Thursday, March 19, 2009

A Matter of Life and Death

A long time ago, I took self-defense lessons with a private instructor. In my youth, I experienced more than my fair share of "attacks", which left me with a lingering fear and a tendency to flinch in the presence of aggressive males.

I am a bit under average height for a woman, medium-framed and well-muscled. Solid, my mother used to say. Not a lightweight, and relatively strong. My instructor, though, was somewhere around six-two, built and maintained in successful martial-arts and street-scrapper fashion. Before I signed up, I watched him effortlessly pick up and throw heavier men than himself. He was the kind of alpha male I was most afraid of, in many ways.

I knew I had to somehow overcome the fear my body had learned in the past, and "Sifu" was more than willing to get to the point. After very minimal lessons in technique, he informed me that we were going to "spar", and that he would not be too easy on me. I was equipped with all the safety gear, but this did nothing to ease the intimidation I felt when facing this man across just a few feet of wooden floor.

Our first couple of sessions, he chased me all over the place, patiently pointing out how I could have blocked this punch or kick and landed a few in return; but one day, when I was good and warm from my attempts to dodge him, he began to aggressively hit and taunt me. It got more and more merciless, this attack. I ended up in a corner, trying not to cry, in full female panic mode. He was almost yelling, like my worst nightmare--"C'mon, Maria, what's the matter? Are you afraid to be hit? Are you? What are you afraid of...pain? What--are you going to cower?!"

And he hit me again, hard enough to momentarily disorient me. All at once, I was angry, and went after him, uncaring anymore about what hurt and what didn't. I unleashed all kinds of wild swings and kicking, which he easily blocked (while laughing). My burst of rage-fueled energy was short-lived, and after only a few minutes, I had to stop. Embarrassingly, I cried a bit, anyway. I was shaking, and felt both stupid and exhilarated.

My instructor smiled big, nodded, patted me on the shoulder. Yes! Good! Finally!

I am telling this story to illustrate, in part, a mental-emotional-physical "turning" in my life that I instinctively attended to, sensing great value. After my "breakthrough" session, I was in a position to see what was actually in front of me, instead of the ghosts of my ancient fears. I never became a highly-skilled martial artist, but I did learn some useful things, and actually got under my teacher's guard a couple of times. He was quite proud of me, I could tell. :)

Most important was what happened after class, when I went home to regular life. A multifaceted understanding was unfolding during that period, in which I deeply experienced my own fear, my "protective" ego in action, and my perceived limitations as a female human. Ultimately, when I got all the way down to the bottom of it, what I was facing was my own mortality. That is, my physical fragility and strength, pleasure and pain, and the eventual or sudden cessation of this kind of knowing. We call it "death".

I became aware that, although I could heal "violation" or physical wounding, I had to someday deal with the type of change I had zero control over, zero answers to. Any serious emotional meltdown or depression I could recall was over the hidden thought of ceasing to exist. It was as if the idea of death was some kind of underlying whirlpool, waiting for the day that I was too tired to keep my head above water; I just knew I would be pulled down into something that hurt terribly, that I couldn't stop. Immersing myself in potential "nonexistence" was a way for me to view the "grim nothingness" more clearly.

I really didn't buy the idea, you see, of life-after-death, or the continuation of an egocentric self (most people's idea of a "soul"). But being a brief, random flash of biological "stuff" didn't feel right, either, considering that I had already glimpsed an intelligence and order to being that was inexplicably beautiful and recurring. Birth gave me plenty of chances to face the "reality" of death. What I see in retrospect was that I was also being given plenty of chances to face the reality of life.

Still, uncommon events left me thinking--even in the midst of my own obvious experience--things like, "This can't be real!"

Eventually, it was no longer about the reality of life or death, but about the reality of reality. I probably missed being "hit by a bus" by only a step or two on several occasions, while deep in blind thoughts concerning what reality is.

The resolution to my puzzling was (if my vision had simply become aware of itself at the time) in the form of a brilliantly silly woman, oncoming buses, guardian angels and teachers (or the like) who were thankfully on the alert when I was not. But busy as I was, formulating "answers", the Reality of Life/Death shrugged, and gave me a hug (which I thought was a bruised shin).

Fortunately, Reality is the most patient condition. It can afford to be, as it is incredibly wealthy, ageless and equalizing. It holds up Life and Death, comedy, tragedy and everything in-between; it presents itself as all forms of experience tirelessly. Should an "answer", in the form of a strong ego, demand the stage, Reality steps gracefully forward as just that, and plays the expected part.

Blessedly, it is also the very instinct that leads us to face our deepest and most aggressive fear, the question that leads to its own resolution. As we expand into what we are, we find that we have less to confront...perhaps not even "death", which now seems an awful lot like "life". I understand the concepts these words represent, but what my current experience is has nothing to do with either.

I read a legend, once, of an Aikido master who became as transparent as a pane of glass and as light as the wind. A fly, it was said, could not land on him. I marveled at that, and dismissed it as fanciful. Now I can understand the code, and choose my flies. :)

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