Monday, December 26, 2022

On Happiness

 


This is me. A photo taken in December 2022 at an outdoor cafe. Yes, I look happy. Because I am. Relaxed and in the company of friends, it was a very enjoyable lunch and conversation. It feels very different from where I was a year ago.

In Dec 2021 I was not happy. I was recovering from type 2 diabetes which was diagnosed in May 2021, and had been on months of medication, side effects of which were poor sleep and headaches. I had to endure those because I needed to continue to reduce my blood sugar. I was also under extreme stress at work. I was unable to help my stressed out team because I could not even help myself. Every day I felt like I was drowning, and there was no help to be found anywhere. The situation was relentless. I was working 70 - 80 hour weeks for months including nights and weekends and it still wasn't enough.  Every Sunday I would lie awake with anxiety at what new crises would happen the next day and I felt completely hopeless.

So, what happened?

By January of this year I became determined to change jobs. The internal transfer was not handled well, and that convinced me that I needed to change companies as well. I enjoyed my time in cloud technology but it turned out to be every bit as volatile as investment banking, and for many of the same reasons. I worried that at my age (55) despite my experience and skills I would struggle to find a good (enough) job, as I had in 2010 after I left JP Morgan. 

Fortunately, I was quickly able to find a great role in a buy-side asset management company's international sales department, leading a young and diverse team of developers, designers and UI specialists. My background in finance (albeit sell-side) and technology has been useful, as has my fluency in Japanese. I am doing good work and my work is being highly appreciated across the firm.

I learned a few very important lessons.

1) Sometimes what didn't really work out for you really worked out for you. Read that again.

Leaving the comfort and safety of Thomson Reuters (now part of LSEG) for "The Cloud" in 2016 was a very difficult choice to make. My current employer will make my 4th job in 6 years. Changing jobs is extremely painful and emotionally draining, and learning cloud solutions in my late 40s did not come easily. I had to invest a huge amount of time and energy on topics that others probably intuitively understood. However, if I had not gone through those tough times I might not have developed the important skills and understanding I need now to create the right solutions for my current employer. I met so many fantastic people and (hopefully) will keep and deepen my relationships in the future by being a good customer. If I had it to do over again, I would have had to choose the same course of events. As stressful as it was, it brought me to where I am now.

2) Prioritize Your Mental Health and Balance above all else

We often talk about the need for balance. This can be described as work/life balance but also as the "Holy Trinity" of mental/physical/emotional well-being that is the key to longevity. In my case, the high stress and anxiety led me to emotional and mental instability which ultimately contributed to my health issues. My poor health had knock-on negative effects on my mental and emotional health in a downward spiral that ended up out of control. In retrospect, I think emotional health was the most important factor to get right first. My happiness would have minimized my physical impact. Even working hard, if I had not been so stressed out/feeling hopeless constantly I think I would still have slept well, eaten better and found time to get more exercise. Many people can maintain a positive outlook even when they are not feeling 100%, but I think feeling despair will naturally disrupt mental and physical elements as well. No job, no career is worth jeopardizing any of the three factors and I am grateful I found another option before my conditions got worse. I felt that as a survivor of so many hardships, and a martial arts instructor as well, I would be largely immune from the effects of stress and anxiety on my mental/physical/emotional health. I was very painfully proven wrong.

3) There is ALWAYS something you can do - but you need courage (and to let go of your ego)

 As my situation deteriorated, I felt more and more helpless. I worked harder and harder, longer and longer, believing that I could work my way out of the negative spiral I was caught inside. I believed that if I got myself into a situation, any situation, I could get myself out. I told myself to "Man Up" and convinced myself I would do whatever I had to do to provide for my family, even die if necessary. I would have preferred to die than to fail, or so I thought. My family staged an intervention. It happened when my wife brought me dinner to my little room one night and told me that whenever she knocked on the door she worried that she would find me collapsed dead at my desk. She was very serious.

As a family, we spoke about it and they reassured me that this was not the way. I shouldn't risk my life for my job, any job, and that whatever changes I needed to make they would support me 100%. I made up my mind to get better. That would mean making changes. Major changes. It would also mean facing my fear of failure and letting go of my ego - stop trying to fight a battle I knew in my heart I could not win. I had to also stop worrying about what others would think of my many frequent changes - whether or not my bosses, my co-workers, my team or anyone else would judge me for throwing in the towel and quitting.

I had to believe that in the end, those who were meant to be my friends, those who really cared about me, would understand why I needed to do what I did. That is exactly what happened.

Far too many people fail to find alternatives to bad situations, or feel too trapped to make other, better choices. They worry too much about being judged or are too afraid of change. Far too many people fail to get the support they need or the mental health care they deserve. The truth is - it's never too late to make a positive change and a wait-and-see approach generally only makes matters worse.  

4) FUCK COVID

Yes, I said it. We've all been thinking it. This horrible disease has taken so much from so many, devastated families and workplaces, and even fundamentally changed the nature of work forever (hopefully for the better). I cannot and will not blame COVID for everything, but in my case it made a bad situation worse and added so much additional stress to an already challenging and difficult situation. During COVID, we were prevented from seeing each other, prevented from seeing customers or friends and this led to terrible feelings of workplace loneliness and isolation. Every day was a poor carbon copy of the day before - 10 or 12 hours of back-to-back Zoom calls and desperately trying to get a bathroom break in-between. No time for "actual" work and no way to build the all-important relationships that make work worthwhile at all. Everyone tried to make up for it with ergonomic chairs and virtual happy hours but they were all poor substitutes for actual face-to-face human interaction. I was miserable and COVID was a big part of that. No, the time of COVID is not quite over, but the world is finally moving on. One day all of this will be nothing more than a bad memory as we all mourn what we have lost and the high price that has been paid by everyone worldwide.

Closing

Happiness is not automatic or guaranteed. Part of knowing what it is comes from experiencing what it is not. 2022 has had its fair share of challenges, but I am very grateful to end the year in a far better place than where I started it.

I wish all of you a safe closing of the books on 2022 and all the very best in 2023.          

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Navigating Things

 

(thanks for the inspiration SC)

We are often conditioned to think of our lives as being on a kind of "auto pilot". We enter the details of our destination - education, hard work, dedication, perseverance, luck, money - and the Life Autopilot delivers us straight to --- SUCCESS. In many families, especially Asian families, the auto pilot includes enormous pressure to have perfect grades, play musical instruments and sports, excel at after school enrichment activities and if we do so, the autopilot will take us to success as a(nother) lawyer or doctor - ironically, even if this is not where we ourselves wanted to go.

We think we depend on a few critical "all-or-nothing" moments where our lives are defined. Those moments where we truly rise up and make the decisions and take the actions that will yield the fame and fortune we desire. Sadly, when we do not win those moments, we may feel that those doors to success are closed forever by our failure, and those potential futures lost to us. This way of thinking can cause us undue stress and anxiety and in some extreme cases may suggest to us that all is lost and we will never achieve our life goals - leading us to despair, depression and maybe even to self-harm.

In fact, Car Navigation systems may be a better metaphor than Autopilots.

Car Navigation systems are wonderful things. They allow us to input a destination and then provide directions to it, even allowing for various conditions to be set (don't use toll-roads, avoid traffic jams, etc.). These days, an intelligent AI voice tells us each turn to make and exactly how far to go.

Using this metaphor, like car navigation, sometimes despite the instructions we miss a turn off or overshoot an exit ramp or on ramp. Then what? A fiery ball of flame? No. The navigation system will calculate a new path to get us there. Even if you start going in the exact opposite direction of the system's instructions (like me when I use Google Maps), the system will patiently direct you back on course. Your journey is only truly over if you give up.

Life, it seems, is very much like this. Contrary to popular belief, we can even decide a direction without knowing the actual specific address. We can simply enter something close. We can change our minds en-route or make a detour or a stop off. We can make an unlimited number of mistakes. A new route will always display that tells us what to do from where we currently are. The Navi will always keep trying to show us the way. 

In the end, we will get where we are going as long as we don't give up.

When we are ready to accept our own freedom, we realize that there is no timeline or schedule for reaching our destination (success/happiness) except our own. The fact that others may have taken a faster route or arrived earlier or been more efficient is of no consequence. What matters is that in the end WE ARRIVE.

A Navigation system does not necessarily need every little detail to plot a course. Newest ones can use a partial address or even just a telephone number. They can navigate using a famous landmark or a place you have previously visited. Life, too, need not have every tiny detail in place to help guide you in the right direction. So get started. 

2023 is around the corner. Instead of just feeling lost, let the New Year bring you the chance to go on an adventure or two - secure in the knowledge that your trusty Navi will always get you there and back again.

Train hard.     

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Learning Kanji

 


Kanji (漢字) are the pictograms used in writing Chinese and Japanese. Originally Chinese, Kanji have been part of the Chinese diaspora and influenced not only Japanese but Korean as well. Many Koreans still have kanji associated with their names, and until recently there was still a kanji newspaper published in Korea.

I started studying kanji as part of my Japanese class in 1989 and have been studying them in one way or another ever since. Modern Japanese (newspapers) are based on a general usage set of 1,945 characters, but most adults know between 3,000 - 5,000 based on their education and interests. It is said that there are over 30,000 kanji in Chinese including very obscure ones and derivations.

I love the fact that kanji are pictograms rather than phonetic like western alphabets, since as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. Kanji can be very efficient to transmit ideas to the viewer.

In the case of the above kanji, read "naka" or "chuu" in Japanese, it symbolizes the center or inside of something. This kanji was relevant in our class on Friday night.

In this cycle, we are working on hubud lubud (FMA sticky hands) applications including Hakka Kuntao, which is a southern Chinese martial art. I came up with the image of this kanji to reflect one of the central principles of Hakka Kuntao. In Hakka, our focus can be imagined as the four corners (both shoulders and the points of both hips) as well as the center line. Using the kanji, we imagine a square drawn connecting the four points with a line running down the center line (spine). Our objective then becomes penetrating the opponent's square to seek control of the center line, while simultaneously protecting our own square and denying the opponent access to our center line.

The shoulders and hips are predictive indicators of center line movement, so by using our peripheral vision we can anticipate the footwork (hips) or attacking line (shoulders) by watching the four corners of the box. Accessing the center line, usually via the head/neck/spine, allows us to easily compromise the opponent's balance and reduce or eliminate the ability to generate power through spinal rotation. Once this power train is disrupted it is very difficult for an opponent to deliver any meaningful strikes or recover their balance.

Hakka Kuntao is fast and powerful, concentrated on the box and center line, which makes it especially effective at very close ranges, despite the fact that many Wing Chun practitioners (Wing Chun is a representative Hakka martial art though not the only one) contend that it can be effective at medium and long ranges as well.

In Kali Majapahit, we use hubud lubud's framework to introduce several key bodies of knowledge including:

  • Gunting series
  • Hakka 5 Gates/Trapping
  • Application of aikido's te no tori drill
  • Knife and karambit flows
  • CQB stick trapping
  • Sarong and scarf applications

It is a cornerstone training tool and worthy of deep investigation and committed training.

More information here:

https://martialartsdigest.blogspot.com/2014/04/hubud.html
https://martialartsdigest.blogspot.com/2018/12/hubud-lubud-revisited.html     

Saturday, November 05, 2022

Reach Out



It seems like lately everyone is dying - more specifically, it seems like many people are committing suicide - either directly, or indirectly via alcohol or drug abuse.  Of course, notable celebrities attract attention regardless of whether they are rock stars, sports personalities or TV and movie stars.  This trend is discussed a bit in a paper here.

One of my country's greatest problems is one of multi-generational, hereditary poverty, a situation where Americans are born, live and die below the poverty line exactly as several generations before them did and just as they expect their children are likely to do.  This problem represents generations of families in the USA who believe, quite rightly, that they have been ignored by government - discarded in favor of a more influential middle class and wealthy elite who can donate and support them.  Exactly the constituents a candidate should advocate for, provided they actually cared about anything other than just remaining in office and milking it for every last drop of personal gain.  Sadly, these voices fail to have been heard for the better part of 80 years, leaving these groups of people in despair at being ignored and denied their basic human dignity and respect.

In the US we are taught to equate wealth with happiness, but the reality is not so clear.  According the to World Happiness Report, the largest study of its kind, the US ranks a sobering 18th, well behind many countries with lower GDP, notably including Costa Rica (13th). Money, it seems, is not everything.  However, we cannot ignore that those at or below the poverty line continue to suffer in misery with little hope for improvement under the current regime.

In many cases, these poor white people commit suicide.  In some tragic others, they act out on their feelings of resentment at their societal isolation and make a statement with their AR-15, shotgun or hi-capacity semiautomatic pistol.

The paper shows that despite these feelings of racist superiority, hereditary poverty affects whites just as badly as it does poor blacks and Hispanics, sandwiching them between lack of healthcare or quality education and perpetually low wages.  This leads to despair and desperation born of the hopelessness and fear of knowing that one's children will toil with no greater hope of success than any of the prior generations had.  So much for white superiority.

In another generation or two, the paper suggests, poor white mortality and imprisonment will equal or exceed that of black people, irrespective of police bias.  The race to the bottom continues unabated.

Sadly, this is an even greater argument for all of us to see beyond race, color or creed and to acknowledge that at the poverty line or below, all poor people have the same needs and must join forces to create social change.  For those of us above the poverty line, we are obliged in our compassionate society to give what we can to promote literacy, better education, healthcare and wage growth to help these people rise above.  We must influence action by our elected officials to allocate tax dollars to those who need them mist, rather than just enact tax breaks to further benefit the wealthy.  Overall, we must preserve the dignity of these people and remember that our country was founded on the principles of equal opportunity, acceptance and tolerance.

According to the very powerful book "Factfulness" by Hans Rosling, the world is far better than most of us think it is.  Dramatic increases in global wealth, education and health have been taking place and helping make a difference in the lives of many people, far fewer of which live in absolute poverty than ever before.  This is inspiring, and should remind us of our commitment to keep improving until not one single child is lost to preventable diseases, famine or war.

Meanwhile, at least according to our GOP, immigrants stream across the border to eagerly scoop up their entitled benefits of free education, low-cost healthcare and high(er) wages, thereby increasing the pressure on an already downtrodden demographic and adding exponentially to their feelings of despair.  Decades of systematically trying to skew the system against non-whites have failed, leaving "privileged" whites behind immigrants in both academics and opportunity.  In a desperate appeal to seize power not unlike 1930s Germany, our Republican Party appealed to the anger and hatred of this demographic and mobilized them to act out on their xenophobia.  America faces the darkest moments in recent history as we tear ourselves apart from within.  Our enemies in Russia, China and North Korea laugh as we push away our allies and descend into hopeless bickering among each other, all the while ignoring our fundamental moral compass as human beings.  This is the greatest tragedy of all.

The time for divisiveness is over.  The time for hatred and fear is ended.  Do not lose hope.
We must learn from our mistakes and put the past behind us so we can move forward AS ONE TRIBE.  The time for TOGETHERNESS is upon us.

Be Present
Send Peace
Donate
Hug
Love

BE THE LIGHT.








Friday, August 05, 2022

We're Here

 


"We're here to get through this thing together, whatever it is." - Kurt Vonnegut

The night air was cool and moist as we walked home. My teenage son was telling me about life at school. Instead of usual snarky comments and sound bites, he was opening up and telling me how he really felt. 

"The girls have two basic stereotypes", he said, "one group are really concerned about money, clothes and IG and showing off. The others sleep around, hang out in clubs and whatnot. Everyone is just trying to fit in." Surely they can't all be like that, I thought. It's hard being a teenager. Life is moving quickly and you're caught in the middle of definitely not being a child anymore but not quite having the wisdom or experience of an adult.

My own teenage years were... difficult. I was filled with anger at being a foster child and all it entailed. Sick of all of it, really. Bored and tired of social workers and therapists and of feeling lucky that things weren't worse than they were. I didn't feel like I fit in anywhere and I just wanted to get away from it all. It was the worst time of my life.

I told my son the above quote from Kurt Vonnegut, which had always resonated with me. I told him that I knew it was hard and confusing. Teenagers are expected to know their life plan and have it all figured out at 16. I'm still trying to figure it out at 56. One thing I am certain of is that we are not meant to go it alone.

Throughout  my life I have always found a small circle of close friends to help me get through this thing together, whatever it is. My tribe has been there for me no matter what, thick or thin, always. Together, we have laughed and cried (mostly laughed) and faced everything one way or another. Somehow, we got through. He has his circle and they are an important part of his life, too.

My Kali family (and more broadly my extended martial arts family) has been a real anchor for me. On the mats we work and sweat (and sometimes bleed). Off the mats we share and support each other. Without that element in my life I'm sure I would never have made it. I think you've got to have some true passion in life and share it with others to be truly happy. I'm lucky I found mine so early.

At 32 I was certain I'd always be single. I'm just not good at relationships - too extreme, too many mood swings. Haunted by too many ghosts and chased by too many demons. I just couldn't seem to make it work for more than a month or two. I spent most of my life trying to fix people, maybe in the hopes that it would prove my own self-worth. I couldn't save them, and as such I couldn't save/forgive myself. It was a negative spiral that just kept holding me down.

A year later I was married, now 22 years this year. I had found someone who wasn't broken and didn't need fixing - someone who was, and is, perfect just the way she is. Someone who, for reasons I can never understand, manages to love me even when I cannot love myself. Through her, my life has purpose and meaning and every good thing started with knowing she was by my side and had my back. That has made all the difference. She has helped me get through this thing, together, whatever it is. Because of her, it has been a good thing and worth getting through. Thanks to her I have never given up.

I told Ray that I bet there are lot of other people out there who feel like he does. Wondering and maybe a little bit anxious about what happens next. People who don't know why we're here or how to get through this thing, whatever it is. Just like me, all they really want is to get through it together - with someone they can count on and who will show up for them. If they could get past the plastic facade, the social media, the posturing, the virtue signaling. If they could open up and be real, then they would see him for who he really is - the man I see in him. They would consider themselves lucky to have a true companion in him, a person who can smile and laugh and who can be resilient in the face of hardship. Someone you can always count on to show you empathy and understanding. More than anything, they would recognize him as the best person to go through this thing with, together, whatever it is.

Don't worry son, she's out there. I know.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

The Promise

 

(thanks for the inspiration George)

"It's all about the promise", George said. "That's why we watch. In the beginning, when the plot is being set up, they introduce the promise. Over the course of the show we see the promise fulfilled. That's satisfying. That's why we watch. We want to see the promise fulfilled. We want to see how it happens". He was talking about anime, one of his many hobbies. He could have been talking about anything. At the time I didn't realize it, but he was talking about martial arts, too.

George loves anime, and he wanted me to love it too. I told him they are cartoons for children. He frowned. "Cartoons don't have the promise", he said. "Cartoons are pointless.". It would take me another few years to really appreciate what he meant and, ultimately, to understand that he was really giving me insight into the heart of my martial arts training. My son had become my teacher.

 Many things in life begin with a promise. It represents a commitment to action to create a better future, a way of showing that we intend to deliberately deliver some future outcome. Rather than just a hope or a wish, a promise infers an initiative with a plan. When we observe the promise in media, often in movies, TV shows, graphic novels and the like the promise is  a way of framing the problem and establishing that the protagonist (sometimes the storyteller) will fulfill that promise in some way, often unknown to us at the time. It allows for quests, journeys, adventures, plot twists, mistakes, crises, hope, redemption - casting the ring into the fire of Mt. Doom, as it were. Like the One Ring, symbols can play an important part in representing the central struggle or premise of the promise. In many cases, the bolder the promise, the more intriguing the pathway to its fulfillment becomes for the audience, who become drawn in as participants to the struggle and its resolution.

Our life stories have promises as well. Promises we make to others but also promises we make to ourselves.
I would argue that martial arts training carries many inherent promises, and this is one reason why it is so different from just going to an aerobics class (aerobics is nice too, though). Martial arts training has a unique blend of "martial" and "art" that can accommodate any person across its spectrum from very martial to very artistic and everything in between. It allows each student to customize a journey in order to fulfill the promise to themselves to become a better version of who they want to be. Dedication and determination are the struggle, the quest, and the outcome years later is to have been transformed into a newer, better YOU. Stronger and faster, but also wiser and more confident. A version of YOU that is no longer afraid to challenge growth in all other areas of your life. It truly is a growth for mind, body and spirit.

When students are first starting out, I often introduce the promise as one from them to me, their instructor. The agreement is to keep coming to class, twice a week, as often as possible, to trust the training and that I will guide them in the Way and introduce the steps of the path. Eventually, once deliberate action forms a habit, they become able to keep coming to class routinely as part of their weekly activity cycle. Promise fulfilled.

Next comes the promise to themselves. As students rise in their ranks, I remind them of their progress and introduce the idea that they can promise to themselves to continue to set and achieve their goals. While I am certainly satisfied to see them moving forward, this promise is for them to experience the fulfillment that comes from keeping your promises to yourself. This means being self-motivated and showing up to class and giving 100% regardless of the weather, the workload or any of life's other distractions. The promise is a commitment to investing in your own personal growth. Often times this is punctuated by the achievement of a black belt, a symbol of overcoming the challenges of fulfilling this promise to understand the basic foundations of the art and becoming able to represent them to others. Promise fulfilled.

This is the time for the third promise - the promise to others.
I fully believe that when we align to our soul's purpose in this lifetime, the right people show up at the right time to help guide us to our next phase of understanding. It is the case in many stories but I think this is also true in real life. For me, moments of plateau, moments of crisis, moments of opportunity were always accompanied by the arrival of new characters in my story - people whose appearance was destined to help me see the way forward. For all of my life these people have arrived just when and where they were supposed to. I feel very lucky to have been shown how to develop the insight to recognize this. It was many years later when I finally realized that the tables had turned... I was now the one meant to appear at the right place and time for other people. As a leader, a teacher, an elder I had somehow become a guide rather than just a traveler. I felt a deep sense of responsibility to deliver on this promise and to be worthy of it in the way that so many people had been to me throughout my life. I have tried to raise my awareness and be able to see moments of influence where I needed to be able to be the right person to guide, lead and inspire others to help them fulfill their promises, too. Doing so seems to fulfill mine.

In the end we come full circle. Martial arts begins and ends with a bow - a symbol of respect for the art, for the teachers/fellow students and for the self. So too, martial arts begins and ends with a promise. A promise to fulfill for the teacher, for the self and for others.

Train hard.  

  

Sunday, May 01, 2022

Use the Difficulty

 


This is a great video from a great actor - a man who has stayed relevant and genuine in a career spanning more than 7 decades and over 160 films (and counting). He knows what he's talking about.

I found this video so interesting because it speaks to the heart of what we need to consider on our paths. All of us, every single one of us, experience trauma. We all have emotional wounds that can carry long-lasting consequences if left untreated.  This trauma can haunt us forever, or it can be used as a fuel to feed our fire for growth. We can become paralyzed with fear or turbocharged into action. It's up to us.

An actors' job is to convey various emotions to an audience through their portrayal of a character. The better they are the more we believe in who they become. The better they are the more we forget they are anyone other than who they portray at that moment. The best actors do much more than deliver a performance based on a script. They bring a humanness to the role that is unique and memorable. Method acting uses these powerful emotions to help actors create convincing characters.

Likewise, we can (and do) convince ourselves by the personas we create for ourselves. That's why it is very important to use the difficulty we have in our lives: the obstacles, the pain, the hurt, the sadness not as excuses to be stuck in place but instead in order to fuel our progress to something better.

Note that Michael Caine allows that difficulties can be used not just for dramatic purposes but also for comedy. Anyone who has been around me for any time at all knows my black humor - a coping mechanism I developed to face my many years in foster care. I laugh a lot because if I didn't I'd cry.

And as he says, "avoid difficulties if you can". True indeed. When you can't avoid the difficulty, USE IT.


Train hard.