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A Finger Pointing at the Moon

Updated: Dec 15, 2023

My ski companion decided to take a break and have a beer. I left her sitting outside in the snow on a lawn chair in the broad area at the base of the mountain called “The Beach”. I skied over to the lift alone, and I was about to get on when a man in an orange ski instructor jacket asked, “May I join you?”

He had a very slight accent, from somewhere south of the border I surmised. I glanced at his name badge and saw that he was from Uruguay. “I would be honored,” I said.

Once on the lift, I said, “Now you have to give me a skiing tip.”

“What seems to be the problem?” he asked. “I’m not as good as I want to be,” I said. “That’s everyone’s problem,” he replied.

I didn’t press him, at least not right away. It was a long ride to the top. He told me that he was here on break from school in Uruguay. He was lucky that he was a good enough skier to get a job as an instructor instead of having to be inside serving food. I asked him what he was studying, and he said, “I was studying medicine, but when I went to intern in the hospital I knew it wasn’t for me. So I’ve gone into finance.”

I asked what he knew about cryptocurrency (employing my oft-used trick of commenting on a topic I know just enough about to appear to be smarter than I am).

“Alas!” he said, “The collapse of FTX is such a setback. Crypto has great potential to transform not only our financial systems, but all of government and society, decentralizing everything.”

I decided not to express my doubts about the superpowers of crypto, and attempted to steer the conversation back to my free ski lesson. “So, if you had to pick one thing as the main principle in skiing, what would it be?” I asked.

“One thing…” he said. “I always tell my beginning students to keep their weight forward, feeling their shins pressing against the front of their boots.”

I knew that lesson. I had worked a long time to overcome my fear of that moment in the turn where my skis were pointing straight down the slope and all my instincts were screaming at me to lean back to keep myself from plummeting face first down the mountain. But my instructors were unanimous in saying that control—and thus, safety—came from leaning forward.

In aikido, I had encountered many similar situations, where what felt natural was exactly what I needed to stop doing in order to experience the relaxed flow and power of the art.

My first sensei had talked about “small n” natural vs “big N” Natural. He explained that in order to come into harmony with Nature, we had to give up our innate inclinations—our “small n” natural tendencies to tense up and use force against our attacker. The “big N” Natural way was relaxed and energetic, leading the opponent’s attack by blending with it.

My lift companion continued, “I tell my students, Shift your weight early onto the outside edge of your outside ski and move your center forward into the turn.”

Ah! “Your center.” A familiar concept from aikido. We often speak about center, or the One Point (“seika no itten” in Japanese), a spot inside your body 2 or 3 inches below your navel. In the West, we might simply think of One Point as the body’s center of gravity. In Eastern philosophy, the idea of center has taken on a more profound meaning. In tai chi and qi gong, it is called the “dantian”, and is thought of as a storehouse of vital energy.

Koichi Tohei Sensei took the idea of One Point plus the concept of ki as the fundamental energy of the universe, and made them central tenants of his aikido. His four Ki Principles begin with “Keep One Point” (sometimes translated as “Mind at One Point”). The idea is that when our attention rests in our center, we are in our ideal state, calm and alert.

“You are skiing well if you are almost always on your edges,” my Uruguayan friend was saying. “You can tell how good a skier is simply by looking at the tracks they make in the snow.”

He pointed at a pair of tracks on the slope below us. “See how those smudge out and blur in the turns? This skier was skidding around his turns. But look at that line.” He pointed to a couple clean parallel lines tracing graceful curves down the mountain. “That skier was on his edges as he went through the turns.”

“And what is it that gets you up on your edges?” I asked. “Is it bending your ankles?”

“Yes, your ankles. But also your hips, your knees. You have a good saying in English: ‘Knees to the trees’.” He smiled. “The rhyme doesn’t work in Spanish.”

“Here we are,” he said. “Have a good day skiing.”

I looked up and was surprised to see we were approaching the top of the lift. “You, too,” I said. “Thanks for the lesson.”

As we each stood up and skied away from the lift, I thought about what he had told me. The phrase “finger pointing at the moon” came to mind. All these concepts pointed you toward what you were trying to experience. But they were fingers, not the moon itself.

I paused at the top of the run called Paradise, reviewing the lessons. Then I started down the mountain, doing, doing. Doing what I had been taught. Tohei Sensei’s other three Ki Principles also apply to skiing. Relax Completely. I scanned my body for unnoticed tension as I flew down the slope. Weight Underside. I told my muscles to settle down into a feeling of repose even as they worked. Extend Ki. I felt my energy radiate outward, propelling my center into the turn. Shins forward in my boots. Knees to the trees. Up on my edges. Upper body facing down the slope as legs and skis rotate below. Reach that pole plant into the turn…

Then suddenly I felt it. I was skating down the mountainside, weight rising and falling as it shifted from one leg to the other, smooth and gentle like the motion of a pendulum. It was effortless. And it was different from anything I had been told. No longer doing the motion, I was the motion.

Did the Buddha have a dog? The finger pointing parable always makes me think of dogs. Most dogs, when you point, will look at your finger. Only the truly intelligent dog will make the leap and look to where you’re pointing.

In aikido, I usually feel like the average dog. Working on the concepts, doing, doing. Trying to force my way into the principles. Analyzing, conceptualizing, trying to stop trying. Mistaking the finger for the moon.

But slipping through the gateless gate requires a different kind of effort. It’s always a surprise when it happens, and always different than I thought it would be. It’s the place where real aikido occurs, and in my experience, there’s little better in this world than to be there when it happens.

I practice for those moments when nage moves effortlessly, sending uke flying through the air with the greatest of ease, and afterwards we both look at each other, laughing in wonder at what just happened.

I think back to a night three years ago when rumors of a crown-shaped virus were beginning to leak out of China. We were practicing katate tori ude oroshi from “come to hold”. It’s a difficult technique that requires nage to connect with uke from across the room. As uke comes rushing in to grab nage’s wrist, nage leads his grip down, up, and back, extending his arm across uke’s body and dropping him backwards onto the mat.

I was training with Scott, who had just completed his nursing degree and was starting a new job in a hospital, unaware that a pandemic was about to hit.

As I repeated the throw, I found that I was too far ahead of his grip as he reached for my wrist, or I was coming back too directly into him, slamming my arm across his body, or… I kept adjusting and analyzing and trying something new. Doing, doing…

And then it happened. In the midst of ude oroshi, my gaze shifted from the finger and clearly saw the moon, and there we were, in the heart of the moment, harmonizing with the universal ki.

After class, as we knelt on the mat, folding hakama, Scott approached, smiling. “On that last throw,” he said, “you bounced my soul.”

photo credits: Stand Still and Point at the Moon by Antti-Jussi Kovalainen Ski by Cyril Gros Paradise Valley Snow Tracks by Greg Vaughn Aikido Seminar by Øystein Alsaker

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