You Make Me Feel Like a Natural . . . Klutz

26 Aug

I’ve been learning a new set of Taekwondo forms, the Taegeuk poomsae.  (Poomsae means form or pattern). My particular Taekwondo lineage used an older set of forms, the Palgwe poomsae, and never introduced the Taegeuk forms, even though they were developed as updated forms in the 1970’s. Given that the Taegeuk poomsae are now the standard for our worldwide associations it’s time to make the shift!

The Taegeuk poomsae are color belt forms, one for each of eight color belt ranks (gup), yellow (8th gup) through red (1st gup). Even as someone who practices five black belt patterns, I am challenged in learning these forms.  Memory is required; I find that I need to be patient and focus on one form at a time, otherwise things start to get jumbled. Equal to that challenge is performing new movements both individually well and in flow from one to the next. Ironically, I find the biggest challenge in what is the very first movement in the very first pattern for the lowest rank belt. That movement is the walking stance.

Walking stance. How can something that sounds so natural be a challenge? I walk throughout the day, every day, and have since about my first birthday. That’s fifty-six years of walking. I currently take at least 10,000 steps a day, thank you Fitbit. I get lots of practice walking. Walking is quite natural. Walking stance, not so much.

In the older Palgwe poomsae there are no walking stances. In the five black belt poomsae I practice, there is only a handful. Further, the original way I learned to perform the walking stance (again, what’s with the learning walking?) is apparently not the way it should now be performed. What the heck? How does one even need to learn to do such a natural stance in the first place, and then be instructed to do that natural movement a different way? Can’t I just do what’s natural?

I’ll be honest: moving from one walking stance to the next, turning into a walking stance, doing the simplest of arm and hand techniques while moving into and out of a walking stance has been making be feel like a klutz. It feels to unnatural.

I’ll be honest again: nowhere in any writing I’ve come across or in any instruction I’ve been recently given have I been told to just naturally step into a walking stance; it is a natural-sounding stance that one has to intentionally move into.

In all of the other poomsae I’ve practiced, we are in stances that are not natural stances to everyday life, except that they are natural to completing the action at that moment so as to make it effective. This could be the case with an elbow strike or a baseball swing:

 

 

If this way of standing might be natural and effective at that moment, I certainly don’t walk around all day like that. I walk more naturally all day.

This morning during my spiritual time it occurred to me that natural is not natural! That was fresh in my mind because in the leadership seminar we started conducting this week we worked with the participants to recognize and identify with their driving purpose, their deepest-held values, their true self, and to begin to act in accord with that. To act according to their true nature, or act naturally, if you will.

Every spiritual tradition I’m familiar with leads me toward living according to my true nature. As my true, or natural, self I can live and interact with the most freedom, the most joy, the most honesty, and even the most effectiveness.  In order to accomplish certain ends (e.g. to get someone to do what I’d like) or meet certain needs (e.g. to feel and appear smart and capable) I might want to contort myself into certain ways of acting, certain situational stances, that might feel right at the moment but which are certainly not in accord with my natural self. The difference between my everyday postures and the front stance example above is that I might think I am doing the most effective thing, but my stance is actually wrong. To be most effective in life I know I need to be most natural. For living, natural comes by speaking and acting according to my driving purpose, my deepest-held values, my truest and best self.

Now there’s the rub: just like in the Taekwondo walking stance, natural is not natural! I have to be intentional about doing natural. I must pay attention and practice being natural. I have to be honest about the discomfort I experience in being natural. I have to be honest about the times I fool myself about being natural. I have to be courageous to step out into a natural stance and trust that it will work for me, and when it feels awkward to come back and step into it again.

If being natural was natural, and everybody was being natural, everything would be more perfect in life’s interactions. If my Taekwondo walking stance was natural, my poomsae-life would flow smoothly and be more perfect. But it’s not. So, I act with intention to be natural, until it’s natural.

 

In the Pink (in 473 Words)

9 Aug

Every morning, one of my gratitudes is to have the health and physical capability that I do. Rather than think in the context of limitations related to birth, genetics, and age, I try to take a moment of thanks and appreciation for what I have and what I am capable of. I also throw in a “thanks” for the health and well being of those I love as well. You could say we are all in the pink.

As I think of being in the pink I also am now wearing pink. It’s a good reminder of how fortunate I am with my health. But it means more.

Beginning today, publicly, it shows my role as one of the Northland’s Real Men Wear Pink ambassadors for the American Cancer Society. Please, click that link. Between now and September 30, the day of the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk, we men are tasked with not only showing up places to raise awareness about breast cancer but also to raise at least $25,000 toward the cause, at least $2,500 each. It’s a bit of a fun contest among us.

This isn’t for me. This is for the women I know, love, care about. The women that you know, love, care about. About a year ago Bonnie and I gave deep thanks that the lump in our 23-year-old daughter’s breast was of no consequence.

To make my minimum goal, I need your help, and I ask some of you to step up in a big way: I need 25 of you to gift $100 each. (In fact, 24; I gave the first $100.) If you can give, or stretch to give, that amount, please do. Let’s get this done. Think about the women you know, love, and care about, and help me in my challenge.

Any gifts will add up to an amazing contribution to the cause. Of course, it will all help me show up well in the competition! (aka Win With Me!) If you can’t be one of those 24 donors, then please give something. In Taekwondo we learn that in self-defense, with the challenge before us, regardless of our capability, we do something. We do what we can. We act. We don’t just stand there; we respond, regardless of what we can do. Cancer sucks. It may hit women we care about. Please do something to help.

If the more than 700 people in my contact sphere each gave $4.00 I’d surpass the mark. Go to my personal page and donate. $1.00, $3.00, $10.00, whatever. There is tremendous power in everyone acting. What can we all do together? Perhaps many acting together is how I’ll reach my goal.

I’m also having some fun with this in my Taekwondo realm.  I’m taking a risk to step up, in the pink, very literally. It started on vacation at the Mackinaw Bridge and will continue throughout this challenge. Old, slow and — for those who know —obviously forgetful. But really grateful I can!

Master Po and Mad Eye Moody Meet Up in Minnesota

30 Jul

I’ve noticed it a lot more the past three years or so. I’ve noticed people talking to me and not looking directly at me, in the eye (well, they are, but they’re not). I’ve realized people whom I’m not looking at sometimes think that I am (and I can sometimes tell they may find it disturbing). I’ve noticed people, mostly younger, not looking at me at all after looking at me; something seems to bother them.

What’s up? My eyes are messed up. My right eye tracks off to the side. I’ve been blind in that eye since birth. It’s always been off-kilter but as I’ve gotten older it’s gotten worse, particularly when I’m tired. I’m in a perfect position to be that old, creepy-looking Walmart greeter guy in fifteen years. Heck, I could be Mad-Eye Moody by then. (I should be so lucky!)

I’ve even got a friend of many years who seems to not as often look right at me when we talk, and who definitely spends more time glancing over his left shoulder where my Mad Eye is pointed. (Actually, Mad Eye Correia sort of has a ring to it.)

These things also happen in Taekwondo classes, particularly with younger students and newer students. I can be talking to one student and they think I’m talking to some other student to their left.

The vision in my “good” eye is really poor, and I also have bad astigmatism. About three years ago I needed bifocals for the first time. I’d always worn a contact lens for athletic activity, and sometimes for daily wear, but since the need for bifocals arose, I wear my large, thick, expensive glasses during normal activity, and wear the contact lens only for Taekwondo class or other aggressive athletic activity, but it kind of sucks; when I wear it I never see anything quite right.

If the eyes are the window to the soul then my window has mud on it. As I have adapted to seeing more poorly and with greater inconvenience, I’ve also more often felt disengaged with others because of the sometimes change in eye contact. Here’s the thing: I have lost confidence these past few years because of this. Yes, the mature Taekwondo master has lost confidence. It’s the thick bifocals. It’s the self-consciousness of the Mad Eye. It’s age. It’s change.

When I was a kid growing up, I was totally into the David Carradine Kung Fu TV series. As a very husky kid with bad vision, I was particularly taken with Shaolin monk Master Po who was old and blind, but amazingly capable, and wise. I felt maaaaaybe it was possible for me to be a master someday. Really, I did think that.

As a kid I was neither capable nor confident in the physical and sports realm: overweight, poor vision, blind in one eye, no dad or other male role model to mentor me, no siblings. I was on my own. Couldn’t hit a moving ball, couldn’t catch worth a crap, couldn’t shoot a basket, slow, always picked last.

At least as I grew, some of those skills came along as my body and brain figured it out better, but I was years behind the curve. I became passable, and occasionally competitive, in the recreational realm, particularly once I lost some weight. I learned to drive a car, I did different jobs that required some physical skill (some were even risky, given machinery and such), I tinkered with martial arts a couple of time, and then started serious — meaning I never quit — Taekwondo training at age 33. Why had I quit those earlier times? I didn’t have the confidence to stick around until I might hit the tough stuff, or maybe fail. The irony is that I usually seemed to do well.

When I tested for Fifth Dan in 2010, I’d recently turned 50 and the two guys I tested with had both just turned 30 or so.  They were testing at an age that was younger than when I’d even started training. I peaked around age 50, while those two guys were complaining that they were past their prime. We did the same test and accomplished the same challenges, with them 20 years younger and each with two good eyes!

During these past 24 years I’ve had to train in fast action, turning action, turning to my blind side; I’ve had to hit and break boards and put out candles with turning and spinning kicks; I’ve had to judge distance and hit small moving targets, such as the wrist on opponents in Kumdo sword arts; I’ve had to wield a sharp sword to bare torsos; I’ve had to do a version of this. I’ve done all kinds of stuff with no acknowledgement, never mind preferential treatment, of anything being different. Just like Master Po!

I’ve done quite OK. So why the heck would I be losing confidence now? Granted, I’ve had a tough three years with all kinds of life and livelihood challenges and changes, stuff that made me tired and shook my inner self deeply for a time. I’m also less practiced in Taekwondo technique and have let my conditioning slip as well; so now I’m now older, slower and suckier.

Still, there has been something uniquely discouraging and disorienting in the vision changes. In both the athletics and overall life, seeing, judging, and adjusting is harder and less reliable than it used to be. I’m not as confident in doing things as I used to be. Further, not insignificant is the entire change in engagement with others related to the Mad Eye situation, be it their posture or my self-consciousness.

So what? Well, I’m not sure. Maybe I just want that all off my chest, to write it so I can better process it.

What’s next? Well, I’m beginning to take on some new challenges, physical and professionally, which will push me out of my comfort zone and which, achieved or not, will lead to growth and development. Regardless of vision, age, physical capability, or Other People’s Reactions (now to be known as OPR), I’m stepping it up, pushing forward, taking control, and choosing my attitude. We’re rolling into new territory and making new commitments with our new business. I’m preparing to take on a promotion test for 6th Dan (in New Jersey, for heaven’s sake!). I’m getting reengaged in physical training. I’m focusing on personal and spiritual work in new ways. I’m starting a new Rotary Eclub; we’re going to do great things together and have some fun in the process. (Interested in finding out more? Email me!). I’ve committed to being an ambassador as part of Real Men Wear Pink (click to contribute, please!).

Maybe that’s the So-What point: regardless of challenges and circumstances, regardless of things outside of our control, regardless of other people’s reactions, we can always choose our attitude; we can always take action in the realm of what is in our control; we can always respond to other people in a positive and supportive manner; we can always be grateful for what we can do and for what we have. And, we can always stretch ourselves beyond where we are, because without stretching we don’t grow.

Ya think this all explains why I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for the underdog Taekwondo student? And just so you know, I own the entire Kung Fu series on DVD.

When What Is Isn’t (Like a White Pizza)

21 Jul

This is and isn’t An Unlikely Master blog entry. (Insert your preferred emoticon here.)

I’ve begun a separate blog so that I can freely write in the spiritual space without feeling I need to hold back for fear of being too spiritual or religious. Even if the difference between what I might write here versus there could at times be subtle, I feel I need the freedom and safety to “just go there.” I envision the new blog as a bit of my own online spiritual journal along with sometimes just sharing the prayers, readings, essays and thoughts I encounter.

For those of you who would like to read and follow my pizza creation in process —because I really don’t know what ingredients will get thrown on top during the preparation — I introduce you to Be Cool to the Pizza Dude. I’ll still be writing An Unlikely Master as well. Maybe the two will come together some day, a precursor to my retirement work ( “Whoa! It turns out the pizza dude was this old tae kwon do master leadership guy . . .”)

Fly Like an Eagle . . . If You’re An Eagle

28 May

A couple of weeks ago I came across reference to “The Tortoise and The Eagle“, one of Aesop’s Fables. (It’s really short; read it now!) It got me thinking about my fitness mindset that’s been evolving over the past year or so.

Beginning last Fall I started paring back most of my other fitness activity and started concentrating more solely on yoga. This focus is the funneling of a number of considerations, all filtered through one primary lens: I’m 56 years old. Before you think, “Oh, aging Taekwondo master starts wimping out” let me explain.

Before starting Taekwondo at age 33 I’d never been an athlete or fitness enthusiast of any sort and, beyond practicing Taekwondo, I really didn’t start any broader physical conditioning activity until age 42. That’s when I had my first opportunity to take part in a training trip to South Korea, along with a team of other black belts of various ages. We were led by our Korean Grand Master, about 60 years old at the time, former competitive athlete and military veteran, a true phenom. Our invitation letter welcomed us to “Hell Training” and stories from those who took part in earlier trips affirmed the accuracy of that expression. I had less than four months to get ready (crazy-short time) so I got to it: running (in fifty-below wind chills), training with weights, dropping fat (nearly 20 pounds). I went to Korea and did pretty darn well, actually, surprisingly. I returned home and kept up the training in good measure (not nearly so the running).

These past several years I haven’t kept up with the weight training on nearly the same basis; likewise, my dog walks largely have become only walks, without the running/sprinting part quite as frequently. This easing-off happened because I was finding that I had to keep myself fresh for Taekwondo classes in case I was the guy who had to lead training and set the pace. I had to keep some gas in the tank. I couldn’t find a balance of activity that worked for me for all contingencies. Age seemed to be weighing in on the matter.

About a year ago I heard an interview with Christopher Sommer, former U.S. Junior National Team gymnastics coach. He talked a lot about people’s tendencies to go at things too hard, particularly before setting a proper foundation. These quotes came out as Sommer talked about easing into training and small steps of progress over time: “We need to go slow now in order to go fast later” and “If you want to be a stud later you have to be a pud now.” The bottom line: don’t let ego screw things up.

I was particularly struck by something Sommer said: “I like yoga.” In 2017 many of us know a lot more about yoga’s challenges and benefits than the years-ago impression of skinny dudes from India folded over backwards.  A lot of it  seems similar to gymnastics and a lot of it is hard. You can get stronger doing yoga, and do so in a way that adds to, rather than subtracts from, other qualities such as flexibility and mobility.

In my prime of weight training and conditioning work I never really hit the results I’d hoped for. That’s because I either wasn’t clear on my goals or had competing goals.  I was doing both too much and not enough of different stuff. As Confucius (maybe) said: “The man who chases two rabbits catches neither.” Why would someone even try to catch two rabbits? Because they think they can. Back to ego. Perhaps I simply needed to be smarter, know more, but my ego kept me from using information in front of me. Others’ information and experience. Because . . . I knew better.

Five to ten years later I have new goals to consider and a new balance to find. I need to think about the one rabbit I need to catch in order to eat tonight, and get clear on how to do that. I have to drop the ego so I can see the smart choices and take the right actions.

My goals are to be able to move well for many years to come — even Taekwondo level, as best I can — and be strong enough to allow me to do what I want to do, in the dojang, at home, on the trail, with kids and grandkids. I want to be THAT grandpa, the one who can still move smoothly, crawl around, hop across rocks, climb trees. I want to be a role model of an older Taekwondo practitioner, or of a former one. I want to fix or strengthen weaknesses I have, still undergirding for the future. The comprehensiveness — and requisite patience — of yoga seems to be a tool to get me there, one of them at least. Still, Chris, remember: one rabbit. Remember: pud now, stud later.

This doesn’t mean I won’t add in some other goals or training tools at some point. It doesn’t mean that I won’t do something competitive and push things to a limit (hopefully, with smarts, to avoid injury). But, since I’m beginning to stretch toward THIS and THIS, that’s more than enough for quite a while, combined with yet-improving my Taekwondo abilities. That, and some occasional sprints that leave Eko behind when I’m walking him, and hopping rock to rock up and down the trails around Enger. And an occasional tree climb (don’t tell my wife).

Perhaps most prominent for me going forward are two truths that have formed in my heart during prayer. One is the importance of joy being a motivation, in this case, doing physical activity that meets my needs and challenges me, yes, but which brings me joy. I shouldn’t work at something I don’t like, or go about something in a way that steals the joy of doing it. I don’t want to let ego take me places or lead to results where my motivations are somehow rooted in impressing or appeasing others, or to pat my own ego-self (sometimes known as younger-self or master-self, in my case) on the back. Find the way of joy and freedom.

The second sentiment is that my current body and its potential are gifts and I am to use them in service to others, both now and in the future. When picking an activity or setting a goal, when doing an honest, ego-free assessment of the potentials and risks to my body, the benefit or drain to my spirit, my commitment of time, I should ask myself, “Will this allow me to better serve others?” The alternative is to let myself become wrapped up in some ego narrative and rationalize away all kinds of conditions and consequences. With the gifts and opportunities I’ve been given, I want to make it about being able to better love and serve others.

It’s 12:50 on a Sunday. Time for this turtle to move along and work on that stud thing.

PS: As always, visit our North Shore Taekwondo site and ask yourself (not your doctor) if Taekwondo might be right for you.

Interrogation Techniques 101

7 Mar

“Mr. Kingston, do you think you’re helping this drill go well by doing that?”

A bit later: “Mr. Kingston, how do you think we all feel waiting for you to stop that and get ready?”

And later: “Mr. Kingston, are you trying to get me on your case on purpose, or do you really not realize what your are doing?”

This was not at all my usual mode. I was weary. I was even a bit resentful of having to teach class that night. So much for making my own energy and choosing my behavior. Kingston is normally a distracted guy and he was in prime distractedness that night. I was instructing, alone, Kingston and more than a dozen other students, and he was the nail sticking furthest out from the floor. He was making my life hard, and I tried to whack that nail down with an interrogation hammer.

Interrogation. Police get confessions with it. The military finds out information it needs. Parents use it to get their kids to realize their errors. Bosses use it to hold employees accountable. Coaches use it to focus the attention of their players. It’s an age-old strategy that can seem to accomplish a lot. But accomplish what, exactly?

Well, certainly the interrogator feels in control, or is trying to. She’s trying to manage and direct the situation, people, you. Isn’t that what mom was trying to do all those years? And Coach? Isn’t that what the boss tries to do now? What about Master Chris? Trying to control the situation, manage it, manage Kingston, direct him. Shame him? Motivate him? The interrogator makes it clear she knows the answers to her questions, and that you obviously don’t, but now you sure do. Situation under control. Mission accomplished!

Police and military uses aside, in the words of my Alt-Lead business partner, what interrogation ultimately accomplishes is “to make the recipient feel like the biggest piece of crap in the world.” It’s probably safe to say we all have been on the doo-doo end of this management technique — or control tactic — at some point in time. I have been.

Whether it was harsh or subtle interrogation, I may have changed my behavior but it didn’t motivate me. Or inspire me. Or empower me. It may have gotten me to focus more on certain stuff, but it sucked the energy out of the situation, energy that I might have used to do my best work. Even if my behavior changed, I felt reduced. I felt like a piece of crap. I wasn’t motivated to stick my head out any further. “Keep your head down or it might get bitten off!” I may have been managed, controlled, pushed — or manhandled — but I was not being led to the best place I could have gone to.

There I was: interrogating. At least I caught myself by the third time. I noticed Kingston’s eyes ever-so-briefly flick down. I could see how I was sucking the energy out of the room.  I caught myself and turned things around. I had been facing the shadow; I turned around to face the light. I returned to who I was supposed to be at that moment: a teacher. A leader. Leading the student to their best place, drawing out the good, the true, the beautiful, the potential.

“Ok, Mr. Kingston, let’s take all that amazing energy and use it here. Ready?”
“Man, Mr. Kingston, you certainly can work hard! Can you keep it going ten more times?”
“Who can help me with this? Kingston? Great! Let’s show everyone how to do it!”
“Ooo, Mr. Kingston, that’s pretty good! Let me show you something that might help you do it even better.”

His focus changed. My energy changed. It ended up being a really good class for everyone. People worked hard. People left wanting to come back for even more. Imagine that.

Class ended and Kingston reminded me that I had not recruited a helper to pack up my big hockey bag of equipment. “Can I do it?” he asked. “You sure can. Thank you for offering!” As he struggled to make it all fit, I helped him organize things in a way that worked. “Whew. We did it!” he exclaimed with bright eyes.

Yes we did, Kingston. Thank you for helping me.

Whose Line Is It, Anyway?

1 Jan

I’ve been enjoying teaching kids in Taekwondo more than usual recently. They’ve made me smile. They’ve cracked me up. They each have been interesting. A few have given me pause, even made me a bit sad, because I know some of the personal and family challenges they face and imagine what that must cause inside.

My mindset is to enjoy them, to appreciate and accept them as they are, to let go of expectations and to simply experience them and respond to what presents itself. It’s somewhat like improv or jazz, responding to what’s there, to what unexpectedly presents itself, being open to the discovery, rather than being locked into a particular theater script or musical score.

Parent, after class: “I don’t know how you do it. You have the patience of a saint.”
Me: “Ha! Thank you. I find it’s easier to just go with it rather than fight it. Have fun. Try to appreciate them. Plus, I only get them once or twice a week; I don’t have to live with them every day like you do!
Parent: “I couldn’t do it.”
Me: “I think you could. Even at home.”
Parent: “Does that mean I can make him do pushups?”

It becomes fun to look at any given interaction as a discovery (“Ooo, look what she’s doing now!) rather than approach a situation simply as a dichotomy of “Expected or Preferred=Good, Unexpected or Not Preferred=Bad. In that latter scenario, I’m lucky if I hit fifty precent satisfaction; read the other way, that means at least fifty percent frustration.

As I’ve further reoriented my mindset in this way with kids (particularly needed on one of those nights when 18 kids show up and I happen to be all alone!), I’ve also done so with teens and adults. This has not been a teaching strategy. Rather, it’s a larger living approach related to my spiritual growth.

This past year, I’ve been able to more fully experience the gift of each day, the joy of each opportunity, gratitude for what I have, and appreciation for the people in my life. The related process is acknowledgement and gratitude for who I am, which flows into seeing the people I encounter as the unique children of The Creation that they are. I find that I can relate to others in more significant ways if I relate to them in their space. That further opens the door to responding to them based on what they are actually putting out. Improv, not sticking to a script when our scene mate is going someplace else; Jazz, making choices among options in the structure, rather than sticking to a particular score regardless of what I’m hearing.

When I openly observe and listen, when I am more present in the current moment, I can respond to what I discover, which I find is a better response than the one I would give based on what I prefer to be happening or what I might script in my mind. I also believe that responding thusly imparts recognition, validation, worth.

Yes, there are still rules. There is structure. There is still accountability. But there is a lot of space within all of that, and in that space I can observe, respond, even create.

Here’s to a 2017 of exploring space and discovering all that is there.

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