I haven’t written anything in a few weeks, which I’m sorry for. Life has a way of happening that has nothing to do with plans or intentions. Family emergencies and work just get in the way. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been doing budo. It just means I haven’t been doing formal budo practice.
What I have been doing is applying budo. Breathing while balancing stillness and movement. Budo isn’t life, but it is a way of living, of doing, and being. Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing. Stillness is tough though. All of our instincts, and much of our socialization is to “do something.” The classic trope is “fight or flight.” This reduces our options to a ridiculous degree, and ignores one of the more powerful options: “stay calm and do nothing.”
All of our education and life preparation is about doing things, being active. Don’t wait. Be proactive! The early bird gets the worm. Don’t just sit there, do something!
Then there is chapter 10 of the Tao Te Ching:
Understanding and being open to all things,
Are you able to do nothing?
What does it mean to be “able to do nothing?”
Early on in jodo I learned the importance of staying calm and doing nothing. Sensei would move forward in the kata and stretch out the timing and spacing until the mental tension made me snap into doing something. Sensei was perfectly calm. He could attack or not. Either was fine with him. I couldn’t wait and do nothing. I had to take action.
Of course, as soon as I moved I was dead. Sensei hadn’t given me any reason to move. He was just standing there, within attacking range, not doing anything except making my mind and pulse race with worry about what he would do. Then I would move and he would cut me down (gently, and with great good humor, but cut me down all the same). I’m a slow learner sometimes; it took me a while to learn the simple lesson to breathe and accept the moments when I don’t need to, and should not, do anything.
In chapter 37 the Tao Te Ching says
Tao abides in non-action
Yet nothing is left undone.
Like the Dude, the Tao abides, and abiding was something I had to learn to do in jodo. Non-action isn’t inaction. For someone who enjoys working with words as much as I, it seems strange that I can’t give a clear, straightforward definition of “non-action.” I have come to my present understanding slowly, over many years, and like budo, it’s not something I can fully verbalize. I prefer to use the Chinese term in my own thoughts: wu-wei. For anyone coming to the Tao Te Ching for the first time, I realize that term is useless. Until you’ve got some experience with different translations and some sort of physical practice, “wu-wei” is meaningless, and “non-action” will have to serve to get you started along the path.
Budo training is physical philosophy. The lessons of any budo art are really found on the dojo floor as we work the kata. In the dojo, words are like the finger pointing at the moon in Chuang Tzu; they are there to direct you in the proper direction. But - Once you’re going in the right direction words become just a distraction from the real lesson.
Once I learned to just accept that I don’t set the pace of these kata, I was able to begin learning jodo. Learning to accept things as they are and not waste energy trying to change what I can’t control is tough lesson to learn in the dojo. It’s even more difficult to apply outside the dojo where there are so many more factors to be concerned with. In the dojo it’s just you and your partner that you have to worry about. Outside the dojo things are rarely that uncomplicated and concentrated.
The more comfortable I get with wu-wei, with non-action, the more relaxed my jodo becomes. Once I stopped trying to force the kata to to go faster than my partner wanted, I stopped getting hit when I anticipated an attack and moved too early. Learning to let go of that need to push things along at my own speed allowed me to stay relaxed and loose. Stiff, tight muscles are slow. Breathing out, remaining relaxed whatever my partner does, or does not do, I can respond more quickly and more fluidly.
When I leave the dojo and rejoin the wildly complicated everyday world, does this lesson still apply? I seem to find new places to apply it every day. When I don’t rush to “win” a conversation, I learn so much more. When I can be quiet and just wait in negotiations, often the person on the other side of the table gets so anxious for a conclusion that they give me what I’m looking for without my having to argue much of anything.
The most frequent application is dealing with all the little things that don’t go as fast as I think they should. The little things like traffic that’s too slow, a child that won’t move, a teapot that won’t whistle. When I let the world take its own pace without trying force things, I discover the traffic pattern that is the most efficient and soon find myself outdistancing the guys trying to weave from lane to lane for a one-car length advantage. Engaged in a battle of wills, a six-year old will dig in until they explode in a tantrum. Faced with a battle of patience, they soon become distracted and once they’re distracted they’re easy to move. Teapots, well, nothing I can do is going to make the water boil faster. That’s one of those things where being able to do nothing is its own reward. The other option is to be impatient and annoyed and upset by things I cannot influence.
Chapter 48 of the Tao Te Ching:
Less and less is done
Until non-action is achieved.
It’s a lot like lessons in judo. The more I try to do things to my partners, the harder I work and the less I accomplish. When I let go of whatever strategy or technique I’m clinging to and stop trying to force it on the match, I begin to flow with my partner. Instead of getting frustrated because I am having difficulty doing the technique of my choice, I am delighted to discover that a range of techniques become possible. Blinded by my focus on doing a certain technique, I can’t see the opportunities my partner is giving me. Relaxed and clear minded, it’s possible to see the patterns of my partner’s movement and turn their strong movement into a natural fall.
Doing the same thing outside the dojo is far more challenging, but as much as the level of difficulty increases, so do the rewards. It’s nice to flow into a natural technique in the dojo. It’s satisfying to respond to attacks as they really are without trying to create openings and trying to force things. The satisfaction is that much deeper at home or work when I get out of the way and let things develop naturally.
In the last few weeks there have been a lot of events in my life that I couldn’t influence. The best I could do was stay relaxed and not let them disrupt my heart and mind. Relax, breathe and abide. It’s enough. I don’t have to attempt to fix the world, or even my little corner of it. Most of life is beyond my control or even influence. Can I breathe and abide until it is time for me to move? When tragedy strikes and no one can fix things, breathing and letting people be is tough. I want to help, to fix things. Understanding that I can’t really do either, just waiting calmly for a space in which I should act, is far more difficult than anything I do in the dojo. However, the dojo practice of waiting for Sensei to really strike, remaining calm and still and prepared to move when the moment actually calls for it, has prepared me.
Sometimes the finest thing you can do for those around you is to be there and do nothing. Wait, watch, be aware of what they are experiencing, and only act when there is a need for it. So easy to write, so difficult to do. In the dojo we practice breathing and being and just standing there waiting for Sensei to attack with a big stick. If we can learn that lesson, it’s amazing how often we can apply our budo in the world.
Are you able to do nothing?