Some of you who read this regularly may remember me posting an article called 'The Right Costume' which was inspired by a quote from the Hagakure - the Book of the Samurai, which I often quote from when I am running The Samurai Game. Well, I dug up another one! I've re-worked it a bit but I like it and I hope you enjoy it too. As the title suggests, this is about Obsession, Artistry and Faith. Funnily enough, while I haven't seen this article for a few years, it really resonates with the book I published earlier this year which I posted an excerpt of here. It would seem my thinking has at least a little consistentcy...I'm either on the right track or a very slow learner! Anyway, here it is:
“It is bad when one thing becomes two. One should not look for anything else in the Way of the Samurai. It is the same for anything that is called a Way. Therefore it is inconsistent to hear something of the Way of Confucius or the Way of the Buddha, and say that this is the Way of the Samurai. If one understands things in this manner, he should be able to hear about all Ways and be more and more in accord with his own.”
- Hagakure, First Chapter. (Trans. William Scott Wilson)
It is rare in our modern world for people to speak of having a Way, or a ‘Calling,’ which is probably the English equivalent. To have a Calling was most commonly associated with joining the church and becoming a minister but could be applied to many paths. I suppose the modern equivalent is ‘having a career,’ but I seldom encounter this having for people the kind of unreserved commitment that is associated with a Calling or a Way. Also, in my understanding of such things it is quite possible to follow a Way that is not necessarily directly associated with one’s career. To pursue a Way is like a path of healthy obsession, it is where a mere technician becomes an Artist. This kind of obsession takes skill to balance with the rest of one’s life and is also not generally considered very ‘cool!’ Discovering and embracing our own personal Way requires us to connect with our inner ‘geek,’ to find that thing which takes no effort to be completely focused on for hours, days, and years of our life – not so that we are cut off from the world and become exclusive in our attitudes, but so that we have an arena to fully embody and exercise our passion. We can achieve a high degree of focus with discipline as our motivating factor, but the image of “discipline,” can fall into some very unhealthy traps. For years I practised martial arts with a great deal of discipline, but my version of discipline back then involved internally beating myself over the head until I got up and trained. My discipline was based on anger and as such was unsustainable and essentially self-harming. In this way, my entire practice was built on a foundation of anger and it has taken a lot of work since realising this to break that foundation up and put a new one in place. It’s not a process I would recommend duplicating! You will be best served to find a Way that you keep going back to just because it brings you a quiet inner sense of pleasure and satisfaction to do it.
Anything can be embraced as a Way, it is just a matter of asking yourself what you are obsessed enough with to explore it that deeply. When we really commit to such a course of study there comes a point where everything in our lives is automatically related to this Way; it becomes a lens through which we view the world and a forum for us to develop ourselves. I have studied many things but only 3 things to anything approaching this depth: Acting, Martial Arts, and Shamanism. What I have realised over the years is that none of these is really my Way. They are all a part of the picture but my Way is the Way of Presence. I am completely and effortlessly obsessed with Presence. So I continue to study several arts but with the clarity that all the time I am using them as tools to develop my commitment to the Way of Presence.
The Ascetic or Hermit’s path (referred to in some shamanic traditions as the ‘via negativa’) of enlightenment is to keep shedding attachments, constantly letting things go, removing oneself from the world to enable total non-attachment to anything whatsoever so that nothing distracts the Ascetic from being totally free. The Warrior is involved with the world and as such has to take a different path of realisation (sometimes called the ‘via positiva’): the Warrior becomes completely involved with the world to the point of love and obsession, so completely invested in the present moment that they pass out the other side of obsession and find freedom. The destination is essentially the same but the path is different. This is a fine example of structure leading to freedom. This is similar to the Zen arts of Chado (Way of Tea – the tea ceremony) and Kyudo (Archery). 2 everyday activities (in the time they were developed) which have been heightened to the level of an Art through structure and ritual. Once a practitioner is so well versed in the formal ritual of the practice that they can do it without thinking, they can completely surrender themselves to each and every tiny moment knowing that the ritual, the structure will take care of the bigger picture. The practice provides a framework for us to practice emptying ourselves and totally trusting. In practicing such arts, or any martial art with Kata or Forms (solo patterns of movement) there comes a point where the ritual is so familiar it is essentially boring; then, having become that familiar with the form you can forget about where you are going next and become obsessive about the details within each movement and moment; finally once the detail is sufficiently refined you can pass out the other side of obsession into a freedom where the form (or pattern, or ritual, or Kata) is ‘doing’ you rather than you doing it. There spontaneously arises a mindful effortlessness.
It seems to me that mostly in our modern world we just keep giving up when we get to the boredom stage so we never develop a Way and everything seems “too much like hard work.” We just have lots of fragments of knowledge and no understanding, no sense of an underlying structure – no faith. What is faith if not an underlying structure, or a sense of being supported and held? In practicing standing meditation I found a benefit I had no idea I would find there. I found such a profound awareness of my connection with the ground that I began to feel totally supported by the Earth – by Mother Earth - all of the time, as indeed I am! In this way Faith seems to me to be a practice, not a passive waiting for something to fall in our laps.
There is nothing wrong with trying things out and letting them go if they are not what we want, but if we stick at nothing, or do everything mindlessly then we end up with what my Mum used to call a ‘readers digest knowledge’: small facts about many subjects and no real understanding of anything. By gaining a deep understanding of one subject, this subject can serve as a microcosm for us to learn about the macrocosm of our lives. This is wisdom. Through practicing something until it is the structure that underpins our lives, we learn faith. It is not a matter of randomly picking a pursuit and blindly sticking to it, but of connecting with our heart’s passion to find out what nourishes us. I have had 3 main paths of study and each of them have served me well in their time. With each of them I felt that maybe there was something that would suit me better, but without being sure what, it was a matter of sticking with something until it led me somewhere else. That ‘somewhere else,’ is my Way. It is a Warrior’s Way and having found it I feel more confident and centred in myself and in my life. From this place of confidence I don’t need to justify or defend my way of life, so I can have experiences and learn from all Ways, and be more and more in accord with my own.