This title sounds strange, yes. But I was moved to write in defense of deference by two things: 1) my recent experience doing T’ai chi at the Seattle Kung Fu Club; and 2) an article in the New York Times, “How to Meet Autistic People Halfway”.
It has been a dream come true to discover the Seattle Kung Fu Club and to become a student of Sifu John S.S. Leong and Sijeh Paula.* The exercises are rigorous and hard; it is not really fun, let alone for 90 minutes. But in that room, surrounded by symbols telling the history of the art and a great sense of human dignity and discipline, you are inspired. Paradoxically, it is a place bursting with concentration where it is very difficult to concentrate. People on the Kung Fu side of the studio are loud, dramatic, and fascinating! People on the T’ai chi side of the studio are practically silent, but they move around in fluid and overlapping ways. You have to remain aware of what is going on so you don’t get in the way.
During these times, I think always of the Zen saying, “Just Don’t Wobble!” But it is hard, and avoiding eye contact is imperative for me, so I don’t wobble and fall down off the one leg where I’m standing with knee outstretched, or tip over from a stretched-out stance near the floor. When I read yesterday’s article which explains how autistic people use similar avoidance strategies, a faint insight emerged.
People engaged in the intense mental effort of T’ai chi, which requires extremely precise actions executed slowly, are accustomed to avoid eye contact with each other. I guess the eyes are too powerful a force of … what exactly? Energy? emotion? intention? impenetrability? All I know is that looking into someone’s eyes can make you lose your balance and wobble. No need to apologize. We just don’t do it.
Similarly, perhaps, autistic people must work really hard to stay focused and mentally balanced. It is curious to learn how they articulate and express the reasons why they avoid other people’s eyes. In the New York Times article, psychologists Vikram K. Jaswal and Nameera Akhtar write, “Take eye contact. Some autistic people say they find sustained eye contact uncomfortable or even painful. Others report that it’s hard to concentrate on what someone is saying while simultaneously looking at them. In other words, not looking someone in the eye may indicate that an autistic person is trying very hard to participate in the conversation at hand. Unfortunately, this attempt to engage often gets interpreted as a lack of interest.”**
Martial artist Peter Ralston explains the psycho-physical dynamic going on in eye contact avoidance. For him, as a proponent of the inner arts, an inner focus is the key way to remain aligned with your center, grounded in the present. Since we are constantly in situation, we need to be flexible to sustain unity. “Keep a balance of awareness on all sides. Whenever we focus a lot of energy outward (energy extension), that flow should be balanced by centering and grounding our feeling-attention.”***
Along with Susan Cain’s feisty defense of introversion, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, which was a revelation and continues to be a source of sustenance to my gentle spirit, the work of Vikram K. Jaswal and Nameera Akhtar seems intriguing and worth pursuing too. We are all on a spectrum of some kind, as regards our social preferences and patterns of behavior. The more we realize and respect people whose ways of being are different from our own, the more peaceful our lives will become.
*Honorary terms for Teacher and Senior Student Teacher; on terms in T’ai chi, http://www.authentickungfu.com/seven_star/explanations.html
**Vikram K. Jaswal and Nameera Akhtar, “Opinion: How to Meet Autistic People Halfway,” New York Times July 13, 2018.
***Peter Ralston, Cheng Hsin: The Principles of Effortless Power, 97.