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).
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.
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.
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.