Thursday, April 20, 2006

Elevens (just the number, not the angle)

About a year ago I started noticing the number eleven. This was around the time my brother announced he had cancer. The first time or two the number came up in consciousness I just marked it as coincidence; random association.

When it kept happening, though, elevens became synchronistic, seemingly unrelated events that are somehow connected. I began to make note of each occurrence, and just by the act of so doing they became more significant.

Whether or not this means anything to the universe, it takes on meaning through the subjective value we associate with it. This is the nature of symbols, which have to be interpreted according to our individual awareness. If we ignore things, there are no messages. What messages exist, well up from within our own unconscious mind. Just that fact alone creates context, allowing us to gain deeper insight into our nature and our circumstances.

Most of the elevens I saw were on clocks. It always seemed to be eleven minutes after the hour. That, to me, was more portentous than if I were merely seeing the number fixed somewhere. This was my internal clock driving me to look at the time eleven minutes after each hour, and too consistently to be mere coincidence. So what did it mean to me?

Well, eleven is right before twelve, which is the end of each hour. The “Atomic Watch” by concerned scientists often shows the time as five minutes (or less) before midnight, and so pointing towards the “11”.

In terms of minutes, it’s an odd marker. Ten minutes is a common theme but eleven doesn’t fit. It’s the number after, and so for me it came to represent the meaning that “it’s later than you think.”

Eleven is a double digit, which is a doubled digit: 11. It is like two individuals standing together; relationship.

Eleven also has a space between the digits, so the number actually consists of three elements; triad of mind, body and spirit. The spirit is largely invisible to us. Our nature as humans is also that we can make choices, and so we stand in the middle between the yin and yang of that nature.

When I think on the nature of this, it makes me realize the preciousness of time. What have I done that I wanted to do? What is still left to do? Too many people say “someday” and that day never comes.

I thought elevens would fade away after my brother died, but they kept coming up. Today I called my kid and left a message; the time of the call was 1:11. I then walked into another room and checked the time; 4:11. I guess I keep reminding myself to live each moment in this way, and so recently I accepted a new challenge.

Two years ago I started learning flamenco guitar. It’s about as huge a challenge on that instrument as there is, and I’m not very good at it yet. Anyway, my teacher contacted me two weeks ago and asked if I wanted to do a piece in a recital. At first I said no (very firmly). I hadn’t gone to a lesson since December and I’d had my hands injured in February, so I hadn’t played in nearly two months. It’s been 25 years since I was on stage, and that was with a punk-funk band.

Then I thought about it. How many chances to do I get to step out of my comfort zone in a meaningful way? To go sit onstage alone is a test of inner resources.

My hands were stiff when I started practicing. That passed, but now my fingers are swollen and sore, limiting how much more I can work. I know the piece, but I can use more practice than the pain will allow. Technical errors creep in, but the reason they do is mental inconsistency, not playing the whole piece with full attention to the music section by section, second by second. I know the piece at my simple level of performance, but maintaining conscious focus on each note is the tricky part. When my mind lingers anywhere, the next bit loses coherence. It’s all about the music and staying in the flow; I don’t have the luxury to think of anything else.

This is exactly the kind of thing I talk about in martial arts. It is that Zen awareness in the moment, the ability to focus intently without wavering. Playing music solo is very revealing; there is no place to hide, and whatever happens is all your doing, and so I practice, I run through the music in my head, and I visualize the entire experience from walking on stage until I leave, hearing it run as perfectly as possible. This is a use of self-programming or self-hypnosis. I’m also using some performance-enhancing tapes to help prepare myself.

In a way this is scarier than when I prepared to go to the Philippines to fight in ’89 because it seemed easier not to have expectations in that bigger event. In another way, however, this is very similar. I’m not testing myself because I know I can do this. Quite the opposite, I’m doing it because I don’t know the outcome. That is the nature of a test; one is questioned and whatever happens, good or bad, is the answer. In that regard it helps to look at this not as a destination but just a point in time. Whether I ever perform like this again or not, this is nothing more than a sign, a place along the road to help refine goals.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Tempus Rerum Imperator

“Time commands all things.” And so it is that a few hours ago I had to say a final farewell to one of the best companions I’ve ever known.

Pepper was my old Labrador, and the dog whose life I saved just over 2 months ago when she was choking. We cheated the grim reaper a couple of times, she and I, but I’d known for some time that this day was coming.

She was full of life and love right to the end. Our last 24 hours together were as good as could be, a beautiful farewell, but her belly, increasingly distended from disease, was clearly causing her pain. At 15, I couldn’t see putting her through the kind of intrusive medical interventions that, in the end, would probably have done little to prolong her life. At some point quality of life is more important than merely marking time, and she deserved to go peacefully and with dignity.

This was one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make. Sometimes the right thing just feels like crap, but we all knew it was time. She told me in many ways over the past several weeks that she was ready to let go, and all of us close to her were in agreement.

In the end, a prick of the needle, and in seconds she was gone ….

Monday, April 10, 2006

#1 – The Mother of All Angles

One of the things that attracted me to Escrima is the use of angles as a template for grouping attacks and various defenses against them. To me this seemed more scientific than randomly grouping techniques according to subjective criteria such as testing material for belt promotions.

There are many schemes for numbering these angles, but almost all weapon-based FMA systems share a similar #1 angle, the high right forehand. It is the most primal strike for most humans, utilizing lots of big muscles and gravity. The Dog Brothers refer to it as "the Caveman". By prioritizing it as the threat most likely to be encountered, a substantial proportion of one’s self-defense capabilities are instilled very quickly.

I think a lot of students overlook the value of that first angle. To many, it seems as though it is just a first baby step towards the real goal of learning higher, more “advanced” angles. In reality those are less common, and perhaps the sign of a more sophisticated attack. Duels between equals is rare; self-defense tends towards more basic and uneven scenarios.

I've seen students who excel at later angles because their skill was better when they got there, yet the basic angles that laid the foundation have not been polished to at least an equivalent level. In fact, one should excel at the basics because they have been practiced the longest and most often, a part of every session. One needs to be mindful not to look past these as merely warm-ups for the "good stuff". That is a waste of valuable learning opportunity. "A rising tide lifts all boats," and so skill should be applicable across the board.

Study pictures of riots whenever they are in the news, and what one sees is the same thing repeatedly - the #1 strike - whether by trained personnel or civilians. These are from today's news.

AP photo, 4/10/2006 - A policeman using a #1 strike on a protestor in Nepal.

Even as early as the second angle, systems diverge in priority. For many it is a high right backhand strike, forming the other half of a downward figure-8 with the first strike. Others might emphasize a low horizontal forehand strike. The choice of weapon might dictate which is preferred. A horizontal forehand might be more natural with a long swinging weapon like a baseball bat or the rattan staffs of these Nepalese police, than using a high backhand as with a shorter club.

Another AP photo in the news today. Interesting shin guards.

Another reason the horizontal forehand (#3 in Serrada) might be common in police tactics is if a shield is used. Depending on equipment, that might tactically limit or even interfere somewhat with cross-body backhand strikes. Also, this group is so close together, only vertical strikes can be used without hitting their own people.

Know how to defend a few angles well and you are covered for most contingencies. As Angel Cabales used to say, the advanced angles are more for recognizing an unusual attack and using what you already know. The basic skill set will still be effective if you've learned it well. The training for those angles refines those skills, more than being anything completely new and different.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Higher Awareness

Higher consciousness isn’t just an abstract theory, it’s a part of us, something that we experience from time to time as a little voice of wisdom. Usually it is hidden below our threshold of awareness. Those that are more attuned to it are sometimes labeled either mystics or madmen, though the distinction may say as much about the person making it as the one being judged.

The concept of levels of the mind is nothing new. It exists in most cultures, from ancient times right up into our present one. Whether we give obeisance in a house of worship or through pursuit of the grail of holistic health, the trinity of mind, body and spirit is such an embedded paradigm because it reflects the range of human experience.

Most of us only experience it directly at times of peak experience, which is part of the allure for climbing mountains or running marathons. It is more than endorphins, though that is certainly a manifestation at the physical level. We have bodies, we have minds. What affects one, affects the other. Books have been written about the rhythmic effects of running creating trance-like states similar to shamanic drumming, chanting or meditation.

Most people think of themselves just as their identity, but that is something we create as a way of adapting to experience, and many of those processes are operating on far too subtle levels for our minds to grasp. Freud popularized the notion of the unconscious mind, but perhaps his real innovation was the idea of defense mechanisms, which are often vital coping strategies rather than the pathologies most people imagine them to be. Defenses, however, are not the mind. They are merely edifices erected by the mind as a way of protecting the deeper self.

There’s a lot I could say about the subconscious, especially from a perspective of training the body through programming the mind. I come at it from a more spiritual angle rather than the psychological, but that will be for another blog. I’m diverging from my original intent, which was to tell a story that embodies a higher consciousness experience for me. I’m sure many of you will recognize this for yourselves.

The story itself would be unremarkable except for this element. It happened about twenty years ago, in the bar area of a friend’s restaurant in Berkeley which had some of the best Mexican food in the Bay Area. It was the first place I ever had nachos; this past Christmas as a favor my friend made me some, and I almost weep because his are so good … but again I digress … I met my friend through two different connections. A lot of rock ‘n rollers I knew frequented the restaurant, then later I discovered he had been the California junior grand champion in Kajukenbo as well as a trained gymnast. Eventually we trained at the same Kenpo school, where he was one of the top fighters, second only to the head instructor.

So all this leads me to that day when I went there for a beer and nachos, and my buddy was at the bar with his two brothers and a waitress from a place next door, who used to come by to flirt with him. I remember she was a skinny young gal from Hong Kong who had a brash attitude. For some reason that day she started play fighting with me, which I thought was cool. We were just throwing light finger taps when suddenly for no reason (and I can hear Freud laughing) she dropped low and punched me in the groin as hard as she could.

I remember that I grabbed her and spun her around, pulling her into a bear hug to restrain her, and probably to help hold me up at that moment. I shouted at my friend “What the (expletive deleted) is wrong with her?” She then grabbed my arm and bit it! I pushed her away; she took a step and turned towards me, cocking her hand back in a fist to punch me, and that is when the magic happened.

As soon as I saw her right fist coming forward, my left hand began moving on its own with a jab towards her face. Everything was in slow motion, almost deliberate. Halfway through the punch I was startled when a voice whispered in my left ear: “Don’t hit the glasses!” My hand did a spontaneous loop up and over them, smacking her in the forehead. She staggered back and her friends caught her. That’s when time shifted back to a more normal perspective.

Now I certainly do not advocate hitting women. I dislike violence, and I don’t like the look of fear in someone’s eyes because I’m too empathetic and I feel it too. Nevertheless, there are circumstances where morality dictates action. I’ve hit women three other times. Two times I’ve stopped large women from assaulting a smaller one, and as a ten-year-old kid I was attacked by an adult. All four incidents ended with a single determined action to stop the violence.

Anyway, after this incident I was upset and left. I went back a couple of days later to apologize to everyone and see how she was doing. Apparently she had a headache for three days, and the upshot was we never spoke again. My friend, however, was excited to see me. How, he asked, did I throw that punch?

Now here was a guy who pretty much created his own style of monkey kung fu. He could nail you with a flying kick, roll on landing, then come up into a leap off the wall that would launch him horizontally across the room to punch you on the other side of your head while you were still figuring out where that first kick came from. He was a magician, and he’d been to enough Chinatown cinemas to have seen the best moves of the genre, yet he was asking me, a relative novice, how I’d done something of which I was barely aware.

“What do you mean?” I asked in innocence. According to his observation, the punch flicked out lightning-quick, yet somehow completely changed direction in mid-air. He was amazed anything moving so quick could do that. To me the punch had felt slow, as though time was standing still, and I felt as though I had been more a witness than a participant. I was also quite surprised to hear the effect it had, since it felt no harder than a skin-deep tap. Even the witnesses said it looked like a light pop.

What changed, though, was a complete shift of consciousness. While the play leading up to this had been in a daily mode of awareness, the escalation to violence shifted that paradigm. Training ingrains the subconscious mind with patterns of behavior, but it was a higher level of the psyche that was able to change the flow of time and interject the command to do less harm.

I’ve had this kind of time distortion a few other times, such as during a motorcycle accident where I somehow guided myself to a flat landing rather than into a wall that would have crushed me. I’ve heard that inner voice a few other times too, such as a warning not to buy a particular truck, and I’ve learned that ignoring the advice usually comes at a cost. My old Tai Chi teacher came from a Kahuna family, and he talked a lot about paying attention to these kinds of things. That inner guidance is always there; it is up to us to learn how to hear it.