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.
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.
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?
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