As I write this is my fourth night of dealing with Vertigo. For those of you unfamiliar with vertigo it is an inner ear problem that causes intense nausea and dizziness. Just imagine car or motion sickness amplified one hundred times. I've been through this before since an auto accident about seven years ago. Ever since I have been susceptible to it, especially when I get hit in the head or sustain a neck injury...like last weekend.
Well, my post isn't to complain so much about vertigo, but, what it has taught me. For one it has taught me that I am getting older and have to slow down a bit and realize I am not 23 anymore...and make adjustments to my personal approach to Karate and Budo in general. With vertigo you have to slow down and really focus on what you are doing. Mindfulness of your activity is important or you end up lying on the floor with the room spinning around you. Like a stern Zen Master, vertigo was keeping me here and now...on a different level than I had experienced in the past.
During one of my evenings of bed spinning I had a small epiphany that is easy to understand with words, but more difficult to get the actual awakening experience. Well, during a very uncomfortable evening my head was hurting from lots of pressure, my neck ached and I was very nauseous from bed spinning. I applied some mind-body therapies to reduce my headache and neck ache but nothing relieved the spinning and nausea. In an attempt to escape my suffering I applied a simple hypnotic technique of 'going to my happy place' and hopefully just get some sleep. Didn't work.
It then dawned on me that my happy place is not somewhere in my imagination but it was in the middle of the suffering of this moment. This moment is the only 'happy place' there can be, even if it is puking into a toilet that seems to keep on moving. Whether this moment is uncomfortable or comfortable, this is where I am and there is peace within it. Just like finding freedom in structure there is only peace in this moment's reality. As I write I find these words not quite right but it is as close as I can get.
I share this in hopes to encourage you that when life becomes very uncomfortable, like standing in kiba or sanchin dachi for long periods of time or performing numberless reverse punches your arms feel like falling off...it's okay. Rather than trying mental tricks of escaping the discomfort...go into it. Remember the old saying, 'to get to the sweet you have to go through the bitter.' Vertigo, for me, has been very bitter and I am just now beginning to taste the sweet. Life will always bring us bitter moments...it is up to us to find the sweet.
Here's a little twist on Zazen if you are interested in trying it. Rather than focus on your inhale and exhale, place your focus on the 'feeling' or 'impulse' just before you inhale...and exhale. Simply notice the difference in the energy and quality of your sitting.
My recommendation, as always, is to make a daily regimen of Zazen, even if for only five minutes a day. Daily practice, no matter how little, is a good thing. If you can extend it to 30 - 40 minutes a day this is good too. Also to re-iterate, when the mind wanders away from the spot before and after each breath, simply return to it. Be gentle with yourself...it is normal for the mind to wander. Do not worry about perfection...just practice as you are.
Plus, I just had to post this comic strip one more time. I found it on the Tao Wow blog...which is good reading by the way.
This weekend my son and one of my students went to the annual Moosejaw Seminar sponsored by the Flambeau Self-Defense League. As usual we had a fantastic time...as well as learned new ideas, strategies and had old insights validated.
One of those insights revalidated came from Sigung Bill Penca and Sifu Paul Marquardt of Fu Chen Kung Fu. We were practicing one of their forms and began discussing that we would not so much remember the form itself but the concepts of the form. As we went on Sigung Penca began speaking of finding Freedom within Discipline. He is referring to finding the Freedom and playfulness found within the discipline of a set structure such as a kata. I found mine within the structure at the Heartland Temple in Omaha and in my Kata as well.
Sigung Penca and myself discovered that true freedom comes from within 'structure' or 'discipline' and not by simply following your whims and desires. To follow your whims or desires is not true freedom, but another form of slavery. You are now a slave to your desires and this will lead you down the road of suffering. True freedom is finding out how big your world is within a set form or structured discipline. This type of freedom is difficult to put into words and I only write them to point your mind in that direction and to encourage you to continue in your disciplines.
Nonin would often talk about how 'big' and 'expansive' his life was. I never really understood it but kept it in my thoughts...and eventually I had that crack in my 'cosmic egg' and began to see what he was referring to. Sigung Penca gave us a wonderful demonstration of his freedom within discipline via his forms performance at the May seminar. Because he found his freedom within the form he can now play with form....return to emptiness...play with form and on and on.
For more info on this check out the concepts of Shu, Ha, Ri and Ku. I wrote of this last year and is in my blog archives. This also will help point you in these directions of finding freedom within structure. Finding freedom within the discipline of the martial arts will also help you find the freedom you seek in your everyday life. As you master your everyday-life structure you will find yourself, just like Sigung Penca, playing with the structure of your life. You will feel free and playful. I know this is my experience as well.
Many of my colleagues my age speak of retirement and can't wait to quit working. I don't think of retirement as I really don't work. My everyday life is not a chore. Yes, it hurts at times and I some days are easier than others, but overall, life is one big playstation for me. Have you ever noticed that some of the older martial artists laugh a lot and walk around with big 'shit-eatin' grins? Yeah...they have touched this freedom...this is the sweetness that arrives after tasting the bitter confines of discipline.
Well, that's enought rambling for now...well, mostly I have to go because my bladder is full and my head is empty.
No matter how long I have been practicing Karate I find it extremely important to always check and re-check my foundational basics. How is my stancework, breathwork, hand and arm location and most importantly, my mind-work? This is why I am so grateful for teaching and having white belts. It makes me not only teach these but look at myself critically, so I can be a good role model.
I encourage all of my Yudansha and upper ranks to take the time and check their basics. It is so easy to get sloppy after years of study. You find yourself interested in new techniques, which is good for growth, but it is easy to lose focus of the basics. My personal workouts, on many occasions, are just the basics. These are the foundational and core strengths that 'advanced' techniques flow from...and work from. Without the foundation all the cool looking stuff we do simply won't happen.
Since Karate is a microcosm of everyday life, I then ask myself, "What are the basics of living?" What are the foundational basics of everyday life? Am I doing these well? For my life, zazen is a foundational basic. Without it I tend to get lost in my monkey mind and find myself getting stressed out, blood pressure raises and irritability reigns. The attitude of my sitting practice I attempt to take with me while I eat, sleep, walk, work, play, etc. This makes all the difference for me. What about you?
Yesterday I was speaking with a gentlemen who came to see me to help him stay sober. We got on the subject of barfights. He is a seasoned veteran and states he has been in thousands of fights over his life. Standing at 6 foot 5 inches, this gentlemen can be a very imposing figure.
He asked me, knowing I am a martial artist, how I would defend myself against him if it came down to a fight. My typical answer is, "I don't know, it depends on the circumstances."...but this time I told him I would take out his knees.
His eyes opened wide and said, "Yeah, that would do it." He has been in the construction/welding industry most of his life (he is now 54) and he admits his weak spot would be his knees. As we spoke he said that would be the best spot to hit a big guy like him because he has a lot of weight on the knees and it could drop him fast.
I added that for me, standing at 5 foot 8 inces tall, it would be very difficult for me to hit him in the head and that given his strength he could take a good torso beating and I wouldn't even phase him....but the knees, ah, the wonderful knees. I can reach those.
Take a look at your knees. They are designed to really bend only one way. I encourage all students to study the knees and figure out, given your attributes, how would you take out a knee if you were attacked? As you can see, a knee taken in any other direction that it is supposed to go will cause some imbalance in the opponent, and if the proper technique is executed at the right time can incapacitate your opponent.
Think about how can you kick a knee, how can you take out a knee with your hands, or your knees or your shoulders or whatever...be creative. Even if you are a big person there is always someone bigger. Most people are head-hunters in a fight...especially if they are bigger than you. Think of how you can take advantage of that as well.
While surfing the net the other evening I came across a quote I liked:
"A Soldier is not the same as a Warrior. A Soldier is someone who fights, and may even fight well, but hasn't developed his heart. A true Warrior has suffered and has developed a compassionate heart."
This is a really nice way of differentiating those who just like to fight and are full of bravado and their own ego versus the warrior who is on a path of self-discovery and healing. I could write more but I think the verse says enough.
The other day at work I was struggling what to do with a certain drug and alcohol client of mine who just didn't quite seem to get the idea of showing up for appointments on time...if even at all. I was deeply enmeshed as to how to get this person to change and trying to find ways to motivate this person to stay clean and sober. Then that little voice in the back of my head screamed at me, "Hey...you are not in charge of the Universe! Just let it be."
At that moment I was just able to kick back and have a good laugh at myself...and let go. Here I was again trying to control life rather than just going with the flow. In the martial arts, as most of us know, the best techniques flow with what is given, rather than what is forced.
It is no different in the dojo than out of the dojo. When I again did meet with this client I engaged him where he was in his life and applied some conversational aikido, taking what he gave me and returning it to him so he could see what he was doing. This pumped up his motivation for change rather than me lecturing at him. No matter how long I have been counseling, it's amazing how at times your desire for quick control makes you lose focus of good interviewing skills.
The same applies in learning self-defense skills. As a martial arts teacher it is important to me to remember that every student has his/her own story and will mature at their own rate. It reminds me of an old saying, 'You can't make the corn grow by pulling on it.' You just have to have trust and let life flow. Clients and students will grow; my job is to just provide a nourishing environment and let go.
I am also thankful for this client as he helped me validate to listen to that little voice in the back of my head that screams at me.
Zazen involves the simple, but not so simple, focus of your attention to your breathing. Inhaling and exhaling, inhaling and exhaling, inhaling and exhaling. This goes on typically for a 40 minute period. What also goes on is a lot of monkey mind chatter and the mind losing focus of the breath.
One method I use to help my focus and keep my zazen practice as pure as I can is to remember that each breath is a new breath. Each one is unique. I tell myself there is life and death in each inhale and exhale, respectively.
Inhaling I breath in new life, exhaling I let go and die. I imagine that I am reincarnated with each breath...and in many ways I am. I know I am alive when I inhale, because if after an exhale, if there is no inhale, well this body has decided to relinquish my life-giving force. So, I am also thankful for each inhale...and exhale. Life and death are contained in it...they make up one breath. They make up life.
So, when you find yourself struggling upon your zafu, hopefully this tip might help you stay with your practice.
Thanks for visiting. My Dharma name is Shinzen. I began studying Goshindo Karate under the watchful eye of Shihan Paul Dean in 1969. Yes, I now have gray hair. I am also Lay-ordained in Soto Zen under the tutelage of Rev. Nonin Chowaney of the Nebraska Zen Center.