TWENTY YEARS AGO, I didn’t worry about my physical safety. I hitchhiked, camped out, walked alone at night, with a young person’s imprudence. This unconcern gave way inexorably, first to a growing caution, and then to genuine anxiety and fear. In the last few years I felt myself to be in a strange state of paralysis. My fear of physical harm, of being a victim of violence, had come to affect my behavior many times a day, limiting where I went and at what times. I felt, like most women, resigned. I was always, however unconsciously, imagining and preparing for the assault any newspaper told me to expect. I resented this feeling, which seemed to have such gravity, pulling me down, forcing me to see the world through narrowed eyes, but I also felt helpless to change it.

In my ten years as a Soto Zen Buddhist, I’ve considered the distinctions between activity and quiet at length. I have never been in danger of escaping to my cushion, of hiding behind a passive Buddhist face. I have a noisy mind, a restless body; my flaws have always been active ones. I envied the placid tempers of some of my fellow trainees. The last thing I thought I wanted to do was learn self-defense—learn to fight. But I believe compassion can be assertive, even aggressive; I believe it must take that form sometimes. While my training may be focused on the transcending of duality, I get through the day by deciding how to act. Finally, I began to see not fighting, but fighting back. Did I deserve to be protected? I asked myself. The answer was clear: Yes. Was I willing to face this fear? Perhaps.

I could hardly imagine hitting someone, gouging and kicking and biting the way I knew I should if attacked. But I knew that it would do neither me nor my imagined attacker good for me to be hurt. Even if my motives weren’t the most generous possible, I realized that being a victim was a karmic choice as much as being an attacker. This fear confused me long enough. I signed up for the most detailed self-defense course I could find.

The class, offered by a kung fu dojo, began on a summer night in 1 DO-degree weather. Virtually all of the eleven women involved were strangers to each other. Janesa, founder of the dojo and our teacher, was a tall short-haired woman in long flowing pants and a T-shirt. She began, by way of introduction, with a discussion of our histories and our fears. The youngest woman, Amy, was a shy and petite fifteen-year-old. The oldest, Karrie, was a plump, curly-haired woman of fifty, with shiny eyes, who introduced herself as an “incest survivor.” There were other women, like me, who had had close calls, near-misses, enough to make us afraid all the time. Several of the students had been raped, including Lauren, a short, stocky woman. Lauren told us in a whispery voice, “I’ve tried for years to be invisible and inconspicuous.” Rebecca was a feminine, weary-looking woman in her mid-forties. “I’ve worked all my life to be a good girl,” she said. “I’ve never been raped because I always went along with sex. I wouldn’t make a scene by saying no.” Diane, a handsome middle-aged woman, haltingly asked for us to protect her privacy with care. Her ex-boyfriend, she explained, was in prison for assaulting her. He was due to be released and had vowed to kill her.

Listening to these stories affected me in several ways. They reminded me that there was nothing paranoid about my fears. But I also lay awake that night thinking about how much fear I felt in my training, too. Sitting meditation has often been a battleground for me; at times, silent and upright on a cushion, I’ve been paralyzed by a fear as primitive and organic as my fear of being attacked in a dark street. This fear, mixed up as it is with the more quotidian emotions like depression and pride, has time after time pushed me up off the cushion and out the zendo door. I lay in bed and imagined not going back to the dojo the next day, dropping out, inventing as many excuses not to continue there as I had over the years for not going back to the zendo. Morning came, and I went.

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