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Showing posts from March, 2014

3 Things That Always Help

When I'm having trouble there are three things that always help:
1. Slow down
2. Stop hunching forward (Open my chest and straighten the curve in my upper back)
3. Breathe deeply

Most Relaxed Smile

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Recently among a group of instructors, Sensei talked about the importance of a relaxed face with a slight smile. He had each of us try it by smiling normally, and then relaxing the smile into one that is almost imperceptible.

I have written about this smile before in the post, The Mona Lisa Smile. This "tiny bud of a smile," as Thich Nhat Hanh describes it, is something Sensei taught me in 2001. He imitated the face I make when I am concentrating, making his lips like a closed purse. "Looks like an old lady!" he said. At the time I was in my early 40s and did not want to think of myself as an old lady! "Who else would tell you this?" he said, "Not even your mother!" He was right.

I've spent the last 13 years working on this smile. At first just when I am relaxed, working to get it just right. Then I worked on achieving it when I'm focused: at work, exercising, playing an instrument, practicing aikido (the hardest one).

Focusing on relax…

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

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The Comedy Rule of Three Back in the days when I was editing broadcast television, I once worked on a couple of episodes of Late Night with David Letterman. I'll never forget the producer, the legendary Hal Gurnee, talking about how comedy had to adhere to the "rule of three." If you get hit on the head once, it's bad. Twice, it's worse. Three times: it's funny.

Just like comedy, the stories we tell are made more memorable when things happen in sets of three.

Recently a colleague told me he'd had a bad year. He lost his job, his truck was totalled, and then his beloved dog bit his face. I agree, he has had a bad year. The dog bite was definitely the capper.

I'm ok with telling funny stories about my life to make other people laugh. On the other hand, I have realized that I'm constantly creating a running narrative about my life, that I tell myself.  I've seen first-hand that while this self-narrative may seem to reflect reality, it's a stor…

Living with Uncertainty

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Today I agreed to put new front shocks and struts on my car, for a total of about $1000. Something like this was not unexpected: I hit no less than three deep potholes this winter.  I feel that my car repair company is reliable and knowledgeable. But still I had a nagging concern that they might be overselling me on the need to replace both shocks, and the struts. When I was younger and poorer I know I would have been more mistrustful, getting a second opinion perhaps, and I wondered: Is my current trust misplaced?

Thinking it through I decided I was comfortable with that uncertainty. I was pretty sure it was good advice and it just wasn't worth the indecision, the extra effort, the number of unpleasant thoughts I would have in sorting it out.

All of us are more or less anxious and fearful when faced with uncertain outcomes. And many of us face uncertainties that are far more upsetting than a decision about car repair. In our technology-driven culture, more and more things are ne…

Creating a Life with Ballast

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In my practice of Kokikai Aikido, Maruyama Sensei sometimes talks about creating ballast. If I were a sailboat with no ballast, the high waves would capsize my boat. If my boat has a secure, heavy ballast, my boat will stay on course, even though the highest waves will rock it.

When we're faced with a threatening opponent there are many things that can act like high waves, throwing us off balance. These may not be just physical things (a strong grip, a fast punch). They may be things like our own fear or lack of self-confidence. "Ballast" includes physical aspects (centering, posture, good technique) as well as mental components (believing in yourself, letting go of the outcome, not thinking of yourself as "opposed," but "moving with" the opponent, being mentally relaxed).

Oddly, or maybe not so oddly, this practice of aikido tends to give me more "ballast" in dealing with the storms of daily life as well.

45 Years of Practice

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Recently I attended Kokikai Aikido Winter Camp. This is always an amazing experience, in which some 300 students of Maruyama Sensei convene to practice under his tutelage. This year was especially memorable as we celebrated the 45th anniversary of Sensei bringing his practice to Philadelphia. Several of the students who attended the gala celebration have been practicing with Sensei for 30, 40, even all 45 of those 45 years.

I was struck, before and after the event, how few people really stick with anything for 45 years. And even if they keep doing the same thing, how many people continue to have enthusiasm and dedication togrowing and challenging themselves? In our jobs, in our hobbies, most of us move on to something else, or we "burn out," "tread water," 'til retirement time. That is not the case with Sensei, and it's not the case with his students.

Looking back at the endeavors I have tried and left behind, in each there has come a point where I become …

Calmness=Heaven; Anger=Hell

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Isn't it interesting that the faces we see on paintings of angels and others who inhabit heaven always look so calm? And the faces of beings that inhabit the realms of hell always look mean and angry?

Maybe by cultivating calmness we can feel a little more like heaven is here and now.

This is Where the Monkey Dropped the Ball

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Tara Brach posted this story in her lovely blog:  "One of my favorite stories took place a number of decades ago when the English had colonized India and they wanted to set up a golf course in Calcutta. Besides the fact that the English shouldn’t have been there in the first place, the golf course was not a particularly good idea. The biggest challenge was that the area was populated with monkeys.  "The monkeys apparently were interested in golf too, and their way of joining the game was to go onto the course and take the balls that the golfers were hitting and toss them around in all directions. Of course the golfers didn’t like this at all, so they tried to control the monkeys. First they built high fences around the fairway; they went to a lot of trouble to do this. Now, monkeys climb...so, they weould climb over the fences and onto the course...that solution just didn’t work at all. The next thing they tried was to lure them away from the course. I don’t know how they tr…

Ichi Go, Ichi E

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Ichi Go, Iche E 一期一会 "one time, one meeting" is a Japanese term that describes a cultural concept. It's often translated as, "for this time only," "never again," or "one chance in a lifetime."

It is sometimes used in the martial arts to admonish students not to stop in the middle of a technique to try again. Remember that in a life or death struggle, there is only one chance. When we practice aikido we should try to stay focused, to help us remember that each movement, each moment, is singular, decisive.

Most of the music I play is something I call "practicing," as if the only "real music" is the gig, the session, the lesson. "Ichi Go, Ichi E" reminds me that everything I play is unique. It helps me listen better to the sound of what I am playing, enjoy it, and ultimately be a better musician for it.

By focusing on how we experience each moment, we can open ourselves to a richer life. Each moment is unique and p…

Metronome - the Musician's Friend

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When I use my Amazing Slow Downer to slow down the music of my favorite musicians, I can take the most rip-roaring tune to half speed and find that each note is precisely on the beat. There are a couple of lessons here for all of us:

1. If you're not practicing with a metronome, you're not practicing. 
2. If you can't play it slow, you'll never play it fast.


I posted this on Facebook a couple of weeks ago and got a lot of response from people saying they wished the others they play with would listen to my words. Well, since you can't control others till you control yourself (one of my Sensei's favorite aphorisms), I decided to approach my metronome with renewed enthusiasm.

Stage 1 of practice with the metronome is of course to make sure you don't generally slow down or speed up, or both. I have to say that was the goal my first 2 years of practice with a metronome. A lot of people go this far and they think "OK, done practicing with the metronome."