Falling for It

“My ex-wife chose the paint colors,” Trebb explains as we set food and silverware on the dining table.

He must have seen me eyeing the odd pastel yellow, blue, and green. Although the yellow leans too close to chalk and not close enough to daffodil, the overall color scheme is as charming as Easter candy or baby’s clothes. Definitely not a bachelor’s portion of the color wheel.

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Remaining Mind

Zanshin translates as “remaining mind.” It does not mean the mind remains on the past or a few moments ago, or that thing you did well or poorly. It remains here and now.

Zanshin also translates as “the mind with no remainder.” Divide any number by one and the remainder is zero. If you are one hundred percent in the present, there is no room for ego to attach to the past or to fear the future.

In Aikido, zanshin is the moment after a throw, not walking away, but remaining present and focused on the uke. But it goes deeper than that, I think.

I took my blackbelt two weeks ago. It was a four hour ordeal, a constant challenge to stay present in the current movement. Botch a throw? It’s in the past. Feel something odd or curious? It’s in the past. The hardest part was to stay present in the moment, letting future and past go. Remain. Be ready.

But the actual hardest part has been the post-test. Now I can reflect and ask questions. And that means the post test is the real test of zanshin. Self-judgement? Let it go. Why let my mind remain there? Success. Failure. Good throw. Bad throw. None of it is zanshin, fudoshin, or mushin.

The blackbelt test means taking the first step into the practice of aikido. It means becoming a beginner. For five years it has been the spoken and unspoken direction of my training, looming as a target in the distance. For the past six months, the whole dojo has leaned into preparing, investing in me. My time and thoughts were consumed by training and preparation.

Suddenly it was here.

Now it’s gone, and with it, the direction it provided.

The carpet got pulled and I wasn’t really expecting it. Now what?

I know the physical basics of our curriculum. The broad strokes of form are familiar. Now the mental stuff of training. Shoshin – beginner’s mind. Stay curious. Search deeper. Explore the movements. Mushin – avoid opinion and judgement and just be in the zone. Fudoshin – do not waiver from the shugyo and don’t quail from new challenges. Zanshin – be more fully in the moment and remain there.

Know Your Limitations

Face down. Prostrate on my belly. With my head turned to one side, one cheek smooshed and spread like a pancake on the griddle. That’s where I was when I confronted a demon.

The nage who had just whirled me down to the mat was now trying to master an immobilizing (but not deliberately painful) pin. As a senior student guided the nage through an anatomical contortion tutorial on my arm and its various joints and ligaments, I stared at the familiar yellow caution box printed on every mat. Amidst the legal disclaimer indemnifying the mat-making company from any liabilities connected to injuries incurred on those mats nested a fat, all-caps phrase: KNOW YOUR LIMITATIONS.

My focus locked on the words.

They stung with insinuation. I had lately felt very limited. Rather inept.

While working with a kohai days before on a paired weapons kata, the less experienced student (kohai) asked how to smooth out the bumpier or more confusing sections of the kata. As far as I could tell, poor form hindered his ability to execute those trickier bits and that form stemmed from inexperience—nothing 10,000 repetitions wouldn’t solve over the years. But I offered a few pointers my kohai could try right then.

Perplexed, the kohai statued in place. I explained the pointers in another way. The kohai’s eyebrows knotted. He attempted what I suggested and the resulting form was worse. At this point, I was perplexed. Normally, my explanations were succinct and effective. I tried various means—a physical pantomime of “efforting” the sword to “win” vs relaxing and letting the blade rise or fall naturally and without conflict; different metaphors; guided posture corrections while pressuring the tip of the kohai’s sword with the weight of my hand. The feedback ceased when it was clear we were both frustrated and dissatisfied.

Outside of the dojo, I was also struggling and feeling limited in a new relationship with a person who was intensely kind to everyone except to himself. To his nieces, nephews, siblings, his clients, friends, and the general public, this guy would sacrifice the shirt off his back. Mention this generosity to him or dare to praise it and he would recoil. He insisted he was not a good person. He was trash.

As a result, we cycled through a frustrating pattern. After a few months of building intimacy and trust, he’d pull away from my affection. No way could I like him that much, he’d scoff. He met my compassion with skepticism. Surely, all this niceness was a set-up. No doubt, I’d turn on him and hang him with a rope woven from all his faults. That’s what other partners had done before.

These and so many other tender recollections swirled through my mind while I stared at the yellow disclaimer.

“KNOW YOUR LIMITATIONS,” it practically taunted.

“Trust me,” I whispered telepathically to the yellow box, “I know!”

I knew I was limited. I did not have all the answers. I lacked the solutions to improve a kohai’s weapon training. I lacked whatever skills or experience were needed to assure my beau he was worthy…not just of my love but of his own love, which was far greater and more powerful than any affection I could ever offer.

As weeks passed, I continued to struggle with all my interactions. I felt verbally clumsy. A limited vocabulary…. I sometimes snipped at people. A limited store of equanimity…. I longed to withdraw from public life; retreat to the little cocoon of my house and never come out. A limited resolve….

Strangely enough, I was holed up at home when O’Sensei told me, “Cast off limited thoughts and return to true emptiness. Stand in the midst of the Great Void. This is the secret of the Way of the Warrior.”

I was flipping through my pocket-sized copy of The Art of Peace when I came across that instruction. I blinked. All the churning gears in my body and brain stuttered mid-spin. I was rather full. Ironically, I was flooded, full to the brim with all my lackings and shortcomings.  

Since air was a limitless element—and one I could have limitless access to—I sat down in the sunny apron on the floor and meditated. In Aikido, we also call this “ki breathing.” Ki being that universal energy or breath. I brought my attention to the present moment, consisting of nothing more than breathing in…then…breathing out.

Thoughts wandered in and then wandered off. Memories drifted by and gradually drifted off. Future anxieties and hopes came and went like tourists cruising through a National Park. For a time, I sat in that sublime emptiness. And then came that yellow disclaimer box. Only this time, it came without any burning insinuation. This time, it seemed like the best advice in the world to know my limitations.

Knowing was not the same as spotlighting. Or microscopically analyzing. Or fixing. Knowing was not fearing. Knowing was also not at all like denying or hiding the limitations. Knowing was such a kind word. As gentle as the dust on moth wings. Knowing was something to be done among friends. You get to know them more and more over time by remaining curious and compassionate.

Could I come to know my limitations? Could we stop being at war and simply unite as good friends?

“Never think of yourself as an all-knowing, perfected master,” O’Sensei advised as if seated next to me in my living room meditation. “You must continue to train daily with your friends and students and progress together in the Art of Peace.”

Now there was the disclaimer that ought to come printed on every practice mat!  

 

 

 

Image credits: “Yellow Disclaimer” by Jennifer Mason, CC BY-SA 2.0; “Lego-Darth-Vader vs. Aragorn” CC BY-SA 2.0; “Oh What a Night” CC BY-SA 2.0; “The Art of Peace” courtesy of Shambhala Press.

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 Aikido of Hospice Care

“They tell me I only have weeks, or maybe months to live.”

My friend has tears in her eyes as she tells me this. Her parents, primary caregivers for months now, sit on either side of her with pained expressions. Their daughter is in hospice care. They are her escorts to the grave. And all four of us sitting here in her apartment this evening knows it.

I notice a thought rise up: This is not okay. She should not be dying yet; she’s 12 years younger than me. And I realize that, once again, I’m blaming uke.

Uke grabbed my wrist incorrectly. Uke grabbed the wrong wrist. Uke should have grabbed my wrist with more/less energy.

I am arguing with reality. Responding this way, I put myself at odds with what truly IS in the moment. By overlooking this opportunity to agree with my partner’s ki, I create conflict. I am unwittingly attempting to impose my will upon this moment when I could be treating it with acceptance and kindness.

Photo by author

Sitting on the couch next to my friend, I look around and take a deep breath. As I open myself more fully to the present moment, I become aware of the sound of her oxygen machine turning on and off, over and over. Tubes. Morphine. The changes in the contours of her face. The color and texture of her hair. The brightness of her eyes. The color of her skin. The shape and size of her body. Her speech.

I’m curious, so I ask her how she feels about all of this. About having cancer. About dying. What is it that you want your parents to know? What is it that you want to say that you have not said yet?

Before she can respond, her father begins talking. He talks about her achievements. He talks about how proud he is. He speaks softly, and he speaks at length. His heart is breaking, and I can see it. He is in his 70’s and he is walking what must be one of the most painful journeys a parent can ever experience.

I find myself blaming uke again. He should let his daughter express her truth. He is trying to distract her from her pain because he doesn’t want to face his own pain. He should be handling this differently.

But this is simply me arguing with reality again. And I catch it just a little more quickly than before. My aikido is beginning to bleed off the mat and into parts of my life I never expected.

Photo by author

I think of kneeling across from uke in suwari waza. Uke grabs both of my wrists and I start pushing and pulling, trying to execute a technique; trying to do it *extra* good this time!

“Ohhhh… you’re using so much muscle right now,” my Sempai tells me. And she’s right. My habitual response to conflict: How can I get out of this predicament? How can I defeat this opponent and avoid pain and suffering?

We reset and she grabs my wrists again. I shift my focus to kindness. How can I connect more fully with this situation? How can I more openly and completely accept and embrace these current conditions, which are true regardless of what I think or feel in this moment?

Uke smiles as she loses her balance and is smoothly pinned. I’m smiling, too.

Photo by author

Back in my friend’s apartment, the dinner plates have been cleared away and we’re sitting around the table, laughing and remembering good times. My friend is exhausted, and it’s time to say good night. As the evening draws to a close, I ask her what she wishes for in the world.

She answers without hesitation.

“More kindness.”