“I have tried hard to find that sweet spot where my mind roams less and my soul expands more, and it is a very slippery sweet spot. My Aikido training has been my most constant research lab, providing me with a safe zone for exploring both my inner and outer self. Years of practice attacking and defending in a physical art have laid bare some simple and unexpected truths: we are all continuously tense, almost all our actions are influenced by reactive thinking, and who we ‘are’ can be very situational.”—Jerry Zimmerman
Squibs & Blurbs
By Jerry Zimmerman
“Plants do not travel through space as we do; as a rule, they do not move from place to place. Instead, they travel through time, enduring one event after another . . . .” —Hope Jahren, Lab Girl
“Important events—whether serious, happy or unfortunate—do not change a man’s soul, they merely bring it into relief, just as a strong gust of wind reveals the true shape of a tree when it blows off all its leaves. Such events highlight what is hidden in the shadows, they nudge the spirit towards a place where it can flourish.”—Irène Némirovsky, Suite Française
“We do not see things as they are, we see things as we are.”—Anaïs Nin
“Even if your mind seems to be moved, do not let your mind be taken.” —Takuan Soho
TEANECK New Jersey—(Weekly Hubris)—November 2017—My new role model is a tree. We’ll get to that in a moment.
Twice a month I drive from New Jersey through the Lincoln Tunnel into the heart of New York City to teach Aikido. Over the years, this 11-mile trip has devolved from an easy 25-minute lope to an often hour-plus-long stop-and-go Manhattan slug fest. Stalled between my fellow road warriors beneath the Hudson River, my anxiety amps up in direct proportion to my shrinking “on-time window.” Will I be on the mat to lead the warm-up? I feel myself slowly morphing into that old Disney cartoon character, a frustrated Goofy behind the wheel in traffic, teeth gnashing, pinwheels for eyeballs, and black smoke pouring from his ears—I hate this!
Two weeks ago, experimenting to ease my travel pain, I decided to leave for my class ridiculously early. The traffic gods were not impressed. I found myself pinned down in the tunnel again for the usual long stretch. Nothing had changed. But . . . wait. I was not crazed! I was, surprisingly, enjoying my plodding ride into New York, enjoying the buildings, the tunnel, the people, all the fascinating bits and pieces of the The City that I have always loved and could now see again with a calm, attentive eye.
What?! Wasn’t this the same excruciating journey that I always suffer through?
Yes and no. Everything was the same, except that, having so much extra time for travel, I knew I wouldn’t be late for class, and so that excruciating, cannibalistic ball of stress was gone.
Take out just one factor and the whole world is totally transmogrified? No, the world has never changed one atom for me nor for anyone—it always bumps along in its completely neutral way, allowing us higher-brained beings to choose how we will experience it.
We all know moments like these. A perfectly pleasant day is interrupted by a bit of bad news (fill in the blank). Suddenly, the weather is conspiring against us, our friend’s voice is irritating, and why is everything so difficult anyway? Conversely, we get a raise, find a great parking spot, or receive some unexpected praise, and—Bam!—a gloomy, dank day is instantly transformed into a very charming and most lovely interval! (And, yet, of course, our friend always talks like that and the misty rain always falls in its same indifferent way.)
This is the way we live all the time.
My mind is wrestling with these emotional flip-flops and my mind is beginning to see the problem; it’s my mind! The mind is the leader of this conglomeration I call Myself and it causes joy and anguish in equal measure. Trying to understand my mind with my mind is devilish. I suppose it’s a bit like trying to understand how my car works by taking it for drives all over the country and discovering that while I do know the country a lot better, I’m still totally in the dark about how this contraption actually gets me around.
I have tried hard to find that sweet spot where my mind roams less and my soul expands more, and it is a very slippery sweet spot. My Aikido training has been my most constant research lab, providing me with a safe zone for exploring both my inner and outer self. Years of practice attacking and defending in a physical art have laid bare some simple and unexpected truths: we are all continuously tense, almost all our actions are influenced by reactive thinking, and who we “are” can be very situational.
We all need a place to be, a central and dependable haven, a solid base from which we can venture out to live our lives and to which we can safely return. That life is not our mind—it includes our mind.
Now, back to my role-model tree.
I came across an unexpected new angle on this problem and a hint towards a solution in, of all places, a book about biology.
In her illuminating biography, Lab Girl, Hope Jahren, a committed and soulful biologist, attests to the majesty and, if you will, the spiritual fortitude of most plant life. Her deeply detailed descriptions of the constant struggle of trees to simply exist in an often hostile world are provocative and illuminating. The self-evident fact that trees cannot GO anywhere and that they grow and thrive while only able to use resources laid at their doorsteps is so obvious that it’s laughable, yet fully grokking their situation gives me a new glimpse into my life. We humans are able to go and do at will, but our sense of self more closely resembles the chaos of the wind-scattered leaves of trees than the solid trunks of the trees, themselves.
In my wildest dreams, I could not have imagined being so impressed by the inner life of . . . a tree. How satisfying would it be to have the unwavering core fortitude of a tree while in the midst of ever-changing life; moving through the day, accepting the truth of what comes to me and then acting in a considered manner, as opposed to my habitual fight/flight, pain/pleasure reactions? This embodiment of a “tree sensibility” is a thrilling new touch-stone for me, a new reminder of a different way to be: a way of patient attention and correct action.
I’m certain that without having practiced Aikido for so many years, I would not have so instantly recognized the inherent power of trees’ simply “being” while living, literally, in one immovable spot. I’m working on growing a sturdier tap-root inside of me that has that same quality, not so easily knocked down by the stray flurries and devastating hurricanes out there in the world.
In all types of training and learning, our mind comes first; our mind asks questions, discovers problems, probes for solutions, manipulates actions, and tracks progress. However, if in the quest for wholeness, it is only our mind that we’ve engaged, we will most likely get lost.
We must find a practice to transcend the mind—there is a personal center that exists in us that includes the mind and fortifies the mind but is not defined by the mind.
I had an A-HA! moment while reading about trees, and it continues to inform my quest for that deep center within me and within all of us, a center that has grace to understand and power to act.
I see trees every day and, in seeing them, I think that, yes, I can go anywhere I desire and do what I like, but what I also need is that dependable growing core inside of me that makes this movable feast worthwhile.
Photo Credits: Image 1, Lincoln Tunnel, by Andrew Savulich/New York Daily News; Image 2, Sequoias, by Alison Taggart-Barone; Image 3, Aikido, by David Zimand.