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 counterpoint to our leisure. In fact, with some sort of manual labor or quotidian physical exertion we wouldn’t need to do as much running as we all seem to be doing. If we’re not busy, we’re running. Runners are becoming more of a menace than cyclists. Our work has made us mostly sedentary, and snack-fuelled, hence the need to expel excess energy. We also need some sort of structure, no? Otherwise, without a framework what do we have to kick against? “The greatest danger for an artist is total freedom,” (Fellini). We want to eat, right? And sleep in a bed, in a shelter of some sort? Some effort needs to be exerted somewhere in exchange for all of this. It doesn’t go unnoticed, though, that we, the most ‘advanced’ species on the planet are the only ones who actually pay to live here…
But I digress.
I’m not talking about adhering to the myth of the Nobility of Toil by the masses that mostly benefits, and is perpetrated by, the privileged elite– anything ‘honorable’ is generally not very easy to attain. However, I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument against the need to perform or undertake some sort of useful role in society.
We all consume something that is the product of labor and it is woefully idealistic to believe otherwise. There is also, I believe, something satisfying about altering or transforming one’s immediate environment through work. Cleaning, gardening, decorating and the like, while all being somewhat necessary, offer some intrinsic, short-term reward of joy or contentment. Every thing, action, endeavor is, could or should be a meditation, a contemplation of existence, a mode of consciousness. So on the farm there was the obvious, immediate, physical connection with the earth and with the Earth; the landscape, soil, the tools, the trees, the mycelium plugs, the uneven grass underfoot during weapons, and the sun on exposed skin –- things that are easily forgotten or overlooked in the city. We didn’t directly or immediately produce anything we consumed, but the facility exists and has essentially been put into motion. Literally, you reap what you sow, and we were sowing apples, peaches, pears and mushrooms. What is more connected than the mushroom?
The largest known living organism on the planet is a 2400 year-old, 2200 acre mushroom mycelium network in Eastern Oregon. It is the subterranean fibrous mat that holds the distinction, not the fruit. Alas, there is a no single, giant mushroom the size of 1500 football fields, or a town, up in the Blue Mountains. Mycelia can transmit information across their huge networks in a similar way to the human brain and the internet– almost, and for all intents and purposes, instantaneously. Or, more correctly, one supposes, the human brain and the internet conform to the same behavior as mycelia, seeing as they’ve been around since pretty much the dawn of time. While many a TED Talk, ‘alternative’ website, or conversation with amateur mycologist or urban shaman make convincing arguments for the ecological importance, sentience, evolutionary correlative traits and primitive/cosmic power of the mushroom that go largely over my head, the connection of connection was not lost on me.
At a phenomenal, and I dare to say well-earned, dinner that evening we discussed, among things, haptics, albeit not quite so formally heralded. Our talk meandered to the different notions of acceptable displays of intimacy and personal touch–physical connection– that exist in different parts of the world from our own. It sounds obvious, for I think we all ‘know’ it to be true–I for one believe it to be a truth–but in Mexico and Greece people are generally much more visibly passionate and tactile with each other, as compared to, say, North America. India, too, has different codes and behaviors– of course, we’re not totally homogenized just yet, thankfully– with men showing an incredible level of intimate touch with other men, yet little or none in their outward displays of affection towards women, including their wives. Plenty of these wives, though, have had no qualms about plonking their children on my lap and declaring me Uncle! whilst grilling me on my salary why I wasn’t married or had no children of my own. In Britain, meanwhile, the notional pedophile is having a deleterious effect on the acceptability of showing affection towards children not one’s own. While I am aware that crimes of all kinds occur, should we raise a generation devoid of physical human contact for which emotional connection is somewhat alien? Do we add this to the two generations of China’s one-child Family Planning Policy only children, and, though by no means entirely exclusive to Japan now, the self-imposed shut-in otaku? OK. We may glean some connectivity from the internet, but there needs also to be physical human connection to maintain health, well-being and sanity. We are by nature social creatures and need other human beings to interact with, to exchange concepts, energy, stories and jokes.
Thus: What’s brown and sticky?
And by a stick I mean a jo.
“Sticky! Sticky!” shouted Sensei as we practiced weapons. “Keep connected!” Of course! It finally made some sense. And there again was the concept of ‘connection’ made manifest, for that is the crux of aikido– maintaining contact and blending with your opponent. That has been a difficult idea for me to grasp and I have literally wrestled with it and plenty of people during practice. It’s not that I’m trying or wanting to be alpha or macho or antagonistic, it is, to me, and I’m sure many others, totally counter intuitive to combine one’s energy with that of one’s assailant. Historically, I’d usually meet force head-on with force. But it’s not just muscling it or steaming in, is it? It is called martial arts, right? And “art establishes the basic human truths” (Kennedy, John F. 1963).
Connection is the fundamental principle of aikido. By blending, ‘going with the flow’, the struggle ceases and so then does the opposition and thus the conflict. For me personally, this is something of a major breakthrough. Whether I’ll actually be able to maintain that on the mat is another thing. “The difficult must become habit, habit easy and the easy beautiful” I read in a book on acting from the bookcase in the room I’d slept in at the farm. I will endeavor to be mindful of that. With technology and popular/consumerist culture, there has been a slow, steady drift away from a sense of self as part of nature’s whole– of course. Buy your happiness, stupid. As technology advances there is a danger that we will retreat or be forced into a virtual world, instead of maybe addressing socio-political problems propagated by poverty. What is wrong with reality? Why do we, collectively, seem to want to retreat into a virtual one, with infinite choices and micro-control? Part of the many reasons I think I was vegetarian for over 15 years was to simplify the menu experience. I do not need that much choice. Am I hungry? Yes. OK. Crack on and address that urge. Do I really need Instagram or Google Glass or a whole host of other interfaces and apps I don’t really (care to) know about in order to live a more complete and more fulfilled life, and what happens when the internet goes down? Do I really need to perform ‘better’ and progress ‘further’ in my personal and professional life? And does there need to be a split between the two? I know children of six and nine with laptops who live in homes with giant TVs who have atrocious handwriting and spelling and even more atrocious attention spans, who hardly ever play outdoors. I see them being set-up to chase the holy grail of unattainable, materialistic, disposable lifestyles marketed to them via this proliferation and invasion of media. They know more about Moshi Monsters than they do about mathematics…
It’s easy to become nostalgic about the past, and memory is wonderfully selective. I can’t decide if I’m getting old, wising up a bit, a stick-in-the-mud, an out-moded artisan smashing looms, if I read too much dystopian sci-fi as a kid, or a mix of all of the above, but last weekend re-affirmed a connection with what it is, to me, to be human; manual labor, cooking, eating, being outdoors, communing with others and having time and energy to devote to contemplating the existential. It was also an opportunity to establish and nurture connections with some of the people with whom I occasionally share a tiny part of the multiverse.
Right. I’m going outside.