How I learned that nice doesn’t always mean trustworthy
Martial arts practitioners, and dojos and clubs, range from the intimidating or scary to the welcoming and friendly—and everything in between. As a woman in this male-dominated world, you might imagine I’d be drawn to the less intimidating end of the spectrum. But, you’d be wrong.
Because in the martial arts, things are often not quite as they seem. Scary isn’t necessarily really scary (although it can be); and friendly or nice isn’t necessarily really nice (although again it can be). And, understanding this principle can make a huge difference in every aspect of your life, not just in martial arts.
Exploring new horizons
A long time ago, after I’d been practicing the Japanese martial art Aikido for a few years, I wanted to attend other clubs. I was ready to broaden my learning and experience. I was having a great time in my dojo, learning a hard, rough form of Aikido, which I now know was not Aikido at all, but more a form of the older battlefield art, Aikijujutsu.
I checked out a few Aikido dojos online, and found one within a reasonable distance. When I walked in, I sensed it was like nothing I had ever seen or experienced to date. I had never imagined Aikido could be soft and gentle to this extreme, although I now know a lot more about the vast range of styles within the various martial arts.
Making sense of a new world
I quickly realized I wasn’t going learn much about martial arts. For one thing, nobody ever seemed to hurt or control each other, which—while I’m by no means a masochist—seemed odd, and was not what I was used to. It was also unacceptable to throw real attacks at your partner. The attacks of choice were meandering, slow-motion punches, and soft, weak grabs.
Yet, I was impressed by other things. Everyone at the dojo seemed extremely kind and cerebral; and there was a focus on the philosophy of Aikido, which is very close to my heart. Aikido focuses on overcoming violence with love.
I had never had sensitive, philosophical conversations at my home dojo. Sure, the men in my first club were cool, and their training was more fun than at this slower-paced club. But, after class they were more likely to reminisce about their younger days of extreme training, or things like their weekend motorbike adventures, or family updates.
So in the new dojo, I admired their eloquence and took their beautiful words at face value. But they clearly didn’t like the sound of my other training, and were quite judgmental about it, as they were towards any tiny signs of power or intent I showed during training.
I started to question my values, and wasn’t at all sure of the answers.
There were two other women in the club, and they were delicate, and lovely. While I’m quite big and strong, they were both tiny, childlike, and soft, both physically and emotionally.
All the students were supple and gentle. But when the sensei demonstrated his soft, flowing techniques on the two women in particular, it looked more beautiful and graceful than anything I had seen or learned to date. I craved mastering this more sophisticated form of Aikido.
And yet, I started to see that some things weren’t right, and that I didn’t really belong. One night I chatted after class with one of the women (a black belt). She confided that she would never visit another dojo, as she’d become “institutionalized” in her soft style, and was scared to venture outside. My heart went out to her. She felt trapped and lacked confidence.
Then, the first time the teacher used me as uke (demonstration partner), he applied a lock or takedown that didn’t work. I hesitated, as my body was so used to being controlled by my opponent. He said quietly: “Go down.” So I simulated the ukemi that would have come naturally, had he applied proper technique, and went to the ground.
I started to sense that the instructor didn’t like having me in his class. I wanted to fit in, but I suspected that he saw me as a viper, pretending to be sweet and compliant, but secretly ready to show him up at any time.
I understood why his aikido looked so beautiful and was disappointed that it was an illusion. But, I hung on. I still had my first club for my main learning, and I saw this as a chance to supplement that; to learn some of the more erudite and “spiritual” principles of Aikido.
And the people were beguiling. I compared and contrasted, and sometimes questioned whether this represented a higher (and safer) form of martial arts practice in some ways, than the direct, sweaty rough and tumble I was used to.
However, I sometimes felt something sinister in the slow, almost caressing nature in techniques used by some of the men. I told myself I was being nasty-minded, and pushed these thoughts away.
The shock of my life
One Saturday morning, it was the sensei, another student and myself, and we were to train with bokken (wooden training swords). I don’t remember clearly what happened, as it was such a shock. We picked up our swords, chatted a little, and suddenly, the other student smashed the hilt of his sword onto my right hand. He seemed mortified, and apologized profusely. I felt bad for him, and carried on training for the rest of the session, although it hurt pretty badly. The sensei didn’t care, and there was no offer of first aid.
That night I went to Casualty. My little finger was broken. I never went back to that club again. It had only been a few weeks, but I was already uneasy and finding it creepy. This was the final straw. Sadly, I also took six weeks away from my main club, as didn’t feel safe to train with my injured hand.
I emailed the sensei to say that my finger was broken, and that I wouldn’t be coming back. His reply was perfunctory. I realized he had no regrets at all about letting me go.
The only further contact I had with that club, was a long phone call from one of the other students. He confided that in his view, the club was rotten. He said most women came and left quickly due to the uncomfortable atmosphere, but the two long-term female students were somehow under the sensei’s influence. To him, the very “niceness” of the dojo was oppressive and he finally felt it time to leave.
The biggest surprise was when I returned to my own club. My rough, scary sensei listened to the story and looked at my hand. He said: “You do realize he hurt you on purpose? You put yourself in an unsafe situation, and then broke their club “rules” and undermined them. They didn’t want you there, and this was their way of telling you. You need to be a lot more careful who you trust, and where you train.”
I still don’t fully know what happened, and I guess never will. I believe my sensei was correct. I don’t think the other student consciously thought: ok let’s break her hand now. However, I suspect it might have been a strong, unspoken dislike and resentment, which burst out in his physical movement.
I stayed at the first dojo for thirteen years. I trained in all kinds of scary ways; but never sustained any real physical injury apart from a small break to the side of my hand one time, which was a genuine accident.
I believe that from this extreme scenario, it’s possible to draw some meaningful lessons about training, and life in general:
1. Kindness is only meaningful when backed up by power.
Kindness is an essential quality, and this story does not question its value in the slightest. But as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Power without love is reckless and abusive–but equally, love without power is sentimental and anemic”. There is very little value in thinking kind, non-violent thoughts in isolation, if you don’t (or can’t) actually put them into action.
I would value the kindness of my original club members far more, as I would see them as actively choosing to be kind, from a range of options. Whereas I would see the members of the second club as “nice” by default; because they don’t have the ability to be any other way.
2. “Niceness” can be a form of weakness, and mask a resentment and aggression.
This is a more extreme take on the point above. Nietzsche wrote about people who are unable to be strong and masterful, and who become jealous and resentful of those who are. They find a way to feel better by revaluing or inverting the values of powerful people, and relabeling their own weakness as superior. Nietzsche called this ressentiment.
In this real-life example, there was a sensei who lacked the technical ability to consistently control or throw his training partners. In order to make this palatable, he rewrote the rules of martial arts, to make simulated Aikido and talk of “spiritual connection” (which he felt a master of) superior to the harsher physical realities of more assertive and even combative forms of Aikido or other martial arts.
3. When deciding who to trust, actions speak louder than words.
On the surface, the second club might have seemed a safer place for a woman. The men were gentle, polite, politically correct, and cultured. Meanwhile, in my home dojo, they sometimes got things wrong. To give just one example, I used to pick them up crossly for insulting each other along the lines of “Don’t be such a woman!” But they didn’t gratuitously break my bones!
I learned skills and life lessons in that first dojo, some of them harsher than others, that transformed me into a completely different person. And, the second dojo now seems ugly and harmful by comparison, despite all the pretty conversations I may have had. In any situation, whether choosing a dojo, a friend, a business partner or a lover, pay attention to what people actually do, not what they say.
4. If you want to know who you can and can’t trust, trust your instinct.
I didn’t like the way the men behaved in the second club and neither did the student who phoned me. But, we both ignored our intuition, and remained in an unpleasant and ultimately unsafe atmosphere.
All these years later, I’m certain I would have the confidence to walk away. And incidentally, this may be a by-product of my martial arts training which validates, encourages, and hones your trust in your own intuition. I believe that we often do hold the answers, right within our own heart.
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