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Sunday, March 21, 2010

Exploring Martial Arts is like exploring relationships

Martial Arts training, can be a lot like finding relationships.....sort of like "dating". Having been single for a few years now, I've come back to realizing the true reasons why I train and teach. And humorously, I've realized that Martial Arts paths are indeed sort of like the paths experienced through dating or forming relationships (with anyone...doesn't necessarily have to be a romantic relationship)

Think about it,....when you're first attracted to someone and you're on the "pursue" phase, sometimes we take on a slightly different persona during that time. We take on that "good behavior" persona so that the the person we're interested in sees our good side and hopefully, is attracted to us as well. During that "dating persona" time, we generously compliment the object of our admiration, we see the great things about the other (and sort of ignore the less-than-great-things), we arrange our schedules to spend time with the other, we hang on to their every word, and listen for the phone to ring. Sound familiar??

And so...two of you get together, things are going great, communication is good, you enjoy each other's company and all is good. Then, what happens? Time goes on, and the honeymoon phase ends. Although the excitement of being with the other person is still there, it is definitely not like the first few months. Although you care deeply for the other, over time you've seen the other's true self, outside of the dating persona. If you choose to be with the other's true self, you find that the love and caring is indeed always there, but the feeling is not that sense of "urgent" desire to be with the other is not always that feeling of butterflies in your stomach when you see them, it is not that feeling of having to say and do all the right things. Instead, if all goes well, the feeling gains a sense of deeper meaning, a higher understanding of the other, a sense of trust, and a true sense of connection. You then begin to truly enjoy the time together, instead of merely being addicted to the activities.

On the other hand....if the relationship gets too one sided, or if your expectations of the other person turn out to be so over-estimated that you become disappointed that he or she is not the epitomy of perfection you so thought them to be, you'll soon be looking somewhere else to satisfy your desire for companionship. Or, you try to keep your expectations of them, trying hard to look for anything positive and ignoring anything that doesn't fit what you're looking for. Also, in some cases, you might meet someone that seems so wonderful, but they show an attractive personality just long enough to secure your willingness to stick around or for whatever ulterior motive they might have.....then they drop the ball and you're left high and dry.

Whether you stay strong in a relationship, you leave the relationship, or the other person leaves you, you learn a lot of things about yourself along the way. Some of these life lessons may not be easy pills to swallow, but hopefully, we learn to look at ourselves with an honest eye. We learn to not place the total blame on the other person, nor do we take all the credit for for a wonderful relationship. We learn that any relationship is based on the efforts of both people.

Martial artists will know exactly how the dating scene relates to our paths in martial arts. I see it all the time. New students are so gung ho about their training. They come to class as often as they can (sometimes every day, and even stopping in to practice during non-class times), and they're attracted to the benefits and challenges that the activity brings. They're making new friends, getting stronger and more skilled every day, and they love it so much that they sometimes say "I wish the school had this class every day". They do their best to show good technique, respect, and gain favorable nods from the instructors. As instructors, we say "This gal or guy is gonna be good!".

Then, with some folks, the initial excitedness wears off. The interest is still great, but they realize that they have other responsibilites outside of martial arts class, and their attendance drops to a more realistic level. Their participation in class then begins to show that they're not trying hard in practice to impress the teachers or senior students....they begin to practice for *themselves*, and that's when we as instructors see their "true colors". If the students sticks around, they do indeed gain a sense of deeper meaning, a higher understanding, a sense of trust, and a true sense of connection with the art of their affection. You begin to learn a lot more about yourself and how to relate to the art. You begin to truly enjoy and experience the time, not just satisfy your need for activity.

And...on the other hand, if your expectations of an art are overestimated (or in many cases, wrong altogether), uninformed, or stereotyped, you might be surprised when you begin to find the true nature of the art. I've had many people come into my school assuming that Tai Chi was merely a type of slow happy dance (really, I'm not kidding). Or, they stereotype Tai Chi as only an exercise for the elderly, infirm, or those undergoing physical therapy. Some do learn through a bit of research that Tai Chi is a great exercise for all ages, and a good activity for stress relief and meditation. But when I pull out the combat applications of Tai Chi out of my hat, some people are taken aback in disbelief.....even when I tell them from the very beginning that Tai Chi is first and foremost, a martial art. "What! You mean those movements can actually be used for combat? I'm outta here!". In these cases, I try to refer them to an activity that would best suit them.

I'm not even going to get into studios or teachers that put forth a big attractive personality, then don't deliver what they claim. These schools are very few, thank goodness. For the most part, martial arts schools are professional, staffed with skilled teachers, and honest with their students.

So......Whether you stay strong in a relationship with your art, you leave the art, or the art distances itself leaves you, you learn a lot of things about yourself along the way. Some of these life lessons may not be easy pills to swallow, but hopefully, we learn to look at ourselves with an honest eye. We learn to not place the total blame on the art, nor do we take all the credit for for a wonderful relationship with the art. We learn that any relationship is based on the efforts of both people.

As someone who has been been around the dating scene a little bit in the last few years, I am sort of amused by the parallels between dating/good relationships, and martial arts training / mastery. I'm in no big hurry to find the person of my dreams at a dating service or at the supermarket and have them sweep me away. Nor am I in the biggest hurry to become an Nth degree Grand-Poobah-head honcho master. But one thing is for sure in both cases.....I'm going to keep looking, striving to be at my best and true to my personality, goals, and dreams.....hopefully, it will result in favorable situations in both cases!

So, I ask you, dear reader.....have any of you been through any interesting martial arts "Dating Experiences" lately? Doesn't necessarily have to be in comparision to martial arts.......Let's get your 2 cents! Feel free to comment.

Train well...

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Rewards: Incentives or Distractions?

Just as I was getting ready to leave from from private school Wushu classes, a little girl came out of one of the classrooms, crying.

"Sheila..., what's wrong?"

Sheila struggled to catch her breath between sobs. "I got a missed point on my point sheet because I wasn't doing what I was supposed to be doing....."

(At this school, kids get daily report cards. Kids earn points toward "marks".....)

"Aaw. Can I ask...will it be the end of the world if you miss a point? You can make up the point, you know..." I said.

"Yeah, but......"

"Are you disappointed because you expected all good marks today?" I asked.

"No. Not disappointed".

Puzzled, I asked "You're not gonna get a Minus from this are you? ("minus" mark means "fell well below expections")"

"No. No minus. I just won't make an the "met all expectations" mark"

"So, you're disappointed about missing the "excellent" mark?"

"No....." She sobbed more.

Now I'm really puzzled. Usually, even if you don't get the "met all expecations" mark, you can make up for it in another tracks of that class. Its common for kids to get a check mark or even a minus mark some days. So I was wondering why she was so upset. Then....she told me.....

..."Its just that my Mom told me that if I got all equals until Spring Break, then I'd get to go on a vacation to Disneyland with my friend that I havent seen in 3 months...."

"Aaaah. So, let me're working on good marks, just for a vacation to Disneyland? I see. You're upset because you know you might not make all 'equals' marks until Spring Break, huh?..."

"Yeah, and that means I won't go to disneyland with my best friend...". More sobs. Its was heartbreaking.

I spoke a lower, softer voice and intentionally breathed in even breaths, to try and get her to follow my rhythm. "Sheila...please listen. You can go back in class and earn that missed point back, or we can sit out here and talk about how you will not go to Disneyland because you weren't on task. I know you can be on task..."

"But what about Disneyland??? If I can't earn that point, I'm not goinggggg!"

More sobs. More erratic breathing.

"Sheila...are you trying hard for good marks for being proud of trying your best in school,...or are you only trying hard just so you go to Disneyland? Remember what I talked about in class last week?"

"Yeah.....we study and try hard to earn experience and knowledge, not just points. Points just tell us how we're doing with gaining knowledge".

"That's right. So what is important? Knowledge that will stick with you the rest of your life? Or only a few days in Disneyland?. Disneyland is cool, but I guarantee you'll have lots of opportunities to go to Disneyland. Or 6 flags. Or anywhere else!"

"I guess...Knowledge is more important."

"Yes sirree. Knowledge and pride in you accomplishents are your real rewards. Disneyland is extra icing on the fun cake, huh? Sheila smiled and wiped her eyes.

"Now get back in there and earn that missed point back! And I hope to hear about your Disneyland trip!". Sheila ran back to her classroom.

Rewards: Incentives or Distractions?

As a teacher, I do use rewards as an incentive for the kids at my martial arts school. Maybe a fun little game for a class's excellent effort, or for little ones, stickers that say "I did my best today!" when they try their best. It doesn't matter that they might've made mistakes...if they try hard to correct themselves, have fun, and put in good effort, they've earned rewards. But I keep the rewards realistic, and I don't do games or stickers every day. I don't want kids to believe that they can get the reward by just showing up to class.

When teaching our own kids at home, let's do the same thing. Keep it realistic. Base the rewards on fun things, yes...but to promise something so big as a trip to Disneyland for an 8 year old child if they are "perfect" in school....that's setting up for a very upset child if he or she realizes they weren't "perfect".

At this age group, the concepts of self-esteem, confidence, and pride through accomplishement, are just starting to make sense to kids. To attach rewards that are associated with things that kids really desparately want to do, want to get, or think are cool, will only result in kids working at goals just to get the reward. Instant gratification. "I got my "A", so give me my vacation". "I got my "A", so buy me a car". When kids are taught from a young age to expect that the World is owed to them if they do one little thing correctly, they will learn to expect the World for *every* little thing done correctly. This will backfire....even though kids will do the correct things, and the right things, they might be apt to get very upset when things don't go their wayc or if they feel their efforts are not "correct". A downward spiral with self confidence, a questioning of self worth, and the questioning of the "fairness" of the World, could result. I'm not saying it *will*....what I'm saying is, depending how the child is taught, it might end up in the child seeing their surroundings as "not fair" when things don't go their way. Or, in extreme instances...resulting in a child obsessed with being "perfect" to avoid disappoinment in anything.

If these traits linger into adulthood, it is possible that it could affect their lives in different ways. It may affect how they work, it may affect how they interact with others, it may affect their own expectations of others.

Support our kid's efforts, and Reward wisely. Let's teach our kids the true meaning of effort and accomplishment...if they understand those, the rewards you give will be that much *more*....rewarding.

Train hard...train well.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Selfishness and Altruism: Two sides of the same coin?

Today in my afterschool martial arts program, all the kids were taking their snack break in the commons area, when I heard a sharp shout above the din of talking and laughter: "I'm in 8th grade! For gosh sakes! I'm not some baby ya know!"

I stopped the class. "Whoa, what's going on?" I asked, while the shouter, an 8th grade girl, stomped away to another part of the commons area and plunked down in a chair with her arms folded and a grumpy look on her face.

After speaking to several boys about what happened, I learned that one of them asked her why she was giving away her snack.

"Yeah, then she started to get all mad and we asked 'why are ya mad?', then she started screamin'"

I was surprised at her reaction to whatever upset her, because a bit earlier, she offered her snack to me, saying "I'm not into animal can have them if you want...its called 'unselfishness'. I heard you say earlier that you were hungry even though you had lunch not long ago..."

"Well, thank you! Unselfishness, eh? Sometimes, we can use the word "Altruistic"..."

"I like to not be selfish. But what's that 'altruistic' mean?"

"Well, it kind of means that you're concerned about the interests and welfare of others, and may often offer your service, time, or asstance to help other attain whatever goal or desination they're going for or hoping for....all without expectation of reward or recognition. Kind of like that!!" I answered.

"So selfishness and altru..."


"Yeah, they're kinda like opposites?"

"Yeah, you could say that", I smiled. "Actually, I'm not into animal crackers either...maybe you may share with the others??"

"Sure! Its all about altruism, right!" She said, as she walked back to the group.

Fast forward 10 minutes later, after the shouting scene. I walked over to her and found out that she was upset that she wasn't highly commended or complimented or thanked by the kids on her selfless act of sharing.

"Remember what I said about selfishness and altruism being opposites?" I asked. "Sometimes though, we may tend to be so caught up in our own thoughts or our own needs and wants only, work so hard to makes these needs and wants happen that we forget to at what others need and want."

"...But I'm always helping people and sharing. No one really appreciates it!"

"Then, that's not being truly altruistic. If you are looking for recognition and awards for helping others, that's a kind of selfishness." I said.

She looked at me and nodded. "So...I'm being sefish by wanting people to recognize me as a good person?"

"No, not sefish....but maybe wanting to be important maybe. Think about you do good things so people say 'oh! Helen is such a good person!', or, do you do good things just because it feels good or because its the right thing to do?"

"Aah...I guess a little of both" She said. "I like doing the right things, but I want people to know I'm doing it for them".

"Aaah", I said. "Then that isn't really selflessness or unselfishness if you do things just for the gain of recognition. Or, when you're older, if you the do right things only for fame or profit."

She nodded. "So what now?"

"Go over there and apologize to screaming at them. They didn't say anything to make you allowed yourself to interpret things differently and you got yourself mad. That's the right thing...go say 'sorry'".


So ask yourselves...."Am I doing right and good, and doing service for my community out of good feeling, love for fellow people and compassion? Or am I doing this for fame, recognition, money, or other profit? Am I doing this for only my personal gain?"

No one would want to think of themselves as someone who is so egotistal. But, you'll probably be surprised, that one time or another, we've all given service for the ulterior motive of being recognized as "that great person" or for personal gain. I've been there....and will struggle for a long time with that question of "Am I really all that and a bag of chips, expecting fame and fortune from all this? Or am I doing good for the sake of doing good?"

There's nothing wrong, of course, if people recognize you as a great person, a great leader, or even a selfless altruistic person.... but don't let it go to your head and don't allow ulterior motives guide your decisions. If you do, you'll only end up make everyone happy *except* for yourself!

Train the mind, strengthen the spirit. Train well!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Another blast from my blog's past: "Vitality in Art"

(Moving old blog posts from my previous location to here on is one from early 2009)
February 24 2009

Quote of the month:

"There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost".  -Martha Graham
Who a better person to quote such words, as dance legend Martha Graham? Her ideas and concepts in contemporary dance choreography were innovative for it's time, and set the stage for contemporary dance. Her concepts were fresh, incorporating a raw sense of emotion not often seen before that time. Even the musical scores composed for her suites were very different from the music of the time.....major and minor chords combined, intricate rythym, tapestries of sound that either hit you like a shock, or brought raw emotion to the surface. Dancers of the Martha Graham Dance Company, became masters of bringing a "life force" to dance, translated through action.
Being a martial artist, I feel that the "art" of the fighting systems not only resides in the correctness of movement or even the committment to movement.....the art, I believe, resides in the "vitality" (as Martha puts it) of intent, emotion, and expression. This expression can be evident in any martial art, no matter how rough or it may look.
Don't get me wrong....Martial "art" is simply not the sole idea of looking pretty while you do a Kata.  Nor is it how high you jump, how heavy a sword you wield, how many boards you break, how many tournaments you win. Granted, having a few elements of strength and poise are indeed contributing factors to physical prowess and competitive edge….but in the end if you don’t have “intent, emotion, expression….and the ability to manifest these elements without conscious thought”….it won’t be a true would only be physical skill and in some cases, mere tricks.
In my Taiji classes, my students often hear me say “Feel for it…..”, or I’ll compare a motion to an already familiar experience. “Push the beach ball under water” I might say, and their eyes light up with “Oh! Okay!”. This is because I know that not all my words will make sense during a class, and if a student does indeed make the connection between a familiar experience and a newfangled martial arts movement, it will be easier for them to bring forth the sense of intent needed for a movement. When it all comes together and a student can translate intent through action and freely express themselves through movement, then that , is Martial Art.