The coaching work I do with men can be unusual at times. Recently, it's what I described as a kind of 'urban tantra'. It involves working with the body in order to have control and integration of the thoughts, feelings and bodily reactions. It includes breathing exercises you'd expect to find in a yoga class and visualisations you might associate with the 'new age'. It's ultimately about a man learning to open his heart fully.
What's interesting for many of my clients is how I came to be coaching them in these practices.
The truth is, I arrived where I am now through violence.
I worked in retail for a long time. And what never ceased to amaze me was just how irate and sometimes murderously angry and abusive people could become when it came to refunds. I was also always dumbfounded at the righteous indignation a shoplifter could display when I dared to prevent them from stealing.
From being staff, to management and later plain-clothed security, I had an uncountable amount of face-to-face confrontations with people.
On more than one occasion, a member of staff or a customer would give me praise after an incident on how calm I managed to remain while I got yelled at and how impressive it was that the angry person would back off, back down or sometimes even calm down and apologise. What they didn't know, is that my calmness didn't come from being gentle or nice. They didn't realize that while the other person worked themselves up into a frenzy, I was seeing in my mind's eye their demise, and preparing for it physically.
They didn't notice my right foot move back slightly, creating a staggered stance that would facilitate a strike with my right hand - my strongest hand. They also wouldn't be able to detect the covert arm positioning that would allow for an instant knock-out strike to the jaw-line that my eyes had homed in on, or a stun-shot to their throat that I could access from below their peripheral vision.
This would also go completely unnoticed by the person themselves. All they would know is that they suddenly didn't feel very comfortable being in my space any more and they would either back off, back down, or end up submitting to me in some way.
This positioning and preparation was what I was trained to do. Having been in the martial arts from the age of seven and later getting into 'reality based' self-defence and combatives, I deployed these tactics when I was faced with a real potential threat, not just at work but on the street too.
Eventually, I did this with every confrontation I had at work. Men, women, teenagers, angry pensioners - everyone. Not because they posed a real threat, or because I actually intended to follow through and hurt them, but partly because I found a non-physical way of handling difficult people and partly because I was on a power trip.
As I got better and better at what seemed almost like a Jedi mind trick, the focus of my practice in these tactics moved away from the physical and more into the emotional.
On the pads and punch bag, I would actually launch the attacks that I was preparing to unleash on these unsuspecting people but never did. I would visualize a human target. And through my chi kung practice, I learned to focus on the internal feeling of what I described then as 'shutting off my humanity'. I was essentially 'closing'... closing off my heart.
Eventually, I could deal with these people by just the internal feeling alone - closing my heart - without the lining-up and positioning of my body.
I made this work for me against genuine threats too. Living in one of the roughest parts of London at the time, and being a smaller guy who always looked years younger than he was, I got sized up a lot. Only, just like the irate customers, they would change their mind once they got closer to me or got as far as engaging me verbally.
Later, when I joined the Army Reserves, I would practice this heart closure again in bayonet lessons, fire and manoeuvre drills and in marksmanship. Aiming at the centre mass of the human-shaped target, I would exhale to create a more stable platform for the shot, and with that exhalation also allow my humanity to leave me. I would release the shot, and observe through the sites the round punch through the target and visualize him dropping dead.
The capacity to close in this way has served me in several ways and on many occasions. During times of intense stress, I have been able 'switch off', get my head down and heels stuck in and get on with shit I did not want to do, but had to do. It has allowed me to respond in emergencies (often medical) and do what needed to be done without being off-centred by the horror and terror of my sister almost biting her tongue off during an epileptic seizure or my 2-year-old son choking on a coin (twice).
The problem for me, and so many other men, was opening again. Closure comes naturally when we are feeling vulnerable. And so in times of high business and work stress, being able to re-open when you're at home with your loved ones, when the 'threat' has subsided, is incredibly difficult for most people.
This often results in creating more stress, only now it's at home. When our girlfriends, wives and children can't feel us, and get only our closure, they in turn may close up. Needs stop being met from both ends of these relationships.
And this is what happened to me.
I became too good at closure. I was closed to myself and what I was really feeling. I was hiding from myself just how unhappy I was in my relationship and in the end, the walls I'd put up around my heart gave way under the tension and I was hit by a month or so of intense anxiety and depression I hadn't felt since I was a teenager.
When I realized my situation, apart from trying to heal myself, I tried to be more present when with my kids, but even with them I found myself holding something back despite trying my best to let them 'feel' me. And with their mother, it was even harder.
I started to actively practice opening, but it was too late.
However, even through the nightmare of discussing 'access' to my babies and losing my home during the separation, I continued to practice opening. I made creating a harmonious relationship with my ex a priority - because that is what children need most, even when their parents are separated. I practised opening even in the face of her intense closure.
I began to practice opening in my training also. I learned that one of the highest ideals of the ancient samurai was to be able to go into battle, to kill and face death, while keeping his heart wide open. I would unleash the same violence on the training pads as before, but would do so while consciously opening my heart.
The sensation isn't easy to explain, and process to be able to achieve it is a gradual one, but it is entirely possible to pass through life's most stressful periods without denying what we feel. We can open even when our defences want us to close.
And we can still close. But instead consciously allow it to happen - because sometimes defending ourselves emotionally is the healthy thing to do - and we can even deliberately close in times when intense and immediate action is required. Sometimes, putting our efforts into trying to open in the moment just isn't the appropriate thing to do.
When a man has full control over the opening and closure of his heart, he can act with skill in his life and relationships like a samurai in battle. He can open himself up so that the people he cares for can feel him fully. He can allow them to feel safe, loved and seen when in his presence. They will feel his generosity and feel gifted by him simply by giving them his attention. In times of hardship, he can be relied upon because he doesn't hide his vulnerability even in getting the job done. And in more intense scenarios, he can choose to allow his closure to happen because it's what is needed at that time.
Through my seeking to become good at delivering violence to a would-be enemy, and my learning to kill, I came to learn how to love fully. In more recent years, when I'm face to face with someone, I will relax my body instead of lining them up with a strike to the throat. I will open up my heart where I would previously shut it off.
Instead of backing off, backing down or submitting, I can create a space where people feel like joining me, lowering their defences and 'surrendering'. Where they might have once felt threat, I can allow them to feel safe.
I now help other men achieve the same. And very often, the methods I use to get them there are as strange as parts of my life has been. Who would have thought that having a man hit pads, simulate violence and to genuinely exercise the intent to kill, would improve his relationship, his career and business and even his sex life?
I love my job.