Completely lacking talent or ambition, I commit myself to one thing, and one thing only…
Summer grass –
All that remains of
It is early in the morning and dew is heavy on the ground. The August sun touches the tips of the red pines with golden light. Every morning at the same time, I hear an oddly resonant sound, like the cracking of hollow sticks in the forest beyond the pond. I walk into the woods and discover the source of the noise: pine cones strike branches as they fall from the trees, perhaps finding release through the warmth of the sun. I listen to the random patter of the dropping cones, each making a different sound and pitch depending on the size of the cone and branch.
This dark forest of falling seeds somehow magnifies my sense of loss. I feel the absence of my Aikido teacher, Chiba sensei, and the dropping cones remind me of Sensei’s statement: “Commit…. and let go!”
Aikido has much to teach us with regards to embodying the principles of commitment and release. Curiously, letting go teaches us how to commit. Extraneous tension does not allow us to move definitely on the mat, or make decisive choices off the mat. By learning how to relax and become present within the body, the Aikido student also discovers greater clarity. Because these skills must continually be cultivated, I compiled a list of a few of my methods. I hope that you find it helpful, and please let me know if you have any additions.
6 ways to Commit and Let go
- Breathe! A fundamental aspect of internal martial arts is the awareness and practice of breathing. Proper breathing fosters relaxation and the growth of internal power. Despite my training, I continually remind myself that mindful breathing brings me back to the present. By following the breath, we learn how to increase our focus while finding release through profound relaxation. In this journal entry, I explain how to practice the basic breath.
A more advanced method is to practice breath suspension. Follow the directions for the basic breath for 5 minutes, and gradually lengthen the time between breaths. The pause should never feel forced. Instead, it should feel like you create a sense of suspension and space. This form of suspended breathing provides you with a feeling of freedom. If your mind becomes disturbed, you are not prepared for suspended breath work. Return to the basic breath, and then try again. Gradually lengthen the time between each breath. This should feel like a flowing practice rather than something restrictive. Nothing is forced. Find freedom in the emptiness between thoughts and breath. Remind yourself to breathe!
- Create space. You cannot always change the attack, but you can change your response. In Aikido, we learn how to move in such a way to gain strategic advantage. By blending instead of blocking and fighting back, the martial artist discovers greater possibilities for conflict resolution. In a difficult situation, can you change one thing? Perhaps you cannot change the attitude of someone else, but perhaps you can shift your own position, or at least change your perception.
In a famous scene from the movie The Hustler, pool champion Minnesota Fats (played by Jackie Gleason) is losing to the brash and drunken Fast Eddie (Paul Newman). Rather than admitting defeat, Minnesota Fats takes a break, carefully adjusts his boutonnière, and then proceeds to beat his youthful rival. In the face of defeat, he has one strategic advantage: his ability to change one thing. By altering one thing in his control, in this case his appearance and composure, he transforms the entire game.
- Commit oneself to one thing, and one thing only. Morihei Ueshiba, the Founder of Aikido tells us “the moment the warrior confronts his foe, all things come into focus.” When the attack comes, there is nothing else – just the awareness of the present moment. Aikido weapons practice helps one foster this sense of clarity and commitment.
- Play! Games of chase are especially liberating. When was the last time you played tag with a child, or played like a child for that matter? Do you remember how to play?
- Cultivate a sense of awe and wonder. Aikido practice nurtures the growth of beginner’s mind: a sense of profound curiosity and openness. We practice basic techniques from many attacks and positions in order to keep our training vital and interesting. Do you look upon experiences with an open mind, like that of a complete beginner? Do you experience a sense of wonder everyday, or do you get stuck in the mundane? In a Stanford University study, psychologists discovered that feelings of awe create a sense of the suspension of time, and consequently enhances feelings of well-being.*
When I feel consumed by my problems, I gaze at the night sky, or look upon something larger than me. Awe, the experience of perceptual vastness, is the great corrective to corrosive feelings like envy or depression. Another method of experiencing awe is to discover wonder in the everyday object or sight: the seed patterns in a watermelon or perhaps the quiver of the squirrel’s tail. By cultivating a sense of the vastness and beauty of the world, we let go of a dull reality in exchange for something dynamic and magical.
- “Let Go” mantra. We own a wholesale cut flower farm, and a client fails to pay us for peony flowers. He hangs up on me when I request payment by telephone. I feel frustrated because my son hasn’t completed his math worksheet. The kitchen is a mess. In the words of Shel Silverstein: “what a day/what a day/my baby brother has ran away.” Instead of getting stuck in a negative place, I gently repeat the refrain “let go, let go” and focus on how my body feels rather than negative emotions. Chant these words gently — shouting at yourself won’t allow you to find the space to let go. Think of these words as the movement of a gentle stream or warm breeze.
In loving memory of Chiba Kazuo, Shihan, February 5, 1940 – June 5, 2015
“Completely lacking talent….” Translation of an essay by Basho, by Unno Taitetsu (from the author’s memory of an eulogy for Sylvain sensei by Unno sensei)
Summer Grass Haiku – translation by David Landis Barnhill from Basho’s Haiku: Selected poems of Matsuo Basho, State University of New York Press.
The moment a warrior confronts a foe…. from The Art of Peace translated by John Stevens, Shambala Books.
* “Awe Expands People’s Perception of Time, Alters Decision Making, and Enhances Well-Being” https://facultygsb.stanford.edu/aaker/pages/documents/TimeandAwe2012_workingpaper.pdf
Benjamin Pincus is the Chief Instructor and Executive Director of Aikido of Champlain Valley. Located in Burlington, Vermont, Aikido of Champlain Valley is a 501c3 non-profit dedicated to creating a sustainable community and peaceable world through the study of the traditional Japanese martial art of Aikido.
Visit us on the web at www.burlingtonaikido.org