Monthly Archives: September 2015

Breathe

I stood on the coast of Hualien at night, the beach illuminated by the the yellow sodium lamps behind us, looking out onto the ocean. The ground before me sloped about 30 degrees downward some two meters to where the dark night waters of the Pacific disturbed the marble rocks that were like oddly-shaped chicken eggs, making a soft rumbling sound as they rubbed against each other. Occasionally a large wave would come and the water would rise, foaming as it pushed the air out from between the rocks, and reach the small ridge that marked the highest extent of the waves, where we were standing, causing one of my companions who had stood on the ocean-ward side of the ridge to leap back, surprised at the swiftness of the rise of the foamy dark waters, to avoid getting wet shoes. As the wave retreated, it disturbed the rocks, and as the rocks rolled against one another, they rumbled softly at length. The sound was so beautiful that another of my companions brought out his phone and made a go at recording it. “How is it?” We asked. “I can’t capture it – the microphone isn’t big enough. He said.” It reminded me of the beach at Kumano, except that the rocks at Kumano were fist-sized, and rumbled with a deeper sound.

My other companions had retreated three steps back toward the shore below the ridge. I took my sandals off, and stepped on to the smooth, clean, marble rocks, stepped to the top of the ridge and knelt in seiza. Two bows. Two claps. Head slightly lowered, and chanted the Amatsu Norito, a Shinto prayer for protection and purification. As I chant, I am listening to the rhythm of the waves and the rumbling on the rocks, and matching my breathing. I feel as I am looking out onto cool shimmering darkness of the Pacific that we are breathing together. Two bows, two claps, and I stood up, turned, and realized that my travel companions had stopped talking, and were looking at me. The man who had tried to record the sound of the ocean breathing asked. “What was that?”

“A Shinto prayer. It’s a sort of ritual in Japanese Shintoism that you can do when you think that something is great.”

“So what if you see a hot girl?” He asked, and we all laughed.

I stood on a trail cut into the cliff wall at Taroko Gorge and looked out along the canyon that the river had carved. It was quiet. The only sound until then had been the crunching of the sandy gravel underneath my feet. I was wearing thin-soled shoes that had the big toe separate from the other four, which protected my feet from sharp rocks but allowed me to feel details of the terrain beneath me. I stood, feet shoulder-width apart, feeling the ground on which I stood, hips, spine, and head finely balanced, listening to the barely audible sound of wind as it flowed through the fine hair of grass and flowers on the cliff. I felt, for the first time, my vision becoming a hemisphere. I could see, all at once, without moving my head or eyes, the silvery reflection of the sky on the winding river below, from which rose the steep V of the canyon walls, to steep to support trees, but able to support some grasses and small shrubs. This was the wall-like portion on which the trail I had been following stood. Above this, the V opened out less steeply, and trees could grow. The difference in steepness also marked by the step in color from pale marble to green. Above this, the mountains at the top of these cliffs were shrouded in white cloud. Seeing all of this at once, standing balanced, with relaxed shoulders and perfect posture, fingers spread, hearing the gentle breath of the wind through the grasses where I stood, and feeling the wind on my skin, breathing softly and deeply, and hearing my breath mix with the wind, I felt I was drinking deeply from a well as deep as the valley on which I gazed.

Clarity

With a co-worker, he was explaining theory. I wanted to know about application. I had been trying to ask a question, initiating with body language and verbal grunts. “Does that mean…” “um…” “hey…” “well…” with increased frustration, until I said to him firmly. “I have a question – do you want to hear it?” And he said “No.”

“You don’t want to hear my question.” I said, stating it more than asking it.
“No.” He shook his head.
And this was a bit of a relief. He had helped me understand the theory, which I had not done on my own, but he was not interested in understanding its application. I’ll take what I can get, I reasoned, and find the rest somewhere else.

I recalled Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Huit Clos” in which the characters involved make each other miserable because of their personalities. Compromise is not possible because they cannot set their self-image aside. I recalled James Nalepka’s “Capsized,” where three crew a boat that capsizes in a storm, and they drift, surviving on fishing, gathering rain, and food stores until they hit land again. Their personalities bump against each other because there is no way off of the boat, but they are united by their common goal.

The latter is how I like to think of my company – united by a common goal.

The boat has been weathering a storm recently, but letting go of the urge to protect myself has enabled me to see more clearly.

Two weeks ago we were in a meeting. My boss called in. We hit a rough spot. My boss panicked, jumped in, and took control of the meeting. A few days later, my boss told me that I was being taken off the customer. I was upset, but agreed. We made plans to transfer the customer to my boss, and I offered to remain as backup help, internally working with our engineers to get answers. I viewed it as nothing personal – just a judgement of my ability to culturally handle this customer. The next day I was reinstated to the account. I now have a co-worker (not my boss) playing the role of cultural intermediary. He’s a top gun, switching in and out of dialect and talking the exact style with the exact phrasing that the customer wants to hear. We can say exactly the same thing in terms of content and get two very different reactions from the customer. They love him, which is fine. All I have to do is get him what he needs to answer questions.

I have been working overtime to get those answers from our engineers. They have been working overtime, too. Everyone is under pressure due to the product launch, but I handle it by being unattached to the outcome at this customer. Maybe we win, maybe we lose – I’ll give it my best shot.

That’s what Japanese warriors would tell themselves. They would train for life and death encounters, try to avoid conflict if at all possible, until for reasons beyond their control – shifts in balance of power of the land that led to war – they had to face off with an opponent who had also trained similarly. They would train to face this with equanimity. Maybe he’d lose, maybe he’d live, but he’d give it his best shot.

Giving it one’s best shot is all that matters. Accepting where you are. For example, not being ashamed of your current capabilities. I have a friend getting married in Japan to an accomplished martial artist. She practices, too, but has not yet attained a high level of training. To celebrate the occasion, their teachers will be present. With teachers and students all counted, there will be some seven black-belt Aikido practitioners, four of which are 4th-degree black belt or higher, and there will be a martial arts demonstration as part of the festivities. We were talking about this, and finding this really funny – “It will be less a reception than… ‘Sensei presents – team Aikido!'” My friend has asked me to be the “uke” – the “follow” – so to speak for her fiancé as he performs. Why not you? I asked. She’s afraid that she’s not good enough – and wants someone more skilled and better matched to her fiancé’s level. I told her that that was the wrong reason – that we are the sum of our training, and that for the amount she has trained, she has nothing to be ashamed of. I would do it to help her celebrate, but not because I have trained more. This leads me to another thought – why we do something does not have to be for the same reason that someone believes we should do it. The action is the same, but the narrative that we assign to it can be different. Maybe I’ll write more on this later.

Accepting where you are includes being in the present moment. Fear or striving both bring us out of the present moment. Anything that takes us out of the now leads to poorer results. Dancing makes this very clear. If I am dancing, and trying to play it safe, it’s boring. If I am trying to impress, I’m forcing it, which leads to loss of harmony.

The ego is the source of the should-bes and might-have-beens that cloud our judgement and separate us from the reality at hand. Strength is not in the rocks that can stand against the river. It is the river itself – water that flows, finding the easiest way moment by moment, and in time, wearing down the rock. This is a prayer that we might be less like the rock, and more like the river. At moments of conflict, or more frequently, let us let go of the ego which projects us where we think we should be. Let us see ourselves and others where we are. Only then, relaxed and with power, can we give it our best shot.