Even when you are uncertain, do not use this one day wastefully. It is a rare treasure to value. Do not compare it with an enormous jewel. Do not compare it with a dragon's bright pearl. Old sages valued this one day more than their own living bodies. Reflect on this quietly. A dragon's pearl may be found. An enormous jewel may be acquired. But this one day out of a hundred years cannot be retrieved once it is lost.
The notion that you must not waste time, or more specifically waste this life or this moment, is central to Zen, and to budo more generally, and it’s impossible to express this concept with as much urgency as it deserves. This incredible sense of urgency has been impressed on me in a few different ways, mostly by teachers who were comfortable demanding that students not waste time by waiting for the perfect moment to train, or by coming to train without any focus or attention. My teaching style relies more on intrinsic motivation–I get very little out of extrinsic demands and rules, myself. But I am finding that this urgency is both so important and so difficult to grasp that it’s one of those things I need to get more explicit and demanding about! Rather than make a bunch of new rules that compel urgent behavior, and could therefore be misapplied or misunderstood, it makes more sense in this culture that we’re cultivating here to briefly explain two things that I have been asking people to do. I have been asking students to take take time to be quiet before class. And I have been asking students who are injured or recovering from illness (and not covid positive!) to just come train as you are, and do what you can. They’re hard requests to understand! And they get right to the heart of this idea that we cannot waste any of the precious moments that we have to train.
I’ve been asking people to be ready a couple of minutes before class, so that you can take a moment to line up quietly and get into a martial frame of mind before class. I get that this won’t always happen–I am occasionally late myself! If this happens, just come as you are. But the dojo should get very quiet about 3 minutes before class starts. About 6 or so minutes before class, everybody can help one another get in this frame of mind by ceasing chitchat, lowering the voice for necessary conversation, and pitching in to ensure that setup gets finished in time. The transition from seeing friends to a serious, martial frame of mind takes time, and it’s important. The community of the dojo is great, but training is not working out with friends! It’s stepping into a series of encounters that push you, and in which you push others. This is true even if it’s your first class–figuring out which foot is the front foot over and over again is a lot of pushing for both you and your partners. I am asking for a moment of quiet, to find a ready spirit and a sense of urgency, because the point of training is not that it gets easier and easier, but that we find more and to push at, more to discover. You can’t do that if you’re distracted, chatty, thinking about a meeting you just left, or otherwise not ready to meet each moment fully, as it is, and see it instead of you, or what you want to see. This awareness is not advanced training–it’s not something that you get to start doing later. Being ready to meet each moment of training fully happens every time a beginner looks at a technique being demonstrated and mimics it. Just doing what you saw instead of what you think about what you saw or what you want to do is a lot! It takes considerable openness and bravery, so set yourself up with a moment of quiet so that you can access that openness and bravery inside yourself! I have seen people fail to progress at aikido for a very long time, not because they can’t do aikido, but because they are coming to training without any awareness or curiosity. They aren’t meeting the moment as it is. Rather, they are dull, angry, prideful, or otherwise “knowing” in the face of this grueling, true moment of not knowing how to do it yet. They seem to already know that they aren’t good at this, or that this wouldn’t work in real life, or whatever. All of those states of mind have nothing to do with the beautiful simplicity of letting someone put your hand where it needs to be, or remembering that you’re stepping behind your partner. Accessing this is easy, in some ways–it’s just doing what is in front of you. But we live in a culture that gives infinitely more support to our inner critic, our bravado, our jokes, and everything else we use to defend ourselves from seeing that moment as it is Please, help yourself. Give yourself a few minutes to find yourself in this special culture we are creating, in which that kind of bravery and openness is supported.
Another thing I have been asking students to do is to just come to the dojo if you have an injury or are recovering from an illness, and do what you can instead of waiting around until you're 100%. Injury and illness are important opportunities to exercise your common sense and your martial spirit at the same time, and this tension is great for your training. It is not good for the rest of the dojo, obviously, to train with a communicable disease, and it’s not good training to simply grind through your pain. But learning how much you can do within the limitations of illness and injury is supported by sports medicine, and it is good training because your body is so ephemeral and fragile–over a lifetime you will rarely come to the mat with the body you want to bring to the mat. Developing a relationship with the way your health ebbs and flows over time is very similar to learning how to train in hot and cold weather, or figuring out how to train even though you got a more demanding job or had a child or moved farther away from the dojo. It’s meeting the moment fully, as it is, to assume that there’s almost always some way to train. Sometimes, all you can do to train is come watch a class. I have gone through stretches of watching class while recovering from surgery, childbirth, and injury. Then I would do suburi or physical therapy exercises at the back of the dojo. Then I modified my practice. The reason for doing this is not simply a vague sense of discipline or fealty. The times when I have had to scale training way back and build incrementally from less than zero revealed to me that there is no such thing as “zero” or “less than zero,” or some sort of peak or “good” level that these references to zero imply. There is no training-ometer at all! There is only this opportunity to put everything you have into what I am doing right now! This notion that you just have to give everything you have to this moment is true if everything you have is the ability to get out of bed, sit upright on a zafu, and pay attention to class for an hour. If it’s honestly everything you have, and you gave it, then you had a great training day. Conversely, waiting around until you are a hundred percent or otherwise playing it safe with your body by staying home is horrible training. It abjectly wastes some of the most valuable training time you will ever have. I will never ask you to get other people sick or hurt yourself. But I am going to start asking a lot more probing questions about why anybody is staying home due to injury or illness, and suggesting much more strongly that people just come and do what they can.
Please start considering these requests in terms of wasting time--wasting this precious moment. And of course, as always come to me if you have any questions.