This is the current draft of the chapter “Presence” from my upcoming book Aikido to Zanshin —26 Essays on the Martial Art of Peace, based on a series of posts I wrote here. It occurred to me as I was working today that this stands alone well. I hope you enjoy it, and will look for the book in a few months!
Pay attention. When your mind offers judgments and distractions, release them into the wind. Return to feeling, listening, seeing. Return to being present.
Try this experiment: Close your eyes for a few seconds and listen to the chatter in your mind.
“There’s no chatter going on in my mind.” you think. “What’s she talking about. This is stupid.”
Yeah. That chatter.
It’s always there. And sometimes, like when a radio is randomly droning on, tuned to some inane talk show, we get caught up in what it’s saying. Sometimes we even start believing what we hear.
Sometimes the chatter has interesting or useful things to say. “Remember to pick up cat food on the way home.” “I wonder what Spain is like this time of year?” “Wow, you actually did it!” And sometimes it’s destructive and harmful. “The boss would never promote you.” “What ever made you think you could learn to sing?”
Whatever the chatter is blabbering on about, it’s not what’s happening right now. The chatter is not what you are seeing, hearing, or feeling. It is commentary about the past, or about the future. It’s about hopes or regrets, fears or celebrations, wishes or obligations. Thoughts about other places and times.
It’s useful from time to time to consciously return to the present moment, and just be aware of our actual experience right now.
Meditation? What? Why?
Being present is a crucial skill in any life-and-death pursuit, whether it’s defending your lord’s castle, or driving on the highway. Being aware of what’s actually happening lets us respond to it immediately and appropriately. Meditation is one way to develop the skill of being present.
Meditation is an integral part of the practice in many martial arts, including Aikido. Sometimes it’s a few minutes of silence to get settled and focused at the beginning of each class, and sometimes it’s a whole course of study alongside the physical training on the mat.
Meditation has many benefits. Some are as practical as strengthening the immune system, which it does. Some are more subtle. While meditation can help us deal with stress, it’s not about relaxing. It’s not about zoning out, or dozing off. In my experience, meditation is a practice in exquisite attention. When you get quiet and just pay attention, you can begin to notice things that had previously been drowned out by all the noise.
Imagine sitting quietly in a forest for a long time. At first you might not notice anything. But stay long enough and you will start to hear insects buzzing. A lizard scampers through the grass. The wind rustles leaves in the branches above you. As you sit quietly, not only will you become aware of sounds that were already there, but because of your stillness, more sounds will arise around you. Birds will return to your little grove. Deer might come down to graze.
Getting quiet and paying attention in our own lives is like this. When we are still, we can notice the things we might otherwise miss.
Here’s another image for you. Think of taking a long road trip with a friend. If you are constantly making small talk, gossiping, complaining, or planning this and that, it will be hard for anything more profound to reveal itself. But let some time pass in silence and you might be surprised at what arises – some unexpressed longing, a deep fear or desire, or that thing you’ve been avoiding saying. These are like the shy birds in the forest; they need some space and time to reveal themselves, even between friends.
In meditation you are sitting with yourself, listening. If you remain silent for long enough you might be surprised to hear what you have to say.
How to Meditate – One Basic Way
There are probably as many ways to meditate as there are people who practice meditation. There really isn’t a wrong way, and you can do whatever works best for you. Just keep in mind the point of it, which is to get quiet and still – internally, at least – and focus on your actual experience of what’s happening in the moment.
A very popular way of meditating is to sit and notice your breathing. Go ahead and try it.
Sit comfortably upright.
Some people sit cross-legged or on their knees, on a small pillow. You can sit in a chair, if that suits you better. Sit comfortably upright, attentive, shoulders back, chest open so you can breathe freely.
Close your eyes and notice your breath.
Don’t do anything about your breathing, just notice it. Feel the air moving in and out through your nose. Feel your chest expanding and contracting.
Notice thoughts, and let them go.
As you are paying attention to your breathing your chattering mind will offer up all kinds of distracting comments and opinions. “That guy at the store yesterday was a creep!” “Scratch your nose!” “This is a waste of time.” No need to berate yourself — your mind will always offer these things up, that’s what our minds do. Just notice the thoughts as they arise, and let them go. Watch them drift away like dandelion seeds on the breeze.
You can do this for as long as you like.
You might start with a minute or two. At first even 2 minutes will feel like a very long time, but hang in there. Once you have the idea, try five to 15 minutes and see how that feels. Remember that road trip with a friend? You don’t get to the really deep conversation on a quick drive to the grocery store. Eventually 15 minutes may pass too quickly, and you’ll want to play with longer times. Try very short times, too. Once you are able to slip into that state of open receptivity you can play with just 15 to 30 seconds. It can be a nice reset and check-in with yourself in the middle of a busy, chaotic day.
Experiment with focusing on things other than your breath.
Breath is a common focus when meditating, but not the only option. I prefer to feel the movement of air on my skin. If I’m outdoors, or if there’s a fan in the room, the air can feel like the swirling currents of a river, or waves at the beach. Some people like to listen to the ringing of a bell, or some other sound. Most people find that closing their eyes helps them focus. Some meditation involves movement. Some people walk slowly, and focus on each step. Whatever way you like is fine. Simply pay attention, feel or listen with open curiosity, letting any intruding thoughts go.
I suggest using a timer.
You will want to remove as many distractions as you can, and checking the clock is definitely distracting. There are some great apps that chime every so often, to remind you to stay in the moment, but any timer that makes a sound will do.
Be patient, and be gentle with yourself.
Thoughts will come up. The idea isn’t to make them stop. With practice you will find yourself getting less and less hooked into what your mind has to say. But sometimes the timer will ding and you’ll realize you spent the whole time planning this afternoon’s presentation in your head. It’s OK. Try again tomorrow.
Hang in there. You’ll get it.
Every so often you’ll find you are able to just be. Your breath will come and go naturally, and you’ll simply be present, watching it happen. Not controlling it, not thinking about it, just experiencing it. I remember the first time I felt this sense of purely being. Maybe 6 months into training. For about 3 breaths, I just observed, and my mind was quiet. I felt a weightless sense of peace and stillness. Having experienced that state once am able to more easily access that feeling again, even now, years later.
Aikido Can Be a Moving Meditation
One of the reasons Aikido is such an effective practice for personal development is that it can be a moving meditation – an exercise in presence and awareness. When we are training we are constantly feeling for what’s going on in our own body. We feel our legs and hips settle into a stable stance after a quick movement. We notice where we are holding tension, or imbalanced in some way. We feel for the direction our partner is moving us, and for the direction our partner seems to want to go.
Instead of imposing our ideas – whatever thoughts our chattering minds offer up – onto the situation, we try to feel for an appropriate response.
Every day on the mat we are training ourselves to be present, and we benefit from this in the rest of our lives as well.
A Practical Daily Practice in Presence
Meditating regularly, simple and easy though it is, can be a daunting prospect. It’s sometimes hard to find even a few minutes of uninterrupted, quiet time. You’re running late. You’re wearing the wrong clothes for sitting comfortably. The environment doesn’t feel safe enough to close your eyes. You will look odd, sitting in your office, eyes closed, just breathing. So many obstacles. What to do?
Your practice doesn’t have to look like anything in particular. There’s no requirement to “do it right.” You don’t have to get up before the sun every morning to spend a hour in silent meditation, sitting in lotus position, burning incense, in a room decorated with hand-woven rugs and brass singing bowls. You do what works for you. That might look like taking a few moments to be still in the car after you get off work.
I used to struggle with meditating regularly. For a long while I did it consistently, and when I don’t do it, I miss it. I got a lot out of it, in those quiet moments when I could finally hear myself. But sometimes days would go by when I’d realized again that I hadn’t around to it for a while.
Thankfully, my teacher, Dave Goldberg Sensei, taught me that even finding a few moments for quiet attention here and there can be a valuable practice.
There are a lot of ways you can slip small experiences of presence into an otherwise hectic schedule. I’m sure you will find a few that work for you.
Get started, and make it a habit.
Here are two simple steps to help you remember, and to make short meditative experiences a regular practice.
First, choose a cue to remind you.
Find something you do every day, preferably something that inherently involves stopping for a few moments. Boiling water for tea. Waiting for the elevator at the office. Sitting on the bus. Standing in line at the coffee place. Anything you do regularly that gives you time to pause and pay attention.
Second, choose something, and pay attention to it.
Just pick one thing. There’s always your breath, wherever you go, so that’s a good one. I also like to notice colors. Notice all the red things. Or teal. Or feel a texture, and explore it as if it were all there was in the universe. Especially if you are feeling rushed and scattered, try focusing on the feeling of your feet on the ground, and on the ground supporting you. Listen to the sounds around you. See how far away you can hear.
Some years ago one of my reminder cues was when I would fill our donkeys’ water tub. (Yes, donkeys – Eeyore and Clementine.) Every day I’d be outdoors for at least a few minutes, running a hose into a clean tub so they would have fresh drinking water. It was a perfect occasion to pause and just pay attention. Sometimes I’d notice the chilly air, or the feeling of warm sun on my back. I’d watch the light swirling in the water, or listen to the sound of happy donkeys slowly chewing their hay.
Whenever you do this, and whatever your focus, remember the dandelion seeds. When your mind offers its inevitable judgments and distractions, just release them into the wind and let them float away. Return to just feeling, just listening, just seeing. Just being present.
About the Author — Linda Eskin
Linda began practicing Aikido in 2009, at age 46, to improve her horsemanship. From the beginning she was inspired to explore how Aikido is taught and learned. In addition to mentoring adults, she assisted in the children’s programs for over eight years. Linda loves Aikido both from the technical perspective, and as a practice of awareness and embodiment. She is completing her forthcoming book, Aikido to Zanshin – 26 Essays on the Martial Art of Peace. Her passion is encouraging people to begin, and supporting new learners of all ages.
Linda trains with Dave Goldberg Sensei at Aikido of San Diego, in California, and holds the second black belt rank, nidan.