Interview with Ellis Amdur part 2 – The de-escalation of violence and the relevance of Budo
Tlhis is the second part of the interview I conducted with Ellis Amdur, instructor in traditional Japanese martial arts and crisis intervention specialist. In this section, Ellis and I discuss about his work as a de-escalation professional, his strategies, the effect of his martial arts training on his interactions, and the role, if any, of martial arts in terms of dealing with violence and morality. This was a very challenging interview that hit close to home on several crucial scientific subjects. I hope that it can serve both as an in-depth introduction to Mr Amdur’s views, as well as a starting point for those interested to know more about the brain’s response to fear, anger, and violence. For that purpose, I tried to reference all the work that we are citing throughout this discussion. To ensure that you are familiar with Amdur’s background, make sure that you read the part 1 before starting on part 2.
Guillaume Erard: Let us now now talk about your professional activity.
Ellis Amdur: There are three or four parts to my profession. I do a little psychotherapy, which is mostly couple’s therapy these days. I go to people’s homes, I don’t have an office, and I try to get in-and-out of their lives as soon as possible. We have long sessions, sometimes as much as three hours and if I have five consecutive sessions with someone, I consider that as a long term therapy.
I also do consultations with businesses, when they have a scary employee, whom I will usually meet, to try to assess how dangerous they are. I also consult with people who are being stalked in order to determine tactically how dangerous the stalker is and figure out with law enforcement what to do.
I sometimes coach parents who have an allegedly mentally ill child – because, so often, the child is not ill. The parents – and the culture we live in – are causing the child to act in ways we call ill. We cannot fight the culture, but I can work with the parents to assist them in articulating a way of relating to their own children that manifests integrity – and in so doing, helps the child coalesce into a being of integrity.
These days I also do a tremendous amount of teaching and writing focusing on the de-escalation and calming of aggressive and mentally ill people, a lot with law enforcement but also with social services. I’ve published nine books, each profession-specific on the de-escalation of violence: for police, correctional officers, probation/parole officers, security personnel, social services, hospitals, 9-1-1 call takers, and families who live with mentally ill people. Because the context of each of these is so different, the baseline strategies must be embedded into that context, and crafted to suit the responsibilities of those who work or live within it.
Guillaume Erard: I recently reflected on the subject of violence and when I watched a talk that you gave on that subject and as a biologist, I was interested to hear that you explained violence in evolutionary terms and argued that violent thoughts or behaviors probably provided an evolutionary benefit; else they would not have been conserved through generations.
Ellis Amdur lecturing
Ellis Amdur: The way I frame aggression is inspired from David Eagleman’s view saying that our brain is composed of a multitude of “zombie” neural sub-systems that are both unconscious and beyond conscious control. It means that each sub-system is in competition with the other. When things work out, we are not even conscious of the conflict. Consciousness is a conflict between those systems that therefore, requires attention to resolve, so that we can act. If you think about a political legislature, nobody notices most of the jobs of governing; it is only when there is a debate, when a decision has to be made, that the drives are really strong.
For example, I am married, I love my wife passionately, but when I see other attractive women, there is definitely a part of my brain that says: “reproduce with that woman; the DNA could survive with that“. It is hot-blooded and amoral. Most of the times, there is not much of a debate within me, merely a spark of attention and desire, but when there is a debate, one part of the brain, that simian brain that has evolved to lie, will suggest, “Why should I be faithful, she will never know“. Then the most human part replies say: “I will know, and then I will treat her differently, and that will affect us.” We are a congress of beasts and angels. Integrity, to whatever degree we have developed it, rules that mob. And returning briefly to our discussion of budo, I think that the purpose of so-called seishin tanren is the development of such integrity, not some abstract spirit.
Guillaume Erard: How do you teach the subject of aggression?
Ellis Amdur: Based on something I learned in Japan, I made my own proverb: “When I go to lion country I never try to be a lion, I will just be a tiger and they will learn to like my stripes.” In other words, when I teach cops, I don’t pretend to be a cop. When I teach social services, I make a lot of inquiry regarding what their clientèle is, what their services are, I don’t assume I know their job — they educate me on the job. At that point, when I start talking about aggression, within their own context, it is very rare that I find somebody who does not know what I am talking about or objects to it. (Laughs) Every once in a while, I will have somebody, usually in the social service agencies, who has an agenda that they love to argue about, but just as I described earlier about teaching aikido, I come as a good guest, and make sure that I treat the house with respect.
I often start by talking about aggression within the context of love relationships because by bringing the subject into people’s own lived world, they can get the picture. Everybody gets angry in their own home, everybody gets frustrated and sometimes we get enraged. Rage is a state where the lizard brain sees an issue and conflates it with survival. For example, I ask people whether they have been enraged at their child and what kept them from hitting them. It makes them recognize both their own rage and their inhibitors. In terms of de-escalation of others, I teach people how to take over and become the inhibitor of the aggressive person’s rage as long as they are having difficulties inhibiting themselves.
This is actually pretty similar to the role of a good uke in koryu. As I said earlier, in koryu, the uke is senior, and is responsible for creating the conditions for the student to express themselves as fully as possible without either getting injured themselves or without being so much better that the student doesn’t get better because they get broken. If you want to de-escalate someone, you need the right tactics. Like riding a wild horse, you can’t merely yank its reins; it has to run, but in the right direction.
I present examples of aggression or mental disturbance based on the shape shifting I described earlier. I have the ability to take on from the inside out pretty much any behavior, be it anger, rage, psychotic behavior, etc. When I begin to do that, people see their own clients. Law enforcement officers, for example, see the guy they stopped last week. Often, what I provide as a solution is something they have already done. Somebody who has worked in intense situations for several years will often do the right thing. The problem when it is instinctive, however, is that you often cannot call it up at will. A lot of my training, therefore, is about bringing mindfulness to the skills they already have. If you do something mindfully, it is a product of your own will, but if it is merely intuitive, it seems like an accident.
Intuition uses the primitive parts of the brain that don’t communicate by words, but viscerally, through sensations. What I teach is a method where people associate sensations with experience. When somebody yells at you, what physical sensation do you experience? The problem people have is that say immediately say: “I felt anxious” or “anger” or “fear“. The problem is that felt anxious is the label of a sensation. What is the sensation of anxiety? For me it is a hollow cold feeling in my stomach, my hands get shaky and a little sweaty. This is not all that different from falling in love, though, is it? How do I differentiate between lived experiences? Sometimes it is fine-grained differentiation but sometimes it is merely the context.
Guillaume Erard: It is like the analogy between fear and a sensitive fire alarm; fear can be beneficial for survival, i.e. it saves your life once, but it can also misfire, just like a false fire alarm that ring every time when you cook at night.
Ellis Amdur: Well, part is over-sensitivity, but another part is misattribution. Many, particularly in Western liberal societies, succeed in labeling their experiences in a way that put them in more danger. For example: You are in the subway, and a group of men from a different ethnic group look at you. You don’t want to be a racist but they look at you and you get a chill of fear. You think: “That is not fair, I am being racist towards those young men, I should not feel that way“. If in this case, they are predators, your desire to be unprejudiced blinds you to what your survival brain perceives as danger. So we talk ourselves out of danger because of that labeling. What I submit is that although lizard brain can be fooled, it is honest. By the way, I’m curious how many of the readers of this immediately imagined a specific ethnic group, assumed I was imagining the same group and got offended at what they believe is my racism.
Here is an example of the misattribution I am talking about, something that is a betrayal of one’s biological self. A client once said to me: “Ellis, you have helped me more than anybody in my entire life.” As he said that, I spontaneously began smiling, a little smile I have always gotten when someone informs me that they want to hurt me. It’s just something I automatically do – I draw myself up and I smile. Because of the context, however – I was the man’s therapist, and I had helped him – I batted aside the reaction/perception that he meant me harm. That man later poisoned me. Subsequent to this horrible experience, I no longer try to analyze my reactions, to “psychologize” them. Analysis is equivalent to dismantling your watch and assuming that you can put it back together once you have seen the gears. When it comes to these survival reactions, it is as it is and I want to leave it as it is. The context in this case was that he was thanking me, even a bit tearful, so I thought I was being silly. When people get in my face and give me a compliment I am I uncomfortable. I therefore labeled that sensation of wariness, of danger, as me being uncomfortable. When later he gave me some food, I ate it. What I learned from that is that sensation is honest, but feelings – our labels for sensations – are not.
Guillaume Erard: Evolutionary biologist Randolph Nesse argues that patients can be helped dealing with psychological issues (i.e. misinterpreted or overrepresented feelings) if they are explained where their trait comes from and what purpose it serves in evolutionary terms. How much importance, if any, do you ascribe to the evolutionary explanation of emotions when dealing with anxious or angry individuals?
Evolutionary views of Randolph Nesse on panic attack
Ellis Amdur: It depends what the situation is, and to whom I’m speaking. But I actually do this quite often – not only for people who must de-escalate others’ aggression, but also for people who must control their own.
Guillaume Erard: What is your method to make sure that you don’t mislabel a feeling?
Ellis Amdur: In Mathew 7:16, it says: “You shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?” If I misjudge people, I get feedback – sometimes thorns, sometimes thistles, sometimes poison. One driver of misinterpretation usually comes from past history. For example, some people who have been abused as children have hair-trigger tempers because that temper once helped them survive. It continues, however, in a setting where it does not help them survive. Their task is to further differentiate – yes, they get sick to their stomach when their lover yells at them, but how is this sensation, this experience, different from what it was like when one’s father, the abuser, yelled? How are they different? They may feel like a small child when their lover raises his or her voice, but they are now an adult, and no longer helpless, unless they so define themselves.
Guillaume Erard: The obvious question is how can budo help in that?
Ellis Amdur: Perhaps the most classic Japanese response to someone bringing their psychological baggage into the dojo is an intolerance of excuses, of weakness. The Japanese warrior’s response would be, “The worst thing that will happen to you is that you will die. And since that will happen anyway, what is the big fuss?”
It is not that budo helps. For those who go to budo not only to learn how to fight (which, by the way, is the primary reason I think one should go to budo), but also to deal with their demons, budo can be a tool, which they use to forge themselves. But budo is only one vehicle. I watched my younger son do this with weight training. He was a slender boy, with his feelings close to the skin, but he decided, one day, I think he was about 12 years old, that he wanted to become more than he was. He went to the weight lifting coach of his school and asked to start training, and he became startlingly strong, but more important, he also developed within himself qualities of courage, confidence and joyfulness – an accentuation of qualities he possessed from birth, but he burnished them like bronze through self-directed, concentrated, training where he was essentially alone with the weight. Would one say that weight lifting, or even the weight lifting coach did this for him? Or he used weight training as his vehicle. Similarly, one can use budo in this manner, but it is not a given.
Japanese budo is not, like a very strong stream of Chinese martial arts, primarily a method of internal cultivation or exercises to live a long life with the goal, in Taoist thinking, of having enough years in this world to have the time to develop into an Immortal. Rather, it hallows the selfless act, albeit, in a classical sense, in service to a lord or higher cause. A selfless act is one enacted, if not beyond thoughts of life-and-death – at least, not swayed by either. I recall a couple of years ago, I had been hired by a company to interview one of their employees who they were afraid of and thought was going to do something violent. He was known to have guns. I would be meeting him alone, and there would be an armed off-duty policeman, unbeknownst to him, outside the door.
I remember the night before feeling sick to my stomach – anxious, I labeled it. I hadn’t done such work in quite some time. But then, after some breaths, I remembered myself, thinking: “This isn’t anxiety. You were born for this.” I was, in fact, excited and happy. I had forgotten who I was. The meeting went very well. One funny thing though, there was an agreement that if I touched my ear, the police officer would enter the room, weapon drawn, as I would only do this in an emergency. After a tense beginning, things started to go smoothly. Most assessments are experienced by the subject as a kind of violation – the assessor coldly examines, and in essence, steals from the other. One way I work is that, as soon as I can, I offer the other person something. Based on what I hear and observe, I offer a suggestion that, doubtless, would improve the other’s situation, were they to follow it. Not only does the offering of a gift change the dynamic between us, it allows me to assess – and I openly reveal this – how they accept such gifts. For the company, this is vital information whether corrective action is worthwhile or not. Anyway, things got better and better – it became a safe situation. I relaxed. And my ear got itchy. So, without thinking, I scratched it. (Laughs). And I thought, “Oh, no, this situation is soon to become really complicated!” But the cop didn’t enter. I was relieved, but at the same time, ticked off, because I thought he must have been asleep or something. He later told me that he did see me, but he had been observing my body language throughout, as well as that of the other man, and he so nothing – not the slightest tell – to indicate any increase in danger, and he decided to wait. Now that is real threat assessment – or put another way, a true understanding of kamae.
Guillaume Erard: Now going back to picking up signs, you mentioned somewhere the work of Paul Ekman on micro-expressions. I can buy the fact that they are widespread but do you practically, mindfully use them to decode intentions?
Lecture by Paul Ekman
Ellis Amdur: Not by tabulating micro-twitches. There is a lab in Seattle run by John Gottman, who is a couple’s theorist. If you have a problem with your partner, you go to his love lab where everything you do is taped 24 h a day except the bathroom. He analyses the interactions between the couples, including these stop actions micro-movements.
But practically speaking, we intuitively grasp these micro-movements as a whole gestalt. How many times you walk in the house, take one look at your wife and tell her: “you are having a bad day right?” It is not psychic: we do not have to mystify this. We do pick up very subtle changes in facial expressions and physical organization. If I do two different facial expressions (observe), one of terror, and one of surprise, they will look similar yet you – and most people – will immediately be able to tell (this is, by the way, one of the dilemmas of autistic people. They have extreme difficulties in making such distinctions). Physically, during terror, the cheeks go slack, it is subtle but you can see the difference from across the room. If we were fighting with a sword and you saw one expression rather than the other, you would pick up the difference. Now if I am really skilled, what I should be able to do is have another level in which I can literally access my fear, and a level where I use that to draw something out of you to take advantage of. This is true kiai-jutsu. That is a whole level of psychological training that I got in Japan. It wasn’t just “feel your emotions“, but “can you use your emotions to some end?” That is only possible when you really feel it because if you fake it, the other person picks up the misdirection.
Guillaume Erard: It reminds me something that I saw when Chris Crudelli did a piece on Ushiro Kenji Sensei. Is what you are talking about related to what he does in this video?
Chris Crudelli sparring with Ushiro Kenji Sensei
Ellis Amdur: Actually, Crudelli is doing something to himself. He fixates on Ushiro’s eyes, trying to get direction on what to do next by what Ushiro is (not) doing. Ushiro keeps his eyes flat, like a lizard. Thereby, Ushiro is able to crush the ma-ai. Crudelli is dependent primarily on visual input, looking into essentially the “lying” eyes of someone who is giving nothing, so he is always a fraction late.
Guillaume Erard: We tackle a little bit on two tendencies in budo and more generally, thinking. People nowadays either want to fight their instincts, labeling them as beastly or evil, or they want to go back to some sort of hedonistic, harmonious ancestral mode of life that never existed.
Ellis Amdur: Well you know, most people tend to think of bumper slogans these days. We have to take things apart and see them in details; we can’t just say “I feel good about this, so it must be true“.
As I said, I am reworking on the book Old School and I have a chapter on esoteric training in the 21st century. I write about the two strains of neo-Confucianism, which were both passed on in Japan during the same time period. One, Lixue, is the State above all; follow the hierarchy and all will be well. The other one, the Xinxue, says that the truth can only be found through inspiration and intuition, and that the integrity of an individual is in the action, not the thought; the thought is in the way of that. What I point out is that if I am going to do a martial art, neo-Confucianism is important because it is an underpinning of Japanese martial arts. Contrary to the way people view these doctrines, we have to hold both rather than choosing one as one’s personal philosophy. There are times for a natural hierarchy, that is the way society works, not only because somebody should be above us, but sometimes, even though they should not, to function as a society, we have to respect that.
The problem of the Lixue perspective is that if it is taken to its extreme, you enter state fascism. The Xinxue, the act of a man being its own justification is romanticized in terrorism. Xinxue or Oyomei in Japanese is very close to Zen. According to several books, pretty much the entire Buddhist hierarchy before World War II, in particular Zen, was in favor of the war, saying things like: “it is justified to kill the child of an enemy country because you will be helping them being in a better incarnation“. One can justify anything and everything this way, claiming that if the act is pure or enlightened, there is no moral taint. Some people would like one or the other of the ideologies, and that is what they attach to their martial art, social thinking, or whatever. We must strive to be impeccable men and women who, by definition must compromise. Emmanuel Levinas, in Otherwise Than Being Or Beyond Essence, asserted that a true ethical relationship could only exist if there were but two people in the entire world; with a third, justice is born.
To go back to the issue of violence in martial arts, some people like to pretend it doesn’t exist. Some fantasize that they are modern primitives, but if so, they are actually quite murderous. In his book, War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage, Lawrence H. Keeley establishes that genocide was pretty much the rule of the times. That way of thinking reminds me of the time I saw a sincere guy ask Ueshiba Kisshomaru when his father became a pacifist, and when it was translated, Doshu cracked up. I do not recall another time I saw him laugh so sincerely and uninhibitedly. He thought that was supremely funny.
Guillaume Erard: It is indeed hardly surprising for a small tribe-member to have a brain hardwired to making sure that whatever genes are being spread around bear as much closeness to one’s own as possible. Given this evolutionary imprinting, I cannot help but wonder at how moral we have become as a society in such a small time.
Ellis Amdur: For most of human evolution, we were in hunter-gatherer bands of 10 to 40 people. They few people were the only human beings on the planet. The people on the other side of the valley were them, they had different gods, different magic. We might have traded with them, but they were not us. If we heard that a child was killed in that valley, it would have been a matter of indifference for us. On the other hand, if we heard that somebody died in our own village, even somebody that we didn’t like that much, they were our flesh. When someone who appears as a human being to us dies, it affects us. The remarkable thing today is that we can hear about somebody being mistreated across the world and it affects us. The brain’s reaction is: “If I am hearing about it, that must be one of mine“.
Guillaume Erard: That, plus the process of empathy that makes us experience the suffering of others through description only. The surprising thing is that it is culture that brought that, it did not happen before.
Ellis Amdur: Yes, culture, communication, sports. Sport is one of the unsung movements of peace because you bring people of different cultures in an arena where they celebrate the same thing and there are very few events like that.
Guillaume Erard: Besides, rules of sports allow people to exert their desire to dominate and to fight within a safe and controlled environment.
Ellis Amdur: Well, yes, that’s true. And I don’t mean to be disrespectful of that, because sports are essentially an alchemical process, turning the cold iron of war into gold and silver medals and trophies. But I am thinking more of how a Pakistani, a Jamaican and a Brit can share cricket – that is utterly remarkable – beyond the players, it is the fans that make this even more remarkable. By cheering for the same things, there is, often, the experience of sharing something. Yes, I’m certainly aware of riots, thugs and all the rest associated with sports, but the alchemy of sports exists, and it has changed the world and how we view those who live in it.
Guillaume Erard: It is rather easy for me to understand what you are talking about from my calm and rational point of view. What about the other side, when the person’s level of consciousness is altered, either psychotic, or under the influence of drugs, and thus, less able to pick up your rhetoric or these physical cues that you were mentioning before?
Ellis Amdur: The first thing is, you can’t do anything unless you stay calm. To de-escalate a situation, one must de-escalate oneself first. This is a kind of silent kiai-jutsu – a charisma that causes the other to resonate with our quiet power. On a more seemingly down-to-earth level, is the question is: how do you keep yourself below 20 on a 1 to 100 scale? Below 20, you are going to use primarily your neocortex to problem-solve. The neocortex believes in win-win. If you yourself become physically aroused, your heart beat is going speed up, you will being to argue to maintain your position, to prove the other person wrong: the parts of the brain which focuses on dominance and hierarchy take over. Once I am in the limbic system, my main concern is who is dominant in the room.
Guillaume Erard: It goes from a non-zero-sum game to a zero-sum game.
Ellis Amdur: Mammals don’t self-reflect, if I am stupid, too stupid to successfully communicate what is important to me, my mammal brain takes it as either because you called me stupid, or made me stupid. For mammals, it is always: “Who is doing this to me?” So the first step of de-escalation is restore one’s own calm. Be the eye of the hurricane — the chaos has to revolve around you based on your calm before anything you say.
The next level of assessment, done nearly instantaneously, is: “Are they angry, enraged, or violent?”
If they are violent establish safety. What it means is you are in the street, you are physically fit, and all of a sudden you see guys going towards you with clubs in their hands, how do you establish safety? I hope you run away. Now, instead, your wife is walking 3 meters in front of you because you were looking at a store window, she is closer than you from those thugs, they are approaching her, and how do you establish safety? You must run forward because safety is defined by: “what and who we are responsible for protecting“. Safety does not stop in your own skin, not if you are a human being.
Now, let’s scale it down to anger, which I would rate as 20 – 95 on the scale The angry person is trying to communicate, they are frustrated and communication is failing, loaded up with intimidation, manipulation and all sorts of other things. But essentially, the angry person is trying to get through to you, and if you can demonstrate that they succeeded via communication, things diffuse. I am sure it has happened to you during an argument where you go: “Wait a minute, what you are saying is X” and the other person, in relief, exclaims: “Yes! That’s what I’m saying!” It does not mean that you agree but you have demonstrated that communication got through.
Guillaume Erard: So you are underlining the parts of mutual understanding, as slight as they may be, even if non-consensual, to create a hook?
Ellis Amdur: Right, just like what you do during hostage negotiations where you try to get the hostage taker to agree about anything. With the angry person, we are trying to de-escalate through manifesting strongly that we got what the person is saying.
The enraged person, however (95 – 99) is starting to boot up the very primitive part of the brain that makes them desire to do violence or to run away. The question that comes up then, is: “What is holding them back from violence?” What hold them back are the inhibitors I was referring to earlier. First are consequences, such as: “If I swing at you, you might hurt me“, or, “If my wife knows that I got into another fight, she will leave me“. Bad things will happen to me if I follow through with my impulse. Another inhibitor is morality; along with our aggressive drive, we do have a drive to love and to be moral, it is with us from birth. If morality was something that had to be taught 100%, we would not be here.
Guillaume Erard: We would not have been that far as a species.
Ellis Amdur: Right, there is a core morality that acts as an inhibitor. The only people that lack this core or those we classify as sociopaths. [Editor’s note: The current body of evidence shows variable relative proportion of sociopaths in different countries and cultures but as an illustration, in the United Kingdom, the proportion of sociopaths in the general population was estimated to be 0.6%, while it seems to reach 3% in the United States.] In addition to that core morality, we have moral values, which we acquire as we live, which can either be negative or positive.
So we have these inhibitors. An enraged person is trying to disinhibit himself to do that act he wants. An example is found in what could be termed, pseudo-speciation: “I don’t hit human beings, but you are not human“, where we get rid of a moral choice by putting someone in another species. If you try to de-escalate an enraged person, you will always fail. “Guillaume, I see that you want to tear my head off and paint the walls with my blood, thank you for sharing“. It does not work right?
Guillaume Erard: Probably not. (Laughs)
Ellis Amdur: What we have to do with an enraged person is to establish verbal control, (and sometimes physical as well) sometimes by saying: “Sit down; we will talk about it when you sit down. Sit down. Sit down!”
There are different modes of rages: terrified rage, chaotic rage, hot rage, and cold rage etc. with different answers for each mode. The question is: “What if it doesn’t work?” Well, by definition, you are then in the violent world so you do what you have to do. I am not professing pacifism, it is: “What is the best choice for everybody’s survival, with yours paramount.” Remember, “you” is still defined by what and who you are responsible for protecting, so this may include throwing yourself onto a grenade to save others. Maybe you run away! Or maybe you fight. One is not better than the other; the question is what is the right thing right now — in this unique situation. The poet Gary Snyder once said: “Do no unnecessary harm“. That, to me, sums it up. If the harm is necessary, that is what you need to do.
Guillaume Erard: How do you tell the difference between anger and rage?
Ellis Amdur: It is your own body that tells you, and the way it communicates is fear. With an angry person, there is no need to be frightened, there is need to be careful.
Guillaume Erard: Because of the fact that on that person’s side, there is still a will to communicate right?
Ellis Amdur: Right, and also, they don’t intend to harm you right now. They may very shortly, but not now.
Guillaume Erard: They just feel that they have no other communication option than raising the tone?
Ellis Amdur: Right, but the enraged person desires to do you harm. Here is an example. I was with my wife in Costa Rica, we were lying reading on the bed, and all of a sudden she says: “Ellis, there is a spider!“. I thought that the spider was outside the mosquito net, and that we would just have to be careful, shake it off, and it would go away. That is anger. But when I looked, I saw that big spider actually inside with us, hanging above us. The way the mosquito net is, if we try to get out, it will shake, and the spider will drop on one of us. Am I afraid? Yes, I don’t know if it is poisonous, but it is big enough, so I have to kill it. The spider inside the net is rage. Fear is a sensation that says: “The spider is in the tent“. Helplessness, though, is merely a conclusion that some people get when they get frightened. Not knowing if the spider could bite while I crushed it with my bare hands, I took a handful of tissues, which required me to coordinate things very specifically, and I was sort of balancing myself on one hand over my wife in a kind of bridge, and I caught it, crushed it, and threw it away. And I turned to my wife and roared, “Man, the hunter!!!!” (Laughs) We had a good rest of the night (laughs). Anyway, I was afraid, I but this did not inhibit in the slightest my ability to act efficiently, and powerfully, Many people misjudge that stuff, but that is the purpose of training in martial arts.
Guillaume Erard: Do you resort to psychological “trickery“? In other words, where does de-escalation strategy stops and manipulation starts?
Ellis Amdur: I will use trickery on occasion. Not lying, but I will consciously direct or shape a situation – kiai-jutsu, in other words. Of course, this is a fraught subject. People talk about the humility of the bushi. How about the arrogance of the bushi? I’m talking about the attitude of being willing to take the consequences inherent in any potentially risky act. Sometimes I have been profoundly manipulative, for what have been moral purposes. To be dramatic about it, one thereby risks one’s soul, but I see too many people who make sure to stay between the lines, and though they can therefore perform safely by the book, when it is necessary to step out to the edge, they will not be there. To be sure, out there, one may fall — all this means, however, is that one trains sufficiently in ukemi.
Guillaume Erard: I can really understand how you can help people through what you do in lectures and counseling, but the more we talk, the more I have a hard time figuring out what martial arts can bring to the table, especially Aikido, which mostly sells itself on that conflict resolution rhetoric. Compared to professionals psychologists like you, I find Aikido as an art, and most instructors, ill suited for that.
Ellis Amdur: That is a hard question. But first of all, I do not preach psychology on an aikido mat. I do not try to impart moral lessons. I do not do anything “therapeutic” on that mat. The very thought makes me nauseous. Haven’t you been in Aikido schools when the teacher starts lecturing on those subjects and you think: “What a waste it is of an afternoon?”
Guillaume Erard: Certainly! As soon as they tackle on psychology, science, or medicine; subjects on which they are often not qualified, I must admit that my patience quickly wears out! (Laughs)
Ellis Amdur: More than that, it seems to me that the student should educate himself or herself about these subjects if they are concerned about it. Then, they can use keiko to enhance or hone these experiences. One can use any martial art for one’s own education as opposed to the martial art being the education.
Guillaume Erard: That goes back to what you said about koryu, which puts you in such a situation that you grow as an individual, even though there is no such educational curriculum, within it.
Ellis Amdur: I can use all that material to become a murderer, or a manipulating sociopathic person, or to educate myself better.
Guillaume Erard: That is my concern with Aikido, and as you said yourself, if you start Aikido being an nasty person, you will remain an nasty person. People think that Aikido is all love and peace, and that Aikido will change them, but I don’t see that happening.
Ellis Amdur: A good comparison is to take contemporaries of the Kobukan, Shirata Rinjiro and Shioda Gozo, who were there at the exact same time, getting the same education. Shioda Sensei was physically brilliant but from what I heard from a couple of deshi, one of the narrowest individuals on the planet. Every night after practice, the same 5 old grade-school friends would visit him, drink whisky, and tell the same stories over and over again. Shioda Sensei definitely hurt people; he concussed people as a joke. Shirata Sensei was a rough guy when he was young but he became a splendid man. They had the same education but different results.
The question is not how far you go but what you bring back. In any martial arts, you can accentuate what you are, or if you are consciously saying I want to learn something, you can change.
Guillaume Erard: This reminds me of an email I received a while ago. That guy emailed me telling me his story: He was waiting for his wife to bring the car after a dinner at the restaurant. Then a group of men came from nowhere and started assaulting him. He said that he was concerned about them being still there when his wife would come back so he did not hit back, just dodging and taking the hits. This guy was also working in a hospital, caring for people all day long. He emailed me because he felt that he “lost himself“, he wanted to “go back to who he was“. He had read Saotome Sensei’s book and wondered if Aikido could help. The guy cared for his wife, refused violence, cared for people every day of his life, what could have been going in his head of that obviously extremely decent man to think that he had to fix anything in his personality? To me, a lot of Aikido teacher would do well to actually be more like him!
Ellis Amdur: I don’t know. (Laughs). The story, as you tell it, is wonderful. But extending it beyond the specific into it being a metaphor for proper response, if he could have defeated them, what is wrong with that? If he could have broken their elbows and knees and left them unable to attack others in the same way, perhaps that would be a wonderful contribution to the world. (laughs) I have met one true pacifist in my life, a lovely man who was systematically tortured by his own father. He swore he would do nothing that resembled what his father did. Once he intervened to help someone being attacked in the Paris metro, and the thug punched him in the face. He simply faced him. The thug hit him again. He kept looking deep into his eyes. The thug screamed at him, “Fight! Fight!” and hit him again. He just looked at him. At which point, the thug broke out in tears and ran away. That is an awe-inspiring story, but what if he was a different kind of thug, and all he did was then slit his throat? My friend accepted that — I cannot.
As for aikido, if you are going to use Aikido to solve a problem, whose ideology are you going to use? Ueshiba Morihei said: “I am beyond good and evil, moral questions don’t interest me“. He did not throw out people like Murashige Aritoshi, who by some accounts cut people’s head in China to test his katana. He did not throw out anybody. Without naming anybody, I know of a shihan who broke a child’s arm in front of Ueshiba. Ueshiba called him in the office and the guy went came out shaking, but he never changed his behavior. On the other side, Ueshiba drew in Okumura Shigenobu or Tomiki Kenji, or Ohba Hideo — such splendid men, anyone would do well to model themselves on one of them. And truly, which side of the line of good-and-evil did Ueshiba fall? During the 1930’s, as I’ve written impressionistically — and as researched in so much detail by Peter Goldsbury — Ueshiba was a supporter of terrorists and political murderers.
On the other hand, what Terry Dobson said to me is that Ueshiba took a lot of people off the streets and kept them busy so they would not do worse. This whole idea of Aikido is love and all that… I think that it is pretty clear that Ueshiba saw himself as an avatar to unify heaven and earth, and the love he was talking about was in that vein. I just read on Stanley Pranin’s website an interview of Ueshiba Morihei in 1956 with an obnoxious right-wing reporter who kept poking at him, being very namaiki. I was very interested because Ueshiba was talking tongue-in-cheek, sort of saying “Oh yes, I love democracy, the emperor is a great democrat“. To the day he died Ueshiba was a right wing cultist. Yet there are people who have studied with him and admit that their life has been turned around.
Guillaume Erard: Worse to me is that nice people are more likely going to be drawn to Aikido than another sport because of its peaceful advertising, which kinds of biases the perception we have of the proportion of nice people that Aikido creates, as opposed to the proportion of nice people who get there in the first place. If we calculated it, the ratio would probably be closer to 1 than we think.
Ellis Amdur: Each martial art has its own personality, which is an amalgam of the teacher and the art itself. People can easily be led astray, conned or otherwise manipulated. On the flip side, I was once sitting at a demonstration with my Araki-ryu instructor, and I was outraged at some semi-fraudulent demonstration of koryu, and my teacher said: “People find the teacher they are looking for.”
Guillaume Erard: Do you draw a line as far as what people should expect from your classes?
Ellis Amdur: Depends what class. As far as Araki-ryu and Toda-ha Buko-ryu, I am selective. I must actually want to teach that person for about a decade. My students in the states come to my house and sit in my kitchen drinking tea. If I do not regularly want you in my house, I do not want to teach you. And simply put, if they are physically incapable of learning the art, or due to their own personality, do not make progress, I simply tell them to leave. Budo is not social work.
Guillaume Erard: You said somewhere that martial arts should foster the strength of the group.
Ellis Amdur: Yes. You might ask me “Ellis, I would like to do Araki-ryu with you“. You seem like a nice guys, we have a good conversation, but let say I was aware that you were likely to have frictions that would be counterproductive with some existing members of my group, who are already family to me and to each other. I might turn you down even though you are a good guy. Yet, if I really wanted to work with you I might say: “Let’s you and I work somewhere else“. The ryu is bigger than this dojo or that, and if I see something in someone that demands that I teach them, I will find a way.
Guillaume Erard: This sounds exactly like the opposite of what Ueshiba was doing. Was he doing it wrong?
Ellis Amdur: Depends what period you are talking about — in his prime, that’s exactly how he taught. But in terms of aikido as a big tent, I think that is wonderful. To be sure, it creates all sorts of problems, and the art has gotten watered down, but aikido has had a profound effect on society, if only as a metaphor, far more so than if he had kept it as a sectarian, exclusive group. People use the embodied metaphor of conflict resolution, as enacted in modern aikido in all sorts of productive ways. So, back to your question, Ueshiba wasn’t “doing it wrong.” He taught aikido and that’s what it is. Really, are Daito-ryu and Aikido really so different? They can’t be – Hisa Takuma often referred to what he did as Aikido, didn’t he? Let’s postulate, as many will assert, that Daito-ryu is a much more powerful martial art than Aikido yet, which has had a more significant effect upon the world? Many claim that Sagawa Yukiyoshi was the most powerful and skilled student of Takeda Sokaku. Yet he was merely a very big fish in a very small pond, with only a few students who saw themselves as an elite. In your comparison of my perspective to Ueshiba’s, I run that same risk, that I may have, to my lights, martial training of integrity, but it affects very few people. Consider a great musician who never performs. So I certainly do not criticize Ueshiba and his successors for their open door.
Guillaume Erard: Thank you very much Ellis for that fantastic discussion. Would you like to add anything before we wrap up?
Ellis Amdur: A conclusion to make it tidy? I can only think of the poet, Robert Bly, who described long weekends with W.S. Merwin, where they read each other their latest poems, and ruthlessly cut the other’s last lines. À bientôt.
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