I grew up in a Japanese household where sitting on the floor had become obsolete by the time I turned 14. For my mom, it was easier on her body to sit on a chair, and our apartment was renovated so that we no longer had tatami-mat floors. Thus, when I ended up having to sit on the floor, seiza-style, with my legs folded underneath me, for long periods of time during my fieldwork with the Japanese NGO OISCA, it was an extremely difficult task.
For example, during a set of interviews with OISCA staff, I had to sit for hours on the floor as I spoke with one staff-member after another. After the first ten minutes of every interview, I could not withstand the pain and numbness, and I had to shift from side to side as I listened to the staff talk.
At one point, seeing me fidget in an attempt to revive the sensation in my feet, one of the staff laughed, not unkindly, that it must be difficult for young people today to sit on the floor. This elderly and jovial man had been sitting seiza-style, deeply grounded on the floor without moving a muscle, for the entire hour that the interview had lasted. I laughed in agreement. Then, glancing at my notebook where I was recording the interviews, he continued.
When we were young, when we listened to the lectures by Nakano Yonosuke [the founder of OISCA and its religious affiliate Ananaikyo], we would have to sit seiza-style for three to four hours at a time, and it was extremely hard! We also weren’t allowed to write anything down. He used to joke that our feet must be hurting so much that we probably won’t remember anything from the talk. But the thing is, the teachings are things that can’t be expressed or explained with words. When someone writes them down, they get caught up in the limits of the letters, the limits of one’s interpretations. The teachings of our founder are larger than that, and impossible to express. That’s why he told us to never write anything down, that what we had to take away from the talks was whatever we felt through heart-to-heart communication (ishin-denshin).
The sensation in one’s legs that shifted between pain and sensorial loss—both captured in the Japanese word shibireru—was here linked to the idea that Nakano Yonosuke’s teachings could only be understood through bodily experience. The physical pain-numbness was somehow conceived as a form of opening out toward the teachings and, perhaps counter-intuitively, toward “the other.” The endpoint was not the mind or interiority but things external to oneself. In other words, as a friend of mine recently blogged, the bodily experience of shibireru is to take the person outside of oneself and to allow for a communication with something other-than-self. As the tingling feeling spreads through one’s feet and the heightened awareness of the physicality of the toes and ankles dissipate, it is no longer clear where one’s body ends and the floor begins. At the same time, as the staff-member explained, it becomes difficult to hear the words being spoken and all one can absorb is the teetering sensation between losing the sense of one’s body and swimming in an excruciating awareness of it.
About eight months into my fieldwork, I began to have dreams about the morning disciplinary routines at OISCA’s training centers. I told a couple of staff about it, and they laughed, telling me that the routines, and perhaps OISCA, must finally be seeping into my body (mi ni shimitsuite kitanda).
The morning routines at the training centers require a heightened awareness, and it’s not surprising that it takes time for it to leave one’s senses. It is a twenty-minute segment of every morning, in which staff and trainees line up in the courtyard and follow an exercise of salutes, calling out orders, and raising the flags of the trainees’ countries and Japan.
One of the staff at the training centers commented to me once that this routine must seem strange to me. I couldn’t disagree. He explained that this is something that needs to be experienced over a long period of time in order to make sense of it. “Whenever there are visitors to the center,” he continued, “we ask them to participate in the farming, do the morning routines with the trainees, and, if possible, spend at least one night here. You can’t understand these things just through lectures in a warm classroom. You need to experience it with your body.”
OISCA staff acknowledge that the training style is alien to most people. However, it is thought that repetition of the routines over the year will open people’s minds to understand what the trainings are about: how to work in harmony with others toward the goal of development. The saturation of repetitive bodily experiences is thought to draw the person out of one’s comfort zone, out of one’s self, and craft a sense of community bound by an awareness of each other and a shared commitment to disciplinary demands coming from a place external to everyone, including the staff. The discipline, in this view, circulates.
The notion of the person in OISCA, even if they are temporarily turned inwards, is in the final instance oriented elsewhere—to the other trainees, to the collective, to nature, to the discipline itself. The attention is always to the other, and ultimately to an absolute other of “the Great Spirit of the Universe.” But this Other is also envisioned to flow through everything in this world, including one’s self. In this sense, the distinction of self and other begins to dissolve, and the relationship seems oriented toward an infinity of some kind. The bodily practices, rather than being a coordination of inner states and outer conduct (Mahmood 2005), seem to deconstruct the distinction all together in the intersubjective spirit of what OISCA calls “the Great Family of Humanity.”