When a new student comes to the dojo it’s inevitable that they will hit way too hard in almost every drill. As a small sized human, I found that super irritating (especially because that new student usually outweighs me by a significant amount). For a long time I thought they were all just being jerks; trying to prove their toughness or show off what skill they already had. Sometimes that is the case, but very rarely. As my skill level grew, I began to recognize that most of the time the new person is actually just scared.
They are afraid of getting hurt. Or afraid of not winning. Or afraid of hitting other people. Whatever the narrative creating the fear, that fear is the only thing they can see once they step onto the training floor. To compound the issue, new folks also tend to be largely unaware of their body. They can’t see their partner through their fear and they have no idea where their limbs are in time and space. So they hit too hard.
This phenomenon is not unique to the fighting arts. I have been screamed at by a human experiencing a mental health crisis while I waited for the manifestation of their trauma to subside so they could see I was trying to help. And in fact this behavior is not even unique to humans. An animal caught in a trap will lash out in fear at a human trying to help.
This week I observed this same fear blindness in the police at a protest. They were decked-out in body armor complete with battle helmet and face shield, carrying weapons of varying degrees of deadliness. And they were afraid. I could see it in the posture of their bodies and the way they brandished their weapons. They were afraid of being perceived as anything other than tough and imposing. They were afraid of showing any sign of their humanity to the angry chanting crowd. And the great irony is that they also wanted desperately for their humanity to be seen.
A few officers came to less crowded sections of the fence to talk with protestors. The one who came to talk to my group told us they wanted us to know they were human just like us, and they were in this job because they want to help people. They explained they were only out tonight to protect the people inside the justice center. They were standing behind a twelve foot fence in their body armor and with all their weapons to protect the inmates in the jail from the protestors.
We had follow-up questions.
We asked if they lived in the area, and the officer explained they would never want to live in the community they police because what if they run into someone they arrested at the grocery store? It was clear they were afraid of being accountable to a member of their own community for their behavior at work. They also explained they have never seen racism in their police department and they attended a 10-hour equity training where they all learned about privilege. It was clear they were afraid of being dismissed as a “racist and therefore bad person.”
We had more follow-up questions.
We brought up the overwhelming body of evidence that racial bias exits in policing generally and in this city specifically. We asked why they think communities of color are disproportionately harmed by police practices if they have never seen racism in their ranks. And then they announced they were going to step away from the fence because they no longer felt safe. It was clear they were uncomfortable that we were simultaneously acknowledging their humanity and also challenging their claim of non-participation in white supremacy. It's clear they were afraid of looking at themselves and considering their own contribution to that system.
And their fear was all they could see.
And I understand. Police are routinely trained to expect attack at all times and to see the community they serve as inherently threatening. Seeing through that fear to observe what is actually happening (to discern a real threat) requires a skill my martial arts system calls confront. Confront is not the same thing as displaying a confrontational attitude. It’s also not the same thing as courage, although it is related. Confront is a combination of courage and the ability to remain fully present in any situation that presses your buttons. It’s a skill that takes time to develop and requires deliberate practice.
For students of Mo Duk Pai, most of that practice is spending time in circumstances that scare us. Slowly at first, with our teachers and training partners offering just enough challenge to require that we reach beyond our current comfort level, and not so much that we are completely overwhelmed. Over time our ability to stand in the face of that challenge without losing ourselves grows and a greater and greater challenge is offered. It’s very effective and rewarding training, and as your skill grows the challenges become more and more personal.
And that’s when it gets really juicy.
In order to practice getting my buttons pressed, I have to know what presses my buttons. And I have to know why. Not why someone else would be uncomfortable by that offering. Not why “any reasonable person” would be afraid in those circumstances. I have to know why MY fight/flight/freeze switches are getting flipped. And the answer is almost never the thing that is obvious; it's deeper than that.
To get to the bottom of my own fear I have to explore my internal world and get to know all its nooks and crannies. The most profound and effective method of internal exploration I know is my Taiji practice of deep listening. It's a practice of being as fully present as possible with my thoughts, feelings, and physical body. It's a practice of bringing to my own attention parts of myself that were previously unconscious in order to identify the narratives underneath my fear and other emotions. It allows me to own those narratives, ask how they served my past self, and decide whether they continue to serve me presently.
It’s challenging work. It’s rewarding work. It’s amazingly healing and powerful work. The more I acknowledge all the parts of myself, the more complete I become. The more whole I am, the more of me is present in every moment, including the most challenging or frightening. And there is no short-cut; I just have to do the work. Just like dismantling racism and white supremacy. There is no short-cut there either; I just have to do the work.
We all do.
We all need to identify and unwind the deepest narratives that drive us to perpetuate our current systems of oppression. Those same narratives will not serve us in a future world built on systems of equality instead of systems of superiority and supremacy. And the police have to do the work as well. So while we are working to craft new systems of community safety, we should provide different training to our police, so they can – at the very least – begin to see past their fear of the communities they are supposed to serve.
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Jaydra is a human in-process, working to make the world a better place. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and observations about the human experience.