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George Leonard:
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Richard Strozzi Heckler:
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From the Wall St. Journal

Marine Warrior Project
It's Not Richard

This essay's title, "It's Not Richard," comes from a story by George Leonard. In his book, "The Silent Pulse," Leonard presents his account of Richard Strozzi Heckler's aikido black belt examination. He describes the three months of intense preparation that go toward this exam, and the years of study before that. For Richard Heckler, the preparation was made more difficult because his teacher told him that he hadn't decided whether Richard would be allowed to take the exam, but if he wanted to, he had better be prepared for it. During the preparation period, the teacher ignored Heckler, and even stopped referring to him by name. Only on the day of the exam did Heckler find out, by seeing his name on the list of students, that he could participate.

Leonard writes, "Five candidates had already been examined when Richard was called to the center of the mat. . . with his uke (‘attacker'). . . and the exam began."

"From the very beginning, it was apparent that something extraordinary was occurring. It was like one of those sporting events that are later memorialized, . . . during which every last spectator realizes at some level that what is happening out on the field is more than a game, but rather something achingly beautiful and inevitable, an enactment in space and time of how the universe works, how things are. . . .The uke rose and attacked the still-kneeling Richard, who moved in sweeping circular motions to embrace the attack. So gentle and coherent were his movements that they seemed to capture time itself and slow it to a more stately pace. Sometimes when Richard pinned his attacker with one hand, he reached out with the other in a gesture of balance that I had never seen him use in practice. . ."

The teacher "called for the next series of techniques, which would have both attacker and defender standing. When Richard rose to his feet, there was a slight stir in the room; people . . . glanced up at the windows or the lights. What had happened, inexplicably, was that the room had suddenly become appreciably lighter."

"Everyone I contacted [later] noticed the shift of illumination when Richard rose to a standing position. . . As the exam continued, the speed and intensity of the attacks increased, and yet there was still a general sense of time's moving slowly, at an unhurried, dreamlike pace. The spacious dojo began to seem smaller; an unfamiliar feeling of intimacy came over the Aikidoists and spectators around the mat, as if we were involved together in something usually reserved for our most private moments. During one swift attack, a hard strike to the belly, Richard slipped quickly to the side and made a bewildering gesture that none of us had previously seen. The uke, without having been touched, went down with a loud crash. This rather formal young man, a stickler for decorum, lay there for a moment looking up at Richard in astonishment, then laughed aloud. . . . For his part, Richard was beginning to get the feeling that he was not ‘doing' anything at all, that the movements of his body were ‘just happening' without thought or effort . . . "

"On this day spectators and experts alike saw Richard's examination as harmony . . . No matter how hard or swift the blow, he was not there to receive it, but always at the moving center that holds all opposites in perfect tension. As for Richard, he experienced no effort or strain whatever, only a voice in his head repeating, ‘This isn't Richard. This isn't Richard.' There in the eye of the storm, stripped of the certainty he had always deemed necessary for survival, denied the support of his teacher, divested even of his name, Richard found the deliverance he had not known he was searching for. . . . If need be, he could go on forever, realizing all the while that ‘he' was not doing it. The voice in his head was clear: ‘This isn't Richard. This isn't Richard.'"

When I read this, it affected me very strongly. In the first place, it's a wonderful story, and I was delighted by the magic of it, especially since I trusted the author's perception and honesty. But more important was how clearly it spoke to me of that state in which one acts, but is not the actor.

Descriptions of this state are common throughout religious texts and the arts, from St. Paul's statement that, "It is no longer I that live but Christ lives in me," to Blake's claim that his poems were written by angels. Writers sometimes speak of how their characters reveal their action rather than having it imposed upon them. And once, I listened to a dancer discussing her performance - an improvisation - with another dancer who had been in the audience, and who had known the movements even before they happened.

This state in which one's sense of self moves from the center to the periphery and something else takes over and becomes the real driving force - this is well known in one form or another to many people. What appealed to me in this story about Richard Heckler was the simplicity and clarity of the main point, namely, that "it is not Richard." In the following months, that phrase, "It is not Richard," became a catch-phrase for me. Every time I began to think that such moments in my own life were ones that I had produced, that I could think of myself as having the ability to be in that state at will, Heckler's words reminded me that it was not so. Just as it was not Richard, it was not Susan either. This was a new idea to me, at least in this simple form.

In my earliest years of spiritual practice, when I was in my 20's, I had various experiences that I suppose could be called religious. My guess is that many people have such experiences but they tend not to talk about them. Though profoundly meaningful to me, these events for some reason did not really affect how I saw myself, until a few years later when an acquaintance spoke, with awe, of similar events in her sister's life. Now, troubled by the idea that I might be some fancy sort of mystic, and wondering what I should do about it, I spoke with a nun that I knew. She was a member of a contemplative order, and was actually an expert in this area.

After I laid out before her my small cache of treasured experiences, she quietly told me, "Well, dear, God gives beginners lollipops." She added another comparison - she said that when a child calls out to her mother in the night for something to drink, the glass of water that her mother brings is simply to be drunk. It is not to be kept for the next day to display before her friends, to prove her mother's love, or anything else. These experiences are to help us, and to nourish us, not to enlarge our sense of self-importance.

Since that discussion, I have come to think that many people know this intuitively, that this understanding is inborn: as a new infant knows how to nurse, so the spiritual infant knows how to receive nourishment. When people have spiritual experiences, their natural reaction is like that of the child drinking the water - they know instinctively to take what they need from it, and even treasure it, but also to hold it very quietly. But as self-consciousness and competitiveness develop, many people loose this early understanding, and our culture appears no longer to have the resources or understanding to affect this change, or to support real inner growth.

As a result, spiritual growth now seems to bring even more risks than it did in the past. And the same risks attend any search for the essence of reality, no matter the name of the search. Anyone who begins to touch that essence, whether as a result of spiritual practice, or through art, or any particularly intense and concentrated work, faces real dangers. One of the worst is that of appropriating the richness and significance, which always characterize these experiences, to himself, almost as an adornment of his ego. This mistake is nearly inevitable, even for a person who has the best of guidance, because he naturally identifies with his own inner experience. Once a person has lost the initial innocence that would at least have allowed him to accept the experience simply and without reference to others, he may find in it evidence of a higher status, and a cause of pride and arrogance. He may become convinced of his own superiority and dismissive of others, and all this ruins his hope of future growth.

In Christianity, humility is presented as an essential virtue, and as a corrective to such pride. Unfortunately it is a ‘negative' virtue - that is, a humble person is identified more by the qualities he does not have, than by any that he does. I used to wonder what one could actively do to be humble, and it was hard to find an good answer. Many of the actions I could think of really were acting - I could pretend a simplicity, patience, and quietness that were completely false. On good days this might even give me the appearance of humility, but never its reality. So for me, at least, the development of humility (which appears in fact to be one of the virtues of maturity,) was not an immediate solution to the dangers posed by my inner experience.

In Buddhism, which I then began to study, the teaching of anatma - no-self or no-ego - deals with this problem very well, but I did not find in it an immediate resolution. It is a notoriously difficult teaching to understand, let alone to experience. It goes profoundly against the grain - in fact some students of Buddhism strive to outdo each other in manifesting their accomplishment of emptiness! The general concept and surrounding practices did not give me what I needed even to articulate this issue in concrete terms, far less to deal with it practically. And I have always needed practical tools.

It was only many years later when I came across the story of Richard Heckler's black belt exam, that I saw a specific resolution to this problem. In the phrase, "This is not Richard," which Heckler heard so clearly, lay both the expression of the problem and my answer. These words marked, for him, at least a momentary end to his complete identification with his own experience - which was what blocked him. Freed from this block, he felt that "he was not ‘doing' anything at all, that the movements of his body were ‘just happening' without thought or effort." His recognition enabled true simplicity.

When I hold these words in my own mind, it is no longer necessary for me to deny or mute the value of what I encounter in order to pretend to a humility or to a lack of ego which I have not really accomplished. I can have total confidence in my experiences, while knowing that "it is not Susan". What I have glimpsed is neither me nor mine; I can not display my understanding as a mark of superiority; it simply is not me. And I can relax and let it go.
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[Updated 4/21/02]