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Reacting, Responding… & Ignoring

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by Sean Hannon Sensei

Perhaps now more than ever, we Americans seem to live in an increasingly “reactionary” world. Some men “shoot first” and ask questions later. Many politicians distribute short-sighted “tweets” without thinking of potential ramifications. So-called “news” organizations publish stories before checking sources. Some women take offense and aggressively “defend themselves” before realizing they weren’t being attacked. If this last sentence offends you… you’re making my point.

Friends back stab each other and post hurtful things online only to discover that they misinterpreted a situation. Parents defend their children’s unacceptable actions before doing any fact finding. Friendships end over poorly typed or inaccurately auto-corrected text messages. And, rather than listening with an intent to understand, people only seem to listen nowadays with a desire to take offense. It seems reacting is not serving our culture very well at all. The recent advent of social media only seems to amplify and worsen this chronic reactionary phenomenon. Personally, I don’t use social media. I think it is a very silly fad, which I consider narcissistic “self-voyeurism,” but that’s beside the point of this article.

I would offer that we make a distinction between reacting and responding. These words are often used interchangeably; however, they are, in fact, very different things. They are, in many respects, antonyms to one another. Reacting is usually executed instantly without any thinking or with very little thinking. Responding, on the other hand, involves thought, calmness of mind, and the exercising of judgment and wisdom. Reacting is a lower-order behavior, motivated by emotion and is usually likened to an involuntary tendon reflex, hence the term “knee jerk.” Responding, on the other hand, is a higher-order behavior, motivated by reason and is generally thoughtful, planned, and rational. Learning to recognize and appreciate the difference between reacting and responding is what Aikido training, in my opinion, is all about.

In a self-defense situation, we often think that we must react immediately. However, reacting or over-reacting can often make a situation worse. Can it not? Instead, I offer that we must learn and train ourselves to respond rather than react.

The late personal-effectiveness author, Stephen Covey, used to talk about the difference between animal and human behavior. Animals, he would say, are stimulus-reaction creatures. That is, there is no gap between a stimulus and a reaction. Humans, on the other hand, ought to strive for stimulus-gap-response behaviors – meaning that humans ought to seek and condition themselves to respond to scenarios rather than simply react. The gap represents an opportunity for humans to contemplate. Animals rarely display such contemplation – and far too often, humans, too, do not behave ideally when they react rather than respond.

But what about during time-critical emergencies? One might think that in a crisis or during a perceived physical or even verbal attack, we simply “don’t have time” to respond – that we can’t take the time to process and craft a well-planned or articulated response. We must just react! However, I contend that that is where “training” comes into play – not just martial training like Aikido, but social-dynamic training. It is true that during a perceived emergency, there is often “no time” to contemplate. However, there is always time to prepare a response before an emergency occurs. Martial training or any other form of training is the preparation of response in advance. This is why the military and first responders continuously engage in training exercises. Because there is always plenty of time before an emergency. There is, however, never time to train or respond during or after an emergency. 

Training Aikido repetitively prepares you to become a response-driven human rather than a reaction-driven animal. Aikido is about the careful study and repetitive practice of thoughtful, premeditated reactions to different attacks, threats, and circumstances that, over time, become programmed responses rather than thoughtless reactions. Such responses are necessary to produce the result we desire or require. 

We can usually benefit from this distinction of responding rather than reacting outside of a martial arts context by applying it to common occurrences and social interactions in our daily lives. How many situations could we possibly handle better if we “trained” ourselves to respond instead of react? How many miscommunications with friends, family, or colleagues, or unpleasant exchanges with strangers could we avoid by learning to respond rather than react? How many of our relationships would improve? How might our quality of life improve?

When fear is experienced in stressful situations, blood shunts away from the brain and rushes instead to the body torso and appendages (you know, the muscular areas) to either run or fight. As such, we quite literally “think less” at times of stress or fear. Due to the limited blood supply in the brain, we make poorer decisions than we do when we are calm and relaxed. This is why physical training such as Aikido is so important. By training physically we “pre-program” our bodies to respond rather than to react – to remain calm rather than panic. In truth, we are actually training our bodies still just to react, but since the reaction is specifically and consciously pre-programmed into our bodies through physical training ahead of time, the reaction “appears” to be a thoughtful response. In a way, therefore, it is a thoughtful response, just one we conditioned at an earlier time before the stress was present. Conditioning social dynamics is no different.

My Aikido training has served me well, I contend. In recent years, many friends have told me that I seem to have gotten much better at handling social crises or other sudden, unpredictable events and circumstances. I agree with them. Aikido training has caused me to draw my attention and focus to more internal attributes such as my Balance, Expansive Energy, Posture and Stance (or BEEPS). As such, I feel very “centered” in many more situations. When unanticipated events occur, I have been improving in my ability to respond rather than react. 

As such, I have cultivated several preferred responses. One of them is to inquire. When I hear something said to me that has the potential to upset me or is potentially aggressive, rather than react with some knee-jerk response such as “Piss off, pal”, I instead have gotten into the habit of saying, “I’m sorry I didn’t hear you. Would you mind repeating that?” First and foremost, this response buys me time to evaluate. Often, I did, in fact, mishear the person’s comment (i.e. There was no attack). Other times though, when I’m quite sure I didn’t mishear a comment, the other person suddenly lacks the courage to repeat themselves and backs down. This, too, is an acceptable outcome. My response has not only bought me time to evaluate, but it is also given the other person (the attacker) time to re-evaluate their comment and perhaps they no longer think it wise to risk escalation by repeating it. I have observed that the reactionary courage and bravado some portray in reaction seems to quickly wither when you ask them to repeat themselves under less spontaneous conditions.

Also, focusing on my Balance, Expansive Energy, Posture and Stance has seemingly produced a secondary benefit: I seem to be able to anticipate the behavior of others and head off, minimize, or sometimes entirely avoid adverse situations by learning to “be still” within myself. That stillness provides me with a mental “anchor” of sorts and provides a “high ground perspective” that permits me the ability to almost “see things before they happen” and avoid many unpleasantries.  

I liken it to walking through a tall hedge maze. Being shorter than the hedge, I, of course, would struggle to find my way out since I can only see a few feet in front of me at any given time. But, through my Aikido training and maintaining my BEEPS, I am able to peer above the top of the hedges and see a path to the exit ahead of time, so to speak. Therefore, my BEEPS provides me a psychological vantage point. Many friends have literally said to me “How did you know that was going to happen?” “How did you know he/she was going to behave that way?” Or, “Wow! You sure called that one!” Some have even jokingly referred to it as my “spidey-sense” – a reference to a popular comic book hero. It certainly isn’t infallible. Like all of us, I still goof frequently, but recognizing that my Aikido training has been responsible for the emergence of this quality has proven itself to be very valuable for me. 

Other examples of using my BEEPS include even the most mundane of activities such as navigating through heavy traffic. When I’ve “got my BEEPS on,” I can often weave safely and efficiently among highway traffic. This, again, is a result of being calm in my mind and body and successfully anticipating the actions and desires of other motorists on the road – sometimes before they even do themselves.

A second of my preferred responses is utilizing the power to ignore. Many do not realize that sometimes the best response is to ignore a perceived attack. I’ve been able to quickly assess and utilize when I must respond with assertive action or when I must respond with inaction as the best response. That notion may deserve further discussion. Ignoring things tends to get a bad rap, but ignoring something can be a powerful tool when considering response. 

Often we think of ignoring something as irresponsible; however, that isn’t always the case. I’ve heard some say that the only things that go away if you ignore them are your health and wealth. While I agree that these two things will certainly go away if you ignore them, there are actually many other things that will also go away if you ignore them. Having said that, there are many more things that absolutely will NOT go away if you ignore them. The power lies in being able to identify which is which. My Aikido training and the BEEPS contained within have shown me how to quickly ascertain whether or not ignoring something is likely to be a beneficial, constructive course of action or not. Remember the song “Spirit of the Radio” by Rush – “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” Similarly, “if you choose not to react, you still have made a response!”

By learning to respond rather that react, I have on more than one occasion saved many thousands of dollars in legal costs. Many years ago, in a different industry, someone who thought they were consequential told me to close my business. I ignored him. Another time, a competitor in that same industry filed a fake complaint against us with the Better Business Bureau. We ignored him. More recently, a party attempted to extort money from me with threats of lawsuit. They were ignored, as well. And, you know what? They all just went away. We never heard a peep from any of them ever again. Ignoring people can be a powerful response… if you stay calm and not let your ego get the best of you. 

Comedian, Craig Ferguson offers for consideration in one of his Netflix specials when dealing with jerks, “Does this really need to be said? Does this really need to be said… by me? Does this really need to be said by me… right now?”  These are all good questions to ask of one’s self on a regular basis. You, too, can benefit from maintaining your BEEPS, contemplating your response, and ignoring those who simply don’t matter.

I hear Harris Sensei say often in class, “Just imagine there’s nothing there.” What he means by this is that to perform an Aikido technique properly, it is often easier to execute it by ignoring the attacker. Similarly, I often hear Goettsche Sensei say, “Don’t worry about the attack, just enter.” Sometimes, when I teach class, I, too, will say, “Ignore the attack. Just raise your own sword and get off line.”

Many students focus entirely on the external attributes on Aikido training such as the attack, the technical execution of each technique, etc. This often results in unnecessary, inefficient, adverse tension in the Aikido student’s body that could be avoided if the student focused instead on responding after summoning the more internal attributes of Aikido training, that of Balance, Expansive Energy, Posture and Stance. 

The reason why Aikido is often described as “the art of blending”, “the art of non-violence”, and the like, is because of the internal cultivation of “calm collectedness” (i.e. BEEPS) in the responder not the attacker. Remember: the NAGE in an Aikido relationship is the one who responds to an attack, not the one who reacts to an attack. You can only respond from a place of calm collectedness, otherwise, it’s just a reaction. Reactions are tense and fragile, responses are calm and strong. Most students automatically “tense up” when they work with someone who is physically bigger than them in height and weight. This is a natural, biological reaction of our DNA programming; however, it isn’t necessary and is, in fact, detrimental to our training. 

Next time this happens to you, whether on the Aikido mat or in some social context, consider cultivating your BEEPS, relax, and then… respond – even if that means ignoring your adversary. See what happens. You might be pleasantly surprised!