Back in the early nineties I spent a little time with a zazen study group, practicing and learning the art of Zen meditation. I learned a lot, but one of the most valuable lessons I received was about how to let go of the things my subconscious would throw up in order to hang on to old patterns. Like many meditation students, I eventually had a conversation with my teacher wherein I expressed my frustration about my ability to still my thoughts. Just as I would start getting into a breathing meditation rhythm, some random thought would pop up or sneak in, and I would lose focus and start following the thought a while before noticing. I would then wrestle that thought down, eventually restart my breathing and refocus, only to again find my mind wandering.
At that point, my teacher gifted me with a couple of wonderful metaphors which helped me immensely. The first was the image of soap bubbles; when I was meditating and I recognized that my thoughts had started to wander, I should just visualize those thoughts enclosed in a filmy soap bubble, rising away from me. This image was very empowering, because we don’t become attached to soap bubbles, and their impermanent nature requires no help from us to be destroyed. We can easily acknowledge them, perhaps even appreciate them, yet not be attached to them as they float away from us to eventually “pop”. We associate soap bubbles with innocence, lightness, and freedom and that helps too.
The second metaphor was that of “Spring Cleaning”. You can’t do a good job cleaning without raising dust and making a lot of bubbles! This was a critical insight for me because it turned the equation upside down. Instead of being evidence of my failure to accomplish my goal of stillness and mindfulness, my “soap bubbles” became evidence that I was on the right path, that in fact I was being shown a way to measure my progress! It allowed to to stop recriminating myself and struggling with a necessary process of change, and simply let the errant thoughts dissipate without losing equilibrium or focus.
I share these two Zen lessons because over time, I have come to appreciate their value in martial training too. The fundamental process of martial study, of course, is the destruction of old patterns and their replacement by new patterns, reflexes, and modes of movement through physical exploration, repetition, testing and refinement. In Aikido and many other martial arts, the biggest obstacle to progress is physical tension. We all acquire patterns of maladaptive physical tension from old injuries (physical or emotional), repetitive stress, poor posture, unhealthy lifestyles, poor judgment, and sometimes well intentioned poor advice. Muscular and structural tension slows our reactions and speed, it makes us inflexible and brittle to injury. As a crutch, it blinds us to the subtleties of our arts and prevents us from realizing our full potentials. It hampers our ability to heal, it limits our options, and most importantly it deadens our ability to sense and feel what our partners, opponents, and teachers are revealing. Clenched muscles kill sensitivity. It is for all these reasons that the most commonly heard exhortations of Aikido, Yoga,Tai Chi, and Systema instructors alike is “Relax! Relax!” (I will leave for a future discussion topics of tensegrity and what is meant by relaxation in a martial context, and physical exercises to help accomplish them)
For all that, it seems that few instructors have any useful advise as to how students should actually accomplishment those incredibly difficult challenges of breaking deepset emotional and physical patterns and learning to relax. Deep down there is always a part of us that desperately wants to fight change! I was decades into my martial training before I received much useful advice in that direction, and no matter how many times my Tai Chi teacher hounded me to relax more, it seems you can’t be nagged into relaxing despite best intentions. Instead, it becomes very easy to create the same destructive feedback cycles wherein martial students chastise themselves for not relaxing, and try to force their way to less tension through efforts of willpower. But old patterns are very pernicious, and instantly reassert themselves as soon as we are threatened or challenged. “We do not rise to the situation, we fall to level of our instincts.”
This is where the soap bubble metaphor is valuable to the martial student. Like distracting thoughts about work, relationships, and the mundane mechanics of life that intrude during meditation, patterns of physical tension distract and divert us from our training goals. Similarly, our awareness of that tension and struggle to eliminate it can create a paradoxical negative feedback loop.
However, if we train our minds to recognize that moments of reasserted physical tension are part of the necessary process of learning to relax, we can move to a more constructive pattern or mindfulness, detachment, and letting go of those physical tensions.
Recently, one of my students (with whom I shared my soap bubble story) confided in me that this lesson helped him reach a turning point in his training. “I suddenly realized that my whole body was tight during the technique, but for the first time, I just thought ‘Huh! I must have needed to get that out!‘” That frame of mind allowed him to move past the moment of tension and dive right back into training. Of course, his feedback made my day!
Letting go, not being attached to an outcome is a bit of a paradox in a martial setting, of course. After all, as martial artists we are in a sense refusing to be completely passive and accepting of bad situations, we are preparing our ability to assert better outcomes in times when other people would do harm. Even as we embrace the philosophy of harmony in Aikido, we still are saying “no” to those who strive to cause harm. So how can we relax and not be attached to an outcome when somewhen is trying to injure us? Because stubborn pursuit of your first idea of how the situation should end is like selecting the technique you are going to use before you are attacked, and refusing to change your strategy when that technique doesn’t work. One of Einstein’s most famous quotes is “the definition of insanity is … the same thing over and over again and expecting different results!” We are all blessed with the idea that my technique will work if only I try to force it hard enough! It is in letting go of our plans of how deal with an attacker that the harmonious solution may be revealed to us. The most “Aiki” technique is a true manifestation of spontaneity and adaptability; you know “Aiki” has happened because the resulting technique is as much a surprise to Aikidoka as it is to the attacker.
While it is the learning of techniques that prepare new useful patterns I our body, structure and reactions, it is the art of letting go that opens the door to the most spontaneous and rewarding aspects of our art.
Of course, the soap bubble metaphor is useful in the dojo too. A clean dojo is a spiritual dojo!