Perhaps the desire to turn everything inside out and upside down, like religious Jews who remove every last crumb of hametz before Passover, is in my DNA. The impulse still arises even though, as an adult, I have never followed Jewish law impeccably around any holiday. Having wandered from Jewish observance, preferring to focus on essence rather than form, I wasn’t sure at first how to channel this energy in an honoring way.
At the tail end of December I began practicing Aikido at a small dojo in a converted factory building. At first, the novelty of the activity, my suboptimal fitness and being around new people consumed most of my energy. Overwhelmed, I did not pay much attention to the dojo, except for sensing the positive energy that kept me coming back. As my conditioning improved and I became more relaxed, I began noticing more. That included a framed piece of fabric in the women’s dressing area that I hadn’t seen for weeks because I’d tilted my head down while changing. During class one night, one of my toe nails caught on a crack between two of the thick mats that cover most of the floor. Since I was moving slowly, I remained unharmed. Yet, had I been practicing more intensely, it could have been worse. While getting a bit banged up and bruised in Aikido is normal, I’d rather not hurt myself unnecessarily. I didn’t have the awareness and dexterity to avoid the cracks while moving in space. Later, someone else tripped, too. I took a closer look and discovered there were a few gaps. Although we swab the mats after class with wet, soapy towels, the building manufactures dust. The more I became oriented to the space, the more I noticed dust bunnies lurking between the mats. I asked the sensei (teacher) via e-mail if he’d consider taping the mats together after having a dojo cleaning party. Being the newest student, I felt awkward making this suggestion. When I did not receive a reply for a few days, I wondered if I had overstepped.
The teacher, it turned out, had another idea: securing the mats by screwing 2’x4’s along their borders. He and I e-mailed about when to do this. He suggested some dates. I polled other students and we set a day and a start time. As someone who has organized events of different sizes and managed groups of people, I decided to not over-architect my role as instigator or the event itself, even though I fantasized about giving the dojo the “Passover treatment”: with a strong hand, an outstretched arm and a shop vac, we’d smite every speck of dust as if they were wicked Egyptian slave owners! I sensed that if I communicated my intensity, it would backfire. When the teacher and I spoke a few days before the event, he mentioned securing the mats but not cleaning. Unsure of what would happen, I released any expectations and my agenda for a dust-bunny showdown. I told myself that, just like in the Passover song “Dayenu” (it would have been enough), securing the mats would be sufficient.
On cleaning day I arrived early with empty hands. The teacher and another student had already begun scoping out the work. Others showed up with power tools and dust masks. One club supporter brought drinks and snacks. Some of us lifted the mats to vacuum their undersides and the floor beneath. A few folks removed the furniture, books, DVDs, framed artwork, shelves, storage bins and other paraphernalia and put them in the corridor. Two people carefully wiped it all down. Every task received care, and everyone figured out how to contribute at their own pace. The seamlessness reminded me of a potluck I attended years before that turned out beautifully even though no one assigned dishes alphabetically.
During Passover, one eats matzah, or unleavened bread, to remind oneself to be humble and not let the puffed-up ego run the show. In setting the cleaning in motion but stepping away from control and participating in the flow of activity, I saw how little energy was required to facilitate change. The situation proved to be a valuable Aikido lesson. In class, we practice harnessing the attacker’s momentum and direction to send them safely away with minimal movement, rather than wasting strength. Perhaps I could finally release the hametz from my psyche that insists I approach tasks with military strategy. Moshe Feldenkrais would probably have referred to such a tendency as compulsive. Unless one is masterminding a secret operation or organizing large numbers of people, too much planning can backfire, especially if it’s driven by anxiety or a lack of faith in the process. Sometimes setting an intention and a basic structure is enough to create momentum and participation. As Aliza Stewart, one of my trainers in the Feldenkrais Method said, “Making an effort reinforces all the things you don’t like.”
After two and a half hours, eight of us had cleaned the dojo and secured the mats. Like Aikido practice, the process left me exhausted yet with all my cells feeling whole and nourished. The deep satisfaction came not from fulfilling a precise plan or even from expunging every speck of dust (impossible), but from being part of a willing collective and contributing to a mutually beneficial outcome. This kind of profound joy is something my Zen teacher has spoken of but that I hadn’t experienced before to such a degree. It’s a feeling money can’t buy. It’s a feeling the culture doesn’t want us to experience; if we felt complete on a regular basis, that nothing was lacking, we wouldn’t be tempted to buy very much. As I drove from the dojo to go for a swim, I thought of something else Ms. Stewart said: “Not being satisfied is a kind of injury.”
She’s right. If we hold ourselves or others to perfectionistic standards, only see what is missing or what hasn’t been done (yet), we will never allow ourselves to receive, rest and replenish. While society often celebrates high achievers, not all achievements emerge from happiness and joy. Many people drive themselves to greater accomplishments because they’re never satisfied; these people might receive social rewards but pay a high personal price. If we are constantly finding fault with what we do, we’ll never feel like we are, or have, enough. To live in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction is to court anxiety, depression, and exhaustion. Those are far more injurious than the bruises on my forearms.
Instead of attending a Seder, I went to Aikido. In rolling around in the renewed space and learning very concretely how the focus of my attention can cause me to get stuck physically (and emotionally), I continued to forge my exodus from mitzrayim, the narrow places that keep me from liberation.