Holding Center: How Warrior Traditions Can Inspire Hope and Promote Healing In Counseling

Robert J. Caffrey, M.A., J.D.

“May you live in interesting times.” This is a Chinese proverb that, in the unique and nuanced way of Chinese proverbs, can be uttered as either a blessing or a curse.

And we certainly are living in “interesting times,” challenging times, times where we may feel both blessed and cursed. Times where we must ask ourselves many difficult questions, for which the answers may not be simple, or direct, or perhaps even immediately forthcoming.

Questions such as how do we perceive the nature of the change and challenge in our lives and in our world? What is our relationship to the discomfort and fear that change often brings? How do we make decisions? How do we grow and help others to do so? How do we know what to trust and what is illusory? How do we find and hold “center?”

What skills do we have, or do we need, to cope with and manage all this challenge and change? And how will the process change us? Change our world? Who will we be when it’s over?

We live in “interesting times” to be sure, and our role as a community of healers requires us to respond to challenge and inspire hope. At the same time, we must help others do this for themselves as well, to take action to respond to challenging times, for as the Chinese philosopher Wang-Yang Ming put it, “Knowledge without action, is not knowledge at all.”

To respond to the questions challenging times present to us, I suggest that we do something paradoxical; something that when you read the title of my address may have caused you some pause or even discomfort. I’m going to suggest that in order for a community of healers to confront challenging times, we must also know how to be warriors. We must be able to help those we work with understand what it is to be a true warrior, and how that way of being is especially needed in challenging times; and we must be willing to confront whatever or own level of prejudice or ignorance is around this subject.

So our first step is to confront the fact that as a culture, we Americans often have precious little idea of what it means to be a warrior. Whatever understanding you may have of warriorhood, if it did not come from dedicated study and life experience, it’s most likely an inaccurate view of the warrior tradition.

To the extent your perception of warriorhood is based on images from the entertainment industry, it is misguided at best and intentionally skewed at worst. To the extent that you believe that warriorhood exists solely to serve those elements of our society that seek only their personal gain or the creation of an “archy”, as in “hierarchy”, “patriarchy”, “anarchy”, you need to know that the central tenets of warriorhood compel restraint and do not glorify excess, require protection of those who need it and not their abuse, seek individual empowerment and not mindless obedience, and that a warrior’s loyalty and courage must also always be grounded in an unshakeable commitment to reality and to the truth.

As the 18th century samurai Daidoji Yuzan wrote: “A true warrior would never prey on weaker individuals, or act as a bully. One who would do such things is not a warrior, but an absolute coward.”

Some members of our profession have recognized our culture’s need for warriors and their wisdom. Dr. Edward Tick, who has worked with veterans who struggle with post-combat trauma for almost 30 years, puts it this way in his book, War & the Soul:

“Civilization needs the sensitivity and valuing of life that one who knows its’ fragility can develop. Psychologically, spiritually and culturally, we need mature warriors. . . From them . . . we can learn that we are agents of both creation and destruction and so must act with wisdom, restraint, and compassion.”

Warriorhood is especially needed in these times precisely because it is not a profession; it is a way of being. Warriorhood knows no gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.

Warriorhood is about an unyielding commitment to life, to truth, and to what we as people hold scared. In times of challenge, warriors have and will appear from all walks of life to preserve and protect what we value as a people.

At the fulcrum of changing times, warriors have always stood as a foundation, a bedrock, a connection to those things that we know are true and transcendent in us all, simply because of our shared humanity.

True warriorhood is not about a way of dying and destroying, it’s about a way of living and being; it rejects the destruction of innocent life in favor of its protection; it affirms rather than denies.

I believe, by understanding and connecting with true warrior traditions that we, as a counseling profession and a community of healers can, and will, inspire hope for those we serve, our communities, and ourselves, Always remember that the root of the Japanese word “samurai” does not mean “warrior,” it means “one who serves.”

As people who as their chosen profession seek to “serve” others, I offer you 6 warrior sayings that can help in your understanding and application of this tradition. These are: (1) We must never forget to “bow to the shark.” (2) “And how are the children? All of the children are well.” (3) Whoever controls the center, controls the fight. (4) The fight always happens in the here and now. (5) A warrior can allow themselves no illusions. (6) A warrior strives to control the “when” of the fight. (1)


For a warrior, change and challenge, and the fear they can bring are simply part of the course of life. As written by Rick Fields in his book “The Code of the Warrior,”

“A warrior is a man or woman of action. . .a specialist in meeting and resolving conflict. . .who sees the battle as an inner or spiritual one, in which the fight is with the enemies of self knowledge or realization.”

A true warrior is someone who approaches the world with aggressiveness, not aggression. The warrior’s way is, thus, to embrace challenge rather than shrink from it. By definition this will always put us up against our own fears. Addressing challenges will always require us to grow and, as Aikido master Richard Strozzi-Heckler has written:

“In order to face the demons that arise when we move past the boundaries of our small self, we need the courage to challenge the status quo and our own fear of the unknown. A warrior is committed by nature and training to face the demons that come.”

Challenge and change, by their very nature, create conflict; in ourselves, with others, and between groups in society. Challenge and change, and our reactions to them, also often give birth to fear, and all of the ways we react negatively to feeling fear.

So how do we manage fear? How do we live in connection with our fear? Do we orphan our fear and try to disown and separate it from us? In the warrior tradition, fear is our constant companion and guide. The warrior’s fundamental relationship with fear is, therefore, different than that of others. The warrior knows, as Mark Twain so aptly put it “Courage is not the absence of fear, but its’ mastery.”

For the warrior, there can be no failure for them to fear, there is just a life lived in each present moment; and only the feed back from life as to whether or not they are accomplishing their intention. It is a tenet of the warrior tradition that the more we grow the more challenge will arise in our lives, and the greater fear or discomfort we will experience. The two are always intertwined. As the Japanese proverb recounts, “The taller the tree, the stronger the wind that pushes against it.”

Given this reality, challenging times for the warrior are judged neither as good nor bad; they are simply a part of life. As the Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chodron puts it, “fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.” Even more importantly, the warrior understands that what may appear disastrous initially, may actually be sowing the seeds of greater wisdom and aliveness. This is reflected in the Zen story of the pilgrim and the shark.

A devout woman set out on a long sea voyage to worship at a distant temple. A great storm arose and sank the vessel, drowning all but her. Alone in the middle of the ocean, she saw a distant island and began to swim towards it, but ultimately tired and began to drown.

Suddenly, the fin of a great shark broke the surface and began to circle her. Feeling unimaginable terror at the grim fate this foretold for her, she once again began to swim for the island. Each time she tired and began to fear that she would drown, the shark’s fin would reappear and panic would once again compel her to swim for the island. Finally, she reached the island and safety.

Standing on its’ shore she turned and once again saw the fin of the great shark, but now realized that, but for the terror the shark had caused in her, she would have certainly succumbed to exhaustion and drowned far way from the island. Realizing this, she bowed to the shark in thanks for the gift of her life.

Warriors never neglect to “bow to the sharks” that appear in challenging times, and honor the fact that it is often the fear they create in us that motivate us to act and help us to reach safety, thus protecting rather than threatening, our lives.


The bedrock of all warrior traditions is what is known as the warrior’s “transpersonal commitment”. The warriors’ ultimate loyalty is not to themselves or their own personal aggrandizement. This perspective that warriors bring to their world allows them to distinguish between “substance” and “celebrity.” They are unerringly drawn to, as Martin Luther King put it, to “the content of a person’s character.”

For a warrior, their ultimate loyalty is always to something greater than themselves; to an idea, a people, a cause, a belief. This sense of duty and commitment to something aside from “the wonder of me” and “my individual concerns” is what separates those on the warrior path from others.

An individual’s connection with this warrior tradition creates an overriding emphasis on making life’s decisions based on a commitment to these higher values; values based on a commitment to others. As Rick Fields puts it:

“The apparent fierceness of the warrior proceeds from a primary caring for others. Putting others before oneself is the ultimate source of the warrior’s courage. Like the thorn on the rose, the warrior exists to protect others.”

Among the Native American warrior societies, one of the most renowned was the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers. Incredibly formidable in battle, they nonetheless earned the admiration and respect of their cavalry opponents, in part for their willingness to literally sacrifice themselves for the protection of their tribe by fighting rear guard actions against vastly superior numbers to ensure the tribe’s escape.

A Dog Soldier wore a sash and, during battle when the tribe was most threatened, he would wrap his sash around a spear and “stake” himself to the ground. Once a Dog Soldier “staked himself out”, he remained in that spot and would not leave it until the enemy was defeated, he was released by another Dog Soldier, or he gave his life for the tribe.

The lesson of the Dog Soldiers is that a transpersonal commitment is not an easy burden, or one to be undertaken lightly. When we have one, however, the world has a way of seeming more orderly and making more sense. Decisions about our lives, while never easy, are often viewed with greater clarity when they are connected to our intrinsic values.

In challenging times, we and our clients need to believe in things greater than ourselves, we need to maintain perspective that there are others who suffer more greatly than we do, and we need to resolve to help them. A warrior knows that their reason for being in challenging times, and their ultimate responsibility is to speak for and protect the vulnerable and powerless in society. This commitment to defend others is found in the stories from many cultures; of warriors who placed the good of the vulnerable and defenseless over their own safety and comfort. This connection to higher values can drive not only individuals, however, but an entire society as well.

The Masai warriors of Kenya are renowned for their strength and courage. Nonetheless, this Masai warrior tradition has not created a world of violence but, instead, an unshakeable dedication by that society’s most powerful members to the young and the powerless. For the Masai, a warrior’s role is about service.

When a Masai warrior greets another, he doesn’t regale him with tales of his martial process, or his strength or courage. The Masai’s dedication to service is so profound that it literally shapes the language they use in revealing their identity as warriors. When one Masai warrior meets another, he greets him simply by saying “Kasserian Ingera?” which means, “And how are the children?”

The traditional response is always a testament to what the warriors perceive as their ultimate role and responsibility. The warrior will respond, “All of the children are well,” as acknowledgment of the commitment to service that binds them both.

In challenging times, warriors know that the only life truly worth living, is the one that ultimately serves others.

We would also do well to remember that a warrior’s ultimate strength is measured not by their physical prowess, but by the strength of their hearts. As we look at the lives of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Mother Theresa, we see examples of a warrior’s unflinching dedication to the service of others and to our highest human ideals; all without resort to violence. I challenge anyone to suggest that Martin Luther King did not possess a warrior’s heart, or that Gandhi lacked a warrior’s resolve, or that Mother Theresa did not bear the scars of a warrior’s heart, that are part and parcel of an unshakeable dedication to service, even if that service must ultimately prove futile for so many.

True warriorhood is, thus, about the devotion of human beings to what is good and best in us all, and not a self serving pact for personal gain or power.


The first thing that you learn in the martial arts is that if you lose connection with the ground, with your emotions, or with your awareness of your body’s location, you end up on the ground, and rather quickly. Challenging times can pull us out of ourselves in the same way as physical conflict. Warriorhood is about learning how to stay within yourself, with your own internal knowing, when things outside of you or inside of you, may be trying to break that connection.

To “hold center” in times of challenge, a warrior relies on wisdom tested through experience and training. In this way he “stays with the ancient, but moves with the present” as the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu put it. The 14th century Chinese military strategist Liu Ji said that, “the essence of the principles of warriors is responding to change.” The key to managing change from the warrior perspective, is found in what has been called “the cleansing pain of self-reflection”.

For the warrior, power is not about knowing the “truth” they have been told, but the “truth” they have lived. Power is not an external reality for them, it is an internal one. Warriors seek what Pema Chodrun calls a “direct unedited relationship with reality”. A warrior’s power comes not from hierarchy, patriarchy, anarchy, or any “archy” for that matter. It comes from self-knowledge, self-acceptance, and self-education. Because the warrior seeks to develop an internal locus of control, they will know and view with great caution the tyrannies of trends and labels such as race, gender, age, ethnicity or sexual orientation.

As warriors become more self referencing, they become more honest with the reality of the impact of their actions, and they accept the consequences of those actions, thoughts, and feelings. This is how one gains access to what is the ultimate “center” for human beings, our own personal integrity; our own code of honor.

Regardless of the external conditions that are outside of their control, warriors strive to remain mindful of the internal factors within their control; their focus, their beliefs, and the meaning they give to what has transpired. As warriors detach from outcomes and focus on the actions taken, they are able to genuinely perceive the impact of their behavior and beliefs. In this way the warrior learns that they have no enemies, and no friends, they have only teachers.

This journey to our center, to our personal integrity, cannot be accomplished either painlessly or quickly, but as the Sufi poet Rumi put it so eloquently, for us to manage life’s tumult and challenge, “the cure for the pain, is in the pain.”

Warriors know that challenge requires action and that to act powerfully, the center we have to find must always be our own. I have been fortunate to have had many teachers for this truth, who seem to reappear with regularity when I forget it.

One of my favorite “teachings” happened when I was once in a martial arts class where we were working on throwing technique, and my classmates, all of whom were much smaller than me, were taking great delight in throwing me all over the dojo with a technique that I seemed incapable of performing. Trees do make a sound when they fall in the forest, and I was making one resounding thud each time I hit the dojo floor!

I knew I was off balance, I knew I was getting angry, and I knew enough about “centering” to know I wasn’t anywhere close to being there with this technique. In frustration I turned to my teacher, a 6th degree black belt, and referring to the technique and with no small level of frustration, blurted out, “Jay, tell me how to find my center!”

Jay paused, smiled, and simply said, “Sure, Bob, …look for it.”


In challenging times we can often be seduced into a focus on what “has been” or what “should be” in the future. Warriorhood is always about living in the present moment. Warriors possess an exquisite connection with the present. There are no future warriors, there are no past warriors, there are only warriors dealing with the moment to moment choices, conflicts and challenges life presents. For the warrior, the focus is on the task at hand and, strangely enough, when we are present in this way, many of our distressing thoughts and fears tend to dissolve.

This concept is understood in the art of Japanese swordsmanship as “ichigo, ichi-e”. “One encounter, one chance.” Each time we confront a moment, we have only that moment in which to act. Yesterday’s efforts are of little consequence, and tomorrow’s are a concern for tomorrow. “Right now” is what is real, and “right now” is what we must ultimately deal with. If we are to live each moment well, we need to live it with the entire intensity of our being, as we realize the past no longer exists, and the future is an illusion, never quite arriving as we expect.

In challenging times, we should reflect on the story of the samurai Kikushi who, when he put down his sword and was initiated into Zen was told by his Master, “You must concentrate, and consecrate yourself wholly to each day as though a fire was raging in your hair.”


Becoming aware is a fundamentally disillusioning experience, because it cuts through our illusions. But, it is this unyielding commitment to reality at all costs that allows warriors to trust what they know and hold center in times of challenge. For the warrior, the first inquiry to discern the truth is always self reflection. As Confucius said, “When the superior man fails to hit the target with his arrow, he looks for fault not in his bow, but in himself.”

The warrior’s ultimate commitment, above all others, is to this truth; the truth of their actions and the truth of their impact. The warrior is acutely aware of the fact that although we live in the world of our intentions, others live in the world of our impact. If as M. Scott Peck suggested in The Road Less Traveled, “Mental health is an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs,” then warriorhood benefits not only the warrior, but society at large.

One of the hallmarks of difficult times seems to the propensity for people to succumb to denial. The warrior understands the need for confronting this type of unreality for warriors know, as was so aptly put by Goethe, “there is nothing more frightening than ignorance in action”.

In challenging times, warriorhood informs us that moral responsibility can only be demonstrated by action and, as the Masai warriors know, a society’s strength is ultimately measured by how the powerful treat those lacking power.

In challenging times, it is role of the warrior, connected with truth and grounded in their internal knowing, to stand ready to speak truth to power. For it is the warrior who knows better than anyone that humanity is, and must always be, a constraint upon all of our actions.

Warriorhood requires of us that we remain loyal to those groups and institutions of which we are members, but that our honor and sense of personal integrity always guides us when one warrior value is in conflict with another. As explained by former New York City Police detective and martial artist Phillip Messina,

“The true warrior knows the meaning of loyalty, the true warrior knows the meaning of honor, and the true warrior knows where loyalty ends and honor begins.”

In the end, the proof of our commitment to reality is the way in which we live our individual warrior journey. We can lead others only so far as we have gone ourselves. We must embody what we teach, and teach only what we embody. As my favorite Catholic saint Francis of Assisi put it, “Preach always. If necessary, use words.”

In challenging times, warriors exemplify the commitment to internal and external reality, whether this is difficult or even disillusioning. Charles Dickens said, “There is nothing so strong and safe as the simple truth.” Truth like other values, however, must be lived. That is the greatest contribution warriorhood makes to our lives, an absolute commitment to living truth.


Reckless courage, “last stands,” and “forlorn hopes” are the province of mythic heroes, not warriors. And mythic heroes are usually adolescent warriors, those who are too young to comprehend mortality and too much in need of attention to assess risk properly. They lack wisdom and training in the warrior’s art, and this realization is important because as General George Patton’s warned, “untutored bravery is useless in the face of educated bullets.”

Warriors are strategists. They realize that while it is good to be brave, it is better to be smart, and often much less painful on the people around you. Warriors have no illusions about their own mortality and no desire for glory because they are grounded not only in an understanding of the need for their service, but also the risks that service entails. Warriors seek to preserve all life especially, if at all possible, their own!

Warriorhood requires us to be strategic in our thinking and effective in our interventions. The warrior’s goal is to be successful, not immortalized in story and song. Warriors are essentially practical, following the admonition, “If it’s stupid but it works, well, it’s just not stupid then is it.”

Warriorhood is about days such as today. A day where you have chosen to develop and learn new skills, re-enforce old ones, and converse with other skilled practitioners of our art. Warriors are life long students. The road to mastery for a warrior is often found simply by staying on the path and merely continuing to take one step at a time.

We adopt the code of the warrior when we train, when we discipline ourselves, when we recognize both the practicality and the beauty of the counseling art we have devoted ourselves to. The clarity of thinking, discernment, curiosity and mindfulness we bring to our work, are the hallmarks of a warrior profession. Warriors recognize that, in order to help, one must first know.

Miyamoto Musashi was a 17th century samurai who is known as the “sword saint” in Japan. A Samurai who emerged victorious in dozens of individual life and death duels, he ultimately retired to write and reflect on the lessons of strategy he had learned; how one controls the “when of the fight.” Musashi believed this must always be based on training, clear assessment of the situation, and wisdom. In The Book of Five Rings, he set forth precepts that I believe, could serve as guidelines for any counselor. These were:

  1. Do not think dishonestly.
  2. The Way is in the training.
  3. Become acquainted with every art.
  4. Know the way of all professions.
  5. Distinguish between loss and gain in worldly matters.
  6. Develop intuitive judgment and understanding for everything.
  7. Perceive those things that cannot be seen.
  8. Pay attention even to trifles.
  9. Do nothing which is of no use.

One of the keys we must take from our study of warriorhood is a commitment, to the extent that we can, to influence the “when” of the fight. A clear eyed view to timing our interventions in our society to do the most good is essential. As a healing community, we will forever be drawn to speak, to teach, to help, but our awareness of warrior traditions will aid us in discerning when and how our interventions, both individually and collectively, can be of the greatest benefit to the individuals and communities we serve.

These are the precepts of warriorhood. This is the way warriors live, what they value, how they serve. You may have identified as part of your own personal inventory of strengths, some of what you’ve heard. You may have seen yourself. I certainly hope so.

I believe that a community of healers is, by reason of their very commitment to life and human dignity, uniquely positioned to follow the warrior’s path. For over thirty years of my life, I’ve tried to follow that path. That journey has been long and often arduous, but it has taught me things I will never forget. As I have studied, served, fought, feared, suffered, tried, and failed with other warriors, those men and women have taught me that courage knows no race, that honor knows no gender, that integrity is not determined by a person’s sexual orientation, and that, when you feel most alone and afraid, that is when a warrior appears at your side; when you most need them.

May we be ready and able to appear at the sides of those who need us in these challenging times.

Copyright © 2010, Robert J. Caffrey, M.A., Hartford, CT 06105