Tag Archives: Aikido

Peace Amid the Storm

Several years ago I was part of an advanced Aikido class in which we learned some Japanese history and a bit about the samurai culture, from which comes the sword techniques that form the basis of Aikido. One day Sensei spoke about the mindset of the samurai.

“Let’s say a samurai is out walking and it begins to rain,” he said. “Ordinary people would run for cover. But a samurai keeps walking. He does not let external events – those he cannot control – disturb his serenity.”

Perhaps serenity could also come from the idea that "I have a sword and you don't" but that's beside the point.

Perhaps serenity could also come from the idea that “I have a sword and you don’t” but that’s beside the point.

Since then I have had many opportunities to put this principle into practice. Walking outside on a recent cold windy day, I suddenly became aware of my body posture – stooping, hunched shoulders, and scrunched-up face. It was pure reflex – a natural reaction. But was it helping anything? Not a bit. So I stood straight, dropped my shoulders and relaxed my face. I wasn’t any warmer, but I was more comfortable.

Then there’s running. Living in a four-season state, I get to train and race in all sorts of conditions, not all of which are enjoyable. But to reap the benefits of running, I must run, and treadmills just don’t do it for me. And just as important as the physical benefits, running outdoors provides a way to re-establish my sense of serenity. By working the body and clearing the mind of everyday clutter, I can find a way to enjoy the moment regardless of the weather.

I had one such moment at last summer’s Road Runner Classic 8K trail race. Part way into a one-mile warmup run, it began to rain lightly. People fled for cover. I am a samurai, I told myself, and continued my warmup. The rain continued and became a downpour. Water flooded my shoes and streamed down my hair, but I completed my mile. After all, one can only get so wet.

I had a set of dry backup clothes in my car, but that's beside the point.

I had a set of dry backup clothes in my car, but that’s beside the point.

I returned to the staging area, looking at everyone huddled under various shelters, and was struck by how miserable they looked, all hunched in their raincoats. How did I, the one soaked from head to toe, feel? Check the photo. A little thing like a rainstorm was not going to affect my serenity. Why should it? I understood the risk of rain that day, and since I could do nothing to change the weather, getting upset about it would not have helped. So I chose to embrace the rain, and man, was it fun.

At the finish line. Sticking it out has its benefits.

At the finish line. Sticking it out has its benefits.

Now I’m far from being able to apply this all the time. Today (Friday), after a hectic week at work, I was looking forward to Saturday’s Bigfoot Snowshoe race in Traverse City. But I had stuff to do before I could head up north, and for a good part of last night and this morning I was tense and anxious, wondering how I’d get everything done in time. Finally, the absurdity of the situation struck me.

You’re heading up north to have fun, I thought. Why are you wasting your day off stressing out? After that, despite snow and slippery roads in the TC area, I was able to maintain my serenity. So perhaps I’m learning.


P.S. The title of this post comes from this quote: Serenity is not freedom from the storm, but peace amid the storm.

Why I’m Not Giving up Goals

Last month at my favorite writers retreat, I was talking with a friend about my running, and that I’d just run my first 50-miler (hey, she asked). She shook her head. “How did you ever do something like that?” she wondered.

I told her about my “year of being 50” activities and the stuff I’d accomplished, including a 50K, and this had been the next challenge. “You are so goal oriented!” she said. And it’s true: I got where I am by setting goals all along the way. And I intend to keep doing so.

Now wait a minute! In your last post, you argued against setting goals!

Now wait a minute! In your last post, you argued why you shouldn’t set goals!

True. Lemme ‘splain.

Have you learned yet, grasshopper?

Have you learned yet, grasshopper?

I’m fine with the idea that you can pursue something for its own sake, and you don’t need a goal to grow and improve. My Aikido instructors have been trying to beat this into my head for eight years – that I should focus on the training, and not on what rank I am. So I didn’t set an arbitrary date for achieving black belt, although I have set goal dates for tests. (But not this year: my injured shoulder has made testing impossible for the time being, so I am forced to focus on the training itself. Karma?)

But with running, setting goals has helped motivate me. It’s how this infrequent runner who did the occasional 5K race became a 1,000+ mile per year runner who can run 50 at a time. I didn’t really get serious as a runner until I signed up for a Running 101 class at a local running store. The instructor handed a questionnaire to all of us, asking what we wanted to get out of the class, and – significantly – to choose a running goal and a timeframe for achieving it. I’d never run more than 5-6 miles at one time, but I committed to a half marathon later that year.

Crossing the finish line at Run Woodstock.

Crossing the 50-mile finish line. Never woulda happened without that first commitment to a distance I’d never run before.

Now, I wasn’t going to “fail” Running 101 if I hadn’t set a goal, and no one would have been disappointed (except me), but putting it in writing, and handing it in, made it real – something I felt obligated to carry out. Every milestone since then has been the result of setting a goal, then putting in the training needed. If I were just running to stay fit, or for the social aspects, then I wouldn’t feel the need to keep setting them. But there are still some personal limits I’d like to test.

And then there’s this quote from Bill Copeland:

“The trouble with not having a goal is that you can spend your life running up and down the field and never score.”

Is it possible to do well at something without goals? Sure. But will you? Without that first half marathon, would I have run a full one the next year, or my first ultra the year after that? Maybe, but likely not. The simple act of committing to the half was that rare event – a genuine life changer.

NaNoWriMo Web BadgeGoing back to the writers retreat – I’ve been writing stories since I was in grade school, attended many retreats, and even managed to “win” the 2012 National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) challenge by writing a novel of 50,000 words in one month. With NaNoWriMo 2013 fast approaching, I’ve had to ask myself why I didn’t finish that novel, revise it, and look to publish it. Yes, I have a rather busy rest of my life. But is the real reason because I didn’t set a goal to finish what I’d started?

I think I’m going to make myself find out. Stay tuned.


P.S. My thanks to the Personal Excellence website for introducing me to the Bill Copeland quote with their article on why you should set goals. Read the article here.

No Thinking on the Mat, Please


(Those of you familiar with Aikido already know this isn’t going to end well.)

Random stuff popped in and out of my mind as we loosened up on the mat; important stuff like how hot it was in the gym, where to get ice cream after class, whether my hurt shoulder was going to hold up. Then out of nowhere came an actual worthwhile thought – that I needed to stop thinking.

I once heard the story in class about the student who wanted to train with a great master and was invited to tea. When they were seated, the master poured tea into the student’s cup, and continued to pour even when the tea reached the rim and spilled over. The student asked him to stop because his cup was full. “Yes, I know,” the master said. “Please come back when your cup is empty.” [1]  In other words, a mind already occupied with other thoughts is not prepared to receive Aikido.

So I cleared my mind and did my best to focus on what was happening at each moment. All went well through our practice of basic movements and breakfalls, and the buki techniques (when a sword strike is headed your way, one tends to pay attention). Then Sensei called me up as Uke to demonstrate a throwing technique.

Definitely not the time to be pondering Moose Tracks vs. Cappuccino Crunch.

Definitely not the time to be pondering Moose Tracks vs. Cappuccino Crunch.

I enjoy being the demo Uke but I’m always a bit apprehensive about it. I don’t know which technique I’m helping demonstrate until Sensei announces it. Then I do my best to follow his lead and hope I don’t screw up too badly. I’m told everyone makes mistakes doing this, but as far as I know I’m the only one who’s been dragged entirely off the mat – twice – before figuring out I was supposed to slide flat. But this time, Sensei announced a 4th Kyu reverse hand throw, and I relaxed a bit. I knew this one. [2]

I remember when triple cones were 59 cents at Baskin-Robbins.

Remember when triple cones were 59 cents at Baskin-Robbins?

I grabbed his wrist and he led me around in a pivot, then raised my arm and ducked under. So far, so good. I then prepared for his next move – which was at least a triple mistake. First and foremost, Uke should never “anticipate” Shite’s move, but stay focused on the moment and follow his lead. Failing that, I also prepared for the wrong move, and turned my attention away from him slightly. So I didn’t see his approaching fist (the next move being an uppercut punch) and thus didn’t block it. I was able to continue the demo and finish class (and I’m fine now), but let’s just say it was a bit challenging to chew my dinner that night.

So even after I’d reminded myself to empty my mind, I started thinking again – and paid the price. The irony is that I go to evening Aikido classes to do just that – to clear away a long, fatiguing day at work and just train, which refreshes my body and mind. But to do that well takes practice, just like any physical technique. This not thinking isn’t easy!


[1] This story is also found in Advanced Aikido by Phong Thong Dang.

[2]  Sensei has also often said you’re headed for trouble when you think, “Oh, I know this one…”

Celebrating the New, and the Longstanding

I JUST GOT SOME EXCITING NEWS from my recently departed Aikido instructor, who has settled into his new place in Middlebury, Vermont. Today I got an invitation to visit the new Aikido Yoshokai Vermont Facebook page. Classes begin in September!

Our new Vermont dojo sensei (center) at a black belt test demonstration.

Our new Vermont dojo sensei (center) at a black belt test demonstration.

(By the way, if you visit that page, the current main photo is from our Rec & Ed class. The new Vermont dojo sensei is second from right, and our new Rec & Ed instructor is leftmost. Yours truly is second from left.)

Another recent milestone occurred last Sunday, as mother celebrated her 80th birthday. It also happened to be Bastille Day, another excellent reason to sit around and eat stuff. Vive La France et passe le chocolat!

My mom, her three kids, and my wife (the awesome cake maker).

My mom, her three kids, and my wife (the awesome cake maker).

Naturally, I wanted to suggest we all go for a refreshing five-mile run, followed by dinner at a nice vegetarian place with lots of nutrient dense organic goodies, with yummy carob tofu pudding for dessert. (Those of you who want to believe that, please stop reading here.) So after stuffing our faces at our favorite Middle Eastern place, we repaired to our house for cake and ice cream.

This most definitely does not show up in any "10 Healthiest Foods for Runners" list. Tough rocks.

This most definitely does not show up in any “10 Healthiest Foods for Runners” list. Tough rocks.

This plain yellow cake with a thick, fudgy dark chocolate frosting is her favorite cake and was also my favorite cake growing up. The frosting is made with lots of butter and confectioner’s sugar, and leftover frosting can be eaten by itself as fudge. It gets laid on thick so we can eat the cake layers first and leave the frosting standing by itself. Can’t beat it.


Now I can’t say that Mom is the same kind of exercise nut that her son might be, but she does get around.

"It's the little old lady from Pasadena Dexter Township"

“It’s the little old lady from Pasadena Dexter Township!”

Thanks again, Mom, for bringing me into the world, and for not taking me out those times I most assuredly deserved it.