Reflection on the Nature of Aikido

I have been practicing Aikido, in one way or another, for 30 years. For all those years, I had one fundamental question about Aikido: What is it? Of course, it’s a martial art, but it’s concerned with much more than fighting, so there’s a lot of mystery and confusion about what exactly it is and why or how to practice. I had many excellent teachers, but I never asked them this question. Somehow I knew that no answer would satisfy me, that I would have to find out for myself. Like many, I went through periods when I had some insights and held this idea or that idea about what Aikido was and how to develop it. And I followed those ideas wherever they led, even when they lead outside the realm of what was being taught in the Aikido dojo, including practicing Systema for fifteen years.

In 2016, I had a sudden, unexpected, and profound spiritual awakening that instantly transformed my perception of reality. I wrote a whole book about that — but let’s just say it was the culmination not just of my training, but of the entire path and circumstances of my life. The clarity that blossoms in the aftermath of such an awakening is beyond imagination. So if I ask myself “What is Aikido?” now, I can answer without reservation. Please take my answer for what it is — a sign post, pointing in the direction I have gone. There is no substitution for practice and experience, and nothing is really realized unless it is realized for oneself.

Let me start with this: everything is fundamentally one thing — although it’s not really a thing because there is nothing else. This oneness is always in harmony with itself. There are no real conflicts within it, and there is no outside of it. What’s seen as a conflict at one level, is harmony at a higher level. And since oneness admits no levels at all, both conflicts and levels are illusory. There is just this one great divine harmony, which is reality itself. What is seen as the separate self — the source of all conflict — is nothing but this great divine harmony. And all notions that we are not that, are just more illusory conflicts.

Aikido, as most practitioners know, means harmony-ki-way. This is sometimes interpreted as a way of “harmonizing ki” or “harmonizing with ki.” That’s okay to begin with, but ultimately those ideas will keep you separate and in the realm of illusory conflicts that need harmonizing. Many Aikido practitioners are merely in a struggle to develop subtler and subtler skill or stronger and stronger technique. That’s not bad, but it has no end, and does not in itself lead to great harmony. For as long as you are struggling to harmonize something or with something, you are in fact in the midst of conflict.

Aikido is a practice for realizing what is already eternally harmonious. Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido, said “I am the universe!” not “I can harmonize with the universe.” Realizing unity removes all separation and instantly reveals total harmony, regardless of skill or events. So in the end, the technical aspects of Aikido are beside the point when it comes to this great realization. That may seem like a disappointment to those seeking mastery, but it doesn’t mean skill has only practical value or none at all. Aikido is a vehicle for inquiry, insight, and realization. As such, we can enjoy it, learn from it, teach with it, and pass it on to others. In time, they may develop skill as well, but more importantly, they may realize the truth within Aikido.

O-sensei’s words, “I am the universe!” are not a boast, nor a metaphor. It is true for everyone, but few realize it. O-sensei had great skill, of course, but his true gift was that he realized the source of his power was not himself. True power can only be realized by surrendering the separate self and all its illusory sources of power. True power is to always be at peace with what is, regardless of circumstances. One who has realized that power — even if beaten or killed — cannot be defeated.

So if you look for Aikido in soft, subtle technique, you will not find it. If you look for Aikido in strong martial technique, you will not find it. If you look for Aikido in philosophies and so on, you will not find it. But do not stop looking! There is a oneness and a harmony so profound that the separate mind cannot imagine it. So look everywhere, within and without. Train relentlessly, wherever the path takes you — until at last you realize there was never any conflict to begin with. There, you will find the spirit of great harmony … there you will find an invincible peace.

Prepare for Transformative Change

I hear some talk lately about when things will go back to the way they were … as if they ever do that. On the other hand, I hear some talk about how things will never go back to the way things were … as if that weren’t always the case. I get it: in the current environment, some people are seeing fundamental impermanence more clearly than they have ever seen it before. And the stakes seem higher. But from a spiritual perspective, nothing really has changed in this regard.

All things change continuously. The entire phenomenal universe is a phantasmagoria of change. Nothing ever goes back to the way things were, if they were even that to begin with. Widen your gaze enough, and you will see that mountains rise up and crumble to dust as swiftly as storm clouds blowing overhead. The stars ignite and go out as quickly as match heads. Each moment is always this moment — ever present — and yet things always change. The things cannot be grasped because they are always changing, and the moment cannot be grasped because you cannot be apart from it. So there really is nothing to hold on to.

Usually, we hide this truth from ourselves, principally to stave off terror. We imagine an independent self, and project a past and future, with some sense of stability and permanence. But this is only the imagination at work. That separate self, that stability, that permanence, has always been a kind of illusion. In times of great upheaval, many people may glimpse the real depth of impermanence for the first time. But it has always been thus.

If we are shocked or disturbed by the nature of change, it is simply disillusionment at work. There is fundamentally nothing to fear. Our fears can spur practical action, but we are bound to them only by and precisely to the extent that we cling to our illusions. From the spiritual perspective, disillusionment at work is an opportunity for insight and awakening. Without insight, disillusionment may be experienced as a kind of trauma or an assault against one’s way of life. With insight, it is a catalyst for awakening. So to the degree that our eyes are open to insight — open and accepting — all change can fuel our spiritual growth.

Zen-master Dogen wrote:

“Firewood becomes ash, and it does not become firewood again. Yet, do not suppose that the ash is future and the firewood past. You should understand that firewood abides in the phenomenal expression of firewood, which fully includes past and future and is independent of past and future. Ash abides in the phenomenal expression of ash, which fully includes future and past. Just as firewood does not become firewood again after it is ash, you do not return to birth after death.”

Firewood and ash — birth and death — are only ideas. As are the mountains and stars and your self. Insight into impermanence can encompass everything. This can seem terrifying, overwhelming, as if you are falling into an abyss, which offers no purchase, no hold, and no bottom. But if we can go all in, giving up everything, including ourselves … then our insight may pass beyond the impermanence of all things, and into the absolute, into the divine, into the unchangeable, diamond-like perfection of transcendent wisdom.

From a spiritual perspective, the stakes are no different now than they have always been. And my advice in the current situation is the same advice I would give for any situation. Prepare yourself for transformative change. Seek the truth in yourself and the world. Try to accept the fundamental uncertainty and ever-changing nature of all phenomena. Surrender yourself to the will of God, to the flow of nature and the ungraspable, groundlessness of being. Realize the truth that has always been with you — through every state and every situation — and you will find a love, a joy, and a peace that will endure anything.

Happiness is not a Scarce Commodity

In these trying times, remember that happiness is not a scarce commodity. However, we cannot seek happiness on our own terms or according to our fears and desires. Just allow yourself to be happy, regardless of circumstances, and you will find it in abundance. Even in trying times, joy is present, peace is present, and all-pervasive bliss knows no bounds, no conditions, no beginning, and no end.

Don’t get the idea that I am dismissing the current situation, or dismissing suffering. That would be missing the point. Many are suffering and the current situation may lead to greater suffering. Many people are afraid for their health and for their family. Many are depressed, confused, or fearful about the future. The course of events may lead to the deaths of friends and loved ones … and it may lead to our own death.

I am not dismissing any of that. We should do what we can to mitigate all this suffering. We should take action — or inaction — to keep ourselves and others safe as needed. We should help those around us who are experiencing fear, discomfort, and distress. We should give aid to those who are unwell and comfort those who are grieving. But to base our happiness on the need for such endeavors and the success or failure of them is a mistake.

When we seek happiness on our own terms, we are always seeking gain. We are saying, I will be happy if things go how I want. I will be happy if I get what I desire. I will be happy if my fears don’t come to pass, and so on. That is seeking happiness according to the ego. With that attitude, we are frequently disappointed, troubled, and angered by circumstances. Suffering is magnified, and any personal failure, conflict, or lack becomes a focal point to justify being unhappy.

Instead of seeking any kind of gain, if we root our actions in basic love and kindness, we become open to the whole situation. When we are open like that, we are open not only to suffering and the calamities of events, but to a happiness that does not depend on circumstances — an innate happiness of being. And by being open, we can give ourselves permission to enjoy this happiness. Because it has been there from the beginning and has never wavered, it is always in abundance.

Such happiness is never the product of egoic thinking, nor the result of carefully arranged circumstances. But when we look past all the concerns of the ego, its tangle of fears and desires, we find this innate happiness. Its source is the source of all. And even in such trying times, it is the source of all joy, all peace, all love, and all bliss.

Available Now: That Which is Before You

That Which is Before You is available now as print book or a Kindle ebook, published by Empty Press  Additional ebook formats will come online soon.

This book is a testimonial of a profound spiritual awakening, which suddenly and completely changed my life and perception of reality. In addition to an account of what happened to me, the book includes insights, teachings, and guidance for spiritual practice.

Although I have been a writer for many years, until recently I mainly wrote fantasy, horror, and science fiction. I never would have expected to write a book like this, but here it is. I hope it brings people whatever measure of peace they are ready to handle. For I can tell you plainly that there is no shortage of peace for those who truly seek it.

If you are already on a spiritual path or just curious, you will surely find this work of interest. If you are skeptic — like I was — I encourage you to consider this account. This book comes from a place of clear insight. It doesn’t avoid difficult questions, and it doesn’t hold anything back.


“This is a deadly serious book, direct and to the point. If you read it, follow the instructions, and the time is ripe, it will kill your false sense of self and reveal That Which You Truly Are!”
— Joel Morwood, Author of The Way of Selflessness

“Matthew Lowes articulates spiritual awakening as only a skilled writer can, and in so doing, provides a map for others to follow. This is an important book.”
— Liz Cratty, MAAT, Theologian and Author

“Like a gut punch to your consciousness and beliefs about the nature of reality. Sometimes your delusions need to be knocked out of you. It can hurt and be scary, but there’s a clarity that’s impossible to deny.”
— Kaizen Taki, Founder of Movement Daily

Dungeon Solitaire Retrospective: Part 4/6

The Spiritual Themes of the Game

The safety of the wall is only an illusion.

Whether it is in the form of heavenly gems and divine graces or in flavor text accompanying the illustrations, you may have noticed some spiritual themes in the Dungeon Solitaire games. Of course, this is in keeping with the symbology of the tarot. The arcana are a reflection of the spiritual journey, and I’ve tried to bring that flavor into the games. But there is more to it than that.

I don’t want to go into this too deeply here, but I will say that during the time I was writing the Labyrinth of Souls rulebook, something unexpected and extraordinary happened to me. I had what could only be described as a sudden spiritual awakening, which instantly and profoundly changed my perception of reality. I know this may sound crazy to some people, because I would have been one of those people until this happened. But suddenly I had direct insight into the spiritual journey — beginning, middle, and end — in a way that couldn’t be denied. And some of that insight definitely found its way into the Dungeon Solitaire games.

Lose yourself and you will find the way.

If you’re interested these matters, my just released book, That Which is Before You, provides a detailed account of what happened to me. The book also describes my insights and teachings in light of this awakening, and provides guidance on spiritual practice. It’s notable that the image of a labyrinth find its way into that book as well. In an early section called “Orientation” I describe the spiritual journey this way.

“We can imagine this journey as one in which consciousness itself collapses into a particular point of view, identifies with a mind and body, and loses itself in a kind of dream, in a world of things, and in life and death. Once lost, sensing some lack, it tries to find itself. It looks everywhere but cannot find itself among the world of things. Until one day it just stops looking and, having never been absent, recognizes itself once more.

The wheel offers pleasure and pain, but nothing without suffering.

“The journey is like an adventure into a labyrinth. Within we are confounded by mazes and locked doors, enticed by wondrous treasures, challenged by terrible monsters, and entranced by endless illusions. It can be great fun. But in the midst of the labyrinth, when things get bad, it can get very dark indeed. It can seem as if there is no way out. But when we have exhausted every possibility of escape, and all our efforts come to a grinding halt, it is possible to wake up as if in the midst of a dream, and realize the labyrinth itself — and everything in it — is not actually real in the way we had imagined.

“This is the good news, and although the spiritual journey does not necessarily end there, it is important to say at least that much. It is possible to realize the enlightenment people throughout the ages have attested to. Whatever your true nature is, it already is, and cannot be apart from you.”

In you is hidden the treasure of treasures.

My take these things is not tied to any specific religion or tradition. However: I was a practicing Christian at various points in my life; I have long had a deep interest in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions and practices; I once slept in the tomb of Muslim holy man; and I’ve always been fascinated by shamanism and the full range of religious traditions in general. So while such descriptions reflect my direct experience, they also reflect my background. And this is true in Dungeon Solitaire as well. Look closely and you will see elements and traces from a number of mystic traditions.

The final realization cannot be explained.

From my own experience, I would say we are all on a spiritual journey, whether we know it or not. Of course, if spirituality is not your thing, these elements are easy to ignore within the context of an adventure game. They are easily relegated to the background where they act only on thematic levels. I’m not out to convince anybody of anything. And in any case, true insight doesn’t come from being convinced or not-being convinced of any particular idea or concept.

Delve deep, my friends, and may you find illumination, true happiness, and an end to suffering.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

March 18th Release: That Which is Before You

That Which is Before You will be released on March 18th — ten days from now. This book is a testimonial to a profound awakening, an invitation to the spiritual path, and a guidebook for inquiry and practice. Within you will find an account of my awakening, direct insights, fresh teachings, and detailed practices.

This is the first book in a series of spiritual books. My aim in writing them is just to bear witness to awakening and to point directly toward the realization that great mystics and sages have described throughout the ages. In short: enlightenment is real … and the path is open. My only hope is that the words within will guide others toward illumination, true happiness, and an end to suffering.

Independently published by Empty Press, That Which is Before You will be available as a 6×9 paperback or an ebook. Whether you are already on a spiritual path or just curious, you will find this work of interest. And if you are skeptic — like I was — I encourage you to consider this account.


From the Introduction

This is a book about spiritual enlightenment. I never expected to be writing it. Such accounts and teachings have always been around, though. In every age, some people have realized the truth and spoken about it. But enlightenment is still a great secret known only to a few. Even those who know about it or believe it is possible, cannot really know until the secret is revealed, for it is a secret you keep from yourself.

The ideas in this book are not intended to challenge any particular spiritual path, nor any process or theory of science. But there is a reality that transcends everything, and that is the subject here. Various religions likely have their roots in a realization of this reality, but the realization has been subsequently interpreted, reinterpreted, misinterpreted, and mythologized. Certainly science is making observations, predictions, and conceptual models of phenomena that arise within this reality. However, to actually see this reality we must doubt everything and seek knowledge directly. Things may not be what they seem, but in the realm of what is, there are no obstructions.

I am not a religious expert, a philosopher, or a scientist. Although I’ve read a little in each of these fields, I claim no authority except direct realization, insight, and experience. And while I will attempt to make all this clear, I assert no beliefs, nor is there anything in particular I wish you to believe or do. If at times I speak dramatically or persuasively, it is not to support any belief whatsoever. It is rather an attempt to help you see for yourself what I’m talking about. Anything else falls short of the mark.

 

Bearing Witness to Awakening

Bridge at Greenwaters Park in Oakridge, Oregon

On April 11th in 2016, something extraordinary happened to me. A sudden, unexpected, and profound spiritual awakening completely transformed my life and perception of reality. After three years of this abiding realization, I’ve decided to talk openly about it. This is likely the work of a lifetime, and not of a single statement or book, but we have to start somewhere if we’re going to have a dialog.

In some traditions it is customary not to speak about enlightenment directly, and there is good reason for that. In the present circumstances, however, it seems helpful if those who have truly awakened bear witness to it. For the most basic teaching is that liberation is possible. Many have forgotten it, discounted it, disregarded it, downgraded it, reinterpreted it, or not heard about it — even in traditions that attest to the possibility of such an awakening. So the testimony and teachings of those who have realized could give people courage to look deeper into their spiritual path.

Until now, I have discussed these events only with my teachers and a few other people. But as a writer, I felt compelled to make an account of my awakening, to set down my insights, and to answer questions to the best of my ability. That work has resulted in two books so far on the topic of spirituality and awakening. The first book, That Which is Before You, will be coming out soon. Hence the need to make some kind of statement here.

Trust me, I really never expected to be writing or talking about this kind of thing. But after almost 30 years of searching, I find myself in the situation of trying to convey what has happened to me, as well as the insights and teachings inherent to awakening. I think an open, straight-forward dialog could be of great benefit to seekers and practitioners alike. So let us simply move ahead and do the work required of us, whatever it may be. And may these endeavors help to bring illumination, true happiness, and an end to suffering.