My spellchecker doesn’t recognize the words ‘undefendedly.’ My heart does. I feel the difference, immediately, between defending myself or not. One protects and closes, keeping me safe and apart, less available. The other allows my heart to be affected, without a shield, keeping me open, soft, and strong.
When I first started thinking about the choices Jesus made in his life, I understood him to have decided to love no matter what. Not letting fear of consequences stop him. No protection. What an awesome, fierce, strength. Inspired by this vision I choose, as an ongoing practice, to remove protection, layer after layer, to make myself available to life, accessible.
I practiced Tai Chi for a few years. Towards the end of that period I started learning “push hands.” I learned that yielding, which requires overcoming the impulse to stiffen up and defend, makes for more strength. When your body stiffens to protect, it’s easier for the other person to push you, and you can lose balance. Your stiff body gives the other person leverage for pushing. When you yield, on the other hand, the other person cannot push you. Yield long enough, and you gain freedom of movement when the other person continues to follow you past their balance point.
If someone says something that’s painful, I have a choice. I can defend, protect, wear a shield, and move away from the pain. This tends to surround me with tension, in my heart and in my body. I have less freedom in that way. I can also remain open, allow the pain, soften myself towards it, towards the person who said whatever it was. With that option I have more strength, less fear, more options for how to respond.
That softness, without protection, can also disarm others, reach their heart more easily. This particular kind of strength is one of the foundations of nonviolence, what gives it power. Undefending myself rests on tremendous faith in the fundamental humanity we all share. For me what captures this dazzling experience of humanity is the core needs common to all.
The practice of undefending, core to any serious engagement with nonviolence, rests on a deep trust that underneath whatever veneer and protection anyone else carries lives a human heart just like ours. Whatever others did, their hearts also long to be loved. They, too, feel vulnerable. In fact, as James Gilligan so lovingly reminds us in his book Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes, apparently an astonishing majority of incarcerated violent offenders are full of shame and untold rates of self-loathing. At the heart of their shame he uncovers precisely the longing to be loved, so deeply unfulfilled as to create shame for even having the desire. Their hearts, in other words, are just as vulnerable as mine and yours. They defend it to such a degree that the result is violence towards others.
If I can respond without tension to what comes towards me, if I can actively look for the tender heart behind any action or word, I convey a deep message. I thereby tell others that I don’t have a reason to fear them. Once their humanity is mirrored back to them, they are more likely to respond in kind.
No wonder that nonviolence requires learning to undefend. The less I defend, the less likely I am to respond with violence. Undefending nourishes my capacity to choose. On the other end, the less I defend, the more capacity I have to disarm others’ tension and protection. My heart, my soft and strong heart, de-escalates violence and conflict by being exposed in its vulnerability.
Because this practice is so dear to me, I am dedicated an entire 6-day retreat to this topic. Living Undefendely: a Retreat for Women takes place July 9-14 in the Santa Cruz mountains. If you want to deepen your own practice of nonviolence through peeling away layers of protection and strengthening your heart, you may want to join the group of women who is forming around this practice.