Monthly Archives: February 2012

The Process of Progress

The Process of Progress

The Process of Progress

Her foot flew through the air, toward a small hand-held target, held three feet above her head. A loud “thwack” echoed throughout the Dojang. She landed lightly, a smile creeping across her lips. Her instructor, who was holding the target smiled back at her; an almost perfect jumping crescent kick.

It had taken her some time to build the skill to perform the kick. A few months ago, this beginner student had walked into the school, looking for a place to get stronger, more agile, more confident. She’d noticed someone performing the kick in her first class and had dedicated herself to achieving it since that day. It was slow at first, she’d finally made progress.

Human beings are impatient. I’m not sure if it’s a result of living lives filled with convenience, or whether it’s some kind of deep-set evolutionary need to do things as quickly as possible, but either way, when we want something, we usually want it yesterday. In most cases, it’s this need for instant gratification that stops people from reaching their goals – they don’t have the patience to get through the rough parts. In fact, most of the time, if someone ceases to notice their own constant improvement, they’re more likely to give up attempting to achieve their goals. While that is in no way a rule, it’s unfortunately the case for a lot of people.

But constant improvement is never possible. There will always be plateaus, frustrating periods where nothing seems to happen. It is in these moments that people get discouraged, and they perhaps decide to take a break, or they put less effort in while they’re working. It often doesn’t take too long before that person hasn’t actively tried in weeks. Those weeks turn to months, and that goal, or that idea turns from something you could imagine into something related to a past interest, a forgotten hobby.

The process of progress is never about constant improvement. It’s about realization of improvement at key points in time. It’s the moment where you can do a kick that you couldn’t before, when you can move into a yoga pose that was previously impossible, when you start winning a few more matches than you lose each session, when you get an email from someone important, or when you suddenly notice that you feel better than you ever have before.

It’s something that weight lifters will often face. After building large amounts of strength in a relatively short period of time when they begin, it’s never too long before they reach a plateau, and don’t improve for a while. But if they stick to their training regimes, they’re still building strength, their bodies are still growing and they are improving; it’s just not as noticeable anymore.

In the Martial Arts, I often go through cycles where I feel as though I’m really, just not very good. The reality is that I’ve gotten no worse than I was, but I haven’t noticed an improvement for a while. It means that the positive reinforcement is in the works; it’s coming but it’s not here just yet. In those moments, the best thing you can do is keep training, keep looking for ways to improve, for the next habit you can build or break that will help push you in the right direction.

The process of progress occurs largely without us seeing it. Unlike video games, there are no experience bars in life. You can’t tell exactly how much effort you have to put in, or exactly how long it’s going to take you to improve. All you know is that if you keep trying, you will, eventually, improve. It may take you three days, it may take you three years. The process is occurring, but you can’t see it.

One key to improving yourself, in any way you’d like, is to try and forget about positive reinforcement. Focus on the process, not the progress, and the progress will take care of itself. Sooner or later, you’ll have one of those moments, where you can connect the dots, where you notice the improvement; where it all makes sense.

Then you begin again.

“All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem.”

~ Martin Luther King, Jr

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Find Awareness, Find Direction

Find Awareness

Find Awareness

I watched him as he slowly turned around and walked deliberately into the bathroom. I moved toward the front door in case he came running out with a sword again. But he only emerged with his mug. He filled it with water, smiled at me, held the water up as if to toast me, and drank it slowly.

“Well?” I said.

“That’s it.”

“That’s what? You didn’t do a thing.”

“Ah, but I did. You just don’t have the eyes to appreciate my feat. I was feeling a slight toxicity in my kidneys; in a few days, it might have begun to affect my entire body. So before any symptoms could arise, I located the problem and flushed out my kidneys.”

This passage, taken from Dan Millman’s The Way of the Peaceful Warrior illustrates something that really helps one’s development in both the martial arts and in life; that you must have awareness of your surroundings to maximize your enjoyment. Those surroundings can be the area in which you find yourself or your body. Finding awareness of these spaces allows you to make decisions that improve your situation, either by preventing something from getting worse, or focusing on something that’s positive.

In a fight, your awareness will likely determine how successful you are. There are many things to consider, but a short list would be your opponent’s position relative to you, your current mental state, if there are any other people involved, if there are any weapons, what injuries you’re carrying, what kind of attacks are coming your way and what the area you’re standing in looks like. Really though, the variables are infinite. Only by processing the data you’re given can you choose appropriate attacks. It is for this reason that I often tell my students that they do not get to choose the technique, but the technique is chosen for them by the actions of their assailant, and what makes the most sense.

Awareness requires an attentive ear (and every other sense). Only by listening can you hear what’s going on. Only by hearing what’s going on can you make informed decisions. Only by making informed decisions can you give yourself the best foot forward.

As one goes about their daily life, there are so many communications coming our way that it can be very difficult to stop and listen to the space we inhabit. For example, when you’re busy keeping up with work, and your friends, your family, catching up on your shows, staying informed and spending time on your hobbies, you leave yourself very little time to listen to what the world is telling you. I don’t mean to imply you must meditate for hours at a time to become aware, but I would suggest that you often take a moment to think about your place in the universe and how you feel about it. Or try and “tune-in” to what’s actually going on around you. Get out of selfish thought and see your situation with a more critical eye.

This can be as simple as realizing you’re hungry and finding something to eat. Or it could be paying attention to an injury and taking some time to heal. It could also be more complicated, like realizing that your career is not what you think it is and that you require a life change. By listening to these messages and then taking action, it’s possible to affect real change that improves your life. By ignoring these messages, you will stagnate or worse, degrade.

Whenever you make a positive improvement, your awareness has done its job. You listened, took action, and cultivated a result. So, the more awareness you can find in your day to day life and in your training, the more direction you can find also. While awareness does not necessarily lead to correct decision, it certainly allows you to extrapolate some possibilities and then decide on a course of action that will move you forward, one way or another.

So my suggestion would be to stop every now and then and listen. What state is your mind in? What state is your body in? What do you need? What do you want? Pay mind to your feelings, to the messages that are coming from within, rather than from external sources. And at the same time, pay mind to what is outside your body, outside your thought. What are you being told? They will help you to figure out what is right for you, not for anyone else, but for you. And perhaps one day, your awareness will be so great that you’re fully able to sense the imbalances in your body and adjust before they ever affect your life.

“Buddha means awareness, the awareness of body and mind that prevents evil from arising in either.”

~ Bodhidharma

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Feed The Right Wolf

Feed The Right Wolf

Feed The Right Wolf

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

This legend, for me, also applies to the duality in training. The first wolf seems focused on external validation, on events and achievements and comparison to others. The second wolf focuses on intrinsic reward, on self development and the betterment of the group. There are many reasons for training in the Martial Arts, but at a very core level, we are always making a choice in terms of how we see our involvement. At any moment, do you believe that your martial wolf is one of status, of achieving defeat over others, or do you believe the beast you interact with exudes a warmer kind of love, that builds you up and makes you smile.

When your concentration is on defeating opponents, when your anger drives you, when you need to be the best, you’re feeding that first wolf. When you instead focus on being the best that you can be, on giving yourself time and on trying to bring the best out in others around you, the second wolf is made stronger.

Sitting down to write this post, I sincerely thought I would be telling you to think about that second wolf, on why it’s so important to bring your gaze inward, and work on acceptance, rather than ascendency. But, my truth is that you need both to be a good martial artist, that you need both to succeed in life.

Both of these animals have their place in the order of things, and without a sense of balance, you will stumble. A soft soul, preoccupied with peace is often taken advantage of, walked upon, made to be a victim as stronger forces sweep it away. A cold and hard approach can forget the more gentile aspects of existence. Instead of either exclusively, be flexible, adaptable, ready to call on the right wolf at the right time. You must be at peace with both of these animals, with your yin and your yang, your masculine and your feminine aspects.

If you feed one wolf too much, as the old Cherokee says, it will win the fight. The other will die. But you need both. Keep them both fed, keep them both in fighting shape, and you stand to benefit from their best characteristics.

“Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate, are necessary to human existence.”

~ William Blake

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What’s Your Super Power?

What's Your Super Power?

What’s Your Super Power?

It’s rough being normal. You’re just like everyone else. Your flaws are just a little too familiar to be interesting, your interests are pretty standard flair for someone of your age, and likely, you’re not doing as much with your life as you think you could be doing. What makes it worse is that so many people think they’re really important. Maybe they run a big company, or have ten children, or have written a best selling book, or are just plain arrogant. So the normal person goes through life, and feels as though they should probably be a little better than they actually are. I mean, if all these other people are so important, then surely, I should be that important too, right?

But here’s the thing. You’re better than you think you are. You’re not normal in the slightest, only in as much as everyone is bloody amazing. Truth is, you’re a hero.You’re an inspiration. You’re everything someone else wants to be, and more. I’ll say it again; you’re better than you think you are.

Human beings have used stories to inspire each other for thousands of years, and the chances are good that we’ll continue to do so for as long as we’re alive. Stories provide a vehicle to demonstrate values and share positivity, to show meaning and teach lessons. Humans love a good story and we love to make things sound grandiose. Hence, the superhero. They provide for us an exaggerated version of our own powers, our own greatest strengths, our own characteristics. It is in those characteristics that you’ll find just how amazing you really are. Superheroes couldn’t exist, if we didn’t identify with them, if we didn’t feel that there’s a bit of us in each of them.

Batman shows discipline. So do you.

Superman shows responsibility. So do you.

Spiderman shows tenacity. So do you.

Wolverine always gets up. So do you.

Superheroes are never all that interesting because of their powers. They’re interesting because of what their powers allow them to show to the world, because of what their powers bring out of them – their natural characteristics, exaggerated to make a point about human beings – of just what we’re capable of being, of what we are.

And really, we’re amazing. You have a super-power. You have something special. A winning characteristic, that, were you a character in a comic book or a movie, would be the critical element in your story, would be the lynchpin of your triumph, would make others look up and say “I want to be like that.”

The question is not what super hero you’d like to emulate. The question is what kind of a super power you already possess – what is your characteristic? What is your greatest strength? What is your super power?

Go use it.

“Most of the shadows of this life are caused by standing in one’s own sunshine.”

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

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The Language of Success

The Language of Success

Speak The Language of Success

Last week, I wrote about the power that habits can have when we apply them properly to our lives. It’s not really that surprising to think that most of our behaviors relate to habit, and so determine how one feels and acts almost always. They can be a source of true positivity or handicap us, so it’s down to everyone, individually, to think about their own habits and which might be suitable to change.

One particular habit that I’m personally working on, is the habit of using the language of success.

Whether we vocalize it or not, we talk to ourselves almost constantly. At work, while at home, talking with friends, walking about town, while cooking, while eating, while falling asleep, while playing music or reading books – except for those rare moments in which we’re at a loss, we’re usually talking to ourselves about something. What’s interesting is that we have a choice in terms of the type of language we speak to ourselves with, and using the right kinds of language can dramatically affect your day.

Certain words erode your self-power, your positivity and your motivation. Other words build those things up. Listening to which words you use when you’re talking to yourself says a lot about your under-lying attitude toward your life. Are you someone who feels like they are being dragged along? Are you living reluctantly? Do you want to change those feelings? Perhaps all it might take is a switch in the words you use. Here are a few to try:

- Change “have to” to “choose to.” You don’t have to get out of bed. You choose to get out of bed.

- Change “should” to “going to.” Instead of saying that you should cut down on how much you drink or eat, say you’re going to cut down on how much you drink or eat.

- Change “can’t” to “won’t.” It’s not that you cannot read before going to sleep tonight, it’s that you won’t.

- Change “must” to “get to.” Instead of saying that you must go to work tomorrow morning, say that you get to go to work tomorrow.

These are not monumental changes, but they do represent a monumental shift in the way one is viewing the world. The former in each case are examples of words that are passive, that imply loss of control, that reinforce the idea that you’re not the one in command, that you don’t have an ability to influence. The latter words do just the opposite; they imply that you’re the one in control, that you’re the one who’s driving the direction of your life, that you’re the one who is living in the moment and making the decisions that determine how your day will be.

Success, for me, is not material, or based on achievement. Success is in self-control, self-awareness, integrity and appreciation for the things I experience in my life. I don’t always succeed, but when I do, it’s often when my attitude reflects the language I’ve used above.

The words that you use are habitual. If you’re someone who is already using the language of success, whatever your definition of success may be, then you’re already on your way, you’re already taking responsibility for the quality of your experience on this planet. If you’re not, then maybe, just maybe, you might want to have a think about trying to change some of the words you use as you fly through your days.

“Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.”

~ Buddha

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Martial Habits

Martial Habits

Martial Habits

The sunlight is only just creeping through his curtains as his alarm begins to sound. It is five o’clock in the morning so therefore, the day is beginning. After blinking a few times, he rolls out of bed, finds the switch that provides silence, then stands.

Twenty five minutes later, he’s staring out at the ocean, feeling the wind in his face and watching the sun inch its way toward the sky. He begins his Kata, passing from stance to stance, striking and moving with grace. There are only a few other early-risers to see his ritual, who occasionally catch his eye and nod, appreciatively.

His routine complete, he returns home, makes coffee, showers, eats breakfast and joins the human race, who are just getting out of bed.

I have been thinking and reading a lot lately about willpower. From what I gather, it is now understood to be as much of a muscle as your bicep. You can only use it so much each day before it becomes tired and weak. With practice, it can be trained to endure more and be used for greater things, but it is, without doubt, a finite resource. Some estimate that as human beings, we are faced with an almost constant battle between impulse and self-control; that our lives are quite literally filled with tiny, momentary resistances to whatever takes our fancy. It becomes no surprise that by the end of the day, most are only capable of throwing their feet up, watching television and disengaging their brains.

And this is why habits are so important for improving one’s life and one’s martial abilities.

Once a habit is built, it requires less and less willpower to see through. The martial artist from my story above has integrated training into his morning routine. It’s just as much of waking up as opening his eyes. For most, the act of getting up that early would be a massive expenditure of willpower, leaving little for the rest of the day. But if one can build a habit of positive action, they can reap the benefit without having to expend so much effort to make it happen each and every time.

Of course, the opposite is also true. Once a bad habit has been engrained in your brain, then breaking away from it will be difficult. It will require willpower to undo the habit and replace it with something more positive.

This relates directly to martial arts. Your training habits can really help to determine your skill as well as your attitude toward progress. There are no shortcuts, so putting the time in is mandatory. What counts is how putting the time in feels for you, how much pain you have to go through to get what you want. Whatever it is you are attempting to achieve, if you create a habit of moving toward it, your willpower is less of a issue, and there is less sacrifice. Instead, the habit of training in a certain way takes over, the habit of being at class takes over, the habit of moving toward your goals takes over.

Often, it can seem as though life is easier for some people; that they have no trouble getting up in the morning, pursuing their dreams and being excellent. My opinion is that everyone, every day, has the power of choice. Your willpower is a finite resource each day, but how you choose to apply it can have drastic ramifications on the quality and content of your life. Those who seem to “have it easy” have trained their willpower to the point (either actively or not) that it exceeds the time they have in the day. This is a fantastic state to be in – to be only limited by the amount of time you have, not by your internal resources.

What would it be like to be able to run without getting tired? What if you could train for hours without needing a break? How would you spend your time if you knew there was nothing standing between your mind and your desires?

First build the house, then live in it.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit.”

~ Aristotle

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Acknowledge your Demons

What Do Your Demons Look Like?

What Do Your Demons Look Like?

She stands in the ring, her opponent bouncing in the corner about ten feet away. The gloves make her hands feel heavy and her hair is tightly wound into a braid that tickles the back of her neck. Sharp blue eyes focus on the task in front of her; an opponent with a two inch reach advantage and seven more professional fights to her name, all of them victories.

In a few short seconds, the bell will ring and the fight will start. She will hear little for the next three minutes, her full attention spent solely on the fists flying toward her face, and the space in which she inhabits. That which she must overcome cannot be ignored. Through either victory or defeat, this particular demonic encounter will be resolved shortly…

One of the nice things about martial arts is that you’re never really in doubt about who you’re fighting. It’s usually the guy in front of you, or the person trying to hurt you in some way. In fact, combat is quite tangible. It’s there, sometimes whether you like it or not, and must be dealt with. In short, your opponents (and therefore challenges) are usually quite, quite real.

But many of the battles that people face are completely intangible. Any fight you have with self-doubt, with self-esteem, with learning difficulty – these things cannot be seen, but are often far more dangerous than a single opponent in any arena. They can exist for years at a time, gnawing at a person’s character, twisting it into something ugly, something weak or mediocre. They are the things that stop us from reaching out potential.

Many go their entire lives, attempting to wrestle their shadows to the ground, beat them into submission and then move onto the next, improving themselves every step of the way. This is, I believe, to be a noble path. Self-improvement is the greatest challenge anyone can ever undertake, and it’s a fight that never ends. A person who can accept that their flaws will never cease, but determine to fix them anyway, is a person of integrity indeed.

So, you cannot allow your personal battles to sit in the background. Their repercussions can be felt just as much as a punch to the face. Visualize them. Be aware of their presence. Fight them with as much vigor as you would a real demon. Never, ever give up. You are fighting not for the win or for the end, but instead for the benefit of training, every day, of being more capable than you were the day before, of building strength for strength’s sake.

This is budo of the mind.

“We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell.”

~ Oscar Wilde

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