This month's "The Mirror" column was written by Linda Eskin © 2015, all rights reserved.
I recently had the privilege of assisting with the logistics of a major retreat offered by our dojo. In February, 2015, participants came from all over California, from several US states, and from at least 5 other countries on 3 continents to live and train together for 4 days in a beautiful desert setting. It was the biggest event we've managed, something Sensei had been planning for several years.
Sensei made the arrangements for the teachers, the schedule, and the facility, and many people pitched in to make it all happen. It was a great team effort. In the weeks before the event I was in touch with many of the participants, coordinating rides and housing for those coming from out of town. Once on site I took care of logistics so that the teachers would not be sidetracked by administrative tasks.
It was an intense, immersive four days, but it was also a blast. I did not take it on as a gesture of self-sacrifice or martyrdom. A gift of service, yes, but I also expected to learn from the experience, and to benefit from taking a different perspective on the training. Indeed, I did both - to an even greater degree than I'd hoped.
In the weeks since returning home I have been reflecting on what I got out of my participation in the retreat. In Aikido we often take our lessons from the mat out into the world and apply them in the rest of our lives. In this case I was able to consciously and continuously practice important skills for hours at a time instead of moments. I hope I can bring that back to my training in the dojo.
In preparing to handle things on site I found myself practicing situational awareness, a classic skill we develop in any martial art. I studied photos and maps of the historic retreat center where we would be living and training. Throughout the planning I tried to visualize the whole scene in my mind - who would be where, what would be happening when - to be prepared to manage it smoothly once things got started. By being aware of the surroundings, visualizing all the possibilities, and knowing the available options I hoped to be able respond immediately and fluidly when plans or circumstances changed.
While keeping an eye on the activities I realized I was practicing zanshin, seeing the whole, with quiet, open vision. This quality of perception continued throughout the four days. I remained aware of the group as one organism, moving through the day as a single entity - awakening, rising, eating, training, playing, resting, learning, exploring, sleeping.
Musubi is a Japanese word for knot. It represents a tying together. Ki musubi is connecting with your partner's energy. Sensing their intention to move, and already being there. This was the most obvious and strongest practice for me during the retreat, staying connected. It was especially apparent when a friend and I were running the sound board in the training hall. Managing three wireless microphones on required really getting into the teachers' heads. We had overt signals, of course, but on a more subtle level it meant knowing where they were on the mat at all times, and reading their body language and intent. Success looked like muting a mic before one greeted a friend at the far side of the hall, or slowly bringing up the music as the energy of the training increased. When it went well, it felt natural and effortless.
In Aikido one aspect of training that follows from that depth of connection is irimi - moving into the situation. In our training we often talk about being "early" rather than being "fast." If you are moving in with your partner's intent and energy, there's no need to hurry. You're already there. Without having thought about it in those terms, that's how I dealt with much of the retreat. I worked to stay ahead of things, not getting behind and rushing to catch up. For instance, each day before the morning meditation session I would crunch along the well-groomed gravel roads to the training hall, switch on just the circle of lights over the center of the mat, fire up the sound system, set the right mood with music, and finally open the doors. By the time people started trudging up the steps in the warming sun there was a calm, welcoming space ready to receive them.
Best intentions aside, my attempts at awareness, connection, and staying ahead of the action weren't always successful. One time, on the last evening, standing on a hilltop after a short hike with everyone, watching pink dusk fade over the rocky desert, I suddenly realized that half the group had headed back down ahead of me, toward the locked-up training hall to get their things before going to dinner. Oops! Run!
Speaking of running … Seminars are usually not as vigorous in terms of physical training as regular classes at the dojo, but this was an exception. I have never run so much in my life as I did during those 4 days! I ran to fetch bottles of water, and ran to the office to deal with meet with staff. I ran a mic around the circle on the mat for people to share, and ran to the kitchen to let our chef know we'd be arriving late for lunch. One of the most uncomfortable aspects of many seminars for me is often the amount of time spent not moving - sitting during discussions, watching demonstrations, or throwing/rolling (or often not-rolling) in cramped space, so I was relieved and happy to have so many chances to get out and move. I don't usually have reason to run in my daily life, or space for that matter. But I love and miss the exhilaration of just running. I'll have to make space for that somewhere now.
There were more parallels, too. Keeping my attention sharp, clearing away distractions, staying present… But one aspect in particular really struck me: the sense of oneness.
It was during the days just before the event that I began to recognize a familiar sensation from training in the dojo. In our multiple-attacker randori exercises Sensei often invites us to see the whole system, being the space - embracing it and everything in it - rather than seeing separate entities around and outside of ourselves.
One aspect of my duties in the weeks before the event was arranging airport pick-ups, rides, home stays, and carpools. I matched needs with offers of assistance, and then handed off contact info and responsibility to each group to take it from there.
Participants started arriving in southern California during the week before the retreat. Because I had coordinated things I knew their schedules. As I went through my days - working, running errands, training, doing laundry, and packing - I found myself being peripherally aware of where they each were, and what they were doing. One was in the air somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, on her way from New Zealand. Another was watching the beautiful California coastline slide by from the window of a train. Two friends were driving through the fields and groves of the agricultural Central Valley. Local folks were loading their bags into cars and picking up members of their respective carpools. I had in my mind a big-picture view of a complex and geographically large system in motion.
The idea of moving as a single organism, and owning the whole as your own rather than feeling surrounded or overwhelmed by external objects and events, is a hard one to grasp. In spite of the distances and number of people involved I found it easier to practice this in the context of the event than on the mat.
In our training with Sensei we have been working on experiential exercises to help us see that we are not separate - that there is just one thing happening, and we are part of it. Or maybe, as it is our own experience, it is part of us.
An important component of assisting with seminar or retreat logistics is to knowing where everyone is, what they are doing, what they need, and where they should be next. Keeping this awareness of the system as a single whole helped me more directly experience the many connections and interactions of the event as one thing happening.
At the retreat I got to be the space, to hold the space for a retreat to happen. I needed to know and support everything going on, to interfere with none of it. To simply allow and include. I was able to actually sense the wholeness of all the seemingly separate activities, and maintain an inclusive awareness of it all throughout the four days.
It was only possible for me to have this experience because the event was a retreat. As full as the days were, there were no distractions. There was a lot going on, but I was able to give it my complete attention in a way that otherwise would not have been possible. Imagine trying to stay on top of event logistics while also returning phone calls from friends or keeping an appointment to get my car's oil changed. That sort of focus, at least at the level I am able to do it, is a fragile thing, and can be shattered by interruptions and conflicting priorities.
So the retreat was the perfect little microcosm for me to practice being the space in which there is one thing happening. Living in that state for four days of unbroken attention to one continuous thing - was an intensely and deliberately centered experience.
I suppose the natural extension of the idea and the practice is that there's only ever one thing happening - even when it's the phone and car, work and the yard, training and writing, and ultimately everyone and everything. I'm not there yet, but I was able to practice it for a few days in a well-defined little subset of the world out in the desert.
I'm interested to see how well I can bring it back to the mat, to randori in particular, having been able to practice it for such long periods of time. And we'll see if I can carry that sense into the broader, chaotic world, with all of its distractions and interruptions
One last thing we practice: Gratitude. That attitude permeated the space. Everyone was so gracious and kind! For me this retreat was unique opportunity to develop skills and generate insights in off-the-mat practice, among trusted teachers and dear friends, in a context that supported inquiry, and then bring those skills and realizations back into daily life and on-the-mat training. I am very grateful for that. In the circle on the mat one day I thanked everyone for being such great ukes, supporting my training. I got far more than I gave, and hope to have the chance to do it all again.
"The Mirror" is a collaborative column written by a group of women who describe themselves as:
We comprise mothers, spouses, scientists, artists, teachers, healers, and yes, of course, writers. We range in age from 30s through 50s, we are kyu ranked and yudansha and from various parts of the United States and styles of aikido. What we have in common is a love for budo that keeps it an integral part of our busy lives, both curiosity about and a commonsense approach to life and aikido, and an inveterate tendency to write about these explorations.