Battlefield Zen – Embracing The Storm

Inner Peace Versus Outer Peace

There is an old story about a hermit who lived on top of a lonely mountain, and sought to find true inner peace and harmony with the universe. After years of meditating under waterfalls and listening only to silence, he felt he had found what he sought, and decided to return to the world to teach and share his wisdom. On the way back down the mountain, he started to cross a road and was nearly hit by a passing truck, the driver of which honked and yelled as he swerved out of the way. The hermit immediately turned around and went back up the mountain.

It is one thing to pursue enlightenment in an environment of serenity and silence, and another one to seek it while staying part of the world, full of life’s conflicts and chaos, and entangled with the anger, desires, aggressions and insecurities of the people who live in that world with you.

As Aikidoka, we seek not to be hermits, but warrior monks who seek our serenity in the eye of the storm. We seek the same goals as the meditating monks, but we know the true measure of our spiritual wisdom is found when it is tested by aggression, violence, stress, and especially death. For us, conflict isn’t the enemy of peace, it is the path by which we find, strengthen, and build our truest and deepest understanding of peace.

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Embracing the Storm

There is no finer tool for studying this than multiple attacker training – “randori” or “taninzugaki”. More than being a brief “realistic” test of the techniques we have learned, it can be the pressure cooker environment where our flight, fight and fright instincts are repeatedly triggered, and instead of being allowed to escape, we can take the time to recognize in ourselves when we are flinch-reacting. We can practice letting those reactions go, and we can cultivate posture, composure, and a calm inner environment which is not destroyed by the aggression in our surroundings. I sometimes teach that before an attack, we should fix our posture and breath, and visualize a glassy lake or pond with no ripples – and no matter how our partners attack or respond, our study is to let no ripples appear. When they inevitably do appear, we must practice to make the ripples settle away as quickly as possible. In a well performed randori, the practitioner should look as calm, unhurried, and unconcerned as if they were strolling through a garden (even if they get hit!)

My students and friends in the US Special Forces refer to this type of training as “stress inoculation”, and I certainly think there is an important moment in this training when the novelty of being chased and struck by multiple attackers starts to wear off a little, and the student suddenly relaxes and begins to perform on an entirely different level. Panic doesn’t seem to last against the understanding that the situation is going to continue until you embrace the situation and face your reactions.

There is more to this training than stress toughening, however. At the instant when you are riding the edge of quiet terror from a sincere attack, your “inner voice” is completely silent. You can meditate on the mountain for years to experience what the Zen sages referred to as mushin (“silent mind”), or you can experience it within seconds against a skilled partner with a training weapon! By definition, you have to be outside of your comfort zone to feel this; fifty years of comfort training doesn’t equal thirty minutes of intense move-or-die training when it comes to this type of spiritual study.

Finally, intense (not necessarily fast, but always relentless) multiple attacker training gives us the tools to bring the serenity we gain to the rest of our lives. Much of the harmful stress in our lives comes from situations that trigger our adrenaline and instinctual “fight or flight” responses. These very physical reactions can be triggered by emotional situations, but because we can’t actually fight or flee in social situations, the body is left trembling with undirected energy and frustrated need to act, and struggling with the post-adrenal fatigue and poison. However, when one practiced in randori encounters a stressful social situation (for example, public speaking, or a fight with one’s boss) she recognizes these symptoms and can convert them. By visualizing the calm achieved amidst multiple attackers, the body can recognize the situation as something it knows how to handle, and the negative physical stress energies can be converted and released. Generally, few social situations stack up as more stressful than three people attacking fiercely with weapons, and that gives a sense of confidence and perspective that helps us further reach our inner calm when it might otherwise elude us.

The secret of the warrior monk is that the shortcut to finding peace is to study diligently under the teachers “Fear” and “Humility”, and that comfort is our enemy. “Shobu” – “warrior wisdom” – is won by reaching our most mortal core.


Zen saying: “Kaze fukedomo douzezu tenpen no tsuki”, “Though the wind may blow, the moon in the sky does not move” (Kanji by Kisagari Chiyo)

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