For over three decades, I read the Dalai Lama’s books on compassion, attended lectures by Thich Nhat Hanh, and even did a week long Metta meditation in Sri Lanka, yet I was unable to feel compassion on a daily basis. Looking at the state of the world today, I don’t think I was alone in this inability to practice compassion.
After countless broken relationships and on the verge of divorce at the age of 47, I finally realized what it meant to have compassion. I learned that compassion requires empathy. We can’t sympathize with the misfortune of others if we are unable to step into their shoes and understand their thoughts and feelings.
When the disciple is ready, Yoda will come
In the search to cultivate compassion in order to save my marriage, I uncovered a practice that had been bestowed upon me in my adolescence at the Institute of Buddhist Studies (IBS) Summer Retreat. You see, two years before The Empire Strikes Back was released, I had been a disciple of a real life Yoda.
Reverend Kusada served as the IBS Executive Director from 1968-1983. My initial impressions of Reverend Kusada were much like Luke Skywalker’s first impressions of Yoda: he was short, bald, and spoke with a heavy accent. My eyes widened, however, when I learned that he was an Aikido master.
Aikido lessons with Reverend Kusada were part of the curriculum at the IBS retreat. One of the first lessons he taught us has become my daily practice of empathy.
Facing an opponent, Kusada Sensei would wait patiently. When the attack came, or usually a second before the attack came, the small master would say “Yes” and step out of the way. He would then pivot on his front foot to face the same direction as his opponent.
It almost looked like dancing—a kind of platonic Tango with partners touching back to back rather than face to face. Kusada Sensei even instructed us to gently put our hands on the outstretched fist of the attacker.
From this position facing in the same direction as the attacker, the aikido-ka (practitioner) is able to safely re-direct the attack and control the situation no matter how big or strong the opponent is. Reverend Kusada would often throw students twice his size and half his age.
Martial Arts become Marital Arts
After arguing for years with my wife, I finally learned to incorporate this aikido move into my rhetorical strategies. Two individuals arguing are like two opponents in a fist fight. Usually, when someone says something offensive to us, we either get defensive or we retaliate with our own sharp tongues.
Nowadays, when my wife says something I disagree with, I whisper “Yes” and step out of the way. I try to mentally pivot, so I can see her point of view. I empathize with her and try to redirect her ideas to a neutral ground or a shared concern.
I often do this physically as well as psychologically. When my 5 year old son throws a tantrum, I get down to his level and hug him cheek to cheek so we are facing the same direction. From this position, I can often see or feel what he is really upset about.
In Aikido, this technique of joining forces with your opponent is called blending. I like this term because it shades in the line between black and white, good and bad, enemy and friend. Blending allows us to act without judgment. It cultivates compassion.
May All Beings Be Happy and Well
Every week at the Buddhist Temple my family belongs to, we recite the Metta meditation. We start with loving ourselves: “May I be happy and well. May no harm or difficulties come to me. May I live in peace and harmony.” We then move through family, teachers, friends, strangers, enemies, and finish with all beings.
The enemies verse might seem counterintuitive. “May my enemies be happy and well. May no harm or difficulties come to them. May they live in peace and harmony.”
But if you really think about it, the entire Metta Meditation is Reverend Kusada’s aikido move in verse form. We start facing the enemy. Then we slowly pivot through family, friends, and strangers. By the end, we are compassionately aligned with our enemies and, therefore, all beings.
If you practice this mental aikido “exercise” every day, your marriage, parenting, and daily interactions with strangers will be filled with peace and each day will bring you closer to a visceral understanding of compassion. Compassion is an easy term to define, but it is quite difficult to realize. Like most things in life, practice makes perfect.
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Have you met a real life Yoda? Please share.