Tuesday, April 23, 2013


Within about a week, I witnessed two separate and completely different events through the internet that brought something peculiar to mind.

The first was sitting back around midnight when my twitter stream announced that Moby was streaming live from the Coachella music festival on YouTube. I watched in awe as a sea of bodies pulsed together to the rhythm of the music and the flashing lights over the course of an hour. In my younger days, events like this just weren't part of my experience. I wouldn't have found being part of such a crowd appealing in any way, and I wasn't prone to "losing myself" to music or anything else. So watching, I wondered what it would be like to stand in the center of that crowd, and I wondered if I could "enter" into the experience with the others or if I would stand there in some sense alone.

Boston Marathon, via The Washington Times
The next event was the unfolding of the events surrounding this year's Boston Marathon. At once the news feeds and social media came to life. The news stations in particular went wild with moment-by-moment speculation while the social media gushed with wild emotion.

And just like with the Moby concert, I sat as an observer and wondered what it would be like to be one of those people so deeply affected by what they observed... Could I leave my detached perspective and enter into the experience, feeling the waves of empathy that affected everyone so deeply?

via tomikiaikido.blogspot.com
In Aikido we have the concept of "Irimi"--or "Entering." As we've discussed here many times, at a basic level the defender is closing distance toward the attacker, often in an unexpected and disruptive way. Even within the confines of a safe dojo environment and within a fixed choreography to practice an attack-defense exchange, it can take the student quite some time to become comfortable stepping toward someone intent upon killing you. It takes even more time before it's natural, particularly in unscripted exchanges. It may take even more time before the student develops the attitude of freedom and situational control that the physical entry represents and integrates it into daily life within any situation. After all, the irimi is not the concept of entering into an attack, nor is it really a programmed response; both of those stand between the student and the actual irimi. If anything, irimi is what happened when your spirit stepped forward and takes charge, trusting your body to use the techniques it's learned. It's not necessarily when you "become one with the technique," "become one with the attacker's energy," or anything else... You've not given yourself to the overwhelming attacker nor are you solely responding instinctively, however skilled; rather, you become fully present and step forward, defining the situation in your own terms.

When I wondered if I could even enter into the roles of what I was witnessing, I immediately failed... unless, of course, I entered spontaneously--and perhaps unwittingly--into the role of an observer.

It's a "technique" that--in my experience--has served me well.

Are people defective for being detached? Is an "observer" necessarily passive? Does being an observer not actually affect the outcome of a situation? Where do we draw the line? What are your thoughts?

Monday, April 15, 2013

What's Your Story?

Kumare: The Story of a False Prophet
Kumare Promotional Poster
(via Wikipedia)
I saw this movie, "Kumare: The True Story of a False Prophet," a few months ago. From the Wikipedia page:
To record the documentary, American filmmaker Vikram Gandhi transformed himself into Sri Kumaré, an enlightened guru from a fictional village in India, by adopting a fake Indian accent and growing out his hair and beard. In the film, Kumaré travels to Arizona to spread his made-up philosophy and gain sincere followers.
Depending upon your point of view, the film could be considered a swindler's how-to instructional video, a cautionary tale for spiritual seekers, or more likely something in between--maybe even something with a spiritual message.

The film chronicles the developing relationships between several individuals open to accepting a spiritual guru, and a would-be "guru" who needs such followers for his experiment. In time, "Kumare" begins to question his role in giving spiritual advice to those who've placed their trust in him. As the story evolves before us on screen, instead of ending his relationship with his followers by disappearing back to his village in a faraway, mystical land, the filmmaker will reveal to them all his true identity...

In the end, the filmmaker will confide in us his wondering if he has actually become Kumare or maybe channels Kumare in some way. Also in the end, several of the seekers will be thrilled with the underlying revelation while others will storm out in disgust at having been duped.

There are many facets to examine here. From my own view as an individual who by day counsels clients in seeing through the smoke and mirrors of sales pitches and adversarial negotiations, keeping them rooted in their own objectives, my mind recalled several "They're drinking the Kool-Aid" moments from the conference room.

It also dredged up examples from my years moving through martial arts and spiritual circles...

Content I'd understood what I saw, I let it go and moved along to whatever was next in the queue... until an acquaintance on the internet I found in zen circles posted he'd watched the movie and enjoyed it. That prompted a friendly "I enjoyed that one too" from me. He asked me then if I had any idea about to what extent the movie had been scripted...

I told him, essentially, that my answer would surely depend upon--and reveal--who I believe this person to be in relation to me.

That was presumably a zennish answer since we've discussed zen before--you see the relationship revealed in the response--but it was also a reminder that we are only interacting voices on the internet, where we can create and present ourselves with any identity that we wish... just like in the movie.

But at face value, the question was interesting, no? What leads us to accept any assertion at face value?

In the end, some guy I never heard of said on film that he was making a film about this false guru experiment presented his film at the SXSW festival in 2011. where it received the festival's Feature Film Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature... well, at least according to Wikipedia. Maybe having burned himself as a guru he really has become accepted as a filmmaker--now with additional marketing buzz!

Fact or fiction, it's largely our stories that guide us.  So, what's your story? Before you answer, keep in mind that it's wrong to lie! What did you see watching the movie?

Friday, April 5, 2013

The First Plateau

My mandolin studies have plateaued. There's a sufficient body of fiddle tunes and other songs stuck in my head, available at a moment's notice, but I'm not adding new ones like I once did--sometimes several per week.

It's also true that a lot of those tunes need work. Some speed work here, some polishing there--maybe even some ornamentation... but I'm not focused there. I recall them and I play them as I know them now.

My instructor is giving me additional scales work--complicated variations in each key, one key after another. The objective is to master those fingering positions, those combinations, the thirds, the fourths, the arpeggios, ... but my heart's not in it lately. He'll assign the work, but I'm not going to do it... not without a real, conscious effort anyway.

I recognize this: It's the first plateau after the initial fascination and obsessive pursuit is exhausted. Sometimes it has the feeling of the roller coaster pulling back to the platform, the harness releasing; other times it has the feeling of waking up with a hangover and wondering where you are ... and where your clothes are. More often than not, it's somewhere in between, something more subtle: "The honeymoon is over..." The alarm clock rings Monday morning.  "Not ikkyo again!" "We're going to sit zazen for how many hours?!" "Scales?! Ugh..."

I recognize this as the first plateau. Whatever got you started, it was your own passion that carried you this far, without the help of any carrot dangled in front of you or stick chasing behind you. Now, here you are. You are undoubtedly in some way changed. Maybe you have a new skill, a new relationship, or maybe a new cautionary tale. Now with the fog of initial passion cleared, you are free to examine, to deliberate, and to decide: What now? Do I continue?

I see this as a plateau, not a finish line, because I know that I'm not done. I haven't stopped here because I believe I know it all; rather, I'm stopped here because this is where I "woke up" from the delirium. In truth, this is the first place where I could even entertain the notion of stopping, the first opportunity to see myself from outside the activity and to see how far I've been carried by that tide. But from here, I also have some sense of what mastery is, and I recognize roughly how far I am from it. I can see there's more to learn, there's deeper to explore, there's nuance I don't understand, but the next step--if I choose to take it--is going to be a conscious one. That choice would be to trust this habit I've cultivated to carry me forward through the plateau's difficulties or to face new frictions in changing direction.

Of course, if the underlying true path is to use music to inspire more connections between people, I may know enough to make a good showing! It's springtime, after all, and people are returning to the benches lakeside!  In that case I'm not on a plateau at all, just momentarily distracted by wondering whether mastery of any instrument was part of it...

I wonder: Are you one to live chasing your passions, or are you one to cultivate the discipline to achieve mastery in the face of passions?

Will you let even that question deter you, or is it fun to play along and entertain it with me?