Tag Archives: samurai

Off The Mat, But Still Training

Leaving the gym recently, I ran into a former classmate in an Aikido kenshu (advanced study) class. We spent a few minutes catching up, and he asked me if I was still training in Aikido.

I’m not taking any classes at the moment, in part because the winter Rec & Ed session was cancelled, and with increased running and strength training my schedule is full anyway. But I told him that in other ways I practice Aikido every day.

I can’t help it.

Aikido did not become a life-consuming passion for me like running has. But my eleven-plus years of training have definitely created a lasting influence, whether or not I’m standing on the mat in a dojo.

For instance, a few days ago I went to get a haircut. I emerged from my car into a cold, blustery, rainy day (re: March in Michigan). Instinctively my shoulders rode up, face tensed, eyes narrowed, and I began to hunch-walk rapidly toward the covered area near the shop. Standard behavior, right?

And then kenshu training kicked in. A samurai, Sensei had said in a lecture, does not let rain, or cold, or other external situations disturb his serenity. Running for cover all hunched over is for other people.

I relaxed, stood straight, and walked the rest of the distance at a normal pace, as though it were a perfect sunny day. Perhaps I got a little bit wetter, but it was worth the restoration of my serenity.

With enough training, one can even embrace bad weather!

Other things practiced in class come out in everyday life too. Being more patient in stressful situations, like slow traffic or long lines. More tolerance for the mistakes of others, and even my own. Being polite and respectful at all times, and seeking harmony in all situations. And more.

Sometimes the benefits of training manifest very quickly, too. Some years ago I left a stressful situation at work to attend a lunchtime class. When I came back my attitude had changed completely, and the situation was resolved harmoniously. You can read that story here.

I could chalk up some of this to eleven additional years of life experience, or the expected increase in maturity as one grows older (well, maybe). Except that many times when I remind myself to be patient, or remain polite, or listen more, in my mind’s eye I’m standing on the mat. All these behaviors are not just essential to Aikido training, they are expected by Sensei and the other students. Not to do so would bring quick attention to oneself, and not in a good way.

Better be nice to your fellow students.

Perhaps the surprising thing is that these behaviors aren’t always expected by other people all the time.

So like it or not, Aikido is certain to remain a fundamental part of who I am for the rest of my life, whether or not I ever go to another class. And I have no problem with that.


I’m a Stoic, and Didn’t Know Ic

I was browsing recently through some articles I’d archived for later reading, and came upon this gem from Eric Barker’s blog, Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Full article: 4 Lifehacks From Ancient Philosophers That Will Make You Happier

Here Eric describes some principles of the ancient philosophy of Stoicism and how modern scientific studies actually back up the idea that they increase happiness. While reading through his article, I recognized some things I do these days that seem to fit right in with those principles. Marcus Aurelius would be so proud.


When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive - to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.

When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.

Here’s a few Stoic principles, and how I was unknowingly following them. Perhaps you will find that you are doing the same thing!

Negative Visualization – taming your anxiety about something by imagining the worst. Motivational speaker Les Brown was so afraid of the dentist, he was always putting off appointments. Finally, he said, “I imagined myself in that chair where I just died!” – and the image was so silly that he got over his fear and got his teeth fixed.

I applied this with my recent colonoscopy. (Yes, I’ve reached that certain age.) Thinking about the procedure produced the expected discomfort, so I kept putting it off “for just a bit”. Then I remembered Les Brown, took a deep breath, and scheduled the appointment. And thanks to the drugs, I don’t remember a thing about it.

I got another one...

I got another one.

The Stoics also generated feelings of gratitude for what they had by imagining it all lost – even family and friends. A wise person told me once to prepare yourself to say goodbye to something from the moment you obtain it. So when our kitten threatened to break my newly won Holiday Hustle Christmas ornament, I was calm enough to save it without yelling at her. Then I dropped it. And even managed to laugh about it.

Stop anger by being calm – even if you have to fake it at first. All of us get angry at times. But losing control may cause you to do something you’ll regret later. There are a couple of ways I deal with getting angry these days. First, I recognize and acknowledge that I’m angry. It’s what Dr. Wayne Dyer calls “being the watcher” – that part of us that is always serene. It’s the ego that gets angry, and the ego is not who we really are. If I can get that far, I can then remind myself that I can choose how to respond instead of blindly reacting.

Second, I’ve come to learn that I get angry sometimes because I’ve misunderstood what someone is saying or doing. So by asking for more information, or observing something more closely, I can see that my anger is misguided, and end it right there.

Delayed gratification. In America today we can get just about anything we want, at just about any time. But is that making us any happier? The Stoics believed that by deliberately withholding something pleasurable, it would a) make you appreciate what you already have, and b) increase the pleasure when you do indulge. Lent is a famous example, although I’m not sure how many people these days really give up something for 40 days.

Chasing Ice Cream TruckBut here’s something that can motivate me when getting the workout in, or completing a long run, seems challenging. I tell myself I can have a treat at the end, like ice cream. Then after I’m done, sometimes I get the ice cream. But more often, the satisfaction I get from completing the workout is enough that I don’t need the external reward anymore. And on off days, I put off getting ice cream, telling myself I will enjoy it so much more the next day, after my run. And so on.

Question for my Aikido friends: Does any of this sound familiar?

Sorry for the irreverence. But this is still one of the funniest sketches ever. Click here to watch it.

Sorry for the irreverence. But this is still one of the funniest sketches ever. Click here to watch it.

As another article by Eric Barker points out, many of the same principles were part of Japanese samurai culture – most notably, the idea of a calm mind in all situations. Other parallels include preparing for the worst (a samurai trained every day with death in mind), and control of one’s mind at all times. By doing this, a samurai could establish a feeling of control even in the most chaotic situations.

Read more: Lessons from the Samurai: The Secret to Always Being At Your Best

I suppose the moral of all this is that no matter whether you’re oriented more toward the West or the East, there’s much wisdom in common. So keep on learning!

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.