Dialectical Behavioral Therapy and Aikido: An Examination of the Parallels between the Two
by John Lothes
What is DBT?
For purposes of this article I am going to try to keep my explanations short and sweet and keep more of the depth of this to the application section. In a nutshell, DBT is a behavior therapy that focuses on four sets of skills to help clients build a life worth living. These skills include; mindfulness, emotion regulation, distress tolerance, and interpersonal effectiveness.
The skill of mindfulness comes from the eastern meditative practices, like meditation. This skill can be learned through continued practice, just like Aikido (Lothes, Hakan, Kassab, 2013). Mindfulness helps us find our Wise Mind in decision making and helps us get out of too much Emotion Mind thinking or too much Rational Mind thinking. Too much of either of these can get us in trouble. When we have too much emotion mind, we are more prone to act on impulse behaviors and not think about the consequences of them. Where too much rational mind thinking gets us stuck in “what if” thinking and can become overwhelming. I refer to this sometimes as analysis paralysis, we get so caught up thinking about all the possible outcomes, that we fail to act. This is often seen in our OCDs, phobias and anxiety disorders.
Emotion Regulation skills are about learning how to deal effectively with the highs and lows of emotions that we experience. They are NOT about not having emotions. Sometimes I have clients come to me and say, "I don’t want to be angry or sad or anxious anymore". It may not always be the case that we can make these emotions go away. They are an innate part of being human. However, we can learn to balance them and regulate them so they don’t get so overwhelming that they become debilitating. This is what the emotion regulation skills are about.
The Distress Tolerance skills, much like the emotion regulation skills, are about learning how to effectively deal with stress and distress in our lives. Stress is also an inevitable part of being human. These skills help us deal effectively with the highs and lows of stressors that come up in our life.
The Interpersonal Effectiveness skills are about learning how act effectively deal with others. Through these skills we learn how to ask for things effectively, say no, set boundaries and keep and maintain relationships. These skills also help us with maintaining the relationship respect and self-respect while doing it.
These skills although taught separately are not mutually exclusive. Very rarely do we experience stress without emotions, therefore needing to incorporate both distress tolerance and emotion regulation. Stress and emotions also affect how I interact with other people, and all of these are happening in the present moment (mindfulness).
This is the basic idea of the DBT skills and how we use them in therapy to help clients develop more effective behavioral patterns in their lives.
What is Aikido?
Aikido was founded by the late Morihei Ueshiba, also referred to as O’ Sensei (great teacher). O’ Sensei’s biography is one of many zigzagging paths that led to the development of aikido. This is just a brief history. Morihei Ueshiba was frail and weak growing up as a child, and as a result, his father encouraged him to take up martial training. His studies made him proficient in many weapons and many martial arts including sumo and jujitsu. Ueshiba was constantly training his body. At times spending days in the woods training and fasting. Morihei's time training under Sokaku Takeda in Daito-ryu Aikijujutsu helped Ueshiba realize that eventually the strongest or fastest would win. As he aged, he knew one day he would not be the strongest or the fastest. So, he looked to develop a martial art that did not rely on strength, but on timing. Along with Takeda's influence on Morihei's path to aikido, O’ Sensei also spent some time in the military. While in the military he began to realize that devastation and domination over one’s opponent is not always the answer and O’Sensei’s spiritual guidance under Onisaburo Deguchi (practicing Omoto Shinto) had a major bearing on the spiritual thinking of Ueshiba and his ethical framework of aikido (Stevens; 1977, 1993, 2003).
In 1925, while fighting a naval officer in an intense sword duel, Ueshiba reported that he could see a beam of light coming off the sword indicating where his opponent was going to attack next. After the battle he went to his garden, where he drew water from a well to wash the sweat off his face and body. At this time, Ueshiba began to tremble and found it impossible to move. The earth began to shake and everything around him turned gold, the well, the nearby trees and his own body. At this moment he heard the words, “I am the universe”. At this time all barriers between the martial and spiritual worlds fell away, and Ueshiba was struck with the realization that the true destiny of the martial arts was not contention and domination, but love (Saotome; 1986, 1989, Shioda; 1968, 1991). Quire fascinatingly Dr. Linehan had a similar experience while praying one day for help with the problems that she was going through. Here is a link of her talking about it in her own words: http://www.nytimes.com/video/health/100000000877082/the-power-of-rescuing-others.html
Individuals that train aikido are learning more than just a martial art. They are learning new ways of conflict resolution. Students are learning ways to defend themselves from not only physical attacks, but verbal and emotional attacks too. Part of the objective of aikido training is to become mindful of our attacker’s physical and emotional state. However, another aspect of aikido training is to become aware of our own physical and emotional states. When we engage in a conflict, whether it is physical or verbal, there are many ways to defend ourselves. Practitioners of aikido seek out the safest and most effective way for both parties to come to a resolution. Through the practice of aikido we learn to reach the highest level of harmonious interaction. Where we neither attack nor provoke an attack (Westbrook & Ratti, 1970).
According to Westbrook & Ratti (1970) when an attack is initiated and the person is able to defend themselves in such a way, and with such skill and control, that neither the attacker nor the person defending themselves is killed or injured, this is the highest level of development. Through the practice of aikido we learn defend ourselves. But, also to do so with the sincere desire to not harm others. Through learning a technique on the mat and learning to move forward when an attack is initiated we learn to blend with and to work in cooperation, the aikido practitioner can now test these new ideas outside of the dojo.
Bringing DBT and Aikido Together
While doing therapy we have to be mindful to meet the client where they are in their process of personal growth as well as being aware just how far and how much we can push to try to get them to move forward. Sometimes we have to be mindful to take a step back with a client. Other times we need to help move them forward. Just like when working with uke in aikido we need to be aware of how soft and hard to throw. Through aikido practice we start to get an intuitive understanding of when to push and when to pull. There are many "off mat" applications that we learn from our aikido practice, this aspect of blending with our patients is one of them.
Irimi (to enter)
In aikido the movement of irimi means to enter. In therapy, there are times that I need to move in and push a client forward and help them get better. There are a whole set of DBT therapist skills that are designed to help therapist do this (Koerner, 2012). These DBT therapist skills help to identify when to move a client forward, when to take a step back, and when to just mindfully stay put.
Tenkan means to turn, this application allows us to blend with our clients and to practice empathy with them. Blending allow us to practice different levels of validation with our clients and to be empathic to what they are dealing with and going through. DBT has six different levels of validation, these six levels allow us as therapist to achieve two type of validation; explicit verbal validation and implicit functional validation (Swales & Heard, 2009)
When examining the off mat applications of tenkan we can validate our client verbally by expressing empathy for what they are going through and by also validating them. While validating our clients, as therapist we identify that our client's behaviors are "normal" responses in reaction to the situation, to put it another way, anyone would respond that way. For example, if I have a client that had been abused both physically and sexually by a caregiver growing up and now the client has anxiety attacks and is having trouble forming close relationships. Tenaking in the session allows me to view the client's development and life from them perspective. I might say something like, "based on your history of abuse, it only makes sense to me why you would be anxious or why you are having trouble forming close relationships." Or, if we meet resistance with a client that is not wanting to working a potentially damaging behavior, tenkaning in session allows us to align with the client and how we understand that it is difficult changing our behaviors.
Bringing it all Together
The aikido practices that we engage in while doing our physical aikido we are also learning how to behave off the mat. These practices can be implemented in a DBT therapy sessions to help us blend with and move our clients forward. All while mindfully respecting the client and the suffering that they are experiencing. This is where DBT and aikido come together.
More about the author John Lothes can be found here
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