Friday, November 30, 2012

After the Laundry, the Laundry

f9 Photos/

“Living with a busy family, I often feel just like one of the Tibetan monks I once saw making an intricately designed sand mandala. For months, they bent over the ground, arranging the sand grain by grain, and once their beautiful creation was complete, they cheerfully destroyed it in the ultimate celebration of impermanence.
While I don’t create ceremonial mandalas, I do wash the dishes. And when I come back to the sink later, dirty dishes have appeared again. I fold and put away a basketful of laundry, and in no time, the basket is full again. Even my yoga mat is a reminder of impermanence. Just this morning, it was stretched out on the floor, filled up with my movements, and now it leans against the wall, empty and forlorn.
As the Buddha said, impermanence is the nature of the human condition. This is a truth we know in our minds but tend to resist in our hearts. Change happens all around us, all the time, yet we long for the predictable, the consistent. We want the reassurance that comes from things remaining the same. We find ourselves shocked when people die, even though death is the most predictable part of life.”
from After the Laundry, the Laundry by Judith Hanson Lasater
The title of the post refers to After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, by Jack Kornfield

Friday, November 23, 2012

On Approaching Difficulties

 Recently I heard this quote by Jack Kornfield:
"Our difficulties require our most compassionate attention. Just as lead can be transformed into gold in alchemy, when we place our leaden difficulties, whether of body, heart or mind, into the center of our practice, they can become lightened for us, illuminated. This task is usually not what we want but what we have to do. No amount of meditation, yoga, diet and reflection will make our problems go away, but we can transform our difficulties into our practice until little by little they guide us on our way." 
 (from A Path With Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of a Spiritual Life)
It is interesting to reflect on the idea that our difficulties will not go away. Most of us engage in some kind of activity, whether it's an exercise program, or a demanding spiritual practice, with the underlying hope that it will ease or remove some difficulty. It's frustrating to find that even when we do let go of one problem, others invariably crop up. As I age I find this is true of my physical self, just as it is true of my "life's problems."

I really like the approach that, rather than trying to make them disappear, we embrace our difficulties, with the object of transforming them into teachers and guides.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Being There

Farmland, Asbury NJ  (C) Judy Minot
From an article by Robert D. Kaplan in The Atlantic:
"Road-warrior hell: I get off a 15-hour flight from North America and turn on my BlackBerry at some Asian airport. Instead of focusing on the immediate environment and the ride into town, I am engrossed in the several dozen e-mails that piled up while I was en route, a third of which require a serious response, and one or two of which relay worrying news. As if that isn’t enough of a distraction: throughout all my journeys, because of the 12-hour time difference, each morning in Asia begins with a slew of e-mails from the East Coast, again requiring responses, again relaying crises to deal with. Wherever we are, we are all always available, and everybody knows it. The media tell us how lucky we are to live in the Information Age. I believe we have created a hell on Earth for ourselves."
The author believes that in order to truly experience someplace new, we have to stop multitasking. How about "in order to truly experience where we are?"

Do we need to relearn to do one thing at a time?

Monday, November 19, 2012

Keep One Point

I've been slowly but surely writing of a series posts devoted to each of the four basic principles of Kokikai Aikido. One of these is Keep One Point to Develop Calmness.

We spend about 90 minutes in each aikido class, and most students practice once or twice a week - only a small proportion of the of hours we are awake each week. It may be plenty of time to spend doing a demanding physical exercise, but we need to spend more time working on the underlying principles for them to become second nature in our bodies. Fortunately, all of the basic principles are easily practiced at any time, not just in class. We can easily practice finding and keeping One Point while off the mat, and test the results when we're back on the mat.

What Is One Point?
One Point is a concept closely related to your center of balance. Centuries ago martial artists discovered that if the mind is focused on keeping this point low, one becomes stronger and harder to move. In Kokikai, we first learn to feel the difference between focusing this way and not doing so. Then we can work on trying to keep this focus, first while standing, then while moving and throwing.

Finding One Point
Stand comfortably in a natural posture that allows you to breathe openly - chin level, back straight but not rigid, shoulders relaxed. Imagine a point about two inches below your navel and within your abdomen, close to your spine. See if you can maintain your focus on this spot.

Practicing One Point
You can practice finding and keeping One Point just about anywhere: waiting for a doctor's appointment, when you're on hold, while you're walking the dog - in fact, just about any of those times you'd normally pull out your phone and start texting or tweeting! If you lose focus, just bring your mind back to your One Point. With practice, and patience, you will be able to find One Point more quickly, and maintain it for longer.

Why Keep One Point?
I'm a big believer in subjective research. Test the benefits for yourself! Once you know how to find One Point, you will experience the difference in your aikido practice. Then you can practice making sure you keep it at all times during your technique, looking for brief "openings" where you lose One Point.

But why not see if keeping One Point works in other situations, too? Do you ever find yourself thinking unkind thoughts or physically tensing up, maybe while driving, or shopping, or interacting with people you know? Try finding One Point and see if it makes a difference.

More Advanced Practice
Once you can find One Point easily, and keep it while moving, walking, and even talking, you may want to try a One Point meditation. You can do this sitting or standing. Decide on a length of time for this practice before you start - it can be one, two, five, ten or more minutes - it's up to you, but maybe just start with a couple of minutes. Find your One Point, and note what size it is in your mind. Now imagine it half that size. Then half again. Keep making your One Point smaller until it is infinitely small. Keep your focus the best you can until the time is up.

Alternately, do the same meditation, but when you have found your One Point, imagine it getting larger and larger, until it expands to fill the universe. Again, let your focus rest on this image. If your mind wanders, just gently bring it back.

One More Thing
I had to laugh when I first started taking piano lessons again as an adult. In one of my first lessons, my teacher told me to focus on an area below my navel, in the center of my body...It seems it's not only martial artists who have discovered the benefits of keeping One Point!

More Posts on the Four Basic Principles
Keep One Point to Develop Calmness
Relax Progressively
Correct Posture in Everything (forthcoming)
Develop Your Positive Mind

Saturday, November 17, 2012

I Can

Of the four principles of Kokikai Aikido, the one I have most difficulty explaining is Positive Mind. It's hard to grasp how changing your mind can affect your physical ability. Scientists concluded way back in the 19th century that the structure of the brain is fixed after childhood, and the idea is so normative in our culture that we don't even realize it's a belief; it's just the way it is. As an instructor I'm aware that I risk my students thinking of me as a flaky New Age thinker by proposing Positive Mind as an essential part of our practice.

It is helpful when I can back up my assertions with scientific results.

Recently in a class at the YWCA Princeton, Maruyama Sensei said that thinking "I Can" has a physical effect on the brain, helping make your brain more organized. He may have been referring to a recent study from a group of Japanese researchers showing that praise following motor training directly facilitates the consolidation of skills. This would seem to apply directly to our practice of aikido, in which we undergo physical training to increase skill. If praise (from someone else or from yourself) helps increase your ability, why not take advantage of it?

In recent years the notion of neuroplasticity of the brain has gained increasing acceptance among neuroscientists, particularly as it became possible to study real time changes in the brain using FMRI. Neuroplasticity encompasses the idea that our thoughts and behavior change the structure and function of our brains, and that this happens continually, throughout our lives.

Science provides a relatively objective method for learning about the effects of Positive Mind. But we don't rule out subjective experimentation. In other words: try it and decide for yourself. As instructors, keep reminding your students of the importance of Positive Mind. Ki tests are a perfect way to experiment, practicing first with negative mind, and then with positive mind, using the same person under the same circumstances, with only one change:  different thoughts.

You can come to your own conclusion as to whether Positive Mind makes you more effective. Speaking for myself, I will say yes.

Related Posts
Four Basic Principles for Living
Positive Mind

Friday, November 16, 2012

I Can't Wait...

"I can't wait til I'm done practicing..."
"I can't wait till warmups are over and we start technique..."
"I can't wait till this cold goes away..."

How many times do I find myself thinking this phrase, "I can't wait"?

"I can't wait" is a pretty insidious little phrase. It creeps into my thoughts without me really noticing I'm thinking it. When I do become aware of it, I try to take a few seconds and notice something around me, so that I can be where I am and appreciate just being alive, living, breathing. It's not easy when you're going through something unpleasant, whether it's just a few days without power or internet or something worse.

It seems like it would be much more pleasant to "sleep through" the boring and ugly parts of life, and only wake up during the fun parts. But the habit of sleeping through life isn't so easily dropped: if we don't practice staying awake during the boring parts, we sleep through the fun parts of life too.

That is a good incentive to stay awake.

Related Posts:
Fast Forward
Be Here Now

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Half Power vs. Full Power

Last week I attended a class with Kokikai Aikido founder Shuji Maruyama Sensei. I'm still absorbing some of the ideas Sensei gave us to improve our practice. This particular idea sounds like it's specific to aikido technique, but I think it applies to people who don't practice aikido, too.

We practice an exercise called zengo undo, where we raise our arms as if to respond to an overhead attack, and then turn 180 degrees and do the same - as if we had attackers both in front and behind. The challenge of the exercise is to remain centered and calm while changing directions very quickly.

Sensei's point was that when we turn from one direction to the other, we need to shift our focus 100%. If we are still thinking about what just happened, or anticipating what's about to happen, we have only half of our power.

This sounds very simple, but it's difficult to practice in aikido.

It's even harder to practice in daily life. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Downset, not Upset

Last week I attended a class at Princeton Kokikai Aikido with Shuji Maruyama Sensei, the founder of Kokikai Aikido. He said that when we practice aikido we should focus on being "downset," not "upset."  "Downset" isn't in any English or Japanese dictionaries, but it's a fantastic idea.

We become upset when encountering something threatening, unusual or uncomfortable. But what happens if we try to become "downset" instead?

What is "downset?"

In Kokikai we focus on these four basic principles to develop greater strength and control:

Keep One Point to Develop Calmness
Relax Progressively
Correct Posture (in Everything)
Develop Your Positive Mind

The more you use all four principles together, the more you can be "downset."

It's worth mentioning that "downset" doesn't refer to being heavy or unable to move, in fact, you should have more control of whether you move or don't move.

When we practice aikido we get immediate feedback as to whether we are correct or not. When we're incorrect ("upset"), we throw with effort, using lots of muscle, or we can't throw at all. The more correct we are, the more easily we can throw an opponent.

It's easy to imagine how the idea of being "downset" will translate to daily life.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Practicing Correctly

I'm always working at getting students to practice correctly. I try to help them understand that "correct" encompasses, in the case of aikido, not just footwork, or the technical, "this hand palm up, that hand palm down" elements, but also, "with your shoulders relaxed, with awareness of your center, with complete presence." If you accept that being relaxed is stronger, then you need to make sure to practice that way. If you don't, your aikido won't improve. And then you will not respond in the strongest way when there is an attack.

About three days ago I was forced to face this lesson myself at the piano. When I practice, in addition to making sure I'm playing the right notes, I try to listen for things like tone, evenness and musicality. I also try to be aware of my body: posture, relaxed wrists, etc. At the same time, for a couple of years I've been plagued with problems with my left shoulder. It continually tenses as I play, and I find that after playing for an hour or two my shoulder and left arm ache. I know this isn't good. I can feel it happening as I play but even though I've tried and tried to stop doing it, the habit persists.

It wasn't until last week that I realized that I needed to incorporate relaxation of my shoulder into my practicing in a different way; I needed to learn the lesson I have taught others.

Now, if I'm trying to practice a new tune, a bass run or a chord progression, I work to practice it  each time, with the shoulder down. If I can't keep the shoulder relaxed, it's not correct, so I slow down my playing until I can.

This is a very deep-seated physical habit. But I need to overcome it, both to improve my playing and to have more comfort in the other things I do: driving, cooking, using the computer. And I know that I can, if I remember to practice correctly. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Feature - Benefit

I work in marketing. One of the maxims of marketing is that advertising the benefits of a product is more effective than promoting features. In other words, don't just say how many dB of noise reduction your headphones provide. Let me know I won't have to listen to the babies crying on my flight to Florida.

Yoga and aikido teachers can help our students by teaching in this way. We could think of what we are doing as promoting a "product," and that we want our customers to get the most benefit. In some ways it's more challenging for us than for someone selling a smartphone, because simply "making the purchase," or showing up for class isn't enough for our "customers" to get optimum benefit. They have to do the practice in a way that engages the mind and body together.

We can help our students by giving them a reason to practice correctly.  Make a habit of giving the benefit of doing whatever you're asking them to do. There are many ways to talk about a "benefit." Each may reach different students, depending on their goals. For example:

In yoga
" order to strengthen the inner thighs"
"...this will help you in strength poses, like ... (or opening poses, like ...)"
" help you become calmer in your daily life
" your posture will be as good at age 80 as it is today"
" help with back pain"

In aikido
" your attacker doesn't have an opening for a counterattack"
"...because it gives you better ability to see what's around you"
"...because it you'll have better posture at all times"
" help you become calmer and more effective in daily life"

Your students have habits that are not helpful to their practice, and they're hard to break. If you want to help them develop new and better habits, give them a reason to follow your instruction. You'll find they'll be much more willing to try.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

What If...

What if, just for a moment, you imagined that everyone in the world was actually part of you? Maybe some part of your psyche, that you had perhaps neglected or forgotten, to a greater or lesser degree. Let yourself explore this thought, ranging over the people in your life, the ones you care for and the ones you don't, the ones you know better and less well, the ones you find approachable or difficult, weird, stupid, wise, frightening, thinking of them as a part of yourself, therefore worthy of your forgiveness and compassion.

If, as in this little thought experiment, we approached all other humans as if they were a neglected part of ourselves, think how the world would change!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The True Source of Happiness

This was posted yesterday on the Dalai Lama's Facebook page:

"There are two kinds of happiness - the temporary pleasure derived primarily from material comfort alone and another more enduring comfort that results from the thorough transformation and development of the mind. We can see in our own lives that the latter form of happiness is superior because when our mental state is calm and happy, we can easily put up with minor pains and physical discomforts. On the other hand, when our mind is restless and upset, the most comfortable physical facilities do not make us happy."

This is helpful to reflect on, living as I do in New Jersey as the region has been rocked by the effects of Hurricane Sandy. It is difficult right now to find respite from the focus on loss. Loss surrounds us, from the loss if a place of cherished memories, to the loss of power, to losing work, homes, livelihoods, and even, (thankfully, rarely), family members or friends. With the focus on loss comes feelings of being upset, unsettled, fearful, stressed, grief and sadness.

As we are dealing with the realities of recovery, we need to be attentive to the emotional stress that creates an additional burden. If we can remind ourselves of the true source of happiness, it can actually help bring the calmness and comfort we seek. 

What is the true source of your happiness?