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It's Shoganai

"It's shoganai." How Elie Wiesel responded is similar to the Japanese concept of shoganai.  Shogani roughly translates with almost a shrug of indifference as "It couldn't be helped."

Years ago, I asked Furuya Sensei about his family's experience during World War II and the internment camps.  I asked him, "What was it like for them?"  With a shrug he said, "It was shoganai" and then he didn't say another word about it.

Shoganai isn't a nihilist way of looking at life.  It is a Japanese perspective similar to Elie Wiesel's after losing all of his money to Bernie Madoff.  Shoganai enables the Japanese to maintain balance where the don't let the adversity of the situation change them one way or another.

Saying, "shogani" enables them to accept the circumstance and move on.

The 20-second rule















Want to get better at something?  All you need is 20-seconds.

In order to get what we want, we need to create change.  Ostensibly we think that change requires willpower.  Willpower is necessary, but according to author Shawn Achor, "Willpower is a finite resource and can’t be relied on."  In his book The Happiness Advantage, he discusses the 20-second rule, "I like to refer to this as the 20-Second Rule, because lowering the barrier to change by just 20 seconds was all it took to help me form a new life habit. In truth, it often takes more than 20 seconds to make a difference-and sometimes it can take much less-but the strategy itself is universally applicable: Lower the activation energy for habits you want to adopt, and raise it for habits you want to avoid. The more we can lower or even eliminate the activation energy for our desired actions, the more we enhance our ability to jump-start positive change."

What he is talking about is being deliberate in order to create a habit.  Understanding that change is a function of motivation, willpower and action, we can use the 20-second rule to create deliberate action in order to become better martial artists.

Momentum is the mother of change.  The 20-second rule is just a way of using this idea of "low activation" to kick start momentum.  In order to use it, just add a small deliberate step in the beginning to activate you.  Then once you've started it is easier to keep going and thus success is easier to achieve.

I use the 20-second rule all the time.  When I get off work, the last thing I want to do is go to Yoga class.  So I trick myself by saying, "I will just drive by and if there is a parking spot, I will stop."  When I get there, regardless if there is a spot or not, I think, "Well I am here" and end up just going in.

Training in Budo is about change







Training in the martial arts is about change.  We begin training as one person and we begin to see another person emerge as we put more time in to our training.  A while back I read this article about the original Karate Kid movie that kind of stayed with me and I thought I'd share it with you.

I think by now most of us have seen the original Karate Kid movie with Ralph Macchio and, like most, think of it as a "coming of age" story about how Daniel-san found his teacher, gained courage and found himself.  On face value for 99% of this movie that is true.  But, this article deftly illustrates that most of us, me included, missed an important and the underlying story line of the villains journey of realization and redemption.

Throughout the movie Johnny and his friends terrorize Daniel-san, but if we look closely we see them start to soften and realize their wrong path as their teacher becomes more and more radical.  In the last 10 to 15 minutes or so if we look past Mr. Miyagi and Daniel-san we see the redemption in some of the Cobra-kai students.  We see Bobby follow through with his teacher's terrible command to attack Daniel's leg only to beg for forgiveness and Johnny's look of horror as the sensei tells him to "Sweep the leg."  Johnny's full redemption is shown as he displays true sportsmanship by demanding to give Daniel-san the trophy and saying, "You're alright Laruso."

The martial arts are all about change.  Daniel-san found himself and changed.  Mr. Miyagi found the love of teaching again and changed.  Bobby and Johnny realized they were following the wrong master and were acting unscrupulously and changed.  A more developed ending that displayed this idea of realization, change and redemption would have seen Daniel-san, Johnny and the other students from the Cobra-kai training in Mr. Miyagi's backyard as the movie faded black to the credits.

In the martial arts, everyone seemingly good and bad has the opportunity to change.  There is no time limit or statue of limitations.  Change is a function of realization and action, but most of all it requires some level of sacrifice.  We must let go of something in order to grab hold of something else.  Every person is capable of change.  If Johnny can do it and Darth Vader can too at the end of Return of the Jedi then we can too.

Learn from your mistakes

learnI recently read an article on how one's mind responds to mistakes.  In a traditional martial arts there is no such thing as right or wrong, but only what can be learned.  For the teacher, every mistake is a teaching moment.  For the student it is a chance to understand themselves as they see mistakes as an opportunity to learn about themselves and change.  This is the best case scenario, but sometimes students and teachers only see the defeat in the mistake.  I know that I have from both sides.  This is wholeheartedly wrong and will only cause more unhappiness and problems.  When we make mistakes, the only thing any of us can do is forgive and try and find the lesson there. How your brain reacts to mistakes depends on your mindset

“Whether you think you can or think you can't -- you're right,” said Henry Ford. A new study, to be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, finds that people who think they can learn from their mistakes have a different brain reaction to mistakes than people who think intelligence is fixed.

“One big difference between people who think intelligence is malleable and those who think intelligence is fixed is how they respond to mistakes,” says Jason S. Moser, of Michigan State University, who collaborated on the new study with Hans S. Schroder, Carrie Heeter, Tim P. Moran, and Yu-Hao Lee. Studies have found that people who think intelligence is malleable say things like, “When the going gets tough, I put in more effort” or “If I make a mistake, I try to learn and figure it out.” On the other hand, people who think that they can’t get smarter will not take opportunities to learn from their mistakes. This can be a problem in school, for example; a student who thinks her intelligence is fixed will think it’s not worth bothering to try harder after she fails a test.

For this study, Moser and his colleagues gave participants a task that is easy to make a mistake on. They were supposed to identify the middle letter of a five-letter series like “MMMMM” or “NNMNN.” Sometimes the middle letter was the same as the other four, and sometimes it was different. “It’s pretty simple, doing the same thing over and over, but the mind can’t help it; it just kind of zones out from time to time,” Moser says. That’s when people make mistakes—and they notice it immediately, and feel stupid.

While doing the task, the participant wore a cap on his or her head that records electrical activity in the brain. When someone makes a mistake, their brain makes two quick signals: an initial response that indicates something has gone awry—Moser calls it the “’oh crap’ response”—and a second that indicates the person is consciously aware of the mistake and is trying to right the wrong. Both signals occur within a quarter of a second of the mistake. After the experiment, the researchers found out whether people believed they could learn from their mistakes or not.

People who think they can learn from their mistakes did better after making a mistake – in other words, they successfully bounced back after an error. Their brains also reacted differently, producing a bigger second signal, the one that says “I see that I’ve made a mistake, so I should pay more attention” Moser says.

The research shows that these people are different on a fundamental level, Moser says. “This might help us understand why exactly the two types of individuals show different behaviors after mistakes.” People who think they can learn from their mistakes have brains that are tuned to pay more attention to mistakes, he says. This research could help in training people to believe that they can work harder and learn more, by showing how their brain is reacting to mistakes.


Be good rather than right

swallow 2Do you think you know?  Having the attitude that one knows "everything" is one of the greatest barriers to learning.  "You think you know everything" was one of the admonishments that Furuya Sensei often said to me.  Then I thought it was some sort of pseudo compliment.  Today as a teacher, I can understand why it wasn't.  Having this type of self-righteousness can lead us down a path toward a slippery slope.  The slippery slope arrives when one would rather choke on their pride than admit they don't know.  With this pride comes a fall shortly thereafter Sometimes when we don't want to admit that we are wrong and we try and cover up our miss step.  I recently read an article where this phenomenon is called "overclaiming."

From Science Daily: New research reveals that the more people think they know about a topic in general, the more likely they are to allege knowledge of completely made-up information and false facts, a phenomenon known as "overclaiming." The findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

In today's society, a teacher or a "master" should know all.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  The term for teacher in Japanese is sensei (先生).  The word itself translates to mean "one who comes first."  Therefore a teacher isn't the teacher because they know it all.  It is merely because they have been where you have been shortly before you.


Original story:

When you're down, it's better that you don't skip class.











When you're down, it's better that you don't skip class. They say exercise is the best medicine.  Nowadays, some form of movement is in just about every medical treatment protocol.  I recently read a great article which supported this assertion that exercise is the best medicine.

In this article, the author cited an interesting experiment in which participants watched a sad movie clip and afterwards were split into groups who either jogged or stretched.  After the activity, they were surveyed.  The participants who jogged were more likely to have gotten over the sad film clip than those that just stretched.

What does that tell us?  If we are feeling down or a bit under the weather, then we might want to come to class.  Getting out coupled with the rigorousness of class can help us get out from under whatever is clouding our day.  If one wanted to take it one step further, then maybe they can try starting the day out with morning class to see if it can set the tone for the day.

Either way, the best thing to do is to come to class.  It can benefit you in more ways than you think.


Exercise vigilance











Be aware of your surroundings Be mindful of your thoughts and actions Because you never know who is watching

There is a saying in warfare, "A talented hawk hides his talons."  This is because in battle, the element of surprise is the number one asset any warrior has over their opponent.  We were taught that we should always assume that our opponent is of equal or greater skill.  This mindset keeps us ever vigilant in our training and thus enable us to not fall prey to our opponents surprise attack.

I read a recent article on about travel advisories that recommended that people "exercise vigilance" while traveling abroad.

Martial artists are supposed to vigilant people.  Our training teaches us to be ever aware of "what is going on" at all times.  We don't have to "exercise vigilance" because we are always vigilant.

But, what does it mean to be vigilant?  Furuya Sensei used to say, "Always act as if your teacher is watching."  With this assertion, we will be aware and to be aware means being diligent in our approach and to act accordingly at all times.  If we are present in the moment then we can be aware of ourselves and our surroundings.  If we "fall asleep" then we lose the ability to monitor our own thoughts and actions and will completely lose track of our surroundings.

One can only be surprised if one didn't see it coming.  To be vigilant means to be first self-aware then secondly aware of one's surroundings.  How could we possibly be caught off guard if we are always on guard?  Always "act as if your teacher is watching."

Give up your self

I stumbled upon this article last night while my daughter was up with a fussy spell at 3:00 AM.  I found it exceptionally good and one that I put in my "must re-read" list.  Before one can have a masakatsu agatsu or "victory over one's self" moment, one must first know thy self.  Everything before that is just self gratification.  I hope that this article might shine some light on some thing or things that you are working on. The Art of Giving Up by Dyske Suematsu

One winter night, one of the few Japanese friends I had in my early 20s was playing a guitar at his company Christmas party. He was an architect and was about 10 years older than I was. Before he decided to study architecture, he was making a living as a guitarist in Japan. This was not the first time I heard him play, but I was still stunned by how good he was. After his performance, I told him that it was a shame that he was no longer pursuing his musical career. He then shared with me his recent realization that life is a process of giving up. At the time, I didn’t think much of what he said. I think I remembered it only because of its unusual reversal of the popularly held beliefs. Especially on this land of dreams, “giving up” is seen almost as sacrilegious. Everyone’s livelihood seems to precariously hinge on holding big, albeit distant dreams. For some people, the more dreams, the better. So, what did my friend mean when he said that life is a process of giving up?

Now, I not only understand it, but also believe it myself. Another way of saying the same thing is that life is a process of letting go of your own ego, or letting go of your attachments. Contrary to what one might assume from the connotations of the expression “giving up”, this is done in order to enjoy life more. For instance, you cannot enjoy alcohol if you are attached (or addicted) to it. Enjoyment of anything requires a certain distance. When the idea of self (ego) is attached to the object of enjoyment, you lose the ability to see it for what it is. I believe this is partly responsible for the phenomenon called “writer’s block”, in which the identity “writer” is attached to one’s ego so much that the fear of losing that identity becomes greater than the enthusiasm for writing. It is by giving up the idea of becoming a “writer” that one is able to be a writer and enjoy being one. This is difficult to do especially in a country where one’s existence is defined by one’s profession. The fear of not living up to the reputation of the greatest American writer is probably what killed the writer in Truman Capote, for instance.

“Giving up,” in this sense, isn’t the same as quitting. My friend was still playing guitar; he just wasn’t pursuing it professionally. Most alcoholics cannot enjoy alcohol in moderation; they have to quit entirely. In the same way, when you are attached to something, your choices are either to quit altogether or to depend on it for life. Either way, it is not enjoyable. It is also common to see aspiring artists, musicians, and actors entirely drop their activities once they come to a conclusion that they are not going to make it. At that point, it becomes clear that the driving force behind their creative pursuits was not their enthusiasm or passion, but their attachment to the idea of becoming someone. Or, it is also possible that whatever enthusiasm they had was overwhelmed by their fear of failure. Ironically, I believe that, if you can give up the idea of “making it,” you would have a better chance of actually making it. If you were not under pressure from your own expectations, you would enjoy your activities more, and therefore produce better work.

The big question is: Why do we develop attachments at all? As Aldous Huxley said, most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted. We develop attachments and we don’t even know it. Only when we are threatened by the lack or the loss of them, do we realize how much we are attached to them. If we lose our sight, for instance, some of us would probably consider suicide, but if we think objectively about many blind people enjoying their lives, it seems silly to even be depressed about being blind. Also, why don’t animals have the same problem? A dog could lose its leg, and go on living just as happily as before. Such a dog would obviously struggle and suffer the inconvenience, but its spirit would not be affected by it. Some animals like elephants apparently exhibit the signs of depression from the loss of friends and relatives, but many animals leave their own kids behind almost as soon as they are born, and never see them again. They seem to have no attachments, and live strictly in the present moment.

This leads me to believe that there is an evolutionary reason for our tendencies to develop attachments. The more evolved the species are, the more tendencies for attachments they seem to exhibit. I suppose it is quite obvious in one sense. The more attached to one’s own life, the stronger one’s desire to survive. Natural selection, in this way, perhaps favored those humans with stronger egos. Strong egos clash and create conflicts, but these clashes of ideas and egos force better ideas to float to the top. The ideas themselves go through the process of natural selection. Without egos and attachments, this system would not work, and we as a species would be less equipped to survive.

Zen Buddhism is a process of detachment. It is so concerned with attachment that, one is discouraged from being attached to the very idea of detachment, and I can see why; because attachment actually has positive, useful functions. In this sense, Zen is not a process of detachment, but simply an understanding of what attachment is.

As I grow older and face various physical deteriorations, I’m forced to be in peace with the idea of giving up certain things in life. I could possibly refuse to accept the idea of giving up, and try running 10 miles every morning or spend hours in gym, but if my motivation for keeping up my physical strength is to be in denial, then what I’m really giving up is to have the courage to face reality. Again, this attachment to physical strength will eventually extinguish any enjoyment I might get out of exercising.

Having a child is a double-edged sword where it could expedite this process of detachment, or encourage greater attachment to one’s own ego. If you are to see your own child as an extension of your own ego, you are inclined to mold him into something you want. If you succeed at it, your child strengthens your attachment to your own ego. On the other hand, if you see your child as another person with his own ego, he provides plenty of opportunities to make your own ego objectively observable. In other words, your child becomes a useful tool for you to detach yourself from your own ego.

When you say, “I sacrifice myself for my kid,” what you really mean by it is that you are willing to make compromises between what your ego wants and what your kid’s ego wants. In an ideal world, you want your own ego to coincide with that of your kid (because he is merely an extension of your own ego.) If you had no such expectation, there would be no “sacrifice”, because the difference would be exactly what you would want in order to allow you to achieve the detachment from your own ego.

If my observations are correct, detachment allows us to enjoy life in its uncontaminated form, but attachment allows us to achieve better chances of survival as a species. It appears that the forces of evolution are acting against our desire to enjoy life. Ironic, it might seem, but life is all about the interaction of two opposing forces.