I summarise the 2008 Birankai Spring Camp in Labaroche in one word: stress. It was my fourth year, and as every preceding year, it was different from all others. Three of us travelled for two hours from Berne to Labaroche on Saturday the 12th and returned on the 19th. In between I must confess that I delighted in stress and all its bodily sensations! I sat out the third class on Tuesday morning and took some pictures of Rikko Varjan Sensei’s class.
Every morning I got up at 6 and was in Zazen by 6:30 warmly wrapped in a few layers of cotton sitting on a Zafu, and every day at some point I got nauseated while sitting. Really, I literally felt like throwing up and vomiting while sitting. The great thing about Zazen is that it is a perfect opportunity to postpone. Everyday I postponed giving in to that urge to vomit by making a conscious effort to breathe from deep down that place that is often referred to as hara. Aikido and Zazen go together better than one can imagine, especially if one has never tried either. One is moving, the other is sitting, and both are active, very active. What one trains in either case has to do with hara, or what we call the centre or the lower chakra, or rather what I would call my gut. We all know the idiomatic expressions around gut from “having no guts” to “feeling it in my guts” or that all too familiar “gut feeling” however the expression lacks all the mystical and mysterious connotations that a word like hara or chakra can awaken in the seeking mind and searching spirit. There is nothing romantic about training one’s gut and getting it connected to the rest of one’s existence, yet that is exactly what it boils down to, and it starts with learning to breathe.
While I was offline all week in Labaroche, on Sunday one week ago I checked my email via the mobile and found one conversation in progress between two of my colleagues that got me reacting. Totally oblivious to the fact that it was Sunday, at lunch time and after three hours of intensive training I gave my colleague in the UK a call and was very surprised that I could only reach him on his mobile, not in his university office. It was not until Tuesday that I realised my blunder in having lost track of the days of the week. I also had signed up our Dojo for cleaning duties for Tuesday while thinking all along that I had done so for Wednesday. Stress!
I arrived in Labaroche after a night when I had slept less than three hours after having finished a piece of work that in my view was overdue although the client was not complaining. Still, in my view, in my reality, I had wanted to have that piece of work finished several weeks ago. My stress is home-made and self-generated, and as far as I can tell, I need it. Whatever it is that I call stress, it is what often drives me. If anything, then this week was about my relationship to stress. I also arrived with a rather stiff left leg after a most annoying case of some discomfort at the sacroiliac joint that had pestered me for over a week, then by Tuesday afternoon I discovered that I had pulled a muscle on my left shoulder while I had managed to recover my flexibility. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Failure is always a possibility. A pulled muscle in my days of being a gymnast was a piece of cake, but then I was also barely twenty years old and my body took to abuse with much more delight and less discomfort. After fifty, I have decided to make an effort to care better for this empty shell of bone, muscle and guts that is my body. For the rest of the week I avoided any additional strain on that shoulder. I like pain, but then not all pain gives me the same kind of pleasure, however that is not even the point here. If my body was a bit of a mess, my mind was chaos, and is chaos now. There is a piece of synthesis that I need to write down that deals with complexity, technology and self-organisation that I need to finish by today, and at this point I really do not know how I will get there. I worked on it every afternoon, except Wednesday when six of us followed Gabriel Valibouze‘s invitation and went to Haut-Koenigsbourg. All the while this piece of work had me then, like it has me now, This is good. I need the stress, I need the challenge, and I love not knowing and creating out of that place called emptiness. But, how does one get to that point of being empty?
For the first time in this fourth pilgrimage to Labaroche, I actually got bored with it all. I got impatient and tired of watching all the human comings and goings, the dramas, the games, and the plays. The reality of others seems to bore me. I got bored and I also delighted in the wonder of it all. Little if anything made any sense, and that was as good as I cared to have it. For among all the comings and goings of my feelings of boredom and joy, I also delighted in conversations with Iona and Ivo around the kitchen table in the evening. On Friday night I could have danced the night away, and then retired early anyhow. I was spoiled by Mireille’s cooking once more, and I indulged in the preparation of a lentil salad overloaded with garlic for the party on Friday. The lentil salad was inspired by Tuesday evening’s dinner invitation by the Greek Dojo friends where we were served a wonderful fakés (greek lentil soup) and all sorts of other goodies. Come to think of it, during the whole week I ate tremendous amounts, slept a lot, and moaned quite a bit about this and that. Most of the time I felt like a total sissy, and then yesterday during the last training I felt alive and grounded, even playful. Remarkable in a way, normal in another. Just during the first weapons training earlier in the week I had caught myself not being able to tell right from left in one of the exercises. It was only when Gabriel Sensei corrected me that I realised that I had not seen that that particular exercise involved going once to the the right and then to the left. I was under the impression that it involved taking two steps both to the right and was quite convinced that I had observed correctly. Had this happened during my first camp at Labaroche I suspect that I would have freaked out and lost it since in those days I would lose it with far smaller challenges to my own perception. It in this case being the ability to be corrected and stay free of prejudice. My expression of losing it is usually associated with some very private thoughts of punching out the teacher for daring to correct me and then having the gall to ask me if I had understood. See, I just never did too well in the understanding department. What my mind understands does not necessarly translate to my body being able to execute it.
One evening we ended up on the subject of relationships, but then Aikido is about relationships at all levels. It starts with the relationship that you have with yourself, and then you work on the relationship with the others. Anyhow, is life about anything else? The minute that more than two individuals get into each other’s circle of awareness, relationship happens, and before that there is a relationship between you and the ground on which you stand. Earlier in the week I had defended the thesis that whatever private relationships one entertains, that is exactly what they are: private. Immediately I am reminded of the expression on Facebook “in a Relationship” and my inability to call that one in any way, as I can not possibly fathom – or fantom or even phantom- being in just one relationship, like I will never understand the logic of tea bags or coffee capsules. How is it supposed to work being in just one relationship? But then, my reality may be just as strange and foreign to others as theirs is to me. The wonder of it all is that somehow we do manage to live and create nourishing and sustaining communities.
I love logic, and although I may not understand logic with my guts, my mind has no trouble with it. Then it could be that after having spent one week in a house with seven other human beings and training on tatami populated with almost one hundred human bodies, my very reclusive and private self feels a stringent need to shut it all out and go back to the drawing board of my reality which in itself is very private in spite of the fact that it takes place in the public eye. If relationship is about feelings, then I for the most part try to stay out of relationship because feelings tend to be messy to deal with and I have little patience for dealing with the messy and uncomfortable. In a week during which I felt like a silly mess, bored, impotent and disorganised it is good to return to the quietness of my studio. One look at my calendar for next week does inform me that somehow life still feels like going to school. Ah… but what was it that I was supposed to have finished by this evening? Stress?
Yes, there is much more. There is always much more, but I will also be finishing up an essay about Aikido for Chris Mooney that was inspired by the recent Warwick University Aikido Club Anniversary.