When Soldiers Meditate: An Interview with Richard Strozzi Heckler

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In his book The National Defense , James Fallows argues that the further the civilian and military sectors of our society grow apart, the less contact we have with real warrior values. We need communication to keep the values of the warrior intact.

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Once during the project I was at a party where a very aggressive professor was arguing for the elimination of the military altogether. He was directing his remarks toward another fellow who was saying the military was necessary. After several months in the project, this was the truest violence I had seen. You usually find more resistance to spiritual development on the left than anywhere else on the political spectrum.

The ironic result is that you have a lot of psychological immaturity; people end up fighting over the best way to be compassionate! By contrast, the military, with all its training in violence and its conservative hierarchy, certainly knows how to get things done. My idea of a new warrior is one who takes on the challenge of facing his or her own aggression — mentally, physically, emotionally.

The point is not to say that aggression is bad, but to recognize that it is within us, and to learn how to look at it and train it. Martial arts provide a great arena for this kind of learning, and aikido in particular has that crucial self-awareness built into it.

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Aikido recognizes that you can take a cooperative approach to aggression. My teacher in capoeira [a Brazilian martial art] has told me that among his students, those who have also studied aikido are the most aggressive. I think aikido tends to attract people who are trying to deal with their aggression. I have a little problem with calling aikido nonviolent. There is an overall harmony to nature, but not in every one of its aspects. It repositions the very notion of competition. Where most martial arts teach you how to get the upper hand, aikido teaches you how to work with the situation as it is.

I envision a new type of warrior who makes himself or herself secure without making others insecure. This is congruous with the teachings of aikido. I like to think that this ideal can be applied to our military and police. The classic aikido tale is one in which the mere presence of the master dissolves conflict. Did you discuss such ideas explicitly with the Green Berets?

But we could demonstrate the principles on the mat, and that was the more powerful teaching. Aikido was the one thing that we did every day in the Trojan Warrior Project, and it became the common thread uniting the rest of the physical and mental training. The soldiers liked it because it was physical and fast. When I showed them how to do it and they succeeded, they would soften.

I had to introduce vulnerability as something other than weakness. For many, it was their first experience with the quality of openness. In aikido our hands are generally at our sides, relaxed. You can relax and take a different position. His worst enemy was the mind-set that someone was always out to get him.

When I asked him when was the last time somebody really did get him, it turned out to be when he was ten years old. But now this guy was six-foot-three and pounds. How many people were going to try to attack him? There are certain techniques of defense by which you respond to specific kinds of attack.

CABW invites Richard Strozzi Heckler: Part I

But when I called out an attack to the stomach, I got what these guys used in the beer hall! If I said to go for my head, they would deliver a right hook. I felt their style of attack was a wonderful challenge for me, and I wanted to work with it. But the principles of grounding and centering really do work with any kind of attack. There is a Darwinian instinct here, wanting to know if you can survive among the fittest.


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That desire runs deep in us and has to be addressed. I think a lot of coups in militarized countries arise largely from the desire of soldiers to see if their training will work. During the Tokegawa period in Japan, encompassing four hundred years of peace in a martial country, the samurai trained in calligraphy and flower arrangement.

The training was martially disciplined but the output was in a different direction. It was an instance of real cultural genius. Our military is increasingly going to have to address the question of what a peacetime army does.


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  4. At the same time, there is a noble precedent for such a thing. A true warrior is oriented toward life and creativity, not death and destruction. One day after my meeting with Richard Heckler, Iraq invaded Kuwait. American forces were deployed in the Middle East soon after. Not only do you neutralize his aggression, you end up protecting him. The context of awareness extends beyond you and your partner.

    Introducing such ideas to each and every soldier would result in fewer civilian casualties during times of conflict; fewer abuses in the treatment and interrogation of prisoners of war; increased respect for all warriors. Eventually, this would lead to a military system with a strong defensive orientation; it would have an offensive capacity, but the motivation would be protection. This could include protection of nations and people affected by natural disasters. HECKLER: I can imagine the protests of people who think of soldiers only as beer-guzzlers, but I think if we take the high ground in terms of our imagination, the form may emerge.

    But if that were our attitude, how might our stance and tactics differ? That makes hurting them more acceptable. With aikido, soldiers would feel they could do their duty without making their opponents less than human. Besides protecting our opponent, we also empower him. By attempting to deprive someone of power, you instill the motivation for revenge. If we could make Hussein feel respected and understood, that would empower him, in the aikido sense of the word.

    There will be no boredom. Ultimately, boredom comes from not paying attention; with a practice of paying attention, boredom is less likely to happen. Chronic boredom also has a pathological dimension. The present scenario of all these young men in the desert with nothing to do provides an excellent opportunity to begin teaching the warrior virtue of self-mastery.

    The worst part for them is not knowing when it will end. Out-and-out torture is better endured if the victims know there will be an end to it. I would suggest that the soldiers use their time on sentry posts to study their own mindfulness, to explore what mindfulness in a warrior means.

    And I would hold martial arts drills to give continuous training in martial wisdom.

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    Mastering The Enemy Within

    What comes to mind for me are discipline, regimentation, orderliness. When he found the man who ordered the killing, he drew his sword to avenge the murder. The samurai sheathed his sword and walked away. The question is, why did the samurai walk away? He did so because he felt tremendous anger when he was spat upon, and remembered that part of his ethic was never to kill in anger — to kill only in service.


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    Rather than shame the memory of his lord by corrupting this ethic, the samurai walked away. The feeling on the mat would be to continually move out of the way, and let him see that his forward motion, his wrong intention, is going to trip him up. You never corner a frightened man. Hussein has to get out of this without looking too bad. We need that kind of strategic subtlety. There seems to be a contradiction between our adamant, strong-jaw stance and the widespread recognition that we might not win a confrontation — and certainly not without great cost.

    Would it actually be more sensible to admit our vulnerability? What would our aikido response be?

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    Some analogies were drawn to Europe in , and I think those analogies are correct. We can be the first nation in the world to break our dependence on oil. The difference between vulnerability and weakness is that vulnerability really means being open. Without a strong center, we are more easily penetrated; our ethics and values begin to disintegrate.

    When you have no question about your values, you can be much more open. The samurai in the story could walk away without being weak; this action actually strengthened him because he was reinforcing his values. In aikido, you can throw people around without taking anything from them; you actually give them more by throwing them.

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