"Be like water, my friend"
Imagine a small rivulet of water, flowing gently downhill. Now, let's say a rock appears directly in front of this little stream. What happens?
Does the water stop and push against the rock, trying to shove it out of the way? Of course not.
Does it try to pull the rock off to the side to make more room? Nope.
Does it simply turn around and go back where it came from? Huh-uh.
The water simply flows where it can. Let me repeat that: The water flows where it can.
Water does not, conversely, flow where it cannot. I know, I know. All that sounds painfully obvious, but it's a rather basic principle that nature seems to understand quite well, without having to "think" about it. But people? Well, there's both a blessing and a curse that comes with the ability to think.
The ability to reason has it's benefits; I don't think many would disagree with that. It's through the process of thoughtful analysis, or careful study, and detailed experimentation that we discover cures for deadly diseases, we create fantastic works of art, we solve profound problems and improve the quality of life.
But reason has it's drawbacks. Think of the terrible atrocities one man has inflicted upon others, not because he just wanted to be a bastard, but because he sincerely believed he was doing the right thing. The human brain devised the machine, the things that can do what the job of a hundred men. Along with that, we created a few problems: we ravage the earth and pollute the skies in order to make those machines run. Sometimes reasons creates as many problems as it solves.
So while we have continued to improve our ability to think over the millennia (hopefully for the better), we are often urged by sages past and present not to forget nature. Not just to remember it, but become reacquainted with it, to embody it once again.
As Sir Ken Robinson once pointed out, we have a tendency to live entirely in our heads (and a little to one side), and our bodies are merely vehicles to get us from one meeting to the next. I believe I am undeniably guilty of doing just that.
This is one of the many marvelous things I think budo teaches us. From day one, we are placed directly in front of an obstacle and asked, "Now, how do we deal with this?" Typically, the first thing a new student will do is try to "push against the rock." And just as typically, the first thing a new student discovers is how futile that can be.
Next comes the reasoning. The student retreats into their minds, their focus zeros in on the hand that's firmly grasping their wrist. They begin to study and experiment. Okay, what if I do this? Ugh! No? Hmm. Maybe if I... or move here and... Ugh! Crap. What am I supposed to do? This is impossible!
Our first guess—pushing the rock out of the way—didn't work, so maybe we can pull the rock off to one side to make room. Maybe, but it's a lot of work, and I don't think it would work with a bigger rock. What if I try to pull back—Umph! The rock rolls right over us.
As months pass, and we learn more techniques and a few kata movements, be begin to believe these are the answers to that initial problem. Ah-ha! What if I find a big stick that I can use as a lever! Then I can just place smaller rock here to use as a fulcrum, and I can uproot that pesky rock.
What if you can't find a stick that won't break? What if that rock is gigantic? What if it's not one heavy rock, but a thousand smaller ones? What if that rock is less of a problem than the angry bear behind you?
The difficult thing for many is to understand that we do not study one form of budo or another to learn techniques and kata; we study techniques and kata in order to learn budo. We don't do budo—we ARE budo! The water does not try to solve; it just flows. It does not flow where it can't, but finds space to fill naturally.
How does that apply to your aikido or your judo or whatever you study? When does your movement feel forced or even stuck? When does it feel almost effortless? If you've never felt yourself do something that seemed effortless, reflect on a teacher who has handled you with unsettling ease.
No, no—Stop. Don't think about what they're doing. Feel it. Have them do it to you again and again. Or get with a partner and let him put you in the worst position. You're in the gutter, your back against the wall. Feel where your ki is obstructed, where it feels like moving a rock. If water does not flow where it can't, where would it go? Can you find space to flow into and fill naturally?
Trying to get out of our heads can be enormously frustrating. I understand, believe me. After all, it's how we've lived most of our life! That is why we practice—both in and out of the dojo.