“Where are my damn pliers? They were just in my hand a minute ago.” I storm around the job site, cursing the offending tool for its elusiveness…and myself for yet another incident of inattention. I’m supposed to be good at paying attention—certainly my press releases suggest so. Yet, I find my second career as a home renovator challenging my practice in ways most humbling.
I’ve spent the last 25 years immersed in martial arts and Zen training. Along the way I’ve had to support my dojo and zendo habits, and the building trades have most often fit that bill. To match my training on the mats with my work life as carpenter has become a natural goal.
I’m fascinated by those moments where we abandon our tactile senses and short term memory in favor of a brief trip down memory lane or speculation alley. For those with no deep training, it’s merely frustrating. I, on the other hand, tend to serve myself a generous portion of shame as well, because, damn it, I know better.
One of the gifts from martial arts training is the clear and dramatic feedback one receives upon leaving the here and now: you or your training partner get hurt. So, motivated by either compassion or self-preservation, the martial arts student learns through practice to stay in the moment for increasingly greater periods of time. I call this phenomena “the cardio of consciousness.” Combined with seated meditation, it’s a potent combination for increasing the endurance of your attention.
On a building site the feedback is equally clear. Working at scary heights and with power tools that secretly love to chew up human flesh, “whoops” just doesn’t cover it. I once put a router with a quarter-inch dado bit at about 20,000 r.p.m. through the back of my left hand. I was in a hurry. I didn’t clamp my piece down. The piece bucked as the router bit into it. After a stunningly brief contact between tool and carpenter, my hand looked like hamburger with severed tendons sticking out.
Fifty-four stitches and some truly remarkable plastic surgery later, I went to visit my Aikido sensei to tell him of my unfortunate “accident” and, hence, of my need for some time off from training. He was less than completely sympathetic. He tore into me, pointing to this incident as just another example of my tendency to be “hyper and agitated.” That marked the moment I became a keen student and researcher in the field of hurry and slack attention.
I started to notice some specific physical changes that accompanied the state we’ll call “in a hurry”: my breath became shallow, quicker and less rhythmic. There was a upward-rising tension in my shoulders and jaw, and a loss of sensation in my hara (lower belly) and the soles of my feet. I became, quite literally, uptight and ungrounded.
Cognitively, I noticed a shift of focus from the needs of the task before me to flights of fancy that included worry, regret, speculation and fantasy. My favorite form of low-grade panic was a fear that I wouldn’t finish my task on time, or that somehow my work would be found wanting. It became clear that these indulgences, while commonplace, were costing me not only the quality of my work, but the very enjoyment of my life.
This insight begged the question “How do I make my way back to the moment and make a habit of staying there?”
I knew enough even then to avoid beating myself up with guilt or deluding myself with superficial self-affirmation. That type of tail-chasing leads to the dark side. What I needed was an anchor to the moment, a physical mnemonic to prod me back to direct experience. I turned to my martial arts and Zen training for any parallels that might help my quest.
In meditation, when it’s good, when your posture is strong and erect, when you’re sitting solidly and following the breath as though with the easy rhythms of the tide, there’s nothing to do, nothing to pursue. You just sit. Yet, when you lose that long spine and primordial rhythm, you must first re-establish the physical foundation of your practice: proper pelvic alignment, retracted shoulder blades, and a chest and belly open to a full, relaxed breath.
Interestingly, you almost never notice the moment of falling out of practice, but you most certainly make a conscious choice to return to form. This is heart of basic mindfulness practice – a regular and resolute return to the present.
To apply this principle when wearing my tool-belt wasn’t really that much of a stretch. I soon started to notice those “in a hurry” moments more often at work: when I misplaced or dropped tools, when I’d forget a measurement in that time between the work and my saw, when I failed to check the previous builder’s work for level and square, or when I ignored that intuitive voice, blaring like a klaxon, asking me take another two minutes to properly secure the scaffolding. In the beginning stages of this re-education, I’d often over-ride good sense, so addicted was I to being “in a hurry”. Invariably, I paid for it: either with shoddy work that needed to be re-done, or with minor injuries that proclaimed, to myself, at least, what a stubborn jackass I was.
After a time, I began to catch myself sooner in my habitual patterns and would stop myself, take a couple deep breaths, say quietly “Daniel, you’re scaring yourself. Easy, buddy.”
In Iaido, the Japanese art of sword drawing, one gives equal weight of attention to the opening bow, the drawing, the sheathing, the cutting, and to the cleaning of the blade afterwards. There are no “in between” times in good Iaido.
Drawing upon this lesson, I began to develop a more ritualistic and respectful approach to my tools and materials. I find that if I take care to put my tools down quietly, I rarely misplace them. If I lift my sheet material as though being judged for form, I rarely tire or strain my back. When I begin a cut on an expensive or unique material, I offer it a small bow of respect. Very clearly, there are times that I need to work alone.
One of the fringe benefits of this cross-training is that I now catch those “in a hurry” moments in many different aspects of my life. From finding my keys to remembering names upon introduction, it has become glaringly obvious whether I have succumbed to agitation or kept my breath deep and my shoulders down. This “blue-collar mindfulness” has both enriched my life and deepened the relevance of those countless hours on the mats.
Daniel Kempling is the director of Mindful Movement Training. He holds a fifth degree black belt in Aikido and teaching credentials in Iaido, and is a certified Personal Trainer and an instructor of the Pilates Method. He lives with his wife and three children in Creston, BC.