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The Role of Fear

Updated: May 24, 2023

Image: T.K. Chiba Shihan, whose relationship with fear is very interesting to me, but I have never directly experienced it.

I’ve been thinking about the role of fear and intensity in teaching aikido. I have a three year old, so much of my perspective is grounded in parenting, as well as my own training experiences. Someone else’s experience will surely yield a different result! But I spend hours and hours watching my daughter. When I do this, I am trying to be at the edge of her conscious awareness so that she can be deeply present with this intense world that she’s discovering, manipulating, and creating through play. And I read books about child development that explain this intense experience she’s having to me. These inputs tell me that fear and intensity are important features of both life and training, but that they are quite different. Actively instilling fear has no place in my teaching or training. But training, like my daughter’s play, is all about intensity, and absolutely includes fear! Lastly, adults are really different than little kids. When you’re an adult, you manage your own safety. And the kind of intensity that includes fear must be consciously cultivated instead of simply allowed.

In the martial arts, it is easy to conflate fear and intensity. We’re studying conflict, a scary thing. To study conflict with more intensity, wouldn’t you simply do the scary thing… scarier? It is difficult to see the way this logical way of conflating fear and intensity in a martial art breaks down in practice, and the primary goal of this essay is simply to tease these strands apart. It’s important to do this because, well, it's silly that I have to say this, but it is not okay to just be scary and transmit fear to others in just about any context. This is a martial art, not warfare. There’s a basic responsibility here to study fighting instead of simply fighting or abusing one another.

In fact, I increasingly believe that the goal is to create a dojo culture that is safe and trustworthy in certain ways, and can therefore hold the intense and scary parts of training well. This is crucial because training should be scary, and not just at first. Sure, starting something new is terrifying--beginners don't need much intensity building because just showing up is a lot. But someone coming at you with a wooden stick should never stop being scary. The intimacy and personal growth aspects of training never stop being scary, for me anyway. Being pushed harder than you think you can go is scary, regardless of your level. That constant feeling that you’re not getting it yet that is fundamental to rigorous training should never resolve itself, and should always be a little scary. I want my students to encounter all that fear. And just to belabor the parenting metaphor, when my daughter plays, she also gets scared all the time, and that’s also important. She’s young, so I do have to be ready to swoop in at the last minute. But I would be doing a poor job as a parent if I prevented fearful moments.

As a parent, it is never my job to add fear, or be scary myself. Sometimes I mess up and wind up being the fearful moment, but those are mistakes. My number one job is to be the safety that makes scary encounters okay. My next most important job is to let my daughter build her own intensity–let her enter her own world so she can discover the spiders and tricky climbs and rude friends and swings that are too fast. Toddlers are good at building intensity on their own. If you do not constantly interrupt or entertain them, they will tend to fall deeply into their own vivid Technicolor learning experience that is fully engaged and totally high stakes. Teaching aikido is not entirely unlike this, in that my job is to help create safe conditions so that we can generate intense, risky experiences. But because I am not teaching aikido to toddlers, all the particulars of doing that work are different. Both safety and intensity among adults has to be co-created. I can know more than my students about what is physically safe and give good advice, but I cannot be the final arbiter of what is physically safe for my students–they have to be the experts of their bodies and experience. Similarly, I can’t ensure that another adult is psychologically or spiritually safe, simply because most adults, myself included, make themselves psychologically and spiritually unsafe from time to time. Most adults are also quite fear and intensity averse, for good reasons. You would not be able to handle the complexity of adult life if everything were interesting and you were always living on the edge! For this reason, my job is to generate intensity by creating a culture that enables and rewards focus, and by pushing students, with consent, past where they believe they can go.

And this is the moment, isn’t it? This is the moment when fear and intensity tend to get conflated. I’ve lost count of the number of sempai and teachers who have threatened, ridiculed, or intentionally hurt me physically. I’ve trained through a kerjillion microaggressions about my size, gender, and age, as well as minor acts of sexual harassment, that were probably intended to goad me into better performance. I have trained while caring for other women in a generally rapey environment that was probably thought of as part of the intensity of training. I look back on how confusing that environment was. It all seemed to be happening in the name of cultivating a culture of intensity. But it was really just a mean, abusive culture. And the funny thing is that it hurt, physically and emotionally.

But this culture did not pull particularly intense training out of most people.

I mean, sure. I have had intense experiences in this environment. A senior student held me down and threatened to break my arm once. I’ve trained with a lot of people while they were angry, or while they have gotten me angry, and that was painful and gave me some injuries. I’ve gotten into a couple of actual fights with people while training. I’ve been called up to demonstrate a technique so that the teacher could mock my training, that was humiliating. I’ve had to leave the mat because I couldn’t figure out how to train with someone who was hellbent on showing me that I shouldn’t even be there. These intense experiences were certainly enabled by this idea that we are in a martial context, but they didn’t make me train more intensely. If anything, they did the opposite. Intense training is vulnerable and committed, and, well… it’s training. It’s not fighting or abuse. When I look back on these years, what I remember even more than the fighting and abuse is all the coping mechanisms people used to show up less vulnerably to their training. I remember the constant gossip and chitchat. I remember making training dates with safe people ahead of time. I remember taking defensive, rather than vulnerable, ukemi.

The first thing this dojo’s culture aims to do is ensure that students feel safe enough to fall deeply into their training, so that they can keep coming back and suffering the intense fear and insecurity of simply being new at aikido. At first, that self induced horror of not knowing what your front foot is... that is enough. And the moment a student develops a little proficiency in anything, the challenges begin. The bar gets set higher. The back and forth between the student and the teacher is on. If you are reading this as a student of mine, never believe for a minute that because I care about your safety I will never create the conditions to ensure that you are completely terrified! That’s an important part of your training, and I would be a terrible teacher if I protected you from that. But how I do that matters a great deal, because ultimately we are not here to fight or be badasses. We are here to learn how to love and live with bravery, clarity, and spirit.

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