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Leaning In to Engage

PCDN Global

January 18, 2017

(Originally posted on the Space Bangkok blog.)

In the martial art I study, we do a lot of leaning in - and by that I mean actually moving in toward your opponent.  If you are unsure or things are getting dicey, it is often best to get closer.  If you block an attack and immediately back away, you open yourself to another attack and lose your opportunity.  This runs counter intuitively for many people who ask if it isn’t more dangerous to get closer.  As it turns out, it isn’t.  If you have trained, then you will know how to block what is coming, control the situation, and redirect both your opponent and yourself.

Newer students in my martial arts school all do the same thing.  Once they’ve learned and practiced some blocking techniques, they will have to put them into practice.  In the beginning, they all do the same two things - they completely forget what they are supposed to be doing and they lean or back away.  Often, the blocking form is actually a very simple movement.  Yet when it comes time to use it, even in a safe and controlled setting, they lose their connection with the move as they get rattled inside and try to move away.  It takes practice for someone to be able to stay calm, stand their ground, and use the form automatically.

Did you notice that bit about being rattled and staying calm?  That’s the other part of things.  We may be fabulously proficient at using our tools and skills, but when things get tense, we still lose our way.  Like everyone, when I first started free sparring with wooden practice swords, I got rattled.  I kept practicing, my sparring partner striking nonstop, until eventually I could block every strike while keeping still and present inside.  And then I noticed it.  My eyes started seeing things I hadn’t been able to before - it was almost like slow motion.  Strikes would be coming my way, fast and unpredictable, and I would block them, all the while seeing entry points and openings to strike back.  I had engaged and moved past the immediate focus of defense to see the possibilities beyond.  And I wasn’t running away anymore.  Instead, I was seeing through the chaos and fear and leaning into the opportunities - redirecting and controlling both myself and the situation.

So what does this mean for peacebuilding work?  I think it’s actually quite similar.  When it is scary and we want to run or move away, it often works out better if, instead, we get closer and engage.  While this may sound straight forward, it is hard to do and requires training.  Then, while we have learned many techniques and tools, can we actually use them when needed?  Can we conquer our fear, sit with discomfort, stay present, hold the space, do what we need to, and engage?  Or do we instead try to run away, swinging wildly at that which unsettles us?  If I had to guess, I’d say we all need more practice.

As I wrote recently in my journal: “When it’s hard, lean in.  Scary?  Lean in.  Frightening?  Get closer.  Unpredictable?  Move toward it.  With your guards and skills and tools and techniques.  Because from there you can handle and deal with whatever comes at you.  You can take it, block it, deflect it, transform it into something else.  Something beautiful.  Using a process of brilliance.  Smooth.  Flowing.  Ongoing.  Ready.  Present.  Holding destruction.  Nurturing it to beauty.

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