A thought recently hit me over the head: many of the things I do, practice and love are Japanese. These include the Konmari method of decluttering with its emphasis on simplicity and joy, my practice of Zen meditation, my ongoing lust for sushi, my habit of drinking green tea and, most importantly, my recent foray into Aikido. The thought was all the more strange when I remembered visiting my older brother in Japan during a college winter break. During that trip, he introduced me to sushi, whose rawness initially made me squeamish but which I grew to love if not crave. Still, wandering around blustery Tokyo by myself during the day, shivering in a sleeping bag on the floor of my brother’s unheated apartment at night, and experiencing the feeling of being gaijin (foreign) when locals kept their distance even on crowded public transportation, left me feeling cold in all senses of the word. I remember being glad to board the plane at Narita International Airport and fly away, resolutely believing I’d never return.
That I’ve now warmed to certain Japanese influences makes me wonder if I might visit again with more curiosity and greater spiritual purpose. While it’s neither possible, desirable or appropriate to reduce or distill a complex culture into a handful of cherry-picked symbols or attributes, I do appreciate the Japanese sensibility of removing what is unnecessary so that the essence of a person or a space (or, in the case of sushi, a fish), can shine through. Even Aikido, despite its origins in a martial and hierarchical society, is about finding joy and connecting to one’s essential nature through rigorous, non-competitive practice. I feel lucky for having experienced that joy and vitality when I first started, even though I had no idea what I was doing or where my body was in space (I still don’t). That this feeling of deep wellbeing is available even to beginners after 60-90 minutes of activity is truly remarkable, almost a miracle. In some ways a single Aikido class is more potent than climbing a tall peak, whose rewards are considerable but not as profound. The repetition of technique, which as a younger person I might have found tedious, is a way of refining one’s movements and, therefore, one’s self. In learning to focus on what is essential and to cultivate smoothness, we shed what is extraneous or what doesn’t belong to us. We can experience who we really are, or who we were before society taught us to conform. In the words of Wendy Palmer Sensei (teacher), we are “noble, awesome, shiny.”
If you love sushi, too, I imagine you appreciate the careful presentation as well as the taste. If you’ve ever sat a sushi bar and watched the chefs prepare nigiri, you probably have seen how they carefully trim the fish and use the best parts. The attention to detail and aesthetics, honed through practice, shows respect for the fish, for the craft and for the diner. I try to pause and absorb the beauty, often awesome and shiny, before digging in (as mindfully as possible). If you’ve eaten as much sushi as I have, you might have encountered a piece of fish that, while not exactly stiff, was neither soft nor buttery, either for lack of freshness or because it was poorly cut. The contrast helps us to appreciate quality when we find it. In Aikido, too, we show respect for each other by bowing before and after practice and taking care to not hurt each other. The techniques, which often involve a lot of thumping and mat slapping and can seem intimidating to newbies, have been designed to avoid harming the person in the role of attacker. As I keep being reminded, and will likely be learning for a long time, remaining relaxed while thwarting an attack is key to protecting both myself and the aggressor, since tension and intention are communicated through one body to another. Softness and love, not rigidity or rejection, is what allows the person being thrown, even powerfully, to feel cared for; it’s a deliciousness that is hard to explain, even better than the experience of biting into an exquisite piece of nigiri. I have tasted a bit of that as a beginner, even though I have not yet been thrown across a room, an experience others have likened to flying (minus the cramped seat and bag of peanuts).
In my spiritual readings, I’ve often come across the Chinese proverb that says: “Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.” I frequently glazed over it, having confused relaxation with the lack of motivation, determination or alertness. My Aikido teachers correct my misunderstanding by showing me what it means to be relaxed, often by pointing to my shoulders, which habitually hold tension, and to remind me to exhale, something I forget to do when I am trying too hard to get something “right” or when performance anxiety kicks in. Relaxation brings greater power, not less. That’s a paradox for those of us taught to strive or to believe that who we are is not enough and therefore we must work hard to “overcome” ourselves.
While Japanese culture values conformity over individual expression, a priority that has rankled if not offended me in the past, I’m glad I’ve been able to put my former prejudice aside to venture into the world of Aikido. The formal structure, the etiquette, including how one wears the uniform and even how the belt is tied, are constraints I might have rejected before for impinging on my individuality. Yet they create the conditions that have allowed me to experience something far deeper than the outer forms would suggest and to experience who I am beyond my ego’s ideas of “who I am”. While I am not turning Japanese, as I roll on the floor I hope to be turning, more and more, into myself.