Wednesday, December 14, 2005

A-ha! or uh-oh...

I had a flash of insight today. On those few -- truly few -- occasions when I have these breakthroughs, they're cause for great satisfaction. But satisfaction quickly yields to the difficult work of applying them to life through practice.

The setting for this afternoon's insight was the karate dojo.
I'm a brown belt in Okinawan Goju-ryu karate. At this level, I'm expected to have a fair foundation in the basics -- stances, punches, kicks, forms and so on.
This afternoon, we worked on those basics, with focus on stances.

In this style of karate, there is a basic stance called sanchin, which means "three battles." The toes of the forward foot are pointed slightly inward, the knee is bent over the big toe, the heel of the forward foot is on the same line as the toes of the rear foot, legs are shoulder-width apart and the knees are squeezed slightly toward each other. The idea is that this stance protects the groin if done correctly.
In the couple of years that I've been studying with this instructor, he always tells us to scoop our hips and butt slightly upward when doing this stance, which gets the body in the proper alignment to stand correctly in sanchin.

"Scoop the hips and butt slightly upward."
I've heard this instruction literally hundreds of times.
And literally hundreds of times, I thought I was doing sanchin correctly. My feet and toes were positioned in the right way, my knees were squeezed slightly together. There I was, in what I thought was acceptable sanchin.
Except that today, I realized that from Day One, I wasn't scooping my hips and butt slightly upward.
I was hearing sensei's words, but I wasn't listening.

He used the most descriptive and simplest language possible to help us learn this stance and he reinforced this simple instruction with his own textbook example of how to stand in sanchin. But until today, I didn't get it, and until today, I didn't realize that I wasn't getting it. In fact, I thought that I had already gotten it.
Despite his simple words and his own example, I had to arrive at the insight myself.
I don't know what led me to it. All I know is, one second I was standing in sanchin with a droopy butt and lazy hips, and the next second I felt as solid and immovable as a boulder. (If I'm still struggling with basic stances, you can imagine how much work lies before me, brown belt or not.)

This leads me to my point, which I state here not as "wisdom" I'm proudly trying to share, but as a reminder to my very forgetful self.
I read a lot of Buddhism-related blogs and books, and no matter how much the writers break down and simplify what they regard as their own flashes of insight into "what is," I'm left with the clear impression that I have to experience it directly and in its entirety. Otherwise, I feel like a blind man trying to describe an elephant.

I was reminded today that in the dojo and in life, I really don't know, despite what I may think I know, thanks to my stubborn ego.
But, when I feel I know -- I mean palpably feel this knowledge to the marrow of my bones -- then it seems as if it has been a part of me for 10,000 years.

"Scoop the hips and butt slightly upward."
What do those words mean? I don't know, because evidently I was interpreting (or misinterpreting) them several ways. Therein lies the limitation of language.
But I know what it feels like to be in that physical posture. The thing is, I can't describe it for you. Not because sanchin is so esoteric a stance that it requires decades of practice (though many would argue it does). In fact, I think it's just the opposite: It's so simple that I can never muster the eloquence to describe it. It has to be felt.

A former karate instructor of mine who is still a mentor and one of my dearest friends used to tell me that insight can happen in an instant, like a bolt of lightning.
Neat description, I thought.
But now I truly feel what he was telling me.

12 comments:

greenbean said...

Great insight Mike! Congratulations! Yes, no words.Just as it is.Well done.But got to go beyond this.Do not even get attached to this satoric feeling.Deep Bows.

Beth said...

michael: it makes you wonder, doesn't it? all that we think we know...

Michael said...

Hi Greenbean, Kim,

It's fun to find the profound in the ordinary, and then realize that it's really not so profound after all.
Truth is, I'm just glad I made some progress in karate today. Being a slow learner has its rewards.

Phats said...

Nice insight thanks for sharing :)

So, to be a little not so serious now. If you and I were walking down a street and I pointed to people and said "can you beat them up" you could say yes to everyone I pointed too?

Michael said...

Ha, Phats! Hmmm, I doubt it. I have a tendency to trip on my own shoelaces.

Mike Cross said...

Michael,
I have experienced the kind of sudden insight you describe many times -- in the kata of Goju-ryu karate, in the kata called Zazen, and in the Alexander practice of rising from a chair. But all my insights like that turned out to be false. Just passing instances of self-delusion.
"I didn't know before, but now I know, now I have seen it." Ha, ha!
It all corresponds to what Master Dogen described in the second paragraph of Fukan-zazengi. We human beings with our big brains, even when we declare our own ignorance, we do it with a knowing glint in our eye. We think we have put our dirty paws on something, but in fact at that moment we have almost completely lost the vigorous road of getting the body out.

And yet, when we slink from the dojo with our tail between our legs, conscious only that we have wasted our life in empty vanity and that soon we will die, just then our hands might be truly empty.

There's no true posture
To discover.
So put one foot
In front of t'other.
Make one wrong move
And then another.
Plod on, my friend
You are my brother

Michael said...

Hi Mike,
Yes, of course, insights can be false, and maybe they often are. Perhaps the test of time is the only way to know for sure.
Then again, I would be more apt to accept as such an insight into karate -- an insight that can be measured against a physical standard and can be proved as true or false in about two seconds -- then one I think I may have arrived at through zazen, which I think (perhaps mistakenly so) is much more intangible.
The proof of the pudding is in the taste. If my insight into the sanchin stance turns out to have been false, then next time a groin kick is thrown my way, I'll wind up on the ground writhing in agony.
If I should ever have an insight during zazen, and if it should turn out to be false, I would think that that pain would be much greater.
But, because such insight has yet to happen for me, all I can say is that I don't know how I would interpret it.
I can tell you, though, that I'm no Einstein. Thus, I take joy in insight into simple things.

anu said...

wow Michael. I am so inspired to join a martial arts class once again after reading your post.

Apparently, i used to learn the very same style - Goju-ryu style of karate in India from sensei Parvez Mistry.

I am filled with joy as i read your post in which you have described the posture.

Smiling...

Michael said...

Hi Anu!

Great to hear from you.
Yes, I really enjoy Goju-ryu. I had studied Shotokan karate before moving to Japan and then for about a year while I was there, but I couldn't find a suitable dojo near my new home in New Jersey.
So, by stroke of luck I found Goju-ryu and have been training ever since -- and loving it.
I hope all is going well with you!

passion said...

It is said that there is no one who can teach us the ways but one who can help us remember old things we already know.

Recently one of the brothers shared his ‘bliss attack’ he experienced during a 10 day retreat in India. I am not sure if his bliss attack is the same thing as you experienced as ‘flash of insight’. But I guess this happens when your soul awareness reaches a high level and vibrates in the same wavelength as the Supreme Wisdom. The wisdom is universal and is available to everyone hence the quote above. It doesn’t need to be taught. It just needs to be accessed or remembered. Remember we are all part of God? We are all inately Godly! For us earthly beings it’s a matter of being in the right time and the right moment and of course depending on your vibrations.

Those moments are rare and precious. If they come, let them. I don’t think there is any point to chase it just because you have experienced it. Honestly, when I read this post I automatically related to my sexual desire and the pleasure of reaching orgasm. I am sure everyone likes the high of what orgasm gives us but sometimes it just comes and other times it doesn’t. We don’t beat ourselves up for a mundane love making. It’s just the way life is. There is good, there is bad, and there is the mundane stuff. Sometimes we get it, most times we don’t. It would be nice to stay above the line all the time. But life is what it is. Each moment of good, bad or mundanenuess is unique and precious.

Having said that I should congratulate you for your enlightenment Michael, even it was a moment of flash. :-)

Deep bows

Michael said...

Thank you, Passoncity! I wouldn't call it enlightenment, though, or even anything close. But thamks for your words just the same.

LBseahag said...

Hey, Michael- I have a revealing thing for you...come over to my space...ha ha

Hope today was the best as an uneasy, get-me-the-hell-out-of-here Friday can be!

I am normally in the office on Mondays...I saw how it is on other days, though..all the big cheeses leave early, but there is one guy, who is close friends with the big cheese, who turns out his lights in his office when he leaves for lunch, or even the restroom. People see he is "gone" and they bail...
he comes back,
and he BUSTS the people who leave early...

lame.