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“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”

“What is your automatic reflex to life situations, especially difficult ones? Do you think about yourself and how you might profit or escape from a situation? Or do you think about others and how you can help? Progress on the path, and a sign that you’re well prepared for death, occurs when the former changes into the latter, when you default not into selfishness but into selflessness.”

– Andrew Holecek

I have to start by admitting it. Addiction has been part of my life…well, for a good part of it. My “hungry ghost”[1] has found a home in school work, cycling, exercise, professional work, hobbies, reading, and the occasional 20-year-old scotch or pint of Guinness. I’ve come to accept that the “hungry ghost” is not just a visitor, but as much a part of me as my shadow.  Well, it has been simpler many days to just call it my shadow, à la Jung.

Addiction, I’ve come to believe, is more common than most would admit, based on my observation of attachment and lack of self-control when it comes to matters of work, drink, internet usage, TV watching – in short, mostly anything and everything external to our selves. Think of something external to yourself, and you can likely find an addict online somewhere – or maybe even a 12-step group.

So what is one to do with such a ubiquitous, insidious shadow among our midst? Ignorance and succumbing to the urge is always an option – and the one many unfortunately choose. Easy to choose when the villain is work or other socially acceptable forms – such as drink, popular media or food, for example. Not so easy when it transitions into the less socially acceptable, such as more drink, other intoxicants, false relationships, or worse.

Other alternatives to ignorance and succumbing may include 12 step programs, treatment, retreats, or other external modalities that seek to alter our weakness to the affliction in question. For some, this has served well, for others, a rotating door of trying and trying again.

Over the past few months, I have come to conclude that external modes of treatment are as much at risk of becoming a crutch as the crutch itself. This is not to critique or undermine the validity of such approaches – it is my observation that external modalities have become the home of the “hungry ghost” in many instances.

These observations brought me to the assumption that if external treatment risks becoming the target of our “hungry ghost”, then an internal treatment could be an option. This is when I blended my thoughts about addiction with the many lessons from the aikido mat, and the classical teaching of O’Sensei in “masakatsu agatsu, katsu ayame” – true victory is self-victory, right here right now.

If true victory is self-victory, would this not make the  “hungry ghost” the assailant, the uke, in terms of living with an addiction? The “hungry ghost” as a uke assailing one’s spirit, mind and body, living and thriving at the expense of a harmonious self, could become an internal practice worth considering.

“When I think of the Buddhist precepts, which are ethical precepts, they are all about relationships. I’ve boiled them down to one: vowing to live in a way that is not at the expense of other beings. In a sense it’s very grand and impossible, but it’s also a really powerful motivation.”

– Alan Senauke

So…what would meeting and defending one’s self against the “hungry ghost” uke be like?

Well, it would start as does any confrontation – with a bow.  All assailants, internal and external, deserve respect, for they are our teachers on the path to self.  When the hungry ghosts rears it head, observe it, notice it arising, do not react to its presence – for it is familiar, even if not welcomed.

As with all Uke, immediately take up ki slack from the universe. Either through one of the five principles (keep one point, relax completely, extend ki, keep weight underside, or detach from all), or by allowing ki to flow from the universe into all of you, taking up ki slack will establish the conditions and state for an eventual attack, if Uke wishes to escalate it. With taking up ki slack, Uke is already being taken off-balance.

With taking up ki slack, a state of total, deep relaxation occurs. Not relaxation that makes one mellow and inattentive. Rather, a relaxation that makes one fully attentive, fully aware, fully active in all senses. In such a state, Uke cannot detect any signs of aggression or defence – no evident reaction, even subtle.  Uke may be concerned by such lack of reaction, or may misinterpret it as Nage being oblivious to the threat at hand.
Uke then chooses to strike. The strike can be slow and calculated; it can be fast and aggressive. Blend. Sense Uke’s intent and energy. With the hungry ghost Uke, the energy is visceral, subtle, can be all encompassing.  Be aware of and feel Uke’s ki – a ki, which is familiar, for it is your own.  In such an instance, Uke is especially dangerous, for his ki is your ki – and your ki is his ki. Confusion can ensue.  Maintain coordination, harmony of mind, body and spirit – and feel Uke’s intent, Uke’s ki.

Execute the technique that best serves the moment. Visualize Uke being subjected to the technique. Execute it slowly – don’t rush. Uke is strong and deliberate – and knows you well. Pin Uke, or choose to throw him. Either one will do – but trust your visualization to guide you. Feel Uke’s energy and sense how weakened, frustrated or agitated he may be as a result. Irrespective of Uke’s state, maintain harmony of mind, body and spirit. Uke will strive to disrupt such harmony – for victory is found in such loss of balance and centering.

If at any moment you grasp to strongly, fail to maintain harmony of mind, body and spirit, become attached to Uke’s movement or intent, become physically detached, or fall as a result of Uke’s efforts, remember to perform ukemi.  Protect yourself in the fall, then return to harmony of mind, body and spirit. Return quickly. Return deeply.  The hungry ghost Uke is a shrewd adversary – defeat is always a risk. But the more harmony is cultivated, practiced and maintained, the less likely Uke will get the upper hand.

At one point, possibly after one attack, possibly after an endless number of attacks, Uke will learn to recognize that today, victory is not within grasp.  Uke may choose to return another day – this has been my experience of late – bent on further attempting to defeat and challenge the moment. Uke may choose to alter his tactics – a sound strategy given Uke’s intimate knowledge of Nage.  In all instances, harmony of mind, body and spirit must be called upon to respond to any such changes in approach.

In all such instances, remember to bow upon Uke’s arrival – and upon his departure, thanking him for the lessons and growth that he brings to your practice.

Eventually, after many battles and confrontations, the hungry ghost Uke may come to accept that victory is not within grasp.  Although I have yet to see such a day (although I remain optimistic that it is a matter of time and practice), I believe that at such a moment, Uke will surrender his weapon and simply step into nothingness. I envision the moment being one where Uke ceases to extend ki, or manipulate ki – and become emptiness – allowing ki to flow freely and effortlessly.

At such a moment, a final bow will be given to the hungry ghost Uke, and words of gratitude uttered to thank him for a journey of growth. All past and future will cease, and the pure present will manifest.

Throughout the conflict, remember to love the hungry ghost Uke, for he has lost the moment he expresses aggression.  Accept Uke, for his presence and the challenge he presents is practice in its highest form.

As O’Sensei was often heard encouraging – protect the attacker, protect Uke. The Art of peace is not one that seeks to destroy Uke, but to blend and enable a path to peace.  This is especially true with the hungry ghost Uke – one who’s making is intimately known – for it is us.

The addiction Uke, the hungry ghost Uke, is most likely one of your greatest teachers. Welcome him. Bow. Respect him. And practice, practice, practice in his presence.

The eventual harmony with one’s shadow, through love as O’Sensei had expressed, becomes true victory, self-victory.

“The problem with interpersonal love is that you are dependent on the other person to reflect love back to you. That’s part of the illusion of separateness. The reality is that love is a state of being that comes from within.”

– Ram Dass

[1]: the hungry ghost realm is often referenced when speaking about addiction. A great work whose title was inspired by this point is Dr Gabor Mate’s “In the realm of hungry ghosts“. It is highly recommended.