I started studying boxing when I was young man of eighteen years. I wish I could say it was because I was a fan of the sport but sadly my interest in boxing had more practical purpose. I wasn’t diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum until I was thirty-two years old. When I was eighteen I kept getting attacked by people that were upset with me without understanding why they were upset with me. In hindsight I now realize that I was likely misreading social cues and speaking on subjects that caused passionate, often violent, reactions in people and they resultantly attacked me in the heat of their anger.
I was attacked so often while living in the rural Ontario town I lived in that when I one day met a boxer by chance while working at a bar I begged him to teach me. He was kind and understanding underneath his rough exterior and he begrudgingly took me on as a student. I still study and practice boxing to present day, in addition to grappling arts.
As part of my studies in martial arts I travelled to many places seeking new teachers. I lived in China for some time studying a form of “soft style” kung fu. This was when I first heard of the cultural concept of “open hand and closed fist.”
The open hand is essentially the truest expression of pacifism. The concept of the open hand and the closed fist came about when a fifteenth century emperor of China betrayed fighting monks and slaughtered them within the temple they lived in. Six of those monks survived the massacre. Three joined the peking opera and swore off violence, the start of the open hand. The other three were so enraged at the betrayal and slaughter of their brothers that they formed the Triads and then swore to eradicate monarchy within China, the start of the closed fist.
Buddhist monks still loosely align with these concepts. Martial artists like me that choose to master violence so that they might nullify an attack on their person without harming the assailant follow the mantra of the open hand. Martial artists that seek to punish those they perceive guilty of doing wrong follow the mantra of the closed fist. There are all sorts of pop culture references of the open and the closed fist. The Jedi and the Sith in star wars fiction is one such example as is the idea of white magic and black magic in witchcraft styled fiction.
For someone like me, as a young man that didn’t know he was on the autism spectrum, the open hand was a means to protect oneself in a word fraught with sudden and unpredictable attacks from people that seemed to have no cause. Martial arts study became the glue that held my world together. The routine and discipline and constant self improvement appealed to my autistic habits and preferences and gave me the confidence and focus to mask and negotiate what for me was a hostile neural- typical world.
I still don’t understand why people get mad at me from time to time. Often when someone is upset with me it is because of a barrier presented by my autistic challenges. However it is the same autism that informed the habits that made me a great fighter. I can calmly de-escalate and apologize when I have made a blunder that I wasn’t aware of.
I don’t blame people for misunderstanding me anymore that I blame myself for failing to read social cues and/or misunderstanding them. I just don’t have to be afraid of it happening because if someone becomes violent I can defend myself without harming my attacker in any significant way. I am grateful for the lessons of the open hand.
Peace, like anything else, is understood and obtained by the study of both the subject itself and its counter point, violence. I am gifted at learning and analyzing, one of the many advantages of being on the autism spectrum. Many of the fighters I have met and trained with in my twenty years of study that are also on the autism spectrum adhere to the open hand like I do. The overwhelming majority of us are pacifistic. We don’t blame those that are upset by us. We just want to be part of our community like anyone else. A sense of belonging is something anyone can understand.
We might not realize social tension until we’ve made some blunder but for those of us fortunate enough to study the open hand and the martial arts, pacifism within the open hand allows us the opportunity to try again. All I can do is continue to try. My hands are open, either in friendship or defence. I just want everyone to be included.