This is how my pilgrimage began. I was downtown, where my meaningless work as a probation officer resembled something from Alice in Wonderland, and I had gone to the men’s room, not feeling well. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, while behind me Matrix people exchanged trivialities. I felt more nauseous. I knew fresh air and coffee would be better than heaving, so I left in search of both.
Out on the street, cars, bikes, and pedestrians were about me and their stink just added to my nausea. I turned down a dark alley looking for a place to barf and that made it worse. It smelt of homeless people, and was narrow so that I could touch both sides. I rushed down it as I felt my guts about to heave but then the alley began to open, and I was refreshed by clean air so that my head cleared.
I was delighted with what I had found. By some accident of building codes and permits, a small space had been left untouched, and accessible only by walking. In it was a delightful coffee shop and even a few trees. Two other openings led in, but at the moment I seemed the only customer.
The shop looked like it belonged in a Japanese garden, and so did the barista. When I went in she bowed slightly and said, “Please drink some water while I prepare your coffee.”
A large glass jug held lemon sections and iced water. I drank two glasses which helped to clear my head even more, and settle my gut. “Thank you,” I said.
I took my coffee outside and sat at one of several small round tables. The coffee was the best I had ever tasted. I had thought myself alone, but then I noticed another coffee drinker come out. For some reason he immediately grabbed my attention.
I watched him over the rim of my cup, searching for what held my attention. He moved with posture that seems to flow as he sat down a few tables away, directly across from me. I watched him again over another sip of coffee. I could see his face now, and it too seemed familiar. I studied it and tried to remember. He was wearing a very slight smile and his gaze was calm, clear, and direct. Suddenly the thought leaped to my mind that this type of person fears nothing and would never lie. He looked up, saw me studying him, and he got up, and walked over to my table completely comfortable in his own skin.
He sat down across from me wearing that confident smile and looked into my eyes.
“You have to forgive me,” I said “I couldn’t help but stare. You seem so familiar to me.”
“I should,” he said. “I am you.” And I was struck because now I saw it. As I tried to formulate a question he held up his hand, to stop me. “I am just a better version of yourself.”
My mind was full of conflicting questions, that he didn’t give me a chance to ask.
“All those questions racing about in your mind are crap. There is only one question worthy of your life. What is the best version of yourself that is possible, and how do you become it?”
And he was so right it stunned me. I looked away thinking of that question. How does one become the best version of oneself?
“Read Tecumseh,” he said. When I looked back, he was gone, and only the challenge remained.
I walked back to my office, shut the door, and Googled Tecumseh. There was quite a bit, but what I was supposed to read was obvious.
“So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart. Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours. Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life. Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people. Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide.
Always give a word or a sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend, even a stranger, when in a lonely place. Show respect to all people and grovel to none.
When you arise in the morning, give thanks for the food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself. Abuse no one and no thing, for abuse turns the wise ones to fools and robs the spirit of its vision.
When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.”
What wasn’t obvious was how I was supposed to use it. And then shortly I began to wonder how sick I had really been. How was I taking seriously meeting a better version of myself. But I liked the idea. I would try to find the shop again and see if the entire event had been a hulicination.
The next morning I put in an appearance and then headed for the coffee shop. I was eager, like a kid off exploring, and I remembered that wonderful feeling of adventure I used to have. To grab your bike, your BB gun, and take off.
I was anxious to see if I was crazy. Can a man possibly talk with a better version of himself? And if being crazy helped him get there, so what?
I had no trouble finding the alley and soon I was there. The same barista was there and she smiled at me, and began to brew my coffee without waiting for my order.
It was a pleasure to watch her work. I found her attractive in an Asian sort of way. Her movements were smooth, practiced, and precise, while all the time she was relaxed and smiling. For her, making coffee was an art. I was impressed; caught up in her dance, and because of the care with which she made my coffee, I thought more of it.
I took it outside, still in the spirit of her Coffee Ceremony, and sat exactly where I had before. I took a long breath, and then drank some. It was excellent. I had taken to thinking of my inner mentor as Ronin and I was disappointed that he wasn’t there. But I smiled to myself. Perhaps it had just been a mental aberration. Again I sipped from the coffee, closed my eyes, and followed the warm fluid down my throat. At least I had found this wonderful coffee space, and been remotivated to improve. When I opened my eyes, he was sitting across from me.
We looked at each other, and then he got right to it. “What did you get from Tecumseh?” His eyes bored into me.
I smiled and calmly took another sip. “Tecumseh is good stuff, very powerful.” A faint breeze blew the steam coming off my cup.
“That’s an evaluation. What did you get, that you can make permanently yours?”
How can you use it to change?
I replayed Tecumseh again in my mind. There was much I could have said, such as not fearing death. But I had always been that way. Really, I liked reading it, but it hadn’t changed me.
“Absolutely nothing,” I said.
“Good answer.” He nodded to himself.
I said, “There’s a lot there, but not how do you make it permanently yours. I could memorize it, but so what. You read it, you like it, and then you turn the page.”
He nodded. “Make the coffee last. I need to make an important point.” But he didn’t say anything. He seemed to be struggling to form a thought. I put the coffee in the middle of the table. He smiled and took an appreciative sip, then returned the cup to where we both could reach it. The coffee seemed to help him, for he started right in.
“First, do you recall what Benjamin Franklin did?”
And I did. Things began to come together. Ben took being his best version very seriously, developed a system, and worked at it every day. The rest, as they say, is history. Ben made a list of virtues he wished to make his own, and then each day graded himself on how he had done. I nodded.
“You have to do something like Ben did.” Then he sipped more of my coffee.
“I need a system,” I said. But I thought I had one.
“What you need first is to really comprehend what a system is. The word is used often, but very few really comprehend its meaning. Now we are going to go into it.”
How did we get from Tecumseh to Systems theory,” I said.
“That is an excellent question.” He nodded his head up and down. “We’ll use that.”
At that moment I heard a glass break on the floor of the coffee house. That was so out of character with her precise movements I got up to see if all was well.
I went in. “You okay?”
“Oh yes. My hand was slippery and wet and I dropped a glass. Please continue to enjoy your coffee.” She seemed embarrassed by the mishap and eager for me to leave, so I did.
When I went back out I was alone. Perhaps I always was. Perhaps people saw me talking to myself, which of course I was. My best version self. I sat at my table and drank more of the coffee, which was still hot. And thought about Benjamin Franklin. He had chosen thirteen virtues and worked on one a week, keeping score. That was a pretty simple system. I had done similar things in my earlier years. I needed something better now. And that charged me up. I was excited. I had a purpose, a project, a challenge, and that is what I was made for. For this, I would have to focus my mind. Always a great difficulty.
I began then, by giving my full attention to the coffee I was drinking. I closed my eyes and focused on the flavor, but I remembered a book that might help. I tried again to focus. But the thought of a single book causing a breakthrough kept intruding.
All my life I have been a ferocious reader, and in the old days of black and white movies, I would have had a library of books that covered my walls. Actually, I did, but most of my library was on my iPhone. I went to it now, for the word “system,” it had brought the book. “The Systems View of Life.”
I opened it up and went to a page I had marked before, where I read the following, “The first, and most general, characteristic of systems thinking is the shift of perspective from the parts to the whole. Living systems are integrated wholes whose properties cannot be reduced to those of smaller parts. Their essential, or “systemic,” properties are properties of the whole, which none of the parts have. … Systemic properties are destroyed when a system is dissected, either physically or conceptually, into isolated elements.” It sounded great, but didn’t help me design a Better Version System. But it did bring an amusing thought to mind. I imagined flying saucer people abducting someone, dissecting them to see what made us tick, and then returning all the pieces. The missing element would be the relationship between the pieces, which is life. I realized I had lost my focus on the coffee, and it was all gone.
I got up from the table and headed back to the office. Where was I going to get thirteen virtues? But I was nagged by the thought that there was something larger I was missing.
I trained the next morning. I train every morning. And then, after my shower, I was eager for my coffee. I made my way to the hidden coffee shop, as I had taken to thinking of it. It was the same barista, and as I walked in she poured very hot water into a cup and began her coffee ceremony. I watched it all and felt better for having done so.
When I took my cup outside I was momentarily upset to see someone at my table, but then I saw it was Ronin. I put the steaming cup on the glass top and sat down.
Immediately he drank some. “Great fucking coffee,” he said.
I drank some, “It is, isn’t it.” I silenced my mind and tried to Zen out. I took in the odor and taste of the coffee, the slight chill in the air, and the sound of two birds doing whatever it was that made them noisy. I waited then said, “I’ve been thinking of Franklin’s system, and I don’t have thirteen virtues to work on.”
He looked into my eyes. I looked back. Then he carefully drank more coffee. I could tell he enjoyed it very much. He said, “We will have nine, and we will call them Positions.”
I waited, drank more, slowly.
“Remember when you asked how Tecumseh was going to help you find your thirteen virtues?”
“Actually I asked how we got from Tecumseh to systems theory, but I’ll take what I can get.”
For a moment he seemed a little agitated, and that made me happy. I could tell he knew that, and it made him smile. He said, “We’re not going to list the Positions in order, but how they’re expressed by Tecumseh.”
I was tempted to take out my iPhone and record, but I was afraid I would lose something I very much wanted. This talking to my better version was great on the one hand, but a little strange on the other, and I didn’t want to take a chance on losing the magic. “Do it,” I said.
“Don’t interrupt me. I don’t want to lose focus.”
That was a little get back. I smiled and nodded.
He began, “The first line of the quote, So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart, is a position I call the Martial Artist.
“Wait a min–“
“He cut me off with a raised hand and continued. “The next position is Strange World and comes from, Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours. Then, Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life. Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people. I call that position, The man in the Arena.
He was doing it all from memory. I was impressed.
Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide gives us Laughing Pirate. And always give a word or a sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend, even a stranger, when in a lonely place. Show respect to all people and grovel to none I call Ronin.
He looked at me, as if waiting for an interruption. I just nodded my head. And he continued.
When you arise in the morning, give thanks for the food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself. Obviously, that is Gratitude.
He looked at me.
“That’s six,” I said.
He continued, Abuse no one and no thing, for abuse turns the wise ones to fools and robs the spirit of its vision, and I call that Beauty.
When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way, that spirit makes life an Adventure. And Sing your death song and die like a hero going home, this would take. 1eye.
“That’s nine,” I said.
“You remember them?”
“I can work it out.” I hope.
“You don’t have to. The system is built around a mnemonic that recalls the nine positions. It goes like this.
“I am the man in the arena, the martial artist, Ronin, 1eye, Laughing Pirate, seeking Beauty, in a Strange Land, and Grateful, for the Adventure.” Just 25 words. Say them with me.
And I did, several times.
Then we were both quiet. I thought that was the end for today, but he looked pensive. He nodded to himself as if he had worked out a problem. “I have a very difficult point for you. We’ll go over it again later.” And again he lapsed into silence.
I listened to the silence.
Until he said, “You remember the little analogy you made up about the aliens returning all the product of a vivisection, but ignoring the missing element, life?”
“In that instance life was an emergent quality. Not in any piece, but in the relationship of all the pieces. The same is true for finding the best version of you. It’s not in the positions, but is an emergent quality”
Emergent quality. Something was going to become part of me, that will be unlike any of the positions, but will happen because they will all interact. Fuck me.
“Fuck me,” I said. “I’m not getting any traction on this.”
“What did you expect, a magic Red Pill like in The Matrix? Being the best version of yourself takes work. You must choose adversity, and overcome it. That’s for openers.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“Let me hear you repeat the mnemonic one more time.”
“I am the man in the arena…the martial artist Ronin 1eye. Laughing Pirate, searching for beauty, and grateful for the adventure.”
“You left out, in a strange land. Go home.”
I got up and left. I didn’t look back. I knew he wouldn’t be there. In the meantime, I had work to do.
And I did, but I was up against a wall.
I had no problem remembering the mnemonic and said it often. Perhaps too often. It really had no meaning for me. At first I really liked, “I am the man in the arena.” I read Theodore Roosevelt’s speech and that felt good. It went with my personality. So did martial artist, as I had been practicing karate almost all my life. Ronin felt good, but so what? And 1eye? That was nothing at all. And if I couldn’t grasp that, then why practice the 1eye Life System? So I had much on my mind when I went down the dark narrow alley to my coffee shop.
I was wearing a Gortex jacket I had picked up in Vietnam as it looked like rain. A very heavy rain. The sky was darkened with heavy clouds and I thought I’d heard thunder in the distance. I doubted he’d be there today. But I very much wanted this to work.
When I emerged from the alley the coffee tables were there, but no one else was. The dark clouds overhead changed the atmosphere completely so that I felt a little chill and doubted that they were open. As I got closer I saw a light inside and smiled. At least I would have my coffee.
Before, I had always just walked into the shop and ordered my coffee. This time I stopped first and made a slight bow. In traditional karate, in the old days, we used to make a bow before walking into the dojo, which means place of enlightenment. On a shallow level, this was to show respect, on a deeper level this was a cue for a different state of mind. The way this beautiful woman made coffee showed that the shop was her place of enlightenment, and so I bowed to show respect.
When I entered, she made a slight bow back and then smiled at me.”I would like an Americano, large,” I said.
She smiled and poured boiling water into a coffee mug to heat it. Then she took beans from the refrigerator and began to grind them. As she did so I regarded the large mural on the back wall. In large splashed red letters it said, “Musha shugyō,” and there was a depiction of Miyamoto Musashi against a green The Matrix background. I liked it very much. I got most of it. The background represented social control, dystopia, and Musashi was the answer. But “What does Musha Shugyo mean,” I asked.
She put the ground beans in a coffee machine and it began to do something that made noise and hissed. She spoke above the hiss. “In the time of the samurai, a warrior might make a pilgrimage, as a ronin, seeking to find and overcome difficulties, and refine his character.” She continued to work on my Americano.
And I thought of Musashi. I had read his, Book of Five Rings more than once. Each time I gained something from the reading. Even though I knew his life story, it was only now that I considered that it had all been a pilgrimage for excellence.
And I knew the same was true for me. I had visited and trained at more than one martial arts studio, and I have had my ass kicked by some of the best in the world. But then and now, I felt there was something just out of reach for me to earn. That feeling was coming back, and I welcomed it. Outside dark clouds closed over the coffee shop.
Musha shugyō. That felt and sounded good to me. While she finished preparing my Americano, I thought of myself on a pilgrimage, and I recited the mnemonic, but something was missing. She looked straight and deep into my eyes as she handed me the coffee. I took it and made a slight bow, she did the same and I took it outside, into a cold wind, and saw Ronin siting at my table.
“I am very glad to see you,” I said as I sat down.
He smiled and said, “It doesn’t mean anything yet, does it?”
I didn’t answer right away. I focused on the coffee as it went down, and I thought of the question in terms of the mural on the back of the coffee shop with its, “Musha shugyō.” It had something to it. It seemed to summarize my situation, the problem and the answer, all in one mural. Perhaps I should have it tattooed somewhere. Dystopia, and complete freedom. Pen and sword in accord. I had always thought of that as my life, but here I was feeling like a beginner. I answered “Maybe a little. I like the first position, ‘I am the man in the arena,’ and it all has a good flow to it.”
“But it’s not a system yet.”
There was another roll of thunder and with it a gust of wind. I cupped my hands about the coffee to keep it warm, and felt the heat it was losing.
“No,” I said.
“Part of what makes it a system is that each position has a visualization and an emotion. So that as you recite the mnemonic you will recall certain emotions.” He raised his hand to keep me from interrupting him. “As you do all that, you are charged up, because the mnemonic is also an affirmation for the best version of yourself.”
I thought about that, and he must have thought I needed more. He said, “The affirmation builds itself, corrects itself. All this, when done right, approaches a superpower, or as close as you are ever going to get.”
“That’s the whole system?” I was trying to grasp it before he had fully explained it. This was my nature, and of course he knew that.
He looked at me and smiled. “Don’t worry. Before we are done with that coffee, you will have a life system. Everything I’ve said so far is nothing without actual practice. We have exercises. I will give you one a week. You will work on that, we will review how it went, and then do another the following week.”
“That’s like Ben Franklin,” I said.
He nodded. “Ben said, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” The exercises are your involvement.”
It had become very dark now and I could smell the charge in the air. The wind gusted more often and I could feel it through my clothes. I pushed the coffee across. He drank some, passed it back, and said, “First you need the visualizations.”
“I want you to feel something specific at each position. For Man in the arena, feel the sand beneath your feet, the weight of the gladius in your hand.
“Wait till I am done. We will review it all in days to come. For now, I just want to get you doing it right.”
There was a flash of lightning and thunder rolled very close.
“When you think, the Martial artist, listen intently, commit to becoming the man who can do the job. Then Ronin is the idiosyncratic you, different from all others, a different journey. Align yourself so that you feel the weight of your head on your heels with your ass perfectly in the middle.”
A gust of wind blew his hair about. Lightning flashed and the thunder came quickly. He didn’t react.
“When you subvocalize 1eye, Close one eye, and focus on the darkness, you access the Void. Then you switch. Open that eye and close the other. Thus you summon genius and creativity. Then Laughing Pirate means full and total commitment to unleash everything you have trained and stored for maximum performance. Explosion with no holding back, no self-doubt.”
He reached for the coffee as I tried to burn into my mind what he was saying. He drank, pushed it back, and said, “Seeking beauty is what you will do constantly from now on. It is there about you, and you will create it, and store it within. Is this moment not beautiful?”
And the realization of how beautiful it really was flooded me. If this had been a painting in a museum, I would have stood before it. Two figures sharing a cup of coffee beneath a dark sky with lightning. I felt myself relax and smile.
“Then there is “Strange Land,” he said. “That will take much explaining, and at the end, you will have an intellectual armamentarium beyond your imagining. But for now, consider the “pinball” people that make up your world. They are the product of chance. They think of themselves by whatever role they fell into, trade their lives for tokens and trash, and live through various media. That’s strange enough to begin with.”
I nodded agreement.
He nodded. A few drops fell and splashed in the coffee cup. “Grateful is being a total and complete success this very instant.”
And I could feel that. I was alive here and now. I thought, “Thank you.” to the universe, to infinity.
“And now you can comprehend The adventure. Life is either an adventure or it is slavery. Your choice. “
At that moment there was a very powerful gust of wind and the storm burst upon us. A loud crackling of lightening lit up the entire area and the thunder seemed to shake my guts. A drenching downpour immediately followed. The water ran down his face and over his lips.
“Now recite the mnemonic!”
The rain beat upon me. “I am the man in the arena. I tried to feel the sword in my hand. The martial artist. I went into listening to the rain. Ronin made me hold my head higher, 1eye, and I blinked one eye which opened intuition. Laughing Pirate didn’t do anything for me. But seeking Beauty resonated deep within as again lightning flashed and thunder rolled. Strange Land made me think of all the pinball people, and grateful was easy. I said, “Thank you,” to the storm. And I was charged up by the thought of Musha Shugyo.”
I knew I had just begun.