When I was a karate student years ago it was all about violence and inflicting pain. This went both ways, and I often got taken down hard. But we were trying to learn to be dangerous, and showing no mercy in hand-to-hand training was part of the program. If you hurt someone, or if you got hurt there were no regrets, you just defended yourself.
My teacher used to say, "things will either go well for you, or they will go badly; and there you are." This reminded me that any martial situation was uncertain, and that anyone could get lucky, which meant I had a chance against people more experienced than I. But it also implied that you could be unlucky and get your clock cleaned.
One day near the end of class my teacher had told a bunch of us students to sit down on the mat. He seemed to want to talk to us a little before class was over. Most of us were orange, purple, and blue belts, which meant that we were roughly in the middle of the process of getting to black belt. In that dojo, the early belts up to purple were more focused on surfacing, even exulting in, aggression. At purple belt, though, our focus shifted to being more crafty and creative, and thinking sufficiently to match our response in a situation to the level of danger. This meant that we would get yelled at for employing a killing technique in a simulated encounter with a clumsy, annoying drunk. Our teacher would bellow, "are you going to just kill someone for being clumsy and stupid? No," he would explain, "you are probably going to make it safe without perhaps hurting him too badly, and this is a decision you are going to make in an instant with no possibility of undoing whatever action you take."
I thought about how much common sense he was making, and was a little scared by how ready we seemed to be to kick and strike someone into a lifeless pulp at the slightest provocation. This attitude was especially interesting given that we knew even the most skilled could be defeated.
As we gathered on the mat that night, all dripping sweat and feeling strong, our teacher said, "now I want to talk to you about the karate of no-touching." We all thought this was a kind of metaphor for something. No, he was talking about a kind of karate in which you never kicked, never punched, in fact, never touched anyone at all. He said it was the most effective form of martial arts, but one that you had to train for many years, even decades, to master.
Someone asked him how there could be a karate in which there was no physical contact. Our teacher explained, "when I walk into a room I make it safe by my very presence there. It's not that I'm trying to intimidate; that just draws out people's fighting instincts. What I'm doing is being present in a way that people who might want to fight begin to feel that they don't, but don't really know why." He continued, "if someone does want to fight I might try to distract them with engaging talk about something they may be interested in. It means I have to be very perceptive, and notice something about what they are concerned with or care about. "
"This is what the karate of no-touching is really about: listening so closely that you understand how to defuse a situation without ever making a fist."
Long after that class, and after I'd abandoned karate for Aikido, this speech by my old teacher continues to echo in my mind. Now and then I am reminded that even in Aikido, the art of reconciliation, we are sometimes seduced by the desire to show what we know, especially in situations seemingly warranting a brutal intervention. At times like these, if I am tempted, I hope to recall what my old teacher said about the karate of no-touching. Or perhaps I might remember Terry Dobson's famous story of how an old man dealt with a drunk on a Tokyo train, depriving Dobson of the pleasure of subduing the drunk with Aikido. In a fascinating bit of synchronicity, just as I was about to enter this post I did a Technorati search on "Aikido" just for the heck of it. About the fifth item returned was Dobson's train story.