A few years ago John Stevens Sensei came to visit and offer Aikido seminars in Northern California. Sensei Stevens at the time was dealing with some major health issues. At some point in the seminar, he told the group, “For the last few years, my training partner was cancer.” I was surprised by this. He didn’t talk about “beating cancer” or “winning over his disease”. He said simply, “for the last few years, my training partner was cancer”. In Aikido we don’t compete. We don’t seek to win; we seek harmony and understanding of the world so that we can live harmoniously in it.
It’s interesting though, because while I enjoyed hearing about his experience and perspective it wasn’t until recently that I had a close hand look at this. I have had lower back issues for quite some time, going back to 2012, I remember taking my first trip to Hawaii and feeling pain after a hike. I couldn’t figure out a way to make it subside other than lie down on my back. That was my first inkling that there were issues but they would come and go.
Fast forward to a few months ago. At the end of 2020 my back issues had increased in intensity and were now chronic. After a referral to an orthopedic surgeon, it was revealed that the disk between the L5 and S1 vertebrae had completely disintegrated and the L4 and L5 vertebrae had gone completely out of alignment. The surgeon was worried that my lower back was so unstable that it could have led to some permanent damage.
I had to work within the health insurance system though. Working within the system means that I have to go the prescribed method of physical therapy, then an epidural, then surgery as a last resort. Late January 2021 I was in unable to work, I could not sit at my desk for longer than 15 or 20 minutes and I was in constant pain. Physical therapy was helping nominally, And the epidural did not take. As things go, I was relatively lucky in the red tape that we had to go through to get to a surgery date was not much. We were able to schedule a surgery date for May 3rd. The procedure went really well and as of today my quality of life has improved greatly.
So what does this have to do with Aikido? I made a conscious effort to view my condition in the same light as Sensei Stevens did with his cancer. I was able to understand his statement, “For the last few years my training partner was cancer” much more completely. I know that these two things are completely different animals. I’m not comparing my experience to the experience of a cancer patient. I am taking stock of the concept of trying to live in harmony vs “beating” a disease (or dis ease).
There are a few things I learned about myself that I’m very grateful for:
There is pain, and there is suffering. I chose to deal with my pain as best I could, but not suffer from it. The Buddha talks about the “second arrow”. In a lecture, the Buddha asked his disciples, “what do you think could be the most painful thing you’d have to endure.” One of his disciples said, “being shot with an arrow.” The buddha replied, “There’s something actually more painful than that. It’s the second arrow.” Gil Fronsdal shared this story in one of his lectures and went on to give the following example of the second arrow. Say you are walking and stub your toe. That injury is the first arrow. The second arrow is all of the internal talk, “Jesus I’m so stupid! How could I be so dumb to have stubbed my toe. Now I won’t be able to walk, and crap, I’m a horrible walker. I should just give up and never walk again.” It’s the tape recording that takes pain and turns it into suffering. I made a conscious effort to remind myself that pain is temporary. It will come and go. I’ll have good moments and those moments are fleeting just as the bad ones are. Enjoy them when you can.
Being present. Hoooooly shit, how many times do we hear this term. It’s such a ubiquitous term that it some times loses meaning. However, it really helped me to wake up each day and simply ask myself “how am i doing today?” I’d ask this several times a day. In the morning, I’d wake up and ask it. Some days I would answer, “today is a good day. I can get through my entire tai chi set.” Other days, it would be, “i can only do a quarter of the set”, or “I don’t feel like moving”. I chose to not try to label my answer as good or bad. It simply was where I was. I will have better or worse days. Those days of better or worse will continue regardless of the condition of my back, so I found that simply being present, breathing through the pain, moving when i can, lying when I couldn’t helped tremendously.
Learning to be in harmony with something that is not pleasant is a hard task. Ai Ki Do means the way of harmonizing energy. Being in harmony when everything is going well is the easy part, but when adversity comes into your life, it’s harder to do this. What helped was asking the questions “what can I learn from this experience?”, and “what gifts will my training partner give me?”. If I approach life with all of it’s odd ball characters I will know to ask these two questions now if we don’t see eye to eye. Sometimes the answer is to seek an understanding of how I can be in the same space with someone else I don’t see eye to eye with. Sometimes the answer is to simply understand that I don’t know everything that goes on with someone else that brought them into my sphere and simply accept, “this too shall pass.”
I am grateful for the words spoken by Stevens Sensei. I didn’t know how much they would be relevant to me at the time. It’s funny how that works. Lessons planted as a seed grow slowly and bloom just when we need them.