Repeat After Me

“We must repeat.” –Devo

I enjoyed the band Devo when it appeared during the 1980s. Brian Eno had produced their debut album, “Q:Are We Not Men? A: We are DEVO!” with its rhythmically off-kilter version of The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” The record’s title song had something to do with a college project, with accompanying video, created by Mark Mothersbaugh, the band’s lead singer, about the tongue-in-cheek notion that human beings were DEvolving, that is, getting worse, and that the band could only celebrate this.

At one point in the song, Mothersbaugh gives up any kind of lyrical sense, singing to the tune of the chorus, “We must repeat. We must repeat. We must repeat. We must repeat.”

What happens when you repeat something? As a child I’d repeat some words until they became meaningless, not knowing that this was a technique used in some forms of meditation. A few years later, I tried chanting “Om” but stopped, intrigued by the sound of so many other voices in the room saying the same thing.

Later I learned that much of martial art teaching involved repetition. Forms, or katas, as we Shotokhan people called them, were a series of movements that contained offensive and defensive techniques. I did some of them so many thousands of times that they became more meaningful. I saw techniques within techniques.

Or maybe it was just due to my mind rewiring itself. I was was told that when we practice, when we do something over and over again, our brain assigns more nurons to that movement. What begins as a simple movement becomes boring, done over and over. And then it seems incredibly intricate and complex. Finally, it’s simple all over again.

Today I did the 34 karate katas I know on the lawn near my house, with my dog watching me, assuming, as dogs may, that this was one more crazy thing this two-legged guy did to fill up his day. I found myself forgetting some parts, a symptom of age, or, maybe, not having done them frequently enough. I marveled how, each time I do the set, the end feels different from the beginning.

Some of the movements are eminently practical–a punch here, a kick there, a simultaneous block and strike. Others are mysteriously fragile–a wave, a gesture, a block that is more like a wave. A few I’ve never been able to do well: the flying double-kick, the 360 degree spin.

And, as it happens, I see something, feel something new. This thing may have nothing to do with karate. It could be just the result of my mind wandering. Or maybe it’s that endorphin rush when what started as tedious physical activity becomes fun.

We can admit that everything we do is new. As the wise folk are eager to tell us, each moment is unique, and precious, though few of us bother to live that way. Most of us categorize our lives into times when we’re getting ready to do what we want, times when we wish we could do what we want, times when we’d do what we want if it wasn’t for that other creep giving us something else to do, times when we’re too hungry, sick or tired to do what we want, times when we’d be doing what we wanted if this hadn’t happened…

This “new” feeling was similar to others: a rare moment when it didn’t matter if I was doing what I wanted (which was executing the katas at a higher level of skill than I seemed capable). Just doing these things was good enough.

It helped that the weather was nice. A breeze blew away the bugs. The ground was dry under my feet, and the dog didn’t wander off, chase after a squirrel or growl at another dog. For a moment, I was in that place in which just being alive was enough.




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