Friday, February 28, 2014

That Little Voice That Says You Suck!

piano keys
The other day my piano teacher said that he sometimes practices the piano using an intention or mantra, the way people may do at the beginning of a yoga or meditation practice. I thought he meant a mantra, like: "I will practice relaxing my hands," or "I will focus on what scale I'm using to improvise." But it turned out he meant something like, "I will sound good and people will like the music." What? This is someone who has been a professional musician for over 35 years and has played with many of the greatest musicians in jazz. That's his mantra?

My piano teacher is a smart guy. He knows that all the technique in the world is useless when faced with a lack of confidence. And I think there is a little voice inside all of us that can respond to stress with some variation of, "I suck! I suck!"  Sometimes I swing between "I'm so fantastic!" and, "I suck, I suck, I suck!" Some people tell me that they don't experience this, or they have somehow "dealt with it," but I'm sorry, I don't believe that!  It may not be continual, but we all have to face that voice, sometimes, usually even more when we're under stress. 

"So what?" you may say. "It's no big deal, everyone has the same problem. Why change?" 
Well, obviously it doesn't feel good to go around feeling bad about yourself.  It's not good to delude yourself that you never make any mistakes, either.  But there are numerous studies that demonstrate that people perform better when they feel good about themselves.  They get more done, they get better grades, they are more creative, etc. etc.

Subjective experience supports this conclusion:  I play music much better when I feel good about my ability.  As soon as I start thinking how bad I am, I go into a downward spiral.  In Kokikai Aikido we teach this concept specifically, with the principle of positive mind.  Sensei loves to demonstrate how simply thinking, "I can," instead of "I can't," changes our mind and body coordination to make us stronger.

"OK, so what can I do?"
Make your own little voice. It's a better little voice, anyway than the one that is getting made by your subconscious.

Try the mantra - that's a cool idea.  Try it before you set out to do something particularly hard (speaking in public).  Or maybe something particularly boring (driving to work). I suggest making it a set period, though, not "forever."  And, most important: find a time to do it every day.  Make it a practice.  Like any "mantra," don't worry if you stray away, just come on back.

Use positive reinforcement:  If you get good results, notice them, give yourself some credit! If your drive to work was less stressful, hey, that's great!  If you only said "like" 30 times during the presentation instead of 100, that's also great!  If you don't feel like you've made progress today (I suck, I suck, I suck!), look back a week or a month.  Yes, you're making progress.

You truly don't suck.  You can trust me on that.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Mukudoku: No Reward Whatsoever

CicadaAn aikido student who also practices the "way of tea" told me this story about Mukudoku 無功徳 :

"I had my weekly tea ceremony class yesterday, and, as usual, there was a scroll hanging from the wall of the alcove. Generally, these are chosen for the occasion, though sometimes they are more general, but in the spirit of the way of tea.

"This one said 'Mukudoku.' 

"My teacher tried to explain what it means, but it's one of those difficult Eastern concepts that's hard to express in English, especially if your English isn't fluent. Later, she emailed us with a fuller explanation:
"There is a famous dialog between Bodhidharma, the first patriarch of the Zen school of Buddhism, and Emperor Wu. The Emperor Wu said to Bodhidharma, “I am a faithful Buddhist, I built many temples and made various offerings to monks. What kind of reward can I expect?” To this, Bodhidharma answered, 'Mukudoku - no reward whatsoever.' "
In our daily life we often, even unconsciously, do things with the expectation of reward. We believe that our good deeds will be praised by others, or, if we don't get the praise in this life, we will get it in the "hereafter." Conversely, whenever someone does something bad, we are angry if that person is not punished, and we may comfort ourselves with the thought that God, or the Universe, or Karma, will provide punishment at some future time. 

Mukudoku means to let go of the entire concept of reward and punishment and to live our lives with the understanding that every moment, whether beautiful or painful, is exquisite and perfect.

If you feel that you are far from being able to understand, or accept, a world in which there is no cosmic reward or punishment, don't worry: you have a lot of company! But it can be very liberating to practice living life just for the living of it, not for some future expectation. Simply being alive as a human being, in whatever unpleasant painful state we find ourselves, is a reward. What would be the alternative, after all? Being not-alive? Being alive as a cicada? My practice is to live that life, and to live it with compassion if possible. Did I mention it was a practice?

Thanks to Steven Syrek for the story. 

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Kokikai Aikido Winter Camp - Which Classes to Attend?

Testing Winter Camp 2007
Kokikai Aikido Winter Camp is approaching once again. This year (as always) many students will be attending camp for the first time. Many wonder, "Should I attend all of camp? If not, which classes will be the best to attend?" Often they hear that some of the classes are "mostly testing" and since those will be the "boring" ones, they choose others.

This is a beginner's mistake! Of course, the opportunity to practice under Sensei's teaching, with people we may not usually practice with, is certainly one of the joys of camp. But do not underestimate the value of watching testing! Here's why:

1. Watching testing trains your eye. Sensei says it is very important to "develop your eye," - to learn to distinguish what is real from what is fake, what is relaxed from what is stiff or tense.  You will learn to look for small details such as how nage's posture looks at the end of the throw,  or look for relaxed hands and face -  and then you can work on these things in your own technique. If you watch Sensei and are still trying to figure out "how did he do that?"...well, you have lots of company. But you will certainly learn better how to see Sensei, and other senior students, by watching testing.

2. One day you, too will be testing at camp. When that happens, you will be very grateful that 150+ people are watching your test attentively, with compassion for your flubs and enthusiasm for your success!