Fighting fire with fire — or something else?

I’m sitting now with my Sunday afternoon cup of genmaicha, Tsvet is peacefully blasting aliens across the table from me, and the 2011 spring aikido seminar with Hiroshi Ikeda Sensei is past. The newly-elected Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Boulder is coming over this evening to elect its officers for the year, but I have a little while to reflect on the aikido seminar and what I learned there.

I had signed up to participate in the whole seminar — the Friday evening class, the classes Saturday morning and afternoon, and then Sunday morning — but as it turned out, I only made it onto the mats Friday and Sunday. That’s because I learned enough on Friday evening to want to think about it all day Saturday, and to have to. I learned the hard way. (Maybe there is no easy way.)

Fire! Fire! by Dave Hogg

Ikeda Sensei composed the seminar as an extended inner practice class, material we cover in the dojo each Wednesday, although it was a little more dynamic in this seminar setting. He invited us to focus on unbalancing our attackers, and on changing the lines of attack and defense, rather than trying to muscle our attackers to the ground. If we would follow his advice, Ikeda insisted, then our defenses would be effective even if our attacker was twice our size — and more importantly, our defenses would be easy. Almost effortless. He did make it look that way. Effortless.

He showed us over and over how to flick our wrists, shift our elbows, turn our heads just slightly, simply look from right to left, watch our attacker’s shoulders pop out of alignment, set our thoughts onto our attacker’s tailbone, send our energy out through any of the edges of our attacker’s body — all of these tiny details were part of making our attackers weak so that we could defend against them. So that the smaller person could win. Once all these details were part of our natural movement, we could move smaller and smaller, ‘til it was just our mind that moved, the circle diminishing into the dot, the hours of practice condensed into the fraction of a second of need. You only get one chance, he emphasized. You can’t ask a real attacker to attack you again because your alignment wasn’t quite right. You get only one chance.

Then Ikeda Sensei freed us to fight. In many classes, he encourages us to cooperate instead, so that we can help each other feel the shapes and timing of successful techniques. Usually, he harps on us to cooperate (as much as a man of as few words as Ikeda can harp). But Friday evening, he said, “Okay, fight all you want! Do these things, and it will work.”

I trained with a number of men in the wake of this instruction. Fine, enthusiastic men. And strong. All of them taller, heavier, broader than me — one of them probably twice my weight.

And yes, it worked. If I moved in fast, met his attack, offered my wrist for him to grab then slashed it subtly close to me, snapping his shoulders and breaking his line, and then blasted the weight of my mind and body right through him and down to the ground, I could take him.

One man in particular — not the largest one — was hard to handle, like a muscular fish as big as me, dangling from a line somewhere above, determined in his full-body snapping to knock me down. If one angle doesn’t work, Ikeda had instructed, if they continue to fight, then go to another. And another. And another.

Yes, that worked, too. If I snapped the fish forward, he just kept coming, glued onto me, so I snapped him backward instead, bending his torso back like in a limbo line, then breaking him with a violent twist of my hips.

These gentlemen seemed to enjoy our practice, the height of the energy, the speed, the surprise of creative decisions in interaction, and the fact that it all did, in fact, work. I agreed — it was fun, from that perspective.

I appreciated the lesson — the lesson I defined for myself, that I was glad to learn, was that even at my current level of ignorance, in an emergency, it would work.

Metal Texture #10, by

But I do say “my current level of ignorance” meaningfully. Because the fact of the matter is that this is an emergency measure. It’s not sustainable. I could do it, right now, if I had to, for a couple of minutes, a couple of iterations. Even that would have its cost. As it was, as the hours passed after class, I realized that I hurt almost from head to toe. All of my major joints protested the explosive force that I had asked of them, and the trigger points of my pelvis and between my lower vertebrae informed me that two hours of that had been beyond the call of duty.

I didn’t hurt because I had been thrown hard, or because my attackers had twisted my joints or crushed the bones of my arms, or whatever. They hadn’t. All that force and hardness and sharpness had been my own. I did it to myself. It might have been understandable — and in an emergency, being who I am now, I would probably manifest the same tension. It did work.

But Saturday I sat in the dojo’s balcony, sunk deep into the couch with my laptop on my knees, writing, considering, hurting, and watching practice through the slats of the balcony railing. The other aspect of his style Ikeda had tried to explain was that the connection to our attacker we were looking for should feel like we were connected with water — we should extend our power to our attacker as though it were water flowing through a garden hose.

Ah. Yes. Even if you think about the principle with a physical example, you see that it’s rare that fighting fire with fire is productive. When a building is on fire, the fire brigade doesn’t rush up and try to subdue it with great jets of more fire. They douse it with water. In special circumstances, they try to dampen the fire’s burning by engulfing it in fire-retardant powder. Even in the case of wildland fires, the basic principle is to dampen it with water or fire-retardant, and then to contain it by clearing fodder-free barrier strips. Fire, then, is only used to deprive the main fire of its fuel, not to fight the fire directly.

Fighting an attacker’s fire with water, I think, would also be better than returning fire. Physically speaking, people are made primarily of water. The body could probably sustain a lot more water-based technique than the sudden, hot anger of fire.

Let’s add metal to the mix. So he attacks like iron, bent on his own will, on the direction he’s already going; swallow him in water like the ocean swallows even the largest battleship. There is always room for more. The body has a lot more water than metal. Bring it on, we can flow forever.

And finally, air. The force of the mind is as free as air, continuing its motion around small obstructions. Catch my wrist? Stop even my whole body? My mind can still move, and my center as well, their freedom requiring such a tiny space that I can still throw you.

Water, mind, and center. Fight fire with water, mind, and center.

My Love is an Ocean, by Adam Hally

I can envision what it would take to do this. I’m going to call it belief. I’m sure there are other words for it. What I mean by that is that I have to be sure. I have to be so calm, so confident — and also so skilled, so practiced — that I can stay soft and serene, sustainable, effective, in the face of intense attack. When someone attacks me with fire or with metal or whatever, I have to remain a person of water and mind. Calm, subtle, yielding, so that the attacker defeats himself, so that the force of his own attack carries him past me and into his own learning.

I find this so difficult. I can return welcome to someone if they welcome me, but it’s so hard to refrain from fighting when someone comes at me with a fight. It’s even hard to welcome someone simply if I’m uncomfortable with them — even if they want to welcome me. Perhaps it’s truly counterintuitive. Perhaps it’s even counter-evolutionary, in a purely physical sense. But people have capacities above the physical realm, in the realm of the mind and the spirit and the heart, in the realm of ethics and insight and understanding.

And the Baha’i teachings say that women have for millenia been cultivating skills specially relevant to peace and prosperity. The Baha’i teachings say that the equality of men and women is a prerequisite to world peace — the full participation of women in all aspects of the world’s social and political life, alongside their brothers — is a precursor to our being able to establish world peace. This participation doesn’t mean turning the women into men — doesn’t mean the women learning to do things in precisely the same way that the men have done them amongst themselves. It means something different.

I’m not sure precisely what it means. I’m not particularly bright in thinking about this aspect of our evolving species. I suspect, however, that you’ll find a lot of the answer if you spend time with the world’s mothers. I recently watched a conversation in Facebook. One mother wrote to another, “Where are you??? I am in some need of your expertise!” The second mother replied,

HA! What am I an expert at??? Changing a diaper at the speed of light? You are the same expert! Running errands so quick….no one even notices you’re gone from home? NOT me…..that would be you! LOL! Getting our homes organized and cleaned….and KEEPING IT THAT WAY…….ahhhhh both of us dream of that! HA! Not sure what I am an expert at……but let me know how I can help! 🙂

So much knowledge and skill lie between the lines of this short conversation — the support of multiple people’s paths of development, the organization of resources and time, not to mention astonishing humility, helpfulness, encouragement, existential humor, and warmth.

Fused Fabric 2, by DJ Pettitt

As for me, as for the seminar, I also trained with a man who was not as physically massive as the others, but who was more potent, more soldier-like, his head shaved and his sharp expression completely impassive except for a subtle, virulent threat. He could strike like a snake made of titanium. I offered him my wrist and shifted my weight in Ikeda’s suggested way, aiming at his shoulders and his elbow, and he moved with me, flowing like the metal of his body were molten, like we were connected with that hose of water — but it was more stable, thicker, and hotter than I would expect the movement of water to be. When it was my turn to attack him, it felt the same.

“You’re so kind,” he commented.

“I will try not to be,” I said, thinking he meant that I was going easy on him, not being sincere. This is usually what my partners mean when they say I am being nice to them. But this man shook his head in sad disbelief.

Kind is not something you should try not to be,” he said gently.

I thought about this, too, as I sat in the balcony. What was it about our practice that he experienced as kindness? I hadn’t been thinking particularly about kindness. I don’t know what I was thinking about, actually. But I wonder, if there was some tiny moment of God-given success, in that fraction of a second of our first touch, or perhaps it was in some manner of our approach, those subtle moments in which you turn to face one another, read one another’s face and eyes and body gestalt, and I wonder if he decided that there was no reason to fight. That this was not a situation of fighting. That he didn’t want to fight.

I’ve heard an aikido instructor say (and I don’t remember which one it was — maybe multiple people) that the most skilled defense makes an attacker want to come with you to his own subduing. I have experienced this as an attacker, when the defender’s action and intent had a sweetness, a delicate draw like a magnet that changed my mind, changed my heart. Many skilled defenders can throw you in a way that is almost invisible, irresistible in how they disappear, or confuse you, or take control of your relation to gravity — but only once or twice have I experienced a pull as mysterious as perfume, that could make me want to say, Let’s not fight anymore. There’s so much more to this than that. There’s so much more to life than fighting.


Thank you to Rachel Peterson Brainard for the use of her Facebook conversation from April 11, 2011. 🙂

Image links: Fire! Fire! | Metal Texture #10 | My Love is an Ocean | Fused Fabric 2



  1. Sarah, I’ve read this a couple times, and find it absolutely amazing! Very perceptive with your and all our experiences expressed exquisitely. Thank you. David

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