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navigating the beautiful and baffling art of aikido (and other writings)

Kaguramai: learning to dance with my bokken

My dear friend and fellow aikidoka Dave Philhower shares some gorgeous insights, imagery and instruction. Enjoy! 

At its core, Aikido is a mindfulness practice. It is not about how to defeat an attacker. It cultivates our groundedness, our whole body awareness. Our ability to focus on one thing at a time. Modern day-to-day life can slowly erode our focus and balance. Without noticing, we become disconnected from our source, and from each other. No one intends for this to happen. It just does. How, then, do we reconnect to our ground?
moka

Schedule time for misogi.

I. PRACTICE

Just carry your bokken.
Feel its rhythm, its bounce, as your boots stick in mud.
Feel its balance as you hop across a stream.

If you walk and talk mindfully, you will see a place.
It will wink at you, and ask you to come.

Perhaps you will stretch and breathe deeply there.
Perhaps your sword will start to buzz in your hands.

Raise it to the sky. Start rowing back and forth with it.
Play with your bokken. Let it sing. Dance.

This is kaguramai.

daveyThis is about connecting, not perfecting.
Feel your bokken.
Balance it on your hand.
Spin it.

You need not remember a whole kata or set of kumi.
Swing, strike, block.
Move.
Walk.
Simple joys.
This is how I find my flow.

Add in some meditation.
Some cold water.
Bless your sword.
Stand barefoot on the rocks, in the water.
Feel the sand shift under your feet.
Swing, strike, block.
You will find a flow, a form.

II. MISOGI

Misogi-the practice of purification-is necessary, because we naturally accumulate impurities from the world around us. Think about your house. Even if you do nothing to it, dust accumulates in your house and gradually it becomes dirty. Doing the practice of misog is like cleaning your house. The more consistently you do this internal housecleaning, the more you will be able to sustain a clean, clear heart.
—Anno Sensei, from interviews with Linda Holiday Sensei in Journey to the Heart of Aikido, 2013, p. 213

Every few months, my beloved and I schedule a Day on the Land. A day for misogi. We pack up hiking packs with food and drink, layers of clothes, a picnic blanket, a travel altar. Then we head out of town, into the woods or out to the wild Pacific shore. As I packed up for our first Day on the Land last April, I intuitively brought my bokken, a heavy wooden training sword. I strapped it to the outside of my pack as we hiked up the fire road in Devil’s Gulch.

treesesHours later, after meditating, after silently watching trees sway, tracking hawk’s flight path, I ‘discovered’ a spot that called me. I knew to take off my shoes, hold my bokken at my left side, and bow in. Simultaneously acknowledging its sacredness and helping make the space sacred, I stepped into this Forest Temple.

For awhile I sat, meditated. Listened to the water. The wind. Then I felt a tug. I stood up, carefully walked to the spot that pulled me, and began to play with my bokken. Shifting my weight back and forth. Getting to know the stream. Slow happo-giri, eight directions cut. Soon, I was in the middle of a huge figure eight, the Infinity Loop, my sword circling around me. I was part of a great Ki generator. It felt like light was flowing out from me. My mind cleared of all thought.

That was the moment that I knew to bring my 92 y.o. Grandmother out West, the moment that my duty to help her die with dignity was clearly heard. Tress swaying together, roots intertwined.

“The practice of misogi [purification] develops a heart that is able to endure suffering. In human life, there are many misfortunes. You need courage to deal with them. And you need courage to help those weaker than yourself. Misogi is undertaken to cultivate that strength of spirit. To develop an undefeatable heart.”
—Anno Sensei, Ibid, p. 214

davey2Now I always carry my bokken with me on our Days on the Land.
Last weekend, my beloved brought her staff [jo], and we walked the land with our wooden weapons in hand, looking like two REI samurai. In NorCal’s first rainy season in several years, the hills were flowing with water, fluorescent with green, and spotted with mushrooms.

III. DISCOVERY
Recently, I discovered an ancient word that describes what I have been experiencing: kaguramai.

“O’Sensei often performed solo movement with a wooden sword or staff. People referred to this movement as kaguramai [sacred dance offering]…His movement definitely had the feeling of an offering done in a sacred place.”
—Anno Sensei, Ibid, p. 219

I am soul-sure that the combination of lots of time on the mat, the ki-washing machine that is our dojo, and our practice of misogi, time on the land, [Shinrin-Yoku, forest bathing] has led to this new opening- dancing with my bokken. Please consider carrying your jo or bokken next time you spend a day in the woods.

The agony of conscious incompetence

I wrote this for my coaching school’s blog in 2011, the same year I started aikido. At the time I didn’t connect the two. (Hindsight can be a lovely thing.) Though the context is coaching, hopefully it’s clear how this applies to any practice.

I was recently introduced to a learning model that’s opened up a lot of space around my own development and my work with clients. It’s known as the four stages of competence, the stages themselves being: (1) unconscious incompetence, (2) conscious incompetence, (3) conscious competence, and (4) unconscious competence.

Unconscious incompetence is when our blind spots are still blind, and we’re blissfully ignorant of what we’re capable of growing into. (Or maybe it’s not so blissful, and that’s why we seek coaching.) Once introduced to the new possibility or skill we want to develop, we may begin vague cognitive understanding of it, but the rest of our system has no reference for it yet. We don’t yet know what we can’t do.

Conscious incompetence then ensues. This is the stage when we are aware of the thing that needs to shift but we haven’t yet shifted. It’s having the desire for change while feeling stuck being how we’ve always been. I’ll talk more about this in a second.

Conscious competence comes when we’ve gotten the hang of the new skill or quality, but it’s not yet second nature. For example, if we’re learning to drive a car, we still need to pay attention to which way we need to turn our ankle to reach the brake pedal, remind ourselves to check the rearview mirror, and largely ignore whomever is riding with us so that we can concentrate on what we’re doing.

But eventually, finally, blessedly, comes unconscious competence, when we’ve embodied the new skill and it starts to happen automatically. We’re cruising with the radio on full blast, with our attention on the scenery, on our companions, on our own inner life.

But let’s back up for a moment to that second stage, conscious incompetence. This phase can be pesky. Actually, it can be hell. To use the driving example, it’s the stage when your mother is sitting terrified in the passenger’s seat, digging her nails into the dashboard and pushing down on the nonexistent brake pedal with both feet, shrieking at you to not hit the squirrel. It’s rolling backwards down hills and bouncing off the side of the garage. It’s making mistake after mistake after mistake and thinking you’re never, ever going to get it.

Can you see how this applies to growth edges in self-development? You are invited into a new narrative that is possible for you, but which you have not yet embodied. It can be immensely frustrating to see a new way of being in front of you, understand and be inspired by the possibility of it, and yet still employ your old set of behaviors because it’s all your system knows to do.

I had a client who had always believed that he was the catalyst for everything that happened in his life and in the lives of those around him. He didn’t think people would do things if he didn’t remind them. Once he realized it was possible to trust that the world could take care of itself, he began to taste the joy and freedom that comes with being able to let go. So he didn’t understand why, soon after he had this realization, he was still micromanaging his employees and doing the lion’s share of tasks at home. He became frustrated with himself and wondering why he was “sliding.” Which, of course, wasn’t the case at all. He was just learning.

When we encounter conscious incompetence, I think we have a choice. We could let our inner critic grab the mic and begin a running commentary on all the ways we’re utterly inadequate, for not being The Better Person We Know We Can Be, which invariably snowballs into greater self-loathing and a much slower progression toward the new way.

Or, we can remember what it was like to be a teenager learning to drive a car. We can observe toddlers learning to walk, falling on their little bums again and again and again. We can appreciate the how huge it is to be aware of something that wasn’t even in our consciousness until now. We can give ourselves permission to fall, and crash, and fail, and cry. We can surround ourselves with a support system of folks who will pick us up, dust us off, encourage us, forgive the messes we make, and remind us how far we’ve come.

And then finally, when we’ve reached that blissful state where we’re so used to our new way of being that we’re no longer aware of it, those same folks can remind us of the time when we thought it was impossible.

And this is the gift we have the privilege of giving our clients as well: letting them bounce off as many garage doors as they need to, and reassuring them that one day, they’ll be on cruise control.

Wisdom from a fellow aikidoka

Some beautiful reflections from Karin Karis in the Netherlands following her 3rd degree black belt test. Enjoy.

Black belt test: what I wanted to express

How we know what’s true (or, why we need our bodies)

Sometimes at the beginning of class I have students walk around the mat feeling into different parts of themselves – center, feet, heart, the room, the earth, the universe, playing with what part of them is “driving,” experimenting with surrendering control and letting themselves be driven. Checking out how all of this affects their movement, interaction with others, feeling of themselves. Does it feel familiar? Is it new? What do you notice?

Regardless of what students are instructed to focus on, the intention is to awaken to how we move through space. To do so with attention in our physical being, rather than on the usual thoughts or judgments or goals or whatever is coming through our headphones. Out of the head and into the body.

This is vitally important for a million reasons, one of which is cultivating our ability, in any given moment, to tell what is true.

In these times when there is so much noise, so many claims, so much information flying around, we have a lot of sorting to do. Right now especially we are privy to much that historically has been harder to access, that had been behind the curtain, that we had to go looking for. Injustice is no longer only blatantly obvious only to its victims and warriors. It’s now in all our faces, all the time. These facts are ticker-taped across our awareness on a daily basis. We’re seeing shifts in our world that have potential for massive healing or destruction. Unless we take up residence in a Siberian cave, we cannot deny that it’s happening.

And yet, some do. Still. Even now. Why?

In anticipation of some difficult conversations and downright brawls in the years ahead, I’ve been reflecting on this. What is the difference between a being who is contact with the truth versus one who believes rhetoric and refuses to abide facts? (Of course I am framing it this way for the sake of argument, acknowledging fully that it’s not so black and white—pardon the expression—as that.)

It turns out that knowing and believing are not the same thing. One lives in the mind. The other, in the body. On a topic of oh, say, institutionalized oppression, to say that we’re merely disagreeing—that one person’s “truth” is just as valid as the other—is inaccurate.

Facts are of the physical universe. Science, for instance, relies on evidence—that which we can access via our earthly senses. “Gut feelings” are called that because they are actual sensations in the tummy. To have access to our senses we must be in our bodies, be attuned to them, know how to operate them. For many, this is unimaginable. We’re just not gonna go there. With good reason: we’ve all been invaded and traumatized, on purpose or not, consciously or not. We’ve gotten messages that our physicality is not a safe place to dwell. Not to mention that it’s been trained out of us for generations—Descartes saw to that.*

Denying our bodies by and large means a retreat to the mind. Not exactly a Siberian cave, but definitely a wind tunnel of myriad arbitrary ideas. In that abstract, un-rooted place where nothing is really real, we can pick and choose what we hold on to and what we let blow through. With nothing solid to test that truth against we usually end up surrendering our attention to whatever cacophonous presentation is the most relentless.

If this is what belief stems from, and I think it is, we can literally believe anything. Overwhelming and disquieting, to say the least.

Knowing, on the other hand, is when our cells vibrate with the truth of something. It lives in the gut, in the skin, in the spine, the throat, the connections between our muscles and bones. It’s when, for instance, considering a potential situation makes you feel solidly planted several inches deeper in the ground versus twitchy and spacey. Or when you’re somewhere and know you need to leave immediately because you feel that certain kind of nauseated. Everyone’s tuning mechanisms work a little differently. It’s up to each of us to learn our instrument.

It’s no coincidence that the deeper I’ve ventured into my aikido practice the less confusing things have become. (Mind you I say less confusing, not not confusing.) Over time, practice has connected me to the divining rod that is my body. I know what’s true more of the time because I can feel it. Not because I read it in a book or saw it on the news or heard someone say it (even if they’ve said it a billion times). As my attention is trained on ever subtler nuances of movement in myself and others, I become more aware of what it feels like when my cells sing in resonance with a thought or action that is true or right or loving or kind, or that forwards wellbeing or evolution—my own or the world’s.

Ai is unity. Ki is energy. Do is the way. When we practice aikido we’re unifying with the god force that runs through all things. We’re doing it to heal ourselves and heal the world through our alignment to ultimate rightness. Training helps us attune more and more to THAT truth—the one that, if we feel into it, is actually rather simple and obvious. It’s nothing to do with what our parents or newsfeeds or priests or friends or teachers or addictions have vied to install in our minds.

It’s a tough thing, choosing to abandon the conditioned behavior of hunkering in our heads, sorting information based on what ‘makes sense.’ The body can be unfamiliar territory, full of wounding and aches, full of memories we’d rather not dredge up, full of demands to move in different ways than we’re used to. It’s also our most necessary instrument in discerning what our life is for.

More on how we might navigate this tricky business in upcoming posts.

*If you’re a fan of utterly profound, gently delivered insight and are not yet following my friend Justin Wise’s blog, On living and working, I invite you to resolve that on that double.

Listen and begin

The sonic boom that was this election and its ensuing ripples are waking up what has been latent in all of us. It’s calling us all to our truest selves. The world has made a clear request and demands our authentic response, and right swiftly too.

For many, the response comes in the form of fear and hatred being worn brazenly on the outside: the emergence of our collective shadow. For others—for me—it’s a neon sign pointing to my own ignorance, and an understanding that I have a lot of catching up—and acting—to do. Big time. Things are moving fast now and whatever’s been asleep in us has been roused. No time to lose.

Something that deflated in significance, almost all at once, has been my hesitancy to say things: to participate in social media, to share my writing publicly, to say what I see. I’ve historically withheld my full participation, even though, undeniably, this is where people see and hear and share and learn and interact the most. I’ve been resistant to the inevitable tide, overwhelmed by being in contact with so many people’s thoughts and emotions and lives in such close range all at once (not something my Gen X body has easily adjusted to). And of course there’s my own crippling self-consciousness. Online and and in real life, I’ve kept a filter up to protect myself.

I’ve been supporting my close friends’ activism with a kind of distant admiration, harboring deep feelings about what is right and true, but flabbergasted most of the time by subtleties and nuances and brilliant points I would never have thought of. I know I’m always missing something so I gave up trying to follow. Plus there’s potential conflict inherent in all of it—a lifelong terror of mine. Heaven for fend I have to choose a side, or worse: that things get unpleasant.

Anyway, none of these feel like excuses I can rest in any longer. It seems dumb that I ever have.

I realize this: I’m a beginner at activism. Like anything new it will start awkwardly and I’ll make many mistakes. I’ll say the wrong things; I’ll inadvertently offend. But it has to start. I’ve been avoiding this because it’s felt too hard, too complicated, too impossible, too overwhelming. It’s been intimidating to take up because I have no idea what I’m doing. It’s why people shy away from aikido or painting or cooking or whatever … because after a few stabs they can’t do it perfectly so fuck it.

But now, it seems, there’s very little to lose (I say “seems” because what is happening in the world is not new—it’s just that the volume has been turned up). So I’ll do this badly for awhile. Maybe forever. But I’ll do it. Dignity be damned. I owe it to the world to finally extend my gaze past my own overly examined navel.

Still, as I toddle out on undeveloped legs in my effort to finally contribute something more than crossed fingers, I acknowledge my klutziness. I acknowledge that it took a threat so giant, glaring and global to finally make me see and be willing to stand up. Like so many, before now, I wasn’t ready. Now I am. I humbly request the forgiveness and support of those who have always known better.

Fortunately I’m steeped in a community of experts. My apprenticeship has been occurring even as I’ve resisted it. I have all the resources a beginner could ask for.

But this is foundation of mastery, isn’t it? Don’t not do something because you fear doing it badly. Whatever call you hear, no matter how mysterious or foreign or shadowy seeming—move in that direction. Start in tiny increments if you must, but do it now. I’ve never been one to go in for urgency but damn. Most of us—definitely I—have been asleep for so long that the world had to issue us (and by “us” I mean people who haven’t been suffering for generations) a rather horrifying ultimatum.

If you haven’t already connected to your response—what life is asking of you at this moment in history—I suspect you don’t have to dig too deep to unearth it. Find it, my friend. Find your heart, your voice, your strength, your calling. Find the support that is so near at hand to help with its emergence.

Listen, and begin.

Called to warriorship (November 9, 2016)

We’ve been training for this our whole lives….

I am not ‘trying to be optimistic’, though as a straight white lady living comfortably in a relatively sane and insulated pocket of the world, I could certainly exercise that luxury. Those ‘trying to be optimistic’ are those whom this disaster won’t touch—not initially anyway.

I’m not weeping in terror, either—my privilege doesn’t give me the right to do that, at least not for myself and my own safety.

No, the cause of my own insomnia last night was shock at a response I did not see coming: I am willing to fight. I am going to fight.

I’m grateful today for my aikido training in ways I could not have predicted. The layers of fear it’s brought up and burned off. The anger and rage that’s behind that, that has been sort of bubbling and quaking and not directed anywhere, just feeling like energy, like fuel. Changing shape and changing me. The spiral rising up my spine that in this moment has me feeling far more courageous than I ever I thought I would or could. Far more angry too. Far more willing to fight for those who might need me to defend them. This is in stark and shocking contrast to what would have been my reaction not long ago: “I will pray and hope and be nice to everyone and see what happens.” No way. I mean, I will pray for sure. I’ll be kind, I’ll nurture, I’ll love. But I will also use what strength I have in service to those who don’t have the resources I do.

The question that arose for me back when Voldemort first appeared on the scene, which I never asked publicly, was, “if we want him to go away, why are we paying so much attention to him?” Fear and revulsion and resistance are as nourishing a food to such beasts as adoration and support are. More so even. We’ve fed him with our attention all along, we who hate him. Understandable—we couldn’t just ignore him and let him do what he did without having tried to stop him.

Nonetheless, here we are. America is as dangerous and violent and fat and fake and greedy and dishonest and vile as the sludge demon we’ve elected to represent us. This needed to be revealed. The box is open; the beast is out. No amount of hope or optimism will put it back in. No amount of shiny lacquer will cover over what we now face as a globe.

But I’m not fighting the great reveal. I’m honoring it: honoring what’s being shown in me, in us. I’ll fight instead for those caught in the current of this necessary and horrible revelation. The ones who are in actual, immediate, physical danger should this monster actually ascend to the throne and be put in charge of the CIA and given the bomb codes. Before he actually executes the destruction that we all fear.

(The question my outrage asks now: could we possibly let him? How can we let him? Is there not any way to shove a stick in the gears of this invisible machine that is relentlessly consuming us? Could those who allegedly know better simply refuse to keep handing him power, laws be damned? Doubtful, I know. This is a stone of wrong that’s been clogging the artery of evolution and is finally on the move. It hurts like hell, this breakage and this release. But again, we couldn’t sit on the lid any longer.)

So yes, those who are most vulnerable in the face of this need warriors to fight with and for them, but I can’t and won’t beseech you to begin or keep training for this reason. It’s not how it works anyway. Aikido is a spiritual path because you are literally, actively training for whatever the world needs from you—and you can’t necessarily know what that is. Practice, it seems, reveals that too. Because it blasts open parts of us that we didn’t know were shut down. Like what just happened in our country, it unmasks the ugly bits of us—releases them, gets them on the move, transforms them into something else. Calls us to our highest selves. This doesn’t always mean warriorship. It often means peace, kindness, patience, forgiveness—any number of qualities that, in their purest, un-contorted, agenda-less form are necessary for a healthy soul. Ones you have to work hard to find. Ones that life, I can assure you, needs you to find.

Maybe it’ll take something as monstrous as this election to understand why you’ve been training. Maybe it’ll be subtly revealed in your daily interactions. Most likely it’s both, but nothing happens if you don’t return to the mat and face it. The world doesn’t need you to fight, perhaps, but it does need you to confront your own demons. This is the only way anything gets healed.

This is bringing out the worst in those who are the worst. But it seems to me to be bringing forth something else in the rest of us. What is it for you?

Kokyu dosa

Reach for the center. Reach right through the center. Stay relaxed, keep your eyes open, body unified, and extend through your partner.

I hear myself giving tips like these to students when we do our closing exercise, kokyu dosa. Translated as breath movement or breath exercise, kokyu dosa is an extremely subtle moving partner meditation. It’s about taking our partner’s balance using just our ki, without striving, muscling, checking out, or giving up: all attributes that we’re cultivating in a more overt way during the rest of our time on the mat.

To do this, we much reach for our partner’s very center: a mass of energy that is (usually) undeniably present and must be moved if their balance is going to go. Reaching into that place, one will likely encounter resistance: not from their partner’s fighting, but rather from encountering that true, immovable, grounded part of them. It’s a feeling distinct from stubbornness or push-back. For me, it’s like hitting a membrane of sorts. Hard to define, and everyone’s center has a different quality.

We all have different reactions to this energy. We might try to go around it; try to push through it using our strength; back up, regroup and try again; stay just at its edge not daring to go any further; employ some twisty maneuver to trick our partner into falling over.

None of these strategies work; in fact, we usually find that we sacrifice our own integrity when we attempt stuff like this. As with everything in aikido, the learning gets more and more subtle as we progress.

We are forever doing kokyu dosa with the work that is in front of us, with the things that are calling to us. I know I do, anyway. My writing, for instance—the thing that’s right in front of me, that wants my attention, that needs me to move in much more consistently and powerfully than I’ve been doing. Instead, I’ve been sliding around it by finding anything—anything else to do. Whenever there is a free moment during which I can write, I immediately find another task. Work, chores, online whatnot … stuff that somehow feels productive and yet is false. I’m moving, yes (kind of), but I’m not accomplishing the work of my soul. Even while writing this, if I hit a stuck point I find another place to put my attention for a moment or more: checking email (which I’ve done about 900 times since beginning to write this), walking the dog, looking out the window … My attention is scattered, my being decidedly split. I’m doing anything but reaching for the center. I’m slipping around it.

Recently my Sensei described kokyu dosa as the hardest thing we do in aikido. The challenge is to stay with the movement, with our partner, with the flow, regardless of how stuck we feel. Keeping our energy directed toward and through the center (the task, the work, the growth, the calling), even if it doesn’t seem to be getting us anywhere. Remain focused, relaxed, and committed. Don’t assume this is the wrong art, the wrong dojo, the wrong partner, the wrong anything. Don’t go to a place of “I suck at this” or “this person is a jerk” or whatever we do when we find ourselves in a tough spot.

Reach. Stay unified. Don’t divert. Don’t give up. Keep your eyes open. Stay present. As with much instruction I give, I say this like it’s easy; like it’s something one can just decide to do.

It’s the hardest. I do kokyu dosa with sensei and get shown again and again that my body still has no idea how to take a powerful center. And goodness knows I have a long way to go off the mat. We all do. There’s always an edge.

Mysterious and frustrating as it is, kokyu dosa gives us a felt-sense opportunity to observe our habitual behavior when we’re in the face of something difficult. For instance, I’ve been noticing my tendency of late to strain to the point of near-pain rather than give up, and then when I have zero left to give, surrender dramatically and get knocked over. When the thing to do is relax, relax into that resistance, surrender the outcome, pay greater attention to the feedback I’m getting, not work so hard … all that good and graceful and advanced stuff. I know it’s what I need to do: I’m writing it so clearly part of me understands it. But often, so often, my body does something different. Horribly frustrating. Wonderful learning.

So, in addition to enjoying the delightful bafflement of kokyu dosa (and/or reveling in the fact that you’ve made it through to the end of another tough class), you might challenge yourself to watch—really watch—what it is that your body is doing in response to what’s in front of you. Our entire practice is an opportunity for this but kokyu dosa doesn’t carry with it the technical choreography or ultimate object of throwing your partner. Nobody’s flying at you in an attack; you get to sit there and check out whether you’re sliding away, retreating, fighting, using too much or too little energy, closing down, blaming our partner for being too [fill in the blank] … these are a few of infinite ways our bodies try to deal with confusion and difficulty.

And you might then go a step further and explore how this response translates to the most challenging aspects of your broader life. I know, yeesh. But this is why we do aikido. One can argue that kokyu dosa is kind of the point of it all. The more puzzling something is, the greater the gift.

Unraveling

I wrote this in 2012, on the eve of that year’s presidential election. Different time, different context, different issues, different writer. I could (and probably will) make points more trenchant and relevant to today’s particular flavor of chaos. Nonetheless … much of it still feels true.

The world is unraveling. This is not news. Of course it isn’t. It’s only recently entered my understanding in a more visceral way that it’s undeniable now, but it never wasn’t the truth. The election is futile. No matter what happens tomorrow, we’re still headed toward decline. Obama may slow the decline, Romney will accelerate it, but either way, nothing will be fixed or solved with either of them in office. Nor will it be fixed or solved by us recycling or paying attention to the weather patterns or cutting fossil fuels. It’s too late. We’re being ripped apart at the seams. For so long we’ve felt the tug. Now it’s starting to rip.

It’s okay, there’s nothing we could have done. This is the direction of our evolution. It’s an inevitability of an ever-expanding universe. Nothing we do or don’t do, or have or haven’t done, would or could ever stop it. If you close your eyes and sense your insides – the mini-universe that resides in you – you can feel the pulling there too. The audible rip; the sensation of dynamic polarization. The expansion and near-explosion. It’s hard to bear. Tearing hurts. Disintegration is uncomfortable … we spend our energy and our dollars and our lives trying to prevent that very thing in its every form.  We destroy ourselves trying to prevent destruction.

But here we are: a society and a world encroaching on not existing as we always have. The ways we’ve done things and are still trying to do them just don’t hold up in the world that it is. The world is changing, and so many of us are frantically grabbing at the frayed edges of what once was, pulling with all their might and attempting in vein to lash the shreds together, hoping they’ll hold. They won’t hold. We need to let them go.

But we can’t because if we do, we’re surrendering ourselves to the unknown. To pain and chaos and strife and possible death. To definite lack of control. Having let go, our only recourse is to sit and watch it all fall down. Those of us who hide and ignore and distract won’t be able to. We all have to be here for it, and we don’t know what it is. We have to trust. We don’t know how to trust. We can’t let go. So we fight.

Our fighting takes every imaginable shape. We fight injustice, we fight diseases, we fight wars—both in them and against them. We fight with each other, we fight ourselves. Oh, so hard we fight ourselves. We fight against feeling pain, intimacy, pleasure, anger, hopelessness, fear. We hold our bodies so tightly against these things that they ache and distort and crumple and decay far more quickly than they’d otherwise need to. And then we fight the failing and when we can’t we go back to pushing it—and anything that reminds us of it—out of our consciousness.

And we go with all our might at the things we think we can fix. We perceive a problem and we villianize whomever we’ve decided was its perpetrator. We lash outwardly with blame for our inner hurt. We turn such a blind eye to our own incompleteness and raise pitchfork mobs out of others with similar pains, and go after the village ghost monster bent on making him pay. We don’t recognize that we’re each of us wading through our own worlds of hurt and just heaving it on to one another: here, you carry this for me.  It’s all your fault anyway. You bear the burden.

But this isn’t a wrong way to be; it’s how we are. It hasn’t caused the unravel. The unravel was coming. The unravel is us moving from Capricorn to Aquarius. It’s the game board changing, and life and the universe requiring something far different from us than most of us know how to live. So we man our old battle stations and prepare to ward off something that has no way of being destroyed. It’s merely a shifting world, and our only choice is to shift with it … or not.

So how, I now wonder, do those who are willing to let go facilitate the letting go of everyone else? Ha. We don’t. We don’t because that would be interfering with a process we understand to be inevitable and natural and that will have its own relationship with each being it encounters. We can’t meddle – it’s counter to the spirit of what’s going on. It would be just another attempt to hold something together. To “save” something, be it order or justice or the fabric of society or values or each other.  There is no saving to do. There is only letting go. In joy, in joy, and with open hearts. There is only release.

There can be celebration, I imagine: celebration for the astoundingly magical unfolding of existence. Laughter at the absurdity of it all. The comedy, the brilliance. Comfort in the fact—the only real truth we have to go on—of the unstoppable expansion of the universe and the changing nature of all things. I’ll raise a glass to that.

But whatever happens tomorrow has already happened. IS already happening. We surely can’t stop short, throw up our hands and say forget the whole thing. For our own understanding of survival we need to keep going. It’s just that I can see now that our actions are empty, but we have no others at the moment. We’re in the throes of an enormous universal limbo. We’ve let go of one trapeze and can’t yet glimpse another one to grab. We’re hanging in mid-air, and there’s no evidence of a net to catch us. So we’re feverishly attempting to weave our own out of what we’ve always used: fear and hope and words and thoughts and things things things. We drive toward a solution and our efforts dissipate into the blackness so we redouble and try harder. It hurts, it makes us tight and tense and yet we know no other way.

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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