10-19-2011, 08:37 AM
"Para mi solo recorrer los caminos que tienen corazon, cualquier camino que tenga corazon. Por ahi yo recorro, y la unica prueba que vale es atravesar todo su largo. Y por ahi yo recorro, mirando, mirando, sin aliento."
~ Carlos Castaneda, attributed to Don Juan
I've done a modest amount of traveling in my time, and each (ad)venture has given me the opportunity to think about life as a path, aikido as a path, and the whole "journey versus destination" thing.
As a youth, I got to spend time backpacking and wilderness canoeing. Necessarily, such journeys are object lessons in what to bring with you and what to leave behind. What sort of things speed you on your way, what things ease your travel and bring you comfort when you rest, and what sort of things drag you down and get in the way. There are terrific lessons about solitude and companionship, about self-sufficiency and dependability. There are lessons about knowing how to follow a guide while carrying your own weight.
I also managed some scuba adventures, finding myself in swamps with zero visibility and in cerulean waters of incomparable Caribbean clarity. Later, in life, I took up rock climbing, and have found myself scrambling up the sides of canyons, caves, boulders, and crags. It's fair to say that I've seen highs and I've seen lows.
My own particular Aiki Road has also taken me places. I've had my way paid to Tokyo, Jerusalem, Toronto, and points here and there around the US. I've been a guest in the houses of some extraordinary people, I've entered into communities and found friendships, and I've had recognition and respect and reward for simply sharing what I love.
So it's quite easy to speak of life as a journey. Life is an adventure!
One thing I've learned is that adventures are hard. For all the wonder and majesty available to those who go on foot or paddle a boat, there are undeniable hardships and privation. There is risk of injury and illness with only primitive remedy at hand. There are mosquitos, leeches, and perhaps dangerously wild animals. There are poisonous snakes and poisonous plants. Your muscles either bunch up and cramp or else they sometimes tear. It's usually too hot or too cold, and either way, too wet brings its own special brand of misery. You will know blisters on your feet, but you will keep walking anyway. You could have jungle rot between your toes, but you'll step back into the river anyway. Even the best prepared can know thirst and hunger.
Modern means of travel are not always better. Despite cushioned comfort and conditioned air, we face mechanical failures, traffic congestion, insane and hostile drivers, and the ever-present risk of high speed collision with horrifying consequences. Air travel means the possibility of interminable delay, lost luggage, security measures that create as much or more fear than they relieve, and confinement to a crowd of strangers in close quarters.
Perhaps the thing that is most often overlooked in the adventure literature is the tedium. If you're going under your own power, expect to do the same repetitive thing from sunup to sundown. If you're a passenger of some ship of land, water, or air, expect to deal with the fatalistic sense that your life is in someone else's hands, and that your world is confined to your lap and your window. There will be missed connections. You will run out of gas. You will get a traffic ticket. Your vehicle will be towed. Not on every trip, but travel enough, and you will experience these things.
Yet on we go. As the popular saying here in Austin goes, "Onward through the fog."
We proceed, because we must. Even when vision is lacking, we slow to a crawl, and proceed. Even when things seem to be at a standstill, it's part of the process. When exhausted, we rest, replenish, and then go on. Onward.
Like a lot of people my age, I read Castaneda in my twenties, and found powerful truths, motivations, and inspirations. Despite having been debunked as a legitimate anthropologist, Castaneda's stories remain wonderful works of fiction, valid for their truth more than for their veracity. The (fictional) Yaqui Way of Knowledge meshed nicely with my own Aiki Way of Knowledge -- fictional and full of truth in its own way. One thing I remember don Juan admonishing young Carlos: old age is an enemy that can never be beaten.
I'm not yet an old man, but my journey has brought me to an uncomfortable crossroad. You might say that I am a beginner at being old. My kids are all grown, and I'm learning the lessons of the recently emptied nest. My body aches all the time, no longer just from exertion, but maybe from a lifetime of exertions. I injure easily. I heal more slowly.
Because of my accumulation of injuries, I am facing the prospect that many of my adventures may be over, or at least greatly reduced. I'm wondering if I can ever rock-climb again. Or play tennis. Or undertake long hikes or river rambles. I no longer do breakfalls, and I used to love being a high-flyer on the mat. With greater caution comes reduced activity. With reduced activity comes weight gain. With weight gain comes increased risk of injury. With increased risk of injury comes greater caution.
That's the thing about all this traveling. You come to a bog or a quagmire, you find yourself lost (gotta love that expression) in the badlands. You reach an impasse. Is it a temporary setback? Is it a lull in the pace that will eventually be restored? Will you die here in the desert? Will you go on, but greatly diminished? You can't always know.
Such terrain is where existential crises happen. For me, it's not just the changes in my body, although those seem to be at the root of much of my dilemma. I've also closed my dojo, and while I still do aikido, it's clear I need a new road, a new vehicle. I am not the person I was, and much of what I have found exciting about life and myself is no longer available to me.
I've done my best to live my life in a way that might be inspiring to others. It's a vanity, certainly, but it's also in gratitude for those who have inspired me. Many are those who have made my life better, made my journey more thrilling, made me look toward horizons I never even knew were there. How could I not want to pay it forward?
Katie and I recently watched the PBS Nova episodes on Galileo, Newton, and Einstein. One common thread that unites all these geniuses is their profound social deficiencies. To a large degree by conscious choice, these gentlemen who have had such profound influence on every aspect of our lives were not exactly amiable, warm, loyal human beings. Must it be so? Probably not, but I suppose there is some grim comfort in seeing that the greatest among us had their problems.
It matters a great deal to matter to others. Some do so by virtue of vision, insight, and discovery. Some do so by virtue of virtue -- they are good people to be around, they will not let you down, and they make you feel good even when they are their most honest.
No matter who you look to for inspiration, it's a good bet they also have bad days. Probably they've had some rough spots on their own journeys. Probably they've had moments where they were awkward, idiotic, impatient, cowardly, and cripplingly insecure. In some cases, these must count to their detriment, and it's good that we not overlook their faults. In other cases, it's these shortcomings that make them all the more heroic.
We find our inspiration in others, and we can find inspiration from the stunning vistas we occasionally encounter on our own. But in those moments of deepest loneliness and despair, all our travels should have prepared us for the one thing that really matters most of all when the way forward is lost. We must motivate and inspire ourselves.
So take heart. Let your chest burst with joy on the summit, but embolden your heart because the way down is more perilous than the ascent. Take heart, because courage and fortitude and perseverance are there even when confidence and vitality are not.
We choose our paths if they have a heart. We walk them for as long as our hearts are in it. Once the heart fails, we are done for. Only the wisest and most well-seasoned travelers have what it takes to break the flagstones of habit and find a new star to navigate by.
Take heart, because when we are lost, when we are stuck, when we've taken a wrong turn and haven't a clue, we still know what to do. The situation is completely foreign and new, but because we've traveled so long and we know how to keep our wits and our hearts about us, we see that we've been here many many times before.
Practice success, but also practice failure until you get good at it. Practice balance, but also practice recovery, because you'll need it. Practice clarity, but also practice bewilderment, because you're needed even when you're lost. Practice dependability, and practice dependency. Practice when you're tired and out of breath, and practice experiencing many breathless moments. Sin aliento. Then, in-spire.
It isn't the destination, but it isn't the journey either. Don Juan said that all roads lead nowhere, but it isn't true. All roads lead to the heart, and the heart is the vehicle that takes us there.
When the heart opens, the Way opens. First and always, practice opening.
2011, September 30
Still Point Aikido Systems
Austin TX, USA
10-20-2011, 10:24 AM
Thanks Ross. That is a thoughtful and subtle article.
This is a nice translation (http://www.flickr.com/photos/rebecca_finch/3025384518/) of the Castaneda quote at the top of your article.
I don't think it's necessary or desirable to practise failure or dependency. But we should practise despite them.
I like the link between inspiration and respiration as we travel looking, looking, breathlessly.
And - still in a Spanish mood - this is from a beautiful love poem by Pablo Neruda that also talks about the heart and the road:
I have said that you sang in the wind
like the pines and like the masts.
Like them you are tall and taciturn,
and you are sad, all at once, like a voyage.
You gather things to you like an old road.
You are peopled with echoes and nostalgic voices.
I awoke and at times birds fled and migrated
that had been sleeping in your soul.
English version (http://anotherhand.livejournal.com/75186.html)
Spanish original (http://www.poemas-del-alma.com/poema-12.htm)
10-20-2011, 12:04 PM
Ross, great article.
I am 67 and started aikido in 1967. Along the road I have been rock climbing, winter mountaineering, x-c skiing, kayaking and hiking. I have studied mystical traditions, zen, performed with butoh dancers . The common thread between all of them has been following my heart. Aikido is the physical thread that links them. I have no regrets about not physically following all of the past adventures as they are alive and well deep inside of me. In a breath I can journey back to a high mountain ledge to look hundreds of feet below while I listen to crows calling each other. I can still feel the wind and the scent is always with me. I train aikido 4 nights a week and take weekend workshops whenever I can. In the past 6 months I have started to get a deeper glimpse of aikido. Aikido has become new and alive again. I am not doing high falls or hard rolls, but I am exploring contact, touch, blending. Watching Uke and Nage disappear and finding only movement. I am not moving as fast as I used to, but I am moving smarter and as a result there are fewer pulled muscles, fewer injuries than I had 20 years ago. I agree with your comment, “practice opening”, and do whatever your heart tells you to do. I expect to be doing aikido for another 15 years or so. Enjoy this life!
10-28-2011, 11:18 AM
Yeats and Neruda, side by side...
When all the warriors of the world speak to one another in poetry, then all our battles will be won, for all, by all, on all sides.
10-28-2011, 12:02 PM
Like you, my internal landscape remains rich, and mysteries therein yet beckon. That can be an occasional respite, but for people with my particular disposition can too easily be the road to escape, delusion, and solipsism. I need to throw myself against the hard external world from time to time too.
It's that particular somatic encounter with the "outside" world that is less available to me, currently. I certainly hope it's temporary, but these days every step I take toward better fitness brings about risk of injury and setback.
It's where I am on my path right now, and I have the examples of better men than me who have demonstrated how to turn setbacks into opportunities. That's what I'm working on, but as I wrote, some passages on a journey are less charming than others.
In any case, I sincerely appreciate the belay. I think you have the lead in this regard, and from where I stand, I can enthusiastically say "Nice up!" Now I just have to figure out how to follow you on this particular pitch.