12-18-2008, 12:48 PM
As I sit here writing this, it's just a few days out from my birthday. It's late at night, November 30th, and as I complete this sentence, about a minute and a half remain before December 1st. My birthday is December 3rd, though by the time this article gets published and you're reading it, this will all be in your past. Such is the mercurial nature of life, thought, and birthdays.
Ordinarily I wouldn't waste your time with something so personal. This time around, however, I turn 50, and that's something of a big deal for me. So I beg your indulgence, and hope that you will (or already have) made it to 50, and that it will be (or was) meaningful for you too.
I was born in Dallas on December 3rd, 1958 at 3:12pm. Though I'm not into numerology, I've always been immoderately giddy at the symmetry of the numbers (3:12 on 12/3). 1958 was the beginning of the Space Age. This was the year the Integrated Circuit was invented (in Dallas, by the way). In 1958, Alaska was made ready for statehood. Antarctica was crossed over land, the North Pole was crossed under water. A Russian writer wrote a quintessentially American novel. And for the first time ever, more people crossed the seas by air than by boat. A bunch of other weird stuff happened that year, and if you want, you can check out the Wikipedia article (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1958) to see for yourself.
In 1958 a number of prominent aikido instructors took their first lessons from the Founder. A little more than a decade later, O-Sensei would no longer be living, though I wouldn't even hear of him until still another decade had passed. In my birth year, aikido had barely left its own cradle. By the time I was introduced to it 20 years later, it was still very exotic and unknown. And now, because of the Integrated Circuit, because of Space Age technologies and their progeny, and because of O-Sensei, I'm able to sit at my computer musing over the passage of time, and you -- if you care to -- have the telepathic gift to receive these words.
Each year I've chosen to continue to celebrate my birthday rather than ignore it. Mostly I want yet another excuse to celebrate life, and being alive is the best basis I know of for doing so. Aikido for me is very much a life-giving art. In its crudest, most basic aspect, it can give you a survival advantage in a crisis. More importantly (to me, anyway), is that aikido is one of those activities and visions that make me feel more alive in the day-to-day, moment-by-moment sort of way. I love aikido. I love doing it, I love sharing it, I love thinking about it. I feel so tremendously grateful for those who have made it possible for me to discover and learn aikido. I'm profoundly moved by the miraculous gathering of events that brings us together, here in this intimate setting, where I am alone at my desk unknowing who you are or where you are, yet knowing still that you're there. You can't possibly realize it, but you've made me really happy by being here.
I know I won't be around to see all the amazing things some of you will witness long after I'm gone. That doesn't keep me from imagining them now, and imagining that imagination is the first step to making things real.
In my most hopeful moments, I believe I see the world moving toward a more aiki existence. Institutions and whole societies will increasingly come to see the obvious wisdom inherent in aikido. Naturally the movement toward better aikido will be painful for nations and corporations, just like learning to roll or receive nikyo can be painful for individuals. But you and I will help them, and very likely, that will be somewhat painful for us at times also. Yet we know the joy far outweighs the incidental and accidental suffering that our imperfections cause, or allow.
I see a better human being. I see the need and the opportunity for each of us to become better. We have been blindly shaping our own biological evolution for quite a while now, and we are very close to being able to do so mindfully and willfully. This means we must have philosophies in place to ensure that we also do so wisely. Very soon one of the most important questions we will face will be how to define a better human. We must recognize that it is not foolish to ask if human nature can be changed. Realistically we must accept that we are deep in the process of changing nature, around us and within us, so we really ought to figure out how best to do so.
We seek to improve the human condition. Though it may be difficult to accept, better conditions will only get us so far before we need to improve the human self. Aikido alone cannot address the technological challenges that are involved in such a project. Yet aikido can help frame many of the important questions, because aikido gives a direct experience of how to avoid threats where possible, how to engage conflict when necessary, and how to turn any event toward opportunity.
Aikido reminds us that little changes can have dramatic effects. Suppose, for example, we find a way to make ourselves more impervious to heat and cold and wind and sun and water; from insect bite and plant irritation. Suppose our digital tools for communicating and recording and remembering and creating are more fully integrated into our clothing, or our bodies. At such a time, many of us will find that we need far less physical stuff. At that point, we may discover that we need much less in the way of a place to keep our stuff. In fact, we may find that we are sufficiently free of things that we need not limit our sense of home to one location. If enough people like the idea, it becomes possible to envision the creation of a new kind of nomadic culture more advanced than our current urban societies. One social significance would be less property to defend.
These are anthropological questions, but hey, that's what my degree is in. Follow me, if you will, along a certain thought experiment: If a human were really and truly invulnerable, violence would be nothing more than mere annoyance. And though such a state of perfection is perhaps forever unattainable, aikido is one path that specifically leads us closer with the clear aim of reducing the necessity and effectiveness of violence.
My old geology professor was fond of saying "all evolution is toward extinction." Might as well say "all life is toward death." There's a grim truth to this (let's remember that the Reaper is a shadowy guest at every birthday party), but in the mean time natural selection favors more durable creatures.
For humans, there's every reason to believe that we can evolve ourselves into beings that experience more pleasure and less pain, and are more durable. Simultaneously, we will have less of an adverse impact on our environment. Our challenges and discoveries will be so diverse, so profound, and so enjoyable, that boredom will cease to be an option.
In any case, it's this eventuality that compels me to devote my remaining days, however many or few they be, to aikido. I relish grand utopian ideas, even if I know I will never live to see them actualized in their fullness. I relish them, not because they are escapist fantasies, but specifically because I see that they can be actualized day by day, in a subtle yet meaningful measure.
I am by no means a perfect being, and my many vulnerabilities are evident in my aging maturity as well as my considerable immaturity. Even so, I feel most alive when I am filled with the sense of meaning and purpose that comes with building heaven, right here, right now, brick by brick.
We may agree that O-Sensei's trip to Mongolia was a fool's venture. But please, let's agree that it was politically foolish. It was logistically foolish. Yet it was not foolish in the least to try to establish a universal kingdom of heaven here on earth. Whether by grand design or modest gesture, there is no better use of our energy.
Anyway, these are my thoughts as my life clock ticks toward its half-century mark. If my words meander, then consider it a fair illustration of the path that has brought me here to this moment, fingers on keyboard. My life proceeds like a drop of water on a window pane, or like the brush stroke writing the character for "path." It proceeds with certain inevitability and unknowable trajectory.
My birthday wish is this: take a moment and revisit whatever it is inside you that knows what heaven is, what paradise is, what a perfect world is. Some time today, take one step toward it. Next, help someone you know do the same. Don't impose your heaven on anyone else -- if possible, find out what their heaven is like, and see if you can bring any of it to them.
When my own candle is blown out for life's final wish, hopefully many years from now, it is my deepest desire that I will have lit a few others on fire, and that warmth and illumination prevail.
Still Point Aikido Systems
Austin TX, USA