The Master always walks on the Other Side of the Road

by Kim Ivy

It is said in the Martial Arts tradition, “The Master always walks on the other side of the road.” What does that mean? When we first hear about the Martial Arts we perceive that its mastery means being able to fight off opponents successfully. But if we can stick with our training long enough we see a very different truth. Mastery means you keep yourself out of positions where you have to fight at all. Rather than engage in conflict, you make a conscious choice to walk on the other side of the road.
How many times have you gotten into a situation of conflict when you knew better? How much energy do you spend sustaining that conflict, feeling how important your position is and how it is your right to feel it and to fight for it. In fact, it even feels good in a way to be wrestling around; there is energy to it. Adrenaline. Yet what is the outcome? Even if you “win,” how do you feel? My first teacher used to say, “You may win a fight but loose a friend.”
Let’s look at the nature of conflict for a moment. Lao Tzu reminds us, “hold one idea and another comes into conflict with it.” We see conflict or the potential for conflict in many things. See for yourself how true this is. Think of something you really believe or hold dear. “I love red.” Think of how that feeling inevitably creates an opposition to something else. “Brown is ok but I really prefer red.” Soon, you are making choices based on your red over brown preference, and pretty soon brown ends up at the bottom of the heap of your negative opinions. Red may not even look very good on you but there you are defending one shirt over another. On a larger scale we know our nervous system, habits, homes and communities also evolve around these preferences. Sometimes these preferences turn into conflicts, and sometimes we end up feeding these systems more conflict because they need that food to survive.
Paradoxically the struggle to win a conflict in so many ways simply keeps it going. We often struggle simply to have a peaceful mind. We meditate but come out angry because the mental monkeys are not quelled. We become rigid in a soft form because we judge ourselves, we become annoyed when a cell phone intrudes on what we think should be a pristine auditory environment. The reality is that we cannot eradicate conflict by fighting it. Yet figuring a way over to the other side of the road presents a difficult challenge; we often simply find ourselves stuck behind a road block.
In the martial arts tradition, we say all these reactions have “taken our center.” The emotions arise only because we believe something should be another way than it actually is. The difficult irony to comprehend is that we are then in essence blaming the other person (their cell phone), situation (the monkey mind), practice (the difficult art), for our own discomfort. The fact of the matter is that we have allowed the emotion because we are caught in the paradigm. We have allowed our own potential for peace to be taken away. Then we act out on our emotions, escalating the situation.
It is a hungry paradigm. Let’s say we do convince someone to turn off the cell phone. Great, we have the quiet we fought for. But then a siren goes by. Or let’s say we win the war of thinking for an instant, instantly more arise. If we are going to attach our efforts to winning this game, it is endless. Instead we must train ourselves to change our fundamental impulses that keep us engaged in the game.
How do we do that? These impulses lay deep within our nervous system. Step one is to simply notice when we are in conflict. Perhaps this is simply to notice a thought or a judgment. We might be able to follow it and learn what the root of the issue is, a belief, an opinion who is feeling threatened. We will certainly feel an emotional reaction in our body. As we feel it, we notice it too. The next step is to give some space between the thought/judgment and a learned reaction/response. The breath is the best tool we have. It does not have to be a big deep breath. There is no need to put that type of pressure on yourself. (You see how that can set up the win/loose paradigm?) A little shallow one will do just fine. Or, we smile. Or even better we laugh. We laugh at the absurdity of it all. Over time we develop the skill of detachment. The calmness that we experience becomes more pleasurable than what we get out of the struggle. This creates a great positive feedback loop for change. And, it is much more sustainable and nourishing than the effects of the win/loose game.
When we work with conflict we are working with something that is deep human nature. So much so in fact that we believe it will always be that way. It is important to remember however that it is so at this point in our evolution. It does not have to be the future. Everything changes. We know this. Our bodies change. Nature changes. Why not this?
I like to listen to Barak Obama speak. His use of language really steps out of the paradigm of conflict. He is very positive and for the first time I am hearing a politician beginning to express what I feel is the new consciousness of our future. Thus far I see he is more interested in creating new ways than winning old skirmishes. To me Senator Obama is talking on the other side of the road. I am very hopeful to hear it.
My personal practice and my practice of teaching these days is devoted to walking on the other side of the road. Whenever I teach about expanding our breaths, our minds, our bodies or work with a form correction for greater flow, I am really creating a prayer, an intention that we may expand our consciousness out of the old paradigm and getting on over to the other side of the road. On occasion I get a glimpse of it. It is impossible to describe except for to say it is free. It’s that moment at the still lake. And then of course all the squabbling thoughts like so many monkeys come crashing in, set up shop and begin to sell their wares. They tug me back, I judge. I have opinions. Its all still there. Yet as those moments of stillness begin to stack up they are what I rely on.
I believe ways of conflict can change. I’m not sure about in our lifetime but I’m willing to practice changing my own nervous system as a deposit in the bank of the future. Wouldn’t it be magnificent if, at sometime in the as yet to be determined future, the evolutionary historians looked back at our time and did not see what we see now – hatred, separation, grief and struggle – but saw instead the roots of great peace & reconciliation taking hold? What if they looked at our time with reverence and gratitude because we became the generation that set a new wheel in motion. What if we were the generation who crossed the road? May the spirit continue.