Monday, June 13, 2016

Ante Up

Take a look at the list on the left.

You would think these are a given, but they aren't.
In our modern society, with access to so much information, perhaps too much information, time and again I see situations where people show up without the list on the left being ready.

There are always reasons that can be given for not doing/being any of these, just as there are ways of insuring that we always do them.  To me, these are the ante to earn the right to sit at the table of learning.

Reading through the list, you can even go as far as to say that they all reflect one single attribute - caring.

To learn, to really learn, we have to care.  It has to be important enough for us to want to do what is needed to insure success.  Very often, failing to bring these things is evidence, sometimes subconscious evidence, that we don't care enough about the result.  This is easily visible in kids' classes.  Many times the parents push their kids to do an after-school activity that the kids don't really want to do.  Thus, some or all of these 10 attributes are regularly missing - often in rotation.  The flip side of this list would include such negative behaviors as self-importance, arrogance, entitlement, privilege and the general feeling that we are owed something by someone else just for being who we are (hint: we aren't).  As the saying goes "you've got to earn it to learn it."

However, it is important to understand what is really going on here.  Teachers were not born with the knowledge or skills they have.  These have been earned with hard work over many years, coupled with a desire to share what they know.  It is not to be taken lightly.  In school, work, and free time mentors come in a variety of forms, all of which deserve the respect of the student for a good knowledge transfer to be possible.  Going further, bringing these attributes makes us worthy of being taught - that shows the most important type of respect, self respect.

I am incredibly proud to be a teacher.  My students bring these 10 key attributes to class all the time, and that pushes me to give 100% in every single lesson.  They work very hard, which makes me want to work even harder.  Together we have a rhythm and a balance together.  We motivate ourselves and each other.

Time spent in the dojo is designed to instill these attributes, especially self-respect, into each of us - teacher and student alike, with the goal that we face the world outside the dojo ready and worthy of being taught all the skills we need to succeed in our lives, according to our own definition.

If you get up every day and try your best to learn something new, if you do your best to show these 10 attributes when you engage others, I have good news.  You will make it.  Inch by inch if that's what it takes, you will always get there if you stay the course.

In the end, that's what really matters.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016


Ok, enough is enough.
I have seen so much BS about Ninjas and Ninjutsu that I decided it was time to put my two cents in.  Actually, I think I have a great deal more than two cents to add, given the fact that I studied Ninjutsu intensively for 7 years (tested 2nd dan), have read most of the commercially available materials from the major authors in this field in the martial arts community, and have spent the last 25 years living in Japan, the birthplace of ninja culture.

At the risk of controversy from martial artists who may believe whatever they want to in the face of actual evidence, here's my take on a few of the common discussion topics. These views are my own and I take sole responsibility for them.

Who were Ninja?
We all want to believe the fantasies about black-clad assassins jumping from rooftop to rooftop using their superhuman skills to achieve the impossible.  Perhaps the most impossible thing they achieved was an over-inflated sense of grandeur about the whole thing.  While it is difficult to dispute the historical evidence that mercenary groups existed who fulfilled some aspects of the roles ascribed to ninjas (assassin, spy, informant, bodyguard) there is not much evidence to suspect that this was an orderly, controlled affair.  The historical documents of "Yamabushi' or mountain warriors blended with Shinto mysticism and martial arts are very likely to be highly exaggerated and a majority of so-called "ninja" were nothing more than villains/thugs for hire to the highest bidder, without the counterculture anti-samurai bushido that is accorded to them in movies.

Yet another strong possibility is that Ninja were forerunners of organized crime groups (yakuza), who were used to help keep social order during times of unrest, as Tokugawa Ieyasu used them during his reign.  It was useful to have groups from outside the capital who would not be subject to the influence of the politics surrounding the shogun, but who could blend in when needed and provide valuable intelligence on the ground.

Socially, such groups helped to maintain the social fabric in Japan (and still do), allowing justice to be done and/or grievances settled when the legal system is unable to do so properly or to the satisfaction of those involved.  While gambling and other gray acts were the hallmark of Japanese organized crime syndicates, there is nothing to say that these groups were not "ninjas", or worked in collaboration with other mercenary groups who might be called "ninjas".

To confuse matters more, some traditional "samurai arts" such as Yagyu Shinkage Ryu include "ninjutsu" as a sub-system in their study of "heiho" (strategy), much in the same way that clandestine operations and subterfuge are part of our modern military hierarchy.

The 1980's vision of "black ninja versus white ninja" and all the various Sho Kosugi/Franco Nero/Lee Van Cleef entertainment stemming from it added popularity and mystique to the world of the Ninja - my first experience being in Chuck Norris' "Octagon" (1980) which to be fair was actually better than a lot of other movies which came later.

Dr. Masaaki Hatsumi and the Bujinkan
At least as of this writing, Dr. Hatsumi still lives in Noda City, Chiba Prefecture, and continues to have his bone-setter practice in addition to teaching Togakure-Ryu Ninjutsu as Head of The Bujinkan, his global organization.  There is no evidence to suggest he is anything other than authentic, and he continues to appear on Japanese TV from time to time demonstrating Ninjutsu for various information programs.  The boom seems to have come during the 1980s when Stephen K. Hayes, an American karate practitioner from Ohio went to Japan and asked to be his live-in disciple.  Hayes became the foremost Western authority on Ninjutsu and went on to publish many books on Ninjutsu during the 1990s, which I read extensively when I was still training with my teacher.  He also served as Dr. Hatsumi's translator and I believe he was a fundamental part of the globalization of the Bujinkan. Later he would go on to study Tibetan Buddhism as well as advise for TV and movie programs and various government agencies.

There were a number of other Bujinkan luminaries (Shoto Tanemura, Doron Navon, Jack Hoban, etc.) who came and went from Noda City, and later founded Bujinkan chapters around the world. These seemed to be especially popular in the US, Germany, Israel and Australia.

Although the most famous lineage, Bujinkan was not the only school or system promoted in the 1990s during the Ninja Boom.  Ron Duncan popularized Koga Ryu Ninjutsu in the 1970s and 1980s and his work seems at least as credible as Dr. Hatsumi's, since it has proven difficult to verify the claims of any of the schools to a lengthy lineage beyond the current generation.

Ashida Kim was also well-known by researchers (although his work seems a bit more fantasy than reality) and published a number of books on Citadel Press.

In summary, esoteric and exotic sells.  Ninja have been made out to be everything from secretly trained mercenary assassins to deeply spiritual warrior monks.  There seem to be many versions of the truth, depending on who is telling the story.

Ninjutsu Fighting Methods
Fighting techniques covered in Ninjutsu include both traditional Japanese empty hand and weapon arts.  The empty hand arts might most closely resemble Japanese Kempo, including fluid striking/kicking and locking/throwing systems.  Weapon arts include traditional Japanese weapons such as jo and sword (although the katana is uncommon), and some schools teach spear (yari) and halberd (naginata) as well. Kobudo weapons such as bo, kama, sai and nunchaku also appear, although these are of Okinawan rather than Japanese origin.  Despite the dominance of Japanese archery (Kyudo) in samurai culture, there doesn't seem to be a precedent for such training in Ninjutsu.

The Ninja Star or throwing star (shuriken) is probably the most symbolic of all ninjutsu weapons and ironically probably the least practical of any of them.  Use of a straight throwing spike has a traditional precedent in old sword schools where the kozuka was sometimes thrown as a distraction when combatants entered fighting range.  Many traditional Ninjutsu schools still teach throwing this straight spike rather than the commonly assumed flat, spiked disk.

Another favorite in the media was the Kumade or bear claw, which is a set of claws attached to the hands or fingers and used to scale walls (supposedly) as well as for hand-to-hand combat.  Aside from sales of such items to teenage fanboys, it is unlikely that such tools were a major component of the Ninjutsu practitioner's arsenal and I dare anyone to go free climbing in them.  I have seen and heard speculation of a wide variety of exotic "Ninja" weapons, from blowguns to crossbows and everything in between.  I don't personally consider them more than curiosities.  

In swordsmanship, since this was not the primary art of Ninjutsu practitioners but one of many other training disciplines, face-to-face combat with trained swordsman was generally avoided in favor of angled attacks to the wrists/arms/legs of opponents and group attacks on single opponents were certainly preferred where possible.  Some schools would mount short swords with two-handed katana handles to deliver more cutting power at close ranges.  Ninjutsu sword techniques also include stabbing attacks far more than traditional sword styles, which emphasize cutting.

While movies portray Ninja as masters of disguise and deception, with skills like invisibility, water-walking, poison, and the like, the reality is that this was highly unlikely.  Furthermore, there is little evidence to suggest the black suits and back-mounted scabbards have any basis in historical fact either.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that tabi, the black goat-footed shoes that ninja wear in movies, are worn by most construction workers and handymen and sold at the DIY store in the mall (so are kama, by the way, look in the gardening aisle near the shovels).

While there is plenty of controversy as to whether or not Ninjas actually existed, if they did they are unlikely to have self-identified themselves as such.  Moreover, there would have been many different interpretations of what constituted Ninjutsu practice.  I am extremely skeptical of the media portrayal of Ninjutsu, which bore little resemblance to what my teacher taught me.

Perhaps it is all best left in the shadows after all.        

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Human Doings Versus Human Beings

You need to watch this.  Jay raises some very important points about life and being happy.
He also gets into the very powerful awareness of being versus doing.  It is a common trap to confuse the two, especially by assuming that they are interchangeable.  They aren't.

I especially like his idea of a "to-Be" list rather than a "to-Do" list.  Being busy rarely equates to being successful or even to being truly productive.  In fact, just looking at the phrase "being successful" gives us a valuable clue (hint: the phrase is not "doing successful").  Doing something has a finite implication. When you do something, it's done and you can forget it and move on to the next thing - the next possession, the next person, the next job, the next goal, and so on and so on.  Being suggests permanence.  When we choose to BE we can make lasting changes in our personal state; lasting improvements in ourselves that we can continue to experience every moment of every day if we choose to.

Trying to do so much, we lose the chance to be so much more.  In the end, the doing becomes the past and disappears, leaving us being no better than when we started - just exhausted like a hamster on a wheel.

On the job, we are obsessed with skills, titles, roles and KPIs when we should be seeking to change the fundamental quality of who we are - rather than just what we do.  Companies tend to hire people for specific job skills rather than taking the time to uncover who the people actually are - and more importantly who they will become as part of the firm's success journey.  When we start to do this, we start to hire not just for culture and fit; we start to hire for potential rather than just past performance.  We start to see the career as a journey in being more, rather than just a collection of things someone has done.  We create the opportunity to evolve and grow.  

Jay calls out the difference between making a living and making a life but it's not enough.  Words have meaning.  Asking someone what they do is not the same as asking them how they are (or, even better, learning WHO they are).  Our engagement with each other need not be activity-based.  It can be experience-based.  We can teach ourselves to care more about how and who people are than just about what people do.

Think about the people who inspire you.  What attributes do they have that you want to have for yourself?  It's not just about what they have done, since the doing is a result of the being. You will find that many great accomplishments started with being rather than doing.  The change in mindset empowers the person to achieve what they set out to do.  Before doing something differently you must be differently.  To do more, first you must BE more.

Tony Robbins suggests how to increase your BEING power:
1) feed your mind- read every day, especially about those people that inspire you
2) accept the challenges - recognize that great people become great by dealing with adversity
3) move your body - change the way your mind works by getting your blood flowing
4) think bigger - a plan worth doing is a plan worth doing BIG
5) fail - learn not to be afraid of what could go wrong. It's not the end of the world
6) let yourself be grateful - feel the gratitude attitude

Define your own success. Choose your own version of happiness.  Own your outcome.


Friday, May 13, 2016

The Coin

Last night was the end of a big chapter of my life.
After 4 years, I left my job to start something completely new.

To thank everyone for their friendship and support, I hosted a party, my way, with pizza and drinks at one of my favorite places. So many colleagues were there, chatting, eating, drinking, sharing.  It was perfect - a great way to close this part of my journey.

They asked me why I was leaving - maybe it was the scotch talking, but I arrived at the metaphor of a coin, which seemed a good way to explain some of the basics of my philosophy.

It goes like this...

The decisions I make are based around two facets, which are related so much that they could be called two sides of the same coin - each integral to the whole but each with a different aspect.

The Journey
One side is about The Journey.
Each and every one of us has a Journey.  Whether we know it or not; whether we acknowledge it or not; whether we accept it or not.  The Journey is our birthright as a human being and is part of being self-aware.  Animals do not have a Journey, they are able to just BE.  Humans, every single one, have a Journey.  Moreover, the Journey is unique to everyone and everyone is responsible for his or her own Journey.  This is very important.

Like every Journey, it travels forward, not backward.  It may pause but it does not stop.  It has goals, steps, way points, hills and valleys along the way.  It has rain and shine, vistas and panoramas.  It is the beautiful, glorious human adventure.

My Journey belongs to ME.  It is not the journey of my father, my wife, my children, my boss, my co-workers or my friends, even though sometimes it may seem like it is.  Recognizing that the Journey is unique helps us with the second key aspect of this understanding - we are all, each one of us, fully responsible for our own Journey (and ours alone).  This is true empowerment, since I can only ever seek to control myself, my decisions and actions; my responses and reactions.  Only I can determine my own happiness and success, and only I can affect the outcome.  In short, only I can be accountable, and must be fully accountable, for me.  Sometimes I step off the path, sometimes painfully.  However, the Journey remains and I can always find my way back to it if I try.  It is never too late.

The Journey of my soul is a Journey of Happiness.  When my actions are in accord with my personal journey, I experience happiness.  Not a giddy, delirious laughter.  Rather, a deep sense of contentment born of purpose and accomplishment, knowing unconsciously in my core that I am doing the "right things".  My soul tells me so if I can learn to listen.  In the end, it will not matter what clothes we wore, what car we drove or what size house we lived in.  What will matter is if we found happiness.  I believe this is found by following the Journey purposefully.

I believe we human children are born of The Light, born from the centers of stars when the universe was young.  Our Journeys are toward the Light.  This means that our happiness can never be meant to come at the cost of someone else's.  We must have a vested interest in the happiness of others, just as they must have a stake in our own.  We are far more alike than we are different.  Human beings come from the same source, with the same roots.  Our skin color matters as little as the color of our eyes or hair.  Our religion matters even less.  We are all one, each perfect soul with our own Journey.  I try as hard as I can to see past the physical self to what is inside - the soul and its Journey.  I try to see all people as beautiful.

Thus, knowing that I have a unique personal Journey in this life, self-discovery is of critical importance.  I focus on understanding myself, my drivers and motivators, my likes and dislikes so that I can better identify my Journey and prepare myself with the tools I will need to travel it well.  The Journey cannot be denied, but we can travel it smoothly or roughly at our own discretion.  My teacher often says that we are passengers on a train.  We do not control the route to the final destination, but we can choose where to sit.  Personally, I like a window seat.

The decisions I make, the big decisions, I try to make in accordance with my own personal Journey.  I know and accept that I need to own the outcome of my life - no one else can.

Very importantly, my parents, my wife and my children do not own my Journey - I do.  They can share my joy in accomplishment but cannot be blamed for the choice I make, good or bad.  My Journey is mine, and I do not have the responsibility to achieve what my parents did not or could not.  Likewise, my children's Journey will not be to finish what I start - only I can do that.  As a parent, husband and friend all I can do is offer support and encouragement to the Journeys of those I meet and facilitate their Journey.  I can share my happiness and comfort their sadness, but I cannot own their Journey for them.  As a parent, I try to prepare my children with the tools to seek their own answers about their own lives, and encourage them to discover their own Journey, their mission, whatever and wherever it may be.  I try to teach them to prepare themselves by trying many different things to see what resonates in them.  There are no wrong answers, and I know the destination with be worth the effort.  They must learn to do things not because it makes me happy, but because it makes them happy.  It is their Journey which matters. I have my own.

The Gratitude Attitude
The second side of the coin is the Gratitude Attitude.  This is an ever-present feeling of thankfulness for the gift of our lives and the gift of our Journey.  As Pierre Teilhard de Chardin writes "we are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience".  We are each privileged to have the chance for this great human adventure and to be given a chance to live fully, with purpose and meaning.  We have the opportunity to leave a lasting legacy and positively influence those around us.  We can be part of the Journey of others and increase each other's happiness.

I am deliberate in finding things to be grateful for, every day.  This is an important part of changing my perspective from negative to positive and has helped me to see the bright side of things as much as I can.  I feel very fortunate to have been given so many chances to do so many different things.  In my life and my career I have learned so much.  Now, turning 50 this year, I am given a chance to go in a brand new direction.  I couldn't be more excited.  I am truly grateful.  I own my own outcome, and I am grateful to be in control of my life.

All my friends, family, co-workers have given me so much support.  Thank you all for believing in me and for being such an important part of my Journey.  I promise you the story will be a good one.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Monkey Trap

Ah yes, the good old monkey trap.
My parents used to tell me this story a lot when I was young.  The monkeys were too agile and clever to get caught by hand or with the typical traps hunters used.  So they devised something that would work every time - the monkey trap.

By putting a banana in a heavy glass vase, with the opening big enough so the monkey could reach in but not big enough for the monkey to pull its fist out.  The monkey grabs the banana...and is stuck.  The hunters walk up with a net...

If only the monkey could just let go of the banana, it could be free...

Sound familiar??

All of us are victims of the Monkey Trap from time to time.  Like the monkey, we become fixated on something, tangible or intangible, that we want.  We just won't let go - can't let go - and the thing we want ends up causing us harm.  We are too blind to see past our own wants and desires and accept the fact that some of the things we want (or think we want, anyway) just aren't good for us.  Some of the most common things we can't let go of were recently reminded online, and I share the list below:

1. Limiting Beliefs - anything you believe that is holding you back.
2. Dwelling on the Past - Life is to be lived IN THE NOW.
3. Worrying about the Future - Everything is going to be Fine. Trust me.
4. Negative Self-Talk - If you don't believe in yourself, who will?
5. The Need to Impress Others - Let them love you for who you already are.
6. Complaining - It's better to just get on with things.
7. The Need to always be Right - Accept that you are human too.
8. Resistance to Change - Learn to go with the Flow.
9. Blaming Others - It probably isn't their fault either.
10. The Need for other people's approval - The most important respect is Self-Respect.

I am guilty of holding on to all of these from time to time - some far more often than others.
Maybe you are, too.  By not letting go, we prevent ourselves from the happiness we say we really want.  An important step in personal growth is acknowledging this - and then working to improve on it.  Happiness is a journey, and we must keep moving to keep making progress.

What's YOUR banana?
How can you learn to let it go?

Saturday, April 16, 2016

A Fighter's Life

I was watching the 2015 movie "Creed" again recently and there's a part in the dialog that I keep thinking about.

Rocky: Why would you want to pick a fighter's life when you don't have to?
Adonis Creed: I been fighting my whole life.  I ain't got a choice.

Rocky goes on to tell him that it's always a choice.  However, I am not so sure I agree.

I've been involved in martial arts now for more than 35 years.  It's been my life's journey as a student, now a teacher, across a variety of martial arts styles.  At the right times in my life, the right teachers have appeared to guide me to the next stage of my development.  Even the times I thought I would stop training or focus my energies on something else - I just couldn't.  It's in my DNA.  I feel like I've been fighting my whole life.

The journey started with me wanted to protect myself from the frequent beatings I got at school.
I was small, with a disproportionately big mouth (which I still have).  I was an outcast, unpopular and poor at sports.  Picked last when I was picked at all.  I got beaten so much that the school would let me out 15 minutes early in the afternoon so I could get most of the way home before the other kids got out and chased me down.  It usually worked.

Martial arts gave me the confidence to stand up, even when I got knocked down.  It gave me the confidence to set and achieve my life's goals.  Martial arts ultimately brought me to Japan (where I still am and expect to remain).  It gave me a place to belong.  It taught me to have pride in myself and not to be ashamed of my past as a foster child.

Now, martial arts is a way to help my students have the confidence and drive to accomplish their own goals and achieve their own success.  It is about paving the way for the next generation of teachers who will go out and share what we do with their own students.  It's about changing the world - one black belt at a time.  It's about giving back, for all that martial arts has done for me.

I am going to be 50 years old this year.  I'm still fighting.  I think I always will be.  I just don't know any other way to be.  I'll be fighting against bullies.  I'll be fighting against myself.  I'll be fighting against my past and my demons.  I'll be fighting for recognition, for self-respect, for my pride.  I'll be fighting to make a difference.  If you are reading this, I expect you will be too.

What are you fighting for?
What are you fighting against?

Friday, April 08, 2016

The Buddy System

It's great to have a buddy.  Many of us fondly remember school outings where we were paired with someone and expected to take care of our buddy, just like our buddy took care of us.  This kept everyone from getting lost and (hopefully) helped us make a few new friends along the way.  PADI also uses the buddy system for divers, to ensure safety and help make scuba diving as enjoyable as it can be.

I am also a big advocate of the buddy program in martial arts.
It takes a lot of courage to walk through the door of a new dojo for the first time.  Even for those of us who have done it most of our lives, there is always just a little nervousness.

Buddies are different than mentors (I am a fan of mentoring as well). Mentoring implies partnering with someone senior to you, while buddy implies someone you already know who is at the same level as you are.

Bringing a buddy with you to check out a class is a great thing to do.

Moral Support at the very minimum, having a buddy with you can often be the spark that gets you to finally try a class, even if you have been wanting to do so for some time.  Your buddy gives you moral support so you don't have to feel as uneasy during the trial lesson, and they are there with you for the journey once you start.

Sense of Perspective some schools can be very focused on new student recruitment, and couple their trials with a heavy-handed sales pitch or a long-term signup commitment.  It is nice to have a buddy with you who knows you to make sure you make the right decision.  Martial arts classes have the power to help you transform your life, but you need to choose wisely.  A good buddy can offer you sensible advice.

You are Both At The Same Level at the beginning, it can be a bit intimidating, especially if you have no prior martial arts background.  Learning the basic movements, even tying the belt, can be frustrating.  Often times you feel like everyone is watching you...  With a buddy, you are both at the same stage of the training, and this can be very comforting.  Years later, you can reflect on how far you've come together - one of the most wonderful feelings of all.

Inherent Sense of Trust Martial arts involves trust, since we don't want to get hurt during the training.  Going with a buddy helps make this easier since you know each other and can depend on not going all out or having a "Rambo moment".  Over time, of course, you will develop this trust with your other brothers and sisters in the school, but at the beginning it helps to know you can work with someone who won't hurt you.

Deepening Friendship Martial arts training is not like going to play tennis at a tennis school or playing baseball in the park.  Because we practice fighting skills, the training is always a bit edgy and intimidating.  In FMA, our arts are based on the blade, so we frequently train with weapons and in close-quarters.  I have found that having a buddy deepens our friendship significantly -as though we have gone to boot camp or basic training together, prepared for war.  My brothers and sisters in martial arts are much closer to me than my friends from other social circles could ever be.  Bringing a buddy can help deepen your friendship to one that will last throughout your lifetimes.

Martial arts is a journey, and journeys are always best undertaken with a buddy.

"We start together we finish together"