ZEN IN COYOTE COUNTRY
As Adam strolled away from the luxury motorhome parked on a mountainside with a view, he realized it had been more than a decade since he had been out in any type of wilderness by himself.
He hadn't been alone in the wild since the last time Bella had snuck him out his window when he was a kid.
Although, technically speaking, he hadn't been alone then and he wasn’t alone now. He was currently being tracked by some tattooed friend of Dr. Gia’s who seemed to be assigned to him at this stop.
Which was fine. Adam didn't mind being shadowed. It merely meant Dr. Gia was fulfilling his parents’ wishes by making sure he was protected at all times.
The fact that he got to wander, un-led, among the trees and vegetation surrounding their camping spot was worth it.
After two days of driving, Adam needed to walk a bit. So he did—weaving through the gnarly canopy of mesquite trees and identifying all the plants, insects, and animals that crossed his path as the sun glowed purple and orange on the horizon.
It would be dark before long.
Once it was, Adam’s shadow guardian would probably appear and say that it was time to return to camp.
The part of Adam that knew that also told him he should probably turn back and head back before he was asked. That would show good judgment on his side, and maybe earn him some trust points with Dr. Gia that would lead to a longer leash in the future.
Yet Adam walked on … unsure why, until something caught his attention.
He wasn’t sure what, since it wasn’t a sound or a movement. It was more the sense of a change in the air—as if he’d just happened upon a large lake nestled just out of sight.
Adam followed the feeling until he found himself in a clearing of desert soil with no lake. Instead, he discovered Kei doing some sort of martial art dance with a weather-worn branch.
The moment he spotted Kei, Adam grew as still as if he’d stumbled upon a deer or anything he’d rather observe than spook. Because he definitely didn’t want to be the reason Kei stopped moving. Doing so would feel like shooting a bird in mid-flight rather than watching it soar.
Barely breathing, Adam froze where he was in hopes that Kei would ignore him and keep going. To his delight, that was exactly what happened. And
it was beautiful.
Kei’s entire Instagram feed was all about bodies in motion. Often, the body in motion was Kei’s. And while the pictures were visually arresting, they did not capture how Kei moved in person.
There was something so relaxing about Kei’s silent-yet-powerful flow that made it impossible for Adam to look or step away when he could be watching instead. Adam knew a lot of specialists and people with PhDs, but he had rarely been in the presence of true masters.
And Kei was clearly a master.
Each leap seemed to linger at its peak and the landings left no prints as Kei flowed from move-to-move with the ease of restful breathing.
It was honestly an honor to watch and Adam could only hope he wasn’t offending one of his few celebrity idols by lingering. How they had ended up on the same trip to Z Labyrinth, Adam didn't know.
All he knew was that he felt lucky beyond measure that he was witness to this particular moment.
“Would you like to join me?” Kei asked softly, spinning the branch into a strike before pivoting to a new angle and continuing the flow of the form.
When or how Kei had spotted him, Adam wasn't quite sure. All he knew was that he needed to say something.
Realizing that, Adam’s face went beet-red and his throat clamped closed as he searched for a response. “I … don’t know any martial arts.”
“That’s okay,” Kei replied, still moving through the motions of the violent-yet-fluid ballet. “We all start someday.”
Adam took a nervous step forward. “I read that you started learning when you were two.”
“Yes,” Kei replied, spinning the stick so fast that Adam was sure it would knock him out if it struck him. “Studying martial disciplines is a long-standing tradition in my family. We believe that it teaches us to better understand ourselves, and use our personal power more wisely.”
“Makes sense,” Adam said, swallowing nervously. “I wasn’t allowed near it. It was decided that I might hurt myself or others. But I’ve seen movies.” Though none of them are as good as you.
Adam was glad he didn’t say that last part out loud. For someone who didn’t speak very much, he sure had a way of sticking his foot in his mouth around Kei. He needed to stop that if there was any hope of them becoming friends.
Because Adam really wanted to be friends with Kei.
So he took another step forward. “What do I do first?”
Only then did Kei stop. Then, after a brief, searching look into Adam’s eyes, Kei held out the branch between them with both hands. “Hold on and move with me.”
Adam immediately faltered. “Uh. I’m not that good. I don’t even know how to stand.”
“We’ll start slowly,” Kei assured him. “All I want you to pay attention to is the tension you feel between you and this stick as you follow my motions.”
“Okay,” Adam said, still not reaching for it. “But don’t I need to learn a stance first, or something?”
“That is one way to learn,” Kei said with a shrug. “But it is not how I teach, and it is not for the student to instruct the teacher.”
“Right,” Adam said, matching Kei’s grip on the branch. “I’m sorry. I guess I’m nervous.”
“That’s okay,” Kei replied, stepping in so there was less than an arm’s distance between them. “Now close your eyes.”
Probably a good idea, in general, because Kei was impossible not to gaze at. Everything about Kei was a healthy balance of beauty and form that Adam could study for hours, if allowed.
But doing that was weird. So he didn’t. Adam held on to the stick and closed his eyes instead, tripping forward when Kei took a step back and drew him into the move.
“Whoa,” Adam said, catching himself with a few awkward steps.
Kei grew still until he regained his balance. “For the moment, think only of your connection to the earth with your feet and this branch with your hands. Focus on nothing else. And move.”
Something in Adam wanted to argue that he needed to see the ground to watch his step, but he swallowed the thought back, closed his eyes again, and waited.
Kei’s next movement felt like the surge of a wave pushing for shore. The undercurrent of force nearly pulled Adam from his feet again until he stepped into Kei’s flow and went with it.
At first, following Kei’s lead felt a bit like riding a bike with no brakes down a too-steep hill. But after a few steps, Adam started to feel a taste of Kei’s flow. It was intoxicating, making each new step more fun than the one that came before it.
“This is so cool,” he said without thinking.
“No talking,” was Kei’s only reply as they kept moving.
Adam shut up—grateful for the first time in his life that he’d been faithful in keeping his morning exercise regiment going across the years. It had always seemed a bit silly to exercise his body since he sat around all day. Fitness had seemed an odd sort of vanity.
Being able to keep up with Kei on this simple level was amazing. Yet Kei was leading every motion in a way that Adam was certain he could not repeat on his own, and that awareness started to gnaw at him.
“Motion is the alternation between yin and yang,” Kei said as if sensing Adam needed words to make sense of what was happening. “Stillness is yin. Action is yang. Balancing these opposites between our inner- and outer-worlds puts us in a state of zen. For this reason, it is wise to only move when your mind is still. Otherwise, you will be out of balance.”
Adam had no time to process that before Kei moved him into a deep lunge that tested the limits and strength of his flexibility. But he tuned in to the earth, followed the lead of the stick, and made his way through.
It felt good.
“An anxious mind creates anxious actions,” Kei continued. “Anxious actions direct the body to engage in fear and false beliefs. This is why it is best to first find the yin and yang within yourself. Doing this is simple, but rarely easy. Simply allow your body to be still when your mind is active, and take action when your mind is still. This is your first lesson in martial arts, and I give it to you because this is the first skill you have shown yourself capable of demonstrating with no instruction whatsoever.”
Adam paused in his motions and lost his grip on the branch as he opened his eyes in surprise. “I did?”
Kei came to a stop, too, and gave Adam a small bow of respect. “Yes. It is a skill that many spend their whole lives trying to master, but I don’t think it will take you nearly so long.”
It was strange how quickly the sense of flow faded the moment Adam let go of the branch. He wanted to reach out and ask to do the exercise again, but there was a distinct sense in the air that his lesson was over.
“What was I doing that made you think that?” he asked instead.
A smile flickered on Kei’s lips. “You stopped thinking for a moment and trusted something other than yourself. You have the natural faith of a curious child. This is a rare quality for someone your age to have because it cannot coexist with a thinking mind. The mind must be still and listening to something wiser than itself to move into a state of zen. And zen is the simple practice of balancing your inner yin and yang with the actions and stillness of the world around you.”
“Whoa,” was all Adam could think to say. “I’ve never thought of it that way. That’s so … cool.”
Did he seriously just say "cool" again? Was that the only word he was capable of saying around Kei?
Could he sound any lamer?
Adam was pretty sure he couldn’t but didn’t have a chance to redeem himself before Dr. Gia stepped out through the brush behind Kei and pointed to the nearly dark sky, now filled with a thick dusting of stars.
When had it gotten so dark? How long had he and Kei been doing their exercise?
Adam honestly had no idea. That was strange for him and yet he was completely untroubled.
“Time to get back to camp for the night,” Dr. Gia said. “This is coyote territory, so no wandering sheep after dark.”
In reply, Kei turned and gave Dr. Gia a far-deeper bow than the one Adam had just received before disappearing between two Mesquite trees.
In that moment, Adam decided that literally everything about Kei was cool.
Dr. Gia waited as Adam watched Kei leave—wanting to chase after and catch up, but not daring to for some reason.
“C’mon,” Dr. Gia said, gesturing for Adam to join her. “We’ve got a fire going and some food. Hang out under the stars, or head in and go to bed. It’s up to you. I just need you back at camp.”
Nodding his understanding, Adam fell in step with Dr. Gia as she led him back down the mountain … all the while thinking about yin and yang ... stillness and action ... and how to get another martial arts lesson from the coolest person he’d ever met in his life.