I was chatting with a colleague recently who was telling me about his wife who “loves to be right”. I remember wondering “Well, who loves to be wrong?” Indeed everybody needs to feel right about certain things in order to construct a life with any degree of stability, but in instances of conflict transformation, holding on to what we feel to be the only truth has an annoying way of making matters escalate.
If you stand in opposition or in resistance to another person’s point of view, the chances of reaching any sort of efficient outcome (balanced or not) are of course greatly compromised. Compare how long, on average, a boxing combat takes to the time an exchange in aikido takes; compare how much effort is used and how much pain is endured on both sides… Now ask yourself: do you stick to your guns and fight your corner when someone’s point of view differs from yours? Well rest assured, there is something quite simple that will help take you out of that verbal boxing match and into an exchange that greatly reduces your effort, pain and even just the time you put into it!
In fact, your initial stance plays a greater role than you can imagine, both physically and verbally. In aikido, the physical stance or kamae, enables you to receive and blend with your attacker. There are different kamae; kneeling, standing, left-oriented, right-oriented, etc., but whatever your stance, it is key that you find a centred and balanced position that gives you enough flexibility to let the energy flow (ki-no nagare) and manage whatever comes at you.
In Verbal Aikido, we call this kamae ‘open attitude’. Indeed even in physical aikido, our kamae pertains to much more than just how one’s body is positioned; it concerns an overall comportment too. When dealing with verbal conflict, you have an edge over any attacker when you begin from this open-attitude stance, being able to let go, if only momentarily, of what you believe to be right or wrong, and to replace it with a humble and sincere curiosity to discover more, about yourself or someone else. Indeed, a certain naïve openness is required to learn anything, for the simple reason that cynicism puts up barriers that prevent us from accepting any new information.
A couple of years ago I was walking to the mall with my son and to my surprise I realized that he hadn’t told me the truth about something. It was rather insignificant but my parenting role still seemed to dictate that I warn him of the consequences of lying, so I briefly rehashed a version of the ‘Peter & the wolf’ story. Now my son Seán, who was 11 at the time, had already become quite experienced at using Irimi…
“Ok but what is lying?” he asked with a little smile budding on the corners of his lips. I decided to entertain the question and see where it would go.
“Well, it’s when you decide to mislead someone or to not tell the truth.”
“What is the truth?”
“[***] Good question young padawan. Well, if you know in your heart that you’re not trying to mislead someone, then you’re on the right track!”
“Yeah, but how do I know something is really true?”
“An absolute truth?”
For the next 15 minutes I challenged Seán to find something that was always true. In every case I found an exception. When he said “That’s easy: 1 + 1 = 2”, I replied “Well, in maths that’s true… but what about if you put one male and one female together for long enough, your 1 + 1 could become 3… or more!” When he put forward that “Everyone closes their eyes when they sleep”, I asked “What about the guy who lost his eyelids when his face was burnt?” Now this did get frustrating, and sometimes a little gory, but the point was not to prove him wrong, just to explore the limits of what we believe to be ‘universally true’. Finally his frustration got the better of him and he blurted out “OK so you tell me, what’s true then?” I smiled as I replied “For me, the only real truth is how we feel in a given moment, and right now, I love you – that’s an absolute truth. Your truth is how you feel, and no-one can take that away from you” [- – -]. His wide grin told me that we had found the Ai-ki in that discussion.
As it happened, a short while later, we were watching a science documentary which explained that, right now, the most advanced and widely-accepted theory in astrophysics concerning the content of the universe is that over two thirds of it is made up of ‘dark energy’, more than a quarter consists of ‘dark matter’ (the ‘dark’ here meaning simply that it remains ‘unseen’ by our senses), and what’s left – about 5% – is what we can actually perceive. “Wow,” he whispered to me, “we really know nothing!”
Well, at least we know that we know nothing! So with our greatest scientists’ humble estimation that we can only fathom one twentieth of what we think exists – how can we believe that any theory or belief can give us the full picture? Indeed our understanding and knowledge will never be complete, all we can hope to do is continue to enjoy discovering new ideas, techniques and points of view… which is exactly the sort of opportunity that can arise when someone’s preconceived ideas about what is right, wrong, true or false are challenged – and when we meet it with that open-attitude kamae!
In the end, it can help and even accelerate our learning potential to see things without having an attribute of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, or at least to suspend this sort of judgment momentarily. Rather, there is only ‘our evolving reality’, and the only absolute truth is how we feel at a given point in time. Indeed, on the enriching quest to understand another person’s truth you may even catch a glimpse of your own!