Thursday, August 26, 2010

Riding the Crane, Preparing For Class

     A couple of days ago I was reflecting on how classes were conducted in my old Omaha school and I stopped and considered how classes typically began.  Everyone was called to line up (by the beating of two sticks) and then to sit in the formal position known as ho-tzo (in Japanese, seiza).  This position is actually on the knees with the feet resting under the buttocks.  The translation of "ho-tzo" means literally, "crane-riding" because the ancients thought that this was how one would sit if one ever climbed onto the back of a giant crane and soared into the heavens.  Never having insomuch as ever having seen a giant crane, I always suspected that this uncomfortable position was actually created by someone who hated human beings and worked lots of overtime to find the most painful positions for them to stand or sit.
     It has fallen into disuse in China; the chair was put into widespread use there a long time ago but the Japanese held onto this formal sitting posture for many generations - largely due to their disdain of things like chairs and other forms of furniture, which were raised high off the floor.  Nowadays, most Japanese no longer utilize this form of sitting - it takes a long time to get used to it - but it is still frequently seen in their martial arts schools.
     Many Japanese martial arts schools have students begin in this position, practice a basic breathing exercise, and perform a formal kneeling bow prior to training.  In the old Omaha school, students began in this position and calmed their spirits with a breathing technique before standing up and bowing from that position.  I remember back when I was a student and my teacher(s) said that we should meditate prior to training.  This always confused me.  One cannot really meditate after sitting for only a minute or so, which is about how long we sat.  Over the years I changed the function from "meditation" to calming one's spirit via breathing techniques, getting "centered", and preparing the mind and spirit for class/training.
     I was recently poring over some old martial arts writing and came across some material from a very famous (now deceased) teacher.  He said that beginning the class with seiza was important because it naturally develops and enhances a spirit of etiquette which, in turn, has a strong impact on how the student approaches training.  It is, he said, a civilized and formal form of sitting/holding oneself and a source of natural etiquette, which is imprinted on people's minds. 
     Because proper etiquette is central to correct training, he felt that this form of sitting before class is essential.  "An upright body is related to an upright mind," he said as he explained the importance of having the highest regard and respect for the individual student.   Each student must regard his/her peers (as well as the teacher AND him/her self) with the highest respect if he/she is going to really achieve anything in training.  Each student must maintain a high regard for what his/her teaches as well as his/her own individual training.  It was felt that beginning class in the formal seated position helped students (and teachers) approach the subject of what is about to be taught as well as preparing themselves for class.
     I have to agree.  Certainly, it's not always possible to begin class in this way (when training outdoors, for example), but it's probably best to begin class in this manner whenever possible. 
     I used to study things like how students pre-class attitudes affected their individual training as well as the atmosphere of the whole class, and how this could be altered for the better.  There were a handful of students who, due to injuries or handicaps, were unable to assume the formal sitting position at the beginning of class...but there were far more who were just plain uncomfortable in it (and often claimed, "I CAN'T sit like this!").  Being uncomfortable and being physically unable to sit in this way are two different things.  And although we giggle as we recall those days, there's a serious side to it -
     Remember the students who never tried to master this position?  Remember how they always complained about it and how they'd "fake" it by finding some way around it (they'd sit in a posture similar to, but not exactly like, the correct position).  None of them made it into the senior grades.  Why?  Well, there are many reasons but you can bet that one of them involved the unwillingness to endure anything which was uncomfortable.  Another things was usually that instead of doing a movement correctly (which can be uncomfortable at first), they'd "fake" it by doing something similar to it (which was more comfortable)...they didn't learn how to do things correctly because they were overly-concerned with their own personal comfort.  They didn't have the determination; the spirit to learn how to do martial arts correctly.
     The manner in which the students and teachers conduct themselves at the beginning of class directly impacts the spirit of the class, how the training is conducted and material is presented, and how effeciently the students absorb it.  It seems like a small, insignificant thing but it is really very important.  If the beginning of the class is very informal, students will not take training seriously (even if they think they do).  This brings up an interesting point - just when does class begin?
     Class begins when everyone lines up.  This should not be done too casually.  It's an important part of the training/learning process.  If the approach to training is formal and serious, so will the training be and the students will get a lot more out of it.  It's pretty much impossible to begin a class in a casual manner and then try to get serious at some point during the class.  It just doesn't work.  Additionally, students actually expect some measure of formality in a martial arts class; a class which maintains a fairly formal structure actually suffers fewer dropouts than those which apply a more "casual" approach.  At least that's been my observation after more than 40 years of teaching.
     I remember a small aikido class I attended back in college.  The instructor carried a small photo of the founder, Morihei Uyeshiba, into the class and set it up at the front of the room.  At the beginning of class, students and teacher exchanged formal kneeling bows and then bowed to the photo to pay respects to the founder.  Old-fashioned Chinese schools used to do something similar except that in lieu of a photo, they had the founder's name written on red paper at a small shrine.  Sometimes the names of the heads of the system (if the system was very old) were also included.  In China, a name on red paper or a person's name written in red ink indicates that that person is deceased - I once signed a traveller's check in China with a red-ink pen and they refused to take it because they thought that I would be putting a curse on myself....but that's another story.
     This kind of formal structure prior to class adds to the atmosphere, the spirit of the class and the overall approach to training.  It may seem rather foreign to us (as Americans) and even pointless, but there's a good reason for it.
     When I practice at home, I usually begin by sitting in this way and preparing my mind and spirit for training.  It may seem pointless since there's no one here to instruct me and I'm not leading a class, but it impacts my attitude
     Traditional Japanese iaido (the art of drawing and cutting with a live blade) is practiced mostly from this position.  When I train at home, I do it as it should be done unless I'm outside on wet, soggy ground.  In fact, in an iaido class, the beginning of class is very formal and every little thing has to be done just so - from how you enter the training area to how you sit, how and where you place the sword, how you insert the sheathed sword into your belt (obi) and so on.  Believe it or not, I always begin my own private training in this way - because it has an effect on the spirit of the whole session and the way in which I regard myself as well as my sword.
     I remember when I attended elementary and high school, there were strict dress codes, which were enforced by all of the teachers and staff.  Woe to anyone who violated the code and, being just a little rebellious, we loathed it.  But it had value.  Eventually, such codes were largely eschewed because parents complained about them and "student's rights."  So now we have kids attending school in clothes that look like they've been on the losing end of an Asian land war...and their attitudes match their clothing.  You rarely find kids who attend school in nice, conservative clothing getting low grades.
     As outside, so inside.
     We used to end class in the same way - by sitting and calming the spirit and preparing to go back out into the world, and evaluating what had been taught and learned.  Everyone had a chance to calm down and center him/her self before bowing and leaving.  It made a very real difference - not only in how students approached training and how well they absorbed the material and performed, but in numbers of students who regularly attended training.

Monday, August 16, 2010


     The western approach to the study of a given martial arts tends to be, well...a bit shallow.  In many cases, it's viewed as a pastime,  a hobby to which we give only a small part of our attention on one or two nights a week.  In this regard, it's not much different than bowling, scrap booking, or any one of a million other hobbies that people "do."  And when they've "done" it for the evening, that's the end of it until next week. 
     Even in the Orient, this kind of superficial approach is becoming more and more prevalent.  People attend a martial arts class at certain times and on certain days but other than that, they don't give training much of a second thought. 
     I suppose much of this kind of attitude comes from their expectations.  That is, people want different things (out of martial arts) such as self-defense, fitness, or whatever.  If what they want out of it is superficial, that's how they'll approach it.  Kind of like an aerobics class.
     Those who want more out of it, who want to really delve deeply into the subject must immerse themselves in it.  Completely.  For these people, training and study never ends.  It's a perpetual thing.  This is what martial arts were designed for...immersion.
     It doesn't necessarily require that you save up your rocks and pennies and hop the next flight to China, Japan, Korea, or Okinawa - although that actually would help - but it does mean that you need to acquire a real grasp not only of the techniques of the art (which anybody can do), but the culture from whence it came, its history, its underlying philosophy, the principles upon which it is based, and much, much more.
     A martial art is not only so many techniques and forms and putting on a baggy uniform twice a week.  It's a way of thinking.
     It's a way of living, a lifestyle.  It affects everything that you do.  It affects how you think, how you feel, what you are.  If it doesn't, you're a hobbyist.
    Not too many years after the martial arts stepped onto American shores we began to see Americans trying to develop their own 'American karate" and so forth.  And while America does have a lot of good ideas to offer the traditional martial arts, it also has a lot of poison and sometimes it's hard to tell the difference until it's too late.  I recently saw an ad for a karate school which advertised it as "fun and fitness for the entire family."  It mentioned something called "family game time" and a host of other enjoyable social activities but it didn't say much else.
     It was almost enough to make a grown martial arts teacher vomit.
     It reminded me of a large martial arts school back in Cedar Rapids, Iowa (where I ran a school more several years before moving to the Omaha area) that offered not only kicking and punching but a wine and cheese bar, too.  Peachy.
     If that's their approach to teaching, it's almost certainly their approach to training and a serious student would want nothing to do with such schools.
     Immersion has little to do with buying fancy uniforms, weapons, expensive kicking bags, and such.  Our martial arts forefather had few, if any, of these kinds of things.  They made do with what they had.  Although they almost certainly would have taken advantage of today's martial arts supply companies, owning all kinds of nice "martial arts things" isn't what made them what they were.
     It was the way they lived their respective arts.  Day in and day out.  They didn't "do" their karate or xingyiquan or whatever just on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  They lived them.  Constantly.  Every day.
     Over the years that I've taught I've had several pupils tell me that they really wanted to master a particular weapon - sword, staff, or whatever.  And I've always told them that if they really, truly wanted to master a weapon they must not only strive to master its techniques and form(s), they must practice the great secret of weapons training.  Here it is:
For at least two hours every day at home, carry that weapon with you at all times.
     Yep, that's it.  If you want to carry it around for more than two hours a day, that's fine...but two hours is a minimum.  And probably several hours a day on your days off.  You don't have to constantly practice the strikes and cuts.  Just tote it with you and never put it down during that time period.  Ever.  For any reason.
     After a few weeks, the weapon begins to become an actual part of you.  You're used to having it with you.  It doesn't feel foreign to you.  It doesn't feel like a weapon, per se.  It becomes as natural as your hand.  You see, that "feel of a foreign object" is what prevents most people from ever mastering a weapon.  They only hold it in their hands for a very short time each week.  They never really get used to it.  It'll always be foreign to them, no matter how hard they practice during training time.
     But if you just go about your daily life at home and carry it with you constantly, you get used to it and it literally becomes an extension of you.  You'll find yourself "playing" with it, turning it and doing all kinds of different things with it to amuse yourself.  And that's the secret.  Your spouse may think you've gone over the edge...! 
     This same secret applied to the empty-handed aspect of martial arts.  Don't just do it on training nights.  If you do that, it'll always feel "foreign" to you.  You have to carry it with you all the time.  Eventually you'll start unconsciously "playing" with it to amuse yourself.  That's when it begins to become a part of you.
    And immerse yourself in your chosen art.  You have to go beyond physical technique.  The physical technique is just the outer shell of the true art.  You have to look inside.  Training involves more than just physical practice; it involves study of every aspect of the art and then learning how to apply what you learn to your life.
     Like my teacher once said, "Kung-fu is more than just punching and kicking.  Anybody can do that."

Monday, August 9, 2010


     The term ping chang xin is comprised of three characters which, when put together, refer roughly to "peace of mind" or "spiritual stability."  Ping has numerous meanings, but the closest English equivalent is "level" or "even" as we would use it in saying that someone is "level-headed."
     Chang is more precise and means "always," "constant," or "continually."
     Xin is the character which means "heart" both figuratively and literally.  It refers not only to the actual organs which pumps blood, but to the emotions and character; the whole inner essence of the person.
     The famous sword-saint of feudal Japan, Miyamoto Musashi, was once engaged in meditation with his long-time friend and mentor, the priest Soho Takuan.  In the mountains, they had seated themselves near a small stream which was fed by a little waterfall.  As they meditated, Musashi's sharp sense of impending danger put him on full alert and he opened his eyes just enough to see that a poisonous viper was slithering out of the nearby grass and moving towards Takuan.
     Musashi feared that if he moved quickly, the snake might strike his friend and he noticed a faint smile on Takuan's face which indicated that he, too, was aware of the serpent's presence.  The snake crawled across the priest's lap as Musashi sat, mortified.  Oddly, the serpent paid no attention to Takuan and seemed to accept him as a natural part of it's surroundings.
     When the snake slithered to within several feet of Musashi, it recoiled and sensed the menace of Musashi's strong spirit.  The snake fled back into the tall grass and vanished.  Musashi was deeply troubled.  Takuan asked what was bothering his friend.
     "All my life I have trained myself to develop such skill that no one would ever dare to attack me, but now that I have achieved my goal, every living thing fears me!"
     Takuan acknowledged the incident.  "Yes, you defeated the snake without having to strike a blow and now both of you are alive.  Why does that trouble you?"
     "Because I have become so strong that no one can grow close to me," Musashi said.  "I can never find true peace.  You didn't fear the snake and it didn't fear you, either.  Your spirit is so calm and natural that the snake treated you no differently than the rocks and trees.  People accept you in that same way."
     Takuan smiled and was pleased that his friend had made such a valuable discovery.  Musashi spent the rest of his life trying to perfect his spirit like that of Takuan.  This mental state is what we call ping chang xin.
     Ping chang xin is actually the culmination of several character traits.  Each of its aspects can take years to develop, making it the product of a lifetime of training.  It requires the development of three key areas; intellect, emotions, and character/integrity.  And these qualities must all be developed in balance.  Whereas today's society looks for the "quick fix" to people's problems, ping chang xin is something that requires a lifestyle change; a life of discipline, effort, sacrifice, and commitment.  No wonder drug or three/five/twelve-step program can bring it about.
     The willingness to achieve this state of mind through the commitment to developing excellence of character is one of the things that sets us apart from most people in a confused and unhappy society. 
     This is no single, easy way to develop ping chang xin.  Each person's path will be different because of our different personalities, experiences, and circumstances.  It can be a very confusing part of the martial path.  It is the product of diligent training and yet, it must ultimately be natural and unforced.  So how can we practice something which is supposed to occur spontaneously?
     Ping chang xin is actually achieved as a by-product of training.  It is not an "art" in which you can train.  You train in the elements which lead to it's development.  And it can only be achieved if the intellect, emotions, and character are developed in balance.
     Why are martial arts the best way to develop this attribute?  When a person realizes the true nature of martial arts training and practices correctly, it leads to a fuller understanding of the nature of life itself.  Martial arts are, after all, concerned primarily with life and death.  This is probably most apparent in the practice of iaijutsu and other such disciplines because the ultimate outcome of a swordfight is that at least one of the combatants will certainly perish.  This is not necessarily the case with empty-handed arts because the loser might be neutralized but survive the battle.  In fighting with swords, this is not likely.
     Some people will argue that this kind of training is unrealistic in modern society but the truth is that most people fail to understand how tenuous life really is.  The warriors of ancient China and Japan understood this very well as did the settlers of the American West.  But nowadays, with many of our mortal enemies such as hunger, disease, and violent people all but vanquished, people seem to have become blind to the precariousness of earthly existance.
     The life-or-death awareness developed through our training helps us to clearly see that death is, quite literally, only one heartbeat away and that death will ultimately claim all of us.  No one is immune to it.
    Once we understand how fragile life is, we have to make an important choice.  We can live in seclusion and paranoia, in constant fear of disease, accidents, or violence, or we can determine to live our lives fully.  And yet, this brings about some difficult choices.  We must come to grips with what brings true and lasting fulfillment to our lives.
     If you were given only one week to live what would you do?  Would you head out to throw yourself into a wild, uninhibited party of sensual pleasure?  Many people would.  Would you sell off your belongings and spend your last week donating everything to every worthy cause you could find?  Very admirable.  Would you work hard to tie up all the loose ends to ensure that your estate will be secure and your family will be provided for after your demise?  That would demonstrate a high degree of responsibility.  Would you spend your last days in the company of family and friends?  That would probably give you the greatest comfort.
     Or would you do nothing different than you had done the previous week or the week before that?  If so, that would indicate that you have achieved ping chang xin!
     To live your life in accordance with the principles of ping chang xin, you must not allow your environment to control you.  For instance, if your happiness is based mainly upon your financial condition, then you will be comfortable only when things are going well.  If something should happen to upset that delicate condition; if you should lose your job or whatever, you will be unhappy and scramble ot find a way to pay your bills.  You will find yourself heavily stressed and you might end up taking on a job that isn't right for you.  This is an example of your circumstances controlling your environment and your emotions controlling you.
     But if your contentment is derived from knowing the type of person that you are inside, you will understand that life has its ups and down.  The sun rises on the good and evil alike and rain falls upon each of us in our turn.  Everyone is subject to times of hardship and it is pointless to allow these things to dictate your emotional state.
     You also must understand that you are a part of your environment.  What you are and what you do affects other people.  Even your emotions affect other people.  If you are discouraged, you will drop a little cloud of gloom over everyone with whom you come in contact.  If you are joyous, you will gladden their hearts whenever they see you.
     You may wonder how we are to remain unaffected by our environment if we are a part of it?  Certainly, our environment is bound to affect us to some degree.  The economy, our health, and the actions of our family or friends all affect us.  Ping chang xin does not mean that we insulate ourselves from our surroundings, deny that problems exist, or numb our feelings.  It is not a means of escape from the reality of life.  But it allows us to prevent ourselves from being controlled by our emotions so that our actions are not governed by fleeting impulses.  Instead, they are produced by a balanced, focused mind.
     Once ping chang xin is rooted within you, it is always there.  It isn't something you turn off and on like a light switch.  It becomes your natural condition.  It helps lift us above the roller-coaster of emotional control so that we are no longer puppets to circumstance.  It allows us to live with greater purpose and meaning and hopefully, inspire others.

Monday, August 2, 2010

I CAN! (Not "I Can't...")

     Yeah, I know...this all sounds like so much new-age claptrap.  But it isn't.  I know because I've used these principles in the past and they work.
     Your "mind" is really comprised of two parts; a conscious, thinking mind (which you are aware of), and a subconscious (so-named because you're not necessarily aware or conscious of it).  The conscious mind is constantly analyzing data.  Thinking.  And that's what it's supposed to do.  The subconscious part of the mind catalogues informaiton and never forgets anything.  For instance, it remembers how many steps it took you to walk up the steps to school on Oct. 15th of 1988.  It never forgets anything and is capable of storing an untold amount of information.
     It also does everything it's told to do by the conscious mind.  Without questioning anything.  If you look at something and say, "I can't do that," it will do whatever it must to ensure that you cannot do it.  The saying about being careful what you wish for is very appropriate here.
     On the other hand, if you insist that you CAN do something, the subconscious will do whatever it takes to make sure that you are capable of doing it.  And that's the trick.  Re-read that statement - IT WILL DO WHATEVER IT MUST TO ENSURE THAT YOU ARE CAPABLE OF DOING IT.  That means that you will be CAPABLE of doing whatever...not that you WILL do it.
"The world is full of failures.  Do not seek to add to their number."
Line from "The Octogan"
     Yeah, I can see the guy in the back raising his hand and saying, "Oh yeah?  What if I want to fly?  Can I jump off the roof of my house?"  Go ahead.  You'll probably break something important, too.  The subconscious is very much aware of what you can and cannot do as a human and as the person you are.  So that eliminates flying by flapping your arms, standing in front of a cruising cement mixer in the hopes of stopping it, and doing other such "superman" type things.
     But you are capable of doing lots of things that you've probably never considered.  You COULD become a brain surgeon...but you'd have to go to school first.  You COULD be an NFL star running back, but you'd probably have to work on it for awhile first.
     Also, the subconscious doesn't work too much with commands (like your brain), but rather with images.  If you visualize yourself doing something, it will accept that information and work to bring it into reality.  But first you have to have the IDEA; the IMAGE of doing something.
"The indispensable first step to getting things is this...
 Decide what it is you want."
Ben Stein
     First you have to decide what it is that you want.  Oddly enough, lots of us have never really considered that.  You want something, but you've never really considered EXACTLY what it is that you want.  You have to take time to sit down and think about it.  Once that's been decided, you can start to work.
     Remember that even once you've decided what it is that you want, you're going to have to work for it.  If oyu're not willing to do that, your desire is nothing more than a wish.  It'll never become a reality.  You want to become a black belt? OK, but it's going to require some work.  It isn't going to just "happen" miraculously.
"If you keep believing what you've been believing,
 you'll keep achieving what you've been achieving."
Author Unknown
     Once you've decided what you want, you have to get very specific.  You want to lose weight?  And you're willing to do whatever it takes including giving up those candy bars?  Fine.  The subconscious mind accepts that information.  And you might even lose an ounce or two.  Not enough, you say?  Well, then you've got to be SPECIFIC.  You didn't tell the subconscious HOW MUCH weight you wanted to lose.  And by when (the time has to be realistic, remember).  You REALLY want to lose 20 lbs. by Jan. 15th of next year?  Okay.  It'll start to work on it.
"I never hit a shot, not even in practice,
 without having a very sharp,"in focus"
picture of it in my head."
Jack Nicklaus
     You have to be careful about using negative statements.  Saying things like, "Everyhting I eat goes straight to my butt" will ensure that that's precisely where it goes.  Remember, the subconscious doesn't care whether something is necessarily good for you or not.  It simply believes what you tell it and does what it's told to do.
    The visualizations and wording you use wiht the subconscious are very important.  They have to be SPECIFIC.  If you say, "I want to lose weight," that's not specific enough.  So you say, "I want to lose 20 lbs by Jan. 15th of next year."  Fine.  What's wrong with that statement?  You said YOU WANT to lose weight.  The subconscious acknowledge what you WANT, which isn't what you GET or ARE.  It simply acknowledges the fact that you have made a wish.  Like Jiminy Cricket wishing on a star.  Big deal.  You have to word things the right way.  It's like working with a super-computer.  You have to know the right commands to get it to work for you.  So you say, "I WILL lose 20 lbs. by Jan. 15th of next year."  That's better.  You've just givcn a command and the subconscious goes to work.
"Take the first step in faith.
 You don't have to see the whole staircase.
 Just take the first step."
Martin Luther King, Jr.
     The subconcsious works best with images.  So you take some time each day, sit back, and visualize yourself weighing 20 lbs less than you do now, and DOING the things you'd be doing at that weight.  You have to BELIEVE that you're really losing weight and do what it takes to achieve it.  You can BELIEVE it all you want but if you eat a steady diet of Snickers and chocolate malts, it isn't likely to happen.  You COULD tell yourself that you really don't like the taste of excessively fatty foods.  And that will work.  In a short time, you honestly con't like the taste of Snickers.  And tell yourself that you really LIKE foods which are low in fat and that you actually prefer them to fatty foods.  And that's what will happen.  Soon, you'll be losing weight.  And with exercise, it'll happen faster.  And the weight will stay off.
"Nothing happens unless first a dream."
Carl Sandburg
     Think about it.  There are millions of people who achieved their dreams this way.  You probably know some.  Ask them if you like.  I remember a student of mine who owned a couple of fast-food chicken restaurants.  Times were tough.  But he and his family had a dream and wouldn't let go.  Now their company owns over 70 fast-food restaurants. Pretty good for a youngster who started off with no more than a dream.
     And there are SO MANY others. Wilma Rudolph (the fastest female runner in the world) who was crippled as a child, Martin Luther King, Jr. who was an unknown black preacher, the riverboat bum named Sam Clemens (aka. Mark Twain), the deaf, dumb, and blind girl whose family decided was hopeless (Helen Keller)...millions of them!  And martial arts are full of such people as I mentioned in the first lecture...the internal boxing master who started off trying to commit suicide because he was so horribly poor and he even failed at that (Sun Lutang), the enlisted sailor who decided he wanted to make martial arts his living (Robert Trias), the dirt-poor Texas kid who joined the Air Force to escape poverty (Chuck Norris), and many, many others.  Each one had a dream and decided to make it a reality.  They set to work and wouldn't give up.  Hard times and setbacks are inevitable; the subconscious isn't a magic wand.  But with it's help, you can achieve anything.
"We cannot rise higher than our thought of ourselves."
Orison Swett Marden
     And that's what much of martial arts training is about.  Helping you learn to live and overcome obstacles.  Helping you know yourself better.  Achieving your dreams.
"Age is something that doesn't matter
 unless you are a cheese."
Billie Burke