By Cheryl Whitelaw
Kind Power Coach and Facilitator
Would you rather feel safe or be safe? I want to be both. What are the ways I go about my day feeling safe and acting in ways that leave me open to harm?
This morning I had a chance to practice. A young man came to my door, asking for jumper cables. What actually happened before was this: I was sitting, visible through my front window, reading. He was walking down the street. I noticed him, noticed he was not from the neighborhood and as I watched him, he noticed me. We looked at each other. He stopped at my front walk, our eye contact continued. After a long moment, he came up to the door and I groaned, Oh no! My belly told me to get ready. Something is not right. Before I opened the door, I breathed out, let go of some tension and settled into my feet. I kept a firm hold on both the inner and outer door. He asked for jumper cables, said his car was broken down – all I could see was my neighbor’s vehicles on the street from the direction he came. I said, “Sorry, no I don’t have any.” He said, “I saw you so I came here.”
I repeated, “Sorry” and shut the door. He left down the street – not stopping at any of the neighbors. My logical brain said, “if he is really broken down, he might be going to the nearby hardware store.” But the hard, compassionate truth is I knew I had jumper cables but my instinct said – don’t let him in.
Reflecting on this, it was the 1-2 second look he gave me from the edge of my lawn – the look that told me no, no way. Like he had sized me and made a decision. I don’t know if his story was true. A part of me wishes I could have extended trust to help him out. If I hadn’t seen the moment when he looked at me and decided, I probably would have. But I saw the moment he decided something about me – whatever it was, I knew I needed to keep myself safe, to protect my boundary.
I volunteer at my aikido club, Abundant Peace, with our kids’ class. Recently I led a portion of a session on doing fear and calm in the body. The final activity, called the whirling towel of death, was a test for the kids. After feeling and moving with fear in the body and then with calm, I asked them to walk through a vertically swung towel on a rope, avoiding getting hit. Some kids try to get hit, others shrink and try to avoid it. One young girl would calmly shut her eyes and walk slowly towards the towel, slowly enough she was sure to get hit. I stopped her, saying, “Keep your eyes open – you need to deal with the threat.”
It can feel safer to not deal with the threat, to blindly trust in outside conditions and forces to keep you safe. It is more difficult to open up to body sensations of unethical behaviour, yours or theirs – this feels vulnerable, unsafe. In the moment of fear, my gut reaction to this unknown person, I did fear in my body. And then consciously expanded out again, to open up my resources for whatever was to come. Dr. Paul Linden talks about this stressful moment of feeling unsafe, that it “smallifies” our posture, attention and breathing. We narrow down in our focus, our capabilities. We might literally harden up with tension, to get ready, brace against what we fear is to come. Was it safer to not open the door? Maybe. I didn’t think about that at the time. I was just on. In aikido, there is a term, “irimi” which at a basic level of understanding means entering an attack for the best advantage. In my treatment of being safe, understanding irimi as entering into the interaction (perceived attack) with my mind before any physical movement can be seen. Through an irimi lens, I had entered into the interaction before I opened the door. George Ledyard Sensei writes about this understanding of irimi, “It is quite the experience to find that in this state of mind, one perceives that actions of the attacker as slow, no matter how fast they are. Since you are “already” where you need to be, there’s no need for speed, no need to rush, you simply allow your physical body to express what your mind has already done.” This description fits with my experience of talking with the man at my door, I was calm, focused. I noticed after initial eye contact at the door, he turned his eyes and body away from me through our short conversation. So rather than trying to maintain a state of hyper-vigilance to feel safe, part of being safe is being able to do a functional, expansive calm body/mind state to enter into a situation. It was a surprise to me that I didn’t not feel nervous during or after the encounter. No adrenaline-driven jitters.
So to answer my own question – what do I do to feel safe that actually leaves me open to harm? Closing down, tightening my body, my attention. Not being present, lost in my head, unaware of what is in front of me. Not paying attention to my own body’s responses to what I perceive, letting my brain over-write my body’s talk. Like the person who walks contentedly through a cross walk, headphones on, ignoring the car they trust will stop for them, it might feel safe. Better to be safe.