Thursday, July 23, 2015

An Aikido Story - The Cup of Tea

I recently traveled in Ireland for a couple of weeks. Irish people have an undeserved reputation for drinking a lot. People there do spend a lot of time in pubs, because pubs are social places where everyone gathers to catch up on the news, chat, and hear music. I think I saw more drunk people during two weeks in Japan.

During my trip I only saw one person who might have been drunk. But then again, he might have been mentally ill, or both.

I was having a cup of tea at an outdoor table. There were two young women sitting at a table near me. A man sat down next to them. He was obviously living a rough life - his face had deep creases, he had some facial ticks and grimaces, and he looked very sorry for himself. He started to harass the two women for money.

"Have you got a Euro? I need it to get the bus."

They said that they had just run out of cash, in the polite way we do when we don't want to admit that we just don't want to give someone money, whether we think we are morally superior, or just can't see the point, or we're not sure it would help the person, maybe we should give him money, since it is the charitable thing to do, goodness knows we do have it to spare, but once you start, where does it stop, and we don't know this man, but it seems that he might not spend it doing good for himself and what are social services for, this is a socialist country anyway, and can't we just enjoy our cup of tea in peace???

"Oh, come on, just 60 pence. Have you got 60 pence? You must have 60 pence. Or even 50."

"No, sorry." (Won't this man just go away? I'm trying to have a conversation with my friend. Now that I've said no, I can't very well say yes, can I? I have to hold my ground.)

The man had been gradually acting more aggressive in his requests and now he gestured at me, five feet away. "Ask her if she has some money."

"Why don't you ask her yourself?"

"No, you ask her, I don't want to ask her, you ask her."

"Ask her yourself."

He turned to me. "Excuse me,"

I looked him in the eyes, trying to see a person behind the deeply lined, unhappy face. I'm no saint. I was as uncomfortable engaging with this guy as the two women at the next table. I had decided, listening to their interaction, that I didn't think money was what he needed. I didn't know what he needed and I didn't think I could help him with that. But I could stay calm and look him in the eyes.

"You want some money, don't you?"


"No. I'm sorry."

He held my eyes for two long seconds. Then he said, "No, you probably shouldn't give it to me." He got up and wandered off, muttering curses at the two other women.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Keeping it Fresh - Blue Man Group-Style

I was listening to The Moth, one of my favorite podcasts, and heard a story told by John Grady, a former member of Blue Man Group. He talked having the "best job in the world" in a hugely successful off-broadway show that even, one could argue, has real artistic merit. And yet, after eight years in the production he found it was getting impossible to stay interested and enthusiastic.

He told a story, which you really should hear for yourself, about asking an audience member to come up on stage. The unexpected result forced him and his fellow blue men back on their toes, so they could engage and be present with the audience.

When I've been doing anything for a long time it can be really hard to keep the enthusiasm I had when I started out. The easiest thing, at least my mind tells me so, would be to make a big change: Quit practicing aikido and look to yoga, tai chi, or MMA. Learn a new instrument, or even turn away from music and take up bird watching. It seems that when you begin a new practice, as frustrating as that is, there's also more sense of excitement as you try new things. It can be really hard to get that same excitement out of the deepening that comes with attentive practice over many years.

There are times when quitting is the right thing to do. And it's not always obvious when it's right and when you should continue. The thing that I loved about the story John Grady told was that when the moment happened that bumped him out of his groove, he was ready, he was listening. He wasn't wondering whether he had forgotten to order dinner to be delivered after the show.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Just Keep Showing Up

I remember one time I was in the locker room at the Y with my friend Jan. We were putting on our aikido gi (uniforms) before class. There was a little girl of about seven in the locker room with her mom, changing after a swimming class. As we put on our black belts and tied them, the girl's eyes lit up with wonder.

"You're black belts?" she asked.

"Yes, we are!" said Jan, smiling.

I guess no matter how jaded you are, when you can impress a 7-year-old, it feels really good.

As the girl and her mom left, Jan looked at me and said quietly, "...and it's not as hard as you might think. All you really have to do is keep showing up."

Of course Jan was underplaying the hard work she's done to achieve a high level of mastery. However, she made a great point. There are times when the most important thing to do is to show up.

Whether you're writing a book, running a marathon, entering a violin competition, or just trying to get through your daily life with kids, relationships and work, it can be hard to do the things that feel repetitive, boring, frustrating - especially when the results don't seem obvious. Those are the times we're most likely to give up, do something else that's more fun, more engaging, that seems to have more immediate results. It can be even harder to "show up" mentally at these times: to be present, listening and attentive.

I think it could be that the hardest part of getting the black belt, at least sometimes, was to keep on showing up.