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Home > Columns > "The Mirror" > March, 2005 - The Bird in the Pomegranate: Mental Misogi

The Bird in the Pomegranate: Mental Misogi by "The Mirror"

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This column was written by AJ Garcia.

The other day while driving, I heard an old song, the title of which is, I think, "Sister Goldenhair Surprise". Since I pretty much know the tune and the words, I noticed that I was anticipating what came next as I listened to it, even noticing where the present-day CD version slightly differed from the original tape/record version. I then began to wonder if I was actually listening to the music/words at all, or just thinking I was as I replayed a memory in my mind. How often do we do this on the mat, especially with partners we're used to practicing with, or at seminars? We'll watch the visiting instructor demonstrate something new about a technique, and then, instead of trying to learn the variation or method he's showing and discover how that might benefit our aikido, we lapse into doing it the way we've always done it.

One of my friends' fathers is a close-up nature photographer. This last holiday season I was invited to dinner at their home, and he showed us some of his latest pictures, among them one of what looked like a reddish-plumed bird, turning its head slightly so you could see its lively eye and beak in silhouette. Those present remarked on its beauty, and asked what kind of bird it was. He then pulled out another photograph of the "bird" taken from farther off, and we saw that it was instead a Pomegranate: the curling of its dried blossom-end formed both eye and beak, just as the variations in color of the fruit's skin gave the illusion of an avian neck. Surprise! Yet, the illusory image of that bright-eyed bird still sticks in my mind, as if to ask, "Have you explored all there is to this? Have you really seen what is there with new eyes?"

Many aikido dojos mark the start of a new year with a cleansing ritual of water misogi--a group submersion in often very cold rivers, oceans, etc., while kiai-ing heartily. Ideally, one is stepping into the water with beginner's mind, experiencing it fully, and by doing so demonstrating a commitment to practice, to uncover new depths to the path as one encounters what may seem to be the same familiar partners/techniques. That's the easier part, I think: the physical "Pomegranate," as it were; we can feel the cold water and endure it for a set time. We know with a certainty what challenges our body.

Yet there is a further, mental, component to this ritual of misogi, one we carry with us long after we've toweled off, shared a communal breakfast and gone our separate ways. It is the "Bird" we glimpse, a wonderful vision in the ordinary: our growing ability to consciously acknowledge, through the doing of whatever difficult task we face, our own mental strength to overcome the challenges we encounter, on and off the mat, and keep moving forward. We are surprised by our persistence when a goal seems impossible to achieve, or we have no idea of how to reach it, or it has seemingly vanished...or when doldrums strike and our practice grows dull, something we all seem to experience at one time or another. And yet, is this not the essence of true misogi? To enter the waters of practice, of life, again and again with a mind receptive to the flow, to the experience, even if it seems repetitive or dull or, at times, as if the rivers and oceans have run dry.

As we progress in this art, we change, and our goals change, or even disappear. That is part of growth and, hopefully, increasing maturity, and should not distress us. Goals that once symbolized validation of our personal progress (such as rank or "perfect" mastery of technique) transform over time into a responsibility to others: to share, to guide, to encourage, to support the cohesion of our practice group, to pass on the knowledge, the gift of aikido. And, also, a responsibility to ourselves: to be gentle yet firm in persevering on the way, exploring even when the map is faded or lost; to be patient with required repetition as we seek greater mastery--and fully aware, reminding ourselves constantly to use "new eyes" and not become mired in habit masquerading as practice, to hear the song that's playing now, not the mental tape from yesterday...to accept our own transformation and learn to trust that if we keep walking, the road will find us, and ever open to more magnificent vistas.

Concealed within a Pomegranate, a bright-eyed bird looks out and asks, "Have you really explored all there is to be found in your practice? What new things have you allowed yourself to discover today, about aikido...and the person you are?"

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