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beginnerdom

Make a start. See what happens.

Let it break

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.

— From “Sweet Darkness” by David Whyte

A few years ago I was in a state of, shall we say, spiritual disorientation. A limbo between a very solid What Had Been and a blackly obscured and unknowable What Was To Be. That liminal state where it feels like there’s no ground under one’s feet (usually because, in every respect but physical, there isn’t). All I knew for sure was that everything felt wrong. All I felt able to do was wander around – literally. Searching, maybe, or simply keep moving lest I get sucked into the black hole that yawned, terrifying, at the edge of my consciousness.

In retrospect, I was in the very early stages of one of the most massive, devastating, and necessary changes of my life. This feeling was Life shaking me awake from what had become a deep and complacent slumber – you are more than this, it whispered. Time to move on; time to get going; what lies ahead you have no way of knowing, it irksomely quoted Tom Petty.

I had no conscious inkling of this at the time, though. I just felt generally unsettled and awful, with nothing I could point to as a reason. There was no evident injustice causing my despair, no major loss inspiring this grief. Nothing I could use to explain in a way anyone else could relate to. It was coming purely from within—utterly invisible and impossible to describe, so I didn’t try. I didn’t tell anyone. Instead, I wandered through the hills near my home, crying a lot, not understanding. I wasn’t suicidal but had the thought more than once that if death came for me I wouldn’t mind. I’d go quietly.

It was rough.

One day my wanderings took me to a familiar hiking trail, drew me toward a familiar tree. It wasn’t a particularly magnificent specimen. It didn’t stand out except for its position relatively close to the path. It was a scraggly old pine whose lowermost foot of grayish bark had been scraped or eaten off by some creature or other. It seemed elderly. It was a being that I always felt compelled to greet in some way, with a touch or a wave, as I moseyed by.

Today I stopped, my heart full of questions that had no words. I leaned against my tree, back-to-trunk, breathed, breathed, my inner critic judging me as usual for being pathetic and dramatic. My ego terrified of being seen by anyone who passed by.

Despite all this, as soon as I connected myself to the tree I felt the web of intelligence it shared with all the other trees, with the ground, the ancestors beneath, the sky above, the all of it. The whisper of breeze through the leaves overhead, the rustling of life in the undergrowth—none of it was random noise. It was the harmonious hum of all existence, the lucid voice of the everything.

I was in a holy place, I knew. Guidance was available. I didn’t know what to say. What to ask. I just knew I needed help. So I asked for that. Asked for help.

Listened. Nothing.

I feel like my heart is breaking, came my silent confession.

Then let it break, I heard in noiseless response.

Let it break.

I did. Then and there, the elderly tree still holding me, I let my heart break. A quiet, heaving, knowing sob. An opening, finally, into the expanding territory of my soul. A painful stretching of the heart to take in all I was becoming aware of. Permission, finally, to feel it all—even the stuff that hurt. Especially the stuff that hurt. It swept in to fill the void for a moment, nearly more than I could bear, but enough to glimpse where this all was going.

For a second, just then, there was orientation. Ever so briefly I felt my place in the world again. The tree helped me see not only where the ground was, but where my ground was. For an infinitesimal moment, I could almost make out where I was headed. It was a place I didn’t understand yet. There were no answers, but there was information.

Let it break. My heart needed to break, my space to crack open to allow for this expansion. Much of my suffering had come, I realized, from trying to Keep It Together when clearly It was not even a thing anymore. Trying to sustain a shape that wanted me to shift. Holding fast to a branch as the current of life endeavored to move me downstream.

There was also the suffering caused by trying to leave the darkness too soon. An old metaphor that never fails to wow me is that of caterpillars transitioning into butterflydom. They literally liquefy in their chrysalis. This cannot be comfortable. Interview any moth you meet: they will not, I’m sure, look back upon their cocoon days with nostalgia and longing.

And it doesn’t end there: they must, once they awaken—giant new wings wound around them in this space that is suddenly and clearly too small—fight their own way out, however long it takes. To help a butterfly out of its cocoon is to kill it. It must break out on its own.

So must our souls, stirring in the confines of what is no longer ours to be. There has to be a break, a tear, a rending, as we emerge new into the blinding light. None of it is comfortable. All of it is necessary. It is nature. Our nature.

It took ages, lots more miles of hiking and plenty more pain, but eventually my outer world did come into alignment with what I was catching foggy glimpses of in those first days.

I’m remembering this now, I think, because I find myself in the midst of another one of these giant, nameless shifts that is taking its sweet time revealing itself. It’s showing up as anxiety and despair running through every channel of my life—some acidic compound, perhaps, being poured through the lines to purify them. It’s having me crave silence, sleep, alone time, wandering. It’s inspiring inner critic attacks about how I need to be more productive or at least dooooo something with or about what I’m feeling. It helps to reflect on an earlier occurrence of Whatever This Is. I did eventually make my way out of the chrysalis, tottered confusedly for a bit in the blinding newness, and grew accustomed to the new self that had been gestating during all those months of perplexity and pain.

It’s the hardest work of our lives, and can be the most fascinating if we stay awake to it. To recognize something is amiss, acknowledge that where we are is no longer relevant and something else is calling to us. To not deny it, fix it, contain it, or even define it. And definitely to not paint a veneer on it so that things still seem shiny and okay. On the contrary, we need to move forward into the mystery. To allow our hearts and our worlds to break, to be upended, to sit motionless in the dark and let ourselves liquefy. Trusting that eventually we will emerge and unfold into something far bigger than our old minds can just now hold.

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Time to decide

I’ll probably be fined for saying this, but I do not meet 2021 with relief, and I definitely do not bid 2020 good riddance. For one thing, it’s never felt to me like an arbitrary flip of the calendar blinks us suddenly into a new dimension. More than that … what a beautiful year it was. Even in its sorrow. Even in its pain.

I can’t be the only one who doesn’t want it to end.

Not the crises. Of course not. Of course not. Not the despair. The separation. The loneliness. The unnecessary deaths and heartbreak that this year has brought with it. All that can end.

For me, what can’t end is the beautiful inwardness of it all. The circumstances of daily life (a privileged one, no mistake) that only grows more liberating for me by the day. I watch in awe as massive shifts disrupt and reveal so much of what hasn’t been working in our world.

I am not tired of this yet. I don’t think I’ll ever be.

Still, very soon, we’ll fully reclaim our characteristic human stranglehold on Nature—wresting her to the ground, hog tied and gagged, so that we can get on with the making and spending of money, so that we can get back to the commutes, the offices, the parties, the bars, the places that take us out of our homes and out of ourselves, so we can stop doing all this reflecting, all this truth-telling, all this meaningful bonding with those in our immediate surround.

We’re so close to resuming the blind march forward: our laser-sharp, tunnel-vision gaze on the bleak horizon of ‘normalcy,’ deaf to what Nature might have been trying to tell us through that pangolin or bat or whatever wise and innocent creature, flushed out of its environment and hunted for meat, got this whole ball rolling. Consume, destroy, expand, drive, run, win, sell, sell, sell …

It will all happen again—the tide of ‘progress’ reclaiming the precarious lessons. It’s happened throughout history; as with the tide itself, we can trust in its return.

Again and again we chew off entire limbs of humanity to escape what feels like the trap of a slower, saner existence. Again and again, we double down on our identity as the parasites we are, consuming a planet that is constantly and forever trying to tell us that this isn’t the way.

Evolutionarily speaking, it’s a matter of moments before this magnificent Earth shakes us off her back like so many fleas. Before she deploys some last resort of an internal remedy that she really hasn’t wanted to use but now, she’s afraid she must….

The ‘excuses’ we’ve had this year for lightening up on how much we abuse her and ourselves daily are evaporating. With the crutch of excuse about to be revoked, it’s time to start deciding for ourselves.

What will our decisions be? I think I know mine—or, rather, what will help me make them.

Again, I speak from a place of privilege. I’m under no illusions that my circumstances—including my ability to think and write these thoughts—are an all-out luxury.

And.

In all this I have found the capacity to be with people in a different way—to be gentler, more receptive, kinder. To help them feel safe and loved. To take the time to be with them in their fullness rather than resent them for their demands on my time. I’m finding how to do that. Yes, ‘finding:’ it was there all along, I was just too yanked apart to be able to feel it, see it.

I see it now. I’m not letting it out of my sight.

So once we implacable humans track down the last discontinued cog, tighten the final screw, press the red plastic button, stand back and watch as the long-obsolete machine smokes and coughs itself back to life, spewing its ancient poison into the air, I am vowing here to engage with it in a different way.

Not in any way that is epic, or even noticeable to anyone but me. Mostly it’s about listening. I’ve learned to listen this year. I want to get better at that.

One feeling that’s been easy to listen to—and as such has become a great ally—is relief. Relief at not having to be places, to drive as much as I did. At not having to shock my settling system by dragging it back out in the evenings to do things that are ‘good for me.’ Relief the dearth of needless errands to acquire vapid things and shorten my meager stacks of coins. Relief at being held back from slamming my sensitive body into those merciless waves of daily life to prove how strong it is.

The relief is intense, physical. It’s been at the fore for nine months. There hasn’t been a moment where it’s dissipated and I’ve said, “ya know? I kind of miss the way it was.” And the way it was wasn’t bad by any stretch—it’s just that it was devoid of space to breathe, to feel into what has meaning for me.

I can’t be the only one, can I?

Regardless, as the masses wake up in these first mornings of 2021, heaving their collective sigh of relief, assuring themselves that last year was all a terrible nightmare and everything is going to be OK now, maybe we don’t have to be so quick to dive back into what had been true, automatic and reliable before we entered the dream. Our hearts can be heavy and hopeful at the same time—they have the capacity to feel many things at once. Perhaps we can let ourselves linger for a few more minutes in the in-between, wander through the apparent wreckage, and notice what shines up at us.

What will you let yourself keep?

What it used to be like

by Michelle Hynes

What it used to be like to see my friends: A festival of baking and hosting and hugging. Pouring tea. Sharing bites.

Yesterday I gathered with dear ones — on Zoom. We lamented the loss of rituals for this time of year. The ways we used to see our families, see each other. Now reduced, smaller. More spacious and less nourishing — like eating sponge cake rather than a rich bite of brownie or beef stew.

What we shared yesterday were tears. Stories of grief and loss. And then we took a deep breath and said yes to a new way. We will gather. We will gift. But six feet apart.

So many things about “what it used to be like” are ripe for letting go. I know we need new ways. And I desperately want the feeling of holding my friends in my arms, leaning on their shoulders, looking at the horizon together. I want what it used to be like. 

The First Thing I Remember

by Hao Tran

It is the thing that I have forgotten. It is a soft rain, so soft you can’t see the drops. You only feel its cold and moist touch on your skin, enough to dampen your hair, your shirt.

“It is dew,” my brother says.

He notices the puzzled look on my face. I remember now. It has been more than forty years since I last felt the dew in the early morning. The time of day in the tropics, same every day. The roosters crow and then the sun rises, at six o’clock. Everyday.

You can count on it. In the dew, people walk with baskets balanced on bamboo sticks, up and down, bouncing toward the market. They carry cabbages, potatoes, mangos. In this dew, children get ready for school. In this dew, Ma cooked me my favorite breakfast: rice left over from the day before, turned over in the frying pan with browned shallots, a few peas, and an egg.

In this dew, I am puzzled–where have I been all these years, so long that I have forgotten the simplest thing that I should remember? Dew! It feels like home. It is moist and soft, like a caress.

Dear Muses

I found this today. It’s a piece I wrote in December 2014. The muses have answered, gently. It hasn’t been nearly as chaotic as I feared. In fact, it’s been great fun.

Dear Muses,

I’m stuck. You know this. You know because you’ve been knocking on the door, calling and getting a busy signal, sending registered letters that get returned. No such addressee. Return to sender. No solicitors. Go away. I’ve refused you. I continue to refuse you. Have you given up? Or have I gotten so wonderful at refusal I can’t hear the knocks, the rings; no longer see the letters dropped through the slot?

Is it fultile to contact you now? After all I’ve done to shut you out? Insulting you, disrespecting you? Judging you as too mischievous, too brazen, too dangerous to be in my life?

Because let’s face it. If I let you in you’d trash the place. Upend tables with trinkets placed just so, rip out pages of rule books, open the cages and let the birds fly free. You wouldn’t listen to me when I say stop, quiet down, you’re making a mess and upsetting the neighbors. You wouldn’t care that you were embarrassing me as you ripped open the heavy velvet curtains to reveal me, naked and uncertain. None of that is your concern. Your mission is to free me and you’ll do whatever it takes. No matter how thoroughly it disrupts my life. Your job is clear. You won’t stop til it’s done. You’ll ruin me if you must.

And still. And still. I’m tempted, drawn, seduced. I feel about you now like I never have. I’m so bored in this house, with its dark, neat rooms and silent order. I fear that if I swing open the door I’ll want to follow you out into the day, into the danger of the unknown, unprepared, fragile, sensitive to the light and the noise. I’ve become a shut-in, you see. A recluse. Set in my ways.

But I want to come with you, muses, because I see now it’s the only way you’ll be of any use to me. I can call to you but I must acknowledge your replies. When I send for you I need to expect that you’ll show up, like you have, again and again, only to have me respond by drawing the blinds, pulling the covers over my head and pretending to be asleep until you went away.

I hear you knocking, calling—god knows you’ve been writing—and all because I’ve asked you to. I’ve needed you to. Next time you knock, I hope I have courage enough to go to the door, peek through the hole, maybe even pull it open to the length of the chain. Submitting, eventually, to your ever-invitation to come out, come out and meet myself.

Please, muses, don’t give up on me.

We can’t breathe

A virus that’s attacking our lungs. George Floyd crying “I can’t breathe” over and over before being suffocated to death. Wildfire smoke choking much of the western U.S. Saharan dust clouds crossing the ocean to infiltrate the respiratory systems of the American south. Intolerably high temperatures everywhere.

We can’t breathe. Air, perhaps the one thing we took for granted — smog- and pollutant-rich though it has been for years — is eluding us. Its absence making us sick. Killing us. (As always in this country, disproportionately killing people of color.)

Several days over the last few weeks I haven’t been comfortable anywhere. Air purifiers and fans circulated what little oxygen was left to us in our small apartment with all the windows shut in 90+-degree heat. I decided that I prefer smoky air that moves to air that is thin and still. The air-conditioned car has felt life-saving.

Constantly I’ve been aware that this suffering of mine is nothing compared to that of folks driven from their homes by fire; driven out of their own cars and onto the ground to be cuffed, knelt on, shot; feeling the life drain out of them as doctors look around in vain for an available respirator.

We can’t breathe.

Physiology

I went looking for what this points to, the fact that we — as a nation, a culture, an ailing, flailing, crumbling empire — can’t breathe. It wasn’t terribly hard to find.

In Chinese medicine the lungs are associated with grief, sadness and detachment.

“The lungs encompass the heart centre and the emotions. The symbolism of many of the symptoms which affect the lungs is breath holding, being in a state of emotional hurt, a sense of giving up and fear of living life fully, with the mucous which often accompanies these conditions a physical manifestation of unshed tears.”

“Symbolism of Illness: The Lungs and Breath,” Melanie Creedy

And from a different Australian article:

“…the lungs are directly affected by emotions of sadness and grief, which constrain the organ’s feelings, and restrict its movement. Being unable to express these emotions or being overwhelmed by them causes the lungs to weaken. Our immunity goes down, and we can easily develop respiratory problems… Grief is a necessary painful process. It is a transitional period of acceptance that one part of our life has changed.”

“Grief and The Lungs,” Olivier Lejus

Grief, then.

In this culture, grief is a disorder. It is seen as something we need to cope with, get through, overcome. If necessary (and it is often deemed necessary) we drug ourselves so that the fullness of grief doesn’t overpower us.

This, of course, is no remedy at all. The repressed grief will hide somewhere in our bodies and express itself as something else: resentment, illness, abuse of self or other. It carries into future generations, embedding in our evolution, growing us into a detached, head-based culture that encourages being ‘strong’ in the face of grief (i.e., bottle up anything you’re feeling for fear of freaking out the kids).

It was trickier to search for physical manifestations of grief. I found “symptoms” of grief. I found ways to cope. To get through. I typed in “grief and letting go” and found advice on how to let go of grief and move on.

What is missing in all of this, I think, is the acknowledgment that grief IS letting go.

Thankfully (and not surprisingly), Jack Kornfield’s wisdom swims gently upstream from the prevailing current. He says:

“Grief is one of the heart’s natural responses to loss. When we grieve we allow ourselves to feel the truth of our pain, the measure of betrayal or tragedy in our life. By our willingness to mourn, we slowly acknowledge, integrate, and accept the truth of our losses. Sometimes the best way to let go is to grieve…

Most traditional societies offer ritual and communal support to help people move through grief and loss. We need to respect our tears. Without a wise way to grieve, we can only soldier on, armored and unfeeling, but our hearts cannot learn and grow from the sorrows of the past.”

– From his intro to “a Meditation on Grief”

What are we grieving? What are we not letting ourselves grieve? Why can’t we breathe?

Death

To help with these questions I revisited the teachings of one of the sagest elders out there, Stephen Jenkinson. To oversimplify his vocation, Stephen educates folks about what it is to be human, sane, and mature in the face of death—and how to be useful in our dying culture.

In a 2012 interview that I revisit often, he points to all that is happening (eight years ago, mind you, not the thousand-fold version of it we’re seeing now) as the signs—not the causes—of a dying culture. The question he poses is, “If the culture is dying, then what is asked of you?” He likens it to a dying parent: in that scenario, do you try to stop it happening? Do you get as far away as you can? No.

“You approach. You’re terrified, you’re enormously distraught, you don’t know what to say or do, but still you must make your feet walk toward his/her deathbed. That’s the obligation we have if the culture itself is dying. Our job is to be a faithful witness to what is happening… Don’t turn your head, and don’t blink. Cause some day someone much younger than you is gonna need to know what it looked like in the early days when things started to turn real bad, and it was irreversible. They’ve gotta get it from somewhere, man, they’re not gonna get it from newspapers… But they might be able to believe someone in whose eye they can look while the story’s being told.”

– Extraenvironmentalist podcast, Interview: Stephen Jenkinson – Culture of Dying

We can’t breathe because this culture is dying and we don’t know how to grieve it. We haven’t been taught that. We’ve been taught to act, fight, fix, deny. We know how to long for how things used to be. We are expert at kidding ourselves that it will all go back to ‘normal,’  convincing ourselves that we actually want that.

We can’t breathe because we can’t let go of our collective biases, beliefs, attitudes and actions that have contributed to the terminal illness of this world. We won’t let go because we believe they’re the truth, and if the truth is taken away what do we have left to stand on?

We can’t breathe because early on we disconnected from our collective breath, the breath of the planet, which has done her best to impart her wisdom since the dawn of humanity. That is when she—and we—started dying.

We can’t breathe because we can’t face our grief here at the deathbed of our known way of life. Grief, if felt, if allowed, is the pathway to something new, but if we don’t let our hearts break that metamorphosis isn’t going to begin.

We can’t breathe because we don’t know what is to come. We need to know, we strain to know, we frantically grasp and rearrange the few pieces of certainty left to us to formulate a story we can swallow—one that ends happily. That lets us know that everything is OK.

We can’t breathe because we won’t surrender into grief that comes with acknowledging that it’s not OK. It won’t be again for a long time, not until we learn what we are supposed to. That may take generations.

And so?

This morning I step outside and smell smoke faintly, grateful that there is any air at all. Eye my little air purifier and tabletop fan with reverence. Amazed that even a few years ago I couldn’t imagine that I’d ever stop taking air for granted.

I feel my own directive being re-awakened. I can’t breathe, my body is in pain, and there are things I can’t ignore any longer. It is time. It is time — as I’ve known for a while — to consciously bear faithful witness to our dying world. Become a hospice worker of sorts. Keep turning toward what is happening, powerless though I am to stop it. Be as kind as I know how to be to myself and others. Face what I have done and continue to do to contribute to our hurt, our disconnection, our brokenness. Do what I can to repair it.

It’s not a passive activity, grieving. We must stay awake as the parade of emotions barges through our being. We have to say what we need to say before it isn’t possible any longer. We have to face what is broken, hidden, unresolved.

To grieve is to let go, yes, but it is also to repair what we can, remove the wreckage of what we can’t, and prepare for whatever newness that clearing makes way for.

We don’t like this year because it’s getting harder and harder not to grieve, so we’re holding on tighter and tighter. Constricting our collective breath. As with our culture’s approach almost everything, it is completely unsustainable. It is the opposite direction of healing and growth.

Sounds like giving up, I imagine, to willingly let go in this time when all there seems left to do is fight for our lives, and in a culture that knows no other way. Perhaps it is not for us to go down swinging, but rather breathless and in awe.

Practicing in Spacious Solidarity

We practice Aikido to create a better world. No matter how long we’ve been training, Life is calling for us right now to step more deeply into presence, groundedness, serenity, decisiveness, and compassion. Our personal spheres need to be extra big—and filled with ki! Here are some things we can do with our attention and our bodies* to continue to cultivate all of this.

  • Life is offering us the biggest collective ki test of our lives. Welcome its steady pressure. Take what you feel into your center and channel it down into the ground. Extend your center out into the universe. Feel how much you can actually hold. Feel your network of fellow aikidoka holding it with you.
  • Widen your focus outward from self-preservation to the good of the community and the world. Prioritize based on the good of all. Take opportunities to be kind, to support another, to offer what you can from a safe physical distance.
  • Notice the space that Life has opened up for us in the form of all we suddenly cannot do. Feel the pause that invites us to take. Blend with the stillness. Be aware of ways you try to fill it with the automatic busyness your body may be used to. As with on-the-mat technique, actively counter those urges. Relax your shoulders. Wiggle tension out of your body. Take deep, grounding breaths. Reach instead of push. Melt instead of pull. Pause. Move slowly. Starfish!
  • Bring extra awareness to your connection to the ground. Anxiety takes us into our heads; we can counter this by taking our attention in the opposite direction. Go barefoot, feeling each point of contact between your foot and the floor or the ground. Open the soles of your feet to release tension into the earth and take up nourishing energy from below. Blend with gravity.
  • Your home is now your sacred training space. Bow in and out of it. Keep it clean, spacious, harmonious.
  • Stay accustomed to sitting in seiza. Meditate or work in seiza for a little while every day.
  • Keep the ritual of practice in your body by doing the warmup sequence (as much of it as you can remember) each day. Take the time to do it fully, with a period of meditation before and after.
  • If you’re hunkering with someone who doesn’t do Aikido, teach them the basics you know— hamni, seiza, ki tests, slow and gentle attacks, two-step, rowing exercise, etc. Transmission does wonderful things for our practice, and you’ll be gifting the world with your very own beginner Aikidoka.
  • If you’re hunkering with a fellow Aikidoka, hopefully you’re already practicing together.
  • Grass is a lovely substitute for mats. You can practice falling, rolling, kiai, weapons, and generally taking up space. Trees make wonderful kokyu dosa partners.
  • Do solo weapons practice. If you don’t have a jo or bokken at home, get creative. Broomsticks, wooden spoons, sticks all work fine. Avoid live blades.
  • Study your vocabulary. Read aikido books. Watch videos. The instructors have lists and recommendations if you need them.
  • Let go of perfectionism. We’re all beginners at pandemics, and it’s going to take some trial and error to figure out how to navigate this new way of living. With the support of our dojo and other communities, we’ll make our way forward with exquisitely imperfect grace.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. If you have ideas, please email me or add them in comments. Check back frequently for more guidance and resources.

*With medical care being the precious commodity it currently is, please err well on the side of safety and not overextending.

Train on

Train on, friends, and dedicate your practice to this time of great change. To all that is being brought to light. To the thrum of calm and rightness beneath the panic. To what we as a world are being invited to see. 

Train on, trusting the wisdom of your body and heart to know what is safe and what is harmful. Extend your broad, soft gaze beyond self-preservation to the wellbeing of the community and to the world. Trust your instincts, warrior.

Train off the mat, but don’t stop your training. Keep one point. Extend ki. Stay grounded. Invite. Receive. Maintain a clear, calm, well-boundaried, ever-expanding container for all you’re capable of, all you have to offer.

Train on, staying mindful of the world of precautions and breakdowns. Have compassion for those with no training, whose spheres only have enough room for fear.

Train on for love of the planet, compelled as it is right now to align with what is right and true and inevitable. Honor the those who will fall in the wake of our collective waking.

Train on with this question in your heart: “what is Life asking of me?” Know that your response to whatever you hear in answer is your training in action. 

Train on, whether you’ve been training for days or decades. You’ve been called onto the path of the warrior so you can be of service in times like these. Likely your role is something beyond crisis management. Your training connects you to a deeper part of yourself—one who orients to a larger sphere of truth, a longer horizon of time. Who can see where this is all leading. Hold that knowing for those who can only be afraid. 

Train on, aware of how effortless it is to know what is right. See how you already know where you’re supposed to be and what you should be doing. Notice the gravity of the ‘yes,’ the certainty of the ‘no,’ and the flimsy static of the ‘I don’t know.’ The truth is evident, waiting patiently for each of us to turn to it. There’s far less rummaging necessary than we ever imagined.  

Train on, feeling into how this time of imbalance is necessary to bring us all into greater balance. Recalling how training through your fear has brought you to where you are, and will only keep going, as long as you train on.

Fanning the flames of anxiety

A few weeks ago I composed a funny email to students in the Aikido class I teach. Amid the latest wildfires, terrible air, power outages and all manner of apocalyptic phenomena that have sadly become symptoms of late fall here in northern California, I had some inkling that folks would be reluctant to show up for our Monday night practice. The message went something like, “don’t let the smoke stop you from coming to class. We’ll move extra slow and have some meditative practice.”

Not a terrible message in and of itself; however, it did assume the recipients needed reassurance.  My fellow Aikidoka are awesome, smart, attuned warriors who know how to take care of themselves. Why would I assume they were hesitating? Further, why would I presume to introduce the idea that they should be?

Thankfully some grace intervened before I hit send. A busy workday ensued, and when the hour drew too late to send the message, I settled into the trust that every class is fine and perfect no matter who shows up.

To my delight, LOTS of people showed up—more than have been at this particular class in a long time. (Yes, every class is fine and perfect, but more is always merrier!) The air stayed clear. We had a great time.

No doubt my ‘reassurance’ would have only served to dwindle the ranks by putting folks’ attention on a nonexistent problem. So why did I feel the need to tell people not to worry? What was going on with me here?

Here’s what I’ve been able to piece together (it’s a sequence that may sound familiar to Aikidoka: trigger > automatic response > intervention of grace > do something else > better situation for everyone).

Trigger

I was ‘inspired’ to write my students after I came out of the weekly staff meeting at my small, close-knit company. Over half of us were experiencing some direct effects of the fires—hosting evacuees, navigating transportation issues, dealing with power outages and plugging gaps in emergency preparedness—and all this of course was a microcosm of what was going on with thousands of people in the area. So I suppose I was picking up on just a bit of ambient anxiety. As much as I’ve worked on it through Aikido and in other ways, if I’m not paying attention I will always absorb other people’s feelings.

And I was in a vulnerable state, so more apt to be blindsided. The day before had been the 14th anniversary of my father’s sudden and unexpected death, the trauma of which is stored deep in my cells and gets activated annually on the day and throughout the week, resulting in actions that are little bit more fear and panic driven than they usually are. Though I’m conscious of the date, every single year I forget its effects. (It’s so hard to be aware of this stuff when we’re in the middle of it, isn’t it?)

Plus I was still integrating my recent belt test, followed by a development workshop where some really deep stuff had been brought to the surface. And I’m prone to seasonal depression.

So. I was a bit more scrambled than usual.

Automatic Response

All of this unconscious disturb in my nervous system triggered my particular automatic response, which is To Do Everything In My Power To Calm Down the World. Since there was nothing in any of the circumstances I had actual power to fix, my mind invented something. It projected the anxiety onto another group of people about whom I care deeply, and it manufactured a way to solve their nonexistent problem.

Honestly, at moments like this I just have to stand back and marvel at the power of the mind to invent and carry out the complex shit that it does. And not just randomly! It’s always in the interest of protecting us—in twisted, distorted ways, but still, that’s its motivation. It really is an exquisitely honed piece of machinery, designed with only good intentions. It’s something to be celebrated, even if we can’t always trust it. Kind of like… I don’t know, a nuclear power plant. An absolute marvel of engineering, spectacularly useful, but surrounded by concrete and razor wire for very good reasons.

Anyway, like the fires around us, the spark of an idea—‘reassure’ my students—grew very large very quickly. Large enough to drive me to compose an email. But also (thank goodness) obvious enough to show me that something was out of alignment, and ultimately render me receptive to the guidance that came.

Grace

I like to think that what stayed my hand when I was about to send the email was some subtle understanding that the action was rooted in anxiety. Even I couldn’t parse in the moment whose it was or where it came from, I knew that was the motivator. And that is a dance that never ends well. Acting from or responding to anxiety, no matter how loving our intentions—is always going to fuel the fire.

Action doesn’t calm anxiety, you see. Of course we believe it does, and many of us spend much of our time doing things to quell our uncomfortable feelings. Anxiety is a response to feeling out of control. It’s a natural fear reaction to the unknown. Inconveniently, most if not all of life is an uncontrollable mystery. And our good, sweet, stalwart, well-meaning, well-trained, well-oiled minds can’t abide that anything close to that idea. They will go straight to the fix. Our bodies will follow suit. It’s all automatic; wired into us ages ago, again, for many good reasons.

Do something else / do nothing

And here we are in the dojo, hard at work rewiring this very device. We spend years in early practice responding to attacks with our learned ways of coping with anxiety: fix, control, muscle, leap three feet off the ground, contract, wither, quit. It keeps not working and we keep doing it.

Then a few months or years or decades in, something happens. We start to glimpse a new way of responding—one that’s rooted, weirdly, in non-action. It’s a way we’ve never before employed so it’s hard to trust it at first. “I didn’t ‘do’ anything; why did uke fall so easily?”

We begin to learn, very slowly and over the rest of our lives, that reacting in kind to anxiety breaks the flow, and is far less effective than holding a huge, grounded, calm space in which it can simply exist. Settling into the unknown, unattached to what’s going to happen next. Maintaining that space for others to bring whatever they’ve got. Quietly aligning to the highest versions of others and of the situation, waiting patiently for that to emerge.

Perhaps then we start to awaken to moments of self-forgetting, noticing the conditions and triggers that render us more vulnerable to anxiety, more apt to engage with it. We make a bunch of mistakes, but every now and again our training kicks in and we catch ourselves, re-orient, and just for a moment we open to grace. In doing this (and failing to do it, for how else do we learn?) we are cultivating the ability to re-center ourselves in the moment, no matter how wobbly we are.

A better situation for everyone

This is mindfulness training in service to the world, my friends. The wildfires here represent an infinitesimal fraction of what’s happening on and to our planet. This moment in history is supplying us with no shortage of anxiety to dance with. Learning to respond differently doesn’t just make our lives better. It helps the world. In the inevitable moments of doubt that trip us up on any spiritual path worth its salt, maybe this truth can serve as a beacon for all of us to get up and keep going.

Let’s stop trying to fix the world by managing all its anxiety (whatever our strategy is), and hence fanning its flames. Instead, let’s work to transform our own discomfort into something else—something steadier, more eternal. Endeavor to blend with the void rather than control it. Even in just giving this our best shot (which we do by simply showing up at the dojo), the ripples that flow out from us will be ones of greater ease, trust, compassion, love and healing.

This doesn’t mean we won’t feel anxiety. Of course we will. We’re human. But part of our job as warriors is not to let it spread. And we do that not by trying to stop it, but by attuning to the highest good in any situation, the greater flow of it all.

Patience

I often hear new students thanking ranking students for their patience. I’ve been thanked this way plenty. I certainly did the same thing as a new (and not-so-new, actually) student. I know that, at least in my case, often what was behind my thanks was a tacit apology: sorry for not knowing exactly what I’m doing in my first classes in a brand-new art that I’ve never tried before. Thank you for not rolling your eyes or berating me for not executing these baffling techniques flawlessly. Surely there’s something better you could be doing with your time; I am grateful that you chose to spend it with me, putting up with my flawed imperfection, my beginnerness, my humanity.

Probably not difficult to see where I’m going with this. We, as ranking students, are not exercising patience when we’re working with you—not in the way you imagine it, anyway. We are not reluctantly bowing to the new student, sacrificing our chances to work with someone who ‘knows what they’re doing,’ and taking one for the team to spend five minutes tolerating your confusion. We know how confused you are. We expect it and you know what? We’re glad for it. We welcome it because there’s no other way to start, well, anything really, but especially Aikido.

What we are doing is time traveling back to the moment we were in your bare, uncertain, overwhelmed feet, learning this technique ourselves. We’re learning something new about the technique: breaking it down differently in our own minds and bodies so we can transmit it more easily to you. We’re finding stuff out about our own technique in this process. We’re rejoicing in awe at the fact that you’re here—another astoundingly brave warrior having made the choice to venture into the unknown to confront their own demons (don’t worry, the demons won’t attack until at least your third class).

If all that amounts to patience—and maybe it does, but not by any definition I’m familiar with—then you’re welcome to thank us for it. But do so knowing that we have more space for you than you can imagine. We’re thrilled at your newness, we know what a long road it is to finally putting your foot in the right place, taking a brave roll that doesn’t hurt, attacking with enough commitment to compel your partner to do something, or yourself doing something other than fight, flee, or freeze when one of those attacks comes your way. We know how scary this is. We know you don’t know. We don’t expect you to know a thing.

So against this vast backdrop of welcome and nonjudgment, be magnificently imperfect! Be bold, be curious. Experiment. Notice what others are doing but don’t get obsessed with doing it exactly that way (except when it comes to etiquette). Put all your focus on getting to the dojo as much as you possibly can. Ask ranking students questions before and after class to get a bit clearer, at least, on who we are and what we’re up to. Get to know us. Feel into the community that wants you so much as a part of it.

Make no mistake: there’s lots we need patience for in Aikido, but mostly it’s to do with ourselves. It takes a behemoth amount of gentleness to be with the fear that comes up, and to stay with practice long enough and steadily enough to begin the process of breaking it up so that it eventually dissolves and evaporates (and usually reveals another layer, and even that is something we learn to work with differently as time goes on).  We need patience for the inevitable moments that reveal that we may not be gliding through life as gracefully as we’d imagined—and that perhaps we’re more broken than we hoped. If we can have the patience to allow that level of vulnerability to exist, we can recognize the potential to work with it on the mat.

This is the kind of stuff we as ranking students are developing patience for. New students who are absorbed into this ever-widening spiral, this ever-deepening ground, are welcome to learn from it, template it, try it on for themselves and in their own practice. Patience is one of the many virtues we develop in Aikido practice for the purposes of developing into better warriors and better people. When it comes to greeting you, well. All that is is happiness.

You are welcome.

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