Emeryville Taiko by Pato Man
Upon invitation to join a Japanese New Year’s celebration, I went to see mochi pounding and hear a Taiko performance. The sweet rice was pounded in rhythm in the smoothed out hollow of a tree stump. We ate it, fresh and warm, wrapped around sweet bean paste.
But that satisfaction is not what this story is about. This story is about how application of will, how showing up every day, how training with as much presence as possible, how noticing the smallest details and allowing our energy to flow outward in order to meet them… how all of this leaves an opening for grace, joy, precision, and power.
In yesterday’s post, I wrote about yoga and breakfast, and how committing myself to these two things I dislike are changing my life yet again and enabling me to activate my larger goals. That segues into this story: a story of hearing drums pounding in the cold, cement-floored annex of a local community high school, and how, standing for an hour, I was riveted, and filled with strong emotion.
Being in the presence of fully engaged people moves me. 25 people stood before the drums of various sizes, they centered themselves, and regardless of interior state, they showed up with as much presence as they were able. Some of them had only been playing for a few months, and yet they made a joyous noise. No one winced at mistakes, breaking the energy, they kept riding the wave of that great dragon of sound as it rolled out toward us, bringing us into its wake, lifting us upon its power.
After the first song, the newer people knelt on the sides as the experienced drummers played progressively more and more difficult pieces. The lesson for me came not only in the amazing sound issuing from the great drums, but in watching the faces, noticing the postures, seeing the rootedness of feet and the strength of thighs and arms. In looking at the friend who had invited me, what I saw was a constant stream of joy lighting up her face. Her arms moved in precise patterns while wielding the acacia sticks. Her back was straight, yet supple. She struck the drums with power, muscles in her biceps bunching and releasing, and all the while, she smiled. This was not a performer’s smile, pasted on for the benefit of the audience, her face and the faces of her taiko cohort were all lit up from the inside, from sheer joy.
It was then that the litany came to me: Grace. Joy. Precision. Power. This was what each person embodied, this was the rhythm they pounded out upon the waiting drums.
People so often speak of how hard the work is. How difficult it feels to keep committing to ourselves, our projects, our spiritual lives, and our work in the world. They speak of a fear of loneliness, of becoming too set apart from their friends and families the further they venture on their paths. They speak of feeling clumsy in their learning, of crashing about as they grow used to stepping into their power, their deeper wishes. They worry, as relationships around them change in order to make space for what is being wrought.
My answer to them is encapsulated in Sunday’s taiko performance. Yes, it is hard to show up in a cold cement room in the middle of winter and learn not only precise rhythmic patterns, but centering, presence, and the exact placement of your arms and feet both in the air and on the ground, as well as in where you hit the drum head to make that precise note. Yes, it takes time. No, at first, we don’t feel graceful. Yes, we can only do this work of deep inner connection alone. Something inside us has to have this wish – in that way, all of our work is solitary – and yet, there also appears around us a community of other people who are working, quietly, or with loud verve.
And after we grow used to our commitment, after we sink and open – riding the dragon of energy, following the course and the flow – joy appears. Grace appears. We grow in power. We develop the ability for precision from the sheer force of our being, in presence, in this moment. And then in that moment. And moment after moment flows outward into life.
The work is worth it. Rising from bed into the cold morning air to roll out my mat and engage in postures unfamiliar to my body is worth it. Every small commitment, each little risk, builds toward the precise arc of an arm in space, pausing at full extension… before wheeling back around to strike the drum.