BALANCING THE FIGHTER AND THE YOGI
By Scott Sonnon
Perhaps the following isn’t an issue for you. Perhaps you’re more enlightened than me. But in the event that this article can help you as it has me, I’d like to share a lesson I learned at this most recent retreat with my teacher, Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi (or “Amma”) who accepted me as a disciple after these 8 years of studying with her.
For years, I’ve wanted to ask Amma a very important question (to me) during the open forum Q&A sessions at our annual retreats. But with hundreds and thousands of people suffering deep emotional and physical torment, I had held my tongue in order to not disturb their healing process. The shaved head, the tattoos, the athletic build… I already standout among these gentler folk.
This year, my question was answered:
What is a righteous fight?
I’ve invested 20 years in my formal martial art education, 30 years in combat sports. I didn’t do this for glory. Initially, it was just so I could keep myself from the daily harm and humiliation I endured. Imperceptibly, my training evolved into a form of personal development, to continue my transformation - physically, but also mentally, emotionally, even spiritually. Without any reservation, I can say that martial art has done more than save my life, it has given me Quality of life… and continues to increase that Quality with each day of deepening practice.
The more I mastered my movement, the less force I required to keep myself from harm, until… I started to realize that the responsibility of mastery also meant minimizing harm to my opponents. How little harm was required to cease their aggression? It was easy to see in sport: I wasn’t in better “condition” than my opponents; I just used much less energy than they did to accomplish much more than they intended. This “minimum harm - maximum benefit” maxim eventually leeched out into altercations, confrontations, even verbal arguments.
Now, I’ve always been a spiritual person, but when frightened for safety, it never crossed my mind to try and help an aggressor. I just wanted to get away. But I am “away” now. Practically invisible to violence, even with the marginal areas and hi-speed groups that I train. So, over recent 7-8 years, I’ve found my spiritual awareness increasing… or should I say, an increased awareness of my spiritual under-development.
I’ve been at the point for awhile now, that I’ll do anything, everything possible to prevent harm to others, including placing myself in harm’s way, because, frankly… I know I can absorb significantly greater force (with little to no damage) than others can; thanks to my teachers and my daily practice.
I remember very clearly June of 1996, training a MMA fighter for his next event (back then called “NHB”). He would thrash and twist, and I tried to calm him down explaining that while rolling he needed to relax and minimize his energy output. Holding him in a heelhook, but not applying any force, he instantly started to flail back and forth. He rolled us onto our sides, and quickly darted the opposite direction. Because my arm was pinned on the floor, I couldn’t release the hold in time. He snapped ligaments in his knee, shredding them audibly like a balloon exploding. He had 4 kids, was a carpenter and was now hobbled for life. I didn’t compete for 2 years because I kept hearing the echo of that POP everytime I touched a leg.
Enter the Yogi
For the past 8 years, I’ve formally practiced hatha yoga; even though I had been practicing a Russian variant for years before that. And since that time, my inner experience of movement continued to refine, like a microscope changes lenses to see ever deeper into the tiny obscurities of my structure, my breath and my motions.
I found myself wanted to prevent the possibility of me doing anyone harm. I just couldn’t fathom causing the emotional and physical turmoil that I faced. Had I become what had terrorized my childhood? Perhaps, you as my reader would think this silly to consider, but you need to have experienced what I had as a kid to appreciate the contempt with which I hold violence.
I hope you can appreciate my need to know from my yoga teacher: if my fighter aspect was now in conflict with my spiritual development, and if so, what should I do? Teaching others, am I perpetuating the hazing? Of course, martial art is not about fighting; fighting is the medium to learning how to fight less - the better you become, the less you actually fight. But is there a point in personal mastery where you must relinquish the path altogether?
Honestly, I was nearing the bile-lifting point teaching others how to be prepared for a fight (the tactical / functional conditioning of Circular Strength Training), as well as teaching security, counter-terrorism and law enforcement personnel the actual skills. Wasn’t this an offense to my aspirations for peace? Now, perhaps you’re a more enlightened person than I was, and immediately saw through this dilemma.
The more gentle folk immediately had conflict resolution advice for me… and yet when observing them in confrontations, they folded like crumpled tissue into whimpering victims. Living truth requires courage, I had learned. Soft words are only powerful when you have a hard hand to back it up, if persecuted.
The more aggressive folk had a more Earth-locked pragmatism, believing that an armed society was a peaceful one. That freedom isn’t free. That human rights aren’t for pussies. But too often, I saw these individuals tyrannically imposing their will upon others with a “might makes right” position that turned my stomach. It wasn’t peace they created, but a quiet war upon those who differed from their perspective.
I felt patronized by the gentle folk for my fighter nature, and ridiculed by the aggressors for my spiritual aspirations.
And then… Amma.
Anytime I think that I had a rough childhood with my physical and learning disabilities, with my impoverishment and abuse, Amma’s story comes to me: facing rape, public beatings, giving away the meager food she did have in her village home… and having physically embraced and counseled over 26 million people, Dr. Jane Goodall while presenting Amma with the 2002 Gandhi-King Award for Non-violence said, “She stands here in front of us. God’s love in a human body.”
At this retreat, Amma gave the following 3 Steps for Addressing Violence:
1.Physically remove yourself from the spot. Run, move, shut the door, or hang up the phone. Just leave until the emotional heat dissipates (if ever.) Okay, no problem. I can run faster, farther than most people, even while carrying my kiddies. I’ve learned to remove myself from the escalation before its tipping point (and can continue to improve there.)
2.If you can’t leave and they persist, then speak your truth and try to reach the heart of divinity which is within every person. Appeal to their divine nature. I’ve studied conflict resolution techniques, such as “Verbal Judo” among others, but this was something deeper. You actually have to give a shit, and reach across the void - through the fog of your frustration or fear - and call to the greatness within an individual who has temporarily “lost it.”
3.If they follow you, insisting on your persecution, get angry. Anger is healthier than sadness, because it takes corrective action. The gentle folk laughed uncomfortably at this guidance, but my mouth was hanging open, as if suddenly I had a place in this peaceful society. If a deer comes and eats your garden, you can’t reason with it; you pick up a stick and threaten it. Though… for me, this begged the question, what if the deer calls your bluff. (Okay, so maybe not a deer, but you know what I mean.)
And then, came the answer. Though addressing the massive crowd of students, she looked over at me, as if she knew how this problem vexed me. She offered the story of Krishna appearing to Arjuna on the battlefield…. written in the Mahabharata.
Arjuna, a fighter and leader, on the very day of his people facing annihilation by an invading army, decided to become a monk to avoid violence. Lord Krishna appeared to Arjuna, not because he was spiritually developed enough to deserve it, but strictly from having the compassion for the impending massacre of Arjuna’s people. Krishna told Arjuna that his duty to protect the innocent overrides any offense to his spiritual aspirations, “Remember the divinity within each of us and fight!” My mouth dropped.
You see, it was this part that had plagued me. Was it more enlightened to visit violence upon those who persisted in persecuting the innocent, or on removing yourself completely from the violence altogether? I had been offered an answer.
Again, perhaps you’re more enlightened than I was. But for me, in this wisdom my fighter and my yogi were finally wed:
4. If persecutors do not cease hostilities even when threatened, your duty to protect the innocent from harm overrides any spiritual aspirations of personal non-violence.
I’m not suggesting this imperative applies to you. I am a fighter, trained by some of the brightest and best coaches in the world. Furthermore, I’m a fantastic teacher as well, able to trick even the most stubborn student into greater depths of mastery. If I’ve exhausted all other options of peace, and imminent jeopardy looms upon innocents, then even if harming others repulses me, I’m morally obligated to do so (until such a time that those hostiles cease their aggressive advance.)
I must be courageous enough to face the specters which may come from causing harm to others, if urgent necessity demands. But better me than someone else. Better that I do this than the gentle folk who don’t have my training and aptitude, and better that I do this than the aggressive folk who lack the restraint and mastery to use the most minimal force necessary to find a cessation to the hostilities. Keeping God in my heart, compassion for even those lost in the fog and friction of violence, it’s my duty to fight when circumstances leave no option. And I can do so knowing that I can look in my teacher’s eyes without the oppressive yoke of self-deprecating guilt. Certainly not pride, but definitely not guilt.
My duty as a fighter found a place of ease living next to my nature as a yogi… Perhaps, it took me 40 years to grasp this realization, but I do own it now. And hopefully, this wisdom will be of use to you as well.