Maine Observer: A Meditation on Willpower and Martial Arts

These are troubled times. The world seems to be on fire and in so many terrible ways. I know I can’t drastically change the world, maybe not even a little bit. But I can change myself, can’t I? “If you want to change the world, change yourself first,” said the old saw.

Easier said than done, however.

I have tried to change myself for the better several times, with some attempts more successful than others. In the 1980s, I started meditating. Ironically, the hardest thing to do is to do nothing, just sit and breathe. The “monkey brain” (our constantly thinking mind) is harder to stop than a running lawn mower with a broken switch. So, while you can’t completely stop yourself from thinking, you don’t have to attach yourself to every stupid, discursive thought that reverberates through your overactive brain; you can let these random thoughts gently pass through your mind like shifting clouds, slowly clearing the cranial cavity to the crystal clarity of the blue sky.

My meditation practice has helped me in many ways. I could concentrate more easily; I became more aware of my breathing, and therefore in better control of my emotions; I could find myself in long traffic jams; I seemed to have more energy; I didn’t eat that much; I slept better.

Later I started yoga and martial arts. It was then that I ran into the woo-woo aspect of these esoteric practices, particularly the generation and application of inner energy: “prana” in yoga, “chi” in forms of combat Chinese lines and “ki” in aikido, the Japanese martial practice. art that I took most seriously. As a (rational and materialistic) Westerner, I was fascinated, but frustrated by the whole idea of ​​these mysterious energies flowing through my body. When I acquired enough skills to teach aikido, I adopted a more Western explanation. I called it intentionality. “Willpower” perfectly describes this phenomenon. Your will has great power.

Yoga, tai chi and aikido have also borne fruit. My posture has improved; my spatial awareness has become more acute; I felt more alert; I thought I was a badass (in fact, it was just an invigorating dose of greater confidence).

All martial arts, to one degree or another, train you to be a better person. More humble. More respectful. More balanced, in all aspects of your life. But aikido is different. Its core philosophy (harmony and love) and even its techniques (defending without hurting) are designed to reshape your mind as well as your body. This is what you take off the mat.

These practices have changed me in dynamic and significant ways. I did the job. So, did I change the world, in a significant or even minor way? Probably not, but I didn’t make it worse either. Maybe I was a good teacher or a good role model, and that helped others. I hope.

I have a mantra when I feel anxious: Let the world go round. Surprisingly, it does.


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