Q&A with Ellis Amdur
Q: In your book, Dueling With O’sensei: Grappling with the Myth of the Warrior Sage, you took a hard look at what can go wrong in martial arts training. How might one recognize and avoid bad training environments?
Ellis Amdur: There should be absolutely no abrogation of any legal or human right in a dojo environment, and a teacher who deliberately injures a student is committing an assault, or worse, battery. That’s a crime, plain and simple.
A fellow martial arts practitioner who deliberately tries to “disable” you is also committing a crime, plain and simple.
A teacher who wants to sleep with your wife, your husband or your kid, is, at best, a sleazy human being. And any “reframe” that this is some kind of teaching is bull.
How does one know if an environment is abusive?
I am aware that this can be tough, particularly in a rugged training environment. Your teacher thumps you — was it abuse or a caution about an opening? But:
a. Read The Gift of Fear, by Gavin De Becker — if something feels wrong, something is wrong
b. Ask yourself what it is you set out to learn — and how does a broken arm or a broken marriage move you forward on that path? How does coerced sex lead to more integrity? (This one’s important, because one might see it as an “exchange” to get more knowledge on the mat from the teacher.) The issue should not, should never be, acquisition of power alone; it is the attainment of personal integrity. A person who trades off a sense of pride, self-worth or dignity for the possibility of a better sword cut, has gained absolutely nothing.
c. Don’t deify the teacher or the art — what you think is so exclusively special is in fact all over the place. There are lots of venues where one can learn great martial arts. Maybe not the particular system or ryu you started out with, but at least one where you won’t go to class nauseous with adrenaline sickness, shaking with fear, or dealing with an aftermath of rage.
d. Use common sense, ordinary activities as your touchstone. Music class. Gym class. Ordinary learning of any kind. If you don’t need to perform sexual acts to learn to play Bach or volleyball, why should you in karate or aikido? If it’s offensive when a neighbor comes on to your spouse in a party, why not in a dojo? If you are being offered a relationship with someone who maintains a hierarchical distance based on power, status, control or the possession of knowledge that will only be yours if you roll over, and you are drawn to it, you are always mistaken, because that’s a form of mercantile exchange, otherwise known as prostituting yourself — hence, a compromise of integrity. Ask yourself why you’d choose a loss of dignity or integrity for anything.
e. Limited scope — with the exception of those in a true military environment (where one is trying to take civilized human beings and impart the ability to kill on order as part of a group), there is no need for any sort of personality breakdown in training. Challenge to preconceptions and limitations? Yes. Wiping the slate clean? No.
What I’m coming to more and more is that martial arts are nothing special. It is specialized learning that can enrich one’s life. A hobby, in other words. Just as one should not be violated collecting stamps, the same applies to a dojo. Injuries can happen, sure. But if I’m learning to ski, and my instructor tries to deliberately send me on a slope beyond my abilities, that’s criminal. If he or she is more concerned about getting laid than teaching me what I pay him or her for, that person is a gutter human being.
Q: The advice to trust one’s fear, in the context of considering how one might recognize and escape an abusive training environment, seems bittersweet. Isn’t it fair to say that seeking confidence in, or even the capacity for, self-directed action brings many to the dojo?
And I wonder if martial arts are, as you find your opinion settling near, just another hobby. Granted, most folks don’t seem to lose themselves in the magic and mystery of third-period gym. But then again, the world of sports certainly doesn’t lack exploitive and abusive behavior. But the thing that keeps bugging me, the difference that nags, is participant expectation. Do people come to Aikido primed and prepared, by their own motivations, for exploitation?
Do folks study Bach to self-actualize? Is stamp collecting a spiritual pursuit? The way of the snow ski, path or destination? Probably not. But in a few cases, probably, yes. And I’d expect those few to face the same pitfalls tripping, sometimes swallowing, those in love with loving Aikido.
Ellis Amdur: Most spiritual traditions are, in some manner, escapist, in that fear is regarded as a noxious illusion to be expunged by equanimity. In my unenlightened opinion, we were born to be human beings, and therefore, nothing human should be erased from us. Anything human carries knowledge/information. It is how we act on that knowledge. Therefore, fear, as horrid as it can feel, is a teacher. (Old Spanish proverb: The only difference between a brave man and a coward is what direction they are running). So: hopefully, through training, one masters debilitating fear; hopefully, through training, one uses fear as a teacher
My use of the word, “hobby,” is not patronizing or belittling. It is an attempt to reduce things to a proper proportion. There are survival-based activities (farming) as opposed to enriching activities (gardening). When we have accomplished survival, we have the luxury to flourish and enrich ourselves as humans. I bridle at the pretentiousness that many (myself among them, in the past) have displayed, blaring about a martial “way.” Inflation, deification, mystification — all of these are the fertile ground where abuse and illusion grow best.
Can benign expectations lead one into danger? Absolutely! Aikido — peace, love, unity, musubi, along with samurai mystique — all of these draw people with particular hopes, fears and dreams… and, yes, make them particularly vulnerable to exploitation
Q: What else do you see in those attracted to Aikido?
Ellis Amdur: Aikido seems to draw a lot of people who are looking to see “through” violence to something else. Yes, there are lots of people who are genuine fighters who no longer want to be, there are others who want to pretend to be fighters and use aikido as a place to play out fantasies, there are many bliss-ninnies and aiki-bunnies, and thousands of ordinary human beings who just love the art — any conceivable permutation of human character — but at core, I believe there is something about the movements of aikido, the way the reciprocal practice is structured with its exchange between uke and nage, which strikes many people deeply in a mysterious way. It is such a paradox! Technically, aikido is quite limited — and this is deliberate — which forces people into a template of movement. This, by definition, makes it an art, as the skill is created within a frame. There is also a psychological challenge in that one is working for conflict resolution while practicing throwing people down, or locking them in painful configurations.
I believe that aikido offers a lot of people the chance at experiencing something clean and pure — a practice of relationship that holds all the opposites — insecurity/confidence, aggression/peace, taking/giving, and metaphorically, at least, cuts a line right through the oppositions. I’m not saying that people always, or even most of the time, can do this. But I think of Yasunori Kuwamori or Shirata Rinjiro, and see that aikido can be a vehicle to this end. Not enlightenment. Simply a clean line through life.