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Zanshin and Harm Reduction

by Justin Baily

After throwing or pinning our uke, we are instructed to face them, standing in hanmi, prepared for the possibility of another attack. In Aikido, this is what zanshin, or “lingering mind” looks like. However, off the mat and in our daily lives, zanshin can take on many different forms.

I work at a supportive housing unit. It houses around 80 “at-risk” clients—“at-risk” due to behavioural, mental health and substance use issues. We are staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in order to provide support to our clients. We work from a harm reduction-based philosophy.

The key concept of risk reduction is to limit the amount of harm someone who is “at-risk” would face in their day-to-day life. An example of harm reduction at my work would be our guest sign-in policy. All of our clients are allowed guests. However, they are allowed a limited number of guests at one time and these guests need to sign in with government-issued photo identification. Once signed in, the guests are permitted to stay and/or return based on their behaviour while in the building.

Many of our guests tend to be either drug dealers or johns. Their desire for money or sex trumps the health and safety of our clients. Similarly, our clients’ need for drugs may come before their own health and safety. In my situation, a “lingering mind” is important: I need to know where the guest is and what he or she is doing. A client who is assaulted one week by a guest might invite this same person as a guest the following week if they have drugs. In the case of an assault the guest would be barred from the building and then zanshin means being alert to ensure they do not sneak in.

Someone with a history of homelessness, who uses crack cocaine, who has a mental health issue and who may be dealing with a developmental or learning disability might go through crisis more frequently than someone who does not face these challenges. When engaging clients it is important to practice zanshin in order to prevent a crisis.

When a client approaches me, one of the first things I am conscious of is where I am in my space. Am I in the office, which has two doors that make it easy for me to exit if need be? Or, am I in the kitchen, where there is only one door and I am less likely to be seen by others? Depending on the encounter with the client, I may need to relocate or end the engagement as quickly as possible and delay speaking with the client until a later time.

Making a quick assessment of the client’s state of mind is also important when we are talking. This can help me prepare for the unexpected. If the client is already noticeably agitated I can consider the next step in helping to de-escalate the situation. This could involve calling an emergency service, like the police, or the emergency response team.

Being self-aware of how I present myself is also important. In aikido, we are told to relax and lower the centre while practicing. If I am calm I am very likely to have a calming influence over the person with whom I am engaged, whether that is my uke or a client.

Another element of zanshin is to make sure the engagement is over. I do not turn my back on uke when we practice on the mat. Similarly, I do not turn my back on a client until I am certain the engagement is over. Even when it may seem insignificant. For example, if my client asks for something to eat that unfortunately I am unable to provide, I make sure that there is closure and that my client has come to terms with the outcome, whether or not it is in their favour. It is important to avoid hard feelings that could make it difficult to engage the client in the future.

While zanshin is important in Aikido practice, it has also provided a helpful perspective for me about harm reduction.

In our lives it is easy to turn our backs on others. Whether it is out of fear or just living in a fast paced environment we are too quick to disengage one another. It is important to take the time to make sure our encounters with others arrive at a sense of completion because safety and well-being may be an issue—our own and that of the other person.. Zanshin is a good practice not only on the mat, or at work, but, as well, at home and in every other part of our day-to-day lives.