Friday, February 27, 2015

"Long Quiet Highway"



There is a book from the early '90s I recently re-read, called: Long Quiet Highway by American author Natalie Goldberg. It is a autobiographical memoir of a writer who is immersing herself in Zen study while maintaining a career as an author and writing instructor. In the book, she reflects upon many aspects of Japanese Buddhism, including, in one passage, what it is that makes a good teacher. The fact that Goldberg is referring to Zen isn't necessarily the point. The skills and ideals are transferable to instructors of any kind.
"That is the work of a teacher, not to get caught in the likes and dislikes of a student, but to come forth always with the deepest teachings. Often the student does not like this, thinks the teacher is mean, unfeeling, but a good teacher knows that if he or she plants a real seed, someday, maybe years later, even in the most ignorant of students the seed may sprout. So the teacher's job is to close the gap between the student's ignorance and the teachings, but often the student does not understand any of this. That is why the student is the student. The teacher understands this. That is why the teacher can have abundant patience."
In the next paragraph the author discusses being a student, and what pushes us to want to expand our minds.
"But if the student doesn't know about the gap, how can she learn? There is something in us, an urgency to meet the teachings on the other side, that gnaws at our ignorance, that desires to meet our own true face, however lazy and comfort-loving we may seem to be. This something was working in me, albeit slowly, and often underground."
As a student of martial arts, I understand this. As a student of life, I also understand this. That is why finding the right teacher is so crucial, no matter what it is you wish to learn. And the responsibility of being a teacher is maybe even more immense. One has to be selfless, patient, and look at everything as a whole. After all, a teacher is really a student as well, as in the end, teaching and learning are one in the same.
 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Overconfidence


Confidence is good. But overconfidence can lead to a disconnect when it comes to real life violence. It is too easy to fall into the trap of thinking aptitude in the dojo means one is automatically safe in the real world.
I've seen this in adults, from time to time, but where I've really noticed it lately is with teenagers who have put in a couple of years, and achieved some level of success when it comes to class. You see the confidence increase, which is good, but sometimes there develops a slight arrogance, and a belief that a high belt colour means you can hold your own with anyone, in any type, of situation. But it's just not true. It's not the way life works.
Unfortunately, sometimes, depending on the student (and to a large degree the teacher), success in the dojo can be comparable to being book smart at school. Good grades don't necessarily mean intelligence outside of the classroom.
Once, for example, I was watching a class where the teenagers were having semi-formal grappling/wrestling matches. A new kid was there, and he, because of his size, was paired up with an experienced brown belt in the class. Everyone was thinking, he's going to get destroyed by the senior student, and the group gathered around in a circle to watch. However, within seconds of the beginning of the match, the new kid pinned the brown belt on the mat and the match was over. And then he did it again.
Luckily, it was just a friendly match in the dojo.
In fairness, most of us who have put in any amount of time training have likely felt increased confidence because of our increased abilities. I get it. But what some students don't yet realize, and it may take many more years of training and real life experience to understand, is that humility needs to be one of the key attributes discovered along the road of training. Use your confidence, but don't waver from caution; don't think yourself invincible, because no one is. After all, if we are to never underestimate an opponent, it means to never overestimate yourself.
Real life violence cannot be duplicated in a dojo for the sake of training. Real violence is ugly and unpredictable. It should be avoided, if possible.
I guess I just worry some of these students, with their new-found confidence, will put themselves in bad situations because of, well, being a bit naive. Because confidence can only take one so far, and some of the book smarts have to be interpreted and/or translated into realistic thinking.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Balance


I am returning to the philosophy of circles.
When I began martial arts, it was with the focus on the circle. Techniques were always completed with this concept in mind; defences were based upon rounded movements, such as jiu-jitsu usually is. This philosophy became the basis of my training. And while I haven't forgotten this, somewhere along the way I started to take my own philosophies for granted.
You see, as I grew to be a more experienced striker, I learned the value of a linear approach to defence to complement the circle. I learned about centre lines, jabs, and crosses. Attacking on angles and doing kata in line formations. Often, it seemed, the quickest route to reach an opponent was in a straight line.
My circles never went away, though, I just didn't focus on them in the same way I once did. But my mind is returning to it, now, albeit in a more layered manner than before.
I like to look at a karate reverse punch as a good example of combining straight lines with circular movements. The punch, to be quick and effective, must travel directly at its target – in a straight blast of power. The foot, also, lunges into a forward stance, aimed in the same direction as the arm. But, the circle is still there. The fist corkscrews as it is extended; the hips turn in order to generate power. It is a perfect balance of both concepts at work.
Lately, I have been hoping to increase my jiu-jitsu training once again. It's like going home and I'm excited. I am once more thinking in circles both small and large. And I am applying the philosophy to what I have learned in the meantime, blending the two, hopefully, into seemless, coherent actions.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Becoming Immune


In the realm of frenetic commercialism, those who wish to find a quiet mind must work to develop a sort of “materialistic immunity.” Just as the body can become immune to certain diseases, so, too, can the mind subdue the unwanted “noise” of the world.

It is hard enough, I've discovered, to find moments of peace without countless billboards pouring crap into my conscious and subconscious mind. Life, it seems, is challenging on its own, without omnipresent television screens with ego-filled actors telling me what I “need,” and how to be happy. And when I walk down a city street it feels akin to running a gauntlet of materialism, and I know it impacts us all deeper than we think on the surface. After all, that's the point of advertising, isn't it?

But peace can still be found. I try to become consciously aware of my surroundings, and take my power back by holding an internal place of focus amid the chaos.

The martial arts world, an argument could be made, has become increasingly commercial in recent years as well. Some dojos want to sell you what they have to offer, and many teachers and students flaunt their knowledge as if advertising their self-importance, unaware of the impact it may have on other students with whom they train. While most instructors and students I have met have been humble and approachable, there is always that one guy or girl who fails to check their ego at the door.

Again, we need to focus on ourselves. Martial artists train daily to cut out distractions, to breath, and to redirect the energy of an attacker. In this case, the attacker may be ego, materialism, or just unwanted attitudes of negativity. I just try to redirect the unwanted energy. I try to become immune to negative surroundings, and hopefully add a bit of positivity in the process.

It is my way of trying to find a quiet mind in a world that often seems out to confuse and distort what life is all about.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Perseverance


The year 2014, while full of memorable moments in the dojo, was a year that ultimately brought lessons in patience and perseverance.

For the first time in seven years of dedicated training, I hit a point where I could see quitting. Plain and simple. I was down in the dumps; my energy depleted, and my focus gone. But only in fits and starts. I would miss three weeks of class, then go regularly for three more. I binge trained, to be honest, and there were points where I had to drag myself out of the house to make it to the dojo for a training session.

What kept me going was knowing that each time I did go to class, I felt so glad that I did so. I felt refreshed, excited, and pleasantly tired from a challenging lesson. But then it would fade in my mind, and one day off would turn into many more. I was extremely busy with my family life, and my drive was just, well, not there.

Another thing that kept me going was watching my seven-year-old son's classes. I observed his excitement as he advanced to the “bigger kids class,” and enjoyed seeing his progression as lessons in the martial arts unfolded in front of his youthful eyes.

But why was I struggling? I needed to figure this out in order to move forward.

I could pin blame on many factors if I wished: exhaustion; injuries; absent training partners; not enough time; feeling too old; other interests, etc. I also have to deal with mental depression and anxiety which severely impacts my motivation at times.

However, these factors have never stopped me in the past. And who doesn't have challenges to overcome?

So what I had to do was dig deep and decide what the martial arts mean to me. And two of those things, among many others, is the cultivation of patience and perseverance. I realized that these lulls and challenging moments are just part of the deal. Training to get past them is not unlike training in endurance or technique. At times it's just hard.

But getting through the challenges, and finding joy once again on the path, is worth all the struggle and discomfort.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Compassion

Unconditional compassion may be one of the most important qualities a human being can strive to possess. To be selfless is a major key to opening the door to true understanding. I, like everyone else in the world, find this hard at times. I do not have a violent temper or anything like that, but I am human, and humans do not always live up to their true spiritual potential. It's part of the gig. It's part of learning.
I am good to people who are good. I am also good to people who are not good. Because Virtue is goodness.
I have faith in people who are faithful. I also have faith in people who are not faithful. Because Virtue is faithfulness."
-- Tao Te Ching
Compassion, while to a certain degree natural and latent in us all, sometimes needs to be practised and honed just like any other skill we seek to learn. When we practise a martial art, for example, we expect difficulty and challenges along the way. That's why we practise so hard and so long. Our approach to spirituality should be no different.
"The Art of Peace begins with you. Work on yourself and your appointed task in the Art of Peace."
-- Morihei Ueshiba
And compassion does lead to peace in the end. Sometimes the process feels painfully exhausting, I admit, but our spiritual teachers were definitely onto something when they preached patience and kindness. In reality, anger and frustration merely cloud our minds. They obscure our focus and mental clarity.
"When a delusion like anger is present, we lose control."
-- The Dalai Lama
So although we will invariably fail at times, the pursuit of unconditional compassion is a worthy path to embark upon. It will not only help us fine tune our own spirituality, but it will make us better teachers to those around us as well.
"For hate is not conquered by hate: hate is conquered by love. This is a law eternal."
-- The Dhammapada

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Duel




A renowned warrior came into a field to do battle.

The first challenger he met was his greatest adversary: Ego.

Both soldiers drew their swords and engaged in battle. They fought for many frantic minutes with no harm coming to either individual; both becoming increasingly fatigued as the conflict went on. But at a crucial moment, when the first warrior had Ego nearly defeated, he misjudged his opponent's strength and was pushed off balance and fell to the ground.

Ego, a smile coming across his face, raised his weapon and prepared to finish the conflict with one mighty swing of his sword.

But before he could do so, a chill breeze moved across the field, and on it sailed an arrow that pierced the armour of Ego, causing him to fall dead to the ground. The first warrior, incredulous, looked to his right and saw a third warrior carrying a bow.

His name was True Self.