As human beings, we have a conscious grasp of time. We lose our ability to experience each moment without thinking about the past or the future early on in life. After that, the way we handle our perception of time defines our personalities. Some tend to preoccupy themselves with the past, and fill the present with it, carving it into warped sculptures of guilt, nostalgia, fear, anger, longing, or hope that populate their world. Others tend to forget the past immediately and look to the future for new loves, riches, adventures, experiences, missions, and achievements.
Where we find ourselves on this spectrum plays an important part in how we perceive life, and in how others perceive us. One of our most important tasks is to take responsibility for achieving a good balance between past and future, to open our eyes to the past - not to sink into its swamps or be dazzled by its brightness - but to cast its substance into a useful shape and forge its lessons into a sharp, precise carving knife for the future.
When we look to the future, we should sketch it in the likeness of our wildest dreams and move towards it with determination and steadfast actions, but at the same time retain the discipline not to let dreams of the future hinder our ability to taste the present and accept its gifts and opportunities.
Another fact of life - alias mortality - is that the past is already lost, and the future may never come, which puts the art of relishing, respecting, and utilizing each moment on a special pedestal in our time perception priorities.
New Year’s celebrations are a symbol of our constant quest to manage our complicated yet unavoidable relationship as mortals with time. In Japan, O-Shōgatsu, the New Year, is the most important celebration of the year, and one of the traditions associated with it is the ‘kagami-biraki’ ceremony celebrated by martial arts dojos on the first or second weekend of January, marking the first training session of the year. Literally, ‘kagami-biraki’ means ‘opening the mirror’.
The fourth Tokugawa Shogun is said to have started this tradition and continued it because he emerged victorious from a battle soon after. The kagami-biraki ceremony involves sharing some form of rice alias energy with fellow human beings and thus facilitating a fresh, energetic start to the New Year.
The central Japanese New Year decoration involved in this event consists of two sticky rice balls stacked on top of each other like a snowman, topped with a fruit resembling a tangerine called daidai. The word ‘daidai’ sounds like ‘generations’ and symbolizes the success of past and future generations and the continuation of the family. The two balls of mochi are said to contain the spirit of the rice plant and symbolize the going and coming years, the human heart, or yin and yang. The decoration is called kagami-mochi, or ‘mirror rice balls’ because it resembles an ancient copper mirror with religious connotations.
At the kagami-biraki, either the kagami-mochi, or a barrel of sake is broken to share the spirit of the rice plant, the essence of energy with everybody present. As the Japanese are extremely touchy about their use of language, however, and avoid using unpropitious words, especially at ceremonies, ‘break’ is a no-no, and was replaced with ‘open’, which led from ‘breaking the rice ball’ to ‘opening the mirror’. The simple need to eat combined with a desire to party and a love of propitious words became a mysterious yet clear symbol of everything the New Year invites us and enables us to do.
Our kagami-biraki ceremony at Aikido of Hilo was held on Sunday, January 14th. Sensei Robert Klein showed us the kagami-mochi placed in front of the dojo and gave us his idea of how the opening of the mirror could be interpreted in connection with aikido:
The way your partner moves is a reflection of the way you move. If your partner gets hurt, correct your movements in order not to hurt him. If you feel your partner is hurting you, look at what you can improve in your actions and attitude to prevent getting hurt. If your partner moves gracefully, attempt to discover what exactly you are doing that may be contributing to the beauty you see, and save its memory in your body and mind so you can extract it from others, too.
With these concepts fresh in our minds we proceed to start the first practice of the year and continue our efforts to polish the mirror, and work on what we present to its clean surface with the help of our discipline and our fellow students.
After training, we open a bottle of sake and drink to the birth of a fellow practitioner’s son and to another good aikido year. Generations continue, and people keep sharing the energy of the rice plant and the divine spark, I think looking at the daidai resting on the two rice balls in front of the dojo. I will honor the rice plant and the divine spark. I will dance more and practice harder. I will take a good hard look at myself and what I’m doing and improve what I see. As I begin to ravel in glorious New Year’s resolutions sculpting a perfect new self, I catch somebody giving me a piercing look and am startled to meet the eye of my own reflection in the sake cup I am holding.
With this piercing look, my reflection reminds me of a question Brendan, a visiting film maker asked everybody at our New Year’s Eve community campfire. ‘So what is the most important lesson you have learned this year?’ At the time I was on my way to the kitchen to help chop up the Italian sausages that had been barbecued to perfection on a smokey grill for every one to share, which prevented me from staring into the flames and combing my mind for an answer. But now the question was back, reminding me that learning from the past was an essential part of time management, the ticket to the right destination.
The New Year had consumed all my attention chatting me up from the right, seducing me with the razzle dazzle of imagined future perfection. Now I looked over to my left and saw the outgoing year. Its eyes were deep and drank in my own. Until a conspiratorial spark in them brought me back to my own body and allowed me to share a precious moment with the past year. ‘Ichidaiji’, we said simultaneously and held each other’s hands appreciating the sparkling layer of understanding between us.
Of course. Shimamoto Shihan had taught me this year’s most important lesson after his battle with stomach cancer - in teamwork with my friend and mentor P. I was fortunate enough to meet one last time before the sharp claws of his advanced pancreatic cancer whisked him away forever. It was nothing other than ‘Ichidaiji’ - ‘the most important thing’. Which was the here and now. It was this very moment, this very life, this very self aware of itself and able to give its best to everybody in its vicinity.
Stunned back into the present I emerged from the mysterious mirror-shaped time machine I had temporarily traveled in, and went straight for the sake bottle to pay my respects to another Japanese custom: never let your friends’ glass get empty. Refill glasses as soon as their liquid level nears the bottom. I filled my friend’s glass and listened to the ringing sound of our toast. Its music became a cloud, on which our smiles floated in a dance filled with the energy of the rice plant, and imbued with the divine spark, here and now, suspended in mid-moment, forever moving on, opening the mirror.