Tag Archives: aikido

Three Times a Wood Passes for Rain

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That is the line I woke up with a few weeks ago. Three times a wood passes for rain. It gripped me and I rushed to write it down before it vanished. As I wrote, there spilled out from behind it a whole dream that was just as poetic and mysterious. In the final scene, I am sitting on the lawn of my parent’s house, next to my mother’s casket.

I think about the dream a lot, but only now do I have the first idea what that opening line means. And that is because I went to Jenya’s memorial on Sunday.

drive up from seattle to vancouver

Jenya Bohr was an aikido buddy of mine, but our deeper bond came from his role as high school teacher to my son Bowen and nephew Alex. Jenya helped Bowen graduate when he only wanted to take junior college classes. And he helped Alex graduate by putting up with way more than he should have. But being an effective teacher to Alex meant propping him up, being in turns cajoling and reassuring, overlooking his massive academic failures, and constantly believing in the good he had inside him. Jenya excelled at that.

This Samhain was the third anniversary of Alex’s death, and I managed to get through it without too much extra heartache. But on Sunday I found myself crying with several of Alex’s old teachers at the memorial, not just for Jenya but for Alex. One teacher told me she’d had a dream the night before Jenya died that she went to visit and he was dead, smiling with his eyes wide open. Her immediate thought was, “I have to tell Alex!” which woke her up, because she remembered Alex is already dead and therefore Jenya must be, too.

Alex’s death flipped a switch in me. I grew up with a highly developed instinct for managing unpredictable behavior. Being the family harmonizer, the “responsible one,” became second nature to me, so I recreated my starring role early on by marrying a borderline personality and having kids young. I had enough energy for all of that, then Alex joined us and it all got turned up to eleven, all the time.

While raising three children, then four with Alex, then five the next year as his sister Rose came to live with us too, I clung to aikido like a mast in a storm. It was what I did to find my center, and to breathe and move from there in relation to others, even multiple attackers. Aikido absolutely got me through those years, re-patterning me so that I no longer tolerated anyone who kept trying to knock me off-center, unless it was an actual teenager under my care. And once the teenagers started moving out there was no more organizing principle for the marriage, so it too went away.

There is the normal pace of healing when we change the habits of a lifetime, and then there is the turbo-charged version. Alex’s death brought me to an unbearable rawness, as I faced once and for all the limits of my power and responsibility. I began setting new standards for relationships of all kinds, and held to them no matter the consequences. Internally, I ruthlessly weeded out old emotional patterns that kept me off-center, losing 35 pounds in the process. As a result, I am happier and healthier now than I have ever been. 

In my dream, there is an implication that after the third time something changes. The woods do not pass for rain. What is seen is fully revealed. There is also a vein of premonition through the dream, as my mother’s advancing Alzheimer’s registers in that stark final image. May her current quality of life continue for a long time.

Three years have passed since Alex’s death, since the turbo-charged period of change began that led me to this place. Yet it is never a far walk back to the grief, despair and loneliness that his death also ushered in. Jenya’s memorial reminded me of this fact. I walked through those woods again, and came out the other side. And today it is raining for the first time all season.

Magic is a Way of Living

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In September of last year, I posed a question on Facebook about magic:

How do you define magic? What is it? How does it work?
I’ve never liked Dion Fortune’s definition, that magic is “the art of changing consciousness at will.” I’m thinking of writing an article about why it’s so bad, but first I’d like to hear what others think. No pressure, mind you…

Little did I expect such an overwhelming response: 55 generous, thought-provoking comments by a range of brilliant people. Re-reading them now feels like being in the best graduate seminar ever. Needless to say, it has taken me a while to digest it all.

My impetus for asking the question was to continue the work I started in The Baby and the Bathwater, and examine the foundations of my spiritual training. I want to explore what I was taught versus what I now believe about aligning with the elements, working magic, creating community and using ritual for transformation.

This will eventually lead to a bigger work, probably a rewritten and expanded version of my dissertation on the priestess. These days I write books one blog post at a time, so for now I just need to dive in. Defining magic seems like a good place to start.

“Magic is the Art of Changing Consciousness at Will”

I first heard Dion Fortune’s definition of magic in the early 80s, and it has taken me this long to figure out why I don’t like it. It turns out that 30 years is not an unreasonable amount of time in which to fully change our consciousness around a single issue—especially if you apply a great deal of willpower to it.

And that’s the key to why I rejected Dion Fortune’s definition.

The big fallacy in the “focused will” model of magic is that consciousness is hierarchical. The mind sets its goal, you use breath and a bunch of other stuff to clear the channel between your head and all those lower chakras, create a circuit of energy flowing into your solar plexus, then beam out that laser-focused will to activate your desires.

Even if this method works for some people, for me it just highlighted the model’s deeper flaws. Because what happens to the minority report? Sure, our minds can overpower just about any conflicting signals coming in, but is that really what we want?

I reasoned that the proof of this philosophy of magic would lie in studying the lives of those who live by it. Were there any teachers or practitioners out there whose lives as a whole I admired? What were they successful at manifesting, and what were the obvious caveats to their success? Most importantly, did they have healthy relationships? Were their children happy and thriving, or disturbed and struggling?

In the end, out of a few hundred I found maybe a handful of people who I felt were grounded and sane as well as successful at this type of magical practice. So I abandoned that approach entirely and turned to dreams, particularly dream incubation, to see how well that worked.

As I wrote here, dreams are an excellent means for both listening to and integrating that minority report. If there is something I want to manifest, I ask for dreams about it. Without exception, this has helped me be wiser in what I ask for and better able to integrate the changes that come.

What About the Body?

If consciousness is not hierarchical, what other methods can we use to change it? In my experience, transformation starts in the body, as far away from the head as possible, then slowly makes its way into our minds. And because deep wisdom arises in the extremities, the more focused and overpowering our will is, the more difficult it is for this emerging wisdom to register in our awareness.

Dreamwork helps. Trusting dreams means trusting the wild reaches of consciousness, following them and learning their logic. It really helps to do this with a solid group of friends who can help you identify those emerging patterns and keep your bearings at the same time.

But dreamwork can also be very heady. We need a physical practice too, like aikido or chi gung.

Aikido helped me learn how it feels when my will and mind are aligned and in right proportion with the rest of my body. It taught me at a far deeper level than any other practice how to expand my awareness, how to be aligned with the flow of power, how to move strongly with a centered focus that comes from the body as well as the mind. I use it every day.

The Consciousness of Everything

At last, I had found a combination of practices that enabled me to trust both what I asked for, and what I received. It was a much more complicated and demanding process than the one I’d been taught, but in the end felt so much simpler.

There were a number of responses to my original post that took a Taoist view of magic: being in the flow makes things happen. This is true, but it’s kind of like saying that jazz improvisation is easy, when making it look easy is actually the end of a very long process of mastery.

More than anything, magic is a study in paradox. So it was probably no coincidence that the other day I came across a great quote about magic by Carl Jung, a master at understanding paradox:

Everything that works magically is incomprehensible, and the incomprehensible often works magically. The magical opens spaces that have no doors and leads one out into the open where there is no exit. We need magic to be able to receive or invoke the messenger and the communication of the incomprehensible. Magic is a way of living. If one has done one’s best to steer the chariot, and one then notices that a greater other is actually steering it, then magical operation takes place. (The Red Book, 314)

For now, “Magic is a way of living” is a good enough definition for me. Because magic is what you see and experience when a whole bunch of other things are finely-tuned and working well. Maybe it sometimes looks like a mere act of will and mindful focus, but the reality is so much more interesting, and rewarding.

Standing in Spirit – Centeredness Through Change

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I love my work as a consultant on digital publishing and social media. It’s fun, I’m good at it, and it allows me time to write and keep up my radio show. Still, I was wondering when I’d get back into teaching, my other love. Now, it seems, is the time.

In 1999 I went back to school for a Doctor of Ministry degree, as a way to step back from all the teaching I’d been doing and reflect on what I’d learned and what I still believed. My dissertation was about women, power and leadership, with insights gleaned from dreamwork, Goddess spirituality, and the principles I’d learned while earning a black belt in aikido. I had seen a lot of examples of how not to hold power, and was convinced that it was possible to do it better, or at least avoid the most egregious errors I’d seen. In my dissertation, I started developing ideas on how to get there.

After graduating in 2003 I wrote a book proposal based on that material, and tried for several years to get it published. (I hope to publish it as an ebook this year.) Meanwhile, a friend asked me if I could teach what I was writing about—namely, how to stay relatively centered while holding authority and working well with others. The outcome was Standing in Spirit, a year-long training and transformative process to deepen personal presence while increasing outward effectiveness.

Leading the Standing in Spirit training for the first time was an amazing experience, and made me feel enthusiastic about teaching again. Then my father died, the economy tanked, and I had to stay focused on other things for a while.

But now it’s a new day, and it feels like a good time to start teaching again. I will be doing dreamwork in Chicago in May, teaching in Portland in July, and in June I am offering a daylong version of Standing in Spirit here in Bodega Bay, for anyone who might be interested. The full day is $50, and will only be open to 10 people.

You can see my full calendar of events here, sign up at the Standing in Spirit Facebook page, and even join my monthly dream group. Getting back into teaching feels great. But having something I’m really excited to teach—that’s the best.

The Art of Getting Up Again

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I had a great conversation with Dr. Joan Borysenko this morning on Dream Talk Radio. We talked about dreams and mind-body healing, and at one point discussed the limits of what can be taught in a workshop. I commented that there should be a workshop titled “The Art of Getting Up Again,” since that is the summation of pretty much every piece of advice ever given to anyone, in any context. She laughed and we went on, but the idea has stayed with me all day.

By definition, life hands us tough knocks from which we have to recover, regroup, and press on. Getting up again is what we do after we’ve been knocked down, or have lain down to rest. It is standard business advice that getting up again is what determines whether you will actually achieve your goals. It is equally true for everything else.

Everything we try to do, whether it be meditating in the mornings, remembering our dreams, quitting smoking, eating better, marketing our business, being nice to contentious people—everything comes pre-loaded with about a hundred ways it might not work. The secret to making it work is getting up and trying again that 101st time.

In aikido the art of falling, called ukemi, is very important, because getting thrown is inevitable. Falling allows us to flow with the movement of the incoming energy. It lessens the physical impact of a throw on our bodies, and gives us several strategic options for getting up again, which we decide on as we hit the ground.

How we get up from a fall in aikido is one of the subtleties of the art that most shows a person’s skill level. It can be fluid and graceful, as though it were a seamless weaving of the last fall and the next strike. When you see two people training and they show no energetic separation between one throw and the next, you are watching true aikido in action.

Getting up again in real life does not always demand this level of skill from us, thankfully. But we do need to keep in mind that falling is an art, not a failure. If we relax into it, our bodies can use that energy to find the best way to come back up again.

Metaphorically speaking, we make the fall hurt more by berating ourselves for falling, blaming others for our fall, or denying that we are indeed about to hit the ground. How much more sensible it would be to let the fall help us organize ourselves for rising again—to make getting up as effortless as possible, a seamless part of trying something until we eventually succeed.

Diving Deep and Surfacing

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Oh, it has been a long time since I last posted—my apologies to regular readers who were hoping for a little more blogging between the end of April and the beginning of June. I had to take time out to host another wonderful May Day party, my 20th year of doing so in Sonoma County, and then had to take a sabbatical from writing to welcome a new love into my life. Such a great set of problems!

Photo by Tom Lux

Photo by Tom Lux

In the meantime, I have been making numerous appearances around California, doing book signings, teaching classes and leading dream groups. I have been on the air every Thursday morning, hosting Dream Talk Radio on our local Occidental radio station. And I have been interviewed and profiled in a couple places that I would like to call your attention to.

David Van Nuys, aka Dr. Dave, is professor emeritus of psychology at Sonoma State University, and now has a top-rated psychology podcast called Shrink Rap Radio. He interviewed me last month about my new book on nightmares, What To Do When Dreams Go Bad. It was a really fun interview—well, if you’re like me and love having conversations about the creative potential of nightmares it was great fun. The hour-long podcast is available for listening on iTunes and also here.

Paul Rest is a writer, teacher and fellow aikidoist I have known for ten years. He writes about martial arts in a variety of places, including the examiner.com, where he pens a series of profiles called Martial Artists Making a Difference. His profile of me is here, freshly posted just a week ago.

Finally, my friend Baruch interviewed me yesterday for his new radio show, and while the podcast is not available yet I want to let people know about the show. Paradigms is a radio show highlighting visions of a viable future, through interviews with all sorts of inspiring people interspersed with great live music. If you are an inspiring person with something to say, you might consider contacting Baruch through his website. If you do, tell him I sent you.

I will post a link to that radio show when it materializes. Meanwhile, there is the end of another school year to contend with, the first anniversary of my father’s death this Summer Solstice, workshops coming up and a dream conference to attend in Chicago in late June. My plate is full and my cup runneth over, and I couldn’t be happier about all of it.

A View of the Earth from Space

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I pay particular attention to the dreams I have when I am away from home. Particularly on overseas or extended journeys, it seems to me that our dreams take on a different character. As our lives are unmoored from habit and routine, our dreams are likewise free to roam, and often show us startling pictures of life back home. I call this the “View of the Earth from Space” phenomenon. Sometimes we can only identify patterns and see larger truths from a distance.

As it happens, last month I did a fair amount of traveling, leading dream workshops and selling copies of my new book. Maybe because of my busy schedule, or maybe due to jet lag, I tended to wake an hour or two earlier than I needed to in the morning. As I lay in bed hoping to get back to sleep, often I would drift into a dream and bring a little lucid awareness with me. The following dream was like that:

I’ve got a pole for pole vaulting, and can do all these tricks with it. It’s great, I can twirl and leap all across the landscape, and I’ve figured out how to make it almost a part of my body. The feeling is exhilarating. Then I notice that I assume the dream will end poorly, so I start imagining not quite reaching my goal, or reaching it but messing up toward the end. And it hits me: why do I need to assume that? Isn’t it just as likely that with my strength I will cross the finish line in great shape? So I decide to change the story in mid-flight, and it works. Crossing a huge expanse, I get from one side to the other without falling or getting weak.

This dream was a huge aha for me, first because I had been worried that I might get sick on my trip. But I felt good, was eating well, getting plenty of sleep, and the workshops were going great. Why would I keep worrying about getting sick? 

More than anything, the dream made me aware of that voice in my head which does assume the worst, is always bracing for at least mild failure, and actually serves to weaken me when things are going just fine. By way of antidote, the dream seemed to suggest that simply focusing on what I knew how to do and keeping my mind on my task was enough to ensure that I could be successful.

The second aha for me was in the dream’s unequivocal opinion that I was strong and skilled enough to do this pole vaulting. There was never a moment when I felt physically in jeopardy or fatigued. It was simply a trick of my mind that created the opening for missteps and falls.

I woke up feeling great, and resolved to stop worrying about what might go wrong on my trip. I also began paying attention to see whether that sabotaging voice came up in other situations. No surprise, it was a near-constant chatter in the background no matter what I was doing.

It took flying far away from home to get enough distance to be able to distinguish that message and to see clearly that I could change it. When I got home I continued to think about the dream and how I could keep practicing this new awareness. I realized that another realm where I am constantly afraid of injury is in fact physical exercise. 

I have been practicing aikido now for over 10 years, and view earning a black belt 5 years ago as a huge accomplishment, more important in a way than any degree or initiation I have received. But the art is very strenuous, and I kept re-injuring my knee and shoulder. Last summer I realized that I would not be able to continue training at the level I wanted  unless I did more physical conditioning in addition to the aikido.

I started doing hot yoga one or two times a week, something I’d done infrequently in the past. This is another strenuous activity, but one that felt better for my knee than the physical therapy exercises I’d been doing. Intuitively, I felt that I could strengthen those weak points while actually healing the original injuries if I kept at this practice for long enough.

Fast-forward to a couple weeks ago, back from the last of two overseas trips. I had eaten too well, it turns out, and nothing fit quite right anymore. The obvious solution was to work out more and shed those Cadbury pounds. That’s when I realized that I also needed to completely shift my perspective on physical training. 

Always in the back of my mind I had thought of yoga as something I did to get strong enough to go back to aikido. But there was nobody forcing me back to the dojo. I could in fact follow whatever path felt best for my body—I could just pursue yoga and let the aikido go for now.

Finally, I realized that the dream was showing me my needless fear of getting into great shape. I was in good enough shape, but why not let my body get as strong and flexible as it wanted to be? The dream felt almost like a hunger for that kind of physical mastery. What is more, unlike in aikido, I was toned enough and familiar enough with this style of yoga so that I could embark on more intensive training without fear of injury. All I needed to do was pay attention and keep focused on ground, breath, extension. 

So here I am, never having thought of myself as particularly athletic. And yet I go in there and sweat with the best of them, 4 or 5 times a week. All the Cadbury is staying put for now, but that is not really my goal. I want to feel more like that pole vaulter, energized and confident, crossing the landscape with grace and skill, and landing just so.

The Lure of Curiosity

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In aikido, there is a move called irimi nage in which our opponent strikes, and with a generous sweep of the arm we invite the attacker to sail right by us, losing balance and falling harmlessly to the ground. There is very little physical contact necessary in this move, just the ability to position ourselves correctly and trace in the air the movement of a door opening. If all goes well, our opponent is helpless to resist rushing through this energetic doorway, and the attack is over before it begins.

Irimi nage is known as the “20-year technique.” Underneath its elegant and powerful form is a complex series of movements, each of which must be trained into our bodies over a long period of time. We start by making very large movements, stepping behind our partner and pivoting 360º, drawing a wide sweeping arc with one arm and eventually stepping in to complete the throw. I have also seen irimi nage done beautifully by my teachers with nothing more than a slight shift of the feet and a raised forearm.

To Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of aikido, irimi nage was the physical expression of a fundamental spiritual principle. In the Shinto myth of Amaterasu the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu retreats into a cave, withdrawing the sun’s radiance from the world. After repeated attempts to force and cajole her out have failed, Amaterasu hears loud cheering and laughter just outside the cave entrance. At first she is angry that the Gods are having fun when they should be mourning her absence. As the noise continues, however, she begins to wonder just what is going on.

Finally, she can bear her curiosity no longer. She moves the boulder blocking the cave entrance just enough to peer through a tiny crack. But that crack allows a beam of brilliant sunlight to escape the cave, and it is reflected back to her from a tiny mirror hanging from a tree branch just outside. Amaterasu beholds the truth of her own beauty, and is moved by self-love to emerge and restore harmony to the worlds.

In irimi nage, Ueshiba taught, the attacker is also led by curiosity to step through the door, and thus harmony is restored and there is no conflict. With this understanding, we have the opportunity to re-enact the myth of Amaterasu every time we do irimi nage.

This teaching about the power of curiosity resonates deeply with me, and has led me to think more about all the ways we initiate, or try to initiate, change. In politics, especially activist politics, the go-to approach is to get people excited. If we become emotionally aroused, incensed, inspired, impatient, furious, or ecstatic, we can be moved to action, preferably behind a charismatic leader who can tell us which way to march, or where to sit down for maximum effect.

But what kind of change does that really produce in the individual? For me, social movements can be hugely inspiring in the moment, but once the crowd thins out and the rented megaphones are returned, I’m right back where I started from. No lasting transformation has taken place, I have just been on a nice ride with my friends, and have another story to tell. We all still agree that we are against bad things and in favor of good things. Our positions have not changed, nor has our thinking.

The things that truly change me, on a lasting basis, are those which engage my curiosity. And here is another secret to the effectiveness of irimi nage: our first move is to enter deeply behind our attacker, turning to face the way he is facing. Essentially, we begin by blending with him. We have not said he is right and we are wrong, we haven’t given up our center, our balance, or our ability to carry out the technique. In essence, we have disarmed our opponent by doing something unexpected, that he almost agrees with, and his curiosity about this is the force which neutralizes his own attack.

It is subtle, persuasive, infinitely complex. When it goes well, the feeling of being inside the technique as it unfolds is exhilarating and deeply satisfying. But then, so is lasting change.