Notes From a Gentleman Farmer

September. Here, at 8000 feet, any night a freeze may come. One late snowpea plant is still blossoming. The rest are going brown, and heavy seed pods hang from the vines. The spinach has gone to seed, but the zucchini and yellow squash are crawling across the potato stalks, even sneaking through the deer fence to escape into the wilderness. If Weather Underground predicts a freeze, I’ll have to decide whether and what to cover. Gardening at high altitude is a challenge.

O-Sensei’s passion for farming may have been as deep as his love for martial arts. He was born into a Japanese farming family in Tanabe, south of Osaka. When he was 29, he led a group of settlers to Hokkaido on Japan’s northernmost island to set up a farming colony. At the age of 37, he moved his family to Ayabe to join the Omoto-kyo religious community. He became heavily involved in farming work there, attempting to make the community self-sufficient. Before retiring to Iwama, where he spent the last years of his life, he purchased 17 acres of farmland so he could continue his dedication to agriculture. He must have been inspired by his love of farming when he said, “Nature is our greatest teacher.”

Indeed, gardening teaches something profound. In a single growing season I see the parabolic bloom and decay of a lifetime. My garden has somehow taught me an acceptance of death. (At least it feels that way now. You might ask me again when I see the Grim Reaper closing in).

Carl Jung thought that our existence might be like the rhizome, plants whose subterranean rootstalks grow horizontally, sending up shoots into the sunlit world. Perhaps our conscious life, blooming in the light of awareness, is sustained by a deeper unconscious continuance.

I suppose the skeptics among us would say that we’re more like annuals than perennials, and all that survives our brief existence is that which gets passed on in seeds to the next generation. No matter what the truth of our individual being is, I find that spending time outside digging in my garden tends to infuse in me a deep peace, to make me feel a connection to everything.

Meanwhile, outside of the fenced rectangle of my vegetable garden, I’ve been doing battle with the spotted knapweed. I’ve thought a lot about what it means to be an “invasive species” (being a member of one myself), and have decided to confront those plant varieties that don’t play well with others, those that choke out all other growth.

I’ve been walking the land with my gaze down, and so am becoming intimately acquainted with my local ecology. Searching for the weed I’m attempting to eradicate has made me aware of the tremendous variety of flora surrounding me.

I haven’t bothered to learn the Latin names (at least not so far). I love the homespun names more.

Leadplant, downy indigo bush, prairie shoestring, and buffalo bellows are all different names for the same plant. Never a fan of the manicured lawn, I wander my five acres, stumbling upon mariposa lily, lamb’s ear, Siberian catmint, scarlet gilia…

My favorite name among them all is “foxglove beardtongue,” a plant that sends up a single vertical stem with lovely flowers that look like penstemon, only white.

It’s not the name, but the act of naming that matters. I can’t remember where I read that, but I immediately saw it as a brilliant insight. To name something means to pay attention to it, to look at it intently, to distinguish it from everything that surrounds it.

At times I envision O-Sensei having done something like this in his martial art studies: trekking through Daito-Ryu, judo, Tenjin Shin’yo-ryu jujutsu, the Shinkage-ryu school of swordsmanship, looking for the rare blossoms—the forms that no one else could see—and combining them into an art that he named “aikido”.

Stalking the spotted knapweed allows me to wander about in nature while appeasing my neurotic need to always be achieving some end. Our five acres seem to be a metaphor for my unruly mind. I don’t think the jungle of my awareness will ever be tamed, but maybe I can pick out one weed to eradicate. How about that one that needs me to always be accomplishing something? It’s an old ailment for me, always needing to be doing, always staying busy, attempting to justify my existence.

I notice that just a tiny shift of intention can change everything. I can perform the exact same action in two completely different ways. Either I’m doing some project to realize some outcome, to accomplish some future state where I will finally achieve perfect satisfaction—or I’m doing the same thing for the pure doing of it, attentive and present. Sometimes I can feel that I’m right on the cusp of the moment, right there where everything is arising out of the frisky void.

My first aikido sensei used to say, “You can sweep the dojo to make it clean, or you can sweep the dojo just to sweep the dojo. Do you see the difference?”

I once read that O-Sensei saw martial arts and farming as two aspects of the same thing. I’ve often wondered, in what way were they the same to him? Maybe this is the answer: that both activities brought him into the state of shin-shin ichinyo where mind and body are one, that place where the weeds of remorse and speculation are ripped up by their roots and one moves freely in the present moment.

Shadow Boxing

Shadow Boxing

I felt dismayed. In the midst of preparing for my first aikido test—consisting of 10 techniques—I made the mistake of asking one of the black belts what you had to do for the shodan (1st degree black belt) test. Before the next class, he approached me with a sly grin and handed me a ream of papers. As I scanned them, my heart sank. 292 techniques, around 10 solo and paired jo and a dozen bokken kata (choreographed forms done with wooden staff and sword). And after all that, in a rite of passage called randori, a mob is sent rushing at you and you’re expected to somehow survive.

Read More »

A Meditation on Meditation

Introspection Comes to America

“Turn off your mind
Relax and float downstream
It is not dying
It is not dying”

I was 13 and the sound coming through my AM radio was like nothing I’d ever heard. Some Indian drone instrument crescendoed to an in-your-face repeating drum riff pounding like a cart with a missing wheel careening down a cobblestone hill chased by a flock of electric seagulls. Strange snatches of orchestral dream music, backwards guitars, buzz saws, and ‘what-the-hell-is-that-sound-anyway?’ came randomly into the mix, then vanished away, until finally fading into the strains of an untuned piano in an English music hall.

Read More »

Ain’t Gonna Study War No More

Imagine Mosaic by Wally Gobetz

 

In my teens I was a pacifist. I registered for the draft when I turned 18. But it was a stalling tactic. The Vietnam War raged and I had decided I would escape to Canada rather than fight in a war I didn’t believe in. I applied for conscientious objector status. My father had served in World War II and he believed it was important for America to fight the spread of communism. He didn’t agree with my anti-war beliefs, but he wrote a letter to the draft board supporting my request to be classified a conscientious objector anyway.

As time went by, I began to question whether pacifism could always be effective. Martin Luther King’s pacifist approach, appealing to the humanity and morality of all Americans, led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Gandhi’s brave pacifism, resisting the British by absorbing violence no matter the cost to self, had a lot to do with India gaining its independence.

But what about the Nazis? The question, asked so often that it has become cliché, is valid: “Could pacifism have stopped the Nazis?” It seems unlikely.

My father died when I was 44. Shortly after his death, I had a dream about him. In the dream, I told him that of course America had to enter the war to stop the Nazis.

“War is never justified,” he said.

We had swapped places.

There has been much criticism of Gandhi’s letter to Hitler, which begins, “Dear Friend,” and goes on to compare British Imperialism to Nazism. I think the criticism is wrong. Gandhi was appealing to Hitler’s better nature and not condoning his acts, which in the same letter he called “monstrous and unbecoming of human dignity”. Gandhi believed that even Hitler had a moral side he could appeal to. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. Gandhi’s appeal did nothing to stop Hitler. What was required to stop the Nazis, apparently, was a great deal of violence.

What hope is there for humanity if our only option is using violence to oppose violence?

 

As he witnessed the first detonation of an atom bomb, Robert Oppenheimer, head of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, quoted the Bhagavad-Gita, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

70 years after this first test of an atomic bomb, I visited the Bradbury Science Museum at the Los Alamos Laboratory. There were technical displays of physics and chemistry, and displays of the history of Los Alamos, which was a boys’ ranch school before the scientists arrived and vacated the residents.

I saw replicas of Little Boy and Fat Man, the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I watched videos presenting the ongoing development of nuclear weapons told with a benevolent, even cheerful, slant. I found myself wondering, “Just who is being naive here? How can this lead to anything besides the destruction of worlds?”

Oddly, the place had a guest book. Before signing my name, I quoted from a song by Sting:

“How can I save my little boy
From Oppenheimer’s deadly toy?”

The desire to overcome violence is no longer a Pollyannish dream, but an existential necessity. If humans are to survive, we have to find a solution to our violent nature.

Soon after I began practicing aikido, I realized that it is a third way, a path different from either pacifism or violence.

Unlike pacifism, aikido recognizes that aggression and violence are inherent in humanity, are components of our evolutionary success. Aikido recognizes our warrior nature and embraces it, and uses the tactics of aggression to neutralize aggression.

 

The other day, when I was handing out jo (wooden staffs) in kids’ class, a boy of 9 asked, “If aikido is nonviolent, why do we practice with weapons?”

It was a question I’d often asked myself. Why do we learn these weapon kata (choreographed forms)?

I knew several answers: we are preserving the traditions of the samurai; the movements we practice in empty-hand aikido are amplified in the movements done with staff or sword; it’s another way to learn to focus the mind, to remain in the present; kata are fun to learn…

“That’s a great question,” I told him. “There’s a Japanese concept called ‘katsujinken’. It means ‘the life-giving sword’. How can a sword give life? It could protect your family from the bad guys. Or you could use it to cut up vegetables for dinner. But these are just a couple of my answers. You should think about it and decide for yourself why we use weapons as a means to promote nonviolence.”

The gospel song goes:

Let Us Beat Our Swords Into Ploughshares by Mark Garten

 

Gonna lay down my sword and shield
Down by the riverside, down by the riverside
Down by the riverside

Gonna lay down my sword and shield
Down by the riverside
And study war no more

It’s important for us to recognize the breadth that humans encompass. We can be unspeakably cruel and selflessly compassionate.

Aikido teaches us to see from the point of view of our enemy, to blend with his attack and redirect it to a mutually benevolent conclusion, to protect our attacker as well as ourselves, to use the techniques of aggression to neutralize aggression.

Instead of beating our swords into plowshares, we’re making them out of wood and studying the tactics and the mentality of aggression in order to overcome it.

How do we translate the lessons of aikido to the national stage? Another difficult question. I feel that, after all these years, I am only just beginning to understand how to use aikido in my interpersonal relationships.

Could the philosophy of aikido have been used to resist the Nazis? I don’t have an answer yet. But I think that the answer may come if we keep asking the question. O-Sensei named his art “aikido” in 1942. The philosophy of aikido arose out of the destruction of World War II and it came from Japan, the Nazi’s most powerful ally. It was an attempt to take the culture of the samurai and turn it in a new direction, away from aggression and into the service of peaceful resolution.

As I was writing this, the phrase “fierce compassion” came to me. I thought I had made it up, but a google search showed me that the words had already been put together by others. In a dharma talk by Cheri Maples1  , she relates the concept of fierce compassion to “truly understanding our interconnection with others.”*

 

It occurs to me that what O-Sensei was doing through aikido was turning from the local to the universal, changing the focus of the samurai from the protection of their liege lord to the protection of all beings.

As a result, aikido brings us the teaching of fierce compassion, a path that just may save us from our destructive selves.

 

Featured Image–Nuclear Test

 

The Endless Accumulation of Fresh Starts

One Tuesday evening in August, 1992, I left work after a 12-hour shift, climbed onto my motorcycle, and headed for the dojo. My 4th kyu test was two days away. On the way across town, a storm came raging in from the north, and I drove into a huge downpour. I found myself stuck in bumper to bumper freeway traffic. The rain was so piercing on uncovered flesh that I stopped under an overpass to see if it was hailing. No, it was just rain, gushing from the sky in an impossible deluge. I waited in vain for it to let up, then decided to take my chances and squeezed back into the soggy traffic.

I arrived late at the dojo, drenched—cartoon drenched—pulling off my boots and pouring water out of them. I slipped into a dazed state.

Kote Gaeshi by Sigurd Rage

In class, my wife Adele asked a question about kote-gaeshi, and our teacher went into a long demonstration, showing every variation of this technique known to man. I wanted to raise my hand, and, as in the Far Side comic, ask, “Sensei, may I be excused? My brain is full.”
Something had happened to me in the storm. I had slipped into a detached, dull state of mind, and I seemed to be stuck there.

When I got home, I opened my motorcycle seat. In the compartment below, I had stashed Peter Matthiessen’s “Nine-Headed Dragon River.”

Gaudi Dragon byPeter Corbett

Inside the cover, the frontispiece—a purple and gold page depicting a dragon—was wet. The rain had soaked through the front of the book and the purple had bled onto several pages, staining them indigo. I fanned the pages open to dry them, and my eyes fell upon this:

“In this very breath that we take now lies the secret that all great teachers try to tell us, what one lama refers to as, ‘the precision and openness and intelligence of the present’.1  The purpose of meditation practice is not enlightenment; it is to pay attention even at unextraordinary times, to be of the present, nothing-but-the-present, to bear this mindfulness of now into each event of ordinary life”.2

I closed the book. There seemed to be a thin film separating me from the present moment.

The next two days were odd. I couldn’t rouse myself from the befuddlement that had come over me in the rain storm. I felt like I was sleepwalking.

From the beginning, Adele and I took aikido shinsa as matters of great import. As our 5th kyu test—the first test in our curriculum—had approached, we trained diligently. We were fortunate to be aided by the extremely talented Franco Acquaro, then a shodan (1st degree black belt). Franco was in town from Hawaii for an extended stay. His brother lived in Austin and had started aikido at about the same time we had. We were testing together, and Franco, wanting his brother to do well, took us all on as his personal project.

We jumped at the chance to take private lessons from such a gifted martial artist, and that first test had gone well for all of us.

Adele and I worked hard preparing for our next test, 4th kyu. Our passion for aikido made us a little impetuous. Lacking a mat at our house, we had taken to tossing each other onto our water bed—until after one lively throw we heard a great crack and saw that we had broken the bed’s base.

We both wanted to show that we were worthy of this art that we loved so much, to show that we had made some progress in embodying its principles. But now, with the test two days away, I found myself in a mental fog, and I couldn’t snap out of it.

I carried this state of mind all the way through the test. Adele did well, but I was sloppy and unbalanced.

The examination ended with a bokken kata (wooden sword form) that finishes

Emile Swain by Dan Gradings

with a flamboyant spin where the sword extends straight out at shoulder height and you turn a full 360 degrees and then another 5/8 of a turn, stepping back and raising the sword over your head, then pausing dramatically before sheathing it. My whirl wavered like a wobbling top at the end of its spin.

After the test, in his comments in front of the class, our sensei praised me. I knew that he was trying to offer me encouragement, but his words only made me feel worse. I wished that he had spoken truthfully about my performance, or even that he had said, “You can do better than that. You’ll have to take the test again.”

 

I’ve come to see that the primary goal of aikido is not to learn self defense through a martial art or to develop grace in movement—though it teaches both of these—but to cultivate a state of mind and a way of being in the world.

Why had I, before my 4th kyu test, been unable to rouse myself from my stupor? For the same reason that we are all unable to snap ourselves out of our normal day-to-day dream state. It takes practice to remain in the present.

In Shin Budo Kai, we practice a form of meditation, of sitting and watching the breath. But what’s even better is that we get to stand up and move around, to train in the “precision and openness and intelligence of the present” while having fun throwing each other about.

Peter Matthiessen had given me the clue: “to pay attention even at unextraordinary times.”
I see now that my problem was that I kept trying to change my mental state. Wanting things to be other than they are pulls us away from being-in-the-moment and perpetuates dullness. I was trying to get out of a dazed state of mind when I should have embraced it.

I think this is what Imaizumi Sensei meant when he spoke of “the endless accumulation of fresh starts”3. Ironically, at any moment we can choose to create a better outcome, not by trying to make things different, but by paying the closest attention to what is.

 

  1. Chogyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1973), 155 

  2. Peter Matthiessen, Nine-Headed Dragon River (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1987), 104

  3. Ralph T. Bryan ed., The Aikido of Shin-Budo Kai (Sandia Park: Samashi Press), ix Shugyo toha taerukoto no nai denaoshi dearu” “Shugyo is the endless accumulation of fresh starts”

(Featured image “Lightning” courtesy of Tom VanNortwick.)

Connection

In my early years of aikido, connection was not emphasized. I first conceived of connection as something to break away from. Someone grabs your wrist, and well, you’re trying to escape, right? Make them let go!

It was a long time before it occurred to me that one of the principle things we are practicing is connection.

When I first began to experiment with connection, I understood it on a purely tactical level. When someone grabs me, I want him to hold on. I’ve got him right where I want him! He has committed to an attack, and I encourage him not to let go so I can guide him to a peaceful resolution (face down on the mat, safely entangled in an air-tight pin).

Soon I began to sense a deeper purpose for connection. I started to notice that when uke grabs my wrist, I can learn a lot. Through the grip I can feel the direction and intensity of the attack, the attacker’s intention, where the tenseness resides in his body, and where he is out of balance. If I’m sensitive enough, I can feel all the way down to the soles of his feet. It’s rather mysterious, but it’s not that hard to do.

But there is another level of connection that can happen even before physical contact. Lately I have been practicing extending a form of awareness that connects to uke from across the room. It’s a non-verbal observation. I liken it to listening to instrumental music with full attention. The analytical mind is disengaged and a different kind of perception is employed. If I imagine that my center is connecting to uke’s, as she approaches I gather a great deal of subtle information. I see her posture and sense her balance, her intent, the direction and speed of her attack. I begin to sense intuitively how to move in order to unbalance and lead her.

Mark Sensei sometimes talks about the difference between timing and connection. Timing your reaction to a quick attack such as mune tsuki (a stomach punch) is impossible—or, at best, unreliable. If, instead of timing, you use connection with uke, you will find that you have plenty of time. When I first heard this, it sounded a little woo-woo to me.

Fist by Lorianne DiSabato

But it’s true. If I’m not trying to time someone’s attack, but I’m practicing connection, then we move as one, and it no longer feels like a reaction relying on pinpoint accuracy in timing. Perhaps it can be explained by noting that when we’re connected, I’m observing uke’s whole body while focusing on their center, and not having my attention trapped by that quickly approaching fist.

 

Recently in Steve Sensei’s ki class, only aikido students—those of us who train in the “falling down and getting up” portion of the art—showed up. We took the opportunity to practice some initial aikido moves, such as ryote mochi tenkan, where uke’s two hands grab nage’s forearm, and nage pivots on his front foot while raising his held arm. It’s edifying to practice slowly with an uke who is neither “locking down” with tension to prevent your moving nor just going along with you, but is instead practicing the same principles that you, the nage, is practicing. When uke is centered and extending ki, he provides an immediate feedback loop to nage.

AikidoDemonstration-06 by Harvest Ministries Guam

Ryote mochi can be a difficult hold to deal with. Uke has the advantage of two hands gripping your arm, and he can apply a lot of leverage. There are helpful ways to think about executing this move, such as “not encountering uke’s strength,” or “pivoting around the space between uke’s hands,” or “moving where uke isn’t.” Some aikidoka will advise, “Just scratch your head,” revealing that all that’s keeping you from moving is having your mind stuck on the place where your arm is being held, and once you move your attention away from the point of struggle, it’s easy to move.

In this ki class we threw away those “tricks” and worked on connection. An uke held my arm in a ryote mochi grip, and I practiced responding with connection. This begins with a certain increase in pressure, moving in to make maximum contact with all the places where uke’s hands hold me, and through that connection trying to feel all the way to uke’s center. As I searched for real connection, I would try this and that, attempting to feel my way into that mysterious place. Then something almost magical would happen. When I was almost but not quite fully connected with uke, she could keep me from moving, but then I would make some very subtle change—in angle, or pressure, or just intention—and suddenly I could move uke without effort. And what had changed was something in uke’s neurology. Suddenly she no longer wanted to resist.

Taking uke’s role, I felt it from the other side. I held my partner’s arm, giving feedback to what I was feeling. It was—no, no, not quite… and then, Oh! Some slight but extraordinary change happened and suddenly I wanted to move with her. Even though we both were aware of what nage was attempting to do, and I was doing my best to resist her movement, there was a moment when she slipped into real connection and my resistance turned into compliance. Despite what I had been trying to do, I suddenly found myself wanting to move together with her.

When I feel true connection, I am always surprised. It’s always different from what I thought it would be. I can’t get to connection without trying to, but when I connect it’s always different from what I was trying.

 

Anyone who has practiced aikido for awhile has had the experience of unexpectedly doing a very powerful throw when it seemed that you were doing almost nothing. I remember when it first happened to me. A dojo mate came running at me in a katate kosa tori (crosshand) grab, and I began an ikkyo irimi throw and effortlessly sent him airborne across the room. “Oh!” I realized, “It’s much less than I thought it was.” I had stumbled upon a moment of true relaxation—and connection.

And some of us have had an experience that always seems to happen at a seminar practicing with a senpai of much higher rank who has not yet learned to abandon his ego. You happen to execute a move in which you toss him around like a rag doll, and he gets up saying. “I could have resisted that.” You just smile and nod, thinking, “Why didn’t you?”

 

Aikido by Kesara Rathnayake

 

And the answer is the crux of the biscuit. Your senpai began by trying to test you and resist the throw, but at some point he stopped wanting to resist, and what had caused this change of heart?

Connection.

 

 

 

(Featured image “Hold My Hand” courtesy of operabug.)