It’s not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential. – Bruce Lee

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Removing the nonessential is a key element of simplicity, yet deceptively difficult to accomplish. We need reminding. I was reminded today while looking out the window at home at our pine tree which is in great need of pruning. Our own lives need a conscious self-pruning of sorts to stay focused on what is important. (Click Keynote slide above for actual size.)

Students begin presentation today by referencing cognitive scientist Ken Mogi

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My students Yuuki and Ryuki begin their presentation by challenging students to “use their brains.” Delighted and surprised to see them use the image of the famous Japanese scientist, Mogi-san. The class got a kick out of that – I think the students really like Ken and his popular books, etc. If you are interested in some of Dr. Mogi’s work, check out his Qualia site: http://www.qualia-manifesto.com/

Nothing is more important than mom

Today is Mother’s Day. Almost three years ago—and the last time I visited the USA— my mother passed away by my side at the age of 82. After three years I do not miss her any less—I miss her much more. Below, I’d like to tell you a little bit about my last moments with my mother, a story I shared with a few people before.

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Above are a couple of snapshots of my mother taken when she was in her 20s. Mom and dad were both 19 on their wedding day (still from 8mm film). Her eyes and smile were engaging and remarkable then, and they remained so throughout her entire life. If you ask people who knew her — or met her even once — they will always describe her in terms of her sweet smile or happy, engaging eyes. They say the eyes are the window to the soul; in her case it is certainly true.

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After suffering a major stroke in 1996, my mother’s final years on this planet were spent here in the Nahalem Valley (lower left in distance of photo). For years my oldest brother took my mom for long rides every week in this beautiful setting; she loved it. This spot on Neahkahnie Mountain was one of her favorite places to park and have a cup of coffee. I would visit Oregon every chance I could from Japan and also spend hours driving with her around this inspirational part of the world. Especially when the weather is good, it’s impossible to grow tired of the natural beauty here. I’m too young to remember, but when my brother’s were small, my family had a summer cabin on the beach pictured here (the second photo is a still from 8mm film of a trip mom and dad took with my oldest brother to Neahkahnie Beach in 1952, nine years before I was born.)

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“Death ends a life but not a relationship”
Three years ago we rushed to Oregon from Japan to be with my mother on her final days. The day we arrived we introduced our daughter to her American grandma (above). As you can see in the photo, my mom’s eyes lit up like a christmas tree when she saw her new granddaughter. This was the last time she ever smiled.

The next few days we’d all take turns being by my mother’s side. On June 4, 2010, on the drive down from Seaside to see my mother, I stopped by Neahkahnie Mountain alone briefly to reflect one time more and to say a little prayer. The warmth of the sun juxtaposed with the cool breeze flowing off the blue Pacific Ocean far below was invigorating, even as all my thoughts were on my mother and all the times we had spent together in this exact spot many times before. After twenty minutes, I drove down to the Nehalem Valley Care Center a few miles away.

As I entered her room I was relieved to see her still breathing. Her breaths were shallow but thankfully less labored than the night before. She had been unconscious for days now. She looked peaceful. The staff had been very skilled and also remarkably caring throughout this entire process. They were very concerned for her and made sure that she was in no pain or suffering in any way yet very mindful that the family needed time with her. I kissed her forehead and told her that I was here, that I was not going anywhere, and that I loved her. I pulled up a chair next to her bed and opened up my book Tuesday’s with Morrie. For the next hour I read a page or two and then stopped to hold her hand or talk to her. The room was bright and cheery in a kind of bitter-sweet way due to the beautiful weather outside. Sunbeams were even kissing the edge of her white pillows. There was a certain calmness and peacefulness in the air that I can not explain.

9696847-haystack_slideAfter about an hour of sitting next to her in this way, I continued reading a few sentences in the book when I glanced over at her chest expecting, of course, to see that she was still breathing. I took notice immediately that her chest had suddenly stopped moving. But her breathing was very slow now so perhaps, I thought, if I just wait a few seconds I will see her inhale and her chest expand once again. Two seconds, then five seconds, then ten…nothing. I change my position and bring my face closer to hers. Nothing. Her mouth is slightly open, but still. Then one last very, very tiny breath from her mouth, halfway between a breath and a gentle gulp…and then complete silence, except for the bird chirping outside and the low hum of the oxygen tank next to the bed. That was it. I just saw my mother’s final, gentle breath of life. I entered the hall and quietly asked for the charge nurse. He entered the room with a somber yet empathetic look on his face. Without saying a word, he softly placed his stethoscope on her chest. After a few moments: “There is no heart beat,” he whispered to me. “I’m sorry.” The nurse then bent down to turn off the oxygen tank which caused the room to become completely silent save for the occasional bird singing in the garden next to the window. I did not hear what the nurse said after that, but I asked to be alone in the room for a few minutes with my mom. “Take as much time as you need,” he said, and then he quietly closed the door.

I grabbed a towel and covered my face as I wept next to my mother, using the towel to soak up the tears so that the staff would not see. After a few minutes I pulled myself together. I was feeling great sadness, of course, but also a strange sense of peacefulness and calm came over me. Perhaps this is what they call closure. In any event, I was happy that I can be sure now that she is not suffering or sad in any way. I am also feeling so blessed that I could be there to witness my mom’s very last breath of life. I will always remember and cherish the experience of being by her side at the end. I was able to witness the last breath of the woman who gave me my first. This is the circle of life. Yes, it is a very sad, sad feeling, but it is also a beautiful one at some level which I am not clever enough to put into words. I do not feel that she is gone in a sense. Her body, which is after all a kind of ephemeral vessel, is dead, but the relationship does indeed live on. My mom will always be a big part of my life.

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ABOVE: When I arrived at the care center, about 10 days before my mother passed, I noticed a picture of my mother on the wall: “Resident of the Month” it said on the frame. Below that was a sample of some of the thoughts that people had written about her. Even though she could not speak, it was her happy smile and gentle eyes that made such an impression with people. She had a way of making people feel better about themselves. Mom is an inspiration for me and always will be. If I can be 1/10th as “amazing” as everyone thought mom was, I’ll consider myself very lucky indeed.

Happy Mother’s Day, everyone. There is nothing more important than (a) mom.

10 Simple Life Lessons from the Bamboo

bambooi2The forests that surround our village here in Nara, Japan are filled with beautiful bamboo. The practical, aesthetic, and spiritual significance of bamboo is deeply embedded in Japanese culture. The particular part of Nara where we live is famous for myriad bamboo products, such as tea whisks, tea utensils, knitting needles, and so on. The symbolism of the bamboo plant runs deep and offers practical lessons for life and for work. Below I list ten ways in which the bamboo offers up for us practical lessons. Nature is always speaking to us and providing lessons. We only need to improve our ability to hear with our eyes and see with our ears to appreciate her lessons.

(1) Remember: What looks weak is strong
bambooThe body of  even the largest type of  bamboo is not large compared to the other much larger trees in the forest. But the plants endure cold winters and extremely hot summers and are sometimes the only “trees” left standing in the aftermath of a storm. Remember the words of a great Jedi Master: “Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size do you?” We must be careful not to underestimate others or ourselves based only on old notions of what is weak and what is strong. You do not have to be big and imposing to be strong. You may not be from the biggest company or the product of the most famous school, but like the bamboo, stand tall, believe in your own strengths, and know that you are as strong as you need to be. Remember too that there is strength in the light, in openness and transparency. There is strength in kindness, compassion, and cooperation.

(2) Bend but don’t break.
One of the most impressive things about the bamboo is how it sways with the breeze. This gentle swaying movement is a symbol of humility. The foundation of the bamboo is solid, yet it moves and sways harmoniously with the wind, never fighting against it. In time, even the strongest wind tires itself out, but the bamboo remains standing tall and still. A bend-but-don’t-break or go-with-the-natural-flow attitude is one of the secrets for success whether we’re talking about bamboo trees, answering tough questions in a Q&A session, or just dealing with the everyday vagaries of life.

(3) Be strongly rooted yet flexible
The bamboo is remarkable for its incredible flexibility. This flexibility is made possible in part due to the bamboo’s complex root structure which is said to make the ground around a bamboo forest very stable. Roots are important, yet in an increasingly mobile world many individuals and families do not take the time or effort to establish roots in their own communities. The challenge, then, for many of us is to remain the mobile, flexible, international travelers and busy professionals that we are while at the same time making the effort and taking the time to become involved and deeply rooted in the local community right outside our door.

(4) Slow down your busy mind
We have far more information available than ever before and most of us live at a very fast pace. Even if most of our work life is on-line, life itself can seem quite hectic, and at times chaotic. Often it is difficult to see the signal through all the noise. In this kind of environment, it seems all the more important to take the time to slow down, to calm your busy mind so that you may see things more clearly.

(5) Be always ready
As the great Aikido master Kensho Furuya says in Kodo: Ancient Ways, “The warrior, like bamboo, is ever ready for action.” In presentation or other professional activities too, through training and practice we can develop in our own way a state of being ever ready. Through study and practice we can at least do our best to be ready for any situation.

(6) Find wisdom in emptiness
It is said that in order to learn, the first step is to empty ourselves of our preconceived notions. One can not fill a cup which is already full. The hollow insides of the bamboo reminds us that we are often too full of ourselves and our own conclusions; we have no space for anything else. In order to receive knowledge and wisdom from both nature and people, we have to be open to that which is new and different. When you empty your mind of your prejudices and pride and fear, you become open to the possibilities.

(7) Smile, laugh, & play
The Kanji (Chinese character) for smile or laugh is 笑う. At the top of this character are two small symbols for bamboo (竹 or take). It is said that bamboo has a strong association with laughter, perhaps because of the sound that the bamboo leaves make on a windy day. If you use your imagination I guess it does sound a bit like the forest laughing; it is a soothing sound. Bamboo itself also has a connection with playfulness as it has been used for generations in traditional Japanese kite making and in arts and crafts such as traditional doll making. We have known intuitively for generations of the importance of smiling, laughing, and playing, now modern science shows evidence that these elements play a real and important role in one’s mental and physical health as well.


Above. This is the bamboo forest behind our home in Nara. I took this short clip from the back of our house on New Year’s eve. Note the soothing sound of the bamboo as it sways in the strong wind.

(8) Commit yourself to growth & renewal
Bamboo are among the fastest-growing plants in the world. It does not matter who you are — or where you are — today, you have amazing potential for growth. We usually speak of Kaizen or continuous improvement that is more steady and incremental, where big leaps and bounds are not necessary. Yet even with a commitment to continuous learning and improvement, our growth — like the growth of the bamboo — can be quite remarkable when we look back at what or where we used to be. You may at times become discouraged and feel that you are not improving at all. Do not be discouraged by what you perceive as your lack of growth or improvement. If you have not given up, then you are growing, you just may not see it until much later. How fast or how slow is not our main concern, only that we’re moving forward.

(9) Express usefulness through simplicity
MatchaAikido master Kensho Furuya says that “The bamboo in its simplicity expresses its usefulness. Man should do the same.” Indeed, we spend a lot of our time trying to show how smart we are, perhaps to convince others — and ourselves — that we are worthy of their attention and praise. Often we complicate the simple to impress and we fail to simplify the complex out of fear that others may know what we know. Life and work are complicated enough without our interjecting the superfluous. If we could lose our fear, perhaps we could be more creative and find simpler solutions to even complex problems that ultimately provide the greatest usefulness for our audiences, customers, patients, or students.

(10) Unleash your power to spring back
Bamboo is a symbol of good luck and one of the symbols of the New Year celebrations in Japan. The important image of snow-covered bamboo represents the ability to spring back after experiencing adversity. In winter the heavy snow bends the bamboo back and back until one day the snow becomes too heavy, begins to fall, and the bamboo snaps back up tall again, brushing aside all the snow. The bamboo endured the heavy burden of the snow, but in the end it had to power to spring back as if to say “I will not be defeated.”

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Above. The bamboo bends in winter when the snowfall is heavy, but springs back when the snow has melted.

These are just ten lessons from the bamboo; one could easily come up with dozens more. These are not things that we do not all ready know, of course. Yet like many a good sensei, the bamboo simply reminds us of what we already know but may have forgotten. Then it is up to us to put these lessons (or reminders) of resilience into daily use through persistence and practice. You do not need to be perfect. You need only to be resilient. This is the greatest lesson from the bamboo.

Below I shared some of the lessons learned from the bamboo in this 12-minute TEDxTokyo talk which was recorded (and streamed) live from Tokyo on May 21, 2011. You can see the slides I used in this talk below on Slideshare.net. These slides were made in Photoshop and Keynote and exported as a PDF file for Slideshare.

Be Like Bamboo (TEDxTokyo 2011 slides)

from Presentation Zen