Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Without Fear

Once there was a general leading an army in a campaign to conquer Japan. After some months of war, such was the fear of this general and his army, that entire villages would simply evacuate before the army arrived. And so, the general, who was now accustomed to abandoned villages, was surprised when one of his captains came to report that the village was evacuated with the exception of an old monk who refused to leave the village’s small temple. The general was intrigued and walked into the village to find this monk. The general found the monk, who was a Zen master, sitting outside the humble temple. The monk stood but did not otherwise acknowledge the general. The general walked up to the monk and said, “Do you not realize that you stand before a man who could run you through with a sword without blinking an eye.” The monk looked calmly at the general and said, "And do you not realize that you are standing before a man who can be run through with a sword without blinking an eye?"

Now, while i don't play favourites, this story has been a favourite for several years now. I know... i'm just full of contradictions.... And while i think that the stories i tell continue to be interesting (and even delightful) to me because they communicate something that i am still learning or have yet to learn, this story occupies a lot of my mind and heart space. I have told this story many times in the past few years and, unlike many stories i choose which are relatively easy for people to understand (at least at one level, for the stories i choose tend to have multiple dimensions to them) this one tends to number amongst the more enigmatic. I learned from both Sufi storytelling tradition and indigenous (specifically Mohawk) storytellers that one shouldn't interpret stories for the listener. The story, as is, is the gift. To explain it begins to diminish it. And, while i'm not a fundamentalist about such things - i will engage in interpretive talk if i feel it is called for by whatever context in which i find myself - i do resist a bit. I find with this story more than any other story i tell, that resistance to getting drawn into interpretive talk is hard. I'm used to different reactions to the stories i tell - delight is always nice to see; the pleasure of inspiration and wonder is always satisfying; bemusement also is satisfying as it feels like a seed is planted that will grow with attention given it. 
And there are some, not so often, but often enough, who are offended by the story. A reaction i find fascinating but also a tad stressful. I always find it hard to respond to such an emotion as i am never certain about just what is the nature of the feeling of offence. I'm sure it's different for different people. But this story, more than any other, evokes this feeling of offence from people. It is common with this reaction for the offended person to demand an interpretation of the story. Though i suspect strongly that that's not really what they want nor, certainly, need. I react in different ways, depending on context. In some cases i stand by the ethic of not interpreting. In others i will relent and explain a little of what i was getting at (which presumes that i'm aware of what i was getting at, but which is not always the case). 
And in still others i will redirect the energy the way i have learned in aikido - a martial arts discipline that i have been studying on and off since 1978 and at which i still suck (i'm still learning to fall down properly). One of the key things that attracted me to aikido was its commitment to nonviolence and peace. I had come to understand this as embodying an ethic in which the goal is both to avoid harm to oneself as well as to avoid harming the attacker. Aikido thus teaches whole sets of defensive gestures and responses to attack that redirect the energy away from oneself.  But i developed a new level of understanding thanks to my friends Matt and Sally and the Toronto aikido sensei Henry Kono. Henry had unique insight into O Sensei's (the founder Morihei Ueshiba) philosophy and practice of aikido. Matt and Sally told me this story as well as getting Henry to tell it to us one evening in a cafĂ©. While i can't remember many of the details that he recounted that evening, i do recall the central insight about yin and yang. I believe he experienced this epiphany on a beach where he had been drawing the yin and yang symbol in the sand. And what i recall is that he realized that the defender and attacker were the two forces of yin and yang and that the goal of aikido had, perhaps less to do with the avoiding harm that i mention above than about preserving the harmony of yin and yang which, if achieved, would have, in a sense, the result of peace. You can read Henry's account for yourself right here.) 
I learned a complementary lesson from Judy Rebick who explained to me how she responded to people giving her complements when she was in public speaking mode. Judy is a wonderful public speaker - always provocative and articulate and impassioned. It is common for people to want to come up and complement her. But Judy explained to me that she was careful about how she let those complements in i.e. not letting them inflate her opinion of herself. For, as she explained, if you let the complements do so, then you are more vulnerable to being deflated (and hurt) by the attacks which, in Judy's public life as activist, advocate, and leader, is part of the hazard.
Putting this all together, i suppose i've learned to practice storytelling with an aikido ethic of maintaining a (yin-yang) balance of energies which, i theorize, are the optimal conditions for learning. And, thinking about those people who are offended by a story and who speak to me about this, i realize that they are giving me a gift of energy that challenges my capacities to respond and, in so doing, giving me the opportunity to improve.
above image: Reading Sutra by Moonlight,  The Metropolitain Museum of Art, The Collection Online

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