Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Shame Factor

(thanks for the inspiration IDP)

Great class on Friday and some great conversation, too.  Getting good at anything takes work, a lot of work.  At the beginning, everything feels so difficult and in Filipino Martial Arts the learning curve is particularly steep.  Because we learn so much and it feels so diverse, each new movement requires a lot of repetition to absorb and sometimes we feel we are hardly making any progress at all.

It made me think a lot about what I would call "The Shame Factor".  In fact, I am sure I could write a book just about that and its unique place in Japanese society.  However, when it comes to martial arts training this is one of the biggest traps new students fall into.

Especially if they have had a bit of training elsewhere, or think of themselves as reasonably fit/athletic, students imagine their transition into the FMA should be pretty smooth.  Grab the sticks and go, right?  Many of them are shocked when seemingly basic movements are very difficult for them to grasp.  There are so many details in each action, and so much happening at once that it can feel a bit overwhelming.

Then the shame sets in.

We start to tell ourselves that it shouldn't be this hard; that we should be learning FASTER or doing BETTER or not making the same mistakes so often.  This is rooted in ego and the feelings of shame.

The reality is that FMA, like piano or tennis or golf or math or chemistry or contract law or software engineering, has a completely different expression compared to anything else, even other martial arts.  Not only do we have a brand new vocabulary (which may include Tagalog or Bahasa or Hakka words, and I add in Japanese terms as well) but the body has a different language too.  To "move" like an FMA practitioner is not easy at all, despite how easy the KM Guros make it look.  At the beginning it is truly frustrating.

To get good, really good, at something we must set our ego aside, accept that we do not know and allow ourselves to move past any feelings of shame.  Only then can we freely invest the time and energy needed to master something.  Every Guro in KM has gone through this and it was not easy for any of us.  It will not be easy for you, either.  It will, however, be worth it.

Every minute you spend with the sticks makes them more a part of you.  Every step of footwork you do helps you own the movement a little more.  Before long, the muscle memory sets in and you can free your mind to focus on strategy and environment rather than trying to command your arms and legs to do the movements themselves.

O-Sensei (founder of modern Aikido Ueshiba Morihei) is famously quoted as saying "whenever I move, that is aikido".  Of course he was not born like this, and it took decades of practice for his movement to become so instinctive.  If he had given in to shame at the beginning, the story would have ended very differently, and tens of thousands of us would have missed out...

So, when you enter the dojo take your shoes off and leave them outside.
Take your ego off, too, and leave it outside as well, right next to any feelings of shame or self-consciousness.  You can pick them up when you leave after class (well maybe just the shoes).

Trust your training and each other.  You will get there if you stick with it.  I promise.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Being The King

(thanks for the inspiration BH)

"Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown" - Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 2

Chess is a fascinating game.  For more than a thousand years, this game has been used to sharpen our analytical and strategic minds.  Chess has also contributed to our understanding of mathematics and psychology, as well as computer science.  Thousands of books and articles have been written about Chess and it continues to be studied intently today.

Despite having only a limited space and scope, 64 space and 16 pieces, the combination of possibles moves and outcomes is practically infinite.  At its most basic premise, this mirrors our lives very well - since we are also finite but with practically unlimited potential.

The King is one of my favorite pieces in Chess.  Many prefer the Queen, since she is often considered the most powerful.  However, even the Queen must be sacrificed if needed in order to protect the King.  This means that the King is truly the most important piece in the game.  This is ironic, since the King himself rarely captures another piece.  It is clever use of the other pieces, and a good understanding of the battlefield (the board) that makes a Chess master.  The game is a subtle blend of patience and aggressiveness that I continue to find fascinating.

There is an important understanding here.  In life, too, we are often focused on our individual contribution - our own KPIs - as a way of justifying/validating ourselves.  In this, we lose sight of the fact that the King's real power is the power of his supporting cast: the bishops, rooks, knights and especially pawns, that determines the outcome.  All of these pieces are aligned to protect the King and to wage war on the opponent.  They each have unique skills and limitations, but if used in combination they can be unbeatable.  Every piece matters, and each lost piece is significant to the overall outcome.  Sacrificing pieces is rarely an effective strategy and is usually not done without very specific gains associated.

Of course it is no accident that the role of the Queen is significant.  A bold partner is indeed a force to be reckoned with, and choosing a strong right hand to act in concert with the king and the rest of the team is key.  Using the Queen in a good balance of offense and defense is vital to victory.  Losing the Queen often results in downfall.

As BH wisely pointed out, the more senior we become, the more we act as an influence to those around us - the other pieces - making sure they are included in the strategy and aware of their unique contribution to it.  We can accomplish so much more as an orchestrator than we could as an individual contributor.  Using the King as a proxy for any other piece usually results in a loss, so it is important to learn how to adapt to a leadership role when the time comes.

In companies, the "King" (CEO), is also reliant on a host of other "pieces" in various departments such as sales, marketing, operations, IT, finance, HR to execute his/her strategy and keep him/her (and the organization) safe.  It is a reminder that selecting and curating talent is the most important factor for success in any organization, and the King's ability to influence others' mindset/culture is a big determiner of success.  Remaining clear about the roles of each group and keeping them aligned is also paramount.  Without clear guidance and direction, the pieces do not operate together as a team, and this usually ends in disaster.

Since IBM's Big Blue beat Chess Grandmaster Gary Kasparov in 1997, we have found that AI can be a big factor in chess.  Programmed well, these learning computers have the ability to perform deep analytics with a lot of computation to validate possible outcomes.  In business, too, strong leaders use data analytics heavily to validate their decisions and empower even their front line staff (pawns) to do so as well.  "Better informed, better performed" or so it would seem.

In martial arts the parallels to Chess are very common and well-discussed.  Even I have had a go at it.  However, as described above, it is interesting to consider that just like in chess, the different pieces yield different combinations of moves.  This is why it is so important to train a wide variety of scenarios and combinations involving different ranges and heights, different environments, different tools/weapons and even different numbers of participants.  Every variable we change offers a new chance to discover and learn.  Patterns and habits in Chess, like in fighting, can be read and used against us by a savvy opponent.

Although not a skillful player, I have always enjoyed Chess and appreciated its significance as more than just a game.  Martial arts, too, is much more than game and similarly can offer deep insights about how to improve our lives.           

Monday, April 02, 2018

Time Zones

(thanks for the inspiration Mike)

Here we are on this little rock, spinning around the sun.  This situation gives us days and nights and seasons as well.  It also gives us time zones, so my morning in Japan is evening in New York City and so on.  The fact that the times are different doesn't make one place faster or slower than another.

I was inspired by this video post.

It is easy to compare ourselves to others and think our lives are better/worse than theirs.  The reality is that we all have a different timeline, a time zone, for our lives and our paths unfold uniquely.  There really is no comparison.

Even in the martial arts, seeing someone effortlessly learn new material or pass rank tests and gain new belts can make us doubt our abilities or wonder of the training is right for us.  We can become discouraged at our apparent lack of progress.

The truth is that none of us were born with martial arts skills.  Even gifted athletes struggle to get their bodies to perform complex martial arts movements and lots of repetition is needed for muscle memory.  In my experience, since FMA is so diverse, no one picks up all the categories (varieties of different weapons, empty hands, boxing/kickboxing) easily or even at the same speed.  In my case, despite more than 25 years of martial arts study before KM, I struggled with many of the movements during the first few years and I am still trying to perfect them.  At times it has been frustrating, but I always knew I would get better at it if I just kept training.

Let go of any time pressure.  Relax and let the classes do their job.  You'll get there in your own time, and the journey will be worth it.

I promise.

Friday, March 30, 2018


Homework...remember that??

I have two boys in international school - one in high school and one about to enter middle school.  Homework means something a bit different to each of them.  For the elementary school boy, homework doesn't really exist.  After school they play basketball or do club activities, but no real study is needed outside the classroom. They are smart enough to let kids be kids - for the moment, anyway.

For the high schooler, in preparation for college, there are concurrent projects going on constantly.  In fact, time management is the real skill they must master since without it they would do little else but go to class, do projects and study for exams  - it's a lot like working.

In our KM school, we have 2 classes (Tuesdays and Thursdays) of 2 hours duration each (1900-2100).  That's four hours total each week.  I'd like it to be more, but I'm grateful for what we have.  Some students, due to work or other commitments, rarely make it to both classes.  That's 2 hours per week for many of them.

In each class we do warm ups and then cover at least 3 different skills (sticks/empty hand or knife/boxing or kickboxing).  In the new model that Guro Fred introduced just after Peaceful Warrior 2018, we will need to do conditioning/Tabata in each class as well.  That means that we have about 30 minutes of training for each technical part, plus 15 minutes each for warm up and conditioning.

Since I only teach adults at the moment, I normally don't give out "homework" as such.  During class time all of us, myself included, can forget the outside world and focus on our training.  We introduce new material, drill and apply in a variety of new ways.  My goal is to build understanding of all the ways we can move and solve situations.  I try to cover as much as I can in each cycle. 

However, martial arts can be understood with the mind but it must be mastered with the body.  The intellect can analyze the movements but only the body can perfect them and make them second nature.

This means that all students are expected to spend time outside of class working on what we do in class.  We provide videos of the material, done with great effort by Kasama Jeremy.  We are all available to meet outside of class for additional sessions as required.

My personal preference would be to spend our class time learning and exploring.  However, as a teacher, I need to spend at least half of it on repetition, since it is so important to develop muscle memory of our techniques.

The rule of 10,000 has proven to be very accurate when it comes to mastery.

Those who do their homework diligently always do better on tests than those who don't.

Anyway, wouldn't you rather do Kali Majapahit homework than trigonometry??   

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Big F U

Weeks later I am still thinking about the Peaceful Warrior Camp 2018.  Fantastic photos from our Peaceful Warrior Photographer, Elsa Girault, posted this week and helped remind me of that incredible time training with the world's best in the sun and on the sand.  As always, some topics simmer before being done and I am thinking about them long after we all go home.  This is one of them.

Every morning at 0630 on the beach we start out stick work with Guro Claes.  He is a Viking from Gothenburg, Sweden; a great big bear of a man.  Trust me when I say you want to remain on his good side.  Fortunately, he has a great big heart as well and has taught me much over the many years at camp.  He is a perfect role model in my journey to be a Peaceful Warrior.

His voice booms out as the sun rises "Someone is attacking you?  You tell them F@@k You!"  "We're Filipino Martial Artists; we're stick fighters. If he comes, you smash him!!"  When Guro Claes swings the stick, believe me you're smashed.  End of.

I'm still thinking about that morning, and many others we shared on many other beaches over many other camps.  Every time I think about it I know he's right.

With a stick or a blade in our hands we should feel invincible.  Many years of training have honed us.  Our weapons are extensions of us.  We can block any attack they try.  We know we can hit them anywhere we like whenever we want.  If not, we need to train harder.  Train until we are without doubt.  Until swinging the stick or the blade; striking and kicking are as natural as breathing.

I would call Kali Majapahit the "beautiful art".  We flow and evade, we strike and recover.  When I watch Guro Fred move he's like magic.  Fast, smooth and effortless.  Everything chains together in an elegant and deadly dance.  Nothing is coarse or crude.  Everything has a purpose and a strategy and it is all part of a never ending flow. It's hypnotic.  I love it because it is equally martial and equally art.

At the same time, there is much to be said for directness, and we often spend too much time getting out of the way with spirals and circles and evading footwork.  If it is part of our strategy, then fine.  KM is amazing partly because of the deceptiveness of our fighting tactics.

However often it is because we lack confidence in our blocks or our control of the fighting distance.  We lack aggressiveness.  We seek to avoid the conflict rather than dominate it.  We are timid and shy; afraid to tell the attacker "F@@K YOU".

If so, we need to train harder.  We need to train not until we welcome the fight, but until we feel confident in the outcome, regardless of the circumstance or situation.  When we grab our weapon or set our stance we should feel like a shark in the water - a predator completely in our element.

Being a Peaceful Warrior means that we do not seek combat, but we stand always ready to protect what we love, and we have the ways and means to do so without doubt or fear, confident in our training and our abilities.

There is a time for pleasantries and niceties. The battlefield is not that place.  If that time should come, we do what we must.  The greatest mercy you can give is to finish your opponent quickly.  Their last thought, an instant before they hit the floor, should be one of regret - that targeting you was a big mistake.


Monday, March 12, 2018

Mortal Combat

A very interesting photo.  Here we see two snakes - a cobra and a python.  They fought - both are dead.  The python crushed the cobra with its strength, the cobra bit the python and killed it with its venom.

The influence of Hollywood movies and pop culture glorifies violence.  We watch movies like "Bloodsport", we watch or train gladiatorial combat methods like MMA/BJJ/kickboxing/Muay Thai and even imagine what it might be like if we used our Kali skills in a "real" fight.

Unfortunately, we can't know what led to the picture - fighting over potential food sources/territory or something else.  All we see is the result.  Nature is as cruel as it is beautiful and the struggle for survival is real for every species, plant and animal alike.  Humans struggle too.  Sometimes for food or resources, but also for ideology, territory, social reasons or sadly even religion.  As noble as some of these may sound, the result is rarely different from the picture. I doubt the python or the cobra set out that day expecting to die.  I suppose very few people do either.  Maybe in their last moments, neither one unable to escape or back down, they were both surprised as their lives faded away into darkness.  "Here?? Now??  Why??"

Our Kali skills are no less deadly than the crush of the python or the poison of the cobra.  Maybe more so given our ingenuity with tools and our environment and our ability to make and use so many kinds of weapons apart from just our bodies.

At the Peaceful Warrior Camp in Natai Beach, Thailand this week we saw all manner of fighting techniques involving sticks, knives, karambits, machetes and even axes, not to mention mundane items like our belts (thanks Guro Fred!!).  That said, we  should bear in mind that the results of our actions can be permanent - not just to an opponent but to ourselves.  We must always be calm and mature enough to use our skills judiciously for the protection of ourselves and others in need.

As martial artists we need to operate within the law wherever humanly possible, and apply as little force as needed to resolve any potential conflict.  As Guro Claes reminded us, it is our expert knowledge of distance, timing, structure, psychology and physiology that are the real weapons we must apply - far more than our fists and feet.  I don't ever want to go to prison and I doubt anyone else does either.
It is surely preferable to the grave, and a risk worth taking if others are potentially in danger, but in no case worthy of glorification.

Fights are not always physical - all too often we argue with others and cause them great emotional harm in the hurtful things we say.  Some of these wounds are as bad or worse than physical injuries.  Like the snakes, we all have unique attributes that make us deadly - physically and verbally and we have no shortage when it comes to ways to damage others.  This is why the Peaceful Warrior way is so important.  It is our compassion that defines us, not our ability to cause harm.

Verbal or otherwise, any fight could be our last.  Make sure it's worth it.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Ringing The Bell

The above picture is of US Navy SEALS going through "hell week", a tortuous part of the selection process that combines physical, mental and emotional strain with severe sleep deprivation.  It is an ultimate test of willpower and those who make it through are very likely to be successful SEALS.

The test is made incrementally more difficult by the bell.

The bell is an omnipresent symbol of choice.
At any time, with or without reason, a cadet can go up and ring the bell three times and quit the selection process.  There is no shame in this.  Having done so, they are returned to their former unit and former colleagues to continue their service.  They will not go on to become a SEAL.  Everyone knows this is an option.  During Hell Week the mettle of the cadets is pushed to the limits and beyond - in the surf, in the sand and everywhere else.  Their leaders push them to see if they will break under pressure; if they can overcome the limitations of the body and mind and truly break through whatever barriers may stand in their way.  SEALS get the job done no matter what.  They never quit.  They never give up.  They never lose.

This week at the Peaceful Warrior Camp 2018 we were blessed to have training from an amazing man.  He spent 20 years in the Swedish Navy Special Forces as a diver - now working as a SWAT team member in inner-city Stockholm.  He is a calm and unassuming man with a gaze of steel.  He has undoubtedly seen many tough situations in his career and been challenged time and again.  To me, he is the definition of a Peaceful Warrior - the kind of person we should all aspire to be; confident without being boastful; ready and willing to act when needed to protect others.

He ordered us into the pool where we spent the next 25 minutes in a "mini" version of what an average training session is like for those warriors (theirs is usually between 60 and 90 minutes).  We swam, dived, pushed and pulled ourselves at every instruction.  After 25 minutes we were spent.  He told us "At any time you feel like it, get out of the pool.  Take a break.  Rest.  Go back in and continue.  Or not.  Up to you".  The bell.

We may not be SEALS or special forces, but we are Peaceful Warriors, too.  Not a single one of us  gave up no matter how hard it was.  We struggled, but all of us did the training as commanded.  I am proud if I imagine we did not disappoint him.

The session ignited something primal in me.  Pushed out of my comfort zone (I am not a very good swimmer) and put under stress I could only tap into my most basic instincts and my raw stubborn anger to keep me going.  My fitness simply wasn't good enough.  I struggled badly and was consistently slower than everyone else.  Despite this, I refused to ring the bell.  I wanted to, desperately.  When it was over, the adrenaline started to leave and I crashed.  My body shook.

I realized that there are these bells all around us.  Very few situations are impossible to quit.  We always have the choice of giving up.  In our jobs, our relationships, our hobbies; when things are difficult or even just "inconvenient" we can ring the bell - no questions asked or answered - and go do something else somewhere else.  We may worry what others might think, but the stark reality is that the only person that will really care that we quit is ourselves.  We alone have to face the guilt and regret without knowing whether or not we might have achieved the goal.

In martial arts too, we see the bell.  So many students start out with "good intentions" about reaching black belt and even beyond, but later ring the bell for any number of reasons.  Guro Claes talked about "black belt death" where after achieving the coveted black belt, a student just...stops training.  We've all seen it.  So have I.  Bell rung.

There is no such thing as an easy life.  We all struggle somehow, someway.  We can all imagine the bell right in front of us reminding us that we could always....just...quit.  At various points in my life I have quit jobs and relationships, as well as various hobbies and especially gym memberships.  However, as I get older and (hopefully) wiser I start to focus in on what really matters to me - my family, my Kali, my friends, my work.  The rest is just noise really.

If you look for them, the bells are always there.  Each of us must decide if we ring them or not.