The Art of Winning Blog

Monday, May 20, 2013

To-Shin Do Insights on Self Defense

I was lucky to spend the weekend training with An-Shu and other senior teachers on some of the invisibility associated with the ninja teachings. I was struck again by the depth of our teachings. Many people envision self defense as something you need in case a stranger ever attacks you. In my experience, self defense helps you keep your center so you can make strong and capable decisions. It is not about doing violence; it is about ensuring that brightness is protected. We learn so much more than how to move. We learn to change our brains and promote pathways to progress. I am a better at business because I train. I am a better Instructor because I train. I am a better woman because I train. Thank you to everyone who continues to make my training possible. 

Monday, May 13, 2013

The 8 Point Code and Ian's Path to Nidan

Nidan Essay – Ian Sanderson – 5/12/13

“See things as they are. Think the right thoughts. Say the right words. Do the right actions. Live the right way. Move with initiative and courage. See the value of each moment. Stay centered.”

The eight-part code that guides Nidan - second-degree black belt - training may seem much shorter and more simplified than the fourteen-point code of mindful action leading up to it, but it is precisely because of its general ambiguity that makes it so remarkably challenging to interpret. 

For me, the most challenging aspects of this eight-fold path have been seeing things as they are, doing the right actions, moving with initiative and courage, and staying centered. Of these, I feel that “seeing things as they are” is the most important, as I believe that it is the one on which the rest are predicated. The more we’re imposing a perceived reality that we think ought to be, as opposed to the way it actually is, the more likely it is that we will fail to then think the right thoughts, say the right words, do the right actions, and so on.

I’m reminded of a time when I was living in New Mexico: A group of us were out tracking in a beautiful place called Chaco Canyon, and came upon a baby rabbit sitting in the shade of a desert scrub-brush. The group gathered around and bent close to admire it. As we were quietly “ooing” and “aawwing,” a snake struck from under the same bush. In less than a fraction of a second, the baby rabbit was upside down in the coils of the snake, making terrible high-pitched noises. That snake had been there the whole time, within inches of the rabbit, and not a single person had noticed.  It scared the pants off us. The sudden and unexpected violence of it shattered the reality we had imposed of an idyllic, Disney-like scene of the natural world. We were given a strong lesson in the “art of seeing” in that moment.

I can certainly think of times in my life when all I wanted was to see the baby rabbit and not the snake, and these times often resulted in a similar fashion as the story. However, my training on the path to Nidan in To Shin Do has given me the tools that can allow me to see the snake as well. In the last few years, I’ve made progress noticing the degree to which my own perceptions get in my way. However, I feel that most of the time I’m still in this “noticing” stage. Usually, I cannot yet see my misperception forming—and therefore change it—before it happens (but at least I’m noticing!). Hindsight is often my primary sight. However, there certainly has been an increase in the number of experiences when I am able to go beyond the noticing stage and into what I’ll call the “proactive awareness” stage of perception-- that moment that we can notice ourselves forming an inaccurate perception of what’s happening, thereby providing ourselves an opportunity to alter or dismiss that perception.

Being an instructor at the Boulder Quest Center has been the single most significant factor in allowing me to progress on this step of the path. In my best instructor moments, I’m asking what students actually need rather than what I think they need or want them to have. I am less likely than I once was to impose my own story or assumptions on their experience. I can see them not only as a part of my path, but more importantly, me as a part of their path. Through this lens, I can see more clearly the way they think, who they are, why they do what they do. When I’m teaching at my best there is only a small sense of “me” in that. I’m the one observing, but in the best moments I’m seeing them and I intuitively know what they’re thinking or feeling that’s getting them stuck, what the best metaphor to use for them would be, or how best to language something so that they will understand. I can see them with eyes unclouded. 

I think that this ability can only come from experience—from doing it and noticing that it worked. In my best teaching moments, students often have an epiphany right away or within the week. The feedback is immediate and experiential. They tell me that what I helped them see fundamentally enhanced their understanding. I believe this can only occur if I have managed to see things as they are by really stepping outside of myself. From there I can think the right thoughts, say the right words, etc. - there’s none of my own preconceptions, assumptions, opinions, or judgments to get in the way.

In my personal life, then, this ability has helped me stave off unnecessary conflict or misunderstanding. When I am able to step outside of a preconceived notion or trigger- notice and suspend it- I’m more likely to see what’s actually going on for others as opposed to something that was going on for them that is now going on for me. I can see what is really happening. This has also translated into my facilitation work with groups of all kinds; I am better able to keep in mind that it is the group’s process--not mine. Suffering derives from expectations based on false perceptions. My assumptions can limit my reality to the single perception I’ve imposed, as opposed to remaining open to an infinite number of possibilities.

When I impose my perceptions of a past experience onto a present experience because of a perception of similarity, I am already operating from judgments and opinions, thereby limiting myself to that one stream of possibility that might have nothing to do with what’s going on. Relying too much on previous experience hinders our ability to perceive the specific context that defines the reality of the moment, thereby limiting what that relationship can be going forward. Without seeing this context, we might catalog it with previous experiences that seem similar enough, thereby only compounding the problem by adding another false memory of reality that we later impose an yet another situation—feeling even more strongly about it—even though most of it is potentially wrong. Suffering derives from trying to make reality fit our perception.

What I feel is needed next for me is to acknowledge that my previous experiences--and the judgments and opinions that were created with them--will cloud my ability to see things clearly in the present, even if I have gained greater understanding of those experiences. For example, being diagnosed 3 years ago with sleep disorders that I have struggled with for 20 years has not magically freed me from the perceptions I created about myself before that diagnosis. I know that to a certain degree these disorders are out of my control, but that hasn’t kept me from self-denigration or feelings of guilt, especially when I fail to accomplish things in a timely way. This acknowledgment phase needs to be first, but even the “simple” act of acknowledgement can be very tricky. I have things that affect my life in ways I don’t want. So I try to acknowledge that will happen and deal with it when it comes, doing my best to be in the proactive awareness stage as much as possible. 

Once I develop the habit of acknowledgement, the next step on my path will be a neutral acceptance of all the pieces of me that I’m working on changing but haven’t yet. This will allow me to be more proactive to head off misperceptions. If I can accept those pieces without judgment, then seeing things as they are doesn’t have to be hindsight. I will be better able to see a situation forming in which I would likely have the tendency to impose my own reality. Once I can notice the tendency beforehand, I’ll then be able to change how I’m seeing the situation. 

From neutral acceptance, I’d like to move into what I’ll call “confident acceptance”--that is, the ability to accept the fact that I will always have aspects of myself that I’m working to improve, but I have the utmost confidence that I will in fact improve them in time. It is difficult to see these limitless possibilities within myself because I am challenged to not ‘confuse myself with myself.’ How do I know if what I perceive as seeing things as they are isn’t just imposing further misperceptions from a different realm of consciousness?  As I progress along the path, however, I feel that I will gain skill in discerning this.

The advanced Earth aspects along the path to Nidan have given me the confidence to begin to acknowledge and then accept those pieces of my personality that I struggle to change. I very much look forward to learning and developing those advanced Water aspects of introspection, strong sense of self awareness, and knowledge in action in order to truly cultivate the ability to “See Things as They Are.”

To Shin.
To see Mr. Ian test for his 2nd Degree, join us June 7 during the Copper Dagger weekend.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Becoming a Black Belt: Marcus Elmore

Black Belt Essay
Marcus Elmore
April 29, 2013

Like many, many American men of my age and background, I was profoundly, indelibly affected at age 10 or so by the experience of watching the TV series Kung Fu.  I have no idea if I was aware of the martial arts before this, but it cemented deep within my consciousness two interrelated facts: it was possible be a technically adept fighter with all sorts of clever techniques which would allow one single-handedly to defeat a whole gang of bad guys; and that it was possible to do this at the same time one spoke softly, offered no threat to the world one encountered, and in the process helped oneself and others understand and deal with less tangible inner struggles.  I am not sure that women, or men much younger or older than myself, would be as transfixed by these discoveries as I and my peers were, but the impact was significant.  (I think it’s almost impossible to understand, in a post-Star Wars world, the power of the revelation that supreme ass-kicking did not have to be accompanied by a kind of taciturn, macho masculinity.)

I encountered ninja a while later, through the James Bond film You Only Live Twice and then in the pages of Oscar Ratti’s Secrets of the Samurai: A Survey of the Martial Arts of Feudal Japan (which I checked out of the Boulder Public Library so many times my father finally bought me my own copy).  Ninja may not have seemed to me at the time to share Shaolin monk Kwai-Chang Caine’s spiritual dimension, though they undoubted had much cooler gadgets.  But nevertheless, in some important ways, the stage was set for me by the time I was 12.  And yet – it took another three decades, and becoming a parent, and a whole bunch of moderately crappy experiences for me to take the first steps on the path.  I have devoted enough time to contemplating why this was so that I am able to say with great confidence that I’ll never understand in any significant way the process that led to that first step.  But I took it.  And now, going on five years later, I have the opportunity to reflect on what it means, even if I can’t say why I have traveled as far as I have. 

Pema Chödrön suggests that,

the next time you encounter fear, consider yourself lucky…. The trick is to keep exploring and not bail out, even when we find out that something is not what we thought. That’s what we’re going to discover again and again. Nothing is what we thought. I can say that with great confidence. Emptiness is not what we thought. Neither is mindfulness or fear. Compassion - not what we thought. Love. Buddha nature. Courage. These are code words for things we don’t know in our minds, but any of us could experience them. These are words that point to what life really is when we let things fall apart and let ourselves be nailed to the present moment.  

I had no idea how afraid I was until I started training in To-Shin Do.  I think I may have been vaguely aware that I lived with an enormous distaste for conflict, and was willing to go to about any length to avoid it.  It took hundreds of hours of mat time, and at least as much time musing on my reactions, for me to understand that almost everything I’d done in my life had been to avoid situations of conflict: personal, emotional, physical.  And so it was a shock to me to discover how right Pema Chödrön was: all of those hours on the mat, learning to deal with the biomechanics of physical conflict began to coalesce, and I discovered that conflict and antagonism were not what I thought.  Nor was courage.  And it is still humbling to contemplate that there did not seem to be any way for me, personally, to come to that realization except for all those hours of being in my body, in that particular place, working on my kamae.  And that it was never anything I could have done on my own.

Reflection has clarified that matter for me: the extent to which the value I find in my training comes from community.  Certainly, for me, as an essentially introverted person, it initially appeared as a sense of being accepted and included by others in a mutually pleasurable activity.  In this sense, I suppose it was probably no different than the experience of joining any group organized around a hobby or recreation, and what I got from it could have easily been found elsewhere.  Over time this experience shifted and became more nuanced.  Again, some of this would probably have been the same in any group: as I put in time, developed individual relationships with my teachers and fellow students, the feeling of belonging to something larger than my own pleasure or interest increased.  There are aspects of this dynamic, however, which I do not believe could be found elsewhere, or at least only in a minority of other contexts.  One is the degree to which what we do is founded of necessity on trust: trusting our teachers and their skill at conveying authentic teachings; trust in the teachings, and the techniques in which they are embodied; trust in our fellow students to provide us with opportunities to learn correctly and to keep us safe while we train; and finally, trust in our own ability to learn and improve.  I have not experienced this in any other community of which I’ve been a part, at least since childhood and probably not ever. 

Another aspect of community that has helped keep me on the path to my black belt is that my own learning has necessarily involved helping others to learn.  The mutuality of learning was not immediately apparent to me.  As someone with an academic background and more than a decade’s worth of experience teaching in a classroom, I found myself slipping into one of two positions: either the supplicant student, telegraphing to my teacher and fellow students my eagerness to learn, or (as I gained experience and confidence in my technique) the knowing mentor.  I have to admit that in my moments of awareness, both of these attitudes made me cringe.  It took a long, long time for me to come to understand that my willingness to learn didn’t make me better than others, though it helped me improve my techniques, and that I could help others without becoming a know-it-all in the process.  And I also learned (and this, in my estimation, is crucial) that others could help me learn, regardless of what colored belt they wore, and that helping others played a huge part in improving my own technique.  I also discovered that the more I made myself available to those I trained with, by encouraging them and revealing the areas in which I had the most work to do, the more I felt a part of a community. 

In Kung Fu, Caine’s wanderings through the 19th century American frontier bring him face to face with conflict again and again.  When conflict rises to violence, he uses his wu shu techniques as he was taught by his masters:  “Avoid rather than check; check rather than block; block rather than strike; strike rather than hurt; hurt rather than maim; maim rather than kill—for all life is precious, and none can be replaced.”  But what I sensed only dimly as a child is a deeper and more important consequence of that ability: he comes to conflict calmly, neither denying that it exists nor doing anything in his power to avoid it.  And that equanimity in the face of conflict was often enough (even given that the TV show format demanded x-number of exciting fight scenes per episode to keep viewers like me returning each week) to resolve the conflict.  I wish I had understood earlier in my life that the ability to fight was less important than the ability to calmly face and accept whatever arose.  But I am certain that I could not have understood that without my training: that the only way to get there was to travel this path.

Domo arigato, Aitoshi.

If you would like to see Marcus test for his Black Belt, join us on June 7 at 7:45pm. Everyone is invited to watch the test and there is no charge.

Marcus's test is part of a weekend Copper Dagger event. Are you registered?

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