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Through The Dark Night

September 30, 2013 6 comments

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It has been quite a while since I have posted on any regular basis here. For those of you who actually follow and enjoy this blog, I truly apologize.

As most of you know, my wife of 18 years passed away in May from cancer. It was sudden and it was very fast. I think myself and my daughters actually held on to the hope that we would beat it until the very end. Whether that was a good thing or a bad thing has never been certain in my mind or in my heart.

After the funeral was over things calmed down a bit. People stopped bringing food by the house. The visits became fewer and further between. I found myself with a lot of time on my hands. With that came time to think, meditate, and reflect. To be totally honest, that actual time period became a part of the gray “black and white” world I had found myself existing in. If you have ever been very sick, suffering from a fever, and woke up on your sofa in the middle of the night with an old B&W movie playing on the tv you can grasp what I mean. You see the movie playing in the dark. Yet there is no color. You see the people’s mouths move. Sometimes you even hear the sound of their words, but you can’t quite understand what they are saying. That was my life in a nutshell at that point.

Then something happened. I made a decision. I decided that it was imperative that I get some kind of normality back in my life. I had to do things I was used to doing. I had to be places I was used to being. Work was one thing that happened quickly. All of my vacation time and sick time was exhausted and financially I HAD to get back there. But there was something else. Like an old friend or a comfortable warm blanket, the dojo called to me.

I have to admit the first time I entered the building was rough. You have to understand that my dojo is decorated and furnished to look as much like a traditional training hall as possible. It is at least done that way to the best of my knowledge and ability. There are fans on the walls, oriental screens set around, and various wall hangings and scrolls. My wife had either bought these, been with me when I bought them, or jokingly pitched a fit when I spent what she believed to be too much money on them. There is a collage on one wall with photographs of students, past and present. Of course she is in some of those photographs because even though Carol never took one single formal lesson from me, she was very much part of the life-blood of the dojo, even to the point that a lot of people, students and parents alike, called her “Mrs Sensei”. Her spirit was as alive in that studio as it was at home.

Instead of letting it get me down I began to take comfort in it. I remembered all of the things she had done and things she had helped me do including the benefit for Family Crisis Services which had been the last event she had played a major role in. The day of the event she stayed at the dojo, working the front door until she became so tired and fatigued she was forced to leave.

Something amazing began to happen. I didn’t even realize it at first but with each passing moment spent there I, out of reflex, began to change back into the Sensei I had lost for a long time. My focus shifted to doing what I was supposed to do: teaching. I stopped worrying about what other instructors were doing. I stopped stressing on what bill to pay first. I remembered a saying someone told me or I read a long time ago: “Treat every single class like it’s your last one and every single student like it’s the last time you will ever teach them”. Considering what I had just went through, and still was going through actually, that struck a very deep chord inside of me even though, as I said, I didn’t even realize exactly what was going on.

A few really special things happened in the process. My students sensed something different and it became contagious. Sensei was actually living up to the Go Do Shin (5 Way Spiritual Path) and remembering the “Spirit of First Beginnings”. It became contagious. They started enjoying classes again…and…they told friends who came in to try classes. Many of them stayed.

Something else that is worth mentioning. Many of you who have read this blog at all know that I have had some serious issues with the Fight Like a Girl Women’s Self-Defense program. I’m not saying that some things about it still don’t bother me however, I looked at the phone one day and there was a strange number on the voicemail. I hit the play button and it was Sensei Kym Rock, the founder of FLAG. Sensei Rock had saw my post on this blog about the guy teaching self- defense techniques that were weak and wouldn’t work and calling his program Fight Like a Girl. She had checked and the guy was NOT part of her organization and she had taken steps to rectify the situation. But more importantly, more dear to my heart, the thing that touched me, was that Sensei Rock had heard of Carol’s passing and offered me very sincere and heart-felt condolences. Because myself and some types of modern technology simply don’t get along and I accidentally erased the message and number, I never got to tell her “thank you”. So, Sensei, should you happen to read this please accept my deep and true appreciation for your time and your kind words.

I have also looked back on some things in my life and come to terms with them. Life is too short and far too precious to waste your energies on silly things or stupid bickering. It is far better to let that kind of negativity go and channel your time, energy, and emotions into helping other people with a sincere spirit of care and compassion. Carrying around hatred and other negative energies serves no purpose at all. We are put here in this life for a very short time. It is precious and should not be squandered on trivial things. You can’t live a happy fulfilled life if your spirit is in constant chaos.

Perhaps this will make sense to you. Perhaps it won’t. Either way, reflect on it for a while. We can all find a positive even in the most negative time of our lives if we simply allow it to happen.

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7 Virtues of Bushido


7 virtues

Laughing at the Beast

December 12, 2012 3 comments

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Laugh at the cleverness of the beast and the beast will defeat itself.
~David Carradine~

We’re off to see the wizard.

In the beloved classic, The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her friends set off on a perilous journey to the Emerald City to see the Great and Powerful Oz. Their hope is that the mighty wizard can help them. Dorothy wants to go home. The Scarecrow wants a brain. The Tinman is in search of a heart. The Cowardly Lion seeks courage. When they arrive they are met with a scary and horrifying visage of the wizard. They are also sent on a mission to prove themselves to him. After completing the mission they return only to be frightened once again by the terrifying image of the wizard. All seems hopeless until Toto, Dorothy’s tiny dog, pulls the curtains aside exposing a small, weak, and scared old man controlling all of the effects and projecting a false image of the wizard. Exposed for what he really is, the wizard becomes a totally different person.

Wizards in our life

I think a lot of us have people like the wizard in our lives. There are people out there who portray themselves as something that they are not. They frighten us or intimidate us. There are a lot of bosses like that. Sometimes people we compete with in the business world are like that. Sometimes they simply act as something that they are not in order to promote themselves.

We often take this image at face value. We let it get to us, let it intimidate us. We wring our hands and worry about it. We are stunned when we discover that it was all a charade. We don’t know how to react to it.

I think this is partially what David Carradine was talking about when he wrote the quote about laughing at the Beast. That quote was part of the Twelve Rules found in his book, Kung Fu. Many people have discredited Carradine in the past. Some have said he wasn’t truly a martial artist. Others have taken his personal life and held it under a magnifying glass especially after the events that led to his death. I grew up with the television series Kung Fu. It was probably the first sample of the martial arts I was exposed to. Luckily it was filled with as much philosophy as it was action scenes and fighting. I think in a lot of ways more so. Naturally when Carradine wrote a book on the subject I bought and read it. I kept it for many years and finally passed it on to a student some time ago never to see it again.

Carradine said to laugh at the cleverness of the Beast. I think that means more to not take everything you see exactly as it is presented.

Pulling back the curtain

I recently had my very own “Oz Moment”. A curtain was pulled aside and I was allowed to see some things as they truly are and not how they had been promoted to be for so long. For days I had no idea how to think or act. I had been baffled for a long time as to how to deal with…we will call it a McDojo for lack of better description. After having coffee with some other instructors and talking about some things, including this, I stumbled on some YouTube footage that threw me for a loop.

I’m not going to go into too much detail about it. What I saw was some very substandard karate no matter what style you practice or what level you are. It was a student testing for a beginner rank. It was terrible. Don’t get me wrong; I am NOT blaming the student. A student will do what the teacher tells them to do. They will do things as they are taught to do. I saw terrible technique, awful stances, no power. I saw a beginning student attempting to do techniques that were too advanced for the level they were at.

I sat back. I watched the video again and again. I was, for lack of better word, dumbfounded.

Laughing at the Beast

I have learned something from this. Surprisingly, it is something I already knew and it disappoints me to no end that I have allowed the Beast to intimidate me or fool me. I learned that I should never lose confidence in myself or what I do. I realized that people will do and say things to make themselves appear in a certain light. And yes, there will be many people out there who don’t understand what something truly is or what something truly means who will believe the hype simply because they don’t know any better.

What to do?
Like myself, all you can really do is believe in yourself and what you do. If you are right, you are right. If what you are doing is right, it is right. You have to be an example. You have to let your light shine. In time your light will cut through all of the darkness and hype. Most of all you have to STAND.

Take a moment and look at all of the people in history who have stood steadfast in the face of adversity. If Winston Churchill had believed Hitler’s hype, where would Europe be today? If George Washington and the Founding Fathers had given in to the British army we may have never gained our independence.

The Wizard was a bully in the beginning. He was just a scared little man. The Beast is no beast most of the time. We give it that power. We allow it to have that place in our lives. Let the intimidation roll off of you. Forget the fear for a moment and look at things for what they may really be instead of what you have been led to believe that they are. Refuse to sacrifice yourself and what you think is right in the face of fear and intimidation.

Good-bye My Friend

October 19, 2012 6 comments

Please forgive me. I usually type out my posts on a word sheet and check the spelling. Tonight I will try my best without that so please overlook the typos.

I got the news today that my very best friend in the whole world had passed almost two weeks ago.

Les had been ill for a long while. He had contracted Hep at his job at the prison. To complicate things, he had diabeties. When I last saw him, back in the spring, his arms and face were skinny, yet his stomach was bloated beyound belief. His mom came out here to stay with him and remained all summer. Les retired on a medical from the state prison and went home to MO so his mom could look after him. He had moved to Rifle CO and was too far away for me and my family to check on him,

Les went home. His health steadily declined. We had hoped that being home and being with his family would have helped improve his health. Instead he grew worse. His mom told me that he went to the hospital and it took two deputies and the two ambulance attenents to get him loaded. She said that until they got his pain under control, he would lay there and scream. Once they did he was peaceful. He was put in a nusrsing home for a little while. Terrible thought that a 53 year old man be in a place like that. His mom arranged for hospice and he was brought home. Very soon after Les’ kidneys shut down and in two days time he passed from this world in the middle of the night. He was in no pain when he left this world and surrounded by his family.

I cannot put into words the emotions I feel right now. When I first began my career in the MO Department of Corrections, Les was my teacher, my mentor, and my guide. He became much more than that. When people endure the stress of working in that enviroment on a constant basis, they become more than friends. Les became the brother I have never had. He stuck by me in thick and thin and was more of a family member to me than anyone I am related to by blood.

This blog is all about karate. Les never took one single lesson in his life. Yet he was one of the greatest warriors I have ever known. He was hard and gruff and tough as nails. Unless you knew him personally, you probably would not have liked him. I was one of the few people who was honored to know him personally and to know that he had a heart as big as he was (and trust me he was a BIG man …over sx feet and well over 200 pounds). He treated my daughters like they were his own. Both of them, along with my wife, are deep in mourning for him. He was a force to be reckoned with inside of the walls. He very seldom saw a gray area. There was only right and wrong, black and white. I didn’t always agree with him but then again, he didn’t always agree with me, on philosophies and world views. Yet we blended. In the truest sense we were brothers.

I miss him. I will miss him for a long, long time. He gave me a love for guns, harleys, and helped me discover who I was and become the man I am.

Please forgive me. This may not be the proper venue for this but it’s 2 am and it is heavy on my heart.

Good-bye, my brother. The prison took your life in the most subtle way and it took it way too soon.

This is for you…until we meet again…because we’ve only got 100 years and you got cheated out of half

http://youtu.be/tR-qQcNT_fY

Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea

August 4, 2012 2 comments

I recently had the opportunity to view a video that a friend of mine sent me of competition at an “open” martial arts tournament. For those of you who don’t know; an Open tournament is a competition that is open to all styles and types of martial arts. On the opposite side, a Traditional tournament only allows competitors from, say, Japanese or Okinawan styles.

What I saw on that film was disheartening to say the least. The kata (empty hand forms) competition looked like a combination of gymnastics and choreographed dance moves. They even had a “musical kata” division where the kata was set to music. The weapons division wasn’t much better. Actually it was worse. I saw a guy doing a sword kata. I had never even heard of it before. At one point he actually threw his sword into the air, where it spun about 20 times, then caught it in his hand. A young lady in the kata division stood in place on one foot and threw very high roundhouse kicks while turning in a 360 degree circle. I had to admit some of the things I saw were beautiful. Some were impressive. Not many at all were practical or useful.

On the other side of the coin we have MMA. Mixed Martial Arts. When someone says “karate” these days MMA is what most people think of. Two guys, or girls (yes, Virginia, there really are women MMA competitors…and they are BAD TO THE BONE), square off in a cage with a referee and beat the living snot out of each other. MMA is big money with big events and pay-per-view ratings through the roof. Some of it has every bit of the pyro, music, and drama of professional wrestling. If you’re not careful you may think you purchased tickets to a live show of Monday Night Raw.

Somewhere in the middle is traditional karate. Although traditionalists usually practice Japanese or Okinawan styles, I know quite a few Chinese and Korean practitioners who remain true to what their art is about. Likewise I know a couple of teachers of traditional Japanese or Okinawan styles that are simply in it for the all-powerful buck. I’ve written about what I lovingly call McDojos before here and I probably will again…cuz I hate ‘em.

So here I sit in the middle. I’m somewhere between the two side of the coin. Most of us Sensei who are worth our salt are. We like it here but we hate what we are seeing happen to karate and the martial arts.

You’re probably asking yourself “So, what exactly are you talking about when you say you are a traditionalist or teach traditional martial arts?”

Good question, Grasshopper. I will try to answer it for you.

A traditionalist practices his or her art because that is what it is…an art. It becomes far more than simply a way of life to them. It becomes part of them. The philosophy behind the style becomes ingrained into their very being. They benefit from the peace and peace of mind that comes from the code they live by.

A traditionalist does not train to make money. They do not teach merely to make money. I read in a martial arts business (God, just saying that makes me grind my teeth) article one time that if you went to a school and the owner worked another job and his studio was not his main source of income, that it was a terrible place because he wasn’t good enough at what he did to make a living out of it.

Excuse me???

I believe it’s just the opposite. A teacher who runs a school and has a job runs the school because he LOVES doing it. I have taught since 1996. I cannot tell you how many times I have taken money out of my own pocket to help pay the dojo rent, pay a power bill, or purchase equipment. I also cannot tell you how many times one of my students has been going through a tough time and I have let them slide on their tuition for a month or two. I know, I know…BAD business choices, right? Guess what?

I’m not in it for business!!!

A traditionalist doesn’t fight for money either. A true martial artist, karate-ka in Japanese, knows what he or she is capable of physically doing. The need to use that skill to make money is not thought of. We train, not only our bodies, but our minds and souls as well. Part of the Code of the Karate-ka says:

1. I will train faithfully to strengthen my mind and body.

2. I am willing to endure rigorous training to achieve my goal.

3. As my strength increases I shall seek to cultivate a gentle heart.

4. I will not use my skill outside the dojo except in the most extreme circumstances.

5. At all times I will try to avoid inflicting injury upon another person.

6. I will not brag about my skill nor will use it maliciously.

7. I will train with the spirit of humility.

With the possible exception of #2 will someone PLEASE tell me where that says anything about hoping into a cage and beating the holy crap out of someone???

All of that being said, the karateka does have strength and power. The karateka does have skills, some of them even considered to be deadly. I have worked in prisons for the majority of my life. I have been in situations that, as #4 says, were extreme circumstances. While enduring an attack I see nowhere that standing in place and doing multiple roundhouse kicks while turning in a circle would have done anything for me but ensure the thugs attacking me got a really good laugh just before they beat me within an inch of my life.

Open tournament martial arts are great for show.

Try to use them in a real life situation and you will not walk away…unless your attacker is so busy laughing at you he feels pity for you and refuses to take advantage of someone so stupid.

The traditional teacher teaches. He does it because that is what he does. Simply: that is what he or she really is in their heart. Many of us do it because we wish to preserve our style. We want to pass it down to the next generation and keep it as pure as possible. We sit quietly teaching our classes, our style’s philosophies. We want to pass on to our students the real meaning of karate. We are not MMA fighters. Nothing wrong with them. They have their place like everything in the universe. Likewise we are not dancers or gymnasts. They too have their place.

The traditional student trains. She studies. She knows after a while that it isn’t all about kicking and punching. She is forging a strong spirit through her training. She finds ways to deal with life’s problems through the philosophies she learns in the dojo. She finds peace knowing she can handle difficulty.

The middle isn’t such a bad place to be.

Letting The Force Pass


Softness triumphs over hardness, feebleness over strength. What is more malleable is always superior over that which is immovable. This is the principle of controlling things by going along with them, of mastery through adaption.

~Lao – Tzu~

When I began my career with the Federal Bureau of Prisons back in 1991 we were taught basic self-defense during our initial training. The self-defense moves we were taught were based on the ancient art of Aikido. Although we weren’t actually taught Aikido itself, the BOP thought that even one of the most gentle of the arts was far too “violent” to teach its’ employees, the taste of it gave me sufficient desire to actually take classes in it after I returned to Leavenworth.

Let The Force Pass. That is one of the underlying principles of the art. In letting the force pass, you yield to an oncoming force in such a way that it is unable to harm you and, at the same time, change its’ direction by pushing it from behind instead of attempting to resist it from the front. You never fight your opponent’s strength. Instead you redirect that strength away from you.

The essence of Aikido is the principle of avoiding conflict and never opposing an attacker’s strength head-on.  This can be used in everyday life and not just in self-defense situations . Bruce Lee was famous for saying “Become like water. Flow like it. If you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup”.

I have a friend, Jim Fleming. Jimmy is a great guy. He’s a devoted father and husband and a dedicated teacher and student of the Okinawan karate style of Isshinryu. Jimmy is a fourth degree black belt and has a quiet, laid back personality. Yet if you meet him you can sense a great power within him just below the surface.

Jimmy was a Lieutenant at my institution for a while. We both had a love for karate and the martial arts and that’s how we became friends. We would spend a lot of evenings at the front gate of the complex, where I was assigned at the time, having conversations about karate.  He eventually came to my dojo and started teaching a class of his own. My youngest daughter studied under him until he was transferred closer to his home. We still stay in contact today.

One of the remakable things about Fleming Sensei was, as I mentioned, his laid back personality. There simply weren’t a lot of things that could get under his skin. I remember a time when, for some unknown reason, the local Union at the prison took a severe disliking to him. They tried everything they could to file on him or get him fired. It got to the point that they were like flies buzzing around a trash can to him. I, and most of the other officers, began questioning them as to why they had taken such a dislike to Jim. We could not for the life of us get a straight answer. I remember the Union President making a statement about Jimmy that went something like “That piece of trash. We’re gonna get him.” On hearing that I told the guy point blank that Jimmy was one of the best Lieutenants that we had at the joint and that the majority of officers there agreed with me.

It went on to the point that the stress finally got to Jimmy. He was sent to the ER suffering from an apparent heart attack. Thankfully, it was some weird muscle spasms and he was ok. The doctor still made him stay home for three days. I asked him why he simply rode with the flow and didn’t fight back or make a stand. Jimmy simply shook his head and said, “It will pass”.

It did pass and life went on. Jimmy actually inspired me to become a Lieutenant myself. He was also a good friend when I went through some very trying times in my life. I have always said that even though I never took one single formal class from him, Jimmy was one of my Sensei.

How many times in life are we faced with what seems to be overwhelming odds? We fight and we fight and the situation simply seems to get worse. We take the force that is directed at us and meet it with force of our own. We make no headway and it just gets more and more complicated and extreme.

I’m the kind of person who often cannot let go of something. I’ve always had a strong sense of right and wrong and have never been too shy to voice my opinion on things. This, coupled with my Irish – Southern heritage, has sometimes been detrimental to me. I remember once I was in the middle of a situation at work that I would not give up on. The administration was just as stubborn as I was on the subject and the situation was developing the possibility to become very negative on my career. A friend of mine, who was also raised in the south, took me to the side and said to me, “Jim, you can beat your head against a wall until it’s bloody and hurts. Then, sometime, you have to have the sense to find another wall to bang your skull on”. I thought about that for a bit and saw the logic in it and walked away.

Sometimes we have to let go of something. We have to just release it to the universe and let karma do as it will. If we hold on and keep fighting, things get worse. We also become very bitter, not only to others but to ourselves as well. It’s bad for your spirit. Sometimes we have to let the force pass.

The Fox And The Rabbit

June 26, 2012 2 comments

A Zen master was out for a walk with one of his students when they noticed a fox chasing a rabbit.

“According to an ancient saying the rabbit will escape,” said the master.

“Not so,” replied the student, “the fox is faster.”

“Never-the less, the rabbit will elude the fox,” the master stated.

“How can you be so certain?” asked the student.

“The fox is running for its’ dinner. The rabbit is running for its’ life.”

 

I love this story. It is one of the many tales that lead us to understand that everything is dependent on our perspective and just how we look at things.

Many people ask me how I manage things at the dojo. They write me and ask how I survive, and even thrive, against the various McDojos that seem to want to compete with me. There is actually one gentleman who consistently writes me asking these things. I think the answer can be found in the story of the fox and the rabbit.

In the story, the fox is after the rabbit for food. If he catches the rabbit he will, without a doubt, consume him. That is his way. It is his nature and is part of the order of things. Yet, the fox does not need to catch the rabbit. There is plenty of food around for the hungry predator should the rabbit get away. Even if there isn’t, the fox surely will not die if he misses one meal.

McDojos are a lot like the fox. They are huge. They consume everything they can. Sometimes they consume things to the point that it is detrimental to them. The people who run them are cunning like the fox. They have resources at their disposal which enables them to do massive advertising (mostly from the outrageous fees they charge their students). In a way they are a lot like a goldfish in a bowl. They will consume every bit of food they can whether they need it or not. In some cases they will even eat themselves to death. Other times they will eat until they become so large the bowl they live in will not contain them.

The rabbit in the story is not running for something as petty as a meal. That, to him at this point, is a material gain. No, the rabbit is running to stay alive. The rabbit is running because in order to survive he has too.

Karate has been a huge part of my life for a very long time. There was a time when I all but quit. I had gotten a promotion at work. The gym I was teaching classes out of had made unreasonable financial demands from me. At the time I thought the best thing to do was to hang up my gi and obi and walk away. So I did. It actually lasted for about a year and a half. I simply was not myself. It took me a very long time to realize it but I had changed because of the lack of karate in my life. So, I came back and it was like coming home.

I honestly think of karate like air. It is deeply part of me and my life. I am not the same person when I do not have it in my life. It is part of me and I am a part of it. I have very deep rooted beliefs and respect the tradition behind the art of karate. It is truly karate-do to me. I honestly think that is what separates me from the Joe Awesomes (see some of my previous posts on Wear A Tie Or Tie Your Obi). I think that is what makes our dojo so different from the others. It is how we approach what we are doing. We do not treat it as a business. We embrace it as a tradition and a family. It is a part of us, what we do, and who we are. We aren’t merely chasing a meal. We are living.

The fox may catch the rabbit. If he does, inevitably he will have to catch another…and another, and another. If the rabbit escapes, he may or may not have to elude death again from the fox. The point is; the rabbit will live and experience life.