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Home > Columns > Ross Robertson > December, 2006 - Falling Leaves
by Ross Robertson

Falling Leaves by Ross Robertson

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I know you know this. And I apologize for the reminder -- but you're dying.

Not just moving toward your last day at some point in the unthinkable future, but right now, bit by bit, pieces of you are falling apart, imploding, ceasing to be. Every day of your adult life some 50 to 70 billion of your cells self destruct in a strange act of suicide. Every year, this quantity of cellular death is roughly the equivalent of your total body weight.

The process is ingrained and automatic. Cells may die from many environmental causes, from stresses and traumas and damaging mutations. But even without the external agents, your body is slowly, systematically killing itself.

Biologists call this apoptosis, a Greek term meaning "falling, falling off, or falling away." The term is a lyrical one, referring to the way leaves fall from trees or petals fall from flowers.

You are dying, but of course you are also living. Your body is generating new cells. If you are healthy, you literally are holding life and death in balance. Because we create new life within ourselves, older cells are programmed to die. Otherwise there would be unchecked tumorous growth, and the entire organism (that's you, dear reader) would perish.

So. Life and death In balance. Budo in miniature.

Apoptosis is a fairly complex subject, but I want to focus on one strange aspect of this oh-so-autumnal topic. Cells in tissue are in constant communication with each other. Chemical signals are being exchanged. And as long as these signals keep being received, the suicidal cellular gun remains in safety mode. Cells sing their cricket song to one another, all the time, and this is the message they repeat to keep each other company:

Live. Live. Live. Keep living. Stay alive.

Sonic hedgehogs to the rescue! No, really... I'm not making this up. The chemical transmitter is called Shh, or "Sonic Hedgehog." Don't ask me to try to explain that one. The point is, that when the Shh molecule -- the Sonic Hedgehog -- is absent, the cell dies. When the music stops, life isn't worth living anymore.

Bear with me while I take a rather exaggerated poetic license here, but I see some important parallels in our day-to-day social world.

People come, people go. Relationships live and die. Students join, and most of them quit. Dojos open and close, organizations rise and fall. It's all part of the natural order of things. Life and death in balance.

But why do so many good people fall away? Maybe it's because they didn't receive enough "live" signals. Maybe the people around them took it for granted that they knew they were valued, and remained silent. Or maybe the group was singing its "live" song, but the individual just couldn't hear it. There are times when we all just stop listening, and so the message can't get through.

We study aikido for many reasons, but if we train in the art as budo, it is to deal effectively with threats. We confront "die" messages, and we learn to cope and persevere. Similarly, our immune system is amazingly good at warding off hostile attacks, and neutralizing invasive agents. If the system is robust, and if the attack is not truly overwhelming, we survive. We can deal with the hostility.

What's interesting to me is that we are not programmed to cope so well with the absence of "live" signals as we are able to confront and act on the "die" signals. In fact, at the cellular level, we are specifically programmed to die without constant "live" messages.

In all my years of study, the thing I have not really learned to deal with is apathy. If your practice partner is disinterested, disaffected, and mentally detached, there is very little you can do to train effectively with them. They are neither giving you "live" signals ("Hey, let's train together!") nor are they giving you an appropriate simulation of "die" signals ("Grrrr, here I come! Learn to protect yourself!) With their uninvolved involvement, they are giving you nothing but kinesthetic silence. By doing nothing, your training dies.

The dojo also is an organism. It must go through a growth period, mature, and reach stability. Even in the healthiest dojo, students come, and students go. As long as there is a balance, the dojo is healthy. Too many students, and the quality of training is diminished. (Maybe it's time to open another dojo!) Too few students, and the resources and vitality are impoverished.

A dojo can remain in a homeostatic condition for a long time, but still not be healthy. If the dojo never grows to a level of prosperity appropriate to its needs and circumstances, it will live on in a perpetually undernourished state. Students in such a dojo themselves suffer from a terrible disease: complacence disguised as contentment. It usually takes the form of "As long as Sensei shows up to teach, I'm happy." It's just enough of a "live" signal to keep the organism alive, but never enough for it to be strong, to become a relevant force in the larger community.

These students may be much harder to deal with than even the narcoleptic uke described above. These students love aikido. They train hard. They take the lessons home and enrich their families, their jobs, and their recreations. Why isn't that enough?

Well, it's only enough if it's enough. It isn't enough if it's not enough! If the dojo is not growing toward prosperity, or holding steady in prosperity, then by definition it isn't enough. So how do we deal with such a situation? If you have the answer, you're wiser than I am. I've let good students walk out, and I've kept students on without making them pay. Why? Because some students won't hear my "live" messages no matter what I do for them. And some others do, and I'd rather have students who know how to listen, who are ready to learn to be alive. Above all, I want to make sure I'm sending out good "live" messages. That is the one reason I teach. To tell you to live.

And some students are just better at giving out "live" messages than others. When I can hear them, I will eat "live" messages like ice cream, like milk and honey, like manna in the desert. Every time you pay your dues on time, you put food in my mouth, clothes on my body, you support my children and my lover and my house. When you work with great gladness and joy to do anything, anything at all, to improve the condition of the dojo and your fellow students, you enrich my life. And when you bring in new sincere students, that is the best of all. How else am I to know that I am wanted, loved, and appreciated?

One cell, or even several, cannot keep the whole tissue alive. Signalling louder or longer won't do it. Every cell in the system has to keep the signal going. There is a time to stop broadcasting to those who don't support the cells around them. There is a time to stop signalling and to let them fall away so that others can come along who will take up the song and generate the message of life.

So, my beloved students, I will promise you my patience and my dedication and the very best of my thinking, my insights, and all my experience. These things I give to you for a really very small price. But your silence and your inaction I will not tolerate. I won't, because I can't.

And if anyone reading this right now is struggling with depression, with self worth, and can't quite seem to find the value in anything, believe me when I say I understand. If you can hear it, let me ask you live just a little bit longer. Take one more breath. Talk to me and let me know you're there. I probably can't do anything for you, but it helps so much to hear your voice. You do matter. You do make a difference.

Despite all that we do, sometimes things fall apart. Sometimes we let them. So fall if you must. Letting go of certainty is also part of our training. But remember if you can, that you can also fall in love. As you tumble through the empty spaces of the unknown, see if you can land in the cradling arms of a forgiving ground.

Happy 15th Anniversary, Still Point Aikido Center.

Ross Robertson
Still Point Aikido Center
Austin, TX, USA

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