Thursday, January 15, 2009

A Lesson In Action

Remember last month's newsletter? The topic was breathing as a practice in the face of fear.

The lesson was punctuated on Tuesday, December 23rd. A score of us attended an aikido class at Two Rock Aikido. Richard Strozzi-Heckler, our sensei, moved us into an exercise for which he is uniquely known: walking, turning, standing. A kind of organized chaos. Random and rapid, yet relaxed. The idea: in a confined and silent room, each of us moves and allows the space between us to appear and disappear revealing opportunity for best action. To be in this swirl you are encouraged to forego a plan, other than to allow a sort of gravity (created by the empty space and those around you) to pull you from one direction to another. Its value, either as a martial arts exercise or life metaphor, may be hard to imagine until practiced. Kind of like ice cream - explain all you want; but it's only through taking a bite that one really understands and enjoys. Such is the way with any commitment. A few minutes into the exercise Richard's voice cut the silence, "Pay attention to your breath! It's the platform of our art."

This month's topic for consideration, again for effective action during times of stress, tension and fear, is humor and laughter.

Google search laughter and you'll find a flood of online articles advising its mind-freeing benefit and remedies for creativity. A belly laugh every twenty-four hours is apparently good heart medicine - emotionally and physically.

Author Laurence Gonzales offers his perspective:

· "Every pursuit has its own subculture, from hang gliders and step creek boaters to cavers and mountain bikers. I love their dark and private humor, those ritual moments of homage to the organism, which return us to a protective state of cool. It unequivocally separates the living from the dead."

· "The fact is you have to deal with these things [fear and terror] to the best of your ability. If you don't work with it, it'll get to you."

· "It sounds cruel, but survivors laugh and play, and even in the most horrible situations -- perhaps especially in those situations -- they continue to laugh and play. To deal with reality you must first recognize it as such --- (P)lay puts a person in touch with his environment while laughter makes the feeling of being threatened manageable."

· "Moods are contagious, and the emotional states involved with smiling, humor, and laughter are among the most contagious of all. It's automatic, and one person laughing or smiling induces the same reaction in others. --- There is evidence that laughter can send chemical signals to actively inhibit the firing of nerves in the amygdala, thereby dampening fear."

· "It is not a lack of fear that separates elite performers from the rest of us. They're afraid, too, but they're not overwhelmed by it. They manage fear."
(p 40-41, Deep Survival, 2004, W.W. Norton publisher)

As for me, I recall a cold January afternoon twelve years ago. Laying seriously injured on Capitola Beach, California, I was alone. My fall from a boulder had completely split my left femur. My friend ran for help and returned an hour later with a bevy of paramedics and police officers. "Are you the victim?" they asked, " We're looking for a dead body." "Yes and no," I confessed. "Yes, I'm the (ugh) victim, and NO, I'm not dead." Into a metal basket I went. The pain - horrendous. Our trek, the rescuers figured, needed to be straight out into the ocean, avoid the big rocks, then circle back onto sand once near the ambulance. The tide was incoming. It was going to be a rough trip and we all knew it. Every step's jarring motion produced in me a scream. So I asked the medics, now up to their glutes in salt water, "You guys mind if I do something strange?" "Nah, go ahead," they agreed; and I began humming loudly - more like groaming (think hybrid hum and groan). The tune, "Think of Me" from Phantom of the Opera. The medics started to grin and laugh. Through half a mile of surf my groaming continued, mixed with intermittent screams. At times, I was smiling too. What a relieving way to overcome the pain (mine) and the work (theirs). It also kept me conscious. It remains for me an unforgettable journey. And for them, perhaps the strangest, funniest and most relaxed rescue ever.

Returning to Tuesday, December 23rd - a few days ago. Something happened that night that was unexpectedly funny (maybe that's what makes humor so powerful -it evokes spontaneity). Richard was in the midst of testing one of the students. The atmosphere was formal and serious, with high expectation for excellence in a display of deliberate attacks and blends. There was tension in the air. "Show me variations from yokomen uchi," Richard ordered. And he continued, "Now, show me variations from morote dori". And on it went becoming faster and more intense - "from katadori" - "from ushiro waza". Then suddenly, making no sense at all, his voice cracked the tension across the room, "Now show me - sand the floor." For an instant none of us believed what we had heard. I started laughing. The laughter became infectious. A warm wave of relief swept the dojo and the person being tested proceeded with ease, grace and dignity, and filled with breath. The rest of us watching, thoroughly enjoyed the art he displayed.

If you have never seen the film, The Karate Kid the "show me sand the floor" is as meaningless as un-savored ice cream. If you have seen that movie - maybe you're smiling too.

Consider this: laughter increases one's capacity for breath.

No comments: