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Buddhism and Aikido…blended

We cannot live in the past; it is gone. Nor can we live in the future; it is forever beyond our grasp. We can live only in the present.

– S.N. Goenka

A little under two years ago, I was fortunate to attend a 10 day vipassana retreat north of Montebello Quebec, Canada. Although my reasons for attending were largely driven by various life challenges at the time, I was surprised to discover, and not, that there were many similarities between vipassana and my practice of aikido at the time. Since that 10 day retreat, I’ve been pretty regular with my daily vipassana practice, putting in on average one hour per day on the cushion. Over those many months since the retreat, I’ve come to draw parallels between vipassana and my aikido practice, notably in relation to the various aikido principles, as well as some of what I consider to be core lessons and values of Ki-aikido practice.

Equanimity

In vipassana, seeking equanimity to internal sensations becomes a battle with ones own thoughts and mental secretions, in addition to any sensations that come from through the five physical senses. How surprised we can be when we observe the intensity by which our own physical and mental sensations can simply overpower our will, leading us to various unforeseen reactions. Sitting on the cushion becomes a dojo of the mind and body, where our consciousness trains to become equanimity to whatever arises – internal, or external.

In aikido, we seek equanimity at every moment, most notably when we are being attacked physically, mentally, emotionally or even spiritually. Such attacks are not really the attack that concern us, but rather they become the triggers for our reaction to the threat – the fight or flight which can so dominate our mental and physical reactions. Like the cushion, the mat becomes the training ground to develop an equanimity in response to whatever arises externally or internally, at any time.

In both the cases of aikido and vipassana, equanimity brings us to a state of ongoing response to the discrete sequence of moments that compose our lives. Through equanimity, response – and not reaction – becomes our way of being.

Sensations

One of the most dramatic occurrences during the 10 day retreat was becoming aware of the depth and range of sensations that are continuously playing throughout our bodies. Some sensations are subtle and soft, others hard and harsh. But all have the potential of attaching the mind and leading to actions which are largely, if not primarily driven by the sensations in question. To discover that our bodily and mental sensations are just simply just that – sensations that come and go – we practice by simply observing without attachment so that we may slowly make our way to freedom.

In aikido, sensations are in many instances what hinders us, challenges us, scares us, and forces us to react to moments when we either feel actual pain from a hold or pin, or when we fear that we will be harmed. Sensations at first become our master, but then become our teachers, our guide, our mentor for how to act and respond to the current moment. Sensations become not only those isolated to individual limbs or extensions, but become those that are the whole of our physical selves – sensations that in some instances are not the reflections of the senses, but rather the reaction to a trigger or conflict brought to us externally, or in many instances, internally.

Sensations are in the cases of aikido and vipassana the uke which truly trains us to become centered and free – free from the sensations themselves – at which moment we become connected not with our sensations, but the with universe entire.

Balance and centering

Towards the last few days of the 10 day retreat, a sense of balance and centering started to emerge – a sense that was not sensory or sensations per se, but rather a vibration, a settling of the troubled waters of the mind and spirit. Upon those settled waters, our physical and mental sensations begin to be reflected and our ability to choose to respond becomes more acute. With each additional hour of practice on the cushion, our ability to act from a point of balance and centre – a single point, one point – comes to be our way of being.

In that moment, balance and centering becomes the result of equanimity, and not the source of equanimity – equanimity is detachment from sensations per se. With equanimity as a settling, an evenness of the spirit, body and mind, we find the tranquility that manifests in the harmony of ones mind, body and spirit. In equanimity, we become connected with the infinite stillness that is Ki, the essence of life, the light of the eternal universe.

In equanimity upon the cushion or the mat, we find that the breath settles, the body relaxes and the mind expands to the edges of the infinite, where the spirit can fully reside.

…when I say watch, don’t TRY to watch, otherwise you will become tense again, and you will start concentrating on the breath. Simply relax, remain relaxed, loose, and look…because what else can you do?

-Osho

Relax completely

Meditation can often be confused or equated with relaxation. I don’t consider meditation relaxation – quite the opposite – there are days that it is downright draining. But it is on those days that the practice becomes true practice – a practice of extracting and reshaping the habits, the deep rooted habits that form the patterns of our reactions and the responses to those moments which compose our lives.

This is why vipassana, like aikido, lead us both to the moment where the important lessons is in relaxing not in response to the world, but in spite of it. At our core resides our true essence, our complete lightness from which each moment can manifest as our purpose of being. Many challenges arise when we either mentally, physically or spiritually attach our selves to an outcome, a desired result, a wished way of being. Attachment becomes our downfall, and we emerge overtaken by our mental or other cravings.

In aikido, like vipassana, our training encourages us to find ways to become relaxed, and remain relaxed, irrespective of the internal or external challenges that come our way, at any moment. Relaxation, in both cases, is an outcome of the practice, not the prescription to arrive at the practice in the first place.

Coordination of mind, body and spirit

Coordination of mind, body and spirit, as my aikido training has shown me, is the whole purpose for the practice. In practice, we strive to arrive at a harmony of mind, body and spirit which provides us with the centre, the relaxation, the flow to respond to whatever attacks, threats or challenges we may face – on or off the mat.

In vipassana, the time spent on the cushion becomes the training by which we similarly exercise and develop our ability to respond to whatever challenges, threats or attacks from our own mind or the sensations it can trigger. It was during day 6 or 7 of the 10 day retreat that I found myself in an intense battle with the sensations which were the product of my mind’s desire to not sit and observe the sensations themselves.  In a moment of surrender, I released the desires to control and attempt to the change the sensations of the moment, and simply allowed the whole to come together – a moment where the spirit became fully harmonious and equanimous with both the mind’s and body’s sensations. At that moment, all illusions fell away, and the only moment that ever existed became the present moment – no past, no future, only the infinite present.

True victory is self victory

After 10 days of sitting, it became clear that my training had only begun, and that I would have many hours to sit on the cushion and simply observe the various sensations, strong and harsh, cold and fear-engaging, warm and loving, or ego-driven. In essence, the 10 days of sitting on the cushion taught me that the only victory to be sought was the victory over one’s own sensations and illusions, victory over one’s own beliefs, aversions and adversions, if arriving at such a state can be truly called a victory.

Rather than victory, it could be called developing an awareness – an awareness of the possibility that we each possess the means by which to discover and maintain equanimity over our self emotions, our mental and physical sensations, and have the ability to choose our responses according to reality – including our full range of sensations – strong or weak, good or bad.

As with aikido, where we train to become the way (do) of harmony (ai) with the flow of the universe (ki), vipassana emerged for me over the 10 days, and remains today, the training to come to be the required response to both the external and internal world in the absolute present moment.

Although I draw the parallels between aikido and vipassana, I am convinced that many, if not all spiritual paths ultimately and inevitably lead to the same door – the door to freedom from illusion, the door of harmony of mind body and spirit, and the door of pure and absolute love in the infinite presence.

Given that no single path can get us there, may we all find the few paths we each are called upon to take our few simple steps.

Therefore no effort is more worthwhile for a human being than the exertion of all one’s faculties to take steps on this path.

– S.N. Goenka

Many treatises, reflections and words of advice have come from the world of warfare. Numerous historical pieces are mandatory reading and re-reading in leading military schools and academies.

But what of the world or work, notably one where collaboration is not the norm?

Many of those principles apply more than ever in a work world where adversarial, hyper-partisan and, in some cases, physically violent environments exist. Although the later is thankfully rare, the level of mental, emotional and verbal aggressive behaviour – what would be called bullying by any other name – remains all too prominent. Just watch a few minutes of any modern democracy’s parliament or seat of power to get a flavour of what is considered “normal” behaviour – behaviour that would send any child to the principle’s office or in suspension for a week.

Such aggressiveness in our common moments at work leaves one wondering : what classics can one consider to becoming a warrior in a business suit, a warrior who does not become part of the problem, but rather brings stillness, harmony and peace to every moment.
A few books I’ve found inspirational range from the spirit of war to the spirit of peace – yet are all routed in the spirit of victory over an adversary – which in all instances, once you’ve removed the focus on the external enemy or adversary, leaves one facing the most daunting adversary of all – ourselves.

The Art of War
Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is the quintessential war literature classic. Covering the breadth of warfare, it is rooted as much in philosophy as in strategy and tactics, if not weighted more on the former. Somewhat difficult to approach for the non-initiated, repeated visits to this historic text will slowly pay off in broadening one’s toolbox of stratagems, tactical approaches and principles for honourable victory. A definite must have in any leader’s library.

The Book of Five Rings
Miyamoto Musashi’s The Book of Five Rings is less well know than Sun Tzu’s Classic, but no less influential. Musashi is considered Japan’s greatest ever swordsman, and his reflections on conflict, strategies and tactics reflect a more philosophical core than one of battle stratagems. As with The Art of War, The a book of Five Rings is ultimately a treatise of philosophy, and will require multiple visits to begin to fully appreciate Musashi’s insights into the art of the sword – the soul of the samurai.

On War
Clausewitz is the modern Art of War, routed in Clausewitz’s extensive experience, and deep knowledge of the art of strategy and tactics. Although, like the other works, it can be mistaken as a technical text, Clausewitz does commit considerable attention to the moral and political aspects of conflict – in essence acknowledging that peace is the ultimate aim of war. His most famous quote remains “the best developed plan never survives first contact with the enemy” – a core stratagem in any strategic context – and one that merits much study in our modern age.

Hagakure
Yamamoto Tsunetomo drafted this as a “guide for life” for the samurai partly in response to their slowly eroding role from warriors to servants. Quite difficult to approach at first, the Hagakure is filled with many concise, yet deeply reflective, almost koan-like passages that can keep one contemplating the deeper meaning of life, death and service. Although more typically reserved for the martial artist seeking a treatise from a zen-routed samurai, it does present some valuable insights for the executive seeking guidance in balancing life and conflict-laden work.

The Unfettered Mind
Yagyu Munenori, major samurai rival to Miyamoto Musashi, was provided by a zen monk named Takuan Soho, what some consider the least known, but arguably the most relevant book on warfare. Although it does not come across as a text book on war and strategies, it is effectively the most important treatise on warfare – a guide to how to master the self, the mind – the ultimate challenge in any time of conflict and adversity. The Unfettered Mind requires, like many comparable works, repeated reading and subsequent introspection, but the results of ones efforts in learning to master the mind in times of conflict are nothing short of life altering. The Unfettered Mind remains of the few classics on self mastery yet to be discovered as a classic.

The Art of Peace
Morihei Ueshiba, founder of the art of Aikido, was, in the end a man of peace, a philosopher and one who embodied peace – in the true sense of one who lived peace by way of harmony of mind, body and spirit. Although many of his writings and reflections have been captured in various forms, Ueshiba’s the Art of Peace is the antithesis of the Art of War, not only in title, but from the basis that ultimate victory is about self mastery, self control, self victory. The Art of Peace is, like Aikido, short on content, but deep on substance and meaning, with each passage first appearing harmless, yet filled with koan-like brilliance. If the Art of War is about warfare facing outward, the Art of Peace is about warfare facing inward – providing a way to masakatsu agatsu katsu ayame : true victory is self victory right here right now – the answer Ueshiba would share when asked “why do you practice Aikido”?

Although many other classics could be included, such as Machiavelli’ The Prince, the above amount to my personal “desert island” picks which would keep one reading, reflecting and re-visiting for many lifetimes, all in the pursuit of masakatsuagatsu.

“Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.” ~Chinese Proverb

An unfettered mind is a mind free to respond. No reaction, no urgency, no rushing – calm, flowing response. Like a river rushing, it rushes no faster than gravity or the river bed will permit. The river doesn’t react, it responds to the forces of the earth, the curves of the ground, the winds overhead. And when the winds cease and the ground levels out, then the river returns to its original state – just water.

Our practice is to slow down and return to our original state, so that we can know it when we revisit the torrential river.

Our practice is to cultivate attention to the point where we can experience whatever arises, without reacting, by remaining in the original state of relaxation and complete awareness.

“the practice of meditation is the study of what is going on”
– thich nhat hahn

Our practice is to become fully aware, fully mindful of the absolute present, with complete acceptance, for when something arises in your experience that you cannot experience, you go to reaction rather than response. When the moment is not accepted as the result of all the moments which came before it, you cease to respond to the reality that is the absolute present, and move to the past or future minds, where fears, wants and desires reside.

Our practice needs to cultivate a level of attention so that we can experience whatever arises – thereby not needing to fall into reaction. Our practice needs to cultivate not only our ability to see and sense the experiences around us, but to see the, at the pace at which they are occuring, at the times that they are occurring – and not at the pace or time that we wished they occurred. Wishing them differently is attachment. Attachment is tension. Tension is the root of reaction.

Accepting them as they are is detachment. Detachment is relaxation. Relaxation is the root of responding.

As Ken McLeod expressed, our practice is to experience we are free to respond to what the situation actually requires – not what the situation is provoking in us. All situations are gifts, for they all can provoke a reaction from us. Mild reactions and severe reactions. Harsh reactions and pleasant reactions. Our practice should be a practice of equanimity – one where our reactions are replaced by our responses. From the outside, our responses may appear the same, if not identical to our reaction – but it is not a reaction.

And in that moment, as inspired by Ken McLeod, we can then become an ongoing response to the pain and suffering of the world.

Our practice is to find the harmony, the balance, the equanimity to become an ongoing response, a continuous set of responses, moment after moment, second-by-second responses to each infinite moment.

And when you find yourself reacting, having broken the ongoing response, slow down, breathe deeply, and return to your practice – thereby returning to the journey of becoming an ongoing response to the pain, the suffering, the truth of each moment presented to us.

“Restore your attention or bring it to a new level by dramatically slowing down whatever you’re doing.” – Sharon Salzberg

The following is fully inspired by, and heavily borrowed from, the 5 principles of a profound workday, courtesy of Leo Babauta. I highly recommend Leo’s words for inspiration and solace.

‘Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.’ ~Laozi

The Profound Visit to the Dojo

1. Empty: In Silence and Solitude. When your mind is full, you have no room for change. When your thoughts are full of noise, you have no space to think.

Empty your mind. When you have an empty mind, you can fill it with anything. Only with this emptiness can you create something truly different.

Clear your thoughts. Find space for silence and solitude. With this space you’ll be free, free to see the truth, to create beauty.

2. Slow and Mindful. Rushing paradoxically leaves us with less time — speed means we don’t pay attention, and so the moments on the mat disappear rapidly and leave us before we notice.

Slow down, and pay attention. You’ll be able to focus on your movements more, and though you’ll do less, you’re technique will be more profound.

Be mindful of every movement, small or large. Enjoy every motion.

3. Profoundly Creative. Don’t use the gift of your visit to the mat for mindless repetitive tasks. Don’t end the visit with nothing to show for your work.

Start each visit by creating. Make the space at the beginning of your visit to the mat to create, before you get lost in rushing, urgency, or the desire to see the end of the class.

Create something amazing. Delight your Sensei and your ukes. Leave them amazed, wanting to not end the session. for you.

4. Simplified. The principles for a profound visit to the dojo might seem difficult to most people, because there just isn’t the instinct or desire to do less. The only way to create this type of visit to the dojo is to simplify.

It’s the key to everything else. Subtract. Pare everything down to its essence.

What’s on your mind right now? What are the principles that actually need to be present in your practice? Remove everything else.

What do you do every time you visit the dojo? How many of those things can be eventually pared down? Be simplified?

Simplify, and you’ll be able to find emptiness, solitude, silence, slowness, and mindfulness in your practice.

5. Flexible and Natural. This type of visit to the dojo might start to sound rigid, but in truth when you create space you also allow yourself the flexibility to deal in the moment with any change, any attack.

The natural flow of things is change, and if we are rigid we aren’t able to deal with changes. We become frustrated, anxious, angry, flustered.

If instead we have no expectations of what will happen each visit, and deal with changes as they come, we let go of that frustration and anxiety.

Be open to whatever happens. Be flexible. Deal with change as it happens, and you’ll find true profoundness doesn’t come from within us, or from external sources, but in the space between the two.

It comes from the eternal space between all things.

It comes from the universal Ki.

‘Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.’ ~Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

All that appears comes from an illusion of the mind and the mind itself is from beginningless time without inherent existence, free from the two extremes of manifestation and beyond all elaboration. To understand this nature and not to conceive of subjects and objects as really existing is a practice of the bodhisattva.

-Translation from Tokme Zangpo Thirty-seven Bodhisattva Practices

A recent practice session with the bokken revealed a truth that has started to redefine my interpretation of time and space, and my practice on both the cushion and the mat. One morning, following one hour of Vipassana mediation, I proceeded to reach for the bokken to simply swing the weapon for a few strokes in order to loosen the shoulders and upper body. After swinging the bokken for a few moments, I was struck by the awareness that each stroke was a metaphor for the absolute present moment – the only moment we truly have.

The bokken had been my training partner for over three years, and for the first time, its presence was felt more intently than ever. Unlike previous sessions where each stroke blended from one to the other, this time a new awareness arose.

Each stroke, each cut, was the manifestation of the present moment. No strokes came before. No cuts were to follow. The only cut that existed was the one being executed. Good or bad, swift or sluggish, tight or loose, each cut was done, observed, felt, sensed, then released. I was no longer attached to the previous cuts – proud of the good ones, upset with the bad ones. I was not attached to the cuts to come – worried about fatigue creeping into the movement, or the grip needing constant adjustment.

There was only the cut being executed. There was only the fraction of the second that it took to cut down. Only the present moment existed. defined by the brief motion of the cut.

A deep , peaceful detachment from the past and future emerged – with the full present moment being in the cut. One cut. One moment. The present became a pointed, infinite knife edge upon which all past slid away, and all future had yet to arrive.  Even the beginning and end of the cut became distinct, with each finite moment of the down stroke becoming increasingly transparent and existent by itself. The end of the cut was no longer subject to the quality of the beginning. The beginning of the cut was no longer concerned with how it was going to end.

In such a cut, there were no past errors or pride of success dictating movement, or no future desires or hesitations undermining the commitment – there was only the cut.

The point of power is always in the present moment.

– Louise L. Hay

Putting down the bokken, the exercise then surprisingly continued with the breath – where the breath became the sword, the action of the cut. With each in-breath – a raising of the sword. With each out-breath – the cut of the sword.  Each breath became like the cut of the bokken – detached from any previous breath, detached from any breath to come. Only the present breath was mindful, filled with awareness and ki. No past. No future. Only now.

One breath – one cut. No past , no future in the breath. Only the present breath.

In the mindful present moment, only one cut can be executed. Only one breath can be taken. It is all that we have when you stop and deeply examine the present moment. One breath to take. One cut to make.

There is nothing to attach to when you fully immerse yourself in the cut. There is only the cut.

Each breath is a cut within the eternal silence and nothingness that is our infinite existence.

One breath…one cut.

Above all, we cannot afford not to live in the present. He is blessed over all mortals who loses no moment of the passing life in remembering the past.

-Henry David Thoreau

When you plant seeds in the garden, you don’t dig them up every day to see if they have sprouted yet. You simply water them and clear away the weeds; you know that the seeds will grow in time. Similarly, just do your daily practice and cultivate a kind heart. Abandon impatience and instead be content creating the causes for goodness; the results will come when they’re ready.
– Thubten Chodron, “Meditator’s Toolbox”

Abandon impatience. Abandon the attachment to the quick, rapid reward that society so excellently provides us, in the name of progress and growth, for it is false growth. Abandon the belief that mastery is a destination, and accept it more as a journey – mastery as journey, not as destination.

On the mat, if there is one lesson that has served me well off the mat, it is unlearning impatience. Impatience with others who are either too slow to learn or to quick to wait up. Impatience with concepts too complex to decipher, or too simple to impress. Impatience with techniques who should always work, and techniques who never work.

But of all the impatiences that have visited me on the mat, the most revealing is the impatience with self. Impatience with my own abilities, physical and coordinated, arising from an inability to master a movement at first glance. Impatience with my spirit, wanting to capture and grow, without giving it the time to evolve, naturally, spontaneously. Impatience with the mind, root of most if not all impatience, who thinks that thinking can result in all mastery, given enough intellectual prowess and commitment.

Foolish was I to ever think that impatience would triumph over the natural ways of the universe, and that I would be immune to the struggles and barriers that have come before all those who have chosen the path of aikido.

Your practice should be strengthened by the difficult situations you encounter, just as a bonfire in a strong wind is not blown out, but blazes even brighter.
– Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, “Teachings on the Nature of Mind and Practice”

Aikido, and the time and space of the mat, is a mirror. A mirror that reveals when you are not centred, balanced and coordinated. A time and space that reveals clearly that one’s difficulties are nothing but a mirror of one’s weakness and challenges that require continuous practice.

As with every mirror, it presents itself with absolute patience, for the mirror cannot be without patience. It has infinite patience for it exists but to reflect. Reflect the absolute moment, without past or future, absolute moment with form and without form, an absolute moment with emptiness, stillness and silence as it’s only truth.

In such absolute truth, impatience is revealed in its fullest furry, with nowhere to migrate but upon the canvas of the spirit. Through aikido, full and complete harmony of mind, body and spirit is practiced, where impatience is cornered by the stillness, revealed by the silence, and quenched by the emptiness. One cannot be impatient with true emptiness, stillness and silence.

“Do not become annoyed when faced with difficulties. To do so merely adds difficulty to difficulty and further disturbs your mind. By maintaining a mind of peace and nonopposition, difficulties will naturally fall away.”
– Master Sheng-yen, “Nonopposition”

Impatience is fuelled by our past regrets, our past attachments, the roots of our history and unfed desires. Impatience is harboured by our future wishes, our unbridled and hungry ambitions, our rational and irrational fears. Impatience is not possible in the absolute, infinite moment, for nothing exists in the infinite emptiness, the endless silence, the absolute stillness.

When impatience presents itself, it is a symbol of one’s loss of absolute presence in the infinite moment. When desire, fear or greed defines our breath, we have given impatience a home. When time becomes the absolute master of our thoughts and emotions, we have given the past and future authority over the present. In these rushing moments, impatience becomes the current within which our existence and value is defined. Lost is the balance and harmony arising from the absolute presence, and chained we become to the illusions that mind, body or spirit creates to sustain the current of impatience.

Only is stillness, silence and emptiness can the current of impatience cease. To arrive at such a place, we must remember that we are not, nor ever have been, in the current of impatience – we are the current of impatience, unable to release from the attachment to the comfort that the strength and energy that the current brings.

“We suffer because we marry our instinctive aversion to pain to the deep-seated belief that life should be free from pain. In resisting our pain by holding this belief, we strengthen just what we’re trying to avoid. When we make pain the enemy, we solidify it. This resistance is where our suffering begins.”
– Ezra Bayda, “When It Happens to Us”

If we are the current, and not in the current, how does the mat teach us about releasing the current, not becoming the current? It teaches us by showing us how very little can trigger the current, how very little can create the small currents that grow into larger current, eventually engulfing us whole. It shows us how the slightest motion of another can trigger tension and vibrations in us that unleash currents of regret or desire. It shows us that the slightest tension in our own body, the smallest fears and desires within the deepest recesses of our mind, or the slightest ripples in the ocean where our spirit ebbs and flows – all can contribute to the sustaining the currents of impatience, by way of removing us from the stillness silence and emptiness of the infinite moment.

Our practice on the mat is the practice of life, but is no match for the practice outside of the dojo. Life, in its infinite depth and scope, is the ultimate uke, able to trigger all unforeseen reactions at any moment, for an infinite number of options by which to respond.

In all instances, only one response is truth – response with harmony of mind, body and spirit, response from the infinite present of stillness, silence and emptiness.

Only in silence, stillness and emptiness can the seeds of patience grow, for patience is silence, stillness and emptiness.

“We should be especially grateful for having to deal with annoying people and difficult situations, because without them we would have nothing to work with. Without them, how could we practice patience, exertion, mindfulness, loving-kindness or compassion? It is by dealing with such challenges that we grow and develop.”
– Judy Lief, “Train Your Mind: Be Grateful to Everyone”

“When you fill a room with furniture, where does the space go? When a sound breaks the silence, where does the silence go? When a thought disturbs the stillness of your mind, where does the stillness go?”
– ken mcleod

Emptiness is form, form is emptiness – so often has this phrase been uttered, yet only recently have I begun to integrate it into my practice. As stated by ken mcleod, where does the stillness go? Where does the emptiness go when we fill it with thoughts, emotions, things, events, hopes, desires, fears?

It goes nowhere. It stays, happily present and ubiquitous. We imagine it gone once it is filled. But as with all things, impermanence is the norm, and the only permanent state is emptiness and stillness.

In other words, stillness and emptiness is always there for us. Always. It does not come and go on a whim. It does not appear only in states of deep mediation or serenity. It is always there. We just forget to notice it, we fail to observe it. We choose to fill it. Fill it with sensations, emotions, information, experiences, fill it as we would fill an empty glass with water.

But what of the moment when the glass is filled to the brim, and overflowing. Where does the emptiness and stillness of the void that makes the glass useful go?

“You completely when you rest and do nothing at all. Instead, you follow meticulously and exclusively the cycle of teaching on ignorance, interdependence, and samsara.”
– Jigme Lingpa, The Wisdom Experience of Ever-present Good

The glass remains a glass as long as the void within the glass is recognized and kept in one’s awareness. When the awareness of the stillness and emptiness is replaced by a desire to overfill the glass, to overfill the emptiness and the stillness, then we become not the stillness and the emptiness, but we become that which fills it. We become that which attempts to fill the void, we become attached to that which fills the void.

In our life, so many things can fill the void, fill the stillness and emptiness, fill the silence. Work, drink, the pursuit of knowledge, affection, moments, events, physical items, food, sensations…the options and opportunities as endless. In essence, all of the endless things by which we so frequently define ourselves, and others.

Endless things, but not as endless and infinite as the stillness and emptiness itself. When we become that which fills the emptiness and stillness, we succumb to the illusion that we can fulfill the void, the stillness and emptiness. But there can never can be enough work, enough friends, enough drink or food, enough experiences, enough money the world over that can fill the infinite stillness and emptiness.

As such, from where does stem the desire, the will, the volition to fill the infinite? If our mind can be aware of the fruitlessness of the endeavour, why does our whole essence succumb to the insanity of an unachievable goal?

“…the real notion of victory is not having to deal with an enemy at all.”
– Chögyam Trungpa

Through my experiences on and off the mat, I have come to believe that our suffering stems from our inability to accept, our blindness to, our ignorance of, the emptiness and stillness that is our true nature. We are from the infinite stillness and emptiness. We will return to the infinite stillness and emptiness. We are, at every infinite moment, of the same emptiness and stillness that makes the whole of the universe entire.

It is fear, fear of the nothingness, that pushes us to vainfully fill it. It is the fear that for all that we do and own, we are nothing in the beginning, and we are nothing in the end. It is out fear that in nothing, we are nothing, that we are useless, valueless, insignificant, empty.

Fear, denial, rejection, avoidance, of the emptiness, stillness and silence within, is our biggest battle, our ultimate conflict, our spiritual war.

On the mat, whenever the emptiness and stillness is ignored, replaced by the volition of mind and tension of the body, the result is a failure to blend and find harmony with all. At that moment, harmony of mind, body and spirit is substituted by mental prowess, physical expressions of strengths, or spiritual arrogance.

O’sensei taught that Budo is Love. Not love in the amorous way, defined by emotions and states of bliss. Budo as Love is Love of the emptiness and stillness in ourselves, and in others. Love of the infinite stillness and emptiness, the infinite silence that is the universe and all that is within it. Love of the absolute truth revealed when we accept that we are from nothingness, and will return to nothingness.

Budo is Love, Love of the infinite stillness, silence and emptiness that is within us, and in all. Such a Love becomes your sword, your spiritual weapon to confront fears and desires leading to the mindless volition to disrupt the stillness, to overfill the emptiness, to drown out the silence.

In the moment that the sword is drawn, the enemy is silenced, and detachment from all will occur. A relaxation will emerge, deep from within. A feeling of profound balance and harmony will surface. A wholeness will become apparent, and we will become one with the infinite stillness, silenced and nothingness of the universe.

Harmony of mind, body and spirit manifest. The Ki of the universe will makes itself known, for the eternal Ki lies within the stillness, the silence, the emptiness of the universe. Only when we become one with the infinite stillness can we enter into balance with the Ki of the universe.

At that moment, Ki will come into us, and Ki will flow from us, not clinging to us, not building up or stagnating around us, but freely flowing, from near and far, timeless, endless, boundless.

In such a moment, the fear of the emptiness, the stillness and the silence will, like a lifting fog, dissipate, revealing an open and endless sky, within which you will find true peace, equanimity and Love.

“When your mind is trained in self-discipline, even if you are surrounded by hostile forces, your peace of mind will hardly be disturbed. On the other hand, your mental peace and calm can easily be disrupted by your own negative thoughts and emotions. The real enemy is within, not outside.”

– The Dalai Lama, “The Enemy Within”

“One with the eyes open sees things at a distance, the attention is distracted forcibly and the heart thrown into confusion. When the eyes are closed there is a fall into darkness, and no clarity in the heart. When the eyes are half open the thought does not rush about, body and mind are at one”

-jk mann

I am a visual person. Always have been. Ever since I was old enough to read, I enjoyed the books with lots of pictures. Words were never my favorite part of a book. I took more from the images, the colors, the shades and shapes. I loved leafing through a new book and taking in the pictures and shapes more so than the narrative and logical arguments. I still do.

I’ve come to accept that I’m a visual person, and that what I see dominates my thinking, my thought patterns, my reaction to things.

This is why eye contact is sometimes difficult, and why I prefer listening to someone who looking at them directly when they talk. This behaviour has been interpreted as rude by some, less intrusive by others. For me, it has been a natural defence mechanism in response to reacting to the glance from someone who emits strong facial and body language.

Over the past months, how and why I look at something or not has begun to permeate more forcefully my aikido practice, as well as my days at work. I don’t know if this is the result of becoming more at ease on the mat. Maybe it is an age thing – by the time you reach 47, old habits begin to wear thin, and one begins to question why these habits, good or bad, were even given some much weight.

The habit I have decided no longer serves me, on and off the mat, which I have chosen to reteach is how I see the mind, how I see the world, how I see others.
In essence, how I look at things, figuratively and literaly.

“To think only of winning is sickness. To think only of using the martial arts is sickness. To think only of demonstrating the result of one’s training is sickness, as is thinking only of making an attack or waiting for one. To think in a fixated way only of expelling such sickness is also sickness”

-jk mann

There are thousands of ways that we can look at the world. Our eyes are but one way that we can look and see the world, but, as noted above, our eyes tend to dominate the mind for many, leading the mind onto journeys that it was not anticipating.

Images attempt to capture our minds and our ki in an endless array of still and moving pictures. Be it books or magazines, which have made photoshop a verb and a norm for altering the actual. Be it movies, which captivate our senses for a few hours, bringing us on journeys of fantasy, love, or social commentary. Be it television, that ubiquitous box that captivates many a soul, frequently into narratives and moments  short on substance, and long on distraction.  Be it the endless stream of images, pictures and pictograms on the internet – a bottomless ocean of incessant images – numbing our ability to accept and appreciate the beauty and truth captured by every image.

Every image is, for me, pure perception, a capture of an infinite moment, where irrespective of the content or beauty, a finite sliver of reality is forever captured.

And so it is for me when I’m on the mat, a series of moments to capture an image or two, as complete and whole, as present and complete as any perfect camera could capture.

Movement, as many have expressed, is but a sequence of endless moments. When we cease to see the moments, and become captured by the sequence of moments, the moments cease to exist – and we become captivated by the motion, the action, the speed by which things happen. Our mind becomes attached to the motion of images. Our ki and spirit become captured by the endless cycle of actions and pictures – the illusion of motion becoming the only reality we can accept.

So what is one to do to not be taken by the motion, and become one with the moment, moment after moment? What is one to do to maintain harmony of mind, body and spirit, most notably when the eyes and glance can so easily succumb to the allure of the movement?

Of late, I have chosen a practice where I go panorama – where my glance is as open, wide and far reaching as I can make it. Two aspects of the practice are present – the physical observation, and the mental. In the physical aspect, looking becomes one of seeing all and seeing one simultaneously. Seeing starts with observing the task at hand, be it the dishes, the book in question, the driving, or the computer screen. Easy to observe these mind-attracting tasks, and loose our sense of the wider world. And so the glance expands, to go beyond the point of focus, to envelop the world entire, as if our visual field was filled with light and an energy. In these moments, we can see clearly our task at hand, yet notice the world surrounding us, appreciating the many shades and angles, yet not taken by any of those elements. When everything is within our field, nothing takes our field of view. Our view becomes viewing all and one, one and all. Our mind ceases to be taken by the single image, the single moment, and begins to flow from moment to infinite moment, and we become like the mirror – reflecting all that is, without attaching to any of it.

Our physical visual world can so easily take our mind that we often spend much of our time with our eyes closed in order to avoid the traps. Easy to do so when meditation, sitting in a meeting or at a coffee shop with a dear friend. However, our mental imagery can be even more mischievous.  Our mind is unable to know the difference between an imagined image – an image imagined – and a true image. Hence the power of visualization. So the practice of taking the whole of the world also needs to be taken to the mind. Our mind can create its own images, leading to the mind being captured by its own illusions – for mental images are nothing but illusions, images which in many circumstances, are being generated by the same mind seeking to detach from all.

The physical images can be quite easily deleted by closing ones eyes, or more easily balanced when expanding the visual field to take the whole of the world. The mental images is quite another matter – where images may only be within one’s consciousness, and their purpose is simply to keep the mind occupied, subdued, pleasant through a movie of its own.

Yet, the mental images can be as easily approached as the physical – if one detaches from all, and accepts all mental as other mental constructs – impermanent and not a reflection of one’s self.

Deleting the mental images is not by closing the eyes – this often makes it worst, as if the mind now chooses to substitute the lacking physical images with a myriad of mental ones. One deletes the mental images by being, and accepting that any and all images that come from the mind are impermanent, temporary and will come and will go – as real, as alluring, or as mysterious as they may be. One can drop such mental images by not attaching to them, allowing them to come and go a clouds come in the sky.

As for taking the whole of the images, through expanding the field of view to all mental images, the same practice comes into play. Detach from all images, and all images come into view. Detach from all mental images, and all mental images come into view – past, present and future images.

The mental and physical image that results is one of pure, infinite, still emptiness, within which is presented a movie, fast, slow, many changing moments, or a slow gradual change of tones and shades. In both the mental and physical realm, the images become products of the stillness, the emptiness, and ones focus becomes whole when the emptiness becomes the sky – the only image that never changes.

“we are not to be detached from the world, alone in our own minds, nor have our mind caught by any one thing. Our eyes express this.”

-jk mann

“When you listen to someone, you should give up all your preconceived ideas and your subjective opinions; you should just listen to him, just observe what his way is. We put very little emphasis on right and wrong or good and bad. We just see things as they are with him, and accept them. This is how we communicate with each other. Usually when you listen to some statement, you hear it as a kind of echo of yourself. You are actually listening to your own opinion. If it agrees with your opinion you may accept it, but if it does not, you will reject it or you may not even really hear it.

– Suzuki, zen mind, beginner’s mind

We spend hours, days, even years not listening. It starts young. It starts when we become aware that the world does not behave like we wish it would…or is it when our desires emerge to see it differently? We increasingly become defined by the desires and cravings to want the world to be more like us – we defend our ideas, we defend our habits, we defend our decisions, past and future. We defend our illusions and constructed existence.

Such illusions and constructed existence is vulnerable however to one thing – truth. Our illusions and constructed existence eventually encounters the impermanence and non-self that is truth. Reality has a cruel, yet compassionate way to remind us of what is truth. It might be a life altering experience that wakes us up. It might be a life milestone that makes us reconsider our script. It might be the simplest of moments which provides an awareness of what is – the pure, unfiltered truth.

But usually, it is a malaise which wakes us. A discomfort, lingering and below the surface, incessantly scratches at the veneer of our constructed existence. We ignore it for days or even years, arguing that the sensation is our lack of commitment, our laziness, our undisciplined self – a feeling that is to be mastered, controlled and denied air.  We make choices, we take decisions, we say or not say things to deny the malaise room to speak, to stunt its growth.

But like the death, the malaise will inevitably dominate our thoughts, feelings and sensations. The malaise will emerge to direct our life. The malaise will show itself as the one truth that we have always known, but have relegated to the proverbial closet.

The malaise is our true self, ignored and denied the chance to fully live.

“Vipassana teaches the art of dying: how to die peacefully, harmoniously. And one learns the art of dying by learning the art of living: how to become master of the present moment.”

– S. N. Goenka

At the moment the malaise is fully born, fully brought into the present moment, death occurs. Death of the illusions and the constructed existence that has been our so-to-speak life. Such death is beyond any death experience we may have experienced before, for it is not death of a loved one. It is not the death of a dream or a great job. It is not death of a loving friendship that has run its course. It is death of the structures, thoughts, images, beliefs and commitments that have formed our own identity. It is the death of our foundation, our frame, our façade and structure.

It should not surprise anyone that the response to such an awakening is to bury the malaise under even more illusion and constructed existence. The moment the malaise shows us even a glimpse of an alternate possibility – a deeper more pure truth, seismic tremors emerge. Seismic about how deep they reach into our past and our self. Seismic in the fears and feelings of denial it can generate.

At that moment, there is only one choice, one decision to take. Defend the illusions and constructed existence, or surrender. Surrender to the truth. Give up to the malaise and the path it opens to you. Stop trying to keep up the illusions and constructed existence.

Give in to the malaise, not in the same way you have given to the illusions and constructed existence. Just give without expectation, without greed. Give yourself over fully, to your true path.

“To give is nonattachment. That is, just not to attach to anything is to give. It does not matter what is given.”

– Dogen

Giving up and surrendering to our malaise is to give to our true self. To give ourselves fully to our true voice is to give without attachment – for it is our true self. We have no need to attach to our true self for it is us. We simply become our true self.

Our illusions and constructed existence is not our true self – so we attach to them, like a shell is attached to the frame. We have no choice but to attach to something that is not us – it is the only way it can become part of us. But it is not what we are. It can never be what we are. As we expend our energies into growing and giving life to the illusions and constructed existence, those energies do not come from our true self. Those energies come from our desires and dreams, they are from our past memories, and our future hopes and wishes.

The most potent and real energy – the energy of the pure present moment – is shorted and redirected into the past or future, to fuel the illusions and constructed existence which we call our self.

But like a smoky fire, the energy does not consume our full self, only the shell that is the illusion – leaving a lingering malaise within, eagerly looking to be consumed by the present moment. The malaise is the ache that comes from our true self not burning bright, but rather smothered by the burning embers of illusions and constructed existence.

On the mat or the cushion, practice is the path to harmony of mind, body and spirit. This path is the way – the way for the malaise to emerge slowly, safely. The practice is the way for the present moment to be our true moment. The practice is the way for our malaise to speak to us in ways that otherwise would not be heard.

Practice is our chance to bring mind, body and spirit together, and begin to trust that our malaise is not to be feared or buried, but to be listened and fully accepted. Practice is the doorway to fully being.

Our alternative is to burn but a shell of what we are, or could be, leaving at the end of the journey embers of what we could have been.

“In order not to leave any traces, when you do something, you should do it with your whole body and mind; you should be concentrated on what you do. You should do it completely, like a good bonfire. You should not be a smoky fire. You should burn yourself completely. If you do not burn yourself completely, a trace of yourself will be left in what you do. You will have something remaining which is not completely burned out. Zen activity is activity which is completely burned out, with nothing remaining but ashes.”

– Suzuki, zen mind, beginner’s mind

Most of our suffering comes from habitual thinking. If we try to stop it out of aversion to thinking, we can’t; we just go on and on and on. So the important thing is not to get rid of thought, but to understand it. And we do this by concentrating on the space in the mind, rather than on the thought.

– Ajahn Sumedho, “Noticing Space”

Over the past few weeks, my meditation practice has taken a turn towards exploring nothingness, emptiness and silence. After much visualization and other content-focused practice. I’ve turned my attention to non-content. To emptiness.

At first, practicing on emptiness sounds simple, no? Just meditate on emptiness. Yet, we live in such a material-laden world, it is quite difficult many days to imagine nothingness. True, pure, silent nothingness. And so, my journey began with trying to imagine

what nothingness could be.

I quickly converged on the scientific approach and took direction from the observation that most matter, if not most of the universe, is nothing. Some have reported that over 99.9999999999…..% of all matter is empty (yup, lots of 9’s ). So empty in fact, that others have claimed that all of what we consider to be solid matter could fit in something the size of an ice-cube. And given that all matter is effectively energy (courtesy of Mr Einstein’s E=mc^2), there is really no solid matter to work with.

When considering gases and liquids, which are even more void-rich th

an solids, it was further evidence that most of what we know and sense is nothingness and silence.

Practice is the spaces and the silence, not in what fills the spaces and the silence.

– dan

Without getting too metaphysical, or entertaining the concept of dark matter (a topic for another time), practice began to focus on the emptiness so pervasive around us. For a while, the emptiness was visualized like the matter which surrounded it. Emptiness also became as much a part of what surrounded me, and inherently a sub-component of matter. Emptiness was not empty.

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Then during one session not so long ago, and interesting observation of the breath revealed a different sensation of emptiness. While practicing Vipassana, and noticing the sensations on a tiny portion of the upper lip, it was clear that the space, the emptiness, the nothingness, the silence that was just adjacent to that sensation, the emptiness through which air molecules traveled to eventually enter my lungs, traveled through an emptiness that was no different from the emptiness within the molecules and atoms. My own body was composed of emptiness no different from the emptiness of the universe. My thoughts existed within an emptiness no different from the 99.999999….% of emptiness that composed all the known and unknown consciousness.

Allowing myself to rest in the infinite, timeless, silent emptiness, it became further and further clear with every breath that the only constant within an ever-changing cosmos, micro and macro, was this emptiness. An emptiness within which all sensations, physical, mental, emotional and spiritual, manifest. An emptiness that welcomes all, and releases all. An emptiness so still and silent that we may live entire lives never aware of its ubiquitous nature. A still, silent emptiness within which comes and goes every moment, every sensation, every memory, every dream, every fear, every desire, every thought, every word.

In this silence, there is no fear, no desire, no wants, no needs. Nothing. There is nothing but peace, acceptance, non-attachment, love.

In this nothingness and profound stillness, the gap, the space vanishes between self and the world entire. We become one with the world and the universe, for we are all basically nothing. Essence of the eternal sea of nothingness.

Floating in an eternal, infinite sea of pure silence and emptiness, a calmness overcomes, and all tension subsides. All tightness dissipates. All becomes one with the eternal stillness.

Within this eternal, infinite stillness flows, I increasingly feel, the Ki of the universe. Coming to know the stillness intimately, is to come to know the silence and emptiness in its purest form. Within nothingness resides the stillness, silence and needlessness that is the foundation of achieving harmony of the mind, body and spirit.

The eternal stillness permeates the universe entire, planets, galaxies, bodies, solid, and not. The eternal stillness is infinite. It is timeless. It is boundless. It is without need, purpose or mission. It just is. Simply still, silent, empty.

And so should our practice be, on or off the mat.

Silence is something that comes from your heart, not from outside. Silence doesn’t mean not talking and not doing things; it means that you are not disturbed inside. If you’re truly silent, then no matter what situation you find yourself in you can enjoy the silence.

– Thich Nhat Hanh, “The Heart of the Matter”