Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Rhythm and timing

Deep into winter the weather has suddenly turned--a few days of above average temperatures--and I find myself thinking about fall and the changing seasons. The snow has melted, mostly, and out on the trails it looks as if it might be early spring or late autumn. No foliage, of course, but the leaves covering the forest floor make it look like another season, one not so still, as if the forest is holding its breath, everything waiting for the next nor'easter. Of course, winter will come back, but not today.

Today, I can wander up familiar trails, with no ice pack to hinder my way or boggy, mud-covered patches to look out for. And, as I often do, I turn onto the Pines Edge Trail off the Boggy Meadow Road that leads up to a trail called the Middle Path. Very zen. Though I suspect the name really came from the fact that the trail runs all the way up the middle of the Fitzgerald Lake conservation area. It's actually one of my favorite trails here, not because of the name but because it's so varied. It passes through swampy areas and up over rocky hills, through patches of mountain laurel, and down through pine forests. I've encountered a large pileated woodpecker here, ducks, frogs, water snakes, and a host of chipmunks scurrying over the leaves and peering out from hollow tree trunks.

A few months ago, I passed a large, bald-faced hornets nest hanging from a small sapling by the side of the trail. It looked like a giant Halloween mask. The hornets (Dolichiovespula maculate) were hard at work, carefully building the paper walls, spiraling outward, making it larger and larger. One could marvel at the effort--each one working for a few minutes before returning through one of the openings as another came out to continue the work. But I wondered who was overseeing this monumental effort. Was there a structural engineer? Did the hornets understand the dynamics of the situation, the stresses involved? What would happen in a torrential rainstorm? The nest already looked too big for the sapling where it hung.

When I returned a week later, most of the nest lay on the ground. Only a few small scraps of the papery nest still clung to the sapling. And the hornets were nowhere to be seen.

I don't know whether it's a romanticized notion of the natural world or not, but I tend to think that a tree knows innately what it needs to do in order to survive. That birds don't need to be taught where to get their food. Squirrels seem to know they need to amass enough nuts to make it through the winter months. Some people even think that the wooly bear caterpillar can predict how harsh the winter will be with its arrangement of black and brown stripes. I don't know, did some errant child take a stick to the hornets nest or did the hornets simply make a mistake, a miscalculation?

I was thinking of all this because it speaks to a kind of awareness of things, all things, that there's a rhythm to life, something like the seasons we experience in the world. And if you're not aware of it, it can get you into all sorts of trouble, or at the very least throw a monkey wrench into your plans.

I was listening to an interview of Charlie Gabriel on the radio the other night. If you're not that familiar with him, he's a jazz clarinetist, but he also occasionally sings, and they played a version of him singing "I'm gonna sit right down and write myself a letter." What struck me was his phrasing, his rhythm and timing. All the best jazz singers seem to have this incredible sense of timing, an awareness of the music and the other musicians they're playing with. Listening to Charlie Gabriel, it struck me that so much of life has to do with this sense of rhythm and timing. If you watch a game of soccer (futbol), you can sometimes, if the players are playing well, get a sense of the rhythm of the game. When you drive down the highway in heavy traffic, there's a rhythm to the flow. There's a rhythm to words and a rhythm and flow to walking down the street on a crowded sidewalk.

Receiving the opponent's punch
from Saifa kata bunkai.
There's a rhythm to karate as well. And if you don't have the rhythm right or the timing, you're dead.You can watch kata sometimes and see dead, stagnant places, places where there's no flow. But you really notice it in doing bunkai with a partner or ippon kumite or yakusoku kumite. When you do it correctly, you meet the opponent in a sort of synthesis of movement, as if you are both a part of the same movement, just a movement that's a bit more complex than either would be by itself. There's no gap or dead space waiting to be filled, there's no starting and stopping. When it's right, it looks as if it's natural, as if it's the way it's supposed to be. The counterattack follows, without effort, in the wake of the block. The block begins almost as soon as the opponent's attack, and meets it before the attack has finished, so that the energy of the attack is dispelled and redirected.

I don't really know how to describe this in words that don't make it all sound so needlessly cryptic and esoteric. It's just simply that there is a rhythm to both kata and bunkai that's important to be aware of. It reminds me of something that Toyama Zenshu sensei told me once many years ago in Okinawa. He was holding a piece of rice paper with Japanese calligraphy on it. It was a beautiful example of the art of Shodo. But then he turned it over--and of course you could still see the whole character quite clearly from the other side of the rice paper--just like kata, he said. Of course, that's a bit cryptic too, I suppose.

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