April 22, 2014
Last week I was lucky enough to be able to accompany Sensei and some other dojo members to Krissie’s farm on the edge of New Jersey. When I’d heard about the trip I was eager to go along. I spent a lot of time on farms and in the countryside as a kid. Where I grew up was 10 minutes from the town centre and not much further to ‘the country’, although, on reflection, it all kind of overlapped really.
One of my grandfathers worked on the dairy farm next to his house. My other grandfather has kept poultry and other animals all his life and has lots of friends who are farmers and small holders and outdoors enthusiasts. From the ages of 2 to around 13 or 14 I spent many a weekend and holiday hanging out with my grandad, feeding animals, collecting eggs, picking potatoes and mushrooms, messing around with dangerous, rusting archaic machinery and tools and bales of hay in crumbling barns, catching things, shooting guns, nearly getting run over by tractors, nearly drowning in a river. All great fun, and a suitable counterpoint to Space Invaders and antagonising security guards in town. The weather was absolutely perfect for a retreat from the city. It was indeed a real treat. Both days we sat zazen, undertook samu, and practiced weapons art, if one craves formality. Another way of saying it would be how nice it was to hang out and enjoy a little bit of how life could (have) be(en). We chopped down a couple of (small) trees–horrifying, I know– to make way for some fruit trees. The old trees were given a new role, though, with branches used for path edging and the trunk chopped into logs which we then plugged with mushroom spawn. Being bare-footed on grass felt incredible. It also offered something of a respite for the knees. Not being hemmed in by sheet rock was a great feeling, and being in sunlight? My gods! Phenomenal. It’s been great at the dojo since the installation of the new gate, with sunlight streaming in through the narrow windows above on mornings, and with it becoming an appropriate time of year to actually open it too, but to be outside, all day, working and practicing brings a whole other dimension.
When Sensei asked me to write something about the weekend for the blog I initially thought I would write about these differences, of training outside compared to inside the dojo. Actually, I immediately thought how fussy and linear the written word can be. Compared to speech there’s too much time elapsed between thinking and mechanically recording those thoughts. Actions speak louder than words, it is said. “No pressure”, Sensei said. None at all, except that which had just been exerted. Taking some time to think about it, however, the overarching experience and impact of the weekend for me were thoughts on the importance, experience and permeation of connection. We are almost always connected in this modern condition, whilst simultaneously being mostly disconnected from each other. Now! Now! Now!! We need it now!! Actually, we needed it yesterday. We literally have the sum of humankind’s knowledge at our fingertips, but instead we mostly scroll through trivia and the outrageous antics of ‘celebrities’, or organize colored shapes on a tiny screen instead of engaging with each other on the subway or bus or wherever– it cracks me up that we mostly choose to ignore our own species, while two dogs passing in the street hardly ever fail to acknowledge each other’s presence. My wife has a colleague who cannot send one email at time. There’s always two, one right after the other, with the corrections or amendments to the hastily sent first, and I was sitting at dinner one Saturday night, laughing internally at a friend’s attempts to legitimately induct into the soirée the smart [sic] ‘phone he cannot bear to be disconnected from for more than two minutes at a time. Incidentally, the subject of one of the latest unread emails in my burgeoning inbox was What To Read When Dining With An iPad. I can only hope, but will never know if, it is satire. It’s not all bad of course. Great things have occurred partly due to this connectivity. It has allowed the spontaneous rallying of like-minded individuals to organize and protest against cruel and corrupt organizations and governments. So effective has this been that ousted president Mubarak ‘turned off’ the internet in Egypt 2011, as did Syria in 2012, and in the last couple of weeks Turkey has made (futile) attempts to ban Twitter and YouTube. Individuals with doubts, misgivings and suspicions of events and situations in Iran, Venezuela, Ukraine, the United States, Europe– pretty much everywhere in the world then– have all effectively been brought together to publicly demonstrate their objections by social media in a time when increasing distrust of traditional news media prevails. And rightly so! We need to swim against the tide of divide and conquer, the stay in your homes and gorge yourself on Miley Cyrus, on LOL cats, entire HBO series back-to-back, swedishcrutch.com, zombies, vampires, Hunger Games, Scarlett Johansson’s arse, who wore what to where and when, 25 Celebrities Who Used To Be Ugly/Rich/Men/Women, Zappos, Amazon, etc, etc, etc… culture of artifice. We need to connect with like-minded, but more importantly, right-minded people throughout the world and establish and maintain an intellectual order in order to save ourselves from our own stupid selves. Not once on the farm did I think about ‘checking’ the internet– you know, just to make sure it was still there– or sending email. I only sent my wife a text on Sunday afternoon as she would be leaving for Paris before I‘d get home. It was really good to (re)connect with the self, others and the ‘countryside’. It’s been a while. It must have been. I took earplugs to a farm.
And you could probably stop reading here and know how I felt about it. But like a dog with a bone, or a Frisbee, give me a subject and watch me go.
There was, for a time, a sign in the men’s changing room at the dojo urging we Enjoy Work For Its Own Sake. I simultaneously read it with an accent as Enjoy Work For Its Own Saké, which I think is just as valid an interpretation– you’ve got to earn it, right?
It’s funny how the concept of work has changed. It used to largely comprise moving matter around the surface of the earth. While that is already a somewhat dubious endeavor on the grand scheme of things, it is slightly more tangible than moving data around a largely invisible network, in an increasingly, blatantly illusory world. A couple of weeks ago the bank of England released a report that admits and confirms money is an illusion, and our businesses and aural and visual entertainments are being pushed further and further into The Cloud. Ever since the invention of the wheel, nay, the spear, technology has supposedly existed to make our lives easier, but we all still seem to be so busy. In fact ask anyone and chances are they will proclaim it with a kind of pious, virtuous zeal– “I’m SO busy!”
There’s nothing wrong with work. I think we need it in some shape or form as a