Janet had spent the last three years abroad as a loyal spouse supporting her husband in his job as a senior executive of an American company in Korea. The problem was that she really didn’t want to be there.
“I feel crushed and cramped all the time,” she said, as we explored what was happening in her life. “There are so many people! I’d like a little space. You know, they have ushers to cram you into the trains and subways. It’s claustrophobic to me. I feel helpless almost all of the time.”
“Helpless to do what?” I asked.
“Helpless to defend myself, for one thing. It’s scary being pressed against so many people. And they won’t back off. They just keep pressing.”
“Sounds like a great experience you’re having!”
“Oh, yeah! I don’t want to be there, but Tom says it’s only for a little while longer. But then he said that when we went. ‘Only one year, sweetheart, then they’ll move me. I just have to get things started here.’ That was three years ago! I’m sick of this place. I just want to go home.”
“You also said that you didn’t particularly want to be here, either, for this Intensive.” “Well, it looks to me like another one of those brainwashing sessions where the wife is sweet-talked into putting up with things just a little longer. I’m sick of being pushed around like that, too.”
“It sounds like you’re getting pushed around a lot in your life these days,” I said. “Yes. My life feels totally out of my control. I’m in a country where I don’t want to be, with no friends I can relate to, nothing to do—I can’t speak the language—and now here I am at this experience where I know I’m supposed to get enthusiastic about what’s going on. I am pretty much a victim, wouldn’t you say?”
“You know, now that you mention it, you do hold yourself in a helpless kind of posture, don’t you?” I asked. “Without changing anything, how would you describe how you’re sitting?”
Janet frowned. “Well, let’s see. . . I’m slumped down in the sofa—it’s hard to sit up in this thing, anyway—and I’m holding my hands in my lap. My feet are together kind of primly. I’m looking down at the floor a lot of the time.” She chuckled. “Maybe I’ve been abroad too long.”
“What else do you notice about how you’re holding yourself?”
“My voice is kind of quiet. . . ”
“What about on the inside? What are you aware of in there?”
“Well, I’m a little scared. I’m frustrated. I feel pent up, like I want to break out of a trap or something. I feel weak. It’s all about being trapped where I am.” “Okay, Janet, it’s important for you to know that I am under no instructions from Tom’s boss or anyone else at the company to try to get you to be happy where you are. I would never accept that kind of secret agenda. I don’t care where you live. What I care about is your finding a way to have more space and have a sense of freedom in your life. Do you believe me?”
“I don’t know. . .”
“I think there is an opportunity here for you, even in the middle of your being stuck. Do you want to explore it?”
“I guess so. You said I’m in charge of what happens here. So I can stop you anytime I want, can’t I?”
“Okay let’s go. Where do we start?”
“What is it about the people that bugs you the most? That makes you want to get away from them?”
“They’re so pushy. . . They are almost arrogant, always wanting to get their way, even if it’s just to be first in line somewhere. There’s this inevitability about them. They’ll just keep pushing until they get what they want.”
“How have you been coping?”
“I’ve tried to learn the language. It’s very hard for Americans, though. I’ve learned enough to do the shopping, which is a real victory. . . Oh, I’ve taken Tae Kwon Do since I first arrived.”
“That’s a very powerful martial art, isn’t it? What is that like for you?” “It’s been my salvation, really. I earned my Black Belt last month.”
“A Black Belt!? In three years!? My lord, Janet, that’s incredible! Most people take ten years to get that far!”
“Well, I guess I was motivated. Plus I had all day to practice at the Dojo.” She was still sitting slumped down on the sofa with her hands in her lap and her eyes cast down. She looked weak and helpless. I thought, “How can this woman be a Black Belt in anything?!”
I asked her about the Kata’s, the graceful movements designed to center the fighter and smooth out their skills.
“What’s your favorite?”
She named one and started to describe it verbally.
“Wait,” I interrupted her. “Would you show me instead of telling me about it?” “Sure.”
She unfolded herself from the sofa, shoulders still hunched, and moved to the center of the room with her head down. Once there, she closed her eyes, pressed one fist into the other palm, took a deep, slow breath, stretched her body erect, threw her chest out and her shoulders back and opened her eyes slowly. She gazed out at the room with such concentration that her eyes looked like lasers. Standing there she was the epitome of relaxed concentration and power. Janet bowed slightly to some unseen figure (her sensei or teacher, I guessed). Then she began her movements, a series of blocks and strikes with her hands and feet, each one blending into the next, some so subtle I could hardly see them, some so fast her movements were a blur. Her feet flew out, she spun and pivoted, her hands became a blinding whirl of hits and parries. Completely balanced, her eyes never faltered nor did she seem to lose contact with her center of focus.
Fascinated, I found myself thinking in that state she could take on anyone I know (and I know some big, fast people). I was moved by her total concentration, the all-out power, the effortless grace and the deep strength she emanated.
“Wow!” I thought. “Where has this woman been hiding!?”
Gradually she slowed down and came to a stop, returning to her original position in the center of the room. She pressed her fist into her palm again, bowed slightly to the same
unseen figure, took a deep breath, exhaled and. . . Right before my eyes her shoulders slumped, her head drooped, she settled back down into the sofa again, clasping her hands meekly, a seemingly lifeless, helpless figure again.
“Wow!” I said, “That was something. Thank you, Janet.”
“Yes,” she said so quietly I could barely hear her. “It’s very nice to do that.” “Very nice? Whew, it’s very powerful!”
“I guess so,” she murmured into her lap.
“Janet, that woman who was just here—where did she go?” I asked incredulously. “What do you mean?” she looked at me curiously.
“That woman who did all those moves. Where did she go when you sat down?” “I. . . I don’t know.”
“Are you aware of the difference? The difference in how you are when you’re practicing Tae Kwon Do and how you are—now?”
“Well, no, not really. . . Now that you mention it, I do like being at the Dojo. I always feel a little better when I come out.”
“How did you experience yourself inside just now when you were giving that demonstration?”
“Calm, strong, capable, centered, safe. . . alive!”
“How would it feel to be in that state most of the time?”
“Oh, that’s impossible,” she looked as if I’d said something ludicrous.
“Why is that?”
“Well, that only happens at the Tae Kwan Dojo.”
“What is the purpose of Tae Kwon Do?”
“It’s to be in the presence of any kind of threat and be able to either defend yourself from harm or turn any attack into advantage for you.”
“Sounds kind of like being in the middle of a culture which you experience as threatening you all the time!”
“Huh! I never thought of that! It is, kind of. In the Dojo I have taken attacks from many men much larger than me and—this is embarrassing—I’ve almost hurt a couple of them. How come I can face danger and force in the Dojo, even force aimed directly at me, and I can’t in my everyday life? Isn’t that strange?”
She was sitting on the edge of the sofa now, her eyes wide. We decided to differentiate the two identities who were a part of her. She named them The Victim and The Strong One. She described step-by-step how she shifted from one to the other. To do this, Janet had to slow down the process, then observe what she was doing with her breath, her muscles, her face, her eyes, all the little things that shifted as she made the transformation from one to the other. Soon she was standing in front of me as The Strong One.
She reversed the process. Then I asked if she could do that in a restaurant or on the street or at home.
“I guess I could! I’ve just never done it consciously before.”
She played with the roles, going back and forth. First: “Okay, stand by to meet— tah-dah—The Victim!” She slumped, averted her eyes, and became The Victim.
“Now,” I suggested, “what would The Strong One look like sitting there. How would she sit in that sofa? How would she interact with me?”
She shifted herself until she was seated fully upright, feet planted firmly on the floor. She looked directly at me, not in a challenging way, but with a strong, clear gaze. One hand was on the arm of the sofa, one in her lap. She appeared to be relaxed but ready for anything.
“How does that feel?” I asked.
“Great! This is great!”
As Janet looked at her current role as wife and supporter, she discovered that her feelings of helplessness stemmed not from masses of people pressing in on her but on her husband’s lack of understanding. He just didn’t understand how much she wanted to go back to the U.S. She felt helpless in her relationship with Tom.
“I have tried to get him to see what this place is doing to me, and he just puts me off. I don’t want to wreck his career, which he says would be ‘off the rails’ if he were to pull out early. So what am I to do?”
“Who’s been talking with him, Janet, The Victim or The Strong One?”
“The Victim, for sure. . . I’m afraid when I talk with him. I know he won’t listen before I start!”
“When you have a Tae Kwon Do match, do you know who will win before you start?” She laughed.
“Oh, no! It’s all a matter of staying within yourself, not getting psyched out, just getting in the flow and doing what you can. The match takes care of itself!” “Sounds like a great way to approach Tom, to me!”
“Yes, it does.”
“Janet, if you lose a match, how do you feel? What kind of judgments do you lay on yourself?”
“Not many, actually. The key is how well I got into the flow, how I relaxed. If the other person wins, that’s fine, as long as I was relaxed and did my best.”
The next morning Janet and Tom arrived in high spirits.
“What happened?” we asked.
“Well,” Tom said, “we really got down to it last night. Janet told me in no uncertain terms that she didn’t want to leave me but that she might have to if she couldn’t get me to listen to her. That got my attention, I’ll tell you!”
Janet sat beside him, calm and attentive.
“Then she told me that she knew how important this job was to me but that it was killing her to be where we are. ‘Which is more important, me or this job?’ she asked me. I had to think about it! Usually I just wait her out, you know, let her get mad. Then she goes away and I breathe a sigh of relief. But this time she didn’t leave. She stayed right there in my face and demanded an answer! For almost two hours!”
“My heart was beating hard,” Janet said. “But I hung in there, breathing and staying clear about my love for Tom and for myself. It was scary but it was also exhilarating. I knew something new was going to happen.”
The outcome: Tom called his boss and told him he wanted a transfer within a year. He was told they could move back to the States within ten months. Apparently that was enough for Janet.
“I can hold on for that long,” she said, “knowing there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. This has made it very clear: the issue wasn’t really where I was living but my helplessness, which I can see was something I was doing to myself. At least I don’t have to be helpless anymore about feeling helpless!”
“I’ll say!” Tom said. “It was scary for me, too. I realized that I needed to respond to her. I‘ve been taking her for granted for a long time. I see that now.”