Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Just Like Walking

(note - the above photo is not me).  Although it could have been.  In fact, it could have been any of us.  Barring disability, usually in the first year or two, we learn to walk.  It's a trial-and-error process that is fraught with initial failure.  We stand, we wobble, we fall, we cry.  We get up and try again.  Eventually, we make it.  It's not easy and inconsistent at the beginning.  It hurts and is frustrating.  Still, we persevere and, having done so, experience a new world of possibilities that come from no longer crawling but from standing and walking upright.  We are faster and can now use our hands at the same time to reach something higher than we could on all fours.  We experience a completely new vantage point where things look different than before.

I can't think of any baby, barring disability, that does not ultimately figure out how to stand and walk.  That said, every baby struggles and falls for awhile at the beginning.  Every baby experiences the frustration associated with being unable to do something the first time you try.  Babies cry but they don't give up.  At the beginning they rely on help from adults but they are also striving for independence. Babies don’t decide “ walking is too hard. I think I’ll just stay down here...”

Our training is often like this.  There are setbacks and frustrations at the beginning.  Often, it feels like the body will not obey the mind.  The hands and feet just don't go where we want them to.  Intellectually we understand the movement and principle but we have trouble doing it.  We are inconsistent and our performance varies with each rep.  Sometimes, people give up on martial arts training because they "just can't get it" or "it's not for me".  Luckily, babies don't have the same ego, and they intuitively know that walking is worth the struggle.

Eventually, walking becomes second nature for people.  Given enough practice, so does almost anything else.  I am always amazed by the incredible things human beings can do through practice - not just physical things but mental and emotional things.  I am amazed that through practice and habit people can overcome nearly any obstacle - many disabled people learn to walk and run as well as anyone else.

In Zen Buddhism we often refer to a "Beginner's Mind" or "Children's Mind" and infer the sense of curiosity and wonder at the everyday beauty of our life.  To me this Beginner's Mind also means letting go of the ego associated with failure so that we can invest the practice needed to acquire, and ultimately master, new skills.  As far as we can tell, babies don't feel shame that they can only crawl when other toddlers can walk.  Instead, they focus on imitation and practice until they, too, are up and moving.

Whatever you want to do, the first steps will be tough, but don't give up.
You will get there.  I promise.  When you do, it will be worth it.

Keep Walking.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

What We Are About

This is Sarah Silverman.  If you don't know her, she's a comedienne, actress, producer and writer who used to work on Saturday Night Live before making her own shows for Comedy Central.

I was reading her exchange with a Twitter poster and it really resonated with me, since a conversation last night with a close friend covered some of the same ground.

In summary, a guy posted a single word on her Twitter feed, "C@nt".  He seemed to be trolling for a response.  Instead of just reacting with vitriol of her own, she did a bit of digging and responded with compassion and concern for his situation, the motivations for why he would post like that.  She uncovered his history of childhood abuse, his painful medical problems, and his anger at not being able to do more.  His comments were a self-destructive cry for help.

The result?  A deeper connection with this new fan, and some outside help that may get him the support he needs to turn his life around.  It's a beautiful story, sorely needed in this modern world where all too often people react with contempt for each other.

We need more love and compassion.  We need more empathy and kindness.  We need to learn to let go of fear.

My conversation with my friend last night was about what I called "The Fear Equation".  Very often, people react from fear.  Fear causes us to lash out in a classic "fight or flight" response.  This fear reaction often causes the situation to escalate further.  This sometimes becomes the catalyst that triggers a violent encounter --- words are exchanged, physical space is violated (finger pointing/shoving), punches are thrown, police and ambulance are called...the damage is done.

I use the term "equation" because there are two sides involved.  When someone engages us with a fear-based action (verbal or physical), we respond in kind (or worse).  This ladder effect goads each side to continue to up the ante until something bad happens.  It can occur between strangers, but often happens with our partners and family members as well.  We say or do unintended things, which cause harm that may have lasting negative consequences.  In many cases this can and should be avoided.

The first step to breaking out of this cycle is to recognize that we own our responses to what other people say and do.  We can choose.  Rather than just instinctively striking back, we can choose to let go of our fear and ego and try to connect instead.  We can try to turn a negative situation into a positive one.  People have emotional power over us only when we give it to them. If undeserved, we can take that power back and no longer be subject to their judgments or emotional manipulation.  We don't automatically have to fight fire with fire.

It is important to consider interactions from the standpoint of our own fear response and how it is an integral part of the Fear Equation, adding negative energy and fueling the fear of others.  This is a bomb we can choose to defuse instead of trigger.

Martial Arts training is also about building self-confidence and self-esteem.  As we grow, we are less likely to be afraid of the words and actions of others.  This minimizes the need to react from fear and hopefully frees us to respond with empathy and compassion.  With support from our peers we can train to recognize and explore our fears - understanding them so we can finally let them go and be free.  This is what I really want.

Let's try to make 2018 "The Year of Empathy".  This world needs it.  WE need it.

Thank you, Sarah.  You are beautiful.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Looking Toward 2018

Webster's Dictionary defines "resolution" as being "a formal expression of opinion or intention..." but also "a decision or determination (to do something)".  It is well-known that most New Year's Resolutions fail.  US News and World Report famously wrote that 80% fail by the second week of February.  Those are bleak odds indeed.
There are lots of suspected reasons why, but for most of us a combination of factors is to blame.

One popular method for goal-setting is to use the SMART acronym.  That is, 
Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely.  My previous employer,, was very focused on a process called V2MOM, namely Vision, Values, Methods, Obstacles, Measurements.  This is a great way to ensure that your goals (vision) are aligned to your personal beliefs (values) and tied to specific actions (methods).  It also challenged us to consider what problems we could foresee (obstacles) and how we would numerically quantify our success (measurements).  This practice was followed from the CEO all the way down to each new graduate and is deeply embedded in the company cultural values.

Martial Arts is a great way to help build a track record of achievement for yourself.  We set regular goals and work together to achieve them, demonstrating our progress through the cycle testing every 3 months.  We are very fortunate in Kali Majapahit that Guro Fred Evrard's curriculum is well-defined and specific about the skills mastery of each level from white belt through several levels of black belt instructorship.  There is always something new to learn.  What we can learn in the dojo we can apply everywhere.  If we teach ourselves good habits like coming to class regularly and on-time, training hard, giving 100% and being focused on our outcomes we will progress.  Together.  I have seen this time and again with students I knew as white belts who are now capable, confident instructors.

As for me, 2017 was a year of tremendous change.  I bore it the best I could and I am closing the year with a lot of bumps and bruises (mind, body and soul).  But I am still standing, and that's what matters.  I am filled with gratitude for this wonderful life I have and my many friends and family in every circle to which I belong.  I am grateful for being able to do what I love, together with the people I respect.  I am truly blessed.  In 2018, no matter the challenges, I am hopeful it will be a better year and I will stay the course, step by step, with all of you.  Let's enjoy the journey.  Together.

So...let's bag this one and awaken tomorrow to New Possibilities for Us All...



"Imagine where you will be and it will be so...Brothers, what we do in life...echoes in eternity."   --- Maximus Decimus Meridus  (Gladiator)  

Monday, December 25, 2017

Deep and Wide

I just finished reading "The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F@ck" by Mark Manson.  Highly recommended as a great series of practical tips for focusing on what matters most to you (and learning to let go of the rest).  Something in the book really resonated with me - it reminded me of a powerful conversation on the stunning beach in Pranburi, Thailand at the Peaceful Warrior Camp last year.

Guro Claes Johansson of KDM, a super martial artist and a super person,  was telling us to "go deep" in our training, sharing insights he has gained from decades of training with some of the world`s finest martial artists.  He advised us to wring every drop of understanding from every single technique we experience.  He advised us, very rightfully, to take plenty of time to dissect each technique and study it from every possible point of view, considering the origin and context of the elements, including the cultural and social influences as well as just the physiological aspects.  During the camp we explored in great detail the fundamental movements and where they came from, slowly working up to combinations and variations.  We built a strong understanding that we could continue to explore for years to come.  I am looking forward to sharing this research and going even deeper at the 2018 camp.

Often, too often, we are in a hurry to see and try as many techniques from as many styles and systems as possible.  With barely the briefest of explanations we dive right in, tails wagging, and try to do whatever we can - eager to quickly move on to the next and the next and so on.  We don`t invest the time needed to truly understand what we see and experience.  As a result, we fail to translate the concepts to other movements we know, which as FMA practitioners should be automatic.  Our attention span is short, and growing shorter, and we sometimes lack the patience to really OWN a technique and commit it to memory.

Mark Manson argues that "more is not always better", reminding us of the paradox of choice.  Too many choices bombard us with doubt and indecision, creating a type of "analysis paralysis" that makes every choice seem wrong.  Faced with an overwhelming amount of options, we end up being unable to choose any of them.  It is very much like staring at a comprehensive food menu and being unable to decide even a soup or salad or beverage.  Time passes while the waiter stands by impatiently... Suffice to say, there is value in simplicity.

Some students are wide in their training, too.  They have spent 6 months or a year in a handful of different martial arts, never really committing to a path or settling into a long-term training regimen in any of them.  This "Jack of all trades; master of none" approach ultimately robs the student of achieving a deep frame of reference by which to compare and contrast.  They end up learning a handful of techniques, but never developing any solid foundation as a martial artist.  This is not a recipe for developing mastery.  Youtube, while giving us access to seemingly limitless global content,  provides only a very superficial glimpse of the techniques, and generally without the context for correct application.  Youtube is a great tool, but I suggest using it carefully.

Wide is good, sure, but deep is better.  Go Deep.

Monday, December 18, 2017

You'll Never Move Like Me

See Guro Fred's Amazing Karenza.  Every time I watch him I feel excited. I feel...jealous.  I want to move like that.

One day after watching his solo training / shadowboxing, Guro Fred noticed I was following his movements intently.  He told me "You'll never move like me."
My heart sank.  He was right.  After a lifetime of martial arts training, a Kung Fu World Championship, a stint in the French Paratroopers, a cupboard full of black belts and instructor certificates in just about everything, and so on and so on.

That's when Guro Fred smiled and said "you'll move like YOU".

Mind. blown.

Each of us are different.  Not only physically.  Some of us are taller/more flexible/stronger than others.  Some of us are visually impaired or even missing a limb.  Some of us have long-lasting injuries we are recovering from that may limit what we can do at a given time.  In some arts this is a barrier to progression.  As it is said in Kenjutsu "there are no left handed swordsmen".  Meaning that no matter what, we always train right-handed with the katana (the truth is, many schools have a left-handed draws and techniques for the katana as well...shhhh...don't tell them I told you...).  Officially anyway, everything is right-handed.

In Filipino Martial Arts, "handedness" almost does not exist at all.  We spend time from Day 1 working with both hands including double sticks as well as espada y daga and various other combinations.  In our empty hand flow we often have both hands doing different movements simultaneously (and sometimes our feet, too).  In boxing/kickboxing we are comfortable to fight in either orthodox or southpaw stance with no handicap.

Beyond this, however, our flow is OUR OWN.  It is not just about who we are physically.  It's as much about who we are emotionally, spiritually, ethically.  We move with differences because our intentions in each encounter are different from each other.  Two people rarely react exactly the same way to anything - fighting is of course the same.

As a student, the goal is to master the vocabulary of the art - sounds leading to words leading to phrases leading to sentences leading to paragraphs.  In the beginning there are patterns and expressions, but the goal must always be to express yourself in your Kali.

As a teacher, we are guides on this learning journey with the mission of enabling students to explore and find their own unique Kali "voice".

This is materially different from the ideas behind many traditional styles and, to be honest, I love it.  It's a major reason why Kali will be with me for the rest of my life.  It's who I am.

So don't worry about the person next to you.

Move Like YOU.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Home Improvements

This is my sword rack.  There are others like it but this one is mine.

It sits on my bookshelf just opposite the door of my home office (aka "man cave").  To many, it would seem like just an ordinary piece of furniture, although I doubt you can find one at IKEA (not even here in Japan).  The two drawers are functional and meant to hold items like sword-cleaning kits, obi and the like.  The pulls are little lions with sparkling stones for eyes.

In fact, this sword rack is very special, and extremely important to me.  I think, apart from my wedding ring it might be the most sentimental thing I own (followed very closely by my KM Barong, shown in the lower slot of the rack).

I got this sword rack as a Christmas present from a fellow student at the time, Mark Tome, back in 1985 or so.  Mark studied Ninjitsu with me in suburban Chicago.  He was everything I was not - tall, lithe, limber and quiet.  He had a background in Taekwondo and naturally took to the kicking elements of our art, just as he naturally felt at ease with the sword, almost like he had been born to it.
Other students came and went, but Mark was a constant part of our small inner circle at the school, rising steadily through the ranks.

Mark lived on the far south side of Chicago, near the Indiana border.  Many nights he would drive out to the West suburbs to pick me up so we could go to class together, dropping me off after before heading back home.  Long drives in his little car with no heater or air conditioning, with a lot of time to discuss Life, martial arts, and all our other hopes and dreams.

Mark learned woodworking from his father, and had great talent in other crafts as well.  One year he made these for each of us, some stained or varnished in brown, some in black lacquer and mine, the only one in blonde.  We were all simply stunned that he could make not just one of these beautiful pieces - but one for each of us.

For many years it was always directly at the head of my bed wherever I was, Daisho on it with handles in easy reach.  The third slot usually held a Jo.  When I left the US for Japan permanently in 1993 the stand was the only piece of furniture I kept.  I sold or donated everything else.

This stand has been with me from Chicago to Des Moines; to Osaka, Kyoto, Tokyo, Singapore, and now here in Yokohama.  For the past 30+ years it has gone with me through all my adventures, a constant companion and reminder of those training sessions in Chicago when we were all younger and I dreamed of what a life in Japan might be like.

I wonder where the other stands are and what happened to them.
Have they had adventures like mine?

Mark, if you're out there, I want you to know that your gift has never been forgotten.  It may have been ordinary to you, but it has always been precious to me.

Saturday, December 02, 2017


It started in 2005 with a question.
We were training in Yoshinkan Aikido from 5:45 AM at the Roppongi dojo.  Chris and I had asked Mike, a former Senshusei participant and instructor at Yoshinkan Honbu Dojo, for a semi-private lesson.  He agreed to teach us, albeit with a few conditions:  1) class was from 5:45 - 6:45 AM on Mondays/Wednesdays/Fridays.  note: the "regular" class was from from 7:00 - 8:00 AM and sometimes we ended up joining that one after as well.  2) No debate, no discussion. We do as instructed 3) we learned "the old way". Hard. No shortcuts, no complaints. 

Fine by us (or so we thought until we actually had to do it) .
Those were VERY EARLY MORNINGS, but filled with energy and good training.
I miss it.

One of the regular participants from 7:00 was a timid, shy Japanese girl, Saori.  She wondered why, arriving so early, we were already there and training.  She asked if she could join.  We told her the same conditions would apply.  She accepted.  I saw her test for 3rd degree black belt a few years ago --- well done Saori-sensei!  She may be many things, but timid and shy are no longer among them.  She is powerful, confident and a great martial artist.

But I digress... questions were asked during class.  Some of these were fundamental questions about the aikido principles and theory that are not easily answered without interrupting the training for lengthy discussion.  In our class we drilled.  Hard.  Constantly.  There was no time for lecture. Given my background in both Aikikai (1987 - 1989) and Takeda-Ryu Aikijujitsu (1995 - 1998)  I was by no means an expert in Yoshinkan, but with many years  combined of traditional Japanese martial arts including Iaijutsu, Kenjutsu, Ninjutsu as well as aforementioned aiki styles I was confident I could answer some basic questions about the principles and objectives - just not during class.

VOILA - this blog was born.

12 years later I have almost 450 posts and have had more than 72,000 page views.  My training focus has changed, but my blog remains the chronicle of my journey.  In it I have tried to detail what was important to me along the way, drawing inspiration from teachers, students, peers, friends and current events.
All of this through the lens of a martial artist.

It would be a lie to say I am not proud of it -  my blog represents everything of value I could document in which I have tried to tackle timely, relevant questions and observations from the past 12 years of my journey.  I started writing it for others, but ultimately I have written it really for myself - focused on the topics I wanted to cover.   I hope others have gotten value from it as well.

I strongly encourage every student to write their own martial arts blog.
It is a great way to document your reflections, learning, questions and growth through your journey.  It is a great way to push yourself to see the world through your "martial eyes" and find inspiration from every day happenings.  I often find myself reading old posts and remembering the training that inspired them, reflecting on my understanding at the time.  Have my opinions changed?  Of course they do, but it is interesting to be reminded of what I thought at the time.

The blog can be a great place to record your thoughts, post videos, write questions and comments and generally stay engaged with your training.  Mine has become a kind of "life work" and a treasure beyond my expectations.

Thank you for reading it.