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To See a Tree: Lessons from the Deadly Table

“I was having panic attacks,” Adele explains to the dinner party gathered at the local brewery. 

Around that large, high table we appear like ordinary people, but really, we are something of a secret anomaly — eight individuals, all with black belts in Aikido, ranging from second- to fifth-degree. Collectively, we represent around 180 years of training! Ours is a deadly table.

Two of the dinner guests, Adam and Nick, traveled all the way from Albuquerque to watch and participate in our dojo’s latest black belt (shodan) test the next day. More out-of-town guest participants and observers are due to arrive in the morning. 

While utensils clink against plates and servers refill our pints, Adele relates her memories from her shodan test decades ago. She recalls how she could be at work feeling fine until a random thought about her pending test would trigger panicked gasping.

Testing, Testing

Every Aikido school’s shodan test is unique. Ours currently comprises some 300 techniques designed to diffuse various hand-to-hand attacks and weapons strikes. Add to that a long session of randori with three attackers simultaneously menacing the test candidate. And be sure to include about 2 hours of weapons demonstrations, solo and paired katas, with the bokken (wooden sword) and jo (long staff).

After a minimum of five years training at the dojo, a candidate is eligible to attempt the black belt test. Preparations require countless hours outside of weekly class times. Many classmates join these sessions to learn their portions of the choreographed weapons forms (katas), as well as to ukemi for the candidate. That is, they make the attacks and take the resulting falls or pins.

In the brewery, we go around the table, like a modern reincarnation of The Canterbury Tales, recalling our trials and triumphs amidst the shodan preparations.

“My test happened maybe two weeks ahead of schedule,” Nick says. “When I was least expecting it.”

Back then, he was a teacher on an Indian Reservation. He and his then wife were in bed asleep when rowdy teens pelted the roof of his house with rocks. Nick ran outside and the pranksters fled in a vehicle. Furious, he retrieved his car keys and pursued the shrinking tail lights. 

After he lost track of the vehicle, Nick drove to the local fire department. He felt his rather compact stature was not ideal for permanently dispelling nighttime marauders, whereas a burly fireman might do the trick.

Unfortunately, the firehouse was empty.

Nick drove home discouraged and certain he was a target for future pranks.

But then, he saw the vehicle which had torn away from his house. He parked nearby and before he realized what he was going to do, he approached the teens and said, “Maybe you could help me.”

Nick says to the dinner assembly, “The words felt as though they came from someone or somewhere else. I mean, it was my voice, but…these were not my words.”

To the teenagers, Nick said, “Some people were throwing rocks at my house earlier and I figured anyone throwing rocks at my house in the middle of the night wants to get to know me.”

The young people encircled him. Whatever they were before, they were curious now. Nick shook hands with every single one of them. They chatted and shared some of their life stories. Nick heard these stories with genuine sympathy and compassion. By the time he set off for home, Nick had a promise from the teens: never again would they assault his home.

“I realized I had just taken and passed my shodan test,” Nick concludes.

Immovable Mind

As I listen to others’ stories, I perceive a common theme. Although it manifests in myriad instances, a fundamental change seems to be the common result of the shodan experience. More than a change in how one applies Aikido techniques. Certainly, we all gained a heightened mastery of our school’s curriculum after thousands of repetitions. But we also experienced a profound internal change. A personal transformation.

Takuan Soho, a 17th century Zen monk who spiritually coached and influenced samurai sword masters like Yagyu Munenori and Miyamoto Musashi, talks about this transformation in his essay “Fudohishinmyoroku.”* Written circa 1630, “The Mysterious Record of the Immovable Mind” deals simultaneously with sword techniques and how the sword student cultivates via training a unified sense of self which will serve him during all confrontations. 

Takuan believes the destination trainees seek is fudohishin, also spelled fudoshin, which can be translated as “the immovable mind.” In this sense, immovable does not imply rigidity or cumbersome stodginess. Instead, the immovable mind is imperturbable. Whereas the reflection on a tranquil pond can be unsettled, rippled by a single insect, the reflection on a mirror remains forever undisturbed — unmoved. An immovable mind is like a mirror; it sees everything all at once.**

Takuan describes the moveable mind as one that is prone to starts and stops. One that focuses and also gets distracted. By contrast, an immovable mind is always focused. Once it starts, it never stops. It never lingers or pauses to have judgements, doubts, calculations, asides, or questions. Even during a confrontation, the immovable mind perceives everything in its calm mirror and responds fluidly and instantly. If the mind moved, it could pause on the attacker’s blade or intent or posture. To stop, even for a fraction of a moment, guarantees loss, according to Takuan.

Because an immovable mind never lingers or dwells, we must readjust how we treat the word “focus.” In our contemporary conceptualization, focus can imply intense tunnel vision or a microscopic strutiny of one primary thing. I believe this interpretation results from a mistaken conflation; that is, we have confused focus for zoom, like when a camera zooms in. When a camera lens focuses, it brings clarity not just to one element, but the entire landscape.

As Takuan puts it, the moveable mind stands before a tree and sees one leaf at a time. It stops to see this leaf, then that leaf, then that other one. The immovable mind perceives the entire tree and all its leaves at once. 

Understood this way, the immovable mind equates to a state of “no mind.” There is no inner dialogue, no thought or thoughts arising to distract and stop the perpetual perception of now and now and now.

In relation to sword (or shodan) training, Takuan points out that every beginner comes to the practice with “no mind.” A beginner will meet an attack without any knowledge of correct body postures and proper techniques. He will give a natural, fluid, instant response. Against a skilled opponent, that response is not likely to be successful, but it is at least “unfettered.”

As the student learns techniques, forms, and postures, her mind stops everywhere a thousand times a second to notice footwork, handwork, positioning, and so on. Confronting an opponent during this training phase is awkward, uncomfortable, unsuccessful, and downright frustrating.

Moved to Tears

While our current shodan candidate trains for her shodan test scheduled for the first weekend in October, I witness this moveable mind concept. I also clearly recall my own raw, irritating experience with it over four years ago.

In class, Sensei calls out a technique and an attacker approaches. You get one opportunity to demonstrate the technique. Whether you do it well or poorly, Sensei will call out the next technique on the list as another attacker approaches. It’s a ceaseless deluge. And with every technique, there are countless opportunities to stop and notice what you did wrong. A million bells ring out across your nervous system.

Move back, not sideways. Remember to secure the attacker’s elbow…whoops! Missed the elbow. One…two…three steps to the pin, not four! Thumb down thumb up. Remember? Gahhh, another fumbled transition. Enter enter enter! You’re too slow. Wait, was this the technique with the quick pivot…or is it the next one? Frig! How do you not have this memorized after five years?

Thoughts. Judgements. Doubts. One leaf after another. The mind starts and stops and starts and stops. Like the current shodan candidate, I rarely made it through a practice session without crying. The story I told myself included a very tragic plot where I constantly disappointed my teachers and classmates. Because I failed to perform with perfection, they were all ashamed. (They weren’t, but that’s what I told myself.)

At the same time, outside the dojo, I had a million leaves to notice and hinder me. The weekend after my test, I was set to get married and go on a delightful honeymoon. However, a month or two before the test, the relationship faltered and fell into turmoil when my partner revealed he was having an affair. Amidst all the training, I was also juggling a heart-shredding breakup. I’d shove my belongings into a storage unit, then scuttle to weapons practice. I’d get off the phone to cancel some honeymoon reservation and then go outside to shadowbox a block of 50 techniques in a row. I’d work out which classmates could meet with me outside of work and class schedules to practice weapons and techniques, then find out who among them could house me for a night or two while I searched for a new home.

And then, inexplicably, with the test only days away, my practice sessions calmed. I could go many minutes without noticing errors, glitches, or other distractions. I felt that buzzing, tranquil, limitless sense which many athletes refer to as “the zone.” Takuan might say I had acquired fudoshin. Immovable mind. No mind. With the proper forms grooved into my muscles (indeed, they still feel etched into my bones), my mind no longer lingered. It started and never (or less frequently) stopped.

Through that process, I also cultivated a profound sense of compassion for myself. I was able to let go of the negative narratives that would also stop my mind. I surrendered the tragic stories wherein my errors brought dishonor to my dojo. When I fumbled a technique or kata, I laughed and continued with the subsequent motions.

My shodan test was, by no means, perfect. But it was joyous. I remember it as one of the best days and experiences of my life so far. I experienced fudoshin to the extent that hours of weapons and technique demonstrations seemed to flash by in one moment. My test was not thousands of little pieces, but one single tree.

In addition to all his prolific writings, Takuan also left behind a painted scroll with a giant ink blot splattered on one side. In graceful kanji stacks, Takuan writes:

One– After twenty years of wearing out countless straw sandals, What can you say you have gained? This one point!   

Just as Takuan predicted, the dans (shodans, nidans, sandans, yondans, and godans) gathered around that brewery table had ultimately developed more than just a repertoire of techniques. Whether we dealt with panic attacks, rowdy teenagers, or heartbreak, we all developed the ability to see a tree. We achieved a more solid, unified self able to survive any confrontation with equanimity and compassion.

*You can find this essay and two others in The Unfettered Mind (Boston: Shambhala, 2012) translated by William Scott Wilson.

**I am borrowing this metaphor from Koretoshi Maruyama Sensei’s Aikido with Ki (Tokyo: Ki no Kenkyuaki H.Q., 1984) and will readily return it.

Golf MKV: R16 quad tail lights” (CC BY-ND-NC 2.0) | “Friends at a restaurant drinking wine” CC0 | “Yellow Tree Leaves”  CC0 | Featured Image “Stainless Steel Fork” CC0 | Jenny Mason during shodan test courtesy of Jenny Mason.

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