Thursday, May 25, 2006

What is Flow?

Flow is a word commonly used in FMA. There it's considered a high part of the art. Flow is also used in Tai Chi, Aikido and many other arts. Just a few questions to think about:

If flow is considered more effective in some systems than others, why?
How much of that is the mindset of each practitioner, how much the training? How are those related?
Is flow always "with" or can it be "contra"; can one flow against an opponent?
Is flow internal (intrinsic) or relational (extrinsic) or both?
Are there degrees of flowingness, or is it an absolute; you either have it or you don't?
Is flow different between soft and hard styles or is it ultimately the same experience, just different kinesthetic language?

Monday, May 15, 2006

Investing in Loss

Warning: You may want galoshes for wading through this one!

I’ve slowed down on writing these past few weeks. Sometimes that comes from having too much to say rather than too little. The mind needs to slow down and process stuff.

I was dealing with the loss of my old dog. Just when I started being ok with having made the decision to put her to sleep, my favorite cat disappeared. A week later, the mystery is resolved; she’s not coming back either.

Years ago I coined a phrase, “investing in loss,” which I later found also in the writings of Stan Grof. I’ve spent a lot of time pondering its meaning, and the simplest explanation I can come up with is learning to cope with change. A Native American approaches this by saying “we are strongest when we are most vulnerable because that is when we have access to all of who we are.”

Death has a wonderful way of re-ordering priorities. Those who have been brushed by it sometimes talk about what is really important. They see things in a new way. Usually that perspective fades as we sink back into the reality of ordinary routines, but as we get older we have more opportunities to experience change in this way. That is a function of time; the longer we go, the more we see others fall away. We become conscious of our own mortality in the passage of time, recognizing how it can all be taken from us, and that one day we too will be gone.

Furthermore, time moves more quickly as we age. A year at age 10 is 1/10th our experience. At age 50 it is only 1/50th, a much smaller increment to subjectively add to our experiences. If we were to experience loss at a steady rate, still they would seem to come closer together, but as we age, so do parents, siblings, friends and pets, and so there is both a subjective and objective increase in the rate at which loss happens in our lives.

How does one “invest in loss?” Part of it is learning detachment from materialism, which includes the living as well as the inanimate. No matter how much we may have, we can always lose things that mean a lot to us, and so we have to be able to adapt to that new reality when it happens. Challenges are opportunities to grow, and so every loss is a way to assess our capacity for acceptance and self-understanding. Buddhists say, “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”

Learning to let go of "what is not us" helps our understanding of "what is us." Boundaries serve important functions in aiding our survival on this physical plane. Good boundaries are selectively permeable, allowing in that which is beneficial while blocking what is harmful. We also need to be able to let out what is toxic so as not to poison ourselves.

Another way is to hold closely to a memory. It is a part of who we are, and so we can embrace it in a way that expresses value to us in our lives. It can ennoble us or bring us down, depending on our capacity to process the experience.

Loss brings up emotion, “energy in motion.” Poorly channeled or suppressed, these can be dangerous forces. Viewed in a self-reflective manner, they become a conduit to realizing our deeper needs and a touchstone to find enabling resources within. Somatic psychology is based on that principle of duality, movement attracted towards or repelled away. This is simply yin and yang, direction of movement in spirit as well as in body. Awareness gives us choice, and our gift as humans is being able to distinguish and choose.

I once heard of a saying from Japan, that the ability to believe contradictory truths simultaneously is the sign of a civilized person. A simple person might only experience one overwhelming truth, such as grief. To also accept what has happened, and perhaps to even appreciate or celebrate that which was, demonstrates more sophisticated ways of modeling reality.

A certain amount of complexity can be valuable. Too much can cause schisms to our view of the world that can make it difficult to function. Still, the ability to compartmentalize experience allows us to chew on smaller chunks so that we can function on some levels while processing other stuff in the background.

Eventually we want to become reintegrated through synthesis of our experiences, what the Jungians call “individuation.” Though we retain the capacity to break experiences down into manageable bits, we have access to them as functions of who we are.

Spring Training

Now that a long wet winter has passed, it’s nice to get outside and enjoy the warmth of the sun again. (My apologies to those up in New England these past few days!)

The indoor season was a great time to practice short sticks, knives and empty hands, but with the burst of greenery and blue skies, it definitely feels like time to get outside. That means more space to move in, and major muscle groups wanting to stretch and work out.

The two things I’ve brought out are the short staff (jo and hanbo) and the whip. I like short staves because they can be found daily as canes, walking sticks/hiking staffs, umbrellas, etc. Whips help visualizing extension of energy and focusing placement.

Staff can be practiced in smaller spaces than whips. Last week was a small class on Wednesday night, so we worked on staff indoors, then I went through the same material again on Friday outdoors. I couldn’t work whip with more than one beginner at a time in either space due to safety considerations.

Serrada movement is compact and tight. Sometimes the body wants to open and stretch. There is as much subtlety in long movement as in short. Knowing both expands your range and repertoire. Movement for health, such as in Yoga or Yang style tai chi, is usually expansive to experience and facilitate the flow of energy. Tighten it down, compact that energy, and it speeds up and becomes combative.

It’s a continuum, so there’s overlap. What’s good is to take something you know and rework it to the opposite end of its functional range, like a musician jamming on a riff seeking new variations to the theme.

Race horses and Mutts

The San Francisco Chronicle ran an article about Navy SEAL training which described a categorization the trainers referred to as “race horses and mutts.” This is something I’m sure most teachers encounter in one way or another through the course of their profession.

Race horses are elite, those with an exceptional skill base to bring to whatever is the endeavor. In the case of the SEALS, they quietly recruit athletes at triathlons, marathons, etc, looking for those who are physically fit and mentally tough enough to endure the training.

Mutts are those people who don’t come with a high-octane pedigree. They aren’t gifted in ways that are obvious, but they can be a diamond in the rough.

Whatever category one comes from is no predictor of ultimate success. The SEAL instructors’ comments reflect my own observations, that a superior candidate won’t always have the qualities to ultimately succeed. The fact that physical gifts elevate one to the higher echelons of performance has little to do with the mental and emotional stamina to maximize that potential.

A mutt, on the other hand, has probably had to develop strong inner resources to achieve success. Lacking innate skills, this is someone who has overcome limitations throughout their life by dedication and hard work.

Look at how many legendary martial art masters started out as sickly children who were brought to training to build up their vitality. A surprising number of these guys made it to the top when stronger, more active kids dropped out. I think there is a point where they see they are moving past those to whom they once looked up, and that realization confirms a commitment to the path.

In my years I’ve seen plenty of much better athletes come and go. As the SEAL article describes, guys who've naturally excelled might quit and move on when they hit the point where natural ability no longer suffices. Someone who has struggled stubbornly early on could find their growth accelerating rather than peaking early and bogging down. No guarantees either way; all you can measure are the results.

The JKD folk talk about attributes. Size, strength and speed are physical examples, and fixed by genetics. Intelligence and toughness are harder to quantify. Just think of all the football studs who got drafted high and never made an impact in the pros, while many successful players came from behind through their focus and determination.

Clich├ęs evolve from the wisdom of accumulated observation. Some examples are: “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog;” Kung-fu means success through effort over time;" "99% of success is showing up."

Short spurts of growth only raise the level of the dam, but it takes filling in the reservoir of experience behind it to maximize that potential. Only then can the dam be built higher, increasing the capacity for further growth.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

"Old School" JKD Reunion

This is a message I'm forwarding from one of the "old guard" who was at this event.

- Jeff


An Historic Oakland "Old School" JKD Reunion and Training Seminar Held in Hayward, California, April 30, 2006

In what has to be considered one most historic gathering of Oakland Jeet Kune Do (JKD) "Old School" legends in the Bay Area in nearly forty years, the Tao of Gung-Fu Club headed by Felix Macias, Jr. and his organization, conducted a free clinic and hosted an open house to share the art with serious devotees that wish to keep the flames of knowledge that were taught by Bruce Lee and James Yimm Lee alive for future generations.

This, the first of many scheduled monthly training and discussion sessions, was hosted by Professor Joe Olivarez and Crystal Suan at their USA Karate and Boxing Gym in Hayward, California. Among many things, it was a reunion and gathering of old guard and new school Oakland Jeet Kune Do practitioners that is now being heralded as a renaissance of "old school" Jeet Kune Do that emerged from the Oakland Years (1962-1965) when Bruce Lee and James Yimm Lee

It is Sifu Felix Macias, Jr. and his close-knit cadre of devotees hopes to keep alive the training methods, techniques, philosophy and spirit of Bruce Lee and James Yimm Lee when they first began creating JKD over forty years ago. Naturally, this was a time before Bruce achieved super stardom in the martial arts action-adventure film genre and did not have time to teach as he did during that era.

Attending this open house---in some cases unexpectedly---, were Great Grandmaster Al Novak, George Tom (Oakland JKD), Felix Macias, Sr. (Oakland JKD), George Lee (Oakland JKD), Allen Joe (Oakland JKD), Greglon Yimm Lee, Jessie Glover (Seattle JKD), Doug Lee (JKD Seattle), Dr. Zee Lo (JKD Los Angeles) and a plethora of students, family, friends and fans who have kept the flame of JKD alive all of the years since Bruce and James untimely passing in 1973.

Dragon and Tiger co-authors Sid Campbell and Greglon Yimm Lee were on hand to personally inscribe their Dragon and Tiger Oakland Years books and share recollections that had been historically chronicled for twenty years and documented in their 5 volume set that are based on the creation of Jeet Kune Do when it began forming in Oakland during the mid and late 1960s.

Master Mark Gerry, President of the World Martial Arts Masters Association and Hall of Fame was on hand to lend his support and meet some of the original students that trained with both Bruce Lee and James Yimm Lee. Notably, both Bruce Lee and James Yimm Lee are in his prestigious Hall of Fame and he felt that this tribute was both an honor and privilege to attend and share in this special tribute and new birth of Oakland Jeet Kune Do.

Among the unexpected visitors at this historic kickoff monthly training was Sifu Jessie Glover. He is officially acknowledged as Bruce Lee's first student from the Seattle Years and the one that shared his expertise in Judo with the "Little Dragon".

Hanshi Sid Campbell, noted for his in depth historic research on the early creation of Jeet Kune Do in the Oakland Era, was asked to make the opening remarks and introduce the JKD "Old Guard" to the new generation of eager seminar participants that came to train and learn what the Oakland era version of Bruce Lee's art was really all about.

He took the opportunity and that time to formally introduce Bruce and Jimmie's original students Al Novak, George Lee, Allen Joe, Felix Macias, Sr. and George Tom to the anxious trainees. Campbell then formally introduced Seattle "Old Guard" Sifu Jessie Glover, as if he was a member of the Oakland Jeet Kune Do family. Sid Campbell then explained that Sifu Glover's skills and knowledge was simply another branch of Bruce Lee's martial arts tree and part of the same family genealogical wise.

Hanshi Sid Campbell emphatically expressed to the audience that all of the legends in attendance were among the original inheritors of Bruce and Jimmie's personal art and their recollections were very vivid for it being over four decades since they last trained under their mentors in those times long before Jeet Kune Do was a household word among martial arts aficionados.

After some interesting Oakland Years (1962-1965) anecdotes, accolades formal introductions of the first generation, Hanshi Campbell introduced the second-generation beginning with Sifu Felix Macias, Jr., Greglon Yimm Lee (James Yimm Lee's son) and JKD exponent and film star Dr. Zee Lo.

Sifu Felix Macias, Sr. then addressed the gathering and fondly recalled many of the memories and recollections of his early training with his teachers Bruce Lee, James Yimm Lee and Al Novak. Sifu Macias, Sr. obviously touched with emotions poignantly recounted from those early times - in an honorable and befitting tribute to these men and the impact they has had on his life during the past four decades - the caliber of talents these great men possessed. The students and spectators hung on his every word as he conveyed several accounts of where he had learned a lot about life from those early teachings. He then conveyed that he had tried to pass those on to his son Felix Macias, Jr. who he has passed on the JKD methods, techniques and philosophies that he had learned from his martial arts mentors.

After explaining just how important and vitally essential Al Novak had been to the early JKD creation in Oakland, he commenced to bestow praise on how incredibly Great Grandmaster Novak's Iron Palm and breaking techniques were during the time when everyone thought performing such feats were near impossible or quite perhaps stunt tricks to dupe the public. He added that Al Novak was the first Caucasian to be accepted into the tight clique of Chinese that studied gung-fu (kung-fu) during those early tears when the Chinese martial arts were closed to outsiders. Great Grandmaster al Novak sat nearby and quietly reflected on those times when the martial arts were barely getting a foothold in America.

Hanshi Campbell added that Al Novak was the only person that his Sifu Bruce Lee would not spar with in public, because of his enormous speed, power, barrel-like chest and rugged physique. Again, Great Grandmaster Novak sat passively but smiled knowingly that that was an era

Greglon Yimm Lee then moderated a question & answer session where each of the legendary Oakland and Seattle Jeet Kune Do pioneers fielded queries from the enthusiastic students. Sifu Jessie Glover talked about his early experiences and methods of training with Bruce Lee in the Seattle Years. He explained how he first met Bruce Lee and shared anecdotes about how he and the "Little Dragon" formed the bonds of friendship. The participants of the seminar got a chance to witness firsthand why Sifu Glover is highly sought after to teach and share the knowledge that Bruce Lee taught when he was bussing and waiting tables when he was a student at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Jessie Glover's quickness and artful control of his opponent was quite evident when volunteers stepped out on the mat and Sifu Glover demonstrated his finesse and highly times trapping and punching defense maneuvers. It was obvious to all that Glover had learned his lessons well and had not missed a beat in more than forty years of teaching and sharing what his gung fu mentor Bruce Lee had taught him back in the early '60s.
Sifu Glover also explained the situations and circumstances leading up to him traveling to San Francisco and Oakland and meeting James Yimm Lee for the first time. It was obvious it left a lasting impression on him by the way he recounted how James Yimm Lee had demonstrated some self-defense techniques on that very first introduction in the living room at Lee's home at 3039 Monticello Avenue in Oakland, California.

Then, Hanshi Sid Campbell introduced Allen Joe, of whom he remarked and remarked several times of just how close he resembled James Yimm Lee. Allen added that many, many people back in those early days thought James and he were brothers. The resemblance was uncanny and anyone knowing both James Yimm Lee and Allen Joe can see the similarities almost immediately.

Allen was James Yimm Lee's student, friend and confidant---and one most directly responsible for bringing Bruce lee and James Lee together in the first place. After taking to the floor, Allen Joe answered a lot of the questions relating to Bruce Lee's bodybuilding and training with free weights. Joe, well into his 80's and still in superb shape shared several anecdotes of how he and James were the inspiration behind Bruce wanting to do develop his physique like theirs. This would be one of Bruce Lee's trademarks when he reached the pinnacle of super stardom after the release of Enter the Dragon.

Sifu Allen Joe shared, albeit modestly and with a great deal of humbleness, how he had trained with the likes of some of the world's renowned bodybuilding champions during the 1930s and 1940"€™s. Both he and James Yimm Lee had earned reputations and held titles in bodybuilding when Asians were virtually non-existent during that era. What was impressive was that Allen Joe had been a part of the movement that brought bodybuilding into the limelight of the general public and opened the doors for Chinese to enter that sport and be respected for their discipline and training that previously had been dominated by Caucasians with seemingly larger and more robust physiques. Bruce Lee was very impressed by that and trained in the bodybuilding regiments that both Allen and James prescribed for him.

Bruce Lee spent an inordinate amount of time learning bodybuilding from both Allen and James when Bruce and Linda relocated to Oakland from Seattle during that time.

George Lee shared some of his stories about Bruce Lee, James Yimm Lee and himself that rarely get conveyed to the new JKD devotees. He, being the personal friend and confidant that built Bruce Lee's custom training equipment, the "Little Dragon" personally created and designed long after moving to Los Angeles and getting into the Green Hornet television series. Even when Bruce begun pursuing major motion picture roles George Lee continued building highly specialized pieces training equipment, punching pads and devices that he used to enhance his physique and extend the boundaries of his human potential while simultaneously taking his training to then unheard of heights.

He also had with him several copies of his book titled, Regards to a Friend that featuring 27 letters that Bruce sent to him the years when he, Linda and Brandon relocated to Los Angeles. The letters and photos contained within the book historically document Bruce Lee and George Lee's friendship and cover subjects from martial arts to philosophy to training equipment. To some there that had never met George before, this was a very special opportunity to ask questions about him and Bruce Lee's relationship and learn about what made this relationship so special. You could see it in George Lee's eyes with that spark - for a man nearing ninety years old, that the fondness for the memories that he and Bruce Lee shared were more than mere passing acquaintances. They were confidants, comrades and family when it came to sharing a love for the martial arts. And, since many had their copies of the Dragon and the Tiger, George was delighted to sign them since he was prominently featured in these works.

George Tom was then introduced and he discussed many of the training techniques and ways in which James and Bruce were simplifying their own person fighting style(s) and integrating techniques that came from different styles known to them collectively at the time. Tom further explained the importance that he thought his teachers (Sifu) Bruce and James were trying to achieve in being direct as possible when engaged in realistic combat on the street. He called for a volunteer from the audience and commenced to demonstrate some of the simplified principles that today hold a prominent place in the art of Jeet Kune Do. The attendees found the concepts to be consistent with the techniques Sifu Felix Macias, Jr. had been teaching before all of the legendary JKD pioneers arrived later that morning.

Afterward, George Tom's insightful demonstrations and recollections describing James Yimm Lee's ways of training and conditioning the hands with 2-inch diameter ball bearings in a large bucket, he relinquished the training area to Dr. Zee Lo. A second generation Jeet Kune Do practitioner and film star that has carried on Bruce Lee's traditions in both teaching and the cinematic industry.

Following, Doug Lee, one of Bruce Lee's students in Seattle that relocated to the Bay Are many years ago, shared in some of his experiences of training in the old days. He explained that the simplicity was what Bruce was always trying to achieve from experimenting around with fighting techniques. This seemed to be the theme that many of the special guests recounted from their experiences of training in "Old School" JKD.

Dr. Zee Lo then took to the mat and shared his experiences and training with his mentors who had trained directly with Bruce Lee in Los Angeles. Since he has followed in the footsteps of his Grandmaster Bruce Lee and wrote, produced and starred in of his own motion pictures, namely; Chasing the Dragon, Martial Medicine and Combat Mortal, Dr. Lo had much to share with the students in attendance at the free open house clinic and discussion workshop.

In addition to performing some very explosive and well-timed precision trapping, blocking and striking close-range fighting techniques with several volunteers from the mesmerized audience, Dr. Lo then demonstrated his version of Bruce Lee's famed 1-inch punch. To the amazement of the spectators, Zee Lo broke 2 1-inch boards with a flurry of motion and a shattering sound of wood snapping under enormous impact from a sharp single blow. This garnered resounding applause from everyone that in gym. What noticeable by many in attendance was their comments of just how much Dr. Zee Lo moved like his grandmaster Bruce Lee. His speed, timing and directness were uncanny in that regard.

After the demonstration, a Dragon and Tiger book signing was in order. Naturally co-authors Sid Campbell and Greglon Yimm Lee had their hands full signing personalized inscriptions of their first 3 volumes of "The Dragon and the Tiger" of the intended 5-volume series. Virtually everyone at the gathering secured themselves a copy of one or more of these historical biographies that chronicles the creation and development of Jeet Kune Do in Oakland. Since some of the pivotal legends that had made JKD popular back in the day were there in attendance, it was the perfect opportunity to have their books personally autographed by them as well. After all it was a historic time, a historic gathering and most certainly a historic event that will perhaps never be repeated like that again anytime soon. It was also an event that will be remembered for many years ago!

To learn more about the Oakland JKD Era visit
To learn more about training in Old School Oakland JKD contact:

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

A bit more on flamenco

It is said that modern Filipino martial arts are a blend of various influences from different cultures, including that of Spain. Much of the debate concerns itself with various Spanish schools of fencing, military history, and the effects of the Spanish occupation driving indigenous arts underground where they were sometimes disguised as dances that could be performed in the open without repercussion.

It isn’t always easy to see how historical threads interconnect. Certainly the Chinese influence in S.E. Asian martial arts is evident in styles like Kuntao or the use of certain style of weapons. Spanish influence, however, is more obscured. For one thing, Filipinos were forbidden to practice their martial arts, so it would be unlikely that the Spanish influence was learned directly. More likely the influence would be picked up by observation or through skirmishes.

Nowadays one could take fencing lessons. With some luck, you might have access to a program that included Spanish styles, and with even greater luck one that was interested more in historical combatives rather than modern sport.

One source I recommend to see Spanish fighting skills is “Sevillian Steel” by James Loriega. This is about modern styles of Spanish knife fighting. Some of the techniques in there do closely resemble those of the FMA. To what extent one culture affected the other I won’t speculate, but as has been said, many arts resemble each other, and anything too far from the norm probably got weeded out long ago because it didn’t work (leaving the experimenter dead).

Here’s another avenue to explore: flamenco dance!

Modern flamenco evolved over the past century or so from various sources in Spain. Like many traditional folk dances, the movements include movement from martial arts, particularly in footwork. Dance was one way to practice certain steps, incorporating them into other social rituals such as courtship, storytelling, etc.

Whether one looks at the courtly dances of high society or those of gypsies around a campfire, it is easy to imagine spirited young men showing their mettle and prowess to patrons, paramours and rivals.

Where I see the martial expression in flamenco dance is in the footwork and hand movement. In Serrada we have our papeet or “replacement step.” Sometimes, especially during high-speed performance of lock-and-block (numerado style attacks fed to a defender) or sumbrada style counter-for-counter sparring, there is no clear front or rear foot; instead there is side-by-side quick stepping, allowing the practitioner to quickly transition to either side. It becomes almost a machine gun staccato footwork.

Back around 1990 I was teaching at a dance studio in Albany, California. It was a great location and I had 15-20 students most classes. One night during a class a flamenco teacher and her troupe came in. She insisted we had to stop our class and leave because it was her time slot for a rehearsal (it turned out she was there on the wrong night and was trying to bully us to leave!) She instructed her guitarist to start playing; I suggested to him that he put his $2000 Ramirez away (about $5000 in today’s dollars, with inflation and appreciation of fine guitars) before someone lose a stick from a disarm which could damage such a fine instrument. This he did. The teacher, furious, walked out into the middle of a class of hard-working, sweaty students and started to dance. I went over next to her and began mimicking what she was doing. Much to my surprise, I was able to keep up with most of it!

Of course flamenco is much more intricate than that, and the versatility of its stepping can add to the repertoire of a martial artist. I believe it was Fred Astaire who said that a good dancer doesn’t restrict himself to any style, but that by learning new steps becomes more versatile. The powerful footwork of flamenco can surely find application in martial arts. Once again one can look to the confluence of dance and fighting in the gypsy arts to see this confluence.

The other aspect that seems to link with Filipino arts is the movement of the hands. Just as in various S.E. Asian arts, the movement is referred to as “flowery.” While flamenco dancers might not be familiar with the combative application of technique, I can look at their movement and see disarms and counters. Hands and feet are integrated through powerful and complex rhythms, and the art teaches a powerful projection of presence.

Passionate music, driving rhythms, hot dancers and beautiful costumes; what’s not to like? Find a class or performance in your area and drop in for a peek.

Tournament message from Master Darren Tibon

“We are building a team to compete May 20th at the San Diego Grand International Martial Arts Competition. So far Angels Disciples have joined forces with Bahalana, Stockton and Sacramento schools, Dexter Labanog, Carlito Bonjoc, the son of Gilbert Tenio and the son of Leo Giron to form a Northern Cal team."

"If you and your students are interested, training is being hosted at my academy at 4:00 p.m. every Sunday until the tournament. The first workout was today and it was excellent. I haven't seen this kind of comradery locally in the 15 years I've been teaching. It would be a pleasure to have you and your organization be included in another monumental occasion."

Your Friend,
Pangulong Guro Darren Tibon
Angels Disciples - Stockton

Music, Martial Arts and Performance

All my life I’ve been pulled in two different directions: music and sports. The power of the pull, however, is not that they are different, but that they are so similar. Both require serious commitments of time and effort to master the physical skills.

Musicians have been described as micro-muscle athletes because they have the same kinds of stresses and demands on their body as other athletes, particularly to be able to perform at their peak.

It takes similar focus and dedication to push oneself to increasing levels of competency and then excellence. In both music and sports, it is possible to achieve Zen-like states of consciousness where everything flows from the inner self, and these transcendent moments are where one can achieve greater potential.

Goju grandmaster “Cat” Yamaguchi was known to say that he wouldn’t teach someone who didn’t like music, because martial arts is dance and without appreciation of music one has no rhythm.

Whatever conflict I had was therefore about focusing my resources. It was hard to do both equally and so there has been a pendulum between the two paths. There was a time when music was my main passion, but then the energy shifted towards martial arts. For the past 15 years or so music had been largely neglected, hardly touching my guitar, but about two years ago I came across some old acquaintances who had gotten into flamenco. Drawn by the passionate spirit of this music, I began taking lessons from master guitarist Jason McGuire.

Less than a month ago Jason asked if I was interested in playing a piece in his annual student recital, which is the opening half of one of the regular performances at San Francisco’s ODC Theater by the award-winning troupe Caminos Flamencos, directed by Jason and his wife Yaelisa, a master dancer and choreographer.

At first I freaked out and said no. I’m still very much a beginner in this art. Much like I heard about kung-fu as a kid (and kung-fu refers to skill or accomplishment in anything, not just martial arts), Jason said it takes five years to get the basics, 20 to become really good. I’m at an age that there’s a challenge simply in getting old enough to reach that milestone.

Also, for economic reasons I hadn’t scheduled a lesson since December, nearly four months, plus I'd had my hands injured saving my old dog from asphyxiation back in early February. For these reasons my practice had dropped off of late. If I ever felt incompetent to walk on stage to play music (which I hadn’t done in 25 years) as a solo performer (something I’d never done), this was it.

A day later I called back and said “Yes.”

What I realized during that interval was that I was allowing fear to hold me back. It wasn’t a lack of basic skills that was stopping me, it was confidence in myself. Once I identified that, I accepted that the universe had given me a gift, offering a challenge that could possibly change my life.

The feeling I had was not unlike how I felt when I accepted the invitation to go to the Philippines for the first WEKAF world championship tournament back in 1989. I was nervous, but that was energy that could be used positively as motivation. I also told myself that I had nothing to lose. I didn’t have a name or reputation to defend; this was just about going out and pushing myself to do something new and different, to leave my comfort zone and grow.

This gave me the confidence to put my mind to doing the best I could, and I began cramming as much practice into my schedule as my body would allow. Though I’ve had calloused fingertips for decades, they achieved a level of leathery toughness they hadn’t had since the early 1980’s. I’ve had some arthritis symptoms hindering my progress back into guitar, but playing this much pushed through until my hands felt strong again. I supplemented my practices with chi gung exercises to open and stretch the hands. I mentally rehearsed my piece in my head when I wasn’t practicing, visualizing my performance from arriving at the theater to heading backstage after I was done. I used hypnotherapy tapes to aid in this process.

Then in the middle of all this, personal tragedy struck. I had to put my old dog to sleep. Those of you who have gone through this know the trauma. A pet like that is very much a family member. Like having a child, one is responsible all the time for the care and well-being of this junior member of the household. Losing her felt devastating.

It’s probably a blessing I had something to do, to consume my evenings, demanding my focus. I poured a lot of grief into my playing, and it helped. Even so, I realized I was struggling to stay present in the moment: I burned two fingers while making sticks; I narrowly averted an accident in the kitchen; I got a knuckle popped in a class; I sprained fingers practicing guitar.

My piece had been coming together pretty well before the dog was gone. Afterwards, errors kept creeping into place where I’d never had problems before. The piece (“Gitano de Lucia” by Vicente Amigo) was challenging, but at the level at which I’ve learned it, no single part is technically too difficult. No, this was not a problem of skill, it was one of will. When errors in performance change, it is a mental thing, not physical; it’s the same in martial arts or other sports.

It was like I was working backwards; I’d fix one section, then the part preceding it would fall apart. By the day of the performance I was struggling with the opening, a part that is simple and repetitive, which also means any problem is obvious; no way to hide it because it’s all timing. During late afternoon sound check I was so nervous I fumbled that part badly, but I’d been practicing going through the piece even if I made mistakes, and so I knew that once I got to a certain point I was ok, as long as I kept my attention fully on the music and nothing else.

Finally it was time to go onstage as the first performer of the night. As I was backstage, Jason asked what I was going to think about. Suddenly thinking of Jim Kelly in “Enter the Dragon”, I joked that I was going to think about how good-looking I was. Jason laughed and said he was going to remind me to breathe, to which I replied I’d had that advice, but thinking about breathing made me forget what I was playing. Then I went on stage.

There are things for which you can prepare, and those that are new and unexpected. The “fog of war” came to mind. I knew the audience was there, and had already blocked them from my mind. It helped that the seats were in darkness and the stage well lit, and that I had to pay attention to the instrument I was playing. On the other hand, I wasn’t prepared for the lights being so bright in my eyes, creating glare off the body of the guitar.

The piece started well, but then a few measures into it my right (picking) hand stumbled and the timing started to fall apart. Oh no! This was exactly what I had feared. I could feel the audience tense up as I struggled to regain the tempo. Then I got to the next section, which had also been giving me problems, and got through it ok. At that point I relaxed with the feeling that the rest of the piece was going to be fine.

That’s where all the practice kicked in. My fingers knew what to do automatically, freeing my mind to remind me of key points at critical times. There were some small mistakes in there, but nothing noticeable to anyone not knowing what I’d actually intended. By the middle of the piece I was playing stronger and with more confidence, and by the end I was nearly as good as I could be. I was able to walk off that stage feeling ok about how I’d done. Mission accomplished; I’d gone through a barrier.

Generally what people remember are the beginning and ending of a performance, whether music, kata, whatever. First impression is important, but the ending even more so, because it is the last thing that stays with them. In that sense, my first solo performance was successful. I got some compliments, and people recognized it had been a challenging piece to play. Jason joked he could tell when I remembered I was good looking. As I said earlier, though, the real difficulty wasn’t learning the piece, it was mastering myself.

This is why I talk here about the subtle mental aspects of martial arts, because performance is clearly linked to inner belief. Confidence = Competence. Maybe not all by itself, because one does need the fundamental skills, but even an average performance done with the right attitude can be inspiring.

Towards the end of the night one of the professional guitarists was invited onstage to dance solo. He’s by no means a dancer, has no fancy moves, but he went out and did a slow flamenco pantomime and the audience went crazy with appreciation.

Flamenco has “aire,” the air or attitude one projects. Once again I was reminded that it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.

"Learning is taking on...mastery is letting go." -anonymous