The Art of Winning Blog

Monday, November 26, 2012

Letting Go Control In Order to Create Life (A Black Belt essay)

A 15-year public high school English and History teacher, high school administrator, and teacher trainer, Rachel Balkcom has spent her career seeking sources of effective education and facilitating youth work around systems change. She has served as the Director of both youth activist and teacher training programs through schools and non-profits and currently serves as Education Director at the Denver office of City Year, a national organization dedicated to reducing the dropout rate in the nation’s most challenged public schools. Rachel has been training at BQC since 2008 and also enjoys gardening and writing fiction. She and her life-partner, BQC Instructor Ian Sanderson, live with five chickens and a dog on a tiny urban homestead in Northwest Denver.

Letting Go Control In Order to Create Life
A Black Belt Essay by Rachel Balkcom

By age 35, even if we’ve had some discord and tragedy and betrayal—evidence that change is constant—some of us think we’re essentially who we’re going to be, that we’re fully cooked. We think we know what we’re good at and what we’re not, what we’ll do in the world and what we’ll leave to others—people who were born with different aptitudes. 

To Shin Do allowed me to see that this set of assumptions was inaccurate, that the potential existed for me to make calculated, deliberate choices about who I was and what I was capable of. Earlier in my teaching career, I used to confront my students, who asserted that nothing in society would ever change. “On the contrary,” I would assert, “you may be assured only of constant change in our systems and in your life. The opportunity exists in your ability to manage, coax, shape that change.” At the time, I was thinking of justice in the outer world. I laugh as I realize now, that I was the one who had to heed those words—and apply them to my inner world.

In each of the last three elements of my training, I have confronted a shift that was, to that moment, the most significant internal transition of my life. Each shift has been an iteration of the same dynamic moving within, and each time, I resisted change until it exploded, leaving me better for it, more whole, re-formed—after I changed my positioning in relation to practically every other thing in my life. The recurring themes have involved control: the faulty assumptions that the mental can make order of and therefore subdue the physical, emotional, spiritual; and that if I ease my stringent efforts to control my own safety, I will undoubtedly be harmed.

I have begun learning to let go control, to trust—in myself, in others, in a force that integrates the self with the world. I have realized that in the letting go of control, paradoxically, I have more power to create my life. Letting go creates freedom, and freedom creates power. By trusting, we can more fully create the things we want, including goodness for ourselves and even others in our lives. 

In the fire element, I first fully realized that I had operated with the understanding that I could control life by intellectualizing it, and that if I let that go, I believed, I put myself in significant harm. It was impossible for me to succeed in fire unless I turned my brain off and practiced using other realms as the impetus to action. In my personal life, trust emerged as a primary challenge. Letting go of control and connecting with those around me was the answer to both challenges. I fully accepted my love for Ian and allowed myself to admit (trusting in both of us) that I want to be with him until the end of life.

In wind, I became frustrated that I couldn’t move freely, be free, and I reverted to patterns of trying to understand in order to solve the problem, to flex intellectual muscle to keep myself safe. I had to stop thinking and move, fitting in like a current in a river, trusting that the way would reveal itself. In my personal life, I accepted a position that, I hoped, would bring me closer to the job I really wanted. I meditated in order to remind myself that the right position would develop, that—although I couldn’t see or control it—the answer was imminent. 

In void, I struggled even more overtly with my ability to trust myself in order to let go control. Again, I was challenged to let go, be free, thereby paradoxically engaging in self-protection. In this iteration, it was clear that self-trust had everything to do with my sense of self-worth, and I struggled with feeling like I was good enough. I looked at other practitioners who engaged in the art as though it were second nature and thought, I’m not that. I can’t do that. I can’t discern or move that way. Inspired lessons by both Keitoshi and Aitoshi demonstrated that I could choose to trust myself, giving me opportunity to prove (to myself) my own self-worth. In my new position at work, I more authentically adopted agency over my own influence, standing confident that I am the right person, with the right experience, for the job.

In each of these phases, free response was challenging. I struggled with trusting my own body to know what to do in the moment (rather than trying to think it through in the half-a-second I had to discern). I struggled with trusting my connection with another person to help me ride the wave or fit in. I was challenged to trust myself and my capability, to leave off the self-judgment and know the right answer would be revealed.

It is the path I describe that allows me to see that I deserve to wear a black belt, to train with Ian and Jane and Kim. That I have learned, some of the time, to let go control and to trust myself to freely create myself is the most significant shift of internal being of my life, and my aptitude is shown in the way I live, which goes far beyond whether I can always flawlessly respond on the mat.
Since I started in the art, I have solidified relationship with my life-partner, bought a house, and arrived in the kind of job I’ve wanted for years, which allows us more financial security than we have had. My parents moved to town, I healed relationship with my sister, and my entire family spends time together once a week. I have found success in creative pursuits of which I didn’t think I was capable. I see connection between To Shin Do and all these life effects. To Shin Do allowed me to decide what to do when faced with change, shaping it to create myself anew—seeing it not as something done to me but recognizing that my response shapes who I am and my life. As I achieved internal freedom, I was able to create life with increased power and intention. 

On the last testing night, I had prolonged moments of letting go, of not-judging and not-controlling, of freely responding in appropriate ways. A student’s mother approached and commented on my fluidity, my grace in training and thanked me for engaging in this art as a female. The next day, a friend and peer told me I am someone she would like to emulate within the art. Apparently An-Shu once said that when challenged by self-worth, we might pay attention to what others say about us. While I am confident in the value of the internal shifts I have created through the art, perhaps I have to admit that the internal shifts are now often evident on the mat as well.

To Shin Do has re-created my entire life, my sense of my own potential; it has removed perceived limitations and freed me. Even as I recognize that development isn’t always pleasant, I welcome the continued challenge and growth possible within the art. I look forward to my ever-growing sense of self-worth and ability to actively create my life.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Panic is a Choice by JoAnna Pappas

After taking Aitoshi’s Ninja Secrets class on ground fighting last Monday night, I had a profound epiphany: panic is a choice.  It might not seem like a choice right away (i.e., if you’re startled by a spider crawling on your desk or, say, snuck up upon by an invisible ninja, then the element of surprise likely seems out of your control). However, once that initial adrenalized state of surprise passes—which is basically when your brain realizes cognitively what’s going on—then your maintenance of that panic energy is actually a choice. This may seem like a pretty controversial statement considering any standard definition of the word. Panic is described as an overwhelming sense of fear, anxiety, frantic agitation, fight-or-flight reaction, etc.  Seems pretty uncontrollable, right? Like you wouldn’t have a choice because this is your body’s natural reaction, right?


When you breathe, you have control. When you assess what’s happening and remember you have options, you have control. Most importantly, when you remember panic can’t control you, you have a choice.

For instance, in the ground fighting class, Aitoshi taught us all about four-quadrant breathing. For those of you who weren’t fortunate enough to be there, this basically means you can breathe from your chest, your belly, the sides/back of your ribcage, even your shoulder blades. What this essentially equates to in a fight is that no matter where the attacker is trying to hold you down—whether a side mount where they’re crushing your ribs, or if they’re putting their full weight on your belly trying to pin your hands down, or whether they’re attempting to pin down your chest—there is ALWAYS a way to find oxygen. You just have to find the spot in your body where the attacker is not putting pressure. You can breathe into that spot. And when you breathe, you take control. When you take control, you are no longer being controlled by someone else. And when you choose to put your energy into a place of options, you choose to conquer panic.

Monday, November 12, 2012

A Fable of Fear By Ian Sanderson

Inspired by “The Gift of Fear”, by Gavin De Becker

And so it was that one day a hunter was tracking a deer through the forest when he spotted an entirely different set of tracks flowing from another trail to fall in behind the deer’s. While the shape of the new tracks was familiar – circular, four toes, no claws showing- its size was not. He knew there was a big cat that had been ranging through this area for years, but these tracks were easily half again the size of the ones he’d seen, which were already the biggest he’d ever come across. These tracks indicated an animal of a size unimagined in spite of his extensive experience and travels. An image of the children from his community he had just seen playing in this forest flared in his mind, and he became afraid. These woods were the children’s playground, school, and sanctuary rolled into one, and while he trusted the children’s level of knowledge and awareness of the potential dangers of their surroundings, these tracks introduced an unknown and potentially extremely dangerous risk. They knew the patterns and habits of the old cat well enough to know where not to be and when. If someone else had come across these new tracks sooner, everyone would have been made aware by now. The fact that this hadn’t happened meant he was the first to see them. Moreover, they were very fresh- the newcomer couldn’t be more than a few minutes ahead of him, and he knew from experience that if you’re tracking a big cat that’s not far ahead of you, you better be sure to keep checking behind you. What made him more afraid than the freshness of the tracks was the fact that not a single other denizen of the forest noted the cat’s passing.  When anything moves through the forest - particularly a predator- it throws off concentric rings of its presence; voles scurry for their burrows, which is noticed by the flock of finches who then burst from the ground to perch in the nearest trees, which in turn is noticed by squirrel who then sets its tail to furious twitching and voice to screeching, and so on. Yet he noted not a single disturbance, aside from his own gentle ripples, for the last hour. Full of fear for the children, he began following the massive tracks.

He hadn’t been following the trail for long when the cat’s footprints suddenly veered off in a new direction. This was surprising, because he had assumed the cat was stalking the deer. To suddenly break off after only a few hundred paces made no sense, unless…It knows I’m on his trail. Now more afraid than ever, he brought up his awareness to the apex of his abilities, and continued to follow the new trail. After a few minutes, the tracks abruptly ended up ahead, as if the cat had been padding along one moment, and ceased to exist the next. Afraid and confused, he settled into a full stalk, moving slower than a glacier, and approached the last set of tracks. Crouching down on his haunches to get a better look, he noticed the tell-tale signs of an animal who had gathered, then released, a tremendous amount of energy. This isn’t possible. No animal is capable of such a leap. It has simply vanished! Suddenly feeling panicked, he began wildly swinging his head around, frantically looking for sign of the cat. Then, the part of his being that was still grounded and connected to his surroundings, began to notice the air around him begin to change- a change which could only be described as a very subtle thickening. Slowly, so slowly, he raised his head and looked up- high up- into the massive branches of a grandfather chestnut. There, stretched out languidly along one of the branches, was a panther whose size defied belief. Sunlight streaming through the branches dappled his body in a patchwork of shadows, making his jet black coat even blacker in those places. The hunter froze, drawn into the panther’s eyes, which were golden, gleaming, and ancient.

“Good. For a few moments I was worried that you would let your awareness be subjugated by a fugitive imagination.” 

The voice was heard by the hunter as an internal thought at the same time as an external sound. It shocked and scared him, and he began frantically swiveling his head this way and that again, searching for the source.

“Hmm. Maybe I spoke too soon.”

The hunter snapped his gaze back to the panther.

“Wait…you? How…?”

“Does it matter?” inquired the panther. “Surely you consider yourself big enough to hold these kinds of truths?”

“Given what’s apparently happening right now, I would say I no longer have a choice but to be big enough.”

“Ah, but your use of the word ‘apparently’ would imply that doubt still lingers. Do you doubt your own experience?”

“Well, no, but...”

“But perhaps there’s a part of you that’s uncomfortable with the implications should you accept your experience wholly?” 

The question caught the hunter off-guard. He thought about it for a moment. “I suppose that, sometimes, accepting our experiences wholly would mean embracing some truths that we feel we’re not quite prepared to accept. The implications of those truths create fear.”

“Fear? Interesting.” said the panther. “Why not, say, curiosity? Do you not strive to understand the nature of all things?”

“Well yes, I do, but it’s hard to be curious about things we instinctively fear.”

“Is that so? Question: What was your first thought as you came upon my tracks?”

“I thought that they were the biggest I’d ever seen- they were beyond belief.” 

“Beyond belief,” restated the panther. “What, then, made you believe?”

“Tracks never lie.” 

“Indeed. What was your next thought?”

“I became afraid for the children who play in these woods today.”

“And what did you do about that?”

“I began tracking you to…“ The hunter abruptly stopped answering. He was not sure why he did so – only that something didn’t seem quite right with his train of thought. 

“And so we pull back a layer,” interjected the panther. “I believe you are wondering to yourself, ‘If I was really afraid for the children, why didn’t I immediately find them and get them to safety?’ This is, of course, an excellent question – but one I would caution against feeling ashamed about, for I see that feeling creeping into your eyes.”

“How can I not feel ashamed? Even though I feared for the children, I chose to try and find you, just to satisfy my own…” Curiosity. Damn.
“Another layer. Yes. Curiosity. This revelation, then, begs the question: Was it really fear you felt for the children?”

“I don’t understand. How could it not be fear?” 

“Come now - such crude and oppositional response is for the complacent. You are beyond that,” admonished the panther.  

“Fair enough. I’m sorry, but I’m feeling…frustrated.”

“Understandable, given that it seems you just ran into one of those truths that you feel you’re not quite ready to accept. However, I would argue that you are more than ready, and simply need a nudge to help you along. So, let me ask it this way: Are there any other words you can use to describe the feeling you had when you thought about the safety of the children, other than ‘fear’?”

“Alright. I felt…panic. Anxiety. Worry.”

“And these words – they are synonymous with ‘fear’ for you?”

“Not just me, I think, but to everyone.”

 “Interesting. Let me ask you this: When you thought about the children, did you know they were in danger, or did you think they might be in danger?”

“Well, I suppose the latter.”

“And have you ever had an experience where you have simply known that danger was imminent?” 


“And what was the difference between that and when you “feared” for the safety of the children?”

The hunter was about to reply that there was no difference. In both cases he had acted immediately. But again, something didn’t feel right about where his thinking was heading, like he was skip-tracking – losing the signs and so jumping ahead to where he assumed they would pick up again. The panther noticed the pause in his thoughts. “We’re crossing a threshold now – take your time.” 

The hunter thought about the idea of taking action, and realized that most actions are often predicated by conscious decisions…but not always.

“I think I’m beginning to get a glimpse of what you’re trying to help me see,” he said.  

“Go on.”

“The times that I have known that danger was imminent; it felt, well… intuitive. Although I felt great fear knowing danger was around the corner, once it came, the fear vanished and I acted almost by compulsion – almost like I didn’t have a choice…” His words trailed off as the thought wound down.
“You’re a tracker, and perhaps you’ve picked up the right trail…keep going.”  

“Well today, as I was worried for the safety of the children, there was no sense of intuition involved – no sense of knowing that danger was certain or even likely. Because of that, I felt no compulsion to find the children immediately. I made a conscious choice to follow your tracks instead.”

“A choice to satisfy your curiosity about the nature of my tracks. You needed more information.” 

“Yes, that feels right.”

“So again: Was it really fear you felt for the children?” 

“Now I’m not certain it was – but I can’t quite articulate why. I felt something unpleasant while thinking about them.”

“Certainly you did – and you’ve already named it: Panic. Anxiety. Worry. You most definitely felt all of these…but none of them are fear. Why not?”

This time the hunter didn’t speak for a long moment while he attempted to bring the pieces together. After a few moments, his eyes widened.

“Choice!” he suddenly exclaimed. “The difference lies in choice.”

“Say more.”

“Well, I mentioned that those times when I knew the danger was certain, it felt like I had no choice but to take action – I was moving before I knew it.”

“And today?” interjected the panther.

“There was no…compulsion. No feeling like I didn’t have a choice. I did think about finding the children in the moment, but then I chose to follow your trail instead.”

“So how would you articulate the differences?”

“It would seem that fear compels us through our intuition to action, or even inaction, as the situation warrants. It cuts through conscious thought before…whoa.”

If a panther can smile, it did so now. “Before what?” it asked.

“I was going to say, before panic, anxiety, and worry can get in the way.”

The panther smiled again. “Just so. Fear – real fear – is only paralyzing when your intuition knows that stillness is the best strategy. More often than not – as you said – it compels us to act without conscious thought. Fear does not paralyze – it energizes. Reacting to a true fear signal is involuntary. Worrying is a choice.”

The hunter stared off into the middle distance while he processed all this. He thought about all the times when he had likely caused himself great suffering because he had mistaken anxiety and worry for fear. The panther seemed to read his thoughts. “It should be remembered that feelings of anxiety and worry are necessary, even valuable – but only when they are recognized for what they are, are we able to ask how they serve or do not serve us in that moment. Authentic fear is pure, and its signals are picked up by the intuition. Worry is the fear we manufacture.”

“So in other words,” replied the hunter, “suffering and misery are largely optional.”

The panther simply smiled. After a moment, it rose and stretched. “The shadows are getting long. It’s time for me to hunt.”

“I don’t know what to say,” said the hunter, “‘thank you’ doesn’t seem adequate.”

“It’s perfectly adequate – and you’re quite welcome. Besides, I haven’t told you anything you didn’t already know. Should you require my mirror again, you know how to find me.” And with that, he turned away and made an enormous, silent leap onto the branch of another tree, and melted into the shadows.
“Happy hunting!” the hunter called after him.

And in his mind he heard a response: “To you as well, my friend – to you as well.”   

Monday, November 5, 2012

Fears and Frustrations by Jane Bright

Fears and Frustrations by Jane Bright

Everyone on the path runs into times of confusion. I had a period where every time I came to class I felt frustrated and like I wasn’t getting better. I felt stuck and I was afraid I was doing everything wrong. Within a single kata we can feel things go off track. We can go back and check ourselves and see where we went wrong. Did I take their balance? Did I keep my own balance? Did I keep my kamae: knees bent, back straight, hands up, eyes on target? Did I try to just use my muscles? Did I try to hard to make things happen? If we can answer these questions we can go back and see where we went wrong. If we don’t ask we have given up the chance to change it in the future. If we are left without an answer we find ourselves discouraged and frustrated. We may even be scared to try again because we don’t want to keep being wrong.
We can also ask these questions of ourselves in situations outside the dojo. We can keep track of our life kamae. Did I have control of the situation? Did I stay in control of myself? Was I well prepared and ready for change? Was I trying to force my way through? Was I trying to make something happen when it didn’t want to happen?  Just as we can examine and fix our martial technique, we can examine our lives in the same way. We don’t have to be afraid of frustration if we are willing to look for an answer. When we do find an answer, we are more powerful for it, both in and out of the dojo.
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