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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Beat stagnancy in its tracks

"When you're green you're growing. When you're ripe, you rot" - Ray Kroc

(Part 2 of a 4 part series about the internal (mental, emotional, spiritual) aspects of martial arts and self improvement.)

We all hit a stagnant phase in our martial arts training. That feeling of almost being "bored" in our art. This feeling of stagnancy may manifest as a "lack of interest", a feeling of not feeling motivated, or feeling as if things remain the same even if you try hard.

Someone asked me once some years back, "Wow, 30 years studying martial do you do it for that long? Doesn't it get old?"

"Old? Not really...." I responded. "I guess I got lucky enough to find something else fun and exciting to play with in my martial arts all this time..."

To best explain why I chose to keep going in the martial arts, beyond the "hobby" phase, I'd like you try this simple visualization/meditation:

From the standpoint of being a martial artist in the present time, ask yourself, "Why did I get into martial arts in the first place?" (insert any long term activity here if you're not a martial artist).  How long ago was it? Did you get into it because you saw Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Did your parents get you into it to learn about fitness and self discipline? Whatever the reason, think back to that time. What was your first lesson like? Try to remember as many moments of that lesson..... Were you excited at the prospect of learning "ancient fighting moves"? Did you start dreaming of using a staff like that one Ninja turtle? (I forgot which one had the staff!).

Now think about one time where you realized you really "got" a particular technique. Allow yourself to feel that sense of satisfaction and pride in yourself that you "did it". Allow yourself to feel that "reward" of being able to do that same new move again, and again. The trick now is, to find ways to bring that sense of excitement back....otherwise, things might start to be "same old, same old"..

Most times, we grow out it, or something piques our interest enough to get back on the bandwagon and go "gung ho" into the training again. 
If you find yourself hitting a stagnant period of your practice, ask yourself "am I really 'training' or am I merely practicing at a comfortable level?" If someone is practicing the same Kata over and over again, it can get a bit monotonous if you don't approach your training with a mindset that motivates you to find a new twist to the Kata or the finding a way to apply the Kata in a way that improves other facets of your training.

For example, let's take the basic Kata or routine from your art. Do it once, as best as you can. Okay, looks great...but how to improve? How about putting a new weapon in your hand, one you haven't worked with before. I taught a basic Eskrima class to people who had little or no weapons experience, and the addition of an apparatus really brings one's awareness back into the form...instead of just "doing the Kara", now you have to think again! Puts a different spin on the same Kata!

Try doing your kata slow. I mean really slow, with stances lower than you normally would. At my school we call this "low and slow" training. The trick here is to not cheat by making the transitions between movements too quickly....instead think of making the pace consistently slow throughout the form. Your legs in the low stances might remind you they are working. :) You might find your balance a little off, or that you might lose your place in the form a time or two. This "tai chi" type of training can aid in keeping your awareness in each movement.

Sparring: Let your imagination drum up different ways to approach sparring. How about sparring one handed? Maybe not allowing kicks with one leg? How about adding the "push hands" or "chi Sao" sticky hands exercise to your drills? There are many possibilities!

Let your creativity go wild in finding different ways to train your self defense, sparring, forma and fitness. Creativity is one way to beat stagnancy! I would love my readers to share their own methods and ideas for fun alternative training drills and activities.....please post!

Aware mind and Thinking mind in martial arts and other experiences....

This is part 3 of a series about the 'internal' aspects of martial arts training. Its nothing mystical...its simply the mental and emotional components we have that help or hinder our training and motivation. :)

Thinking, or more precisely identification with thinking, gives rise to and maintains the ego, which, in our Western society in particular, is out of control. It believes it is real and tries hard to maintain its supremacy. Negative states of mind, such as anger, resentment, fear, envy, and jealousy, are products of the ego.
                                                                                                                     - Eckhart Tolle

I was talking to someone about the meditation practice that I open to the public each month. I invited him to a session and he said "I'm not very good at it, I can't get my mind to shut off, I keep thinking."

"That's why its called 'practice'. Its not called a 'meditation master' class." I replied.

"I don't know how you guys do it..." he said. "I just can't get my mind to shut off".

"Its not about shutting off your thoughts....Its about not dwelling on them or passing judgments based on them. If you're not thinking, you're dead." I said. "But...we tend to over-think a lot of times. Meditation balances us out a bit, and allows us to to be open, honest, and aware. Its just sitting and experiencing each moment as it comes without judgement and without goal. Its a quiet awareness....not not overactive thinking. You could benefit from the should try it out".

I  haven't seen him at a practice yet.

So, what's the difference between the Awareness mind and the Thinking mind, anyway? I'm just going to present my view, based on experiences so far.....pardon me if I ramble.

Awareness is a 'moving stillness' moves from one moment to the next, not dwelling on the material from a previous moment, nor judging the moment or material. Our thinking mind can become judgmental or try to convince us that we can predict the future *based on past experiences". There's a catch to this "future prediction"....if your experiences with something are what you consider as "bad", then there is the possibility that you will "expect" the same if a similar experience happens.

Awareness is now, not the future or supposed possibilities. Awareness allows us to recognize and experience the world around us, whereas thought can give us the ability to change how we view the experiences. Awareness is acknowledging each moment and living each moment as it comes without trying to control, prove or disprove.

Thoughts are largely comprised of things we've remembered, imagination, even "pictures" and words. However, the thinking mind tends to bring out the judgmental sides of us. For example, consider the "Vulcans" of the "Star Trek" series.....Logic was a revered trait, and everything was based on this "thinking mind" and logic. It is possible to become obsessive with the thinking mind, logic and reason,... that it affects our ability to feel emotions fully. Some may turn overtly to the thinking and logical mind to avoid past emotions that were painful, or to maintain a sense of "control".

I'm not saying that logic and reason will turn you into Mr. Spock. We all need logic and reason to experience the world in many degrees. However, if we get stuck in logic and become overdependent and obsessive with it, it can probably prevent us from getting "full" experiences.
So, how can we use awareness in our martial arts training? Well, one good exercise is to feel your body as you practice a form or Kata. Feel each stance as you move....check your stance without looking down at it....does it feel correct? If not, correct it the best way you can, based on what you perceive a "correct" stance to be. If you don't know if it is correct or not, ask your teacher. If you make a mistake, don't concern yourself with "did Sensei see that?" or "I'll never get this right"....that negative self talk is your THINKING mind being judgmental. As we practice awareness in our martial arts training, we must be honest with ourselves. If we try to control everything and pay attention to every little thing, that is not awareness....that is merely the need to control. Its as if you impose your opinion on everybody else while saying you will hear others...., that is not awareness, that is still the need to be controlling. Its hard for us to let go....many people see this as "giving up control" or "relinquishing one's power" or even "giving in to delusions".

Awareness, however, is not expecting or waiting for things to happen. In my martial arts classes, we say the "awareness is the most important aspect of training". However many students assume that it means "paying attention to what is going on around us....and most times, they associate this awareness exercise with an exercise we do called "circle drill", where people in a circle randomly "attack" the person in the middle of the circle, who in turn has to defend himself/herself. In this type of attention, the attacks are already expected....the defender just has to react. Is it still awareness? Depends on how you approach the exercise.

Ever meet a martial artist or athlete that instantly knows what needs to be adjusted in their movement or technique? Those people have great body awareness. Ever see a beginner or intermediate martial artist be corrected by the teacher in class, only to repeat the same mistake over and over? Its not that they are necessarily "uncoordinated", its just that they need more practice at being aware and present in their own is common for beginners to concentrate so much on the outside form of the techniques, trying to get their fist to go this way and their legs to go that way.....and that can prevent the inner awareness from paying attention. This is expected. Practice is the key.

I tell my students all the time about how our minds can trip us up by being tricked by our own need to be in control.....and many have found that the harder they grasp on to control of their goals, the lesser grip they have on the process of getting to the goal. And some have found that if they get too logical and scientific with their martial arts, the less it makes sense and the less intuitive their reaction times are. When I say "stop thinking so hard", I'm often met with a blank look.

Again.....I'm not saying that logic, reason, and the thinking mind are bad. I'm not saying that at all (Did some of the judgmental minds think so??). As I said earlier...."Thought" is part of the content of awareness, and thought allows us to reflect...which in turn, allows us to grow intellectually, emotionally, and even spiritually. Overthink, and you override the process of turning thought to intuition. Many people make the choice to not listen to their intuition or "follow their heart" because they believe that thinking with intuition or emotions only leads to heartbreak. I disagree. Whatever negative things that happen when you follow your gut, has nothing to do with you following your gut! If something doesn't go your way, its usually because you still tried to impose your control over the event or person. That's not following awareness of intuition.

I've taught students who are very concerned about the "science" of martial arts"...the exactness of perfect parries, the perfect stance, etc. To a certain extent, as martial artists we must embrace the science, but allow awareness.of "now" to develop into "intuition". Let's face it....when the crap hit the fan during a physical confrontation, the assailant won't give a hoot about how good your grasp of martial "science" is. You have to pay attention to "right now" if you want to fight effectively.

 I know other's views might be different, I've even been accused of having "negative" views of the overly logical bunch. I'm not looking for judgement or being told I'm wrong or be honest, I don't much concern myself with what anyone else thinks . (And I don't mean that in a mean way....I'm just saying that comments that come from people who feel the need to argue or to prove their point, don't bother me). When the judgmental minds start balking, they really aren't listening. Its kind of hard to listen when you are holding on to listening yourself think,and grasping so tightly to maintain control of your reality.

I'd be interested in hearing your views on Aware-Mind vs. Thinking Mind. Remember judgments! :)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Academic knowledge, experiential wisdom

*This is part 4 of a series about the internal (emotional, spiritual, mental, etc) aspects of learning martial arts. *

In an earlier blog post, "Is it knowledge, or just your opinion?", I spoke about surface knowledge and actual internalized knowledge. Now I'd like to post thought about "experiential wisdom"....something gained when you truly know and understand something. Experiential wisdom is gained in any subject, but in this case I'll be speaking about martial Arts.

If you're a martial arts teacher, you've met them before...the people who talk more about what they know instead of having skill that matches all that information. When you invite them on the floor, they politely decline, or they have an attitude that screams "inflated perception of one's own abilities."

Memorizing techniques and retaining academic information is great....but I'm a believer that people shouldn't say that they know something unless they've worked at it for a long while and has explored as many aspects of it.....otherwise, its merely thin opinion, not knowledge. True knowledge of a subject can't be gained by merely reading books or scouring the have to practice it, explore it, feel it.....and all the while keeping an open mind that allows for other variations of information to be considered for your learning. Most of all, you have to give that new found knowledge time to integrate with your experience. It is this time, as well as absorbing the knowledge and experience, that eventually turns into experiental wisdom. The thing to remember is to allow time and practice.

Too many times however, in martial arts, some choose to consider themselves experts at something when they have little experience. Give it time....give it energy and commitment. Accept that you don't know it all and stay motivated to gain actual experience.

Wisdom awaits....what will you discover in the meantime?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Is it knowledge, or just your opinion?

Part 1 of a series on internal aspects of martial arts and self improvement....

Have you ever noticed, that the most opinionated people tend to rant, complain and find fault the fastest? While those who are truly knowledgeable make their points known, but not point fingers and look down their noses at others?

I call the behavior of complainers and know-it-alls, the "attempt to control Universal knowledge".

I get youngsters visiting my studio a lot, many times with previous Karate or Tae Kwon Do experience....usually around 3 to 6 months. When they take their intro lessons at my school, sometimes I'll be interrupted with "Karate does it like THIS..." Or "That's easy, I already know dragon stance...." (when in fact they have never done it before).

So why do young kids blurt things out like that? Adults in the martial arts know that if they interrupted the teacher, they'd get a bunch of pushups. But even if the kids knew this, it doesn't stop them. Why not?

Because there's that point in childhood where everything is about them and what they know...for many youngsters, their world is the world everybody else experiences. This mode of perception could be at 2 years old, could extend all through teenage years. I know some adults that still think their perceived world is the only true world. :)  kidding aside, if kids are exposed to only one thing, one activity, one facet, without seeing the variations, they believe that is exactly what everyone knows....a "universal knowledge". They're not trying to be rude, they just assume everything is Karate.

I had one new 4 year old tell me I needed to get karate belts. "we wear sashes to show our belt rank" I said.   "yeah, but...but. but you should get belts so everyone knows what belt you are." Heh heh!  The child didn't hear what I said....instead made sure I knew the right way to do things. :)

Ever notice too, that the word "you" is used a lot by those who feel the need to prove their point? More "you" refererences than "I" references....usually in pointing out others supposed faults..."You need to do this", "you need to do that."....many times this phrase is used by "academic masters" not true, "knowledge earned though toil-sweat-and-struggle" masters. Hint, teachers....try saying 'that skill needs....(insert points), and here are tips for you in practice"....this allows students to feel a GAIN, not a sense of incompetence when you say something like "you NEED to relax!" They know they 'need' to, but since they know they're not there yet (otherwise you wouldn't be saying "you need to...") , it can make them feel that they're missing something. Just goes to show that just because you know, doesn't mean you can do. Just because you can do, doesn't mean you can teach.

Problem is, sometimes people don't grow out of that mode of thinking. People assume everyone should think like they do, and they look down upon anyone that doesn't think as they do. They make general assumptions, even going so far as to label others with their opinionated "truths".  Personally, I'm getting tired of seeing constant flame wars about which martial arts is best, religion vs. Athiesm, people thinking they're smarter than others, labeling others as stupid or delusional, Tai Chi style arguments, the best way to make a pie, etc etc......In the end no one gives a hoot about how smart you *think* you are or how good you *think* you are....a Get a grip on Ego and the need to be right, people.

. Someone once tried to tell me who I was as a person, what I thought, and what my beliefs were......WRONG WRONG and WRONG. (yup and the words "you you and you" were used a lot)..... It was all based on opinion, not true knowledge about me as a person or an attempt to try and understand my core beliefs. I didn't believe exactly as they did, and therefore I'm black sheep....something they themselves despised being tagged as. Go figure. It is said that knowledge is power.....but be careful that your don't rely on it as your sole support. That would be like relying solely on your pocketknife for self defense, and not going to Martial arts class because hey, you have a knife right? Don't need anymore of that antiquated martial arts stuff. Get that knife taken away from you or get frozen by adrenaline dump....NOW WHAT? You should realize that the knife is a tool in your toolbox of self defense or combat one tool will match every job. So the next time you think about being a blowhard, ask "Is this true knowledge or just my opinion based on my biases?"