A More Excellent Way by George Merrill

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I am on holiday in Puerto Rico. One day I have an unusual experience. I watch a man on the beach. He stands near a palm tree.

The man is alone. He’s tall, fit, about sixty, tanned and, I would reckon, at least six feet tall. He carries a long pole – a bow, the name he calls it as he tells me later. The bow is seven feet long.

The sight is unusual in that the man stands by himself on the beach. There seems no reason that he should be there. And carrying a long pole? I’m curious about what it means.

He stands erect in one spot, as if at attention. He is facing east while holding the bow in one hand. I watch him incline forward slightly from his waist as if reverencing some unseen deity. Suddenly with lightning speed and remarkable grace, he parries and thrusts with the bow, now clasped in both hands. I assume that he is practicing some form of the martial arts, but I know nothing about such things. I am fascinated watching him since each move is executed precisely, always finely honed and purposeful as you might expect from a professional ballerina or an acrobat. I can’t take my eyes from him as he engages in his routine. I keep trying to interpret each move: is he on the attack, on the defensive, telegraphing a warning, or like a master, simply demonstrating his skill to eager students? Maybe he is just staying fit. I can only imagine.

A half hour passes and I can’t contain my curiosity any longer. I have to know what he is doing. I leave my apartment and walk down the beach toward him. He sees me coming and momentarily stops. I introduce myself and I tell him I am fascinated and wonder what he is doing. He is friendly and informative. His name is Dennis.

Dennis tells me he is practicing a form of martial arts that evolved originally in Okinawa. During the 1600’s the ruling Japanese government prohibited the native population in Okinawa from possessing swords. The natives were left defenseless with no way to protect themselves. They clandestinely developed this martial art form (its name I cannot recall) by using common farm tools like spades and hoes which finally became the ritual “bow,” the weapon of choice. It is a commonly practiced art on the island even today.

I comment to Dennis on how, as I watch him I notice that some of his movements seem defensive and others aggressive, but always deliberate and purposeful.

He makes an interesting comment: he tells me that the ultimate purpose of this art is not just the perfection of fighting skills, but also the total development of the human character, the kind of character where fighting is no longer necessary. The suggestion here is that people highly disciplined, skilled and with well-developed interior lives are typically averse to getting into fights. He emphasizes the code to which he is committed, now that he is a certified practitioner. He is never to strike another person first, but if attacked, he may defend himself and then ultimately disarm the attacker.

How very different this seems to me from pulling a trigger, launching rockets, gassing a population, fire-bombing or defoliating a landscape with toxins. Victory is achieved by discipline and skill. In a potentially adversarial moment, the master of the martial arts does not have to act blindly and with brute force, but with heightened awareness and a clear focus. Dennis says that practitioners never act from anger or in retaliation. In fact, Dennis points out that anger is a sure path to defeat. He says anger causes the eyes to look down, interfering with concentration and drawing attention away from the person with whom he’s engaged. We are then driven more by rage than attentiveness and quickly lose awareness of what our adversary is about.

It is an interesting thought, and not a prevailing one these days, that intentional training, developing skills and practicing discipline can equip us to ultimately be safe even when not having at one’s command overwhelming force. The mentality of martial arts guides actions and the actions are the fruits of discipline, self-control and a cultivated interior life. The development of character creates the confidence in oneself that obviates the chronic necessity for combat.

Usually in modern warfare, combatants are trained to dehumanize the enemy thus freeing the soldier to kill without hesitation or remorse. In martial arts, the practitioner cultivates a keen awareness of his adversary’s humanity. It changes the rules of engagement dramatically.

I watch as Dennis continues his routine. There are moments when he stops. He remains still and then, as though someone stands in front of him, he bows slightly, again creating the sense that he is offering a gesture of respect to an adversary even as he prepares to engage with him.

It’s a week later early in the morning and I see Dennis again. He goes through what seems like similar motions as before but this time he does not carry the bow.

I wonder whether he would be just as effective in defending himself without the bow. I think he might. His real strength lies primarily is how he has developed knowledge of himself, and how he maintains a disciplined awareness of the person he is engaging. What’s perhaps the most remarkable about this ancient art of self-defense is that it is not driven by anger, hatred, revenge or conquest. If what I saw that morning is any indication, it’s not heavy weaponry that carries the day. It’s wisdom.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

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