Flip the Lizard Brain

Every once in a while, in our dojo, Vince Sensei is kind enough to host some of the world’s best Aikidoists for a weekend seminar.  This past weekend, we were fortunate enough to have Mary Heiny as our guest teacher.  Here is not the place to go into Heiny Sensei’s history, if you’re not familiar with who she is, there’s various other resources available online to give you her history, and I highly recommend you check it out.  What’s so special about Mary Heiny is that she has been training in the art of Aikido since 1965 and has the incredible experience of witnessing the Aikido of O’Sensei-the founder of Aikido, directly, as well as training directly under some of O’Sensei’s top students.  This lady has ridiculous experience in this art, and her Aikido proves it.  I’m not sure how to say this without taking the risk of offending someone, but I mean no disrespect to say that Heiny Sensei is not an incredible, towering, physical specimen.  Standing a little over five feet tall and, doing some quick math, figuring she is over 60 years of age, Heiny Sensei would not be someone you’d be frightened of if you crossed paths with her in a dark alley.  I, along with many others in our dojo, was fortunate enough to take some ukemi/falls from her this past weekend, and the experience was amazing.  The attack I came in with was a grab, and I felt that she had embodied the center of the mat, dojo, and universe at that time, and I was this little piece of nothingness as I fell to the mat.  The thing is, it didn’t feel like I was “thrown” at all.  Pound for pound (and those of you who know me know I am not a towering physical specimen myself) I could easily overpower this woman.  She had tapped into something above the realm of physical strength in order to do that.  This wasn’t something like, “Well, she just got lucky and got my balance where I wasn’t expecting it and pulled off the throw.” or, “She totally pulled an illegal move and cheated to throw me.”… She absolutely had my center before physical contact was even made, and without having enough time to consciously realize it, I wanted, somehow, to go to the mat.  The thing my lizard brain (which I’ll touch on in a sec) was aiming for was not there.  The resistance that I was seeking was not there to meet me.  It was so strange to be thrown by a force that was so light, soft, and comforting, in an odd way, instead of feeling like I had been defeated.  This is aiki, and it’s why I show up.

What was really interesting about having her teach is listening to what she had to say.  She spoke her art just as well as she physically demonstrated it.  What really got me is when she said that we as humans are capable of so much nobility.  Referencing the people of Japan and the incredible cooperation and resolve they’ve been using to work through their crisis with, she stated how people are capable of so much more.

Enter the lizard brain.  I’m certainly not an expert in the topic of the lizard brain, but I have been researcing it quite a bit lately, and I’ve found it quite interesting and see that overriding it is one of the main aims of Aikido.  The Lizard brain is the brain that all wild animals have, and is what makes them wild.  It is the brain (and part of the human brain) evolved and responsible for fear, anger, revenge, and reproduction.  If you’re an animal with a good one of those, you won’t last long.  When a human is put on a brain scanner (pardon the lack of technical lingo), and shown pictures of sharks and other fear-inducing images, the part of your brain located right above the brain stem will light up first.  It’s in charge.  If shown something like a beautiful piece of art, it’s really quiet, and another part of the brain is lit up.  Again, google it, check it out for yourself, it’s scientific knowledge now, and we can see that the lizard brain is in charge of survival, fear, fight and flight.  Over time, humans have developed other parts of the brain which are activated during moments of love, creativity, and happiness.  The problem is that the lizard brain usually is activated first.  This is the reason for the old adage of, when you want to write someone an angry letter, write it first, and then wait a couple days before sending it.  It’s why you can lose it on somebody and feel completely justified for doing so, and then later feel like hell for it.  Our lizard brain is the thing that’s writing the letter.  Our lizard brain is the thing that’s telling your wife she’s a pain in the ass (not that I’d ever do that, of course).  From what I’ve read from O’Sensei’s writings and from hearing Mary Heiny speak and experiencing it through her technique this weekend is that this is what Aikido is all about.  Heiny sensei told us that a huge aim of Aikido is to have as much care for the person who is attacking you as you do for yourself and to let their misguided actions take them to the mat, you’re merely just assisting them.  This is not a direct quote, but I hope I captured the gist of it.  O’ Sensei wrote:

“To injure an opponent is to injure yourself.  To control aggression without inflicting injury is the Art of Peace.”

How bout’ this for the mission statement of your martial art?  There are many other things O’Sensei said that went right along with this one as far as conflict goes.  In Aikido, the attacker is viewed as someone who needs to be protected from themselves more than anything else.  If you have the bases covered of protecting yourself, you can work on protecting the attacker.  What’s the first reaction that comes to you when you’re being verbally challenged at work, cut off in traffic, picked on, served a steak that’s too well-done, or physically attacked?  More than likely it’s a fear-based survival instinct stemming from the lizard brain.  I think we need to use these reactions to grow.  When feeling these reactions, and you know it’s happening, although it feels great at the time to follow through with what the lizard brain is telling you to do, stop dead in your tracks and do the opposite.  Instead of hitting that mother*****r as hard as you can, stop, and connect with that person.  Instead of yelling back at your wife, stop, walk over to her, and give her the biggest embrace you’ve given her in a long time letting her know how much you really love her.  You can’t fake this though, and the intention behind it can’t be to win or to manipulate.  Instead of going off on the waiter, let him off the hook.  Connect with him and, verbally as well as non-verbally (remember, you can’t fake this) let him know that you understand that as much as your evening may have been interrupted by the order being off, it makes his evening twice as hard by dealing with it.  Coming from a guy who has been in that server’s shoes, trust me, he didn’t want this to happen.  His evening just became more difficult, and his livelihood depends on him not doing this.  Give him a break.  Sorry, anyone who’s been a server understands how we sometimes have flashbacks to those nights.  Anyways, take notice of the lizard brain’s reaction, and really try to do the opposite.  Now, there may be a few instances where the lizard brain may save your life.  Come to think of it, though, maybe not.  What do you think?  I’d like to end this blog post with another quote from O’Sensei:

“The Art of Peace begins with you.  Work on yourself and your appointed task in the Art of Peace.  Everyone has a spirit that can be refined, a body that can be trained in some manner, a suitable path to follow.  You are here for no other purpose than to realize your inner divinity and manifest your innate enlightenment.  Foster peace in your own life and then apply the Art to all that you encounter.”  Flip the lizard brain on it’s head and foster peace through your art into your life.

Advertisements

2 responses to “Flip the Lizard Brain

  • Kyle Weiss

    Interesting about this “lizard brain.” I never heard the amygdala referred to as that, but then again I live under a rock–never mind the lizard implications that probably also has. Heh. 🙂 Anyhow, I like what you said about overriding the amygdala rather than “reprogram” or “get beyond.” I find it very human to want to carve out, ignore, or destroy things we consider vestigial, or deem “harmful” just because it goes against our philosophy. Granted, if it’s cancerous, sure, make it go away, but I think we learn a lot from our makeup of evolutionary “throw backs,” that may not be ideal, but we’re stuck with ’em. I sometimes wonder how we can incorporate them with something like Aikido eventually instead of overriding them… kind of like how eventually we need to learn to make sure we are safe before taking care of any attacker. Really, really dug this article. 🙂

    • Jonas Ellison

      Check out Seth Godin and Steven Pressfield. I’ve been reading their stuff about the Lizard Brain and it ties directly to what we’re trying to overcome with Aikido. Glad ya liked the article. Get down to the dojo man!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: