Monthly Archives: March 2012

Channeling Archetypes

A Classic Archetype

A Classic Archetype

A crowd of 700 students stood quietly in front of him, listening intently. Moments ago, he had been waiting nervously for his segment to begin, and now it was here. Students had come from all over the country, and he had been told just this morning that he would have to fill in for someone who couldn’t make it. The pressure had seemed insurmountable, but here he was, teaching, joking and succeeding, with 700 students hanging on his words.

Thinking of all the great teachers he’d learned from, he thought not of what could go wrong, but of what could go right. Teaching from a more confident place than he’d ever been, he surprised himself with his words and action. In those minutes, he succeeding in everything he’d hoped for and the students watching left the mat smiling and motivated.

One of the nice things about martial arts is that there’s always somewhere to go, something new to learn and something to improve upon. I like to think of it as there always being an “upgrade” just out of reach, and through diligence, thoughtfulness and consistency, it gets close enough to grab and make your own. Then you begin to look for the next step, where you go from there and once again, it’s just out of reach, until you put the work in and make it happen.

But occasionally, you’re called upon to be better than you think you are. In my example above, it was a teaching opportunity, but it can also be at a competition, a demonstration, a belt test or something more dangerous, more real, like a mugging. Although it’s not guaranteed, those instances provide one with greater motivation and power than is normally possible. The situation pushes someone to another level entirely.

Although one might have thought they weren’t capable of doing something spectacular, they often are, and at the point in time, where they are doing that spectacular thing, I like to think they are channeling an archetype. Archetypes are widely understood, evoke certain feelings, expectations and involve a certain set of behaviors that demonstrate a principle or an idea. So for the martial arts point of view, the archetype allows someone to “dial in” to a greater idea of performance or ability, for a short period of time, and allow that archetype to lift them up.

This happens all the time. When someone is brave, they are channeling an archetype. When someone makes a sacrifice, they are channeling an archetype. When someone decides to ignore the pain and keep running, they are channeling an archetype. It’s not that the power to take these actions doesn’t exist within those people and they need help to achieve it, it’s just that the archetype allows them to visualize the benefit of their desired action and act it out.

One of the reasons I really like stories is that so many of the characters we end up loving embody the greater aspects of the human being. I see this almost constantly on the martial arts mat, when someone grits their teeth and gets on with it, when they get hurt and get up anyway, when they are obviously tired but keep going. It’s almost as if there are these smaller scale battles that we, as regular people, have to fight, but they’re similar to the ones our heroes face. Where they must be courageous, so must we, although we don’t have to fight off hordes of Orcs, and instead must face something we perhaps think will be challenging and perhaps dangerous. Like a belt test, or a new challenge.

It may be just me and my particular approach to the world that makes me think in these terms, but the idea of striving to be something bigger and better is common in a great deal of people. Archetypes allow me to see the type of person I wish to embody, and although it is entirely impossible to actually become one, every time I’m able to channel that archetype and be bigger or better than normal, I’m one step closer to that next level.

“As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.”

~ Carl Jung

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Iaido: Living Under the Sword

Sunlight dashed across the field as the day came into being. The two warriors sitting quietly slowly opened their eyes, flexed their fingers, and then drew their focus upon each other. It was completely silent, not even a small breeze to rustle the fall leaves on the ground, or softly whistle in the ear of either Samurai. They were alone and had agreed upon a period of meditation before sunrise, and their duel.

They slowly walked toward each other, then drew their katana. Standing ready, they inched their feet forward until just out of range, then dropped into stance. Their bodies relaxed, their minds still, they began to wait, each knowing they would have only a millisecond to react, strike and win. With eyes like hawks, they immersed themselves in the moment.

One Samurai noticed a drop in concentration from the other and pushed forward to strike. He pulled his sword back and drove to carve his opponent from neck to navel. But it was a baiting strategy. His opponent darted beneath his arms, quick as a flash and drove the handle of his sword toward the face. He followed it with a cut across the neck, and the duel was over.

Sensei Ardestani

Sensei Ardestani

This past Sunday, I was lucky enough to attend an Iaido seminar taught by Farshad Ardestani, who is currently a Sandan (3rd Degree Black Belt) in the Musō Jikiden Eishin-ryū style of Iaido.

Although all of the students at the seminar had a chance to murder pool noodles with swords, which is just as much fun as it sounds, as well as practice a number of cuts, it was the philosophical lessons that I took the most from. With only three hours to practice, it would be quite difficult to develop any real skill, but the words used to describe this particular martial art will stick with me for some time.

Sensei Ardestani explained one aspect of Iaido as “living under the sword.” The reason is quite simple; when someone raises their sword to strike, if you evade, by backing away or dodging to the side, then you give them the opportunity to strike once more. However, if they move to strike, there is one place you are guaranteed to be safe, and that is beneath the sword, or more specifically, beneath the arms that hold it. In this space, there is no room to bring the sword down to hit you. The techniques we looked at used this concept, by either deflecting a sword strike, or redirecting it such that the defendant ends up in a position away from harm and able to strike back.

We were also told of the way in which many traditional Budo (Japanese Martial Arts), are not so much about self-defense, but self-development. Iaido requires you to be focused, completely, for long periods of time. There is so much one could say about this topic, about the different ways that practicing Iaido can benefit your life, but on this particular day it was the expression “live under the sword” that resonated with me.

When we have a problem in life, our instinct is often to run away. We dodge by ignoring the problem, by escaping from it, by backing away and thinking that we can out-smart it, or try again another time, or get some help from someone else. But, perhaps avoiding problems isn’t so smart. Perhaps it is better to “live beneath the sword” when it comes to confronting our problems. When something arises in your life that could hurt you in some way, perhaps moving close, close enough to smell its breath, to stare it in the eyes, to listen to its heartbeat is a better way to go. From this range, you are distanced from its blade and can knock it off balance, strike back, then move on.

Living under the sword does not mean to go looking for trouble, or to engage with problems with force or anger. It simply means to acknowledge the presence of a threat, and move to the best possible space to deal with it. It requires courage – you have to move toward that which will harm you! It requires precision, as an inch or two in the wrong direction could leave you dead, and it requires speed, as you must move before you’re hit. Practicing engaging with problems in this way will have its own reward, in a number of ways, beyond simple avoidance of discomfort.

As per usual, exposure to an alternate martial art has given me pause for thought. It is in these moments that I am truly grateful for the opportunities that come my way within the world of the martial arts. It is in these moments that I realize how similar most martial arts really are, not just in technique but in philosophy. I can see the true application of Iaido and walk away from this seminar with a great appreciation for the benefit of this particular traditional art and some inspiration to seek out more lessons.

“Under the sword lifted high, There is hell making you tremble. But go ahead, And you have the land of bliss.”

~ Miyamoto Mushashi

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Why Getting Hit Ain’t So Bad

Occasionally, Getting Hit Ain't So Bad

Occasionally, Getting Hit Ain’t So Bad

With a sharp inhalation of breath, he reeled from the punch. Turning away from his opponent, his knees began to falter, then drop away completely. His arms, only a few milliseconds ago deft and accurate, were suddenly powerless, following his shoulders as they began their descent, just after his hips.

He hit the ground with a slump, swinging forward then backward and ending up flat on his spine, unconscious and utterly defeated. His opponent looked away and lifted both hands into the sky, victorious.

There are many ways that we get “hit” in training and in life. Often, it’s as tangible as the story above. You’re training, trying to improve, doing the best you can, and someone just rocks you. Either with throw, kick or punch, they win, you lose. End of story. In life, it can be a lost job, a lost love, a mistake, a criticism, the failure of a test, being ignored – anything that hurts, really. Emotional hits aren’t often as obvious as the physical, but they cut just as deep and sometimes take far longer to recover from. Whether the last time you got hit was physical or emotional, the best thing you can do is learn from it, become stronger (in some way) and move onward.

I recall not too long ago, sitting in my apartment, having been “hit” by the sudden and unexpected loss of my job. I’ll never know what the true reasons for that loss were, but at the time, I was thinking that I had obviously done something wrong, that I’d approached things in the wrong way, that I’d misread the situation. However – that’s perhaps only true in a small way. There are always multiple sides to every story, and to try and think we can understand them all is a little arrogant. Sometimes it’s that the guy you’re fighting is better. Sometimes it’s because they’re bigger. Sometimes it’s because it’s not a fair fight. Whatever the reasons are, you get hit, you go down, and you try to get back up.

Now, what counts is what you learn from the hit. The nice thing about getting hit, in whatever way it happens, is that you’re fully aware of how much it sucks. You can’t say it didn’t happen. You can’t shy away from the failure, from the reality of your pain. It’s there. It’s now. It’s happening to you right now. That, my friend, is a powerful thing. Because when you can’t ignore something, you have to deal with it. Getting hit is like an alarm clock going off, bringing you back to reality, back to the present moment, in which you are getting hit.

And at that point, you have a choice. You can either learn from the experience, figure out why it happened, and take steps toward not letting it happen again, or you can ignore it, recover slightly, then get hit again, likely in the exact same fashion, perhaps even by the same person. What are you going to do about it? Do you want it to happen again? How can you move forward such that this lesson is now learned? That is your choice, and getting hit puts it right in front of you and yells at you; “choose!”

It’s especially impossible to try and control everything in your life. There’s no way to insulate yourself from loss or pain. There’s no way to guarantee a smooth ride and an easy finish. Sometimes, you get hit. That’s just the way it is. But what you can do is react to the hits that come your way. You can change such that the next time something similar happens, you can dodge the hit, you can block it, you can use it; anything except getting hit again.

And because getting hit gives you that opportunity, it’s not so bad, right?

“This is your pain. This is your burning hand. It’s right here. Look at it.”

~ Tyler Durden

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