These be troubled times. The world seems to be on fire and in so many terrible ways. I know I can’t dramatically change the world, maybe not even a little bit. But I can change myself, right? “If you want to change the world, first change yourself,” goes the old saw.

Easier said than done, though.

I’ve tried to change myself for the better many times, with some attempts more successful than others. In the 1980s I took up meditation. Ironically, the hardest thing to do is nothing, nothing but sit and breathe. The “monkey brain” (our constantly thinking minds) is harder to shut down than a running lawnmower with a broken off switch. So, while you can’t completely stop yourself from thinking, you don’t have to attach to every dumb, discursive thought that ripples through your overactive brain; you can let those random thoughts gently pass through your mind like scudding clouds, slowly clearing the cranial cavity to a crystal blue sky clarity.

My meditation practice helped me in many ways. I could focus easier; I became more aware of my breath, and thus in better control of my emotions; I could zone out in long traffic jams; I seemed to have more energy; I didn’t eat as much; I slept better.

In later years I would take up yoga and the martial arts. This is when I came up against the woo-woo aspect of these esoteric practices, particularly the generation and application of inner energy: “prana” in yoga, “chi” in Chinese fighting forms, and “ki” in aikido, the Japanese martial art I took up most seriously. As a Westerner (rational and materialist), I was fascinated by, but frustrated with, the whole idea of these mysterious energies that flowed through my body. When I attained enough proficiency to teach aikido, I adopted a more Western-style explanation. I called it intentionality. “Willpower” perfectly describes this phenomenon. Your will has great power.

Yoga, tai chi and aikido also bore beneficial fruit. My posture improved; my spatial awareness became more highly acute; I felt more alert; I thought I was a badass (actually, it was just a bracing dose of greater confidence).

All martial arts, to one degree or another, train you to become a better person. Humbler. More respectful. More balanced, in all aspects of your life. But aikido is different. Its core philosophy (harmony and love) and even its techniques (defend without injuring) are designed to reshape your mind as well as your body. That’s what you take off the mat.

These practices changed me in dynamic and significant ways. I did the work. So, did I change the world, in any meaningful or even minor way? Probably not, but I didn’t make it any worse either. Perhaps I was a good teacher, or a good role model, and that helped others. I hope so.

I have a mantra when I feel anxious: Let the world turn. Strangely enough, it does.

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