Friday, October 30, 2009


I'm not sure what to think of this. I stopped in a cafe to ask for directions today. A patron sitting at one of the tables stood up -- presumably to point me in the right direction -- and promptly tripped over the curb, falling right on top of me. In a matter of micro-seconds, I thought, "Is he attacking me? Why? Is he drunk? What's going on? Should I hit him?" Then he righted himself and apologized profusely and with obvious embarrassment. He was quite sober; he had just slipped. He kept apologizing, obviously concluding from the expression on my face that he'd upset me. I was upset, but not about that -- I was upset that my reflexes had failed me: If I were anywhere near ready to think of myself as a fighter, I would have immediately brought my elbow down hard on his head, pushed him off of me, then kicked him to the other side of the cafe. I would have done it unmediated by thought. But I didn't -- I just stood there, confused. Of course, hitting him would have been the wrong thing to do -- it was a totally innocent accident. So I'm glad I didn't do it. It would have been terrible (and embarrassing) to hurt a man just because he tripped. But I'm worried that in a more sinister situation, I wouldn't act fast enough, and I'm disappointed in myself, somehow. Maybe I don't have the guts to pull the trigger?


  1. Your reflexes didn't fail you. Your reflexes and your intuition told you that you didn't have enough information about the situation to choose an appropriate response, so you held off. Nothing wrong with that.

  2. Of course you did the right thing. You had no cause to knock seven kinds of snot out of that man. If you had, you'd find yourself blogging from a cell, at least in the US -- how things would have gone down in Istanbul, I can't say.

    Many years ago, when I was training Shotokan, my sensei, Kisaka Sensei, went up to (pre-Giuliani) New York with a couple of his senior students. As they were walking through one of the less salubrious neighborhoods, someone reached out from an alley and grabbed Sensei's watch hand.

    What did he do? A simple twist of his wrist to break the grip at the thumb. Then he and the rest of the group walked on. The would be mugger, if such he was, and not a drunk or a homeless schizophrenic, thought better of it and retreated.

    Could he have broken the guy into a dozen pieces? Most certainly. But he didn't need to. If the mugger had escalated things would have been different. And Sensei would have been within the law of self defense.

    Do you want to be always on a hair trigger, exploding at the slightest disturbance? Or would you rather be sensitive enough to know where on the continuum of violence you need to be?

  3. I'm not at all disagreeing. Of course I did the right thing from a legal and moral point of view. What I'm lamenting is that I did the right thing for the wrong reasons. Hakko, I'm assuming that your Sensei evaluated the situation -- very quickly -- and *chose* the appropriate response. I could tell myself that this is what I did (if only at an unconscious level), but I know perfectly well that it wasn't. There's a big difference between freezing stupidly and choosing not to overreact. They may look the same, but they feel different.

    I was also exhibiting a classic lack of awareness -- I was late for an appointment; I wasn't paying attention to what was going on around me; I didn't notice that this guy had lost his balance and was falling on me until he was actually clinging to my neck, and even then I spent several long, meditative moments thinking, "My, this is passing strange! I do feel discomfited by it, and rather invaded, and it seems to me there's a chance this man is attacking me, but I'm not sure what to do!" I'm more than glad that I didn't hurt him, but I also know deep down that had he meant to hurt me, I would have had the same slow, befuddled reaction -- and that by the time I figured out what was going on, it would have been too late.

    I'm not going to flagellate myself about it anymore, but I do think there's something to learn from it. What, I'm not sure. I don't think the takeaway lesson here is "Go around assaulting anything that moves." But there's definitely something I need to work on, here.

    And thank you both for commenting -- it was really nice to come home and see these responses.

  4. In the Talmud the Rabbis say that it's better to do the right thing for the wrong reason than the wrong thing for the right reason. Keep doing the right thing long enough and eventually one starts to do it for the right reason (I paraphrase, obviously).

    The ability to keep your situational awareness, keep your mind in your dan tien (center, hara, call it what you will), is something that I have found develops over time with constant practice.

  5. That's not exactly it. It is a disadvantage of being a lot more civilized than some.

    As we give most of our duties like self protection, teaching our children the basics of the world etc... to some foundation called the goverment(s) in exchange of taxes, we tend to sharpen our skills in communication and business. That is why you won't hit anyone except practice until you definitely freak out, frightened to death or you willingly (but slowly) begin to realize that you cannot reason with the guy using logic or words...

    That feels bad, ask me. Ah i miss the old times when we could hit anyone without being punished because it was accepted as a part of "being a man". =)