Movement flows as One
Heart and Mind embrace quiet
Clarity arrives
– Haiku by LTQ
Like many, I have struggled with depression.  It makes many things difficult.  Making plans is hard. Creating new habits is hard.  Feeling motivated to do nearly anything can be hard.  Focus is often entirely elusive.
I have studied martial arts in different forms and to different degrees since I was twelve.  Like many, it helped me learn focus.  But it’s not difficult to focus on something you enjoy.  Then there is the elusive state known as “flow”; a state in which the world narrows down to only the present time.  The extraneous, distracting, sometimes annoyingly loud thoughts simply go away and one can be completely absorbed in the single task at hand.
Oddly, it brings to mind some words of samurai philosophy.  Now, I have mixed feelings about the Samurai.  On the one hand, it is a class of people who, by definition, swore to kill or die at the whim of their lord.  I find that to be… well, a questionable life choice at best.  But on the other hand, they have things like this:

Be true to the thought of the moment and avoid distraction.  Other than continuing to exert yourself, enter into nothing else, but go to the extent of living single thought by single thought.

-Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai

Unexpected occasions of this happened to me earlier in my life, usually during times of what might normally appear to be crisis.  Emergencies of one kind or another, moments of danger, even violent occurrences, though not pleasant, have sometimes had me walking away thinking, “Why did that feel… easy?”  There was no feeling of stress or anxiety during the event, no particular mental fallout afterward.  That calm focus was a sensation which, after it was gone, I missed.  What was it about this situation that would cause such a reaction?

I think it was because those times afforded me the rare opportunity to think of absolutely nothing other than what is happening in the present moment.  Whatever else that moment was, to me, above all, it was clear.  No obstructions. No distractions. Just clarity.

However, these were not the sort of occurrences one should necessarily make a habit of seeking.

I have dedicated at least a portion of my life to practicing Aikido, Tai Chi and Qigong.  The physical practices of those disciplines (probably any physical practice) offer the opportunity to seek out those moments of clarity, of flow.

As an example, take the Tai Chi form.  In the beginning, the form seems overwhelming.  It’s too big to take in.  To learn it, we break it down.  The form is a specific sequence of movements.  The movements themselves are broken down and initially learned in a somewhat mechanical manner:

  • The anchor points: specific poses which the body will pass through during the sequence.  A sort of snapshot of that moment of the form.

  • The path: the specific path of travel the different body parts will take to go from one anchor point to the next.

  • The timing (the most difficult part): how much time the parts of the body take in relation to one another on their respective paths through the anchor points for them all to reach their destination smoothly and simultaneously.

Yes, that last bullet point may need some parsing, but I hope you’re still with me.

That process of sorting out all those positions, the transitions from one to another, balancing the timing of separate body parts to achieve a cohesive form, is something that lasts a lifetime.  It can open up whole other worlds of thought.  But each started with focusing on one thing.  As your practice deepens, your focus narrows to smaller and smaller details.  “Did I move my arm correctly?” eventually becomes “Is my wrist too stiff?”, then smaller still “Was my thumb sticking up a bit?”.

After years of practice, the number of my mistakes is hopefully a bit lower, but probably not much. However, the mistakes are smaller.  My form is better than it was in the beginning. (I mean, it better be, right?) When did it get better?  During those moments of flow.

And in those moments, perhaps more was found.

There is surely nothing other than the single purpose of the present moment. A man’s whole life is a succession of moment after moment. There will be nothing else to do, and nothing else to pursue. Live being true to the single purpose of the moment.

-Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai