds; try it. We tend to baulk at saying, “I can do this”, “I’m good at that”. Our responses much more often are, “I’m not very good” and “I can’t.” Apparently American CVs fall much more into the second category, and British CVs often use a much more passive voice. Of course, whether or not a British employer reading an American-style CV thinks “Wow, that’s a real go-getter I should employ!” or “What a self-important, arrogant little … ” is entirely another matter; that is until British employers go on courses run by American consultants who teach them to weed out the passive voices as the people not worth employing.
The Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman quotes sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel’s argument that it is how we divide the world into what is important and what is not; what he calls “foreground” and “background”. So for example, forty years ago “Sugar Puffs” were in the background, but now that sugar is stigmatised as causing obesity it is in the foreground and now the same breakfast cereal is called “Honey Monster Puffs”.
Comedian Dave Gorman argues that the company that manufacture them have been preparing for the switch for nearly half a century, and perhaps it is a salutary warning to watch for the use of Cognitive Reframing in advertising: what is bad for us is good for us, what we don’t need is essential to our well-being.
So it is our opinions about what is “good” and “bad” about ourselves, or our situation which is the problem. One solution is re-framing. The 17th century scientist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg proposed a more radical solution:
Nothing is more conducive to peace of mind than not having any opinions at all.
And now, to answer the usual question: what does this have to do with aikido?
Well, obviously one of the first things that we are taught in aikido is to re-frame our response to an attack. We are taught to breathe and to relax in the face of a strong grip. We are taught to find our centre, our one point. Then we are taught to “receive” an attack, whether it is punch or shomen uchi or even a weapon, and to blend and flow with it rather than opposing it.
This re-framing is a very important aspect of aikido. It teaches us not to regard those who attack us as enemies, but as energy to be re-directed. We learn this firstly through our bodies and the techniques we do. Hopefully, over time we also learn this mentally and we stop regarding everything interaction as a confrontation which we must win.
We begin to re-frame the way we see the world, or even more radically, perhaps we begin to re-frame ourselves. We learn to connect ourselves to our centre, and then our centre connects us to everyone and everything at this very moment. We learn to become whole.