This was the advice given me by a good friend, if by good friend you understand that while we share a half dozen Linked In connections and comment on each others kids’ pictures on Facebook, we haven’t actually spoken in five years. He is a second-degree black belt in Aikido. “Be water” was his Sensei’s motto. My friend had it tattooed down the back of his neck.
Back when we shared a workout plan (but different visions), every time I would struggle in the gym, get frustrated, lose my temper, and even cry ocassionally, he would point to his neck. His version of Talk To The Hand. Then I would get irritated and accuse him of getting things too easily, of never having to struggle. Because I never saw him struggle. At least in the gym things did seem to come naturally to him. And in my narrow vision, that I charitably attribute to the follies of youth, I assumed that meant he didn’t know pain. In spite of the fact that he immigrated here from a country known for its human-rights abuses. A country in which he still had a child. A country to which he would one day return to, not out of compulsion but because he thought he could do more good for his people there than from here.
I remember one day as he watched me fail early on a weight set that I could usually do easily. I tried over and over again, each time more determined to meet my weight. Each time failing earlier and faster. Finally it was apparent to even my sweat-stung eyes that I was achieving nothing. I whined. He stopped me with, “Why do you keep hitting the rocks? Just flow around them. Be water.”
I did not learn how to be water then.
Aikido, of which I took exactly one semester of in college and then quit because rolling endlessly across the floor made me dizzy (official reason) and because I wasn’t progressing very quickly despite trying very hard (real reason), is a martial art defined by its passivity. It is an almost entirely defensive practice. Where Karate kicks and Tae Kwon Do blocks, Aikido just… flows. Like water. The key, so my Sensei told me, was to use your opponent’s energy against him. To keep as much of your own energy in reserve as possible. Which is why it hardly looked like his tiny 5’7″ form was moving while his 6′ opponent was flying across the room.
One evening, against his advice, I tried to copy him. Encouraging my reluctant (and much larger) opponent to come at me, I attempted to throw him, only to throw myself to the mat instead. It knocked the wind out of me. When I regained my senses, it was to the laughter of my classmates as my Sensei pointed out my critical mistake: I was still holding the hand of my opponent. “Charlotte,” he chided gently, “you have to learn to let go.”
I did not learn how to let go then.
My father tried to teach me this lesson one night as he held my hand, my body convulsing in pain. I was in my last semester of graduate school, had just had a miscarriage and then out of the blue was laid flat by unpredictable attacks of horrible pain. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I was sure it was something horrible like stomach cancer. My doctors thought it was heartburn. The answer was more psychological than either of us thought. We finally named it Irritable Bowel Syndrome – a label which gave me no comfort because while the pain was real, the treatment wasn’t. It was just a syndrome after all, one probably brought on by too much stress. They gave me some pain pills to take when it got really bad that I avoided because the narcotics made me loopy (official reason). And they were suppositories (real reason).
Instead I would crouch in a darkened bathroom, my intestines turning on themselves with worry, the peristalsis working against itself until the pain culminated in diarrhea, vomiting or both. And then I could go to sleep. It got to be a vicious cycle: the fear of having “an attack” would bring one on and then the pain would plant the seed of fear for the next time. Truly, those talking stomach commercials you see for Zelnorm are to IBS what elves are to Mordor.
It was during one of those cryingshaking moments when my dad sat on the floor and held my hand telling me, “If you can just stop thrashing… all your life you’ve been a thrasher. But it just muddies the water. If you could just hold still, all the silt would settle down and you’d be able to see the bottom clearly.”
I did not learn how to be still then.
There were too many unknowns. Would I graduate? If I did, what would I do without the comforting confines of academia? Would I ever have a child? Get a job? Would I have to move? Where? But despite the giant unaswered question that was my life, now I knew that if I didn’t learn this lesson, then the pain would hit and hit hard. It’s incredibly motivating, pain. Slowly I learned to make environmental changes to help my IBS; I limited fatty foods, I practiced yoga regularly with an emphasis on the yogic breathing cycle, but I still believed that there wasn’t a problem out there that couldn’t be solved by just trying harder.
Honestly, I’ve never been good at being mellow. I’m high strung. Tightly wound. Over eager. Passionate. I try too hard. I overcompensate. I flail. I kick against the pricks. The problem with being a control freak though is that eventually the pressure becomes too immense and you crack under the weight of all the expectations you heap on yourself. When this happens to me I go down hard. I fight and fight (or run and run) and then when I have no energy left, I cry and cry. When that is over and I’m completely spent, I experience one of those rare moments of thoughtful stillness. And so it was tonight. Life has a way of reteaching you important lessons until you learn them.
Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to do nothing at all. Be water.