Thursday, October 10, 2013

Fun is Fun and Done is Done

"As soon as man is born he begins to die"

This quote on the hat of a prepubescent girl on the subway train, who most likely hadn't the slightest idea what it says, let alone what it meant.
I have been thinking about this a lot since then.

At first, I was shocked at the blunt reality of it.
Then, I felt depressed.  I mean, it's true. We are dying from the moment we are born, and our life's journey has only one possible inevitable destination - death.  It awaits us all: rich or poor, black or white.  There is no avoidance of this.

The more I thought about it, however, the more I changed from feeling depressed to feeling motivated.  All life is precious, and like all precious things, it has value because it is finite.

The fact that we are dying immediately from the moment we are born should help us to remain focused, and not to waste our time on things which are not worth our time - negative emotions, negative people, negative habits.  Mae West famously quoted, "we only live once, but if we live right once is enough".  So what is "living right"?

For everyone, this answer must be slightly different.  In my case, I am grateful for having fulfilled my basic needs for food, shelter, clothing, health for myself and my family, I can consider increasing the quality of my life as a key objective in achieving and maintaining my happiness.

I want to spend as much time as possible doing the things I love: I love Kali (and teaching Kali), I love helping people, I love solving problems, I love to talk and discuss with people.  I am a communicator.  I love reading and writing.  I love learning new things.  I love cooking.  I love my dogs.  I love the beach. I love to travel.  I love learning languages.  I love music.  I love to help people feel better and more motivated.  I love to laugh and I love a good joke.  I love to be a catalyst in helping people decide to change and improve their lives.

I want to pack as much of those things into my life as I can.

At the same time, I would not be happy unless I had challenges to help me grow.  I need to have challenges which force me out of my comfort zone.  Challenges which I can not only be accountable to solve, but also have responsibility to solve, by using my creativity and insight.
I need to have adventures which help me find out new things about myself.

Awareness of our own mortality should motivate us strongly to want to be productive and efficient, to set goals and go after them passionately.  It should help us focus on positive actions and empowerment rather than be consumed and distracted by anger, hatred, jealousy, or revenge.

In a few weeks I will be 47 years old.  Maybe I am halfway through my life already, maybe more. Hopefully less.  regardless, I know someday I will die, and I resolve to make the most I can out of this human experience this time.  I hope you will, too.

What do you think about that hat and the quote?  How does it make you feel?

Let me know.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

The Ladder

(Thanks for the inspiration Kerri)

I am so very grateful for the life I have had.  In many, ways it has exceeded my expectations, often bringing me happiness and success far beyond anything I could ever have imagined.

When I set out on my life's big adventure across the world, leaving Chicago and everything I had ever known behind, I could not even dream of what I would find here in Japan.  This is not to say that there have not been many challenges over the past 22 years since I left, but to say that the good things I experienced and the knowledge I gained have been precious, and that back home in the sleepy suburb of Villa Park, the type of life I found was almost completely beyond my understanding.

I have always been lucky to have great teachers.  These amazing people seem to show up just when I need them, and to offer me guidance and wisdom so that I can continue to make the choices that yield such extraordinary results.  This is part of why I feel so truly blessed.

Life is about the experience, and leaving everything behind and moving to Osaka in 1991 was such a fantastic experience for me.  Just making it here took 10 years of effort and three failed attempts (an interesting story of its own), but completing this quest taught me that with hard work and commitment I could really achieve any goal I ever set for myself, and that continues to be the case.  It gave me unshakable confidence in my ability to find a way forward, even through situations I could never have anticipated.  One way or another, I have always got to where I wanted to be, usually far beyond my own expectations.  The ripples of the stone in the water go far beyond what we can predict before we toss the stone in.

I truly believe that success is found when we are in tune with the Voice of our soul. Helena Bhavatsky's excellent (and heavy) occult tomes (The Secret Doctrines) shed some light on it, and in retrospect my many long discussions with Guro Fred Evrard, who is an insightful spiritual guide, helped me gain a better understanding of this particular interpretation.

Many of us believe we are put here for a purpose, and according to this theory, our soul (the immortal essence of us) has a mission to achieve in order to proceed on the path toward enlightenment.  Our soul will seek to heal itself (as will our body), and seeks not only to fulfill spiritual destiny, but also to restore our karmic balance and make progress toward the ultimate goal of Satori.  We are most successful when we act in accordance "in tune" with what the soul wants.  These moments "in tune" are not times of delirious, babbling joy.  Rather, they are experienced as feelings of peacefulness, contentment and satisfaction; the subconscious awareness of PURPOSE.

According to Bhavatsky, we are born carrying not only physical characteristics from our parents, but spiritual ones as well.  Our souls have imprinting not only from our past lives, but also from the circumstances under which we have taken this human form this time.  The emotional baggage of our parents becomes ours, as well as the mission we were given this time - to balance, to heal, and to continue our progress toward enlightenment.  One explanation for our "natural abilities" is that they are leftovers from achievements in our past lives that the soul has kept into this life, despite the fact that generally speaking, the specific memories are all wiped clean each time. When the body dies, the soul sleeps, and waits for another chance to improve itself and continue the sacred journey.

It becomes then critically important to listen to the voice of the soul, which should give us direction into how to achieve the tasks that will restore our spiritual balance and lead us toward our ultimate enlightenment.  Pierre Teilhard de Chardin elegantly said that "we are not human beings having a spiritual journey, we are spiritual beings having a human experience". do we do that?

Our earliest and easiest experience of our soul's voice comes when we are dreaming.  This is a chance not only to expunge the subconscious, but also to be close enough to our resting state to experience this voice.  Sadly, many people do not remember their dreams and so cannot remember what their soul told them.

The very best way is through prolonged meditation.  The mind at rest can truly LISTEN, and can be trained to hear this voice.  I say "prolonged not in the sense of being sat for endless hours of Zazen, although this is an admirable thing.  Rather I mean that for most people, it takes years of practice to be able to filter the noise and truly hear the voice.  We must meditate in order to:

  • hear the Voice --- become aware that the soul is trying to reach our current consciousness
  • listen to the Voice --- begin to hear the words our soul is saying
  • understand the Voice --- begin to understand the meaning of the words
  • believe the Voice --- recognize the benefit of following the guidance of the soul
  • remember the Voice --- keep the words after meditation so we can implement them

These steps take time to master.  To be perfectly clear, the Voice is our soul telling us what we need to do in this human life to fulfill our spiritual destiny.  As we are inherently GOOD beings, this Voice will never tell us to kill our neighbor, blow up a building, or some other negative thing.  The guidance is always to help us return to righteousness so we can achieve spiritual balance, heal ourselves, and progress toward enlightenment.  EVIL never yields anything but more evil.  That can be the voice of many things (organized religion? prejudice?) but it will NOT be the voice of your soul.  In fact, when we harm others, we cause delays in our growth as the soul must find balance again and heal itself, which takes time.  Although this is an infinite journey, our soul gives us a sense or urgency as it seeks to reach enlightenment.  Since our soul bears the scars of negative traumas inflicted on us, and the negative traumas of what we have inflicted on others when we do not listen to the Voice, achieving balance and healing usually involves the positive acts of helping others, displaying compassion, and contributing to growth in order to erase these "karmic debts".

In my case, my original teacher taught me meditation and I began to hear the voice when I was in my early teens.  I knew somehow that I belonged in Japan, and driving my life toward that goal become my sole preoccupation (together with martial arts training, which facilitated it).  I did not know what would happen when I got here, but I knew this was where my life would happen.  The 10-year struggle to get here was part of restoring my balance, establishing my faith in myself, and cementing my confidence to progress.  It brought me to the many teachers I have had since, and has given me a life of rich experience far beyond my teenage dreams in suburban Chicago.

It also showed me another important lesson --- You do not need to know your DESTINATION in order to know your DIRECTION.  I did not know what I would find here, but I knew I would find what I was looking for.  Not knowing the right answers should never stop us from asking the right questions.

This is a long post, with some heavy-duty stuff in it.  However, I promise if you follow your daily practice of meditation with the explicit goal of hearing/listening/understanding/believing/remembering you will find your insight and your True Path.

Your soul will thank you for it.    

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Throwing Down

Last week when I was in Singapore, I stopped by KM HQ to join some classes and see my brothers and sisters there.

Unexpectedly I got asked to run some beginner and intermediate/advanced classes with the other instructors. Always a pleasure, we found some cool things to show.

MG Guillaume specifically asked me if I would focus on locking and throwing, given these are a large part of my martial arts history prior to starting KM.

We worked on several variations of a common theme around Koshi Nage/Koshi Gurumua/Oguruma and Seioinage.  As a follow up, I summarize the integral parts of throwing below.  I will use japanese vocabulary, but leave out the Kanji, feel free to contact me if you want to know them.

1) Distraction (Atemi)
Often overlooked, all throws really start with striking the opponent.  Atemi can be done with actual hand strikes (slaps, palm heels, punches, elbows), as well as any other weapons including headbutts, knees, low-kicks and even using the biceps, shoulders, or torso (Tai Atari).  This step is important, since we need to divert the opponent's attention from the rest of the movement.

For some styles of judo/aikido, the atemi is de-emphasized, minimized, or removed and this then loses combat effectiveness in my opinion.  The atemi need not end the fight (although this is OK, too), but it must disrupt the opponent's focus and start the process of destroying the balance/structure that will ultimately take the opponent through the rest of the technique. Atemi are generally aimed at the head/neck, but can work against the body/legs provided they disrupt the attacker's balance as explained above.

2) Contact (Sekkin)
For any throwing technique to be effective, we need to get (and maintain) contact with the opponent.  This means closing distance, and generally involves being body-to-body in some orientation (back to front or front to front) Very often, this contact begins with a touchpoint on the arms.  In sport judo, we see the competitors locked up in grabs on the dogi, similar to pummeling in wrestling.  This contact point facilitates the subsequent steps and a typical defense/reversal against throwing is to deny the opponent sekkin by pushing their hips or body away.

3. Entry (Irimi)
The entry is achieved when we have made body to body contact.  This is generally done in a very ballistic manner, with the express intent of displacing the opponent's hips with our own, in effect "punching with the hips" (see "Kuzushi", below).  In some situations, the first three steps (atemi, sekkin, irimi) are done as a single motion, but they should be understood as distinct components with separate objectives.  When entering, we generally seek to establish contact with our center of gravity (Tan dien) lower than our opponent's.  To succed, it is important to have the opponent's hips completely displaced, which means driving our hips fully across theirs.  Partial displacement usually results in the opponent sliding off to one side or otherwise failing to have the balance broken or be loaded.

4. Breaking the Balance (Kuzushi)
In order to throw the opponent, it is necessary to break the balance, which is done by destroying the structure.  This can be done by moving/twisting the head/neck/spine, but also can be achieved by sweeping the legs or reaping the legs (ashi barai/ashigari).  In some cases, a clothesline is done with the arms, while in others the opponent is made to trip over the extended leg.  Failure to achieve proper Kuzushi is probably the single most common reason why throws fail (the other is probably the failure to use Atemi).

5. Loading (Mochiage)
Loading is the process by which, having displaced the opponent's hips with our own, we put the opponent's center of gravity (hips) onto ours.  This is done with the legs bent, so that the actual lift is achieved by straightening the legs, NOT by pulling/lifting with the arms.  Judo is like rock climbing in that the arms are used for balance/contact and the legs are used for drive/lift. Loading can be hard to see when it is done as part of a reaping throw (Osotogari, for example), but if you watch carefully, you should be able to see where the hips are loaded.

6. Execution (Nage)
Now that the opponent's body is loaded and under control, we DRIVE.  A properly done throw should combine our body weight with our opponent's and drive them ballistically through the ground, not merely "toss/release".  When we extend our legs and bend forward, we also want to establish a new connection (usually through the shoulder or hip) that will anchor our bodyweight to the opponent and allow us to drive our weight through them into the ground.

Aikido tends to use controls/locks and projections, the difference being that when we project, we release the opponent, who then contacts the ground on their own - without our bodyweight added.  When throwing, at no point should we release the opponent, and we strongly intend to add our body weight, sandwiching the opponent between us and the ground when we land.

7. Control (Shime/Osae/Newaza)
While projections are generally designed to toss/release the opponent, throws intend the opponent to contact the ground in close proximity, preferably with our bodyweight on top.  This facilitates a variety of mounts such as top mount, side mount, and scarf hold, which lead us into controls/submissions/finishes including breaks, dislocations, chokes, and strangles.  Done properly, the throw is a strong shock and jolt to the opponent which may already render them unconscious or winded, but which in any case causes a moment of pause on impact which can be exploited to move directly into a control or finish..  In some cases, the throw alone can cause concussion or serious injury, particularly when combined with a lock applied before throwing.

Throws can be a very important part of a good fighter's arsenal, and change the CQB dynamic considerably.  However, like any good technique, the proper principles need to be followed to get the right result.

These are my views on the important components to good throwing.  I encourage you to research on your own.

See you on the mats.