An Invitation for a New Academic Year: Relax Completely

ki_2There’s a sort of standard language that accompanies the start of a new academic year. If you’re a pessimist, that language involves ending a period of ‘taking it easy’ and beginning a period of stress. The freewheeling good life of summer is over and now the anxiety and overwork begin. If you’re an optimist, the language swings more toward a sense of excitement, of new possibility, of “gearing up” for a productive season. It can also be a venue for New Year’s-like resolutions: I’m going to be more productive this year; I’m not going to make the mistakes I did last year; I’m going to do all the reading, grade every paper in a timely fashion.

But notice the fundamental similarity between both perspectives: they’re both about transitioning from a state of perceived relaxation to a state of perceived excitement or stress. From slower to faster, from calm to agitation, from a state in which one is preserving (even reserving) energy to a state in which one is expending it–usually in an unsustainable way.

So I’m going to propose a different kind of academic New Year’s resolution: relax.

In this case, the verb “relax” doesn’t mean ditching your life and work in order to flop on the sofa and eat cheese balls while binge-watching Orange is the New Black on Netflix. What it does mean comes from a couple of sources. Mainly, the meaning I wish to apply to the term comes from ideas I began studying this past summer in a seven-week intensive workshop in Shinshin Toitsu Aikido.* In a secondary sense, it comes out of a lot of recent research in education that suggests the detrimental effects that overstress and multitasking (encouraged by by 21st century America’s increasing dependence on distracting gadgetry) have on learning and productivity.

The basic idea is that a state of a sort of active relaxation–what the founder of Shinshin Toitsu Aikido, Koichi Tohei Sensei refers to as “living calmness”–makes it possible, as Tohei Sensei says, to “perform to the best of our ability in all circumstances.”

A state of calmness does this, as I’ve come to understand it, by allowing one to respond to what’s there, what’s really with you in the present. The concept has been useful for me because I’ve tended to live anywhere but in the present moment: my mind constantly wants to have self-justifying conversations with people who aren’t there, to worry over things I have to do, to fret over things I’ve done or left undone in the past. I suspect that, especially among fellow academics, I’m not alone in these tendencies. Consequently, in any given moment, I’m not only expending precious physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual energy on the circumstances that are right in front of me, but on a host of additional things that are essentially, as one of my teachers has put it, not real in the sense that I cannot interact with or affect them.

All that agitation and energy drain make it hard to see things in the present as they are, and to respond to them with no more or less than the appropriate amount of effort. Things tend to become distorted, more disturbing or threatening than they really are, that anxiety siphoning off even more energy. Add to this all the usual digital distractions–like your phone or laptop beeping at you with notifications from email and Facebook, and you’ve got a recipe for exhaustion. Is it any wonder that, when one continually pours anxious energy into coping with the unreal and irrelevant, the benefits of a summer’s rest seem to dissipate so quickly once a new semester begins?

So what does one do to achieve the kind of “living calmness” that, in Tohei Sensei’s words once again, enables one to “reflect all things clearly?”

In a word: nothing.

The metaphor my teachers have used a number of times is that of an agitated glass of water: there’s nothing one can do to calm it down; one simply holds the glass still and allows the water to settle naturally. It seems absurd to try to stick one’s hand in and hold the water down, since trying will only agitate it more. So one doesn’t do anything to achieve this kind of calmness so much as one finds ways to cease doing all the extra, unnecessary things we tend to do without being fully aware we’re doing them.

I’m going to spend the next few blog entries exploring some of the techniques I’ve learned to do just that.

*In bringing in ideas from my Aikido studies, I want to be clear that I make no claim to expertise therein. I’m a rank beginner–and a pretty awkward one at that: having spent that last thirty-odd years thinking of my body as a sort of mobile brain-jar hasn’t served me well in terms of trying to live in that body a little more fully. So my aim here only to express the ways in which my beginner’s experience has already proved both fascinating and useful. Any credit for any truth or usefulness in what I say about that art here is really due to my great teachers and generous fellow students over at the Center for Mind-Body Oneness, especially Jonathan Poppele Sensei and Laurel Strand-Crawford, to whom I’m very grateful.

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