Some experiences are transcendent. When those moments are experienced with others they become a link in the shared memory of the group. This weekend at retreat our group shared such a moment. Each has their own version of if etched into memory. Each transposed their own meaning.

One of the themes we discussed at camp was emptiness. One potential meaning of the word karate-do is “empty hand way.” This could be interpreted as self defense with an empty hand, without a weapon. We wondered about more esoteric interpretations of the term. The way the mind empties when practicing thousands of reps. The way words are empty symbols in their attempts to describe indescribable, subjective personal experience.

Zen tradition presents its practitioners with kōan (公案). These stories or riddles to challenge the practitioner’s progress on the path. Mr. Knight described his experience of working through a kata as approaching a kōan. The kata is a riddle to figure out through hours of repetition until its secrets reveal themselves. The karateka is no longer doing the kata. The kata is manifesting itself through the body of the karateka. The body and mind are a vessel. Empty and filled simultaneously.

Moments become full or empty based on the context and meaning ascribed by the observers. Retreat was full of activity with almost constant karate practice from sunrise to sunset. When we weren’t training, we were still training. We had to maintain protocol, interact with our community in close quarters, work out interpersonal conflicts, share moments of exhaustion and exhilaration.

We were introduced to a new art called bagua by Mr. Shapiro who is a practitioner of 18 years experience. It is an ancient Chinese internal martial art, an early ancestor of Kung Fu. We practiced “cloud hands” and circle walking. We explored concepts of internal attunement, continuity and fluidity in contrast with the hard external style of karate. We were invited to get in touch with our inner world. Can you feel your own digestive process? Can you sense your heartbeat pulsing blood through your body?

Once you have developed this deep attunement to your own internal physical sensations what do you do with this information? We were told it can become a guide for decision-making more in tuned with our own nature and intuition. These are things we have lost touch with in our modern world which stresses analytical thinking over feeling. Our bodies are held hostage to hours spent staring at devices and commuting in cars. Our natural inclination towards movement and engagement in social interaction displaced by the subtle glow of a screen, our posture stooped over like our prehistoric ancestors.

Karate retreat is about standing up straight again. Fully re-engaging with our social nature and innate need for physical challenge. It renders many of us exhausted, dreary or full-on ill. Many at camp this time were throwing up. I didn’t sleep much or well. When I did sleep my dreams felt like work. I spent my days in an exhausted stupor.

After dark on the second day we climbed up the mountain behind camp for our night work out. The path had been mostly clear winding upwards in a series of well-defined switchbacks. Finally we scrabbled up an undeveloped part of the mountain, sliding on loose gravel and dirt to reach a high clear spot that was somewhat level. We did mokuso staring up at the full moon. The clouds poured over the mountain ridge streaming across the moon blown by a forceful wind. The effect was magical, poignant and awesome.

Majestic moonlight.
Obscured and uncovered by wisps of cloud.
Framed by mountains.
Craggy pine trees, overgrown bonsai.
Indescribable, incandescent beauty.

The meaning of the moment belonged to each individual and to the group collectively. Some may have seen God or The Way. Sublime Nature. Mother Moon. Goddess. Our individual history, upbringing and beliefs informing the interpretation of the moment. Our collective culture also gave meaning. Hundreds of mokuso’s practiced together before and after each karate class at the dojo. Our relationships forged in hours of hard training. Our weekend together, sweating, eating, sleeping, dreaming. The intense physical contact. Trust. Focus. Laughter. Repetitious movements performed in unison. All of us on this mountaintop together witnessing nature’s display.

If we hadn’t climbed that mountain on that evening, hadn’t been there to witness it together who would know of that natural phenomenon? Does beauty exist without a witness? Is there meaning without observation and context? Is that moment nothing more than proxy committed to the neurons of our brains, called forth by an image in the mind’s eye, transmitted by words. Empty symbols. Each moment framed by a thousand before and after. A fluid continuum. Endless.

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