Spirit Defence Website

Spirit Defence Website
The smallest and best martial arts gym in Canberra!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Both eyes closed.

I once had an idea for a short story whereby a man who is feeling unfulfilled and existentially lost is walking down a dirty street and comes across a notice board. The board is longer than any he has ever seen and is so filled with paper that it is difficult to pay attention to any one notice. Most of the papers are old and it appears as though no one has taken the time to remove them for years. Once white and pristine notices are now browning and curling at the corners. They are starkly contrasted with the few new notices that have been placed haphazardly on top, seemingly in great haste. The papers randomly catch the breeze and move slightly, giving the appearance that the notice board is somehow alive.

Slowly he walks, entranced by this paper chaos, staring at the board and it's colourful mess of words and images. Eventually he stops for no apparent reason and reaches out. He gently moves the papers aside, one after another, deeper and deeper, until one catches his attention. It simply reads "Both eyes closed".

In my story, this simple message sets him on a path that sees him lose even the little that he had but, in the process, gain more than he knew existed. What I find interesting is that this story has a beginning and an ending, but I have never thought of the middle part - the actual story!

I eventually realised that the story has no middle because each of us must write it for ourself - even when the beginning and the end is provided and cannot be changed.

How you complete the story is up to you.

Friday, March 4, 2011

I killed my training partner Part 2

Ok it has been a while since I posted - life gets in the way as they say. This post is a follow up to the discussion on self talk and the Big Questions.

We have looked at how our self talk can influence our practice on both a physical and psychological level. Then, during my last post, I talked about the Big Questions. For this post I want to combine the two to look at how self talk can help us understand others.

We have looked at our own self talk, but is it possible to get an insight into others - to read their minds - and "hear" their self talk as well? Well... yes it is. Not only can we get that insight very easily, but we can use it to help ourselves as well. This is too good an opportunity to pass up isn't it?

Every time we interact with another person, we provide them with information about who we are and our world view. We do this often without realizing it. In many cases, people provide us with a direct insight into their own self talk. We can read their minds because they are shouting their innermost thoughts to us. Some people do it louder than others - for some its just a whisper while others prefer the megaphone approach!

There is an excellent psychological documentary called "American Pie" (there is also another one called "American Pie 2" which I haven't seen but I am sure it is just as insightful). In American Pie, two teenagers are discussing how to pick up girls. One guy says to the other, "It's really easy man - all you need to do is ask them a bunch of questions and then listen to what they say" to which the other guy responds with, "Gee... I don't know, man, that kind of sounds like a lot of work". I love this line because it is funny on so many levels (yes, yes I am juvenile but I am comfortable with that).

The idea that listening to others is hard work is funny because it's true, and many times people don't really listen bother to listen to what others are saying. We might listen to the content, but there is a real knack in listening to obtain a better understanding of other people. I am not talking about body language here (don't get me started on that whole con). I am talking about the words people use - the what, how, when and where they are used which can then give us the "why". Whether we realise it or not, the words we use can tell a story about who we are, how we view the world and our place in it.

Of course, the question is: why bother and what does this have to do with martial arts? For me, the connection is that martial arts is a vehicle by which people can develop a better understanding of themselves. Part of developing that self understanding is seeking to understand others as well. I have learned so much about myself by listening to the self talk of other people. I sometimes hear my own self talk reflected in their statements and it has helped to highlight how I see myself and the messages I send to others as well. On on another level, if we consider environmental awareness to be important for self defense, then having an understanding of the people in that environment is equally important.

I am not suggesting that you "psychoanalyse" everyone you meet (that would be quite obnoxious), but I am suggesting that you take notice of the story you are telling other people about yourself and the story they are telling about themselves. Do this over a period of time and see what you can learn. Like anything, it takes practice. The Big Questions can provide a structure for this and will quickly provide an insight into the self talk of others. Remember, the Big Questions are: who am I? What is my purpose? How did I get here" Where am I going? or some variation on those themes.

A classic example is the person who apologises for just about everything they do or prefaces a question with the statement "this might sound like a stupid question but...". I used to be an apologist and it takes self discipline to control the urge to say sorry where it is not required - just as breaking any habit takes discipline. Again, martial arts is about having control over your body and actions - including your mind. The person who offers apologies where none is required or who announces that everything they say will be stupid is really telling everyone that they do not believe they are worthy in some way or not good enough. Cognitive Behaviour Psychology suggests there is a link between thoughts, feelings and behaviours. By engaging in a negative behaviour (such as verbalising negative statements about oneself), we confirm the lowly opinion we hold of ourselves. The good news is that the opposite is true: changing behaviour can help to change our minds.

Let me restate it one more time: We need to believe we are worth defending!

If you take the time to listen to others, you might actually hear yourself. You will definitely come to notice patters in how individuals refer to themselves. If you use this knowledge and attempt to answer the Big Questions on behalf of someone else, you might be surprised at just how accurate you are. Please note that I am not suggesting you do this in an overt manner as most people would find it to be very confronting. What I am suggesting is that you listen to others and use it as a way of understanding yourself.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Under the Bodhi Tree: Mindful moments

This is reposted from the blog of my beautiful wife. She is most wise and has a very very hard elbow strike (which has made me bleed on at least one occasion - not counting the palm heel to the nose...)

I hope you get as much from it as I did.

Under the Bodhi Tree: Mindful moments: "Mindfulness is a state of awareness. Where we can observe, without judgment, the thoughts and feelings that we experience as humans in response to the world that we live in.

And a state in which we can become aware of the fact that our thoughts and feelings are nothing more than conditioned responses to temporary or impermanent objects that have no more value than that which we ourselves place on them.

That is to say, (actually Shakespeare said it first in As You Like It) "All the world's a stage. And all the men and women merely players". None of this is any more real than the acting in a stage play and mindfulness helps us to understand this.

We are able to observe, to actually take note of and be aware of our thoughts when we are in a state of mindfulness. That is, rather than being caught up in our thoughts, experiencing the 'full catastrophe' of emotion and fantasy that goes along with many of our thoughts, with mindfulness we are able to watch the occurrences of our minds as if it were on tv, as if we were merely watching rather than acting.

It helps a lot to think of our thoughts as actions, as something we do rather than something that just happens in us, or to us for that matter. This way we can develop control over our thoughts and feelings. If thinking that "I hate my job" is something that I chose to do, an action I perform, it is much easier to find a way of re-framing this thought or to actually do something about it. Instead, once I am aware that I have a habit of thinking loathsome thoughts about work on Monday mornings, I can stop this behaviour and replace it with a new one, one that doesn't put me in such a bad mood which I might then take out on my fellow workers. So I become aware of this habitual thought, and then I start thinking "I will go to work today so I can save for my trip to Bali and tonight I will search online for vacancies that might suit me" or something else useful and uplifting - you get the point.

Once we are able to become aware of our habitual thoughts through mindfulness we can then change the way we think about things and begin to actually choose the way we experience the world. Personally, I find that quite profound, that each of us has the potential to be able to choose the way we experience the world, the way we react to people and situations around us - I see it as an attainable super-power :o) Like Neo in The Matrix, at the end of the movie even bullets can't kill him because he has decided they can't hurt him - he believes.

Remember that 80's song 'Can't touch this"? (ok, bad example...but anyway), Mindfulness helps us attain this state - where no matter what is going on around us, who is trying desperately to upset us, or that a cyclone has just come through and wiped out every material possession we once had (my thoughts are with all Australians affected by cyclones and floods), we can be resilient, we can find meaning and reason to continue and somehow, maybe, even be stronger for it. This is what mindfulness can do for you - give you the ability to stand strong, resilient and calm regardless of what life throws at you.

How to learn mindfulness?

Three steps towards a mindfulness practice::
1. learn to do a body scan relaxation
2. learn breath awareness meditation
3. deepen your practice through sitting mindfulness meditation

You can Google any of these techniques and find some great work by people happy to share for free.

With time and practice these techniques will start to drift into your everyday life, you will think of them at your desk or on the bus. You will practice them in the shower and in bed, you will find yourself eating sultanas one-by-one and eventually you will be living mindfully - it wont happen over night... :o)

With metta (loving kindness)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The BIG Questions

The Big Questions are those existential ponderings that we all ask (or perhaps feel) at some point or another: Who am I? How did I get here? What is my purpose? Where am I going?

In some sense, we all ask these types of questions in a fairly mundane way on a regular basis - perhaps not in an overt way, but many times we ask philosophical questions when we think about our careers, make decisions about domestic budgets, or even how we will spend our day (when we have a choice). A central question in all this is: How will I spend my time? Of course, an economist looks at such a question and sees the issue as being one of limited resources and decision to be made that maximises utility. A psychologist, however, sees the question and asks, "What does the answer tell me about the person?" or "What do my answers tell me about myself?"

I can also see that the Big Questions can be viewed on a number of levels. For example, we might ask ourselves these questions about our martial arts practice. You might reflect on your identity in the dojo - ie, are you the same person in the dojo as you are outside its walls? Why spend time training martial arts? What was it that we were looking for that bought us to the dojo in the first place? Does this still apply?

My wife is a very inspiring person. She lives her life in a very genuine way and she can do so because she has worked at it. Her practice of yoga does not end after she leaves the studio or steps off the yoga mat. In many ways, that is when her true practice begins. She strives to take the lessons and values of yoga and apply them to all aspects of her life. As martial art practitioners, do we not have the same opportunity?

Lets look at a common motivation for turning up to martial arts classes: self defence. On the surface, it seems like a fairly straightforward reason for training. However, we can delve deeper into this and ask a few Big Questions: Why are you looking for self defence training? What is your need? The answer to these questions can tell us a lot about a person

I believe the first step in learning self defence is believing you are worth defending. Of course, your family and your children are worth defending too - most people get that. But you must first believe at you are worth defending too. This is important. Stop reading now and start to think about it, and then believe it. Now go to your window, open it and shout as loud as you can "I am worth defending!!". Great. Now do it again and then keep reading.

Welcome back.

The question of purpose is related to our search for meaning (if you ever get a chance to read Man's Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl, it is excellent). This can be viewed on a number of smaller, but equally valuable levels. We might start each training session with a goal(s) for that session, but we might also ask, "How will I change during the session?" "Will I be a different person from when I started" "How will my martial arts change?". The act of learning new information and new skills changes us - physiologically and psychologically - and training changes us in ways that we can't always appreciate.

Asking these types pf questions is different from setting goals. it is different because it goes to the reason we are there in the first place and whether our practice is taking us to where we want to go. Ideally at the end of each training session we can reflect on what we have  learned - about martial arts and about ourselves. The lessons I have learned from individual training sessions are varied. I have learned that I am more competitive than I thought; that my technique is better than I think; and that I can persist for longer and further than I thought. I like the idea that after each session, I will be a better person than when I started (defined by my own personal criteria). In essence, martial arts can be used as a vehicle for self learning and learning about our self.

"Where am I going?" is a tough question because it requires a high level of self honesty. Think about this question: "How is what I am doing right now contributing towards my desired direction in life?"  Again, this can be looked at simply in terms of working towards goals, but I am trying to impress the notion that asking these questions in a deeper sense can provide an excellent opportunity for personal awareness and development. Also, by asking these hard questions about ourselves, we can gradually develop a deeper understanding of others as well (which is the topic of my next post). We all have the opportunity to look at our current thoughts and actions and ask if they are contributing to the long term desired version of our Self - or if they are detracting from it.

Self development is often touted as being a benefit of martial arts practice and I agree that it is a benefit that keeps people turning up to class long after the perceived need for self defence has faded. However, self development doesn't happen by magic and we can assist this process and get more from it by asking ourselves some Big Questions - about ourselves and about our practice of martial arts.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

I killed my training partner

I once had a training partner who never missed a session. Whenever I was training, he was training. He was always with me. The problem was, he was super critical. Whenever I did a throw or a sweep or a kick or a punch he would always find something wrong with it. Even when the instructor was praising my efforts, my training partner would be critical: "You are slow", "That was worse than the last one", "Clumsy" "you'll never be able to do that" etc.

I tried talking to him and reasoning that his comments were not at all helpful. In the end nothing worked. I even asked him to stop coming to training - these were actually my sessions, after all.

In the end, I decided that he had to die. I made a plan to kill him. And I did it. He's dead now and I'm glad. I can't be arrested for this, you see, because no one will ever find the body.

He was my inner voice - my Self Talk. Super critical. Always there. And now he is dead. Sort of - he still turns up every now and again but never for the whole session and he mostly keeps his mouth shut. So to me he is as good as dead.

Why do so many of us have a negative "voice" in our heads that criticizes and finds fault with our thoughts, feelings and behaviours? It's like going out for lunch with friends and having a great conversation only to have someone ring you up afterward to tell you that you sounded really stupid and actually talked too much as well.

Imagine having a friend who spoke to you the way you speak to yourself! After years of torment, you would be justified in punching them in the face. Twice. So why, why, why do we do it to ourselves?

Research shows that ongoing negative feedback and criticism can result in people having lower work performance, scoring lower on IQ tests and having more psychological problems than others. When we do it to ourselves, it can become a self fulfilling prophesy. As a strategy for improving sporting and athletic performance, constantly giving negative feedback is one that would likely result in a deterioration of performance. Again, if your coach, instructor, teacher etc constantly told you that you are stupid and your technique is terrible, would you stay with them? I wouldn't.

Please note that I am not talking about negative feedback you might give someone if they make a mistake (although I can think of better ways). There have been times when instructors have used the term "terrible" to describe my efforts with a particular technique, but it wasn't a problem for me because it may have been accurate and their usual feedback was more constructive. There is a big difference between providing negative feedback that is constructive and negative feedback that is damaging.

If we accept the notion that ongoing, indiscriminant negative feedback can have a negative affect on performance, it seems crazy that so many people provide such feedback to themselves - especially when the feedback coming from others is overwhelmingly positive

Cognitive psychology is based on the notion that our thoughts can affect our feelings and behaviours. Changing the way one thinks, therefore, is an effective way to change one's feelings and behaviour.

An effective method for many is challenging negative self talk which simply means you assess and decide if it is realistic or not and then replace with with another, more positive statement. For example, a lot of negative self talk is in very absolute terms, eg "I'll never get the hang of this" or "I always make mistakes". Challenging such statements is just a matter of asking honestly if you, in fact, do always make mistakes or are there occasions where you don't. The statement is then reframed into a more reasonable one: "I am having trouble with this technique now but I know if I practice, I'll be able to do it one day". Reminding yourself that you also performed some aspects of the technique well is also a good start.

Like any habit, stopping negative self talk takes time and practice. Consider this: self defence begins in the mind and the toughest opponent you will ever face is yourself. Gaining control of your thoughts is therefore a form of self defence (I use the term self protection). Perhaps I'll call it Psycho-do!

If you are having a slump or your practice is plateauing, stop beating yourself up (even more martial imagery). Replacing negative self talk may just be the most effective way to improve your performance.

So do what I did: kill your training partner.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Overcoming resistance

"Martial arts is the art of overcoming resistance" (Burton Richardson, JKDU)

I really like this idea as resistance is something that I take careful note of when I'm talking to people. For a psychologist, resistance is sometimes a sign of something deeper - and I don't necessarily mean the cliche of childhood memories or parental relationships. I mean resistance is sometimes a sign that you have "hit a nerve" (how's that for a martial arts image)

So when we "hit a nerve" what do most people do? Well... they say something like "wow you are really defensive" (more martial arts imagery) or "gee I really hit a nerve there didn't I?" And then they wonder why the conversation pretty much ends there with awkward silence or perhaps an argument.

A more effective way is to make a mental note of that point of resistance and move gently around it.

Resistance to change is something I will write about more fully at a future date, but for now I just want to introduce some interesting ideas.

I believe that people are inherently good and, more often than not, they will help others. There is probably some cultural (and evolutionary) benefit in helping others. On the other hand, as martial arts practitioners, we face the interesting reflex of resistance. BJJ/Jujutsu and judo rely on the principle that people seem to react in a fairly predictable way: they resist. If pushed or pulled the vast majority of people will instinctively resist and this instinct helps judoka set up throws and takedowns.

So if people are inherently helpful, how can they also be inherently resistant?

One answer could be that helping behaviour is a choice and a person has the opportunity to weigh up the pros and cons of helping before making a decision. Resistance seems to be more of a reflex. Of course, the overall answer is revealed in the preceding two sentences: people are initially resistant unless/until you give them a reason to comply or change - then they can choose.

How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? One, but the light bulb has to want to change. Hilarious aren't I?

This "joke" also provides some clues about all this - if you set up the conditions whereby a person makes the decision to change - and not resist - then the rest is easy. There is a process in psychology which I am a little hooked on called Motivational Interviewing and I'll discuss it some other time in relation to martial arts, but the general idea is that you make people want to change and you overcome resistance by helping them to make a good decision for themselves - all over a series of stages. The series of stages is necessary because it's just too hard for most people to go from A to Z in one hit. Resistance is overcome by making small steps in the right direction.

In martial arts we do this by setting up conditions whereby our "opponent" wants to change (ie react in a way that is better for us). More often than not, we do this via technique combinations or set ups. Boxers want a clear shot at their opponent's head but they can't do that against a raised guard (of course "raising you guard" is yet another term we use in relationships). In  order to get the other person to lower his guard, the boxer might do a low, high combination - one to the stomach and one to the head.

In judo and BJJ, we might pull against a person's gi in order to to make them react by shifting their weight backwards in order for us to set up O-Soto Gari. It's all a series of small stages that get us closer to our goal. Kuzushi (unbalancing) is a way to change the environment for a person to make them want to change - in this case they "decide" to change in an attempt to regain their balance.

Meeting resistance head on is futile. Making small steps is a good start. But setting up the conditions whereby a person wants to change and the decision to change is internally motivated is gold. In life, this can take.... well.... a long time.... but in martial arts, it might take a second. In essence we are seeking to make our opponent more predictable.

The beauty of all this is that, in the end, you are both working towards a common goal - the opponent throws him/herself and you just provide happy assistance where required. If only it were all so easy!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Motivation and martial arts

One of my favourite topics in psychology is motivation. Put very simply motivation is the thing that makes us do the things we do. Whatever reason you have for taking action is due to motivation.

Frequently, people make comments such as "I am not motivated" or "I feel very motivated". In psychological terms, it is better to think of motivation as a direction rather than magnitude. That is, you are always motivated. So instead of saying you are not feeling motivated and that's why you went to have a coffee rather than completing a report for work, you should recognise that you are very motivated. You are motivated to drink coffee and not work. It just happens that going to a cafe and working in the office are mutually exclusive - you need to make a choice and the outcome of that choice is the direction of your motivation.

So what's this got to do with martial arts?

I try to make my training as realistic as possible because I want my martial arts to be effective self defence. I have a family who I want to protect. However, the (enviable) problem I have is that I am not in danger. The fact that I barely leave my house after 6pm or go to bars or clubs anymore means that I tend to stay out of trouble. So this presents me with an interesting situation: I train for something that is not present and is not likely to be an issue for me. Yes yes, I know evil doers lurk elsewhere as well!

The founders of many martial arts were in quite a different situation. For example, many forms of Filipino martial arts were developed in response to invading forces - just as many other martial arts have their origins in war. So the men and women who were using martial arts in those times were motivated to ensure they only practiced techniques that worked - because their lives were on the line. They faced situations where they had to fight or be killed.

In terms of motivation being a matter of direction - those in times of conflict are probably motivated to develop and train high percentage realistic techniques rather than techniques for recreation. Put another way, if you somehow knew that you would be facing a life threatening conflict in a weeks time, what techniques would you train? How would you prepare? I'd practice 100 metre sprints but that's another story...

I try to make my training realistic and I pressure test techniques against progressive resistance, despite the fact that I am not in any realistic danger. I do it because I find it an interesting way to train and it provides me with focus. But there is so much more to martial arts than self defence. I have a great respect for those who train for the sake of learning a martial art without concern for self defence because they are realistically training for the environment that most of us live in - one where the chance of attack exists but is unlikely.

So circumstances can influence motivation which in turn influences behaviour. As I get older, I am looking at my martial arts practice and thinking about how to ensure that I can keep training for many years to come. My motivation for training is changing. I think I will always train for self defence, but I can now see the need to train for self protection as well.

The difference between self defence and self protection for me is that defence is against an external force and protection is against an internal force. I know that psychological health can have a large impact on physical health. For example, by keeping stress under control one can prevent many forms of chronic illness. Martial arts, of course are a perfect way of managing stress. I have spent years training for self defence and now is the time (at 43) to start looking at self protection. And as I get older, I can see my circumstances influencing my motivation and behaviour time and time again.

So be motivated to combat the toughest (and most likely) opponent you will ever face (you), but don't forget there are others to protect also.