Friday, March 30, 2012

Practice Till It's Perfect?

Piano Keys
Often when beginning students practice an aikido technique they are frustrated at their inability to do the techniques correctly. (Actually, although they may be working on a different level of refinement, advanced students often feel the same way!) I have had students ask me whether we couldn't just focus on a few techniques until they get them "right," and then progress on to the next set, etc. I have never taught that way, mostly because my instructor doesn't teach that way, and Sensei doesn't teach that way. After a number of years, I realized that I did have a grasp of a great number of techniques, although I never remember devoting particular attention to any one.

It was my piano teacher, David Leonhardt, who articulated why this worked in a lesson this morning. I asked, "Are you sure I should be moving on to the next exercise? I'm still pretty sloppy on this one in a lot of ways."

He said, "Your goal in playing music isn't to play perfectly. Your goal is to evoke a response in the listener. And along the way, the process of learning is rewarding as well. Playing perfectly doesn't mean you're more likely to evoke a response. You need to have a repertoire of tunes and of techniques, or tools, that you can use, and the best way to do that is to build and practice in more rounded way. Just like if you went to the gym to become stronger, you wouldn't just do bicep curls on one arm. Or if you did yoga, you wouldn't just stand on your head all the time."

How often, since I gained experience in aikido, have I learned a technique for the first time, and realized that it really isn't that difficult, not only because I already know the basics of posture, calmness, one point, etc., but because so many aspects of the movement are familiar from other techniques? It's funny how I knew this in terms of aikido, but I needed a teacher to point it out in my music.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Perspective

Great Blue Heron

Some Kokikai dojo display photos of previous Kokikai Winter and Summer Camps. Each shows 200 or so people lined up in some configuration around Sensei. When we see them, each of us does the same thing: "Here's me!" Those 30 or 40 pixels that form the shape of my head are so important to me!

Meanwhile, Sensei's focus is on arranging all those forms to make a beautiful image: straight lines, clean edges, hands folded. Sometimes, to put my ego in the back seat for a while, I imagine myself as a blotch of paint in Sensei's pointillist canvas.

Then Gil Fronsdal says "Each of you has within you a tremendous beauty. and if you only knew how beautiful you are, you would fall on your knees and bow to yourself."

Am I important? Or are I insignificant? Am I one pixel on the great canvas? Or am I worthy of worship? I puzzle on this as I drive to work.

Then I see a heron winging across the highway, its wings flapping in lazy beats, and I am transported to the Now.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Is the Truth Important?

This American Life show retracted
Last weekend the radio show This American Life issued a retraction of a program they broadcast in January. "Mr. Daisy and the Apple Factory" was an excerpt of a one-man show. Mike Daisy, a self-described "worshipper in the cult of Mac" went to find out first-hand about the working conditions of Chinese factory workers. I was not the only one who found the story powerful. Daisy is a great storyteller. The show was the most downloaded in This American Life's history.

Then it was discovered that many of the elements of Mike Daisy's story are "a mix of things that he just heard about or researched." As in: they didn't happen to him. As in: saying that they did is not the truth.

In his interview with This American Life host, Ira Glass, Daisy defends his work, although he admits it's inappropriate for a journalistic radio program: "I stand by it as a theatrical work. I stand by how it makes people see and care about the situation that’s happening there." In other words, even though it isn't true, it makes people care. And therefore it's ok. In taking this attitude, Daisy has plenty of company: the news is full of politiciansauthors and talk show hosts who've fabricated "facts" to evoke a strong reaction. More disturbing is that these public figures don't seem pay a price; apparently lying to make a point is no big deal.

Is the truth important? Of course it's important. The truth is radically important. It's insanely important. After all, if you can't distinguish truth from reality, isn't that a definition of insanity?

We can all distinguish truth on some level, and know that truth is better than untruth. Consider:

Your girlfriend tells you she really loves you. It evokes powerful feelings. How would you feel if you knew it was a lie?
Your best friend says she is late because she got a phone call from the doctor and she has cancer. You forgive her, of course! Would you feel that way if you knew it wasn't true?
Your son tells you he got an A on his test. You release him from being grounded. Of course it matters if it isn't true!

Why do so many of us want to accept, then, that sometimes a lie is ok? Perhaps they feel, as I do, that seeking the truth can be confusing, nuanced, and sometimes even futile. Religion, global warming, drug claims, health care, gun control, economic recovery - all of these and many more are vital issues that affect our daily lives. With such a dizzying flood of facts to puzzle out, isn't it more comforting to bask in the glow of a strong feeling, negative or positive?

As for why people lie, I think there are two main reasons: People lie to get something ("I'm 21"), or they lie because they don't want to admit some reality about themselves ("I'm 39").*

Mike Daisy admits to both these reasons when confronted by Ira Glass:  "Did you ever stop and think: okay these things aren’t true, and you have us vouching for their truth?" Daisy admits that he was afraid that the producers would find out the story wasn't true, and he felt much of the story was the best work he'd ever made. In other words, first he lied to get his story on the air, and then he lied because he didn't want to admit that his best work was based on a fiction.

Saying the words "I lied," "I didn't tell the truth" can ruin your reputation and make people think less of you.  But it's often more difficult to handle facing the truth about yourself. It's easier to build a story about yourself that skews your motivations, or events, or both, and then build another story that, when found out, calls the lie by another name.

To test this theory, try a simple exercise:
Think of a small, inconsequential lie or omission you've made recently. Maybe it's why you were late to work, your reason for refusing an invitation, or why you're returning something to the store. Now sit with yourself. Imagine you're with someone who will forgive everything you say (this part is important). Explain why you lied. Keep going. Don't stop after the first reason. Why do you need a cheaper price? Why do you need someone to think it wasn't your fault you were late? If you can approach these questions with curiosity rather than judgment, you may find you learn a lot. It may be uncomfortable, but all humans are so highly fallible! You have plenty of company!

Most of us don't pay the consequences for lying in the public way that Mike Daisy has. Nevertheless we live with those consequences when we turn away from the truth about ourselves. When we know more about ourselves, we can be more effective in our actions, taking control of our lives, and being more open and fearless in our interactions. If you don't believe me, try it! And let me know how it goes!


*Excluding of course, lies that are to protect you or someone else - although even these can get slippery pretty fast.

Forsythia

forsythia
Banks of forsythia
along the highway
Yellow and bright they bloom,
Beyond each bridge and curve,
Unfurling and unfolding, arising and passing.

Isn't life like this?

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Artist's Voice

At a recent panel discussion between artists and scientists at Lafayette College, a 25-year old artist asked this question:
"I'm just finding my voice as an artist and I'm having trouble identifying what is my true voice."
Answer from a computer scientist on the panel:
"The older I get, the less sure I am what my 'true voice' is, but the more comfortable I become with the uncertainty."

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Listening

Speaker's Corner, London
Speakers Corner, London               Photo: M'bert
"The world is my world, and everything in the world is about me."

It's easy to be annoyed by someone who's totally self-centered (drivers, people in the grocery store, people at parties), but in reality all of us are like this. Joko Beck talked about our typical state as being at the center of our own drama. "The world is a stage and I am the main actor." You go out to dinner with someone and all they do is talk about themselves. And why are you upset? Because you didn't get to talk about yourself!

Imagine a world in which everyone is on stage, disclaiming about themselves, and nobody's in the audience. Now imagine a world in which everyone is listening to each other, and there's no stage at all. Which world would you rather live in? So how can we create that world? Obviously, we can most effectively start with ourselves.

What might be the rewards? The goal of creating a better world may seem a little far off and not very gratifying. But, if you can accomplish it, it feels surprisingly good to truly listen to another person, without (if possible) adding judgment, comparison, or advice. And people like you a lot when you listen to them! We'd all like to think we're fascinating in conversation, but if you think about your own experience, who do you enjoy being with more: people who monopolize the conversation (however engagingly witty) or people who really listen and become engaged in what you are saying?

I once complained about my difficulty in caring about other peoples' stories and concerns, and a wise friend told me that when I was more comfortable with myself I'd be able to pay more attention to others. I have found his words to be true, but "becoming comfortable with yourself" is kind of a lifelong process - I'm not sure I want to wait that long. The good news is that you can learn to listen to others, and the process may actually help you become more happy, content, and, yes, comfortable with yourself.

I play a little game to help me get better at true listening: If I go to an event where I will have conversations with a lot of people, I try to see how many encounters I can have in which the person found out nothing, or very little, about me! That means I have to hold back my knee-jerk interjections:

"Oh, yes, I did that, too!"
or "Your child takes soccer? So does mine!...."

If someone asks me a question, like "How was your vacation?" instead of launching into a long, detailed story, I answer briefly and don't continue unless I get a follow-up question. When the other person is talking, I try to give him or her my whole attention, including watching their face and body. I often find out a lot about how people feel by doing this. If I find my attention wanders or the conversation is drying up I try to think of a question that might cause them to open up more, or that would help me learn more about them.

I also listen to and take note of my own thoughts, which, I have to admit, are not always thoughts I'm proud of  ("This is boring," "I'd rather talk about myself," or worse). I try to keep from judging myself for having these thoughts - after all, everyone wants to talk about themselves, and I'm practicing something that's pretty hard.

Now and then I encounter people who seem to be playing my game, too!  If someone actually seems interested in what I have to say, it's even harder to stay sharp and not start talking about myself at length.  But people who usually listen to others are often very gratified by being invited to speak.

This practice started out as a game for me, but after years of doing it (with more or less success) I would never give it up. Having an interaction with someone in which one of you actually listened is more satisfying than talking about yourself when the other person is just waiting for their turn to talk. Nobody's that interested in hearing about me. And now they don't have to (usually), unless they really, really want to (and maybe not even then). I'm much happier for it, which means, guess what? I'm more comfortable with myself. A perfect win-win.

I'm sorry for talking so much about myself, I'll try to listen to you next time!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Enough

I just returned from a week's vacation in England and Wales. Vacationing, seeing new things, visiting the homes of family, these things can bring up strong feelings of desire. I want that painting, that rug, that embroidered jacket that someone wore on the train. I want to look out at that view every morning. I want to live in a converted malt house on a canal overlooking Bath Cathedral. Or in a bungalow on the Thames, full of Asian and African art. Or in London's Chelsea, walking distance from central London.

If I'm not careful, these thoughts can make a vacation distressing, rather than relaxing. Over time I've learned to recognize these thoughts before they hijack my mood. When I can identify "I want that," I try to substitute it with "Isn't that beautiful! I am enjoying it right now."

It helps a lot.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Press Pause

Today my back was bothering me at work. I couldn't get comfortable, not with my legs crossed, uncrossed, not by adjusting my clothes or moving my chair.

"Yoga," I thought, "I definitely need to do some stretching." But I had work to do, so I spent the next hour working, eating some chocolate, drinking tea, in a semi-conscious attempt to make myself feel better.

Finally I closed the door to my office and lay on my back in preparation for some twists. As I came into my breathing, I happened to notice how good it felt just to lie there and do nothing. What I really wanted was to "stop doing."

I spent the next 10 minutes lying in savasana, gently but consistently reminding my wandering mind to come back to the present, gently but consistently reminding my body to relax. When I got up, my back felt much better. And so did my attitude!

ID, Please.

I was raped.
I have osteopoenia.
I didn't go to college.
I love puppies.
My back always hurts.
I'm an athlete.
I hate math.
I have beautiful breasts.
I walk funny.
I always wanted to learn a musical instrument.
I am creative.
I'm the friendly one.
Nobody ever notices me.
I'm the greatest martial artist.
I hate parties.
I love teaching.
I am suspicious.
My mother loves me best.
I'm a slow learner.
I'm strong.
I'm clumsy.
I'm getting old.
I'm a liberal.
I'm a Marine.
I'm a mother.
I'm American.
I'm gay.
I'm female.

These are thoughts. No matter how often we think them, they are not who we are. No matter how deeply held, our beliefs are not our essence.

You are so much more than your thoughts and beliefs.

Can you grow beyond them?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

You Have All the Ingredients...

Benjie                      -photo Michael Franz
To Build a Swing
-Hafiz

You carry
all the ingredients
to turn your life into a nightmare-

Don’t mix them!

You have all the genius
to build a swing in your backyard
for the Divine.

That sounds
like a hell of a lot more fun.

Let’s start laughing, drawing blueprints,
gathering our talented friends.

I will help you
with my divine lyre and drum.

Hafiz
will sing a thousand words
you can take into your hands,
like golden saws,
silver hammers,
polished teakwood,
strong silk rope.

You carry all the ingredients
to turn our existence into joy.

Mix them, Mix them!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Kokikai Aikido Winter Camp 2012

This past weekend's Kokikai Aikido Winter Camp with Shuji Maruyama Sensei was an incredible experience. I've been practicing Kokikai Aikido since 1994, and even then Sensei's senior students said that he had been incredible since they had begun practicing! And now it's even more true. How can such a small man throw such big, strong people, people who he has trained to become even stronger? He actually trains them in specific ways to resist him! And then he throws them anyway.

Sensei's dedication to keep challenging himself is inspiring to me. It's so easy to rest on our laurels. As an instructor, most of the time when I am practicing aikido it's with students whose bodies and style of movement I know, who I have confidence that I can throw. Plus, they're all my students and they're used to looking to me as the expert. Yet I have students who can challenge me if I ask them to. I have students who have street fighting skills, who have big, strong bodies, who can move quickly.  I don't think it will make my students respect me less if I ask someone to resist me and occasionally I can't move them, especially if the end result is that I become stronger and eventually I can throw them.

Asking students to resist is not the only way to challenge myself or to help my students challenge themselves. The most important thing is to practice correctly at all times. We tend to think a lot about resistance in our practice, especially after seeing Sensei throw a lot of large people. But he also emphasizes that practice is not all about resistance. "Help each other," is something he says all the time. "Help each other" is a reminder that when we are on the mat we are practicing. Just like when I practice the piano, I am not in a concert. (On the other hand, when Sensei is demonstrating in front of 200+ students at camp, it's a symphony!) I can stop. I can work on a particular passage, I can go slow or fast. But the most important thing during practice is to be very honest with myself: is this correct? Is this the best possible feeling?

Sensei continually amazes me with his ability to inspire his students to keep growing. During this weekend's camp, working with Sensei's students of all levels, I experienced a sense of cooperation and enthusiasm to "help each other." I learned from every interaction.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Words: Who Needs 'Em, Anyway?

A fascinating episode of Radiolab is called Words. The question examined is: what do words do for us, and can we live without them?

Most mindfulness and meditation practice focuses on the benefits of stilling the constant chatter of the mind, and yet anyone who has tried knows that this doesn't come easily! My brain gushes words at all times.  Even as I go to sleep, nonsensical phrases blurt into my brain. What would life be without this constant flow of comparisons, associations, self-criticism, self-adulation, fears and anticipation? I'm sure that without words I would be more invested in the present moment, more able to relax and interact with people around me.

I was therefore fascinated by two stories in the show that are about people who had the experience of being without language. The first is a deaf man who had never learned sign language, or any kind of language for that matter, until the age of 27. Until he was an adult he had never known that a symbol (i.e. a word) could represent a thing or an idea. Much later, after he was able to sign and communicate well, his biographer, Susan Schaller, wanted to know "what was going on in his head" before he had words. When she asked him he would avoid answering, or he would just say that it was a dark time in his life and he didn't want to talk about it. The closest she ever got to an answer was, "I don't remember. I think differently now." 

In complete contrast is the story of Jill Bolte Taylor, brain researcher and author of My Stroke of Insight. Because of her training in brain science she had a unique perspective when she herself had a stroke. She describes what happened as the stroke gradually took its course and part of her brain's left hemisphere shut down. In one moment, she says, "my brain chatter went totally silent. Just like someone took a remote control and pushed the mute button. So here I am in this space and my job and any stress related to my to my job it was gone and I felt lighter in my body."

When she regained consciousness in the emergency room she was totally languageless. She says, "I had found a peace inside of myself that I had not known before. I had pure silence inside of my mind." Lying in bed she felt connected to everything in a way she never had before, with no difference between herself and the external world. When asked how much of this is about language, she says, "A lot:

"Language is an ongoing information processing. It's that constant reminder: I am. This is my name, this is all the data related to me, these are my likes and my dislikes, these are my beliefs, I am an individual. I'm a single. I am a solid. I'm separate from you."

Bolte Taylor's experience sounds much more like the one that seekers of "enlightenment" are hoping for. But how, then, to explain the experience of the man who had never had language? Perhaps it's about having language and then losing it, versus never having it at all. Research seems to be finding that language itself gives us the ability to make certain mental connections, and to engage in new types of thinking.

There's lots more about this in the Radiolab program, and I invite you to explore it. And, as for the constant chatter filling the space between my ears, well, I'm going to work on having a less adversarial relationship with it.