Monday morning, I am poised on the cusp of entering the fray. I imagine that my ancestors would have felt something similar in anticipation of the hunt. What will it bring?
We are at war with perceptions: customers that can never be satisfied, advertisers that seek to disrupt our tranquility to take away our money, Pokemon fantasies that hook into ancient warrior instincts to vy for our attention. The latter are as intrusive or meaningless as pornography, a super normal stimulus that hijacks our instincts. Intrusive when it is a picture of a beautiful woman, meaningless when you see it as a piece of paper.
We are seeking the completion and fulfillment of desire. Breathe and feel safe. Modern battles are waged in a largely abstracted environment, along battlefields that we can largely select.
Once, I was enamoured of retirement, decided to try it for a year, and quit my job. I soon got so bored that I started training martial arts every day, something that I reveled in, but had not planned. Did I really believe that I could retire from the din of the world?
A bone without stress grow porous and brittle. An unworked muscle withers. An unused bicycle goes to rust.
So then I found myself on the roofs and sides of buildings in Tokyo, erecting and dismantling scaffolding, learning to be in harmony with danger – danger that sharpens the senses. Life happens fast. Pay attention. “Yang!” I would hear, and look to catch a bracket thrown my way. Every afternoon at three the supervisor would yell 「一服！」 (breather!) which we would transmit by shouting to the next man along the wall, and more than once from where I stood, I breathed and looked out over rooftops, and thought – “I am building this city,” before climbing down to have a coffee.
What is the purpose of a break than to become stronger?
A mentor once taught me a story: a young man walked up the mountain to seek out an ascetic. He found the old man carrying firewood on his back.
The young man asked:”Teacher, please tell me about enlightenment.”
The ascetic placed the bundle of firewood down, stood straight, and stretched. “This,” he said, “is enlightenment.”
Excited, the young man asked. “What comes next?”
Whereupon, the ascetic took up the bundle of firewood again, and continued on his way.
My mentor’s point was to teach me to ask “What comes next?” so as to keep from becoming fixated on a goal.
I have been looking for the source of this story on the internet, but cannot find it. Instead, there is a similar attested teaching of Zen that the path to enlightenment is「運水搬柴」, literally “to carry water and bring firewood,” which in ancient times were the main chores of the day, which is to say that the path to enlightenment is doing ordinary things.
There are meditations that take us out of the world, and there are meditations that take us into the world, and the goal of becoming human is to be able to wake up not just in the dojo, the dance floor, or the yoga studio, but in the course of the mundane – while we are engaged in our Work.
What comes next after enlightenment? Picking up the firewood again. After the weekend? Going back to Work. After a sabbatical year? Going back to Work. Our souls may stretch to a higher plane, but we are physical beings, and after a time we find ourselves standing where we are, finding the laundry must be done, the furniture dusted, the floor swept.
My biggest spiritual challenge now is to learn better to harmonize with difficulty. I recall several times when I have been in a meeting where someone was being rude, and saw another respond with firmly with respect, and after some back and forth, the rude person volunteered help. The strong harmonizer is my model. Life would be less interesting without rude people.
Harmonizing, not fighting, is the right feeling. Difficulty and danger are ingredients, not waste products. The danger, adrenaline, and exertion of being on the scaffolding let me sleep better, let me better taste my food, and gave me morning wood like I hadn’t hadron with high school. While my white-collar friends paid for gym memberships and cross-fit classes to resurrect atrophied muscle and correct bad posture, buying fitness watches to feel more motivated to walk or climb stairs, I was getting paid to do full body resistance and coordination training, more intense than martial arts boot camps I have attended, and more spirited in team work. My enthusiasm at the time is well-captured in this Craigslist posting. The posting got us a new teammate for a few weeks, of whom the team leader said 「あいつは日本語が下手過ぎて、面白かった。」 “that guy’s Japanese sucked so bad, it was hilarious” – again, smiling and harmonizing with danger. Laughing, crying, and looking out for each other.
By and by, after a year and a half away, I returned to desk work, but I am nostalgic for scaffolding. In the three and a half years since, I have lost muscle, and my posture is not as good. Can I have both an exercised mind and exercised body?
I began this post this morning on a bus to work. I am ending it this evening over a beer at home. One of my teachers touched off this train of thought because she just left for a month-long trip away from Taiwan to reconnect with people and to reflect, so I dedicate this to her.
Enlightenment is setting down our burden. What comes next is also enlightenment. Can I hold on to this clarity? Probably not. But next time, when faced with a difficult situation or person, maybe I can smile a little inside, and say “That’s interesting. What comes next?”