O mata se. Thank you so much for waiting. I’m really sorry I am so late. You say this, straight away, if you arrive late in Japan. Actually, you say it even if you arrive on time. Because if you arrive on time, you are still late by Japanese standards. You are only not late in Japan, if you are 15 minutes early. Then you can just say hello.
Given this cultural mandate, one can begin to understand seeing a trash collector running to get a trash can, running back to the truck with the trash can, dumping the trash into the truck, running back to return the trash can, running back to the truck and, as the truck is in motion, jumping onto the trash truck only to get to the next house where he jumps off the trash truck and begins running once again, this continuing for roughly 10 hours.
No wonder my friend Dr. Tanaka who owns and runs a large orthopedic clinic, a gifted and loved doctor, rushes continually. He cannot seem to keep up with the number of people, everyday, who want to see him, people in pain; backs, knees, hips, shoulders, necks, all hurting and in need of attention.
Dr. Tanaka sees me once a year. Knowing he has one session a year, he gives me his undivided attention. Knowing I have only one chance to work with him each year, I give him mine.
Dr. Tanaka asks me to look at him and to tell him what I see.Though I refrain from doing this with most of my students, with Dr. Tanaka, I know it will be fine. He won’t fall into the trap most students do when given such information. He won’t freak out, thinking he’s doing terrible things to his body. He won’t immediately try to correct his dire condition. He’ll just take in the information and begin wondering about it. As will I.
Standing in front of me, I take my first good look at Dr. Tanaka. A little taller than me, a little younger, (both not difficult), he looks healthy; bright eyes, good skin color, excellent muscle tone, not overweight, nice sense of symmetry about him.
You’re looking good Tanaka-sensei. Let’s see what I see from the side. My eye goes directly to the back of his neck, and my hand follows landing on a large, tight muscle. This muscle interests me, I say, gently pinching it between my thumb and fingers so he can feel it. Maybe it’s your trapezius, but whatever it is, it’s working hard. There must be a reason. I see there’s no natural curve in his cervical spine. He looks like he’s just started to bow and then suddenly stopped before his body had a chance to follow, leaving his neck over-extended and stiff. For a second I see the neck of one of those creepy gargoyle drain spouts you see as you walk around Notre Dame. Dr. Tanaka, you carry your head a bit in front of your body in a way that over straightens your neck, so chances are that muscle, and others, have to work to counterbalance the displaced weight of your head.
And your body also inclines slightly forward from your ankles, a little like a ski jumper in flight, but less so. I bend down and feel his calves which, as I suspected, are working hard, keeping him from falling over, as well as his glutes which have squeezed themselves in, and hiked themselves up. I move and place myself in front of Dr. Tanaka, as if I were one of his patients, and suddenly I see a man who looks like he’s been racing to get where he has to be, and once there jams on the brakes, skids to a stop, frozen in the slightest gesture of a bow as if to say, O mata se! Thank you so much for waiting. I’m really sorry I am so late.
Tanaka-sensei. Let’s sit down, I say, pointing to a chair. He sits down. I pull up a chair in front of him and say, I’m your patient. Take my pulse. Being learned in Chinese medicine as well, I know that pulse taking is an important ritual for Dr. Tanaka. It’s his first contact with his patient. True to form, Dr. Tanaka jumps into action. When I sense he’s totally into it, I ask him to just stay where he is, not to move, and sure enough he has clicked into the exact attitudinal expression throughout his body as when he was standing, his particular way of being engaged, of serving his patients. The image flashes through my mind of an invisible witch, black pointed hat, black dress, crooked broom, wart on her big nose, flying overhead and casting a spell over Dr. Tanaka, a ‘now you will turn into a very busy doctor spell.”
Dr. Tanaka, I’m wondering if you have to look at your fingers? You can’t see the pulse, right? Right, he says. So keep taking my pulse, slowly look up a little toward the ceiling, letting your neck go into a comfortable arch, then close your eyes, and just continue reading my pulse. Now, leave your eyes closed, softly rotate your head slightly forward, letting it rest on top of your spine. Roll back ever so slightly on your sit bones and relax your butt muscles because you don’t need them now, and just continue taking my pulse. And you might as well relax your left elbow, so you don’t have to work so hard in your left shoulder.
For the first time since we began Tanaka-sensei looks calm, quiet, and comfortable, not like a busy doctor, but like a doctor for sure. That large neck muscle is no longer protruding. He’s got the natural curve back in his cervical spine. He’s not rushing. He’s not in front of himself, not ahead of himself. He’s within himself, and he’s with me, more than ever. Like the good student Dr. Tanaka is, I can see him drinking in the experience, quietly coming to an understanding about how he does what he does. What he’s most happy about, he tells me, is not how good he feels, but how clearly he can feel my three pulses under his fingers.
Seeing Dr. Tanaka looking so relaxed and attentive reminds me of something I read years ago in the Tai Chi Classics, words of wisdom gleaned over 600 years about the workings of the mind and the body. Dr. Tanaka practices Tai Chi. My guess is he’ll resonate with what I am about to say.
In the Tai Chi Classics, I say, it’s suggested that you want the mind of a sober man, and the body of a drunk. I call it Matcha Mind and Sake Body. Give it a go. Sit back in your chair and relax into your Sake Body. That appears to be easy for him, but I see his head drifting off to the left as if he’s falling asleep. Tanaka-sensei. Open your eyes and decide that, without engaging your muscles, to use your Matcha Mind.
Muzukashii! That’s really hard, Dr. Tanaka says, surprised. I can’t do it! That’s because you’ve got working hard and muscle tension paired up, and you’ve got releasing muscle tension and sleeping paired up. Meditation is cultivating an inverse relationship between tension and attention. The more you increase your mental attention, the more you want to decrease your muscular tension. Saying it this way, I can see Dr. Tanaka gets it.
Okay sensei. I know you want me to watch you playing your shakuhachi, so go get it. Tanaka-sense springs out of his chair and starts running toward the door. Choto mata kudasai! Please wait a minute Dr. Tanaka! I want you to decide, deep inside your body, not to rush. Don’t worry about me. I’m fine. See what it feels like if you don’t rush. Just find out what happens.
Dr. Tanaka calmly leaves the room, is gone for about two minutes. When he returns he’s got a different expression on his face. How was it, I ask? It was really different. I began to see this building, this clinic. I began feeling how long I have worked here, and my father before me, he said. Under the sadness, I could feel the love and gratitude in Dr. Tanaka’s eyes.
Dr. Tanaka. We will get to playing the shakuhachi, I promise. But I’d like to talk to you for a minute. Not teaching. Just tell you something from my heart. Is that okay? Hai, he says.
Look, we are going to die… someday. You could rush and run toward your death, or you could walk toward it the way you just walked to get your shakuhachi. Two different worlds. Which one do you want to live in for the time you have left?
And there it is, the moment, the shift. The shift in a person’s soul.
We did get to the shakuhachi. The usual things happened. Resonate sound. Freer breathing. Better phrasing. More fun. But it didn’t seem all that important, inside of the greater scheme of things.
We thanked each other, many times, as you do in Japan before saying good-bye. Yoi Otoushi wo. Have a happy New Year, Dr. Tanaka.
It’s 5 o’clock and already evening as I walk down a small, empty street toward the train station. A soft, misty rain is falling. Most Japanese open up their umbrellas and rush along to wherever they’re going. I don’t mind getting wet. Why run? It’s raining everywhere.