“Improvisations: Aiki is not Always Pretty,” by Ellis Amdur

According to the party line in the “soft” martial arts, we lead our opponents in the direction of their intentions and desires; therefore, aikido is nonviolent because we don’t “interfere” with what they are trying to do. Somehow, though, I never quite grasped the idea that my opponent was attacking me with a plea to be wristlocked into nikyo, or flung ass-over-tea-kettle in a kokyunage throw. OK, I’m being flippant; aikido is not so intellectually vulgar. Yeah, yeah, it is instead an embodiment of principle, of the smooth and economical resolution of conflict—of doing, as the Buddhist precept requires, no unnecessary harm.

However, that pretty caveat notwithstanding, how do we harmonize with something truly immoral, absolutely chaotic, or genuinely vile? One way out, of course, is to stand on morality—when an act or intent crosses certain lines, then the harmonious act, the act of love, is that which stops the beast dead in his tracks. I confess I’ve used that argument myself. Yet it is easy, then, to slip into the stance of what I call “God’s Own Sheriff,” where I believe my spirit to be untainted and righteous, and so I don my badge and my cloak, and with my trustworthy MAC-10 machine pistol firmly clasped in my fist, restore harmony far more efficiently than with iriminage and kokyuho… and in far greater numbers too! I could hop in my car and drive downtown on Righteous Street, shoot a couple of drug pushers spreading poison to young children, take a left on Ideology Avenue and plug a few corrupt politicians, and finally after a few rights on a winding course on the Road to Good Intentions, dead-end in the suburbs and shoot a child molester right between the eyes. Now there’s some harmony we can all sing along to!

Not choosing to don my badge and embrace insanity, however, I only have a target to aim for, an ideal of conflict resolution in which peace and knowledge emerge, instead of a further spiral into violence. I am prepared to fight if my aim falls short, but I do aim towards aiki, which, in this article, I choose to translate as “empathy.”

I’d like to explain this by means of a story. The name, description and identity of the individuals in this story have all been changed to protect their privacy. The story, in its essentials, is true. To begin, however, some background to explain to those mental health professionals among my readers how I ended up alone in such a crazy situation, against all standard operating procedures.

I was doing an internship in 1989 in a crisis intervention service when this incident occurred. In fact, I had only been working there about two months. However, because of the particular kind of training I had undergone in Japan, I was already quite well prepared to do crisis work, and was soon trusted as a full member of the team rather than as a mere intern.

I may have been quite good at face-to-face work, but what I didn’t know was how to work the mental health and police systems. This is not an excuse. If a warrior doesn’t know his weapons and his environment, then all his courage can do is carry him straight to the grave. If you leave it to others to protect you, and don’t acquire the skills yourself, then you have no one to blame but yourself. However, despite my ignorance which led me blundering onto the field of battle alone, it was aiki that carried me out again. But as you will see, harmony is not always a matter of the first, third, and fifth notes on the white keys— sometimes one must raise a truly ugly noise.

A Man of Pride

Alonzo marched into the clinic, angry and tight as a swollen bladder. He was so hostile at the front desk that it was decided that I would sit in on his meeting with Sonia, another crisis worker. He entered the room, a short, muscular black man, about forty years old, dressed in jeans and an old, very dean T-shirt. He sat upright in his chair, and in a formal, almost pedantic voice told of taking in a young street kid of nineteen or twenty, just out of jail, and how he had bought him things, given him a home, and then how he had been ripped off—his stereo, his VCR, his clothes, even his underwear. His words would slip every once in a while, and he would begin to swear, then turn to Sonia and apologize.

His eyes were red with anger and lack of sleep. He fumed about how he was shamed, and how the thought of that punk walking around in his underwear made him so mad that he no longer cared what happened to him or anybody else.

The upshot of all this was that Alonzo could not catch the kid; he was young and ran too fast. So he had acquired a .357 Magnum, and he was hunting for him to kill him. He knew the punk went to this mental health clinic, and he demanded that we tell the guy to give back the clothes or he was dead. If he didn’t return the clothes, Alonzo told us, we would have to give him the kid’s address—and if we didn’t do that, well, then, we had chosen to ally ourselves with the little punk and were thus full participants in the robbery, and Alonzo couldn’t say what might happen then.

We suggested that he go to the police. He snapped out his words in short bites, saying he had gone to the police and they told him he ought to bring the gun to them, and they’d try to catch the guy. He shook his head, saying that the police were hiding their smirks, laughing at him.

Alonzo told us that he had never been involved with the mental health system himself, that he was an ex-marine, currently working for a large computer company, but that he was about to lose his job because he couldn’t go to work in these old clothes, walking around in dirty underwear, ’cause he only had one pair, ’cause he had no money to buy more, ’cause he hadn’t been to work, and the punk stole it all, and “I’m going to blow that mother-f****r (excuse me ma’am) away, and if I have to shoot through a crowd to get him, I will.”

We tried to talk consequences with him, how underwear and VCRs were, in the long run, trivial, compared to a life behind bars. He stated he would kill himself rather than go to jail, but that he would kill Jeff first. He was a man of honor and he wasn’t going to take anymore—he let something like this go last year, but not this time. As he spoke, his face contorted, veins twisting like eels under his skin, and his words came out in short spasmodic gasps. “I could not stay… on the face of the earth… knowing that punk was… running around town, laughing at me, wearing my… underwear.”

All we could offer were more rational cautions of possible consequences, and these he batted away like flies. Because of rules of confidentiality, we could not even say that Jeff was a client of the agency, but we did say that, if we ever had any contact with this individual—”Jeff is his name?”—we would surely let him know Alonzo’s feelings. Alonzo listened to this, chose to interpret that we were promising to get the things back for him in a week, and left.

I called the police. They told me that until a crime was committed, there was nothing that they could do, but if Alonzo shot someone, I should be sure to let them know. Then I called the County Designated Mental Health Professionals (CDMHP)—the only agents in the state of Washington who could commit someone against their will. They agreed reluctantly to do an evaluation, and got back to me the next day after visiting him at his home with police backup, saying that they agreed that Alonzo was homicidal, but he was not committable; according to their interpretation of the state statutes he was not mentally ill, just angry and dangerous.

Through his therapist, the punk, Jeff, was notified: he loved the whole idea of Alonzo’s anguish, thought it hilarious. Said, “Sure I’ll give the stuff back. He gave it to me, though. The old faggot!” Of course, he lied. He never tried to give anything back.

Digging back through old files, I found Alonzo. “Never been in the mental health system.” Hah! Major depression, commitment to Western State Hospital after a suicide attempt—a long history of taking in young street jackals, and getting ripped off. They were good chart notes. The man in the records had walked into our clinic—only much worse. So I called Alonzo, and he recognized me “Yeah, Ellis, you’re the one who sicked that county bitch on me.”

I replied that it was my responsibility under the law to request an evaluation, whenever someone came into my clinic talking of killing. I calmly said that I was sorry if he was upset but that I did it on both legal and moral grounds. “I don’t agree with what you are planning to do. I think it’s wrong.” He swore at me.

I asked him if he would come in to talk. He replied that of course he would, because I owed him some news, and he was expecting results. “I gave you a week, Ellis, and your time is up.”

I told him that I couldn’t guarantee anything, but it would be good to talk with him.

I consulted with the head of clinical services, and she decided (to my astonishment) not to have the police come to the clinic to provide back-up. Her logic was that he had made no direct threats at us, and that we did not want to escalate his sense of grievance. Her other consideration was that if we called the police over anything but direct threats, they would begin to delay coming, the “cry wolf” syndrome (This, in fact, was not true. The local police had always been wonderfully responsive when asked for help.) Finally, she was concerned that many others of our clients, who were in the habit of making vague threats almost as a means of saying hello, would feel that, since no one from the police came when they were threatening, their therapists didn’t take them seriously, and that they would feel it necessary to escalate their threats. Now all of this was, in retrospect, blatant nonsense, but I went along with it (there is nothing more dangerous to himself than a man who is afraid to be afraid.) Anyway, everybody else seemed to be treating this as normal (called “denial” in my business), so I just supposed it was an ordinary thing that I was involved in (and I have never been in a situation remotely like this since.)

He was coming at 1:00 p.m., on a hot August day. The sky was white-blue, without a cloud, and the grass all burnt brown. I decided that I wanted to meet him outside, on the off-chance that he had a gun, and started shooting. Less people would be in danger.

All alone now. Sun’s blaring white spots in front of my eyes, sweat’s trickling down my back in runnels, and Alonzo comes walking up the hill, a heavy jacket zipped up to the neck on this hot August day. Was he carrying? Why was I still standing there?… It seemed like the right thing to do at the time—like many people, my competence was only in the immediate encounter. I had not yet developed an ability to step back and survey the whole field. I was a good soldier, but certainly no general.

Given my inability to take a meta-perspective, of even realizing the complete insanity in sending an individual alone to meet a possibly armed, revenge-seeking man, I had ho back-up except what I knew, and that was what I learned in dojos, not graduate school. Alonzo was about forty feet from me, and I rapidly walked towards him, waving. Like most people, he automatically began waving back, though he nearsightedly wasn’t quite sure who I was. I had closed the distance to twenty feet. I dropped my arm, and then extended it in an expansive gesture of handshaking. He did not reach inside his jacket, he automatically extended his hand as if on a string. I closed the distance and shook his hand, which took mine almost nervelessly. I was close to him now, and felt a little safer. Any move he made, and I could be on him, ripping the weapon out of his grasp (sounds easy, doesn’t it? Why, in writing this, am I as disbelieving as you are reading it?).

So here we were, hand in hand. I walked him right into the sunlight, onto the concrete walkway. We began to talk, him complaining about the CDMHP evaluation on his sanity, more anger regarding Jeff, and me nodding and listening, holding my position in the hot sun. He began to sweat in his heavy jacket; it began to drip down his forehead, and off his nose and lips. He wiped his brow, saying, “Let’s move over to the shade, it’s hot.”

“Why don’t you open your jacket, you must be baking,” I said with wide-eyed innocence.

He did, cautiously, twisting slightly away. I peered in out of the corner of my eye… no gun! Wheeew. Amazing how you can relax and enjoy therapy when you know your client isn’t carrying! Alonzo stomped over to the shade, and cooler now, warmed up to his rant, fulminating, blistering the air with his rage. All of a sudden, though, something clicked in me. I realized that I had been in opposition to Alonzo since the moment I met him. This was not an unnatural response on my part, given that I was opposing him in his willingness to shoot into a crowd of innocent people over underwear, for God’s sake, but my opposition served only to harden his defenses. Some part of him knew I was right, so he shored up his defenses, and deflected my best shots. There had been no empathy, no compassion between us. He was staring up at me as he ranted, expecting arguments that he would overcome with righteous rage, and I realized that even with murder as a prospect I still had to meet the man. He was shamed, he was spurned by a lover, and he was getting old. Pie was no longer handling problems the way he did before, with suicidal thoughts and depressive lows. Though his solution to his emptiness was crazy, he was, maybe for the first time in his life, fighting back.

And so he made another threat of mayhem on the punk, and I said, “Yeah! That little piece of scum. That slimy sh*t. I hear you talk, and I think, ‘You, a man of pride, who with the best of intentions, take a kid in, give him a home, and he spits on you, shames you!'” I began to sway back and forth, shaking like a man in a gospel choir, rocking and rolling under the sun and I meant what I said. I hated the little sucker for his rip-off and his arrogance. I did not identify with Alonzo, I was not confused about who I was, and who he was, but I let my own feelings meet what his seemed to be, let us meet in the middle of that sunny space. “That sh*t, that little creep, he steals your clothes, he walks around in them,” (once or twice, Alonzo tried to break in, but my words ran right over him). “He laughs at you, he shames you, the miserable little mother-f****r, he rips you off, you, a man of pride, a man who served his county in the military, he does that to you, and I can’t understand…” (Alonzo is rocking with me, his head nodding in time). “I can’t understand… I can’t understand… why you, a man of pride and honor, is letting him make a fool out of you,” (he was nodding solidly now). “Because he’s going to go to his grave laughing at you,” (Alonzo’s eyes popped open with surprise) “laughing as you shoot him, making you throw your life away over a few clothes, and a few things, he’s going to die laughing as you shoot other people to get him, you, a man of pride, killing innocents, to get a punk, he’ll die laughing… laughing in your face”

Silence. A long, long silence. Alonzo broods. Finally he looks me dead in the eye “You’re right!” he says.

I sigh with relief.

“I shoot him, innocent people could get hurt. I’ll use a knife! I’ll get him alone somewhere, the barber shop or something!” (Oh no, I’ve reinforced the killer, validated killing the punk kid.)

But God is with me that day, and my tongue speeds on. “Yeah, now you talking, that’s a start, but still, man, he’s got you so mad you’re going to have to kill yourself afterwards, or go to jail all for killing a punk not worth the dogsh*t we’d scrape from our shoes. He’ll get people laughing at you, a man of honor and pride made a fool of, gutting a punk to get back his underwear, he’ll be laughing and people be laughing…”

His face clouds, and he shies away from me. I lower my voice “I don’t get it, you’re a former military man, you still got friends in the military in this town, right?” He nods. “You know how to do a grid search, don’t you? Yeah, you know, grid the town, find that little sucker, you’re a man and he’s a punk, you don’t need no weapon for a punk, grid the town, and you and your brothers, you take him to the police. Your clothes will be in his apartment…”

Alonzo breaks in, “I don’t care about the clothes, you understand, not the clothes. I’m a man, he shamed me, I want to burn the clothes.”

“Yeah, he shamed you, and that’s wrong. There is nothing more wrong than that, to shame a man’s pride…. So you search the town,” I say, “and give him to the police. Send the punk to jail where he belongs, not you.”

He looks at me for a few moments, and says, “Well, I can’t spend anymore time talking to you. I got business to take care of, and I’ve wasted enough time” I try to call him back, but he walks away.

I went back inside, and slumped drained, and somehow cold. Years after the fact, I know now how to move a system to force it to respond to this sort of thing. Just raise liability issues, muse about lawsuits and inquiry boards, and the police, the mental health agencies, all the systems jump like terriers through a hoop in a sideshow. I’d never have to face such a situation alone now, but then, it was just me. I could have walked away, true, but when does it stop then? Things don’t go right and everybody walks away? All the powers of the system said there was nothing to be done, but somehow, I assumed the responsibility for whether people lived or died. Because of my lack of knowledge, my method was incomplete, but even today, I have no argument about the need for me… for someone to act. If nothing else, aiki must be a nodal point of calm and peace in the center of violence—but it is active, it is stepping into the violence (irimi), not a passive radiation of good feelings.

I didn’t care about Jeff, the punk, I hoped he got hit by a car and died slowly. I did care for innocents in the path of potential bullets, and for Alonzo himself, the poor lonely constricted fool of love that he was.

I waited several hours, and called the CDMHP to report what had happened, to keep them posted. I mentioned Alonzo’s name, and before I could tell my story, the CDMHP laughed, and said, “Oh yeah, he just left here. He came in, said he was thinking about things, and was thinking now about turning in his gun. I did a little really simple psychotherapy, you know, five minutes or so, told him ‘Come on, Alonzo, you don’t want to go to jail, do you?’ and things like that, and he promised to turn the gun in to the cops. Piece of cake… Oh yeah, what were you calling about, Ellis?” I did myself proud. Just said, “Nothing really, but about Alonzo, that’s great news. You did some fine work, George!” and hung up the phone.

We never heard from Alonzo again … and punk Jeff? He had taken his last disability check, and bought a bus ticket to Florida.

After the Fact

Empathy (aiki) is often written about as a silent, even subterranean process, slow and tentative. I find upon reflection that empathy is not a slow tuning of the mechanism of relationship, but something that is there at all moments. However, empathic relationship takes place in what we refer to as unconscious processes. Since the unconscious is considered to be a personal phenomena, even as we speak of intersubjective reality, we assume that relationship occurs as we slowly make conscious what is invisible and out-of-sync within each of us. On the contrary, I believe we are in-sync on an unconscious, empathic level, but that it requires mindfulness to communicate this experience both to each other, and to our own individual consciousness. It seems to me then that our lives are intertwined in a braid of spirit and flesh, and that, were we courageous enough to open, we would become aware of a state of aiki that is ever present.

Crisis sometimes allows/forces me to immediately bracket my “assumptions” because things are too serious to let what I think I know about a person to get in the way of their life-and-death process. I have to let go of my preconceptions and therapeutic bag of tricks, and act, hopefully from a place of non-reflective receptivity and understanding. And yet, there is another view, one not so pretty. My musings on aiki/empathic connection may be mere intellectual fantasy after the fact, a rationalization of luck. I would be writing a different story if that same situation had resulted in Alonzo marching downtown and shooting large holes in innocent passersby, an occurrence none too rare in my country. What of my pretty philosophy and cowboy psychology then?

But then again, he didn’t do that. Whatever happened, whatever the cause, nobody died, nobody got hurt. And that is a fact as pure as a rain drop, slapping onto my bald and shining head.

Ellis Amdur, a crisis intervention specialist in Seattle, and the creator of “Therapeutic Self-Defense” began his martial arts training in 1968. Since that time he has spent 13 years in Japan, and now holds the mokuroku menjo and shihan-dai licenses in Araki-ryu Torite Kogusogu, and okuden (betsu mokuroku) and shihan menjo in Toda-ha Buko-ryu naginatajutsu. Amdur is 3rd dan in aikido and is also active in Ch’en family tai chi ch’uan.


  1. GJJ/BJJ is Aikido on the ground. Same principles apply. Leading, blending, taking the person where they want to go and then applying appropriate technique. Wonder why more Aikidoka do not incorporate GJJ/BJJ into there curriculum?

  2. Terry Dobson talked about stuff like this… and at the time I didn’t get it. At the end of this road is the koan of “the life giving sword”.

  3. Janet Rosen says:

    “Crisis sometimes allows/forces me to immediately bracket my “assumptions” because things are too serious to let what I think I know about a person to get in the way of their life-and-death process. I have to let go of my preconceptions and therapeutic bag of tricks, and act, hopefully from a place of non-reflective receptivity and understanding.” So true. I learned this in uncomfortable “on the street” situations, and boy has it been helpful over the years both in “lfe and death” but also less threatening situations on the job, having learned to just open up and “be there” and trust my instincts in working as a nurse with frail seniors in their homes.
    Having said that….I came to aikido late in life already having those experiences and don’t really know how much of this I’d have learned “on the mat” doing aikido. “Ain’t nothing like the real thing”…..

  4. C.L.O Wiggin says:

    Thank you for the story, Ellis. It puts Aikido in a real perspective for me, that is “off the mat” — an important place to envision our understanding of Aikido.

    Too often have I heard the “out there” and “on the mat” division of proper Aikido mindset. As the cliche goes, a certain technique may work in the dojo environment (on the mat), but “out there” one will have to rely on muscle memory and more severe action. How often have I heard, “Well, if you do that when you’re fighting in an alley…” or other such nonsense from good-intentioned Aikido instructors? Suddenly, Aikido only has application during combat; a notion that is not very Aikido-like at all. Why the heck am I fighting in an alley anyway?

    Truly, the “off the mat” example that you provide is far more applicable outside of the dojo. In fact, it is at the very heart of Aikido budo. Aikido helps us to avoid confrontation by blending before conflict arises. Perhaps what is most valuable in your example is your explanation to the reader of how you had to overcome the natural tendency to resist.

    I wish to have more examples like this while on my path.

    Thank you, and be good.

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