Dojo: Aikido Institute - Oakland
Join Date: Feb 2008
Not that i am anywhere near the level of the well-known and regarded sensei and sempai that post articles here, but i wanted to share this piece that i wrote for my dojo's newsletter:
The Lament. When I heard that Jacob would be taking his shodan test on 7/11, I was bummed because I knew I would be out of town on that day, and therefore would not be able to participate.
The Retreat. My reason for absence, however, was good. I was in North Fork, CA, participating in a Vipassana Meditation retreat. Vipassana is a form of meditation that is said to have been taught by the Buddha himself. The retreat is a 10-day intensive; one essentially lives like a monk for 10 days and observes a strict code of conduct, including a vow of silence and a vegetarian/vegan diet.
The Practice. Since the Buddha stressed non-sectarian, non-religious values, the practice is presented in a very plain and non-dogmatic way. As explained by the current leading lay teacher of Vipassana, S.N. Goenka, it is an "experiential scientific practice." One starts with observation of the breath (which most meditation practices do) for a couple of days. Once the mind is sufficiently quieted/focused, Vipassana begins: moving from the opening of the nose, the entire surface of the body is slowly and carefully ‘scanned' with one's attention. Eventually, tiny sensations on the body, like tingling, vibrating, pulsing, and throbbing are felt, and the goal is to simply observe these with equanimity, becoming progressively more aware of their ever-changing nature. As one progresses, the experience of the changing nature of the body leads one to profound understandings of the self and the relationship between mind and body, which ultimately has the effect of ‘liberating' oneself from the 2 main causes of suffering: aversion and craving.
My Progress. So, am I liberated? Lol. Different people will progress at different levels with regards to these goals. I made decent progress. I got to the point where I can scan most of my body's surface, with some blind spots here and there that I still need to work on. I wasn't yet able to achieve the "free flow," where one is able to scan the whole body up and down in sweeping motions and observe all surfaces (it is said that a very pleasant vibration throughout the body is experienced at this stage).
Buddha's Contribution. The teaching of Vipassana is divided into 3 main pillars: sila (moral code), samadhi (development of concentration and focus of the mind), and praña (understanding and wisdom). Goenka reminds us that these 3 pillars of practice were already being taught in the Buddha's time. He explains that the Buddha's main contribution to humanity was the teaching that the third pillar—that of understanding and wisdom, can only be attained at the experiential level by each individual for themselves; a person cannot become enlightened by only practicing a moral code, nor by sharpening the mind through observation of breath only, and similarly, wisdom cannot be gained through mere intellectualization of these things. He thus taught that the technique of observation (and thus experience) of the self at the deepest micro-level is the only way a person can fully understand themselves.
Thousands of years before western scientists put forth the idea that the body (as matter) is made up of millions of constantly changing ‘particles,' the Buddha taught a meditation technique that he claimed one can use to experience them—he called them ‘kalapas.' To give a visual, imagine that you could see your body exist in this world from start to finish, like the landscape in a time-lapse video; what you would see is a body that starts very small, gets bigger quickly and grows hair, grows bigger even still, reaches a maximum height, perhaps gets fatter, perhaps gets thinner, and then starts shrinking, and then sheds hair, and then gets weak, and then stops working, and then ultimately disintegrates back to nothing. Imagine that the physical being you are now, is not the same as the being you are, say…..now. Now imagine developing the focus of your mind such that you could experience all of that as it happens. The body is in a constant state of change, and the Buddha taught a meditation technique for experiencing just that….
Noble Silence. When one starts a 10-day Vipassana course, one must take a vow of silence; no talking to others, no talking to self, no chanting, no writing or reading, no iPods, etc. This is called Noble Silence, and it is a requirement because it keeps a person's distractions to an absolute minimum. Again stressing the Buddha's teaching, Goenka constantly reiterates that true wisdom and understanding can only be gained through experience. Talking is OK for intellectualization, but then all a person has done is intellectualize the practice; understanding of the "mind-matter phenomenon" can only be gained by a person as he or she experiences their own body, and no amount of talking, explaining, praying, chanting, etc, can substitute for this.
Connection. This point led me to a realization about our practice of Aikido. We often talk about Aikido (and talk, and talk, and talk) as a way to intellectualize what we do—both on and off the mat. That's fine. The Buddha's teaching, however, applies to our practice just the same: we will never be able to reach the deepest levels of our training if we stay at a level of intellectualization. Talking about Aikido will never be a substitute for the deep bodily understanding we gain by experiencing Aikido.
Having already classified our dojo as being on the "talkative" end of the How-Much-Talking-Does-Your-Dojo-Do-While-Training scale, I had previously decided that it was just a part of our dojo's personality. I now think differently. I am now questioning the amount of talking we allow, and I think it would do us good to develop awareness of this and take individual steps to minimize it. Talking about Aikido off the mat is another story. Have at it. But while on the mat, we may be doing ourselves a great disservice. Sometimes it may be necessary, like when guiding a brand-new student through a complex movement. But in general, it may be unnecessary at the least, and at the most it might actually be obstacle to real advancement in our practice.
The Challenge. I thus put forth a challenge to all (myself included, because I sure like to yap it up!) to: 1) notice when we talk on the mat, and try to do it in less words; 2) discontinue the needless chatter altogether; 3) discontinue the needless "what if…" questions; and, 4) as the saying goes, shut up and train!