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"

Saturday, March 26, 2016


(thanks for the inspiration Jason A.)

A very important list.  So important it is worth checking a second time.
After seeing this I promised myself I would make it into a workshop talk, using the empty pad as a prop.  It's just too powerful to ignore.

Very often we fall into the trap of believing the world owes us something or that we are entitled to something.  Sometimes this is due to a misguided idea of "fairness" (the world is many things but fair is not one of them) or that other people should do things for us because we are "special" (yes we are, but so is everyone else).

As a kid from a broken home, sent to an orphanage and placed into foster care before I was even a year old, this lesson was not a difficult one for me to learn.  The things other children had by default came very rarely for me, and some things never came at all.  For many years I wanted to be like them and have the things they had. Ultimately, I learned to want the things that I needed most, and the things that would be best for me, not them.

While for much of my life it has felt like a struggle, painful inch after painful inch, I am proud of how far I have come.  Knowing the lesson of entitlement (actually lack of entitlement) has always sobered me to the reality that success often comes to those who want it most, and that wanting something often means accepting the tremendous sacrifices it takes to get what you want in life.
I learned that success can only be defined by you, and that you alone can judge your value.

The good news is that I am completely convinced anyone can have anything he/she wants, provided they can sustain the effort needed, have the patience required and accept the sacrifices involved. The bad news is that there are always opportunity costs to wanting something, and so you'd better always be very sure that what you want is indeed what you really and truly want. There is very rarely a chance in life for a do-over.  The things we did not choose disappear, often never to return.  If you can't learn to let the past go, you carry a heavy burden of regret.

Martial arts training has been fundamental for me.  It changed me from a terrified, angry little boy (yes, fear and anger are twins) to a driven, focused, confident man.  My training taught me how to set and achieve goals inside and outside the dojo, and showed me that we are all equal - the training does not come easy for anyone, and yet gives the same benefit to everyone (although not always in the same way).  Martial arts is the Great Empowerment, the discipline to take responsibility for yourself and your circumstances and DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.  Martial arts is the Highway of Change.

Confidence is born of experience, and of an unshakable belief in one's ability to set and achieve goals.  Too many people have a false confidence drawn from their social status, their world view, or their fantasies.  Many people wish on a star hoping that will be enough to get them where they want to be.  Still others sit waiting for someone to do things for them (hint: the one who can do things for you is always right there, in the mirror). TV and movie stories give us unrealistic expectations of how our lives should be, and take away the simple majesty of what each of our lives can be if we choose to set and achieve our own goals, whatever they may be.  Charting the courses of our lives makes them even more beautiful.

In the end, the world owes us nothing, and we are entitled to nothing.
Focused, we can earn anything we truly desire.  There can be no greater inspiration, no greater freedom than this.

That is all.    

Friday, March 25, 2016

The New Rules of the Game

My foster Dad, may he rest in peace, was a simple man.  He was born to a farming family in 1921 and grew up in the Midwest, where young men idolized John Wayne, who said little but did much.  I am grateful to him for many things, especially that from a young age he taught me to play blackjack.  It's a simple game, but difficult to master.  So is life.  Throughout my life, blackjack rules have been a useful metaphor for many situations.

1) Know the Numbers...
Dad's first lesson when I was 9 or 10 was to hand me Hoyle's book on Blackjack play and strategy and have me read it.  I asked him when I could get to hold the cards and play, and he told me calmly "when you can recite the stand/hit table without looking, you are ready to start learning by playing."   The stand/hit table shows the statistically best decisions to make depending on what's in your hand and what the dealer is showing as a top card.  Without knowing this, you are basically just guessing and relying on luck rather than leveraging the advantages of probability.  Dad was impressing on me the need to understand the basic rules of every game inherently and not to take any risk before feeling confident in them.  He knew it was important to understand the numbers that underpin the important decisions of the game.  This has helped throughout my life and career.

2)...But Trust your Instincts
The rules are very important as a starting point, of course, but they are not the whole story.  Every time you sit down to play, there are different people at the table, and you may not always sit in the same spot.  1:1 (1 player versus dealer) is a very different game from a full table, where the flavor of the hand can be influenced by the first and last players in the dealing rotation.  There are times when your instinct tells you to go against the rules, and you should trust your instincts.  My Dad was careful to emphasize that you should only trust your instincts when you fully understand the rules and the risks of what you are doing - not before.

3) The 12 that wins is better than the 20 that loses
A strong hand looks cool and is impressive to the rest of the table, especially when you make it the hard way by hitting a weak hand safely.  However, that strategy is rooted in ego and often dangerous and destructive.  Going Bust (hitting your hand and getting more than 21, in which case you lose immediately) is an ever-present risk in Blackjack.  Very often it is better to let someone else, especially the dealer, hit their hand and bust rather than risking it yourself.  A hand of 12 that wins still pays the same as a 20 hand that wins.  This is an important concept because it reinforces the understanding that risks don't always need to be taken (and not always by yourself).

4) The rules can vary by situation.  Check carefully before assuming anything
The original game of blackjack was played with a single deck.  Nowadays it is hard to find a table that plays using only 1 deck.  Most deal from a multi-deck shoe, and many shuffle automatically as well.  This prevents people from potentially counting cards.  In addition, many casinos have "house rules" such as different minimum/maximum bets, limiting double downs/splits, offering surrenders, or letting other players bet on your hand.  Since these can materially affect the outcome of the game, it is wise to check the rules of every table before playing. NEVER assume all rules are the same without verifying it yourself BEFORE you play.  In the business world this is also true.  Companies in the same industry are often very, very different in terms of corporate culture, objectives, and business strategy.  Check everything carefully BEFORE playing.

5) Know the High Percentage "Power Hands" and use them wisely
In blackjack there are a few "power hands" which allow a player to increase their bet after the initial hand is dealt.  Specifically, these include splits and double downs, especially when you are dealt two cards which equal 11 or when the dealer shows a light top card (6 or below).  Taking advantage of these opportunities can change the outcome of the session, and success is often determined primarily by how well a player does on the power hands.  In life, too, it is important to know the times when it is advantageous to take a bit more risk for a bit better payoff.

6) You Can Lose a Majority of the Hands and Still Win
This one threw me for a long time.  Statistically, you will always lose at blackjack, since the rules slightly favor the house over the player.  That said, my Dad was careful to point out that you can lose a majority of the hands and still make a lot of money.  How??  Simply, if you win on hands where you have a larger bet, then you can lose greater than 50% and still make money.  The key to success in blackjack is RISK MANAGEMENT.  Sound familiar?

7) Don't Become Complacent, Especially When You Are Losing
Many, many times I have seen a player endure an insufferably long bad run.  This is characterized by hand after hand of bad hits, the dealer making tough hands, and in general just losing many hands in a row.  A bad run like that can wipe a player out quickly, and I have even seen players increase their bets to try and "win themselves out of a losing position" (also a psychological phenomenon among pro traders).  In general, this is a poor strategy.  It is far, far better to learn to recognize a bad pattern early, and then do something about it, such as switching tables or taking a break.  In my case, when I lose more than 2-3 hands in a row, I cut back my bets to the table minimum and observe if the pattern continues.  If so, I am likely to quit the table and go somewhere else or do something else.

This is harder than it sounds, since many players "drop anchor" at a table and are unwilling to walk away, even when they are getting crushed by a lengthy bad run.  The wrong chair at a blackjack table can be a very expensive place to sit.

In life as well, it is very important to recognize bad patterns and do something about them early, which may include "changing tables" or "taking a break".

8) Winning Is Easy.  If it isn't you are at the wrong table
One of the most important things my Dad told me about blackjack was how easy it is when you are winning.  On a good streak, it feels like you are doing almost nothing at all and drawing those 20s and blackjacks, hitting split 8s and 9s and double downs every time.  The dealer is busting on every hand and the chips are literally flying in.  By contrast, during a bad streak it often feels like there is nothing you can do to win even a single hand.  Ride the winning streaks, folks.  If you can't see any for a while, it is possible you are at the wrong table (refer to 7 above).

9) Be Social.  It's just a Game after all
Since my Dad played every day, everyone knew him.  Everywhere we went, everybody from the doorman to the dealers to the pit boss to the guy sweeping the floor would say "Hi Charlie".  Dad would be sociable with everyone and looked at blackjack as more of a social endeavor than a get rich quick scheme.  He was never bitter or angry even when he lost money.  When he won, he always shared with the dealer and always tipped well, even when he lost.  From him I learned not to take things too seriously, and to work hard to develop rapport with the people I meet.  Life is a journey and it is better traveled together.  Try not to take things to seriously.  Take time to be part of the social fabric around you.  Try not to get angry and try not to let money be the primary objective of your life.  It is far better to focus on having good relationships.

My Dad loved playing blackjack.  He had a routine, a system, and I am so grateful he shared it with me.  By no measure am I the world's best blackjack player, and that's just fine with me.  In my life, I try to have as much fun as I can and to enjoy the experience.  I have played blackjack in the US, in Korea, Macau, Australia, Nepal and and other places, too.  I have met some wonderful people and had some great times. In my life I have traveled a lot, met incredible people, and had a fantastic adventure.  It's not over yet.

I hope you will do the same in blackjack and in life.  GO ALL IN!

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Dead Center

(thanks for the inspiration Guro Rose)

The picture denotes the "Line of Pain", illustrating that many of the most common pressure points used in self-defense are located along the centerline of the body.  These are by no means exhaustive, but they highlight the importance of controlling the opponent's centerline (and protecting one's own).

Defining combat situations involves several three-dimensional zones.  Among them are the horizontal planes --- high line, medium line and low line (which equate to lines of the shoulders, waist/belt and groin or lower, such as knees and ankles/feet), distances (far, medium and close which generally equate to kicking, punching/striking and CQB/grappling), and longitudinal axes (inside/outside, which equate to passing in front of the chest or across the back, respectively).

The centerline is important for a number of reasons beyond just an understanding of pressure points.  The centerline represents the most direct way of accessing the opponent's balance via control of the head, neck and spine (which are of course all along the centerline).  It can be said that the simplest goal in a fight is to get access to and control the head, neck and spine since this is the mechanism for all human movement.  Power is generated along the spine and into the muscles and joints effectively only with proper posture, and posture is determined by the relative position of the head, neck and spine.  Once these are manipulated it is not possible for an opponent to have effective strength or balance.

In Kali Majapahit, we are often encouraged to "GET IN", meaning to move inside of the range of the opponent's punches or kicks, usually to control the centerline.  This is an important habit for beginner martial artists because the fear response usually makes us want to move away from any attack, and that leads to covering up and getting hammered.  Getting in gives us the best chance of putting aggression back on the attacker and breaking their focus and intent.

Influences of Hakka martial arts such as Wing Chun emphasize the study of the centerline and build their strategy around it.  Aikido and other Japanese martial arts consider it as well, and many of them seek a direct line to the opponent's torso for the definitive technique.

As we become better skilled, we should continue to consider that the ultimate goal should be to disrupt the structure and balance.  This can be done at any distance, across any horizontal plane, or through movement to either inside or outside axes (as well as the split entry).  Various systems prefer various combinations, but the outcome should always be one where the opponent's balance and structure are compromised.  This is an important lens which can be used to study any technique of any style.

Very much like a game of tennis, every hit is followed by a return to a central "ready position" (in tennis this is center court) from which it is easier to move to any new location in response to the opponent's next hit.  Strategically, good tennis players use the court (especially the sidelines) to work their opponents and prevent him/her from being able to be back to center.  Too far to the side, or too far front or back and an opening to finish the point is created and usually exploited.

Good chess players as well know how critical it is to own the middle of the board, and there are many famous texts on the implication of each position and move relative to the center of the chessboard.

Defensively, I often remind my students to "protect the box", referring to four corners at each shoulder and each hip point.  These four corners bound the center mass and we try to keep the opponent "outside the box" as a general rule.  We aim to be compact and centered, staying inside the opponent's box while defending our own.  Since Filipino martial arts are based on blades, it is not hard to see the benefit of protecting the box, since the majority of our vital organs are within the four corners.

Of many important concepts in martial arts, centerline is one of the cornerstones and worthy of significant study and consideration.


Saturday, March 19, 2016

An Average Person's Black Belt

A great question, and something on my mind since I saw it and posted on Facebook a week or two ago.

First of all, let's be clear.  Black belt is a fairly recent invention in the martial arts world.  Dr. Jigoro Kano introduced a belt system for Judo in the early part of the 20th century, to help create fair competition.  Judo is an Olympic sport and includes weight classes in addition to belt ranks.

Traditional Japanese martial arts had a few key milestones in training including Menkyo Kaiden (免許開伝), which usually involved a revelation of the secret teachings of the school.  In many cases, a scroll of the school's techniques (essentially a Bible) was given so that the practitioner could go and open a new school somewhere else and keep a reference manual of the school's teachings.

In traditional schools, until a certain level (1st Dan black belt equivalent) a student was not even registered at the school. Technically they did not even exist before black belt.  These days we see 8 year olds get awarded black belts, and there seem to be dozens of black belts in every school.  For most, it seems like an every day thing or, even worse, the end of the journey and time to move on to another hobby.  Most people stop at 1st Dan, when in reality they have only finally learned enough to start their real training.

As a basic example, even among the black belt ranks, in a 10-grade Dankyu system like Judo, the breakdown of titles and skills/duties is usually something like this:

1st Dan --- shodan --- beginner, familiar with the basics, now equipped with the tools to start study
2nd/3rd Dan --- shiodin/shidoshi --- able to teach beginners, still perfecting/reinforcing their basics
4th Dan /5th Dan --- hanshi/renshi ---oversees daily practice and can manage the school
6th Dan -8th Dan --- shihan, deeply exploring the system including the philosophy and strategy
8th Dan and above --- soke/founder, usually an honorific title due to advanced age

In terms of actual experience, it can differ in some cases but I am generally skeptical of anyone at 5th dan or higher who is under 40 years old, since that title usually reflects no less than 30 years of diligent training.  Shihan and above are often in their late 50s/60s or older, but in many cases legendary figures in their respective schools, or those who then go on to found their own styles.

One things is common, however.  The black belts I have met - where those belts were earned - are never "average" people.  As in the picture, average people don't earn black belts.  They quit; give up; get distracted; get impatient.  For most of the black belts I know, that milestone represents no less than 5 years of hard work and commitment, daily training.  It involves tremendous personal sacrifice and an iron will.  Most of them attend camps and seminars several times per year in addition to the training.  Nearly everyone has a "day job" and many have families as well.  When I see that belt, I understand what effort has gone into it, and it commands my respect.

Every Kali Majapahit black belt has been through the same challenges I have.
Personal challenges that push us to the breaking point.  I am immediately deeply connected to everyone I see with one of those belts/shirts, because I know how they feel, and what attributes they must possess to pass the tests as all the rest of us did.  The kasama test (red belt) is usually the first taste of how these tests go, and mine nearly broke me physically and mentally.  They have gotten harder at each subsequent level.  Thankfully, so have I.

There are so many reasons to stop training and not go all the way to black belt (and beyond).  Work is busy/lots of overtime, I have a new boyfriend/girlfriend, I hurt my leg/arm/back etc.. The list goes on. That said, the ones who make it to black belt are the ones who don't quit.  They do not accept an average or ordinary life.  They do not let external events determine their internal state.  They know they are superheroes, waiting to be born.  They forge themselves in fire because it is the only way to become unbreakable.

Statistically, it is only a few percent of the students who start that will ever make it to black belt.  Of those, even less will go on to continue to study for higher levels.  They are anything but "average". We are so lucky to have so many kasamas and black belts in Kali Majapahit - so many who stay the course and believe in themselves and in us.  We are further lucky in KM Japan to have such a number of our brothers and sisters who are already well along the path, poised to become teachers in their own right very soon.  You make me very proud.

These are people who understand martial arts training for what it really is: a vehicle to master your own life.  To develop the discipline of setting and achieving goals inside and outside the dojo.  To choose a path and follow it deliberately, taking responsibility for yourself and your journey.  Bettering yourself so you can contribute to the lives of others and inspire them.  Pushing yourself to become the person you want to be, defining and achieving your own personal success.

Martial arts training is a means to an end.  An end based on success, achievement, fulfilment, happiness, compassion.

Are you "average"?  Or do you believe you can be more??
It's your choice ---- accept ordinary or BECOME EXTRAORDINARY.