I have this crazy idea that budo is not about controlling the world. It's not about imposing our will on the world. It's not about becoming powerful. It's about learning to work with the world as it is. It's about recognizing our inherent weaknesses. It’s about being able to deal with whatever happens calmly, simply and without losing our balance.
Many people seem to think the world can and should be controlled. One of the lessons of budo is that the only thing we can have any control of is ourselves. The world is bigger and more complicated than our imaginations can hold all at once. The connections, complexities and consequences of any action or occurrence are more numerous than we can envision. The danger is fooling ourselves into believing we can control anything beyond ourselves.
Budo training grants power, pure physical power. If we aren’t careful, we can delude ourselves into believing that the power that comes with the study of budo empowers us to control the world around us. With practice, budo teaches techniques and strategies for fighting, restraining and destroying others. It doesn’t teach how to control the world. It doesn’t really teach how to control anyone except ourselves.
Other people, animals, nature, the entire universe are beyond our control. Even with the most effective restraining techniques we can’t control someone else. A wrist lock or an armbar can only restrain someone temporarily. Even then, someone who doesn’t mind damaging himself can break through. A choke can knock someone unconscious but it doesn’t control them. A strike or throw can break bones and destroy soft tissue, but it doesn’t control anyone. What we can control is ourselves.
Budo asks the fundamental questions about what is important and what isn’t. We each have to answer those questions before we can begin to apply budo lessons well. Once we learn some budo techniques we have to answer for ourselves “What is important enough to hurt someone else over?” Pride? Ego? Love? Anger? Once we have power, we have the responsibility to learn when and how it can be best used. Budo, like any power, used without wisdom, can do more harm to the wielder than to anyone else.
Used on others the power of budo is destructive, allowing us to stop, to hurt, to damage and destroy. Used on ourselves the effects of budo can be positive and creative. That big question, “What is important enough to hurt someone else over?” gets shortened to “What is important?” This question is powerful because if we don’t know what is important, we can be manipulated and influenced over things of no value.
We can’t begin to stay calm and balanced until we know what is important. The thing that surprises me is how short the list of really important things is for me. I treasure people and nature. I value art and beauty. I value knowledge. All of those things are important enough for me to act to protect. Knowing what is important is the first step in controlling yourself. Without it you can be goaded into anger or foolish acts as easily as a child in the schoolyard. Asking what’s important to us is a critical step towards learning to stay calm, in control and balanced.
We practice budo and we learn to distinguish real threats from insubstantial ones, bluster from physical danger. Is what’s happening a real danger? Is it a bluff, a bird puffing up its feathers to look bigger than it really is, or a gorilla making dominance displays before smashing a rival? Self control, self-discipline and wise action demand that we be able to distinguish between these.
Budo doesn’t just teach a bunch of techniques. Critical is learning to assess capability and range. People do a lot of posturing in the office, but they almost never do anything actually violent. They will try to intimidate by standing uncomfortably close or leaning over someone, but they’re not going to risk their livelihood and career by doing anything. They’ll imply the physical threat. They want you to react unconsciously to the threat.
If you are reacting unconsciously to people, you’re not in control of yourself and you are easily knocked off balance by others. Applied budo is not the art of harming other people, but the art of mastering yourself. You train hard. You go to the dojo and practice taking ukemi so you can be thrown around without getting hurt. Along the way you discover something about what actually hurts and what is just discomfort and annoyance. You learn to avoid injury and choose when to let discomfort bother you and when to ignore it.
Then we start to learn about spacing, at what range you’re vulnerable and where you’re safe. You learn to control the spacing. You can’t control someone else, but you can control their relationship to you so they can’t get close enough to endanger you. You practice attacking and being attacked so you understand the nuances of spacing down to a few centimeters. You learn to choose your action based on understanding what’s important and what’s a real danger.
Then, as you spend more time studying budo, you start applying the same lessons and principles to dealing with things that don’t involve physical danger and the risk of getting hurt. Is that snide remark really a threat to me, or just bluster? Should I take offense and counterattack, or do I practice ukemi with a self-deprecating agreement? We’re social beings and social attacks can be just as painful as physical attacks. Those budo lesson questions and lessons about what’s important and recognizing the difference between a genuine threat and puffed up bluster apply just as well in the office.
Ukemi isn’t just about how to fall down. It’s how you receive an attack. The ukemi for receiving attacks in a social setting are just as important as the ones for when you’re thrown. They might be more important, since social attacks are more common, and if you’re social ukemi is good it can de-escalate an otherwise unpleasant situation. It’s important that you be in control enough that you can choose your action rather than just reacting.
We can’t control the world. We can’t control other people. The only thing we can control is ourselves. We don’t decide how people will act or how they will react. Budo teaches us to relax, breathe and deal with things as they are, knowing the difference between what’s important and what isn’t. Budo happens when we know what’s important and choose our actions based on that knowledge rather than letting the world write a script for us.