Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Music, Society, and The Process­­­™

Sitting on the bus, a fellow rider notices my book. It's not the commuter's typical fiction to pass the time or the newspaper to avoid the gazes; rather, it's bluegrass sheet music, different enough to catch his eye.

"Do you play?"

Not so many years ago, this would have been an incomprehensible situation. If I was a master of anything, it was the art of invisibility: Moving through groups unnoticed, shunting undue attention, guarding intention, keeping secrets, operating within shadows. It becomes a strongly habitual mode of operating, affecting every experience, every encounter.

Instantly there is the sense of threat...
... but then I remember:

It was only this spring when I had the sense that we needed more music.  I don't mean more concerts up the block at the Merriweather Post Pavilion, nor do I mean more offerings at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall or the Lyric Opera House either--though all of those things are lovely. What I mean is that we need more people learning and playing together in the local parks, around the coffee shops, in rooms at the libraries, on the patios and porches, at the end of the cul-de-sacs, ... It's a vision where you're as likely to see someone out in public carrying an instrument as staring at a smartphone.

How will that vision ever happen if I am not a part of it, not communicating it?

The instinctual response that I've practiced would not serve me here. It was bad enough that that I was exposed in tight quarters with a book that might draw attention--a major transgression of obscurity; now I'd have to decide to go further, to override my "better judgement" on an entirely new level.

His name was David. When not at the office, he loves playing piano. 
We chat now when we see each other on the bus.

Similar "changes" occurred along the way, both before and afterward. In one moment I was someone with little knowledge of music and without an instrument, and in the next I was a fellow with a mandolin in hand and scheduled lessons. The low priority idle time I had to myself became daily practice time. Inconspicuous appearances in public remained inconspicuous, though now sometimes with a gig bag strapped over my shoulder... and sometimes when I'm sitting down, I'll open that bag to take out my song book... and sometimes when my songbook is out, I'll take out the mandolin too... and sometimes I'll play... sometimes not so inconspicuously.

It's all an affront to that well trained aspect of me that maintains the status quo, and it's an unspeakable offense to the perfectionist in me to look and to sound foolish in public... How much easier it would be if the way I saw the world was already "normal"?

I wonder how many other people might begin if they didn't feel alone, 
if they didn't think of themselves as unusual,  
if only someone else would be the first?

Suddenly, you realize that you are that person... and you're way behind on doing your part to move that vision you've been given forward.

To create an environment where it's easy and comfortable for anyone to try, to practice, to play at any level, to be welcome among others, the first step may be to recognize your belief that it is not--then check where that idea came from. To date, beyond an occasional eye roll from people who "know better," the only resistance that I've actually had to opening the bag and pulling out the mandolin has been my own.

David wasn't the first or the last I've met this way...
Who knows how the ripples will cascade?

Let's stop here for now--there's a lot to digest--and let's add an admin note or two:
  1. I'm adding a placeholder tab at the top of the blog labeled "Columbia Bluegrass" to keep notes, links, and so forth about this local musical practice--particularly for those who are interested in examining this as a group exercise in Applied Zen.
  2. Maybe it's just blathering about personal experience, or maybe it's instruction and blueprints to change your world--I suppose that's up to you. Regardless, expect to see more posts on the topic here in the future. Feel free to enjoy them on whatever levels you like.
  3. As usual, bonus points for anyone who can identify the koan within the post!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

New Aikido & Zen Group Practice Sessions Forming

Group practice sessions were suspended late last year with changes in location and priorities--to include a tree falling on the home where we practiced! Since then, the home is repaired and inquires continue from both past and prospective members.

I have put together an Interest Form (link) with some details and our focus. If you are local to the Columbia, Maryland area (map) and you are interested in taking what we explore in the posts here to the next level, take a moment now to complete it.

Just as importantly, tell a friend. Opportunities like this can be quite rare.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Prayers and Friendship

Whether through science or through faith, there are competing views of what this life is--including  what our own roles are in how we experience it and what we are to one another. It's a luxury to be able even to consider the question, let alone to post the thoughts publicly, indulging such an idle thought...

... until one day a message arrives from a friend standing in the shadow of Maslow's Pyramid. It's standing precariously upside-down. We know it's about to topple, but in which direction we cannot know. Facing mortality, the message reiterates the value of your friendship and asks for your prayers.

We'll know the outcome soon enough.

In the meantime: an offering of prayers, a reflection on friendship.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Correct Functioning

Shifting position in bed, my own coughing wakes me--again. "It's too early," I think to myself; "I'm going to wake my wife. I should take some medicine and go downstairs to the couch." Sitting up, I put on my sweatshirt and pajama pants. I pull the extra blanket that fell partially between the footboard and the mattress, and I see the NyQuil on the counter. I put down the blanket and dose myself. I grab the blanket and pass the first bathroom, the second bathroom, and start down the stairs. "I should go to the bathroom before I go back to sleep." I ball up the blanket and put it in the chairlift parked at the bottom of the stairs, then use the third bathroom. Finishing there, I grab the blanket and head for the couch. Now here I am, blanket beside me, waiting for the medicine to kick in...

My body feels broken and my mind is clouding, but it seems there is always something that is correctly functioning.

Maybe it's just the NyQuil talking?

Monday, October 8, 2012

Realities

Sitting at the conference room table, my mind drifts away to consider two types of realities in which I find myself. Firstly, the table and the walls are solid; there's no simple way for my body to catch up to my imagination, wherever it's gone. Secondly, it could, but it's not... After all, with only minimal effort I really could find myself on the other side of that closed door. With a bit more? Tahiti.

But there I sit... until I'm jolted back: That fellow is lying and my colleagues are eating it up. Surely someone must see it, no? 

No.

"Hey! That fellow is lying!"

"I am offended by your accusation!"

My own contingent turns on me and rushes to assuage hurt feelings.

The flow of millions of dollars per year is determined in no small part by understanding that--in this particular corner of the universe--even feigned offense trumps the weight of so much misspent money...

So, exactly how does a situation like this become reality?

Perhaps a better question: What can you do to change it?

Would you like to learn?

Friday, September 21, 2012

Stick or Snake?

What does this have to do with that?
We've addressed this before, but it's worth a second look:

It's an old story: It's late, and you're walking tired and alone along an obscure path deep in the woods. Suddenly a dark wavy thing catches your eye before your foot falls on it. Without a thought, you are startled: "A snake!!!" You leap back; it doesn't move. "Ahhh, a stick!"

Phew!

This comes up in a lesson about "seeing things as they are." The student inevitably hears the story, develops the idea that this is some practical lesson about remaining in the Here & Now(TM) and developing the clarity to realize on sight the difference between snakes and sticks in the deep woods at night, and then dedicates the next kalpa or two toward attaining this clarity.

Perfect! Well, sort of...

Anyway, today at the office I learned that where once a group of us each had internet access from our own desks, we will soon be limited to having one shared computer at most in the area with access outside the office. It's a matter of corporate policy, cost savings, and everything else I'm told, but given my own situation, this development is troubling. So, I couldn't help but wonder quietly: "Is this the last straw?"

... then I wonder what work I would find next.

If you see any opportunities to put this stuff to good use, do forward them along!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Shaping Your Choice

In this TED talk, Philip Zimbardo makes an impassioned presentation about how otherwise good people slip into evil behaviors:


If you skip forward to around 16:50, you'll see his list entitled "7 Social Processes That Grease the Slippery Slope of Evil," reproduced here:

  1. Mindlessly taking the first small step
  2. Dehumanization of others
  3. De-individuation of self (anonymity)
  4. Diffusion of personal responsibility
  5. Blind obedience to authority
  6. Uncritical conformity to group norms
  7. Passive tolerance of evil through inaction or indifference
He argues (around 19:20) that we need more heroes in our society--not the fantastic superheroes or extraordinary people models, but the everyday people whose heroism emerges in a particular set of circumstances. At 21:30, he calls to our attention an example of such a hero, a fellow who leaped to the tracks from the subway platform and his two kids to save another person of a different race from being killed by an oncoming train. He offers the quote, "I did what anyone could do, and what everyone ought to do."

I wonder if the presenter is aware that the "social processes that grease the slippery slope of evil" are essentially the same as those that allow the appearance of one of his "heroes?"

I just received a promotional email from Redbox, the movie rental company. The subject: "Millions have already rented it." The body: "Redbox customers love 'The Hunger Games.' People who didn't think they'd like it are falling in love. Want to give it a shot?" There are two buttons: "Rent DVD" and "Rent BLU-RAY."

Go on: Be a hero!

You know you want to...

Thursday, September 13, 2012

A Thought Exercise, Part 2

A group of men are waiting outside a conference room before the hour. The highest ranking military member is a mid-grade officer; the highest ranking civilian member outranks him. There is good-natured conversation, but the language becomes... colorful.

Opposite the conference room in the hall are vending machines. The men make way when a woman on a mobility scooter approaches, but they are briefly shocked when they hear her sharp "Excuse me, gentlemen!"--a reminder that they watch their language in the public space.

Quietly giggling and slightly red-faced, not one offers to help when the woman drops a coin from her purse...

... though one did bring in a trophy quarter afterward to show the others around the table once the room became available. Now that the woman was gone and the door was closed, the expected backlash continued. She was a large woman so naturally there would be the implication that her only handicap was her obesity, and there would be the rhetorical question about whether the outcome would be different if it was a piece of candy rather than a quarter.

The woman's interruption regarding the language was proper, as the workplace has rules. How we respond to the affront when we know we realize we are in the wrong is another story. It's possible the lesson will be learned now that the heat of the moment has passed and tension is diffused... but maybe not. Maybe the "pack behavior" of this group will be reinforced. Who knows?

All I can consider is my own response.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Thought Exercise


Suddenly, an instantaneous flash of amnesia afflicts everyone on Earth, and--for just a moment--you have a glimpse of yourself carrying on with the momentum accumulated the moments before. Only one thing is missing: You have no context; you don't know the why.

Would you be surprised?

How much effort would it take for you to assemble a palatable story that explains the situation you find yourself in? How far removed would that story be from the basic principles of your youth? From common sense? From basic decency? How complex a structure would be required to support what you see? What would you have to believe, and what beliefs would you have had to set aside?

What is the distance between who you are and the you that you see?

Right now, it's mid-morning on a Tuesday. I'm sitting in my living room typing a post. Frankly, it feels quite natural. On an ordinary Tuesday I'd be at the office, but today we have pressing business at the house--no problem. On an ordinary Tuesday, though, I might be hard-pressed to answer about what I saw... still, it would not be very complicated.

So, if you happen to find yourself far from who you are, what do you suppose is the most expedient way back? What would be your next step?

Shoshin & The Mandolin

Sitting outside by the firepit, I wondered if I would write here again. After saying what I had to say about my daily experiences through the languages of Aikido and Zen--even occasionally through mathematics or a picture--I put the blog down for a while...

... and I picked up this.

It was a spontaneous moment long in the making. We took my daughter to sign up for voice lessons. While there, I said I'd like to learn the mandolin. There was exactly one in the store hanging on the wall, and there was exactly one instructor on staff who played who just happened to have time to add a student?

Done! So, while I've not been writing here, I've been practicing.

My musical experience is very limited: the basics in grade school, a handful of piano lessons in my late-20's, and an introductory class to the Great Highland Bagpipes (limited to practice on the chanter) in my early 30's. It's safe to say that now, in my 40's, I really am a beginner...

The difference now is that I'm no longer a beginner at being a beginner.

I know what it's like, that precise moment when everything changes. I know what it is to take that first step into uncertainty. I know the sensation of the obsession taking hold. I know the passion and the craving in the pursuit. I know the feeling of my every sense and my every thought bending and twisting to my need... seeking and accumulating knowledge and skills, making connections and generating insight.

I know what it's like to know how things should be--and maybe will be with persistence and practice--but to see where I am now and to know how far away I am from that envisioned state of mastery. I know what it is to feel completely lost, to feel completely frustrated, to not understand, to be off-balanced, to be overwhelmed with all of the details that have to be just so, and to feel so awkwardly uncoordinated...

I know what it is like to feel some skills ultimately become part of me, available like breathing. I also know what it is to find those that simply never will.

I know what it's like to misstep, to err, and to fuck-up royally... and I know what it's like to try again... and again... and again. I know what it is to throw up my arms and give up.  Fortunately, I have also known what it is to finally be considered a master...

... and I know what it is to put it all aside, to pick up a mandolin, and to feel the indescribable joy of hearing that first plucking, even if it does throw a flat buzz!

So I laugh: Look at how much I know! I know it's not shoshin--"beginner's mind"--to enter with all of this knowing. It's also not shoshin to enter believing that this knowing is wrong. What I can say is that when I hear that perfect A-note reference ringing at 440 Hz and try to find the same in that third pair of strings as I start to tune up, there's no knowing... there's hardly even the peg, the pick, and the strings.

Now, what of all of this analysis? Of my finding this pattern repeating in my life again and again? Of finding evidence that I was right and feeling the resulting confidence that this new endeavor will work out just fine one way or another?

You know, I just don't have a problem with that. I'm too busy finding examples like this:


That's a long road... along the way, I'm looking forward to simple fiddle tune hootenannies and laughs around the fire pit with good friends :-)

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Detour

Detour.
Become what is missing.
Find where it goes...
Stop.
What is "what is missing"?
Go find it.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Just Before the End of Practice

Let's take one step away from the last post, turn around, and examine it.

If you are a koan practitioner, I can say that your koan practice is not sufficiently mature until you find that everyone you encounter is speaking in koan. If in you suddenly discover yourself within an ordinary conversation with another, you've fallen asleep at the wheel. You need to re-examine the encounter, check where you lost your bearings, and perhaps reconsider how you might have answered given the opportunity. In this way of continuous re-examination, you will not only achieve mastery yourself, but you will also identify all of the masters all around you who have been continuously offering themselves to perfect your practice waiting for this very special moment, and you will see that every situation that you encountered along the way was a gift, a pointer on the road toward your inevitable enlightenment. You will have encountered AvalokiteĊ›vara with the thousand hands and thousand eyes guiding you along your path, taking the form of others for a moment. You will have seen God inside everyone and everything you encounter. Then finally you can laugh.

Yes, your life may change on this spiritual path. You may lose family and friends who were not ready to see the truth you have found. Early in your practice you understood them as obstacles, as attachments that needed to be severed so you could advance--not to worry, the right people will join you in your practice. Further along, perhaps you recognize these situations like Mara tempting the Buddha, or Satan tempting Jesus. Later in your practice, perhaps you reconcile that this was the Holy Spirit working through others all along, but you could not recognize them as such at the time... Or perhaps you will understand them as spiritual guides or bodhisattvas? The labels are not important--the outcome is essentially the same.

Amazing...

Now, for the people who read the above and believe it ridiculous or delusional, there is a message for you too: You suffer from the same ailment that you diagnose. Does everyone not live inside a mindset of our own creation? One that we maintain, reinforce, and occasionally adjust? Do we all not split what we see into what resonates with us and what is dissonant? Do we all not consider how to respond from within that same mind that contains the range of what responses we have learned are suitable or appropriate?

If in what is written above we see the deluded madness of the spiritual practitioner, perhaps we have failed to see what it is within us that we are holding that has us judge this way or that way as we encounter it. Perhaps we do not yet recognize ourselves in what we see...

But all of this is just one understanding, a lens through which to examine what we encounter, including what is written above. In this sense, it is not any different than how a koan practitioner might interpret events while pursuing enlightenment.

If I leave you with this definitive understanding, will I have demonstrated this truth and find some validation in the process?

Perhaps this is the second-to-last step.

How will you finish?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

What Steals Your Attention?

This is a very interesting question to me. One way I track the power of my personal zen practice is measured in equanimity. The link provides good discussion from a mindfulness perspective, but in short it is enough to think of it as not being swayed. If you are focused, you are not swayed by either attractions or aversions to what some call "the eight winds":
  • praise and blame; 
  • success and failure; 
  • pleasure and pain;
  • fame and disrepute;
and their ilk.

By maintaining the point of view of a dispassionate observer, you are able to recognize your own automatic--or, conditioned--responses to what you encounter in each situation. For instance, you may notice your own smile forming upon someone saying "Great job!" (praise), or you may notice that you are wondering what you did wrong when you see someone frown (blame).

In many ways koan practice is similar: We gain insight into the workings of our own mind and everything it contains when it encounters a koan, revealing who we are in an instant. When we are able to maintain a certain distance from the question and observe it on different levels, we are told that we gain a bit of freedom from the autopilot, giving us an opportunity to change course.

If you are completely focused in your koan practice, in maintaining equanimity, or in whatever your practice, then every single thing you encounter throughout your day is scrutinized as a potential threat to your "maintaining your center" and is dealt with accordingly. On re-examination of each encounter, perhaps we see where we did well and congratulate ourselves (praise), or perhaps we consider where we fell short--or "fell asleep"--and vow not to repeat that mistake again (blame)...

In time we can maintain this awareness--or, threat awareness--without having to remind ourselves to "stay present" or "stay with the koan." We no longer have to recall that we are doing this to maintain our center. Before we know it, perhaps koan practice, equanimity practice, mindfulness practice, or whatever our practice, is completely integrated into our habitual being, now occurring effortlessly, in the touted state of mushin--without thought. Our center is now taking care of itself without any mention of "our center" at all.

But is this not precisely where we started? Before something caught our attention? Before something stole our center?

The importance of the advanced practitioner carefully considering this cycle simply cannot be overstated. And still, like the black belt in Aikido or your martial art of choice, the extraordinary level of achievement in gaining even partial insight into these workings is only an indicator that you are finally ready to begin the true studies, learning how to really use it...

If you don't see it yet, don't worry: Life itself will circle you back to this point again and again until you catch the meaning and are ready to join us.

We'll leave the light on.


Saturday, April 28, 2012

I don't know quite why...

... but when I see something like this, I wonder if this is not a little bit closer to what I see inside both Aikido and Zen exchanges.


As new posts on an old thread, "On being a female in an Aikido Dojo" hit my inbox at 3 a.m. every morning, I wonder if some people will ever understand the point of all of this training...

Consider it... and tell me what you think.

[Link to AikiWeb thread here.]

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A Long Dharma Talk

The monk began late as usual, but this time went on well beyond the hour's tail.

Word after word after word... Koan after koan... exchange after exchange... Really, it's hard to say: I was eating my dinner, helping with the dishes, and finally tending to my son when suddenly he was still talking through the earbuds.

When is this talk going to end?

Ahh...

Shorts - Tuesday 24 April 2012

Gratitude

While I was checking messages this morning, the following came via a post to one of my Google+ threads:
I searched google+ for #Gratitude to see what I would find, your Blog (among other things) came up. Some good thoughts to start my day. Thanks.
His kind words were a good start for my day. I am grateful...

MDA Clinic Day

Perspective: The view of Baltimore
from Neurology (Johns Hopkins)
Yesterday was a cool, cloudy Monday yesterday. Given that it was MDA Clinic Day, we probably didn't notice. For several years we've been living in the MDA's Baltimore district--working with their staff, attending camp with them, and so forth--but making our twice-a-year clinic visits at Children's Hospital in Washington, DC. Our pediatrician told us several years ago that we'd be well-served at either location, but he had a particular place in his heart for "Doctor Bob," the clinic's head neurologist at Children's. Doctor Bob has since retired, as has his amazing administrative assistant who shepherded us through the processes. Suddenly, the place felt as foreign as anywhere else--so we tried something new.

There's a lot to compare and contrast between Johns Hopkins and Children's clinics, but that's neither here nor there. In the end, with a little more experience under our belts, a little more sense of what we have as a philosophy and want as a regimen for care, we have a good feeling about the switch. When we were ready to put aside the personal frustrations of where we were and accept that we could change, the MDA crew made it happen effortlessly for us.

I think there's an Applied Zen lesson in there somewhere...

Ethics

There's something some might consider "dark" in studying Zen, particularly if you are prone to finding insights about how concepts such as "ethics" shape our lives. Suddenly, you may find people using others' understanding of ethics in quite an unethical way. That is, someone wants to accomplish something, and "ethics" is in his toolkit as either a weapon or a shield; or perhaps ethics is something he must dissolve when it is pointed at him. It's up to you to see the situation as it is, looking past the smoke and mirrors, seeing the true intention.

Welcome to the field of dharma combat

For some, it's a matter of control and a single-minded pursuit of what they want with anything and everything as fair game. For other's it's simply a study of those in the first category, sometimes from the perspective of their victims. If you are flexible within these extremes--pursuing a "middle way"--perhaps you can do well to navigate your circumstances without having others trip you up too often.

Did you forget that we opened with "ethics"?

Sometimes it is better to live holding some ideas as sacred. These ideas shape how you see everything around you, how you experience your life. The Golden Rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" has far more reach than you can imagine...


Enough for this morning. I'm grateful for your reading and your comments!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Bismallah

I recall hearing that formal correspondence, announcements, and so forth in devout Muslim countries, whatever the topic, begin with the “Bismallah” invocation: “In the name of God, the Gracious, the Merciful.” Devout Jews place the mezuzah on the door, and as one enters, there is a reminder that it is God and the Torah that are entering the room. Each session of the U.S. Congress begins with the Chaplain’s prayer. We take off our shoes and bow before entering the dojo or zendo.

It is simple to allow such actions to fade into empty ritual, but if we work actively to keep them alive, consider their significance: From wherever we have come, with whatever intentions, agendas, or even baggage, we arrive at this point and we stop

Dutifully reminded that your very next words represent God, the nation, the people you serve, the teachings, or some other ideal for which we have all come together, what will you say next?

And how will you hear and interpret what comes in response?

Now, proceed

Monday, April 16, 2012

Am I Alone in This ?

I've had several exchanges over the weekend wherein I've heard this sentiment expressed, sometimes using those very words... but not as a question, but rather as a fact: "I feel I'm in this alone." "I'm lonely." "I'm doing this without any help." "Others wouldn't understand."

Exchange after exchange, there it was, clear as day: "I am alone in this." And beyond there, look at how they all behave when they believe it! Look at the angst, the aggravation, the suffering, ... One is alone bearing the burden; the other is alone, locked out from being able to help. One feels removed from a community; others do not want to be a bother. On and on, pulling the thread, finding so many examples... If only one knew that the other was feeling the same.

But wait: Is it really possible that the entire world feels alone? With whom could I even discuss this question?

Ahhhh....

How can I really be alone when I'm spending all of my time with this idea or feeling that is very much alive? If I become single-minded in seeing Alone, when would I even have the time to see anyone else? Moreover, if I cannot place that sense of aloneness within myself, won't I be prone to seeing it everywhere around me? Have you been introduced to the "Zen mirror"?

Whether it begins in hearing others say they're alone (a concept) or whether it begins with your own sense of loneliness (a feeling), you should take care to identify it and treat it carefully. After all, if you become infected, you see how it can be instantly contagious to everyone around you.

Need help? Remember: Don't Suffer Alone.

If you've been through it or you understand, consider making a donation to support our outreach.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Running Late!

Yesterday around lunchtime I received a message that hooked my attention and was clearly going to require some dedicated time to formulate a good response. In the back of my mind, though, was a 1 p.m. meeting...

Time faded as I sorted my thoughts, every so often sitting back in my office chair, every so often bumping the mouse habitually to keep the screensaver from launching, when suddenly I noticed I had only two minutes to catch the shuttle! I logged off and flew out the door to the lobby! Elevator or stairwell? The elevator is too slow. What if I miss this shuttle? Maybe catch the next, miss a short lunch break, be a few minutes late. I forgot the sticky note with the room number! Wait, I think I remember; besides, I know the corridor--allow a few minutes to search if I'm wrong... I should have hit the bathroom! It can wait...

What happened?

I caught the shuttle, which was running a minute or two behind. I found the first bathroom on arrival. I grabbed a quick lunch. I remembered the room number and was on time.

No, I don't mean that. What happened?

Ahh... For a while, my singular focus was to provide a good answer to that message. The office, the computer, the desk and chair: these were all as they should be, assisting in this task. The meeting looming on the horizon? I was tracking that light hindrance, checking in on it periodically...

In an instant, singular focus shifted exclusively to "be at the meeting on time!" Suddenly, my being logged into the computer was a delay and the comfortable place to think was far away from where I should be. Even the desk was an obstacle, standing between me and the door!  "I have plenty of time to catch the shuttle" became "Out of my way! I'm going to miss the bus!"

My body is running down four flights of stairs and out the door while my thoughts are checking alternative plans, yes, but they did not change that I was on my way. Everything from the bathroom stop to catching lunch were considered from the "Be on time!" place.

I don't even know what happened to that message's reply...

Anyway, from one full-bore Zen emptiness perspective, not even a "meeting" exists since that would just be a characterization of a bunch of people in a room... that is if even the "people" or the "room" existed to hold the meeting... (Don't worry, those people will be so late thinking about all that emptiness that they can't interfere with your meeting anyway.) But look at all that transpired given those ideas!

More importantly, take note of that moment when "provide a good response" became "be at the meeting on time!" I don't mean a switch from thinking "provide a good response" to thinking "be at the meeting on time!" like we're doing now--both of these thoughts appear in a different context--rather, consider the actual shift itself. What decided to release one state and appear in the next, recasting my entire world in a new view?

Can you simply change the context? Can you trust your body and thoughts to follow you?

Then how about this: Along the way, the thought "You probably don't have to be at that meeting anyway..." did in fact occur to me. What was it that rejected that thought and carried on?

What is what you see in light of where you are? Catch up!!!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Art and Koan: What does it Mean?

When I drive, it's very rare that I have the radio on. So, when I did happen to turn the radio on on my way to the office, I was captivated by this song:


I used one of my phone's music identifying apps to bookmark it for later. By the end of the day, I had spent the $1.29 in the iTunes store and had the song on a continuous loop as I did my two-mile after-work lap around the local lake.

I think back to high school and middle school, hearing the teacher ask, "What was the artist trying to convey?" or some variant, where "artist" might mean "poet," "author," "composer," "painter," or anything else. "What does it mean?" I remember the sometimes surprising variety in answers from the class, thinking "Interesting. I would not have thought that." On another occasion, though, I thought to ask, "Isn't the author still alive? Why do we not just ask?"

Today I still hear--and now ask--that question: "Why did the master answer that way?" We hold up a koan, a "public case," for examination and ask what it means to each of us... and I am still often surprised by the surprising variety of answers from the class.

The practice seems exotic, but at one level it's something that we've done all of our lives, both inside the classroom and outside: We observe, we interpret, and we respond--questioning and answering, a continuous process.  It's no big deal... except within koan practice.

But what is this koan practice?

I like these lyrics:
Now and then I think of all the times you screwed me over
Part of me believing it was always something that I'd done
But I don't wanna live that way
Reading into every word you say
You said that you could let it go
And I wouldn't catch you hung up on somebody that you used to know
A Zen practitioner could sit for a lifetime with this song--or walk mile after mile around the lake with it on continuous loop--looking for the meaning beyond simple interpretation. What will you find there?

It's time to put the song down and get myself to the office! I'll check your answers later after a $2 contribution to my Viral Music Interpretation Fund--see the Donate button on the right ;-)

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Nine Years Facing the Wall

Bodhidharma, Nine Years in the Cave
This morning my attention was called to a news story entitled "Iran plans to cut itself off from the Internet permanently." The gist: A country will sever its people's ties from the outside world, replacing basic services such as search and email with its own.

Sounds crazy, right?

Bodhidharma is said to have spent nine years sitting in a cave, facing the wall, speaking to no one. For some people, he's the big legend in patriarchal zen and even martial arts circles. Other people say he never existed at all...

... and that makes some people pretty angry.

I'm told that if two people independently perform the same Google search, they may receive different results, tailored to the individual, the location, the computer being used, and so forth. The distinctions may be appreciated; after all, they're tailored to what I want to see, showing me more of what is relevant to me and less of what I don't want to see--even completely rejecting what I may find offensive (e.g., "safe search").

Of course, when the Chinese Google search for "Tienanmen Square" produced different search results than the same search in America, there was outrage. I tried it myself; there were different results...

Of course, when I performed that search as the news story suggested, I was on a computer in America. If my Internet experience was modified or "shaped" by someone else, would I recognize it?

How do you react to different things, including news stories, given what you know? How do you know what you know? Are you sure?

I came home and told my family about my tough day at work. I asked how their day went. They looked at each other and said, "Fine." We ate dinner in peace.

[The Iran story can be found here.]

Monday, April 9, 2012

Searching for Your Teacher's Reincarnation

If I asked you for a spoon to stir my coffee, I would not expect you to bring me this:


If you say instead that you are looking for a teacher, though, ... Well now it all makes sense!

... doesn't it?

If you understand, then tell me the meaning in your teacher's own words.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

What are You when You're not "Being Zen"?

It sounds like a koan question, doesn't it? It's actually a more practical question centered on social media and living an integrated life.

I tend to segregate different dimensions of my life across the different social media services:

  • Facebook holds the bulk of my "in real life" connections, the family and friends categories. The connections are generally local. There's where the pictures of the kids and updates about what we had for dinner go. There's generally nothing particularly exciting or racy there.
  • Twitter and now Google+ hold more the madness, including koan-ish discussions that most of the others would not appreciate let alone understand. These contacts are scattered worldwide with very few if any found locally.
  • LinkedIn holds the professional connections with coworkers and is largely limited to people doing things just like me. That is, there are very few social contacts in there who just happen to share what they do for a living.

[As noted before (link), I did the same with a few blogs, posting not simply to different categories but rather to completely different sites, and have been working slowly since to consolidate relevant posts here.]

Those three dimensions are almost completely mutually exclusive. If I am connecting with you on one service, it's not likely were are connected on another. I can't say that it was my intention to partition my contacts this way, but it's undeniable that that's what has occurred and that I've shared limited aspects of myself along those same lines.

All and all, it's been very, very unsatisfying. It turns out that I really don't enjoy connecting with people on only one dimension. It's just too shallow, especially while I'm focused upon integration and consolidation. Worse, none of it is particularly beneficial to anyone when everyone is compartmentalized like this, with communications of a particular type limited to particular channels. Even the want to chat koan over coffee can be quite challenging to satisfy with the current arrangement.

From recent use, it seems Google+ is my social media platform of choice, best suited to sorting folks within one service, allowing me to "tune in" for conversations with my category of choice when I'm in that mood while also allowing them to merge. I'm looking forward to trying out "Hangouts" and the like for video exchanges and some of the location-based features for face-to-face contacts. If I can pull it all together, it will likely happen there. We'll see how it goes.

For now, though, I'd encourage people to circle me on Google+ and to actively engage at a level deeper than koan-ic quips. If that one dimension is your sole interest and you're shielding the rest, that's fine; but know that I've been watching myself shed more shallow connections over time and I don't see that trend abating. There's no doubt part of me is looking deeper for more open channels. Let me know if you're a like mind.

I'm trusting my instincts on this one. We'll see where it leads...
 

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Validation

Narcissus
There's a certain Zen truth that we are often living much of our lives like this poor schmuck in the picture to the right, captivated by our own reflection. Almost as amusing is when we find ourselves wrestling with our own reflections.

Still more amusing? When someone realizes all of that, posts it to a blog, and then watches for validation or challenges from others...

What is it when you skip stones across the surface but you see no ripples?

Suddenly, a tug on the leash. Right. Back to work, you handsome devil!

In the Wake

One way you are stopped from moving forward is having your attention return to what you will leave behind.

Whether your attention returns there habitually or whether you allow others call your attention back to it, the effect is the same: You are still there.

In reality, though, you are gone before you ever leave. So long as you can hold it, from your new vantage point you can see clearly what is happening as well as what must be done. It does not mean there is not work to do, nor does it mean you will leave nothing in your wake. Once you have taken that step, though, you may cease to see the reasons not to proceed and instead see how everything helps you on your path.

I wake up a bit early each day to spend some quiet time time in my "future state," contemplating how it will be to have more time with family, to investigate "Applied Zen" principles more deeply, and to share the results with anyone who might benefit. Then as 9 a.m. approaches, I head off to my current work, but now with an ever so slightly fresher view. So long as I can hold my new position, the old place is renewed and my experience serves a new purpose. Everything I encounter before 5 p.m. is evaluated in a new light. I feed what I have learned back into the workplace, hopefully benefiting everyone there. Finally, at the end of the day, I may take a little time to see where I may have stumbled and how the day moved my entire situation a little closer to where I stood in the morning.

As for today, there was some more blog consolidation, there is this post, and there is still some planning to do for new the new classes I'm considering.

Now, is this a departure from your understanding of Zen? If so, perhaps you should go back to the cushion or the koan until it is clear.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Classes to Resume in Columbia, MD 21045

Shomenuchi!
It wasn't the hurricane or the earthquake, but rather the third event, a tropical storm last September, when, just after midnight, an old oak tree decided it had had enough.

We finally moved back in this past Friday.

The room that we keep empty for classes--the room to the right in this picture--was unharmed; however, as it was an empty room, it was put into service by us to store some household items and by the contractors to store supplies for the reconstruction. Heat and water were turned off for the winter. So many workers were coming and going. Since it truly was a disaster area, all gatherings here were halted for the duration; and since we were not living here for the bulk of the repairs, I did not advertise the fact too widely. Instead, I shifted focus to koan practice in public places and we made do.

The house is now functional though cluttered as we put everything back into its proper place, but the dojo / zendo area is back in service and ready for scheduling.

New Direction

If you haven't seen the new tab at the top of this page, you may have missed the one labeled "Three Zen Questions." If you're a fan of the koan, you may have heard "Who am I?" "Where am I coming from?" and "What does it mean?" more than once. I used those questions in a decidedly non-koan way to outline my own thinking. Go ahead and take a look if you haven't already. In particular, check the last line:

Where our intentions meet, I know we will all benefit.

What does that mean? Most importantly, it means that our intentions do not have to be the same. You don't have to share my vision; you may only want to find a quiet place to sit or a hand to improve your iriminage--and that's okay--but my priority is set and I am ultimately looking for resonance. The people who come and stay will form a crew that mutually supports one another in practice and in daily life, and that seems like a nice vision to me.

Sound good? As usual, discussion is welcome!

Next up: Scheduling, Pricing, Etc. Feel free to submit your preferences now.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Hear Me!

"Not being burdened with the need to be heard, to be understood, to push a point, to be liked, or to be right, life is much simpler."

~Me

Have I already made an error? Is this statement itself not my own effort to push a point?

But wait: Is that actually what the statement says? Did you assume that this point is important for me to push? Do I need you to understand this point? To what lengths will I go to make you understand?

Suppose I climb up on the soapbox in the public square at noon and sincerely declare,

"9 x 9 = 82."

Will you be the one to step out of the crowd and spend the afternoon arguing to prove me wrong? Will you be the person who will not let anyone who's heard my speech leave unless they've heard you too? Will you tell stories at the office and then at home over dinner about the crazy person who made the statement? Will you try to convince your friends to return with you tomorrow to see if I return to continue the fight? Will you obsess and lose sleep over planning your strategies? Will you find and surround yourself with people to reassure you that you were really right? Will you start to wonder whether they really believe you, whether they are simply telling you the things you want to hear? How will you be sure?

While your mind is locked on this matter, what are you not doing? What are you neglecting?

... and how are those around you actually seeing you as you try to manage their perception of you?

Ideas, beliefs, causes, philosophies, or even simple points of argument: people fight and die---figuratively and literally---over such things, laying waste to everything and everyone around them, and then finally themselves in the process.

Every one of our lives ends in death. For a fee, the epitaph "But I was right!" can be inscribed on your tombstone so that it can continue your fight on your behalf, but even that will not guarantee that you will not be remembered as the fool who lost everything to madness.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Within the Nothingness...

... are Inexhaustible Things.

On 31 May 2007, I started my blog "Inexhaustible Things." I was returning to Zen roots through my Aikido practice. It was before my son's diagnosis with muscular dystrophy that summer. It was before I met a Zen master to begin formal koan practice in the autumn. It was before I accepted a layoff from contract work in the winter and began the most harrowing period of introspection in my life, my own "dark night of the soul."

I've closed off that blog and imported the posts to Sword Mountain, adding the tag "InexhaustibleThings" to each. My intention is to release select posts with minimal editing, and to notify you via Google+ as they're posted. In this way I can reassemble the story in one location.

It appears that old posts have their publishing date preserved, so those who would do without the history lesson should not be inconvenienced. For the rest of you, I hope there is benefit.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Path to Here

Several years ago, I created "ZenStorm" to separate intensive Zen and koan practice from my ordinary life among family, friends, and the office. My pre-ZenStorm personal blog, "Inexhaustible Things," lost some energy as I created and populated "Raising Thought" for the Baltimore Zen Center. Some time afterward, I created Sword Mountain--fencing off my own applied understanding of Zen, primarily through the martial lens of Aikido--detracting yet again from the previous two. And all of that was just the content; naturally there was the living and practice that preceded the content, and then each of the "personalities" obviously required its own social media presence on each and every one of the services to discuss the content with everyone afterward...

It's all very silly, no? Well, no: At the time and in those circumstances, what happened was the obvious path to here, and the entire journey is mapped out through the entries in those three journals. Looking back from here, though, there was clearly a better way--but it could never be seen from anywhere but here.



We awaken precisely where we are.

As divided and dispersed as we feel on arrival, we step off from one point.

So, where to next?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Heroic Hakama!

Infused with its master's ki, the uniform leapt from the duffel, killed the thief, disposed of the body, and began the arduous journey home. Finally exhausted, it failed to make that last leap from the tree to the high wall and collapsed to the ground below. Hearing the faint call, the master found his old friend and carried him home... 
... or something like that. 

Actually, my uniform was found in a small graveyard of things in which young thieves might find no value, but probably had value to the owners. The stories, meanings, and worth that we apply to the things we perceive are ultimately our own. It's an ongoing challenge to remain aware of the state we are in as we "read the bones."

So, two more things in this theme--make of them what you will:
  1. Does anyone else have a clever caption or story to go with this photo? Bonus points for creativity!
  2. We should consider that If the uniform so desperately wanted to escape and return, perhaps we should put it back into service... ;-)

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Right Teacher

I have seen lists such as this before that advise potential martial arts students about what to look for an instructor or a school, and I have seen the debates about the merits of the individual points exhausted. Let's consider this situation from a different view:

How should an instructor deal with a potential student who shows up with such a list of demands?

Put more simply: A student asks, "Show me how not to be bullied." How should the teacher respond?

Tell me!

Do you think you have an answer? What will you do when the student rejects it and insists, "A good teacher could explain it to me in a way that I can understand"?

Your reputation is on the line. Your other students are waiting for your response...

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Have You Seen my Hakama?! Practical Arts in Columbia, Maryland

The Aikido uniform is quite stylish, wouldn't you say? Except for the sneakers, what is pictured here is fairly standard for the yudansha: a judo-knit gi (suitable for grappling), a belt (black, white, or something else in the rainbow), the hakama (Aikido's signature fancy pants), and a collection of wooden weapons (a jo staff poses with that fellow in the picture while bokken and tanto are off camera waiting their turn).

Aikido in particular is one of those martial arts that has espoused and enjoys something of a highbrow reputation. Although O-Sensei, the art's founder, may have indicated that he wanted the art to be for everyone, that the perfect place for practice is precisely where you are, and other wise things, we cannot deny that there is a certain elitism held by many many in the larger community. Part of this elitism, however, seems to be that the instructor should suffer for his or her art--that is, nothing so dirty as money should not be associated with the transmission of O-Sensei's sacred teachings. If the person up front leaves anyone with the appearance that he is a professional instructor, he is tainted, and his Aikido school is likened to the evil Karate McDojos and their Black Belt Factories.

However, if money is off on the periphery of the teaching itself, in items like uniforms, equipment, books, DVDs, ... well perhaps that is honorable. In that picture, the gi is good quality, up around $100; the hakama is in the BuJin line, around $200; the staff is white oak, imported from Japan, around $60; and the black belt is quality material and construction, around $40--more if it was embroidered with some fancy kanji. Wow!

You know, though, I don't see many people in these parts dressed like that... What do you figure a bag full of those clothes like that would be worth to you?

Maybe we'll find out: This morning someone smashed the window to my car, popped the console, glove box, and trunk, and one of the only things missing was a gym bag with that outfit in it. For me, that's a $300-$400 loss, plus time off work for the paperwork and to replace the window (another $300). I wonder what the thief is going to think of his score when he unzips that bag...

What's that garb worth to anyone who doesn't practice Aikido?

And what is it really worth to me...

Now, if I told a story of an Aikido machine preying on the snobs with an unusual affinity for Japanese, catering toward social misfits who want to shun their own cultures and live as a samurai, and I threw in details of bizarre pricing, details of how it's sometimes the elite teachers in the community themselves who do the import and sales of their own line of aikido equipment and pour you the Kool Aid, I might have a come-as-you-are True Aikido practice--just as O-Sensei intended it to be--attracting the more practically-minded crew all ready to start in the park tomorrow morning!

Wear the clothes you'll be wearing when you encounter the threat. Learn to pivot and fall on the types of ground where you'll fight. It's not that we can't afford heating or the air conditioning, but rather that enduring the elements will not distract you from your task. Bonus, by the way, if the students want to ensure that their instructor can feed himself and his family, not minding paying for his time, skills, and dedication. That's a piece of this culture, you see, and we operate within it.

Now, for the Zen-indoctrinated or those who really do understand taking Aikido out of the dojo and integrating it into your daily life, you'll at least recognize the tongue-in-cheek handling if not the koan itself. How do we deal with these situations? Zen teaches this. Aikido teaches this. They teach more than that, but this is a start.

So, who would like to study some Practical Aikido and Practical Zen in the Columbia, Maryland, area? Who would like to help get me back into uniform for when we have to represent ourselves with our uppity peers? After all, if this is becoming the type of city where hoodlums will steal your hakama, then we'd best become the folks who don't need the hakama (Zen) as well as the folks who can deal with the hoodlums (Aikido), no?

Email columbia@swordmountain.org with your interest.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Pulling the Chosen Thread


[I started to write a response to a comment to the last post, but thought it might better serve as a new post. You be the judge.]

In a larger sense, I think it's more important to see that choice is in play.

It's cold here this morning. When cold air hits me, the thought arises, "It's cold!" I can think about putting on a sweater or I can just get up and do it; I can think about moving someplace warm, or I can just start walking south. In the former cases, someone could assert that I'm attached to the thinking; in the later cases, someone could assert that I have an aversion to the physical sensation.

A martial artist might see the problems with both. If the thought becomes overwhelming, I may become incapacitated trying to find your strategy, unable to act. If the physical sensation becomes overwhelming, I might be cowering in the corner trying to avoid being struck. We can't reasonably say that either case is other than correct functioning given the circumstances, but we can say that neither case is a good example of a skilled martial artist's response.

... but the benchmark of "skilled martial artist" is just another objective mode of functioning--a chosen view of the situation, with emphasis on the choice, no?

When possible, it may make for a more "internally" peaceful existence to not be driven by either the thought or the sensation. This is to say that for any frame of reference, there may well be things outside our control that will generate thoughts and sensations as we encounter them. Does it make sense to always have an automatic or a fixed response to the circumstances? Does it make sense to hold only one perspective?

Consider this situation: I am sitting at my desk, and I am cold. I know I can pause and put on warmer clothes. In the back of my mind, I also know I should be getting ready to go to work. I haven't put on the coffee, I haven't taken out the dog, and I know that I'll have to stay at the office later than anticipated sometime this week as a result of missing the opportunity to go in earlier today. These thoughts and sensations might not have arisen if I had different work, it wasn't Monday morning, if I lived somewhere warmer or had the heat turned up higher, or if I hadn't seen Rick's reply to my last post.

That I am typing this message at 8 A.M. shows you something about me if for no other reason than this: Given whatever you are holding in your mind, even subconsciously, it is simply impossible to do other than what is most important to you. I am not getting ready for work right now because writing this is more important. An hour later or a few degrees colder and the balance may change, but the truth that I am doing what is most important does not change.

[You can claim that's not true and set out to prove it, but you can only do that if you are blind to the fact that it's most important to you to prove me wrong... and here is where we often get stuck: We're sometimes blind to what drives us, we're sometimes ignorant to our choices, and we're sometimes attached to the form that a solution will take. We can save those for another post.]

The last excursion aside, let's look at this situation again. Making the point is more important than being cold or being late. That allows me to use "my being cold" and "my being late" as tools to relay some understanding. In a different frame of mind, I might bitch about "my being cold" and "my being late" to generate sympathy, to convey irritation, to excuse myself from conversation, or anything else--but the expression is still a reflection of the mind and we're still doing what is most important right now. This is key: When my intention is focused is to make this point, everything in my field of awareness within my experience and within the entire universe is here to support that objective. My ability to flex time a bit at the office, the internet access and computer, this desk and keyboard, my being cold and my being late, and even my heartbeat and my breathing are supporting this effort. "Make the point" is sufficient for the spirit; I can trust my mind and body to do the rest with what they have available given the circumstances.

Now, whether taking the time to read this was the most important thing or a distraction is entirely up to you.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Wrong Place?

So let's consider a follow-on situation: What happens when you find yourself in the wrong job?

Day in and day out, you face the traffic going, the traffic returning, and everything in between. Friday is a day of celebration and Sunday is a sobering reminder. Everything in between--every customer, every piece of paperwork, every meeting, every hour--is instantly recognized as yet another piece of evidence that you are, in fact, in the wrong place.

You can sit in this place indefinitely, collecting evidence proving your truth that this is in fact the wrong place for you--that is completely up to you. After all, you have your reasons.

You do have your reasons... don't you?

I found myself such a situation once: Though I knew that the job was not right for me, I took it and I convinced myself that I was maintaining that job in order to maintain my family. The situation devolved: In time I started to see that my holding that job was negatively impacting my family, which in turn naturally reinforced my belief that I was in the wrong job. Holding the family together was a rationalization of sorts, an interpretation of my circumstances through the lens of what was actually important to me--proving I was right about being wrong.

That was "Keep one point" in action, the epitome of a focus that transcends consciousness. Moreover, that was absolutely effortless! Dealing with day-to-day events as I encountered them, I never had to consciously maintain the underlying belief, regardless of any hardships or suffering experienced along the way. I simply moved toward my truth--and sometimes it was painful.

If you "woke up" at this very moment within these circumstances, with everything around you in a collapse as epic as any country-western song could describe, and maybe with no more than a second to live amidst the blaring horn of a Mack truck about to run you down, you really could spend that last moment setting a smile in motion... though you would see that a terrified scream would be just as pure.

All but the final lesson that Zen training has to offer may be found in this one example. If that makes sense, then perhaps it's all but the final two. Still, you have always held the key to your freedom--and, if it's your choice, you can even use it to understand that freedom itself. If it only takes the seeding and effortless care for the belief "I am wrong" to set the universe in motion, hurtling toward an individual's ruin, then what could you do with a different seed? And how would your existence change clinging to no belief at all?

What do you really want to accomplish? What do you truly want to understand? Return to the office tomorrow morning with this new perspective, then be open to what it has to tell you. In time, even the rush hour traffic will reveal your truth.

Now, would you like to know how to begin?

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Lights, Camera, ...

I don't know how many years ago it was when I first felt the internal friction of being "typecast." Someone is clearly scrutinizing your suitability to play a particular role in a play of his or her own authoring. It may be a comedy, a drama, a romance, a tragedy, or anything else. The opening may be for a hero, a villain, a lover, a best supporting actor, an extra, or even for someone who will simply die well when run through in Act III. Now none of this is necessarily bad, per se, particularly if you want to play that role! After all, you may have been waiting all your life to have just the perfect playwright apply for the job of making you a star...

The most clear reflection of all of this for me was the job hunt, where it's the labor categories and billets on one side of the hall, the resumes and suits on the other, and the dance has already begun. Over the years and with all of the accumulated experience, I became something more complicated--though I might prefer to say "nuanced" if it was my choice--as the labor categories became more simplified and restrictive. The machine was looking for cogs, and I was not a cog. Yes, if the lighting was right and you tilted your head and squinted just so, you might see a cog--but I was not a cog, and eventually you'd realize that--if for no other reason than I would tell you so. After all, that's what "I am not a cog!" does--it transmits that message constantly...

Switching metaphors one more time, the next link in the "square peg versus round hole" chain would have me trying to explain that, not only am I not a square peg, but I'm not even a peg at all! It is, after all, a valuable realization to see that what you are is not defined by anyone else, no? And maybe it wouldn't hurt for you to realize that I'm even more than what you're asking for... but here's the issue: a not-a-peg doesn't satisfy a round hole either.

So now you're an actor again--a starving one at that--now playing the role of the uncompromising, "authentic" human being... which is to say you are playing the role of someone who is not acting. This is quite the dilemma! We have to ask: Is there any role can you possibly adopt to free yourself of being an actor? 

See if you remember studying this line when you wake up in your next role.

... aaaaaaand Scene!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Co-Creation

"What is the point of training in a martial art that has you entering into practice with the intention of falling down?"

It's not an exact quote, but it's close enough, revealing the questioner's mind clearly: Dominance and victory in physical conflict is paramount. That's what he's come to learn. He has no idea that it's his subservience to this need that brought him here in the first place.

I'm sure his spouse nods accomodatingly at the dinner table as he brags about his exploits. "Yes, Dear... Now can you show me how you use that skill to effortlessly lift that trash bag? Amazing!"

Someone who must dominate is easily led by one who will "submit." Therefore, proper aikido practice exercises discipline over the yang as well as the yin within each of us.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Power of Clarity

The able-bodied among us walk effortlessly, without conscious thought.

Place these same people in a dark, unfamiliar space, and ask them to take a step forward. How does it compare?

Give the stranger in the dark, unfamiliar space your verbal assurance that all will be well. "Trust me." Now ask him to take that step.

Have some "peers" limping on crutches or holding icepacks in the waiting area. "He told me it would be alright, but..."

Offer another person a new technique from the Ministry of Silly Walks and tell him that, so long as he walks just like this when he enters the dark room, he'll be fine.

How about telling a final candidate that the experiment starts on the other side of the room, which unfortunately just blew an electrical circuit, knocking out the lights. No problem--just a straight shot across and we can get started.

In each case--except perhaps for the last--direct attention was brought to our innate ability to walk, each time with varying results. These other steps were rooted in thought, doubt, distrust, and maybe even false confidence, and each showed a physical result. If I tell you you will stumble, or even if I tell you that you will not, I direct you to doubt your ability--and it likely will show. If I tell you there are fresh cookies on the other side of the room, though, it's likely you will not take one conscious step along the way. This is clarity: Your body knows what to do to get to the cookies and it will adapt to the situation as necessary.

* * *

I met a salesman who was not confident in his presentation. He knew the product had public perception problems. He studied the material to assure me--and perhaps himself--that the perception problems were unfounded. In the end, as I listened, all I heard was his doubt. Worse, all of this was doubt that he brought with him, since I offered neither resistance nor challenge of my own. Maybe he was rooted in false confidence in someone else's proven process, maybe not. It doesn't matter: He was clearly struggling with himself.

Maybe with practice these skills will integrate like walking, on call to achieve his intention. Perhaps that comes with experiencing a sequence of successes, like a child taking those first shaky steps. In truth, though, situations such as this might not require long periods of practice and sacrifice to master responses for each and every situation; instead, mastering taking one step from the top of our 100-foot pole should be sufficient to defeat your one, true enemy.

Masakatsu Agatsu Katsuhayabi!
True Victory is Victory over Oneself in this Instant!

Acting with clarity does not guarantee any particular kind of success... However, given that you are already dead--as the samurai might say--why not step boldly? Why would you defeat yourself before ever facing the enemy? Why would you offer him the means to kill you?

The Sword Mountain practices are designed to help you recognize and then shatter the barriers you place before you on your path to freedom in every situation. If you see yourself in any of the above, do contact us sooner rather than later so we can help you rediscover your footing. 

That is our purpose.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

2012: Year of the Koan

It is a rare event, but I do occasionally browse the stats for this website and puzzle over why Google directed you to me from so far away, why anyone would be interested in that old post, or why you picked it up and thought to build a commentary around it. Sometimes it's a worthwhile exercise, like last night when I saw that someone found "News from Inside the Cave," a post from December 2010. Go ahead and click it if you like--I did; it'll pop up in a new window so you don't lose your place here.

One year later, I can see where I was. Now, I can plot where I am. Join them with a line and I can see a trajectory of sorts. I can say positively that, in spite of all of the chaos we encounter from day to day in life, I met those objectives in one form or another, though not necessarily as I would have envisioned. Form, it seems, is not guaranteed...

If we took a snapshot today, I would say that formal Aikido practice has faded away. I saw that coming as my Zen practice grew: Aikido became a laboratory for exploring Zen--and particularly the koan--on every level, and progressed to become one means to convey some of what I found to people who spoke Aikido. As this trend progressed, Aikido began to lose its distinction. Focusing on integration, individual components dissolved as any situation became an opportunity to practice the same. Today I will say that, given my own particular circumstances, maintaining an Aikido practice is simply requiring too much conscious effort; as such, you should note in the sidebar that scheduled Aikido classes no longer appear.

What about formal Zen practice? Interestingly enough, it's taken the same path as Aikido. Formal Zen practice became a laboratory to explore "True Zen," and then formal practice time became a method to convey findings to people who speak Zen. Now what is it? For now, we should take the last sentence from the Aikido paragraph and replace "Aikido" with "Zen."

Very well then. What should become of the Tuesday and Thursday, 6:30-8:00 P.M. time slots? We will dedicate this time to public koan practice.

Personally, I can say that koan study has been the most direct, most valuable, and most revealing key to my practice, informing my Aikido and Zen practices, then unlocking other aspects of my life. Koan practice is infinitely portable: it can occur simply in conversation, whether over coffee, over dinner, on a park bench, or on a walk around a lake; then, when you are alone, you can re-examine the exchanges more deeply. You may spar with advanced practitioners to sharpen your skills and learn some new techniques, or perhaps you will be thrown when challenging a stranger. After all, koan exchanges are occurring in plain sight all around you... You will see them if you can tune in to the conversation just beneath the words.

So, for the next round, I challenge you to join me for public koan practice. Local folks are welcome to join me in person, and we may open up via the internet (Skype, Google+, Twitter, etc.) for those more remote. Watch the Twitter and Facebook feeds (links to the right) for details.

I will reconsider formal Zen and Aikido practices later for those who show promise with the koan...

Sound interesting? Your feedback is welcome!

Monday, January 2, 2012

2012: Keep One Point

Speech and silence, movement and stillness. Each heartbeat and every breath. All the comings, all the goings. Everything accumulated or found, all that was discarded or lost. Up until this point in your life, what have they served?

Now, you wake up where you are, within your own circumstances. You sense you have a previously determined trajectory and momentum. Welcome to a show already in progress. Now, who are you?

... and what is your destination?

Hold this point knowing you are already there. Now, open your eyes and look around: What matches and what does not? Every thing and every thought. Every sensation and every emotion. Whatever catches your attention: The entire universe presents itself to assist you on this journey. Open doors allow your passage; closed doors seal off wrong paths. Ease of movement reaffirms your choice while obstacles and temptations test your faith. Those who appear to assist you along the way are blessings, while those who depart were meant only to take to this far.

If ever you lose sight of your one point, simply return to it. Your having strayed is an opportunity to sharpen your focus.

Finally, know that if all is lost, all possessions, all relationships, your health, or even your life, then this too was part of something larger--even if you cannot yet comprehend it.

Does it sound difficult? What if I showed you that you already live this way? One might say that where you are now, everything you experience as you encounter the unpredictable events of life, is precisely a reflection of your one point... but maybe you just do not know what point you are holding. Perhaps the point you are holding allows you to shift points as you go. Perhaps the point you hold is "no point." Do you know what it is? If not, perhaps you are holding the point where you are looking for the point... Does it sound silly? Perhaps you hold the point of protecting your own ground...

What is the point? It is your choice...

Once we fully understand the practice of keeping one point, we are ready to find the point that contains every point, including perhaps itself. From there, you may extend yourself to the edges of the universe and beyond.

Join us at Sword Mountain to begin. Your destination is less than one breath from here.

Happy New Year! Let this be the one.