Maintaining Balance

by David Laufer

I was not looking for a long-term commitment when I first came to the dojo over three years ago. I also was not looking for a community of which to become a member. I’m a believer in Groucho’s dictum: “I’d never want to belong to a club that would have me as a member.” Not being a “joiner”, most of my athletic pursuits run to the individual, not team: tennis, skiing, hiking . . . Really, I was just looking for something I could do together with my son, then twelve. The dojo was nearby and practice seemed like fun and good exercise.

My son stopped after about nine months, but I stayed on. And, as with any deep(ening) commitment, I have found that the relationship is fraught with tensions. Maybe that is ironic for the “Way of Harmony”. But, more likely it is the whole point. There has been the tension between wanting to improve and avoiding the grasping that comes with trying to excel. After all, this was not something else at which I needed to drive myself. I have plenty of that already. I wanted to practice for the enjoyment of it, not to become a master at it. And according to one social critic, “mastery” takes at least 10,000 hours to achieve. At my rough average of 100 hours a year, I felt mastery was pretty much out of the question. I think that is why I avoided testing for so long: I do not want to be motivated by moving up the kyus. But, I eventually came to realize that by not testing I was inhibiting my own understanding of the language (literally and figuratively) that I was trying to learn.

There is the tension created by trying to break down old patterns (of body and mind) by substituting new patterns. How do I know that the new one is any better, or will be any less obstructed? Is the path to liberation really to be found by fixating on this nage, that ukemi, perfecting the 8-step kata or doing 1000 suburi? It’s all so choreographed that it seems easy to just become the next obsession, taking up all my time and focus just to “get it right” on the mat. So, I try to adhere to Sensei’s repeated admonishments: get out of your brain, into your body; find your center; breathe; and remain connected. I try to relax and just go with what turns up.

There is also the tension inherent in trying to bring a thousands-of-years-old Eastern philosophy to the West (and the Gowanus, in particular). I worry that, like an organ-transplant, or a skin graft, it will be rejected because it does not come from the same body, have the same roots. Growing up a New York Jew, I will never be a Japanese-Zen Buddhist, or a Tibetan Buddhist. I constantly feel the press of so many dojo practices and events, and the resulting tension of “how much of this is for me?” For now, aikido, zazen and weapons suffice. I need to take what I need, whatever that may be, and make it my own, whatever that may become. After all, that is what the Japanese and the Tibetans did over thousands of years as Buddhism migrated out of India. What will Gowanus Buddhism be?

So, where does that leave me? Constantly trying to find and adjust the point of balance, the personal equilibrium among all these tensions. So, I suppose that is the Way of Harmony. When I look at the essence of the practice as: be aware of my energy and those around me, remain connected, find and maintain my center, breathe, and relax (and don’t take “old man” ukemi!). And when I realize that the practice is not confined to the mats – well then, I might just be able to do 10,000 hours after all.