Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Empty Cup

I know a cyberpal who is going though some serious renovating: personal, physical AND home-improvement-ological (she's removating and lookng for a new roof!). Part of her regimen includes giving up hot showers. Now let me say, for the record, that in the course of 20something years working for Uncle Sugar I've taken my share of cold showers. Panama? Honduras? The Sinai? Yeah, baby..! Bring on the good cold stuff. But New England? Oregon?

Brrrr. Not so much.

I remember having a conversation about something like this with the old Japanese sensei at my kendo school.

He was doing a drill with me where he made simple cuts at my head. I was supposed to parry them and immediately cut back at him; the purpose of the drill was to learn to riposte without thinking, to respond immediately to an attack with a stronger attack.

But I hadn't understood the instruction - I wasn't completing the parry and as a result was allowing him to hit me on the head. He was this tiny, wizend Japanese, probably 90 pounds dripping wet, but he'd been fighting with a shinai since Hirohito was a stripling and his arms and wrists were like steel springs. He snapped the tip of the shinai like a cracking whip; it stung every time it hit and he hit every time. Finally he lowered the tip of his sword and just looked at me.

"Why do you not defend against the men cut?" he asked, genuinely puzzled.

I was puzzled: "Sensei, I thought we were not supposed to."

"Suffering you will get without trying," the master said to me sternly, "to make yourself suffer without need is to waste the lessons that suffering will teach you."

I get the deal about stressing the body to improve the body and mind. But cold showers sound Brrrr!And yet...for all that my sensei expected me to protect myself from avoidable pain, the kenjutsu tradition is that the students practice until they drop and the sensei gets to whale the tar out of them with a bokken (wooden sword) when they screw up. Or not: some of the great kenjutsu training stories involves the sensei sneaking around and whacking the students at random just to get him all cat-like and quick. Remember, this is zen we're talking about. The nutshell of a good koan is that it makes absolutely no sense...until it does.

So do you find that self-imposed "suffering" - fasts, physical strain like yoga or types of training, minor deprivations like forgoing meat, sugar or taking a cold shower instead of a hot one - helps to focus the mind and tauten the body in the way that, say, great suffering and tragedy can bring about a sort of enlightenment? In what ways? What's your experience?

I'm genuinely curious. What do you all think?


mike said...

Didn't Teddy Roosevelt take cold showers to build up his stamina??? As a young man, Mao reportedly subjected himself to long bare-chested runs during the winter months in Hunan province. T.E Lawrence had a rigid diet, an exacting exercise program, and swam in the North Sea - and many say a bad case of masochism. Not sure any of them were seeking enlightenment - but they achieved more than most.

Many cultures attribute wisdom to those that seek out solitude and end up suffering the discomforts cold, hunger. They certainly have lots of time to think.

I have always sought warmth and comfort when trying to do the deep thinking. That never seemed to work as well as the brainstorms I would get on a solitary 10k run or on a cold all-night vigil. I know that too much meat or sugar never turned me into an Einstein. But then neither did anything else. Maybe I just need to grow my eyebrows longer.

Red Sand said...

For the record, since your post makes me smile, I only try these things long enough to know if the "suffering" is real or the result of some sort of imbalance. To wit, my sugar restrictions, while painful for a few days, have left me feeling much, much better, and the yoga is a must-do for me.

I guess I try these things to test my comfort levels, to try to understand if there are experiences I might be missing out on and habits that are worth questioning.

I remember a few hikes that challenged me to the core, that I never thought I'd survive, or some diving experiences that seemed like too much. In the end, I made it through and knew it had been worth the discomfort.

Trust me on this though, if the showers don't lead me to any new levels of enlightenment in the next day or two, they're history.

sheerahkahn said...

I like your sensei...very practical swordsman.

Lisa said...

I don't know that self-denial is necessary to enlightenment, but frugality -- living without excess -- focuses the mind on the essential.

I think when in that state of simplicity, the fog of daily confusion clears. When distractions and chances for escape are lessened, clarity is there.

Maybe this is what the Buddha and many other have meant by "emptying," or Michaelangelo by removing the excess stone to reveal the figure therein. Chip it away through gentle removal, vs. suffering, and there is truth.

Sadly, many of us, yer humble writer included, must wear our horsehair shirt or chains and play the part of penitent before the futility of such a burden becomes obvious. To me, enlightenment comes with laying the burden down, not carrying the cross.

Lisa said...

p.s.--I think self-imposed trials can become a crutch which bars true enlightenment. All the regimens people perform to get there -- runner's high, psycotropic drugs, fasting, confession, chanting, sufi dancing, etc. -- seem unnecessary ritual.

Like the monks who can simply sit and lower their heart rate and body temperature, a change of heart comes by focus and observation.

FDChief said...

Lisa: "To me, enlightenment comes with laying the burden down, not carrying the cross." "a change of heart comes by focus and observation."

Just one more reason you are among the wisest and most gracious of us. Beautifully spoken and insightful; domo.

Lisa said...

It is my great pleasure to interact here. Arigato Gozaimasu.