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FALL, 1998: Volume 3 Issue 3

Physical Non-violence for Peace Teams

Holding to Truth, Moving In by Bill Leicht © Simeht Ltd, 1998

Recently an AVP facilitator and ex-inmate friend, T. Haywood, stated flatly that he is “anti-violent” not non-violent. I believe he meant that transforming violence requires an activism not suggested by the word “non-violence.” From my work in the ghettos of New York City, with street youth and in Aikido (a “non-violent” Japanese martial art) I believe that he is on to something. Today, peace teams and other groups which practice non-violent activism still may be misunderstood, due in part to the role of the body.

Already in the 1920's M. K. Gandhi's methods were being called “passive resistance.” Later “non-violence” became a more common term (still connoting passivity). Gandhi tried to counter this notion by insisting on satyagraha or “holding to the truth” as the better name for his methods; its real meaning lay also in ahimsa, “doing no harm.” Certainly the image of wave after wave of satyagrahi walking up to a police line, then, without striking back, allowing police to truncheon them to the ground may have startled the West by its disciplined gentleness, but just as certainly Gandhi was actively resisting the British Raj.

Anti-violence and the Body Holding to the truth, we may discern that conflict and violence are physical and perceptible, always, as they are also mental (symbolic and emotional) and spiritual (affecting being itself). Treating them as essentially symbolic, emotional or moral can seem like “whistling in the wind” to those undergoing or emerging from the trauma of war or terror. Nevertheless, most conflict literature and training explore symbolic, social and emotional factors; very few consider the somatic levels beyond “body language.” However, even verbal violence has a direct and observable effect: e.g., in the first few moments of a tongue-lashing an “aggressor” leans forward, then the intended “victim” leans away. Further hormonal, postural and behavioral changes may follow, signaling a changing dominance relationship.

These bodily responses to conflict are “soft-wired” in our nervous system, not “hard-wired” as sometimes maintained—they are malleable with proper training! Surely the Indian Salt March Satyagrahi received intensive physical, mental and spiritual preparation for their suffering. Gandhi said that was the case. (I have tried unsuccessfully to discover exactly what that training was.) One presumes that yoga was a part of their discipline and that it included breathing, relaxation and concentration. In fact, the “fight, approach, flight” responses use the same breath, muscle tone and attention that yoga affects.

We could define “anti-violence” as satyagraha and ahimsa: actively holding to the truth and doing no harm. Anti-violence training then would prepare the body, mind and spirit to take charge of the “fight, approach, flight” responses, rather than be subject to them. What would such training be like, physically? Well, it would look rather like one exercise of the Alternatives to Violence Project Basic Workshop, the "Hand Pushing Demonstration.” This exercise shows how pushing inspires the opponent to push back. Then it demonstrates other options: hugging the opponent, or deflecting the push to decrease the opponent's aggressive energy. It was designed by an Aikidoist, Terry Dobson, and led to the development of the I-Key workshop, an AVP Advanced (Level II) workshop, extending the role and complexity of physical non-violence. (I-Key merges verbal with non-violent physical responses from the Asian martial arts of Aikido and Tai Chi. I-Key practitioners learn to relax and move confidently under threat. They develop gentle strength to disarm aggression and allow transformation to occur. They experience how attitudes are changed by changing posture and they practice using words to interrupt violent action sequences. Using body posture, breathing, movement and contact, self-esteem and communication skills are built; leading up to unifying speech and movement in role play.) In some ways anti-violence training would also resemble hatha yoga or, for those familiar with the martial arts, it would look very much like Aikido or Tai Chi.

How can we apply this view of active non-violence (i.e., anti-violence) to those who suffer from war and terror? Strangely, it was a post-Marxist revolutionary, Franz Fanon, whose Wretched of the Earth gave me a clue. He discusses at length exactly how “internalization of oppression” takes place in the oppressor(!) as well as the oppressed and in the body as well as the mind. For most people, anti-violence responses that are experienced and learned physically are effective and very memorable.

Assertion: To Center, Join, Approach (Irimi), and Turn Assertion, as well as avoidance and aggression, has a physical expression. It is “approach behavior” (or irimi, a term we'll clarify below). Avoidance appears physically as “flight” or “freeze” behavior. Aggression appears as “fight” behavior. Assertion is more complex than the other two, which may explain why approach requires training and practice in what Buddhists term “skillful means,” while avoidance and aggression seem to come naturally.

That difference arises from the distinction between subject and object. Both aggression and avoidance treat another organism as an object. That is, the purpose of each behavior is for the organism to use the other for its benefit (or safety): eat or be eaten. The purpose of approach is to benefit both parties, challenger and challenged. Reproduction, the most basic of all joining behaviors, is its primitive model. At the symbolic and physical levels, subject and object join in one dynamic field in communication. Since assertion considers both parties as subjects or beings, it is more complex and “spiritual” than aggression or avoidance—not “better,” not right for all circumstances, but definitely more complex.

The skillful means in physical assertion involves moving in, but recognizing the being of the other party makes it more complex. This assertion is not simply movement toward an object as English implies, but movement on the physical, mental and spiritual levels simultaneously. The Japanese term irimi better describes physical assertion than “moving in,” because it includes the idea of joining, being-to-being recognition. The term irimi also reads better than “approach behavior” because it does not imply scientific objectivity and does include spiritual interaction as integral to execution. One skillful means of anti-violence, then, is irimi.

A second means in assertion is “centering.” Fortunately, in English, centering does include physical mental and spiritual dimensions. For a physical model of centering we have the image of clay spinning before a potter (eloquently developed by M. C. Richards in Centering). Her image aptly reflects the sensation of a person moving “on center” in response to a challenge. On the mental level, we have the ideas of intellectual and emotional balance. Finally, we find “centering” used to describe the process of deep concentration in worship (Quaker, Zen, Christian, Muslim—all use it).

The skillful means in centering, like irimi, is not obvious. The experience itself is that of letting concentration settle out of the head, leaving behind thought and emotion, and attending to a non-verbal awareness deep in the lower abdomen that does not make distinctions such as “physical,” “mental” or “spiritual.” (See illustration by Oscar O. Ratti, author and illustrator of the influential Aikido in the Dynamic Sphere (with Adele Westbrooke, co-author, Charles Tuttle, Tokyo 1970) and Secrets of the Samurai (ibid. 1973). He is currently writing books on the evolution of unarmed combat through time and space entitled The Masters of Energy and a fictional and illustrated search for transcendence beyound combat entitled Tales of the Hermit.)

Illustration by Oscar O. Ratti  Illustration by Oscar O. Ratti ©

Developing the skills of irimi and centering is a major focus of the discipline of Aikido. The process of learning and internalizing them is also the process of reversing “internalized oppression.” Neuro-muscular traces, including those in the brain and central neuro-hormonal system, may be the reason for most behavior that leads to violence, aggression and subordination or victimization. That implies that the body and its habits are a major source of “moral and immoral behavior,” although our language and culture treat morality as primarily mental or spiritual.

Significantly, most moral training emphasizes posture. Prayer and meditation have specific positions. Worship and sacrament have them, too. And we make a verbal-moral distinction between the “upright” and the “crooked” person. How then do we encourage uprightness? Love is the answer, but getting there is more than repeating, “Love, Love, Love…”

When we have “joined” another (especially by recognizing the being of an aggressor), and have approached on “center,” we have created most of the conditions for love to flow. The problem is, we may get hit, in a very real, physical way or otherwise hurt. Sometimes our joining and approach are such that suffering is a necessary step toward love. Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi both stressed the redemptive value of suffering (which has deep roots in most religions). However, such suffering isn't always necessary, sometimes it is even counterproductive as in most individual violence. In such a case, love is best served when the aggressor cannot injure the object of aggression.

What is the skillful means here? Turning: It allows aggression to pass harmlessly, creating a momentary pause during which love can change the relationship. Amazingly, an upright posture makes turning easy and leads toward love. Of course, such a movement is, like irimi, not turning-away—avoidance; nor turning-into—aggression, but turning-with the aggressor. This turning, when it occurs, seamlessly follows centering, joining and irimi.

Physical Moral Education and Re-training The principles of Aikido and of physical anti-violence then are centering, joining, irimi, and turning. They help to transform violence into love. Practicing the appropriate exercises and movements replaces habits of avoidance and aggression with those of approach. It is moral education through re-training the physical body. Words can only hint at the hope and faith developed in such training. Love totally escapes the words; but those who have experienced it affirm their transformation. Since peace teams practice physical anti-violence, perhaps they might consider how to enhance ahimsa and satyagraha through the skillful means of Aikido, Tai Chi, and I-Key Workshops (including AVP Level II).

The Peace Center

The Peace Center (and Peace Dojo), a project of Latino Pastoral Action Center (“LPAC,” a Pentecostal mission), Peacemaker Village (of the Peacemaker Order, Zen) and Simeht, Ltd (the company of Bill Leicht, a Quaker) was organized in 1997 to “increase the peace” in the South Bronx and the world. Through training and practice in meditation, conflict resolution and aikido it helps to embody the Four Pillars of LPAC: Healing, Liberation, Community and Transformation. Five days a week LPAC staff, young people of the community and supporters from communities of faith and their aikido counterpart gather in a mirrored dance room below the Jerome Avenue elevated tracks to learn to center, join, irimi and turn in meditation and moving practice. While both AVP and I-Key Workshop intensives are part of this Peace Center experience, it is daily practice that helps people to embody the principles in their lives. Participants include members of major street organizations. As a result of the Peace Center, a young street organization leader has just attended the planning committee for the First International Youth Summit of Peacemakers and intends to lead a delegation to the Phoenix conference in 1999. For more information on I-Key, contact Bill Leicht at 346 E 18th St, Suite 4B, New York, NY 10003, tel: 212-228-0980

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