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.

Cutting Class

Ahhh. There’s nothing like a good sword-slinger movie set in a historic and/or fanciful Asian world. Any Kurosawa film belongs on the list. My favorites include Seven Samurai, Red Beard, and After the Rain. I also love Hero, The Twilight Samurai, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, House of Flying Daggers. And then there’s my very long list of to-be-watched films! Shinobi: Heart Under Blade, the Rurouni Kenshin series, The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi to name a few. 

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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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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.

The Wrestler’s Vessel: A father and son give thanks for family, respect, and Aikido

Jerry and Nate face off on the mats. Jerry offers his torso as a target. Nate surges forward, his fist a torpedo gunning for his father’s gut. Jerry pivots, deflecting the punch. At the same time, he catches hold of Nate’s fist and positions his hands to apply a brilliant wrist lock called kote gaeshi. But then, as Jerry pivots again to apply the compressive bend, the flow of the technique stutter-stops. Nate regains his balance and a slight tussle ensues between the two men.

“You can’t force it, dad,” Nate grins.

Jerry pays close attention in class.

Jerry exhales a guilty laugh. A smile curves under his beard. “Wrestler’s instincts,” he apologizes. A former state championship wrestler, Jerry was Nate’s wrestling coach for many years.

Nate guides Jerry through the felt experiences of tense force and relaxed energy. Jerry listens with rapt attention and asks many questions.  Both their voices are characteristically deep and resonant, yet soft and subdued. If their voices were instruments, Jerry’s would be a tuba; Nate’s a trombone.

They repeat the attack and this time, father successfully slams son to the mat. In fact, Jerry takes Nate’s balance so effectively, Nate laughs all the way down.

“When he teaches me stuff, I just love it!” Jerry beams.

Because Nate began his training over a year before Jerry, he is ranked a couple kyus (levels) above his dad. He wears a hakama and sits ahead of his dad when, according to standard tradition, students line up to bow in at the beginning and end of class. It’s a strange reversal of the familial hierarchy.

“It was a little awkward at first,” Nate says, recalling when Jerry joined the dojo. “Suddenly I had this uke [practice partner] with thirty years of relationship to manage.”

Jerry confesses that before he took up Aikido at Durango Shin-Budo Kai with Nate, he and his wife seriously discussed how the father/son dynamic might change. In the end, Jerry felt it would be healthy to have a space where the son’s expertise could expand beyond the dad’s.

Nate (left) watches over dad Jerry’s Aikido (far right).

“I had to kinda rise in myself to lead,” Nate explains. As his father’s senpai (senior student), he had to take responsibility of that leadership role in order to keep his father safe and help him grow through the training.

Nate’s internal rise was immediately evident to his dad. At that time, Jerry and Nate worked together as teachers at Bayfield High School. When they passed each other in the hallways, Jerry observed how his son’s posture changed. He stood taller and walked with poise and balance. While carpooling, Jerry listened as Nate rattled off what he’d learned on the mat.

Likewise, Nate discovered all-new facets to his father soon after Jerry joined the dojo. “It’s interesting to watch him learn techniques, get coached, and make the effort to adapt and change,” he says. “It’s also interesting to watch him test and see how he deals with that stress. Watching him engage with that process…I’ve never seen that side of him.”

Both men point out that while they enjoy seeing each other in new lights, the mutually respectful relationship they bring to the dojo has been an ongoing work-in-progress reaching all the way back to their wrestling days. Nate took on wrestling because he felt intense pressure to follow in his dad’s colossal wake. For his part, Jerry thought Nate loved the sport as much as he did and was shocked to discover Nate hated every tangled, tussled minute of the training and competitions. Nonetheless, they worked through the schism with grace.

According to Jerry, a longtime pastor, “I think Aikido, in many ways, reframes the [biblical] concept of grace.” He goes on to explain how learning the fundamental principles of seeking your opponent’s agreement or seeing the world from your opponent’s perspective helped him extend grace not only to disgruntled students, but also to his own son as they worked out their adult relationship. “I intentionally worked to become an adult friend with my children.”

Nate concurs, noting, “We share the core value of respect. If we get irritated with each other or something’s not going right, that underlying respect helps work through the kinks.”

With Jerry preparing to relocate to Austin, Texas to be nearer to grandchildren, he and Nate now relish their time in class. The looming separation makes them intensely grateful for what Aikido contributes to their ever-evolving dynamic.

As Nate sees it, Aikido reinforces integrity, a word he links back to his childhood upbringing in the church. He says, “The biblical idea of integrity comes from ceramics and pottery.”

He goes on to explain how a potter can form a vessel from clay, then bake—or fire—it before glazing and firing it again. If, after the first firing, a potter notices any cracks in the vessel, he can either trash it and begin anew, or glaze over the structural weaknesses and move on. “The idea of integrity means starting over. For me, that’s what Aikido is. It’s not about being perfect. It’s about going back, finding the gaps, and starting over.”

***

Now that we’re all poised on the holiday doorstep, ready to start over with yet another New Year, the entire Durango Shin-Budo Kai organization offers thanks to the wider community for its ongoing support. We are especially thankful for guidance from the Community Foundation Serving Southwest Colorado, and we owe a mighty thank-you to Mountain Middle School, its students, and families for giving us the bright and beautiful space to practice. This natural rhythm of give and accept—extend and receive, inhale and exhale—is fundamental to Aikido and to all healthy connections.

Other families enjoy training together at DSBK. Laurel (left) and her dad Nathan tested together this Fall.

We understand that in this outstanding region, we all enjoy a bounty of exceptional charitable organizations and life-altering nonprofits. We appreciate your consideration as you make your year-end donations and thankful contributions to your local, regional, and national networks.

Founded in 2003, DSBK Aikido is a registered 501c3 educational non-profit committed to the embodied practice of Aikido as a means to increasing the peace and harmony for each practitioner, as well as for the whole community and beyond. As always, we will seek additional ways to extend our contributions to the community in the coming years. To that end, none of our teachers are paid, ensuring all funds go toward rent, insurance, and aikido outreach events and efforts in the community. For information about how to give, please visit our Patronage page.

Happy Holidays!