What changed my mind was the gun under my 15-year-old son’s bed. Loaded. Our son–who we raised on a commune where we believed that love was the way and that everyone could and would realize it if they were only educated in the dharma (spiritual teachings).

He traded a prized possession of mine for that gun. When I confiscated it, he got right up in my face and yelled, “Give it back. I paid good money for that!” That’s when we decided to hire the private police escorts to climb through his bedroom window at six AM and take him to a treatment center in Idaho.

I already had plans to fly a few days later to a spiritual workshop led by Ram Dass, whom I had studied with for years. He began the workshop with a story I had heard many times before, Aikido master Terry Dobson’s account of a time he nearly took down a thug on a subway. Just as Dobson was about to subdue the thug by force an old Japanese man in a kimono interrupted, distracting the thug with a cheerful account of how he and his old wife enjoyed tea in their garden together observing their persimmon tree. I reprint the story below. If you haven’t read it, I recommend it.

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Dobson’s Aikido teacher had taught that Aikido was the art of reconciliation. “Whoever has the mind to fight has broken his connection with the universe. If you try to dominate people, you are already defeated. ” Dobson had always tried to follow that guidance, but only when he saw the little old Japanese man melt the thug’s heart did he recognize that “the essence of Aikido is love.”

This time, having just packed my gun-toting 15-year old off to Idaho by police escort, I found the story hard to swallow. During a break I asked Ram Dass how it applied to my situation. Ram Dass said that the story doesn’t mean that you should give everyone everything always. It meant that you should never put anyone out of your heart even though you may have to put him out of your living room.

To my mind, that was a fine distinction, probably too fine to make with reliable clarity. Was my son in my heart when I put him out of my living room? My son certainly didn’t think so, but then what did he know? But then if I discount his perspective, where’s the love in that? But then, he was profoundly unreliable, so maybe the only question was whether I felt that I was banishing him with love in my heart. But then what about people who believe in their hearts that they’re banishing you in a loving way when they aren’t? What about when a sadist says “it hurts me more than it hurts you”?

I mean, lots of questions.

The story that had always warmed my heart now seemed slippery. The way I had always heard it, it implied that there was always a win-win option and so you never had to put anyone out of your living room. Statements like “Whoever has the mind to fight has broken his connection with the universe. If you try to dominate people, you are already defeated” seem to condemn me for forcibly evicting my son. Now I was scrutinizing these words more closely than before. What does “having a mind to fight,” even mean? And just what are the consequences of breaking one’s connection the universe? Does the universe have no fight in it? Had the soldiers who defeated Hitler’s armies broken their connection with the universe? If not, did they somehow not have a mind to fight even as they shot and bombed their way through Europe? The story started to sound like gibberish, like nonsense on stilts.

The thug’s fists unclench as he listens to the old Japanese man’s cheerful account about his persimmon tree back home. The thug says, “Yeah, I love persimmons too.” Attending that same Ram Dass workshop was a high-ranking DC political insider. I overheard him whisper to his friend an alternative thug-response to the old man’s story: “Yeah, well I hate persimmons. Pow!” He had to whisper because in the cozy, warm, smarmy context of the workshop, his would seem to be a cynical response. But was it cynical or just realistic?

Some of our most radical right-wingers were once liberals. Richard Perl, David Stockman, Elliot Abrams–all founders of Neo-Conservativism–had been left-leaning in their youth. The far-right-wing radio host Michael Savage got married in a rain forest and swam naked with Allen Ginsberg. All of these now-excessive and unrealistic right-wing dogmatists tell of an epiphany, a moment when they encountered liberal excesses, unrealistic beliefs that were so wrong the only solution was to run as far as possible the other way.

At heart, the Dobson story is about the relationship between win-win and win-lose situations. In win-wins, the best solution is to be cooperative the way the old man, by gently reaching out to the thug brings peace not just to the community (a win), but also to the thug (a win). In win-lose situations, the best solution is to be competitive-if someone has to lose, better the thug than the community.

Distilled to its essence the story is about a change of mind. Dobson assumes there is no win-win possible and therefore that he must defeat the thug. But he turned out to be wrong. On the yes/question “is there a win-win possible here?” He answered “no,” when the answer turned out to be “yes.” Technically that’s called a false negative, basically a wrong or regretted “no.”

Within the liberal culture I belonged to in the seventies and eighties-the commune, the peace movement, Marin County CA-many of my friends assumed that there was always a win-win. If there’s always a win-win, it’s always a mistake to fight or compete. There are only “wrong no’s.” In that culture, to the extent we thought about it, there would never be an opposite error, a “wrong yes,” a situation in which you would think there’s a win-win and really there isn’t.

The right loves to make fun of the left. Tie-dies and trappings aside, I think it’s this lofty absurdity, the nonsense-on-stilts assumption that there are always win-wins that is ground zero for the right wing’s attacks upon the left. I don’t doubt that plenty on the right would find a target even if there weren’t one, but still I have to say, about that target, “yup, bullseye.” I hold the naïve left, of which I was an active member, at least partly responsible for the existence of the far right extremists. If it weren’t for our embrace of unrealistic visions, there would be less room for their unrealistic alternative visions. Dangerous extremes at opposite ends of the continuum are co-dependent upon each other. They provide rationalizing fodder for each other’s existence. We should be careful how far we go in one direction because our oversimplifications encourage an equal and opposite oversimplification in the other direction.

Both extremes engage in what I call “defaulty logic” the assumption that if one position is wrong, its opposite is right by default. Some right-wingers seem to assume that because it’s wrong to believe there are only win-win solutions to conflicts then, by default there are never any win-win solutions to conflicts. (See this amazing interview for an example).

Like those reactionary right-wingers I could have come away from my confrontation with my son and my experience of Ram Dass and Dobson’s mushy reasoning, smug in my new belief that it’s a win-lose, dog-eat-dog world. Instead, I came away subscribing to the social science’s attempt to side-step wishful thinking (there are always win-wins) and dreadful thinking (there are no win-wins) to see what people really do. I came away especially careful about recognizing that for every false negative worth avoiding, there’s a false positive to watch out for too:

False Positives/False Negatives
On the road please avoid the rough sidelines.
There are two of them, use both as guidelines.
Left avoidance just might
skid you off on the right.
Hard leaning won’t keep you off landmines.

Terry Dobson’s story

THE TRAIN CLANKED and rattled through the suburbs of Tokyo on a drowsy spring afternoon. Our car was comparatively empty – a few housewives with their kids in tow, some old folks going shopping. I gazed absently at the drab houses and dusty hedgerows.

At one station the doors opened, and suddenly the afternoon quiet was shattered by a man bellowing violent, incomprehensible curses. The man staggered into our car. He wore laborer’s clothing, and he was big, drunk, and dirty. Screaming, he swung at a woman holding a baby. The blow sent her spinning into the laps of an elderly couple. It was a miracle that she was unharmed.

Terrified, the couple jumped up and scrambled toward the other end of the car. The laborer aimed a kick at the retreating back of the old woman but missed as she scuttled to safety. This so enraged the drunk that he grabbed the metal pole in the center of the car and tried to wrench it out of its stanchion. I could see that one of his hands was cut and bleeding. The train lurched ahead, the passengers frozen with fear. I stood up.

I was young then, some 20 years ago, and in pretty good shape. I’d been putting in a solid eight hours of aikido training nearly every day for the past three years. I like to throw and grapple. I thought I was tough. Trouble was, my martial skill was untested in actual combat. As students of aikido, we were not allowed to fight.

“Aikido,” my teacher had said again and again, “is the art of reconciliation. Whoever has the mind to fight has broken his connection with the universe. If you try to dominate people, you are already defeated. We study how to resolve conflict, not how to start it.”

I listened to his words. I tried hard I even went so far as to cross the street to avoid the chimpira, the pinball punks who lounged around the train stations. My forbearance exalted me. I felt both tough and holy. In my heart, however, I wanted an absolutely legitimate opportunity whereby I might save the innocent by destroying the guilty.

This is it! I said to myself, getting to my feet. People are in danger and if I don’t do something fast, they will probably get hurt.
Seeing me stand up, the drunk recognized a chance to focus his rage. “Aha!” He roared. “A foreigner! You need a lesson in Japanese manners!”

I held on lightly to the commuter strap overhead and gave him a slow look of disgust and dismissal. I planned to take this turkey apart, but he had to make the first move. I wanted him mad, so I pursed my lips and blew him an insolent kiss.

“All right! He hollered. “You’re gonna get a lesson.” He gathered himself for a rush at me.

A split second before he could move, someone shouted “Hey!” It was earsplitting. I remember the strangely joyous, lilting quality of it – as though you and a friend had been searching diligently for something, and he suddenly stumbled upon it. “Hey!”

I wheeled to my left; the drunk spun to his right. We both stared down at a little old Japanese man. He must have been well into his seventies, this tiny gentleman, sitting there immaculate in his kimono. He took no notice of me, but beamed delightedly at the laborer, as though he had a most important, most welcome secret to share.

“C’mere,” the old man said in an easy vernacular, beckoning to the drunk. “C’mere and talk with me.” He waved his hand lightly.
The big man followed, as if on a string. He planted his feet belligerently in front of the old gentleman, and roared above the clacking wheels, “Why the hell should I talk to you?” The drunk now had his back to me. If his elbow moved so much as a millimeter, I’d drop him in his socks.

The old man continued to beam at the laborer.

“What’cha been drinkin’?” he asked, his eyes sparkling with interest. “I been drinkin’ sake,” the laborer bellowed back, “and it’s none of your business!” Flecks of spittle spattered the old man.

“Oh, that’s wonderful,” the old man said, “absolutely wonderful! You see, I love sake too. Every night, me and my wife (she’s 76, you know), we warm up a little bottle of sake and take it out into the garden, and we sit on an old wooden bench. We watch the sun go down, and we look to see how our persimmon tree is doing. My great-grandfather planted that tree, and we worry about whether it will recover from those ice storms we had last winter. Our tree had done better than I expected, though especially when you consider the poor quality of the soil. It is gratifying to watch when we take our sake and go out to enjoy the evening – even when it rains!” He looked up at the laborer, eyes twinkling.

As he struggled to follow the old man’s conversation, the drunk’s face began to soften. His fists slowly unclenched. “Yeah,” he said. “I love persimmons too…” His voice trailed off.

“Yes,” said the old man, smiling, “and I’m sure you have a wonderful wife.”

“No,” replied the laborer. “My wife died.” Very gently, swaying with the motion of the train, the big man began to sob. “I don’t got no wife, I don’t got no home, I don’t got no job. I am so ashamed of myself.” Tears rolled down his cheeks; a spasm of despair rippled through his body.

Now it was my turn. Standing there in well-scrubbed youthful innocence, my make-this-world-safe-for-democracy righteousness, I suddenly felt dirtier than he was.

Then the train arrived at my stop. As the doors opened, I heard the old man cluck sympathetically. “My, my,” he said, “that is a difficult predicament, indeed. Sit down here and tell me about it.”

I turned my head for one last look. The laborer was sprawled on the seat, his head in the old man’s lap. The old man was softly stroking the filthy, matted hair.

As the train pulled away, I sat down on a bench. What I had wanted to do with muscle had been accomplished with kind words. I had just seen aikido tried in combat, and the essence of it was love. I would have to practice the art with an entirely different spirit. It would be a long time before I could speak about the resolution of conflict.