Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Art of The Extra-Ordinary


Among the maxims on Lord Naoshige's wall, there was this one: "Matters of great concern should be treated lightly." Master Ittei commented, "Matters of small concern should be treated seriously."

This week I was in Paris, France.  It's a fantastic city and in the springtime it truly has no equal.  The sunshine warms your face as you walk along the boulevards, and even the occasional spring shower just gives everything an extra shine.

I tried to understand the mystery of Paris' appeal and in doing so found an important lesson for my life.  Parisians have seemed to master what I call "The Art of Making the Extraordinary Ordinary".  What do I mean?

In Paris, everything is beautiful.  Everywhere you look there are sculptures and artwork.  Every building has an intricate facade and detailed columns.  Every street corner seems to have a museum on it and every cafe has a charming, inviting decor.  Even the local fruit and vegetable stand looks like a picture postcard.  You can feel the history of Western culture emanate from every inch.  Tourists like me snap photos constantly, hoping to capture the essence of what makes this city the way it is - and we fail.

All around us Parisians go about their daily business, driving through the Arc De Triumph, around the Eiffel Tower, down the Champs-Elysee.  They drink espresso and stroll along the Seine riverbank hardly taking notice of the majesty of their city - as if they have become numb to it.  The extraordinary (to us) has become ordinary to them.  It is perfectly and completely natural for them to live in such beautiful surroundings.  This casual disregard and aloofness is one of the most attractive and enduring features of what it means to be French.

There is a great lesson here: Expect Elegance
It seems as though the French expect elegance in their daily lives - they demand it.  Simple things are to be done with care and artistic presentation.  We should expect nothing less and never allow the daily routine to become trivial.  There is a simple elegance in a baguette and a coffee breakfast served the way it is done in Paris.  While the service may be aloof and frosty (although I found just the opposite) the attention to detail is undeniable.  The pride of workmanship is not unlike the Japanese craftsmanship that I love so much.

It reminded me to care a little more in the everyday aspects of my life, and to add artistic touches wherever possible.  The French way of life is about elevating yourself a little more than the ordinary, and that makes perfect sense to me.
As much as the French can make the extraordinary become ordinary, the reverse is also true.  That is, making the ordinary something extraordinary.

A day-long conference is brightened by a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower outside the office window.  A walk outside for lunch uncovers the magic of a small shop selling a great quality set meal.  An aromatic espresso sets the tone for the afternoon.  A quick chat with a friend in a cafe helps the day go by.  Even in a busy city like Paris, people find balance.  They eat well, exercise well and are not afraid to go home at the end of the day (or even a bit earlier).  Say whatever you will, I'm envious.  (note--- Parisians seem to enjoy smoking. A LOT.  I can live without that part)

Paris is a good reminder that our lives are what we make them - and that the details matter.  It is up to us to make the extraordinary a part of our everyday lives and to elevate ourselves to make the ordinary a little bit more.

It took me 50 years to get to Paris.  I am sure we'll meet again.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

Hard Landings



Observe the above.  After I posted this on FB a week or so ago I got a lot of feedback on it.  You can see that in most of the cases, as soon as one guy gets slammed the fight is over.  In some, they are out on contact, in others they are out of position to a degree that the thrower can follow up however they want.

This is the kind of clip that I like to show to anyone who doubts Judo as a legitimate fighting art.  The throws in this video are done by AMATEURS.  Imagine what would happen if a well-trained Judoka did that.  The result would be critical injury or potentially death.

Some Take Aways:

1) Throwing Arts are extremely practical and worth some deep study
2) Strength training, especially deadlifts and squats, are keys to developing good throwing power
3) Breakfalls - better to know them than to get slammed and injured
4) Greater effectiveness is had from slamming to the ground vertically rather than projecting laterally
5) Many styles underestimate grabs as part of an attack, but these slams were all set up from initial grabs followed by closing distance.
6) Fights can get very serious very quickly.  In some of the above, I can imagine prison time (and lengthy hospital time for the victim) are involved.  Use with caution, especially off the mats.

Human beings are an enigma.  We are at once very strong (break bricks with strikes) and very weak (die just from falling to the ground).  I don't want to hurt anyone ever again, but I have serious respect for the effectiveness of throws/slams in real-life fighting situations.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Project Update --- Daily Dose Of Zen

The attached is a picture of an Omamori - a kind of lucky charm common in Japan. This particular Omamori is from the temple near my home in Yokohama.  I bought it on New Year's Eve for a particular purpose.  I am not superstitious and do not place faith in sacred artifacts or other items as a means to channel good fortune. Rather, I think good fortune and success are about hard work, keeping a positive frame of mind, having a plan, and preparing to take opportunity when it presents itself.

In this case, my objective with this Omamori is rooted in one of the basic tenets of Zen Buddhism, "mindfulness".  The Zen mind should be in the NOW, constantly aware of the details of each moment but clinging to none of them.  The Right Mind abhors subconscious habits in favor of deliberate choices about how we live.  We seek to anchor ourselves in the simple everyday moments and remain constantly perceptive of our connection to the living world around us.

This Omamori was meant to be in my pocket every day this year as a New Year's Resolution.  I was supposed to deliberately put it there each morning, and from time to time take it out, remind myself of the importance of awareness, and continue on.  It was to be a token of mindfulness, much in the way of the spinning top from the movie "Inception" (apologies for the reference if you didn't see it). That was the plan, anyway.

So...what happened?

I'd like to report on my supreme focus and laser-like determination.  That would be a lie.  The truth is a bit more disappointing.

Some days it was in my pocket, some days not.  It got lost for days and weeks, washed, dry cleaned, and finally rediscovered in my suit last Thursday after I had resigned myself to the fact that I had lost it for good.  Strangely, I found it in my pocket on a very busy day when I needed the focus.  What a pleasant surprise.

Having had a few days to think about it, the Omamori is a reflection of my own Zen mind since the beginning of the year.  I have been here and there, distracted, lost, found.  Moments of clarity amid weeks of confusion.  Frankly, as a student of Zen I have been a great example of what NOT to do.

(sigh)...no matter.

Just as my Omamori appeared in my pocket seemingly right when I needed it, so too my state of calm "centeredness" returns to me at just the right time.  I resolve to try a bit harder to remember the little things that keep me balanced.  I remind myself that the Way is without time and without hurry - it is NEVER too late to get back on track.  Failure is just another part of the journey.  The real value is in making the effort and continuing onward.

Even Buddha said he was not perfect, merely tending toward perfection.
For all of us, imperfect and impermanent as we are, there can be nothing more than this.

"Ici. Et Maintenant." - Sifu James  

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Press Pause

(thanks for the inspiration Guro Rose)


Modern society expects so much from us.

We are always on the go, always connected...always tired.
Our attention spans get shorter and shorter as  we struggle to do more and more with the little time we have and feel guilty if we "do nothing".  Our schedules are already packed, and yet we try to do more...we are rushing constantly, and frequently late.  Many of us feel extreme stress and anxiety during the day, and end up feeling mentally and emotionally exhausted when we get home, unable to have relaxing times with our families and friends.  Weekends are spent sleeping, and then feeling guilty for not "doing something" or "getting out more".  It's a downward spiral that ultimately can lead to burnout and depression.

Sometimes we need to Press Pause.

Happiness may not be about doing more.
Maybe it's about doing less...but doing it "better".
Maybe it's about being fully in the moment rather than just "doing the best we can with the time we have" and settling for less than the full experience we deserve.  We need to pause in order to savor the moment.

Martial arts training is a great way to relieve stress by achieving a challenging physical workout.  Ultimately, though, it is about so much more than this.  It's about developing the confidence to go out and get the life you want - a balanced life - with time for the important things (and learning to remove the unimportant things).

Martial arts is about learning the importance of pausing.

Just like any good piece of music, the pauses are important - so important that we can say it isn't music without them.  Many of us wait for our annual leave to try to "recover" from work.  I would rather suggest that we need to manage our lives to have at least a few minutes daily to center ourselves and find peace in order to keep balanced.

At PWC, Sifu James gave us great, practical advice on meditation which I call "PBT".
P - Posture
B - Breathing
T - Thoughts

If we align these we can be meditating literally ANYTIME, ANYWHERE.
While I cannot condone levitating above the dining table in the company canteen (although it does sound like fun), I also think that we do not need a classical "meditation pose".  Thius means we could use time on the train or bus, or even sitting at our desks, to meditate for a few minutes a day in order to clear our minds and stay relaxed.  When the picture header for this article says "when you pause, pray", I think "when you pause, meditate".
To me they are the same.   

Martial arts training helps us be in the moment and focused, without our minds wandering to what we did earlier or what we are doing next.  We can stay focused on the drills and on our partners, training them just like they train us.

Martial arts training is about making small changes to how we move, how we engage, how we eat, how we feel which then result in big changes to how we live.  The dojo is a lab where we test these changes and make them ready for use outside the dojo in our everyday lives.

Martial arts training is about respect --- respect for others (teachers, brothers and sisters) and especially for OURSELVES.  We practice respecting our bodies by training safely, eating well, getting plenty of sleep, drinking lots of water.  We also respect our time and the time of others, since that is the hallmark of any professional.  We expect the best from ourselves, which helps us get the best from those around us.  Learning to pause helps us appreciate the value of time a little more, ours and theirs, and remember how precious it is.

I have seen this martial arts transformation firsthand so many times.
People who come to class weak, unsure, timid, lacking confidence, shy.  Victims.
Little by little they are transformed.  Their bodies and minds get stronger.  Their will gets stronger. They refuse to compromise on their goals and begin to achieve them - inside and outside the dojo.  They become confident in who they are and how they are and develop a vision for who they want to be.  Their lives CHANGE.  Maybe they find their life partner.  Maybe they get promoted or get a new job.  Maybe they finish their degree.  Maybe they develop better relationships with their family and friends.  Maybe they become a better parent or mentor.  People begin to see them as LEADERS and INFLUENCERS.  They stand out from the rest of the pack.

My fellow Kasamas and Guros were not all born so.  Their achievements are the result of years of hard work and dedication.  They are regular people who chose to become EXTRAORDINARY people.  I am proud to have them in my family.
However, it is important to remember that anyone, really anyone, could make the same choice.  The beauty of success is that anyone can do it if they focus and do the work.  Success really is for EVERYONE.

It starts with a pause...

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Don't Stop Believin'

(thanks for the inspiration Ray)

"Don't Stop Believin'. Hold on to that Feelin'" - Journey

We sat on the floor in the Big Villa, on cushions or yoga mats.  Tired from a hard days' training, wondering what Guro Fred, Sifu James, Guro Claes would have in store for us.  The days of Peaceful Warrior Camp were filled with training, starting at 0630 on the beach, and ending every night with a group conference on health, personal development or spirituality.  It was simply amazing.

Guro Fred talked about believing in ourselves and deliberately choosing happiness. He talked about letting go of everything except the desire to have the life we want. Most of us are already avid Tony Robbins followers, especially Guro Fred's inner circle of instructors, most of whom have read the books/listened to the audio, watched the Youtube videos, etc.  Still, the constant reminders to never let go of our dreams help us to refocus on what we really want from our lives; from ourselves.

Guro Fred asked me to tell my story.  He's heard it before.
There was a time in my life when I couldn't tell it at all - for years I was afraid that people would reject me if they knew the truth of what I went through.  I was ashamed of who I had been.  As I got older, wiser, stronger I realized the story might help others and I agreed to tell it.

Take a Deep Breath...Here goes...

After I was born at Norfolk Naval Hospital in Virginia, my birth parents moved to Chicago.  My dad had developed a severe drug problem in Vietnam and was prone to violent outbursts.  He came from an abusive home in New York City.  My mom knew it wasn't safe for me and that she couldn't raise me on her own.  Their marriage was dissolving rapidly.  Finally, they placed me into foster care at Illinois Children's Home and Aid just before I was a year old.  I still remember the corkboard walls and the big red VW beetle they let me play with while my foster family did their paperwork.

I grew up in the Illinois State foster care program, with a social caseworker and weekly therapy until I was in junior high school.  Small, but with a big mouth (still), I was bullied constantly, to the degree that I had to have a teacher nearby throughout the day to avoid being beaten by the other kids.

At 14, I started my martial arts journey, in a garage-turned-dojo in Bloomington Heights.  I got a part-time job just so I could pay for lessons.  My parents refused to drive me to class so my teacher would pick me up every day.  I kept on going, training daily until I was 21.  My teacher required me to get good grades, so I did. He required me to be respectful, so I was.  For every hour I spent training, he gave me another hour or more of lectures and books on Japanese history, military history, strategy, tactics.  The Book of Five Rings, The Art of War, I studied and read constantly. The more he told me about Japan the more I wanted to go.

It wasn't just about martial arts.  It was about breaking out of all the labels I had been given, having the freedom to choose my life and not being stopped by who I had been before or my being property of the state.  It was about deciding what I wanted and going out and getting it.  I made up my mind to get to Japan no matter what.  I had no idea it would ultimately take me 10 years.

The first plan for me to visit Japan was through my connections in the USKA.  I had been a competitor and judge for a while and was getting known in the Midwest circuit.  My teacher told me that Grandmaster Robert Trias, one of the first non-Asians to open a karate school in America (back in 1947 in Arizona), was assembling a team of delegates to travel Asia as ambassadors of martial arts in the US.  I was to be the youngest member.  It was like a dream come true.

Unfortunately, Grandmaster Trias was a heavy smoker and was diagnosed with lung cancer that year.  The trip was cancelled and he died the following year in 1989.  I was heartbroken.

The second time, in 1990, I was bartending at a club in Lombard called The Pacific Club, owned by legendary Chicago Bears football player Walter "Sweetness" Payton.  For some reason, the club had a sister club in Osaka, Japan.  I was excited.  I applied to be transferred.  Everything seemed to be going my way, and the summer flew by as I thought of nothing else but Japan.  At the end of the summer, the club fired me, saying that they were cutting back on staff.  I cried so hard I couldn't drive home and I sat for several hours in the parking lot in my car, alone.

The third time I was a junior in college at North Central College (go Cardinals!).  I had been studying Japanese for nearly a year already and hoping I might get another chance.  NCC had a fully funded sister program with Nagoya Gakuin in Nagoya - one place only for ten applicants. I knew I had to get it because I was destined for it.  This was MY TIME.  As a junior I wouldn't get another chance.  If I missed it, I'd graduate the next year, get a job and that would be that.  I put my heart and soul into the interview and waited confidently for a good result.

Sato-sensei, my Japanese professor, called me at work himself to tell me the news.
"I'm so sorry, John-san" he said.  In an instant the world went black.  I dropped the receiver, my hands shaking, tears streaming down my face in front of the dining room, the waiters and waitresses, the other bartenders.  Without a sound I took off my apron and walked out the front door...I was ready to die that night.
Three strikes and you're out.

Tommy King, my friend the waiter, saved my life.  He shoved me into his car and we drove downtown.  I don't remember much of the following desperate days other than vague recollections of me chugging pitchers of beer while standing on tables at Dick's Last Resort (we got thrown out of course) and possibly stealing a Pirelli off of a similar car in the early morning hours to fix Tommy's own flat tire. Thanks, Tommy, wherever you are.  I owe you my life.

When I got back to school Monday I had lost all motivation.  I had been a straight A student in Japanese and now I just didn't care. I would graduate in a year and forget Japanese just like I had forgotten the 6 years of French I aced in junior high school and high school.  Why bother?  Those were some of the darkest days of my life, marking time like a dead man walking, waiting for my coffin to close.

A week later Sato-Sensei called me in for a one-on-one.  He asked me to apply again.  I refused.  He begged me.  He told me he would write my recommendation letter himself.  He told me how much he believed in me, and how he could feel how much I loved Japan and wanted to go.  At his insistence, I applied to Kansai Gaidai in Osaka.  Sato-Sensei, if there is a heaven, you are in it.

Needless to say, it worked.  I was accepted.  I spent 1991 in Osaka and have never looked back since.  I am writing this post happily from Yokohama, surrounded by my wife, children and in-laws, having had the adventure of a lifetime here in Japan.  I've now been here for more than half my life, and I intend to stay.  Forever.

I will never forget touching down at Narita Airport that first time, 26 years ago.  I knelt down in the terminal and put my forehead to the floor.  After 10 years and 3 failed attempts --- I had finally made it.  My dream was my reality.  I knew, like I knew my own name, that I could achieve anything I ever really wanted to do.  In that moment, I became invincible.

Sometimes I still can't believe all this really happened to me.  I worry that I will wake up back in Chicago, back in an orphanage, back in foster care.  I won't.  I'm right where I'm supposed to be.

We all have dreams in our hearts.  I got mine for real.  You can get yours, too.
I know this. I've been there.  I've seen the deepest darkness when you are ready to give up, to let go.  I've also felt the incredible joy of achieving something everyone else told you you would never do, something you even doubted yourself about sometimes.  When I tell you your dreams can come true..Trust me.  I know.

DREAM BIG.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

From The Heart

There are camps and there are CAMPS.

There are camps where you work hard, train hard, hit hard, sleep little.  There are camps where you do endless drills - over and over again.  There are camps where you hardly experience the beautiful place you travelled so far to see - stuck in a gym or a conference room or a dojo.  There are camps which are highly commercial, with branded everything and gear for sale at every possible opportunity.  There are camps that promise you the impossible with pithy marketing slogans and cliche catchphrases.  There are camps where everyone keeps to themselves, taking whatever knowledge they can and giving nothing back.  There are "McCamps" which are basically roadshows of the same canned content done repeatedly city by city.

This ain't that.

Guro Claes said it this morning "I want to give you something from my heart".
Sifu James said it yesterday during the meditation "Smile from your heart".
Guro Fred said it during the Health conference "Don't worry so much".
Guro Lila is basically a great, big walking, talking SMILE.  Everything she says is pure sunshine.

There are so many camps in so many places all year round.
Why come to this one?

Simple, it's FROM THE HEART.
There is no ego on display, no hidden agenda, no ulterior motive.
Just sharing. From the heart.

In every single class, from every instructor, you can feel the commitment to sharing.
Guro Fred, Guro Lila, Guro Claes, Sifu James spend all year preparing material for this camp.
Guro Claes comes ready to take us deep into the heart of what he's learned from a lifetime of study with the very best in the world of FMA.  Guro Fred and Guro Lila spend all year researching and developing new training techniques and drills designed to take us higher than before.  Real cutting-edge stuff (pun intended).  Sifu James offers us a glimpse into who we could be if we had his dedication to the Tao - a beautiful intersection of martial, art and spirituality.

The guest instructors as well put heart and soul into the special classes, giving everything they have for us, sharing their passion for their arts and showing us their "secret sauce".  Every day we get to have great fellowship with people from around the world who love what we do, just like we do.

Guro Fred talked to us about the 100% and why it is so much better than 80%, 90% or even 95%.
This camp is proof of that.  IT'S 100%.

There are some good camps out there.  This ain't that.
This camp is ABSOLUTELY FANTASTIC!

It's always over way too fast, so let's be grateful for this time together and appreciate all the energy that goes into it - the energy we give and the energy we get.  We are very lucky indeed.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

The Art of Surrender

The Peaceful Warrior Camp is amazing for so many reasons: the great, intensive training (with some of the world's best instructors), the high energy of the participants, the positivity, the deep dives into specific areas of study, the conferences on health, personal development and spirituality, the guest instructor slots, so much more.

One of the many things I look forward to each camp is the chance to reconnect with my global "Kali Family" who I don't get to see and train with as often as I'd like.  When we do get together, it's always great training, great fellowship and great conversations.  I learn so much.

Last night we got onto a very important theme at the dinner.  What do we really want our students to learn?  Techniques? Morality? Physiology? Health?  All of these things are surely very important for our personal growth.  However, said another way, it can all be the Art of Surrendering.

What does it mean?

We are FIGHTERS, Southeast Asian Martial artists who dedicate a lot of time and attention to becoming good at what we do.  We don't surrender right?  We train so that we don't have to, right?
TV and movies and coaches (and even our parents/friends) all encourage us to "Never Give Up", but is that really true?

The more we meditate, the more we do yoga, the more we practice our martial arts, the more we get in tune with ourselves.  We come to learn our skills and limitations (sometimes painfully).  We strip away the illusion; the ego so we can see into who we really are.  Without this, there is no growing.

As well we learn to live in the moment, to accept The Now for what it is, and to accept that we cannot change the world outside ourselves, we can only change what is within.  This profound wisdom is the cornerstone of living efficiently --- that is, spending our attention and energy on what we can influence or change and not wasting it worrying about the things we cannot control.

This is what it means to Surrender to The Moment.  We allow things to transpire as they must, and we don't try to fight the inevitable.  Instead, we look for the positives and try to align ourselves with the tide and "go with the flow".  Standing in the ocean here in beautiful Pranburi, Thailand, it is easy to test this theory.

We punch and kick the waves but they keep coming.
We swing our sticks at the waves but they keep coming.
We scream and yell at them but still they keep coming.
Eventually, we relax and let the waves gently push us ashore, rather than crashing into us.
We let go of the illusion of control and instead we enjoy the moment for what it is - our connection to the sea and to the planet and to each other.  We feel peace.

So much in life is just like this.

A famous zen monk said "the secret of fighting is that there is no victory. You can neither win nor be beaten."  What did he mean?  When we surrender to the moment, the outcome becomes irrelevant.  We do what we must and the result becomes what it must be.  In doing so, we no longer have a fear of losing control.  We accept we were never in control anyway.  We no longer fear death.  We are all dead eventually anyway.  We focus only on living fully, surrendering to each moment as it comes in order that we can understand it with a fresh perspective and no prejudgment, appreciating the beauty of it every single time.  We feel our life is precious precisely because we know it could end at any moment and the vulnerability of surrendering opens up new ways of being for us.

It is said that everything in life is about "Letting Go", which is also the art of surrendering.

Don't worry, everything will be just fine.