Monday, February 25, 2008

Deepening Belief

My mother's funeral was last Sunday. She had a full life, traveling around the world, meeting interesting people, and she was alert right up to the end of her 96-1/2 years. When she finally went, it was about as quickly and peacefully as possible, with a close friend at her side. I consider that a blessing, and just the flow of life.

So I'm ok, keeping busy with family affairs. I wouldn't find much time to train these days, except I tend to see everything as a chance to be aware. Whether sparring, driving a car or inhaling the smell of food before eating and taking time to savor each bite, I try to remember to check in to the moment. How am I doing emotionally? Are there physical manifestations I can adjust? I take a breath and let it go, and let my senses go out to the environment …

Last night I took my teenager out to dinner. Grandma's death has been a profound experience, and so this was a teachable moment. I got to talking about quantum physics, whether something is a particle or a wave (it's both) and the concept of the field. I was describing how at the quantum level, the presence of the observer in and of itself affects the experiment (the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle), which means that thought are things (like the old sacred dudes taught, I said) and so with focus and intent, we can affect our surroundings. No accident I was steered to martial arts by some pretty attuned people.

I'm explaining how the ability to be centered creates a calmer environment around oneself to which people intuitively respond favorably. I used to be more high-strung, so the shifts in reactions at this stage of life are really cool. Anyway, we've just got our drinks (coke for her, Negro Modelo for me) and I'm saying fish don't notice the medium they swim in - and neither do we, which I can see has caught her attention. I stare into my beer and inhale its fragrance; I rhapsodize how perfect it is in that moment and she tries to hide a smile …

Suddenly a baby starts crying nearby. My kid is annoyed, and I just toss off a comment about no, don't just let things affect you, you affect it; send a cool vibe like your thought is a thing and it impacts the field accordingly. Then I stopped talking and just settled myself with a deep breath, and in a moment or two the room was quiet and peaceful! I love synchronicity, the idea that the universe supports one’s premise.

Would the room have settled so quickly if I had not been in that space? I choose to trust the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle to validate the possibility. The lesson for me these days is how belief makes energy work. Belief is not thought, though thought can be a part of it. Belief is simply certainty, as real to the body as to the mind.

It seems basic, but even on the physical level we’re directing energy to do anything. You think you can, you can. You think you can't; you get that too. We make choices. Martial arts taught me focus and concentration. Meditation is awareness. It's something I try to apply to everything, in every moment. That is a gift I take from my mother’s death, a deepening realization that each moment is precious, and taking the time to acknowledge more of life. The more I practice remembering to do this, the easier it seems to become.

Here is an interesting blog on psychic phenomena and martial arts.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Doing Simple Things

I’ve always placed a lot of emphasis on doing simple things in my martial art practice. It comes from my Kenpo teacher, Al Thomas, who taught that complicated techniques were nothing more than longer combinations of simple things. Master those elements, and the whole comes together better.

As beginners all we can see is the gross form of something, and we need to create a structure within which to work. As we develop and acquire breadth, though, there are fewer and fewer new structures to build. Rather we develop depth through developing control of smaller details, polishing what we have.

Consequently, my job as taskmaster is to insist students go back and figure out what I showed them to prove they understood the concept. Sometimes I’ll scold them by saying “You’re paying me for my knowledge, so why aren’t you paying attention?!”

It gets frustrating at times, as a teacher, to see that other people don’t grasp this. Sometimes I show a very specific move I want practiced, then I’ll turn my back for even just a few seconds, and when I look back guys are already experimenting with variations or even completely different moves.

Recently I thought of this analogy, that a technique is like a car’s engine. There can be a lot of moving parts, but if only one of them screws up, the whole thing might fail. Things like precision and accuracy in timing and motion get honed by conscious repetition, paying attention to consistent efficiency. The payoff can mean success under stress.

A personal example of that comes from my old Kenpo days. I was a brown belt, sparring against a green belt named Eric to help him prepare for a tournament. Eric was about 6’1” tall, 220 lbs, a deep chested physically fit lineman for a utility company who won trophies as a black belt in point and semi-contact competition. I was his tune-up, but facing him I felt like more like tuna.

On our first face-off, I beat him with a quick and unexpected jab. He looked like he expected to box and I caught him by surprise, a lucky shot. The next point was more of a setup, faking him and then catching him with a backfist on the reverse.

Now Eric was angry. As we squared off I could see the flames in his eyes and thought “this is it; what will I do?” I swear I remember thinking of the old story of the monk who offended a samurai.

Not wanting to dishonor his sword by simply killing the man outright, the samurai told the monk he had three days to prepare for a duel. The poor monk, distraught, sought out a local fencing master who took one look at the monk’s lack of skill and said “Just hold your sword over your head like so, close your eyes, and when you feel “coolness”, strike!”

All the monk did for those three days was practice standing and meditating on feeling coolness. When the time came for the duel, the two faced off and the monk did as he had been instructed, expecting to die at any second. A few moments ticked off, then a few more, and finally he opened his eyes to see the samurai bow to him and say “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you were a master!” and then stride away. By concentrating so fully, the monk (or a tea master in some versions) attained a state of grace which was impenetrable, and the samurai recognized the power of such commitment to a single moment.

Well, Eric was not about to stride away, but my commitment to the next moment was absolute. As soon as our teacher shouted “Hajime!” and Eric started forward, I through the straightest, strongest, most single-minded right punch of my life, powered by a kiai that shouted I had nothing to lose.

The punch caught Eric square in the center of his chest. His legs kept churning towards me; his upper body stopped cold, and an instant later he was flat on his back, both of us in disbelief.

Our teacher called “Point!” and every hand in the room except one pointed to me. The last student crossed hands and said “I couldn’t see it because of my angle.” The teacher burst out laughing, saying “When someone goes down like that, it’s a POINT!” Everyone started laughing, the tension was broken, and Eric, as I recall, went on to do well in that weekend’s tournament.

The point is this – back then in our training we threw thousands and thousands of punches. Every day we’d do hundreds, in horse stances, side stances, hitting the heavy bag, hitting each other. Classes would last up to a couple of hours, and we’d punch and kick until we felt our limbs would fall off and there was no choice but to be efficient, because we were too tired to put anything extra into our movement. Thus when the moment came, the body was primed to act; the mind said go, and so it was done.

Beyond that moment, though, are the many attributes one gains to get there, and these are the things that we can apply to daily life, as most of us aren’t required to punch our way out of many situations. We learn to persevere, to endure the effort to reach our goals. We develop stamina to work harder, and efficiency to succeed with less expenditure of energy. These are not just characterizations of physical movement, but qualities of the mind that foster determination and courage. We learn to stay calm through patience and to act decisively when necessary. We become observers of the human condition, both our own and of others, and so develop appropriateness of action.

Like that punch, our qualities of wisdom await the right moment to act. To the unprepared, the unknown can be overwhelming, while those who have developed their inner resources will always have that strength to sustain them. Lately I’ve been dealing with my mother’s death, the passing of the matriarch of our family. Such occurrences often upset equilibriums, changing the balance of relationships between family members. No matter how one might prepare, the reality remains a challenge, and I’ve found my ability to remain centered has been a great attribute not only to myself but others around me as well. People react to stress by feeling stressed themselves; it can be contagious. Conversely, having a place to feel secure can allow problems to simply be what they are, without necessarily becoming overwhelming.

No one becomes a black belt or escrimador overnight, and looking at the whole process taking years can be daunting. However, when we approach things one step at a time, just taking on what needs to be done next, things are more manageable. Remember to breath and relax; tension isn’t going to help. As the old saying goes, “Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water ….”

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Family Matters

Apologies for this blog being slow lately. After a couple of months illness, my mother passed away last night. There are writings I've started recently that I hope to complete in a week or two. In the interim, I hope you check out some of the blogs linked here.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Something To Chew On

I recently came across a link to what someone described as "the dark side of the art", which is Kino Mutai. This is a Filipino art of biting for grappling situations. I won't go into description of it, since the link goes to a well-written description of the technique. It's certainly food for thought!

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

On The Power Of Suggestion

I've been a bit overwhelmed lately dealing with family affairs. I've still been writing but haven't been able to finish pieces due to pressures of phone calls, letters and logs. When one of my students offered to write about a class experience, this is what he produced.

* * * * * * * * *

A funny thing happened while sparring with Guro Jeff recently. After some warm up, we were in the midst of flow and were chatting. I am used to Guro Jeff speeding up and slowing down, playing with the timing to look for an opening. This is nothing new, but this time, he slowed down his speech at the same time that he slowed down his attack. The effect was to hypnotically make me slow down as well. It was then that my opponent went in for his attack and disabled me. The funny thing was that it was almost as if I saw what he was doing but I was trapped under his “spell”. I think fondly back to Star Wars and the concept of the “Jedi Mind Trick” in which Obi Wan used the power of suggestion to convince a pair of Storm Troopers guarding an entrance, to let him and Luke pass It seemed that Jeff had mind-tricked me in the same simple way (his exact words as he was slowing down his speech ended with “slow … down” which is exactly what I did).

Oh well, lesson learned-or was it? When we resumed, Jeff began talking again. This time I was determined not to fall for the same trick. As if sensing this, he changed his tactic, this time asking me a question, offering me the choice between two responses. In the split second that I weighed the answers, he went in for the “kill” again and achieved a successful attack.

I remember working over a year ago with Jeff. At that time we were practicing gun disarms. I stood behind Jeff, the trainer gun pointed at his head. He started talking, asking me some question and then too, used my distraction to take his opportunity to disarm me.

As Guro Jeff explained, this is why the police use simple commands, like “freeze” and “drop your weapon” rather than talk more lengthily to the perpetrator. In my opinion, people are trained to respond to authority, and simple commands spoken with authority, create more of a sense of authority. Perhaps also, the idea is to keep things simple enough not distract yourself.

All this makes sense, of course, but if the power of suggestion can be made to others, at what time can we make suggestions to ourselves to improve our fighting skills? The following time I met to practice with Guro Jeff, we got into a lengthy conversation about the power of thought. Being essentially lazy in my practice, I often use visualization in my techniques at times when I’m not physically practicing them. Thus, I imagine my instructor, or Grandmaster Cabales doing a technique and then I imagine myself copying that technique. Apparently there is some evidence that visualization alone can improve a player’s game.

Taking this a step further, Jeff recommended that I open myself to my own suggestion at bedtime, in order to see what appears out of my subconscious, in my dreams. I took this idea home with me, and that night before going to sleep, I let myself think about my escrima practice, allowing myself to wonder what I might dream about it. That night I had a dream where I was fending off a basic attack, but before I could complete my defensive technique, my opponent switched to a different attack. In the dream, I made a completely unconventional move, rushing my opponent, and taking his center. This was not a technique I had ever tried or even thought of before. The next time I worked out with a partner, I tried this technique, and while it didn’t work as ideally as I had hoped, it was novel, and opened the door to further exploration.

We often think about physical practice, setting goals to reach a new level in training. Of course practice is essential; we train to make the body automatically respond so that we don’t waste time thinking during a conflict, We want to be able to just react instead. I am beginning to see, however, the power of suggestion on my opponent, whether it is with words, my stance, or just my attitude. What I “project” may have an influence on my opponent’s confidence, just as walking through a dark alley hunched over is more of an invitation to be attacked than standing tall, and alert. I am just beginning to realize that I can also rely on all the information that is stored somewhere in my brain, if I allow myself the opportunity to synthesize it. I plan to try techniques like the “dream suggestions” more regularly.

The ultimate in laziness? Practicing in your sleep! If nothing else, I’ll have some entertaining dreams.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The “American Express” Flute – Don’t leave home without it!

He calls it his “American Express” Flute – he won’t leave home without it!

Testimonial From London:
In the UK, they would rather you die then properly arm yourself for defense, but I was carrying the HITS when I got stopped by the police on London Bridge Train Station. I told them it was a flute in the making. The next time they saw me, I had the flute! Now they think I have a guy here in London making flutes out of cheap plastic tubes! They really have no clue... :)

For the record:
I was approached by 5 guys, 1 on my left, 4 staggered to the right. I managed to get off a punyo strike to the closest attacker on my right, which led me to a straight thrust to the attacker on my left, both of which were head shots. Afterwhich I spun to my right again to face the rest and that's when I saw one lunging with his right hand leading in a thrusting motion with a knife. I managed a redondo that was slightly faster and better timed than he was, thank God, and it caught him right where I wanted it, in the hand itself.

Although the flute does feel light, it gives great speed and ability to force someone to drop a weapon...with a cracking sound that wasn't the flute ;-) I have seen the footage of a HITS being used in a DB match and I own 2 of those. I know from first hand experience the flute WILL hold up to thrusts, punyos and redondos against bone!

Being a Rapid Arnis player and instructor, I am always on the lookout for non-lethal devices for self-defence. I do believe I have found what I am looking for in the HITS sticks and the HITS Shakuhachi Flute! I would put my endorsement to anyone of these and I would recommend anyone to purchase one! And learning to play one might not be too bad either ;-)

Mr. Finder, I thank you greatly for your creation. I literally owe my life to you.


Damien Alexander
Rapid Arnis London