Monday, March 31, 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

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Most Relaxed Smile

Maruyama Sensei ASU 2002
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 relaxing my face has made me notice how many musicians frown or make strange facial expressions while playing. The amazing thing is that changing your face changes the rest of your body. If I relax my face, my playing becomes more relaxed. In aikido, my technique. In yoga, I get that little bit of extra release.

Changing your face requires effort: it requires attention. It takes more than a day (or a month, or a year) to make it consistent. But I have experienced two benefits:

I am more relaxed when doing things that require effort, so I do them better.

And am putting off the day when I look like an old lady!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

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.

Dog Bites ManJust 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 story. And like any story, it always leaves something out.

Your Self-Narrative Is Not Reality

I'll never forget one evening, driving home from work in New York. I felt like a jerk, a fool, an idiot, and I couldn't shake that crappy feeling. As if I was feeling out a sore tooth, I started to go over exactly what I had done to make myself into such a fool. As I picked apart all the events that had happened in that day I realized that reason for the "bad day" was just one interaction with someone that didn't go perfectly. Everything else I had done that day, everyone else I had talked to, everything I had tried to do, all of it had gone fine, wonderful in fact. I had let the feelings from one stupid thing that I said become the plotline for my self-narrative.
Sunset - Pulaski Skyway - by Rene. From
As I thought through this, I was driving over the Pulaski Skyway. The Skyway is a long steel bridge that overlooks some of New Jersey's most industrialized and, some might say, least picturesque, outlooks. At that moment, however, I realized I was driving directly into a brilliant, jaw-dropping sunset that turned the smokestacks, the factories, and the flat, bland vista into a landscape worthy of a Turner.

Lost in the narrative of my "terrible day," I had literally not seen the wonder that was right in front of my eyes.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Living with Uncertainty

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 new and untested. From power delivery systems to passports, from telephones to tamales, so much has been redesigned or re-engineered that it can seem like very little of what we depend on is guaranteed to be reliable, sustainable or safe. We all need tools to help us maintain equanimity in the face of increasing uncertainty. This is necessary, simply to survive and stay sane.

For myself, I use my martial arts and my music training to help train my brain and body to take uncertainty in stride. It is an explicit element of Kokikai Aikido training to remain calm and centered during an attack, when the outcome is uncertain. And the outcome is uncertain. We train in in ways that ensure our partner's safety, but in real life, you never know. You might do everything right, and, as one of our senior instructors, Leon Brooks says, "Sh*t happens."

Jazz improvisation is all about responding to uncertainty, taking it, molding it, and turning it into something great. Mistakes lead to the greatest ideas...if you keep your ears open and don't freak out. I'm sure many artists and scientists would say the same about their work.

The word training implies consistent, methodical and attentive practice with a goal in mind. If a physical training is going to affect our mental attitude, then we have to train the body and the mind to coordinate and work together.  If you have some kind of training like this in your life, maybe you can use it to help you handle uncertainty, helping provide a shock absorber when you ride over the potholes of life...

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Creating a Life with Ballast

Ludolf Bakhuizen - Ships Running Aground in a Storm
Ludolf Bakhuizen - Ships Running Aground in a Storm
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.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

45 Years of Practice

Kokikai 45th Anniversary Party - photo Bryan Gibbons
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 to growing 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 either bored or frustrated, had an interpersonal difficulty, or perhaps just timing and life events got in the way. I wondered, "What is different about Kokikai Aikido?" Here's what I came up with:

  • Sensei trains to challenge himself, and he trains others to challenge themselves. We don't get bored, because Sensei is always doing something more, setting the bar higher.
  • At the same time, he makes us feel that if he can do it, we can do it too. He is a person of small stature, with no "special talent," as he puts it (ha!), no special intelligence, no secrets. This is continually encouraging and helps keep us from becoming frustrated.
  • Within the larger group of Kokikai students there is a great deal of interpersonal harmony. This is because of the principles of Kokikai practice. When encountering difficulty, we train to relax and be more calm. Of course not everyone gets along perfectly, but our training does lead to a lot more smooth relationships within the organization.
  • As for timing and life events getting in the way, on my part perhaps it's luck, perhaps it's intent. However, when your practice is rewarding, you will go to some trouble to keep on doing it.
I have the benefit of an organization and a teacher who help inspire me. I give that much more tribute to the person who created the organization, who has continued in his quest to refine and improve what his does. This is one reason why, I think, Sensei is one of the world's greatest living martial artists.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Calmness=Heaven; Anger=Hell

Samurai Mask
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.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

This is Where the Monkey Dropped the Ball

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, 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 tried to lure them—maybe waving bananas or something—but for every monkey that would go for the bananas, all their relatives would come into the golf course to join the fun. In desperation, they started trapping them and relocating them, but that didn’t work, either. The monkeys just had too many relatives who liked to play with golf balls! Finally, they established a novel rule for this particular golf course: the golfers in Calcutta had to play the ball wherever the monkey dropped it."
Life is basically a golf course full of monkeys. Building barriers takes a lot of energy. Getting upset at the way things worked out does, too. Sometimes that's energy you really need to hang on to, in order to dial with the situation at hand.

More often than we think, we just have to say: "OK, This is where the monkey dropped the ball. I'll play it from here."

Friday, March 7, 2014

Ichi Go, Ichi E

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 precious; indeed it's all we have.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Metronome - the Musician's Friend

metronome - the musician's friend
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."
But Stage 2 is the best part: Stage 2 is to do your regular practice and focus on trying to come down right in the middle of every beat.

Lots of stuff happens when I do this:
  • I get better at listening. 
  • I get better at making minute adjustments in tempo to stay in time. 
  • I get better at just relaxing into the beat; 
  • Rather than playing on my own, I'm playing with something...even if it is just a metronome, my brain is learning how to sync up perfectly with a rhythm section or even another melody player.
Irish Music Seisiun - Frenchtown - River Blue Cafe
Even one day practicing with this focused attention paid off: I did a gig the next day (on accordion) with one other melody player and we sounded great! I'm convinced it wasn't because we played any differently, we were just together.

If you are wondering how this relates to aikido or any martial arts practice: First, refer to #2 above. If you can't do it slow, you'll never do it fast. Slow your practice down and pay attention to each movement. There's a reason they call it a martial art.

Second... well I think I'll save that for another post...