Thursday, July 29, 2010

What do you Embody?

If I tell you I smell smoke, you might be inspired to check for a fire. Similarly, if I tell you I do not smell smoke, you might ignore what is smoldering. It is somehow an obvious matter that what thoughts and beliefs you hold impact your experience of life directly. So, what if I told you this:

Aikido unifies mind and body.

What would you do?

I've met a lot of people here and there working to bring body and mind back together again. Years and years go by, and the practice has no end in site. Often, one would not necessarily say the martial ability improves significantly in that time or even that there are health benefits, but that's okay: If you ask them, they will tell you that those are not the points of their practice anyway. In fact, I've heard more than once that someone practices as if he is old--very slow movement, hardly muscle use at all (thanks to a like-minded uke), and without the threat of pain--so that when he is old, he will be ready...

Still, these ideas persist, and I wonder: When will they know that they were done?

But is this to say that mind and body were never separate? If this is your belief, then perhaps you read the above gleefully as we mocked another's practice together. Perhaps you practice hard, improving strength, developing focused technique, tossing highly resistant like-minded ukes about with resolve. That fluffy philosophical nonsense? Ridiculous... Fortunately, that wasn't part of your practice anyway.

And as these ideas persist, I wonder: When will they know that they were done?

In the first case the mind is not unified with the body, while in the second case the body is not unified with the mind. Still, mind and body were always one, so what is their division?

Diligent practice with the mind and enduring practice with the body are the eventual solution for most.

Monday, July 26, 2010

On the 20th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act

Twenty years ago---only a few months after finishing the physically challenging Army Basic Training---was only half of my life ago, yet it was also ten years before the birth of my ten-year-old son with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD). There is no way I would have imagined then that we would be hanging the handicapped placard on the rear-view mirror, pushing a wheelchair up and down ramps at shopping centers, sitting at accessible tables in restaurants, and so forth.

So now I ask: If the body is like a brush held by the spirit, then who would question giving everyone the chance paint? What discrimination of any type could there possibly be?

But somehow there is.

Perhaps it is right, then, in those situations where we might lose sight of the artist in favor of the brush, that we have tools to compel beneficial action in the absence of human spirit. And perhaps is good, then, to celebrate the creation of such a tool...

But can we celebrate the law asserting freedom without our drawing the distinction to a person confined to a wheelchair?

Had the distinction never been raised, what would need to be cured?

Fortunately, there is no need to dwell here. You will forget the brush was broken when you see the painting's beauty.

From wherever you are in life, help every spirit to be free.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Office...

Sitting around on the internet, drinking my coffee, I realized it was time to go to work.

No one coming? K-turn and head up the road. Radio this morning? Nah... Whoa! Is that guy going to stop?! Ahhh, good.  Traffic light... any response to that email? Whoops--green light. How about a koan? I was considering this one just the other night... Traffic?! Where'd that come from? There's my exit... Pothole--dodge right. Pothole--swerve left.

And suddenly there I was, in my usual spot, plus or minus a few spaces, in the parking lot, in front of the office.

How did that happen?

It's quite ordinary and yet entirely miraculous. With or without thought, a myriad of things happened: I breathed, my heart pumped, coffee digested, bacteria created gas, all of my senses functioned, thoughts came and went---and, in the aggregate, I drove a big, deadly rolling machine to work without incident.

Sometimes with Aikido beginners I hold open my open hand, turn to it, and scream directly at it, "CLOSE!!!" Somehow, in spite of my most forceful insistence, my hand does not close. And when the giggling subsides, the other hand draws their attention to the first, and as they watch, without a word, the hand closes.

How can this be?

Was it thought that closed the hand?

Was it thought that took me all of the way from the living room to the office?

This is not to say that thought cannot be involved, but was thought driving? The thought to check my email almost had me miss the traffic light... or maybe it's better to say that following my thought to my phone, and following on to my email almost had me miss the light... but, then again, perhaps it's best to say that I almost missed the light because I thought I was supposed to go through it on my way to work, since if the most important thing was to check for that email, work would never have been on my mind at all.

It was time to go to work; suddenly, I was there. In between? Stuff---none of it work-related at all, except perhaps the thought that I'd rather not go to work at all!

What would have had me change direction and end up anyplace else? A flat tire--undoubtedly because I was distracted by an email that might be there? An emergency call from home? The thought that I'd rather not go there or I'd rather go somewhere else? Even if I deliberate and announce the decision to take a different path, is that what changes my direction?

That kind of thinking was not even powerful enough to close my hand...

So, what is this, and how does it apply to our training and to our lives?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Yoga of Aikido and Zen

We begin with the rigid forms of uke and nage, perfecting what it is to be each, seeing how adopting the form defines the interaction within different circumstances.

In some cases practitioners are satisfied with this basic practice of forms, but sometimes the practice evolves to experience the fluidity between the forms. In time, perhaps the practice may evolve to include the formless itself.

But if we hold an idea of progress toward mastery that takes us beyond the basic forms, might we lose the opportunity to gain the insight that comes in perfecting form? Not necessarily, since "mastery," as it is commonly understood, is nothing but another form.

So to, by the way, is "pursuing mastery" a form.

So, what is it that we are really practicing? Consider this: When you sincerely and completely adopt a form, the entire universe responds. However long it takes, and whatever the cost--in time, in resources, in relationships, and in anything else--the universe shifts with you, responds to you, and adapts to interface with you through this form. It may sound absurd or at least implausible, but consider: You have already perfected the form you hold right now, and everything that you experience, you experience through it. This form is more encompassing than simply your body; it includes all of your thoughts, all of your experiences, all of your preferences, and so on. In this very real sense, you have created the universe you experience. Alternatively, given your form, you have found your optimal place within the universe.

Suddenly, something peaks your interest. You have an idea. You pursue it. You attempt master it. How does your life change in the process?

What is it that the Aikido practitioners learn alternating between the roles of uke and nage again and again, technique after technique? What is it that the Yoga practitioners learn as they hold and transition between individual poses? What is it that a meditation practitioner learns in shikentaza--"just sitting"--hour after hour?

And what is it, then, that a koan practitioner learns in adopting the forms of these peculiar questions?

Solidly holding one form, spending a lifetime transitioning from one form to the next, or something in between? One form--one life--is neither better nor worse than another; the universe accommodates them all--however long or briefly--so have at it. But what of this want to hold any particular form, to keep things as they are, to change how things are, to become this or that? Do we recognize when we are holding a form? Can we recognize when we are pursuing form? Can we stop this cycle without adopting the form of resistance?

If pursuing formlessness is itself a form, then what happens when you seek it?