Hey everyone! Just a quick change of pace to refer you to a blog which I genuinely believe everyone would benefit from reading. (See how I avoided the S word there?) This very brilliant article is written by my martial arts teacher, life philosopher and one of the great men of the world, Dan Djurdjevic. It very aptly puts why sometimes it can be tremendously helpful to believe in success despite obstacles. I hope you all get a chance to read it.
Apologies for the sloppiness of my recent blogposts. In truth, I could just try self-editing, or wait until I’m feeling energetic and fully-present before writing, rather than staring bleary-eyed at the screen and trying to remember how to spell simple words. It seems that life has become busy once more, and it is my constant challenge to be fully present and enjoy it.
Anyway, I’ve been ruminating a little on the nature of authenticity versus showmanship. Let me describe two people.
Person A cloaks himself in majesty and mystery. He is unknowable, fascinating, and glamorous. But he is insubstantial. Like an magician performing the same act over and over, no matter how incredible the first time, when you spend enough time watching it to realise how it actually works, it loses its magic. The magician’s only hope in keeping himself surrounded by an audience is to constantly promise new magic and give tastes of treasures yet to come.
Person B wastes no time on cheap tricks and is not especially popular (in terms of being surrounded by admirers and audience). But she has a few close friends who know her and respect her for who she is. She tries earnestly every day to improve herself, not just her appearance, and is genuine in all things, with all people. And, while Person A plateaus, Person B continues to grow, becoming deeper, richer and more substantial.
Person A is the kind of person you become infatuated with.
Person B is the kind of person you fall in love with.
It is my inspiration to be a person of substance in life. To truly cultivate gong fu, achievements wrought through diligent effort.
A few days ago there was a crash on Tonkin Highway. I don’t know exactly what happened, but it seemed to be a pretty bad one because they needed to temporarily close the highway. Meanwhile all the traffic had come pretty well to a standstill as everyone slowly crawled forwards, taking the earliest exits but not really moving very efficiently. All up, it took me an hour to get to Bethwyn’s house (whereas normally it takes me about twenty-five minutes). And yet, I still consider it one of the most pleasant drives of my life. The sun was shining, the air was fresh, and I rolled down my windows and just crawled along at a leisurely pace, inch by inch. I was tempted to “make the most of my time” by listening to Hamish and Andy, but I resisted the temptation and just really focussed on being present and enjoying the wonderful, and I do mean wonder-full, sensations around me.
This morning after an amazing circus conditioning class (seriously, a few classes of circus conditioning has strengthened my body noticeably more than weeks of karate conditioning. The difference between the two is that the former is integrated, full-body and highly functional, whereas the latter is quite specific) I once again resisted the urge to reach for my headphones. Don’t get me wrong, I love listening to HamAnd, they make me laugh and feel good and are a wonderfully entertaining way to spend time. But I don’t want to listen to use them as a distraction from how I’m really feeling – I want to enjoy them when it’s time to enjoy them, and to be present when it’s time to be present. And I’m so glad I made that choice. The sun had only just risen, and shielded by a cloud of clouds, its golden light penetrated the barrier and filtered down to the earth. I felt so lucky that I would be witness to such a sunrise for most of the drive home. Out of nowhere (or, more probably, the nearby airport) a plane appeared and was silhouetted against the clouds, a great and majestic bird in flight. And just as I thought “This is one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen”, my car passed over the Swan River and the rising sun was reflected upon the rippling water. I nearly died of pleasure.
So many of the things I worry about never come to pass. Worrying about how to entertain kids on an imaginary camp, how to work with youth in an organisation I no longer work for, where to eat dinner with a friend, how to travel from Point A to Point C from Point B… I could worry about everything in the world, and almost none of it would help me in the slightest. I admire people who casually throw handfuls of gear into a suitcase and then go on an adventure, rather than writing lists and specially packing clothes in a specific order so they’re easy to take out again as needed. It’s just not worth it. But I’ve done it all my life – taken notes on things I’ll never need to remember, planned out outfits that I never needed to wear – that I can’t help but feel my life will fall apart if I stop doing it.
But until it does fall apart, I’ll never be able to rebuild it better, stronger, more stable than ever.
So here’s to letting go of knowing, and to embracing feeling instead. Have wonderful days everybody! Hope to see you all soon.
This was one of my favourite posts to write for TINO because I love the power of language. I still find myself using the word should every other day, but for the most part, after months of diligent effort, it’s been largely removed from my vocabulary.
The S Word
Language shapes the way we see the world. When we are infants, we have no way of articulating the overwhelming flood of stimuli we are experiencing. As we learn to speak, we start to categorise the world into easily-understandable groups. We understand “dog” refers to the small things with four legs, “tomorrow” is the day after today and so on.
In a way, this limits the way we can perceive our world. It is difficult to imagine an idea that cannot be explained in words, but they exist- we have billions of them every day. But when we try and communicate them, when we try and put words to thoughts, we narrow what we’re experiencing. For example, if I were to try and tell you what these spiced peanuts taste like, I could throw dozens of words at you and still not adequately convey the taste. I might come close, but it would be a poor shade of the experience.
French philosopher Michel Foucault believed that language is the foundation in which we interpret information. This is why learning multiple languages can enrich your understanding of the world. It may seem obvious, but there are some words which cannot be perfectly translated into English. For example, I might try and describe the Japanese concept of “zanshin” to you as “a state of being totally relaxed yet totally aware of your surroundings, prepared to receive and respond to whatever circumstances life may offer you”. You could read all about it on Wikipedia or through hundreds of pages in books, but no matter how many English words you use, no other phrase describes “zanshin” quite so well as “zanshin”. And this is just one of an infinite number of examples.
So what’s my point in all this? Language has tremendous influence on how we understand and perceive the world (including our life circumstances and ourselves). And it is my firm belief that using certain words colours our perception of life in an unhelpful way. If I could ban one word in all of the English language, I would ban the word “should”. Why do I consider this the worst word in the entire world? Because “should” is loaded with implications of guilt and envy, and limits the possibility of change. It almost always sets up the speaker to think in a negative frame of mind, even if they don’t realise it. Let’s look at some examples.
Example 1: Let’s take the phrase “I should be doing the dishes”. If you should be doing the dishes, it means that the dishes are more important than whatever you’re doing, and that because you’re not doing them, you’re wasting time or focussing your efforts on the wrong priorities. Such a statement is laden with potential guilt, and guilt can be paralysingly unhelpful. Imagine if you replaced “should” with the word “could”: “I could be doing the dishes”. Such a phrase is comparatively full of hope and possibility, rather than guilt and judgement. You don’t have to do the dishes if you don’t want to, but if you so choise, that would be one way that you could spend your time.
Example 2: Let’s examine the phrase “You should have called me”. If someone should have called you, it means that you believe that you were more important than whatever else that person could have been doing, and that it was a personal failure on their part not to find the time to contact you. Regardless of the reasons, “should” is loaded with judgement and limitations, and is almost entirely negative in its associations. What if instead we used the phrase “I wish that you had called me”? It does not inherently imply that the person you’re talking to did something wrong by not calling you. It is a polite and respectful expression of your desire to receive a call, rather than the blame-laden “you should have called me”. The former invites explanation and conversation, the latter, defensiveness.
Example 3: Let’s try “I should have won that competition”. “Should” here implies that you deserved to win, and something or someone (who did not deserve to win) took that victory from you. Such an implicit attitude refuses to accept the circumstances of life which are beyond the speaker. Perhaps the person didn’t win because of the heavy wind, or the uneven footing, or a lack of sleep, or some factor they had no control over. Using the word “should” implies that these forces of nature got in the way of the person’s deserved victory. It is almost as if a person is saying “My life isn’t good enough. It should be better. I deserve better things to happen to me, and I am frustrated that I am not receiving them.” This kind of thinking is disastrously self-pitying and leads nowhere. Changing the phrase instead to “I would have love to have won” has no such assumptions of life. Although it still might imply disappointment, it does not so readily imply bitterness, and contains the hope that things might turn out differently next time.
I’ve stopped using the word “should” in daily conversation. At first I was surprised how often it came up – I would use it several times a day without thinking. But after I really started paying attention to what I was saying, more and more often I found ways of getting around the dreaded “S” word. Try it for yourself, and let me know what changes you notice in your outlook on life!
I recently made the decision to stop regularly going to my iaido class. My reasons are complex, but simply put, I felt that what I wanted was taking me away from that class and exploring other wonderful avenues in my life’s journey. For two years now, I have worn the crest, the mitsudomo, of my sword school on a chain around my neck. But as I move away from mugai, I do not feel right continuing to wear the necklace that marks me as a student because I have chosen to walk a different path for now. Perhaps some day I will don it again, but not today. I just wanted to take another moment to talk about the other necklaces I have, most of which I haven’t worn in the past two years because there was already one lace around my neck.
In 2008, Bethwyn gave me my first birthday present (asiding The Mastersword, which she chipped in for and is one of my happiest memories). It was a scattering of wonderful things, but among them is a clear quartz pendant on a black rope. It’s been chipped and glued together from when it snapped in half, but to me it is a special necklace for celebrating the joy of my relationship. Strangely, as I went to put on the mitsudomo, it snagged on this necklace.
In 2005, my dear ex-lover Ivy gave me a pendant just before I left Singapore for the second time. (Strangely, and perhaps sadly, I wrote very little about those weeks on my blog, which was used for a very different purpose than it is today.) For months, perhaps more, I had been looking for a yinyang necklace, which I had felt expressed a core part of who I was. I strove for balance in my life, a perfect equilibrium of white and black, good and evil. Being fifteen, I didn’t really find it, but I did wear the necklace an awful lot as a reminder to myself to be a good Taoist (and to lock in my qi, or something ridiculous like that). As I study Taoism, particularly through Taiji and the Tao Te Ching, I recognise its concepts as profound and important to my life. Curiously, this second necklace was looped around the mitsudomo when I tried to put it on.
Somewhat unrelated, I have a necklace that is only half of a set. It is the yang, and Bethwyn possesses the yin. For one of our early Valentine’s, perhaps second or third, we both independently came up with the idea of having matching halves of a yinyang necklace. I think it was shortly after watching Mulan 2 (a terrible film, by the way) that we both secretly plotted to get a set for the other. And on that Valentine’s Day, we exchanged presents and were astounded to find we had gotten each other the same thing, from the exact same store on ebay. We wore one set to pieces over a number of years, and then kept the second as a kind of spare.
There are other necklaces I don’t really wear; the mala beads for meditation, the rosary beads for prayer, and the cross from Kairos, the life-changing spiritual retreat I went on in high school. But each of these charms holds a special place in my heart, and it is… strange, but wonderful, to be able to wear any of them or none of them. My neck felt empty, devoid and naked at first, but now it feels rich in possibility.
Man, I’m getting some major deja vu. I’m pretty sure I’ve written this blog several times before. How awesome!
Anyway, last Friday (5th May) I drove up to Toodyay for the Academy of Traditional Fighting Art’s miniature gashuku (or more correctly, intensive training camp). In truth, I feel that this gashuku was even easier than the previous ones. Yet, when I think back to my first gashuku, we did almost exactly the same sort of things. Looking back, it seems that I have grown somewhat over the past two years. I still felt the tiredness, the cold, the muscle aches, the hunger, the lack of time etc., but this time ’round I didn’t feel the need to draw attention to it. I accepted it as a natural, and very good, part of training.
For the most part I’m sad to say I was struggling with feeling sorry for myself. It was only during the second day that I started to really enjoy those long walks from the caravan park to Kancho’s house, pushing through the scrub and dodging spiders and falling into thorn bushes. I made a resolution on the Saturday to stop complaining, a habit which was far too easy to fall into, and I only partially kept to it. Generally though, I pushed myself pretty hard throughout the weekend, though I’m sure I could have pushed myself harder. I was strongly reminded though that while it sounds like a really romantic, adventurous idea to push yourself to the limits all day long, it’s probably a smarter idea to pace yourself so you don’t run out of energy by ten-o’clock. Just because I have energy doesn’t mean I need to burn it. This is a crucial lesson which I am only now starting to appreciate.
In terms of revelations, I had a number. Not quite as many as that first gashuku at Lake Navarino, but several worth noting. I realised the importance of learning gradually, being patient about becoming competent with individual concepts before trying to string them together or advance them. I learned about timing steps and hand techniques together, an issue which (as my email records remind me) stumped me a year ago. I learned how to use my hips much more effectively as part of staged activation in conjunction with my forward momentum, both by turning them away (gyaku kaiten) and turning them into (jun kaiten) an attack. I learned a lot about sanchin kata, both Miyagi and Higaonna variations, though I have much more to go. I honed my executions of the jo exercises, kumijo 3 and 4, as well as learned the new kumijo 6. I also learned the important lesson that teachers don’t teach you anything; rather, they help you to learn. Knowledge is most powerful when you internalise it and own it, rather than having it bestowed unto you.
Finally, we had a grading at Toodyay to conclude our gashuku. At first I felt like I could probably skip a grade, go from Brown 1 to maybe Brown 3. But then I realised that I didn’t even know all of the syllabus requirements for Brown 2, and I spent the afternoon cramming. My sanchin were shoddy, my embu unpracticed, my tuide unrefined and my kumijo unpracticed. But you know? To my great surprise, I really nailed the bunkai (applications of techniques). Kancho paid me the high compliment of saying “That was the best seiunchin bunkai we’ve seen in a long time.” I also got some compliments for my kata performance, flowing momentum, attitude and leadership throughout the weekend. Rob and Connor also performed outstandingly well at the grading, so well done to them!
And, in addition to all the training, we were also permitted to practice some knife-throwing, which filled me with terrible elation. Tania, Kancho’s wife, was amazing, and landed 8 out of the 12 knives thrown. I struggled much more, but am proud to say that on two different occasions, I got all three of my knives to stick in the board. It was exquisitely satisfying.
All in all, a really wonderful experience which I’m looking forward to repeating later this year if we have a longer one. I’m rather hoping it’ll be frosty cold so I’ll get the chance to use the gloves, hat and jackets I’ve since bought in anticipation of needing them, but sadly neglected due to unseasonably warm weather. Osu!
One of the blogs I was privileged enough to write for TINO.
I recently wrote a blog post on healthy eating but I realised I left out something important. I talked about what to eat, but I didn’t mention anything about how to eat. And that’s probably even more important in terms of having a healthy diet, as well as really enjoying the experience of food.
One of the big problems I have is that if there’s food in front of me, I’ll probably eat it. As my girlfriend can tell you, it doesn’t matter how full I am, I’ll find room for it somewhere. I hate for food to go to waste, so instead I let it go to my waist. (I’m sorry, I know that was terrible, but I just couldn’t resist.) As another friend of mine put it, “My mouth is bigger than my stomach”, meaning if it tastes delicious he’ll just keep eating.
The solution to this is a little self-restraint. In Buddhist philosophy, there is quite a lot of emphasis on moderation and “The Middle Way” (avoiding extremes). One expression of this is casually referred to as the 80% rule. Whenever you eat, eat only until you are 80% full- your stomach actually has to work a lot harder when it’s full to the brim with food. (This causes its own problems, like discomfort, heartburn and indigestion.) To help with this, try using a smaller plate instead of a medium or large one. Or if you only have one size plate available, fill it half or three quarters full. After you finish, wait a little while and see if you’re still hungry before you go for more. I tell you this not to say that dramatic weight loss is the most important reason to watch what you eat, but by positively changing how much you put on your plate and how often you go for seconds, you can make a big difference to the overall health of your body.
Another part of eating well is only eating when you’re hungry. If you’re eating because there’s a scheduled break, snacking because you like the taste of food, or indulging because you’re just plain bored, you might be putting more food into your body than it actually needs. Hunger is your body’s natural response to needing more energy, so eating when you’re not hungry is like sleeping when you’re not tired or sweating when you’re not hot. When you overeat, much of the food isn’t being used for nutrition or energy- it just gets turned into waste, and you know how I feel about wasting food! (I’m just full of bad puns today.) Wait until you build up an appetite before you eat, and try not to fill up on snacks before mealtimes.
Finally, and most importantly is something referred to as “mindfulness”. Mindfulness is essentially the practice of focusing the mind entirely on what you are experiencing in the present moment. So much of the richness of life is overlooked because we’re not fully present when we’re living. As an example, I’ve been to a few classical music concerts in my life, and invariably I find that I spend most of the evening thinking about something else rather than paying attention to how incredible the music is. Buddhists believe that this wandering, “monkey” mind is one of the main reasons people are unable to enjoy life. And it’s not just for Buddhists- there is plenty of research in contemporary psychology as well as ancient philosophy to extol the benefits of mindful living.
As many worthy people have said, food is one of life’s greatest pleasures. Imagine eating at a five-star restaurant and not paying attention to the food – what tragedy! To help cultivate a practice of focusing your mind on the experience of eating food, try this the next time you eat:
Take a single spoonful/forkful of food, put it in your mouth, then put the spoon/fork down while you chew. Really focus on the sensations and experiences you’re feeling; the scent and smell, the transitioning textures and the transforming tastes. Only when you’ve finished the first mouthful can you take up the cutlery for a second. Don’t be in a hurry to wolf it all down, really taste and enjoy what you’re tasting!
If you do all that, in conjunction with eating healthy, delicious meals, you’ll notice some incredible changes in your digestion. But perhaps more importantly, you’ll really enjoy eating, no matter what the dish! Mindful eating makes a bland meal taste flavoursome, and a flavoursome meal taste mind-blowing. Give it a try today!