Integrity – Its What You Do When No One Is Watching


GambatteAs an Instructor, I often move about the martial arts mat making corrections to techniques, and offering advice.  Even with Adults, I often notice that the student will adjust their technique if they think I am watching them. For most students this is an unconscious action, but even so, I still ask the question “Why”?  What are you trying to change now that you think I am watching?  If you are changing, then which is the “real” technique, when I am watching or when I am not?

Most of us are social creatures; we interact and respond to the people that are around us.  Have you ever acted differently because you knew someone was watching you?  Have you ever been singing in the car to a great tune, only to stop  when you see the guy laughing at you in the car next to you?  We are often embarrassed in social situations when we perceive others are judging us or mocking us.

However, as I tell my students, eventually you must become comfortable with yourself as a person; what you say, what you do, what you think.  The term I would use for this is Integrity.  Integrity is the steadfast dedication to the truth, be it scientific truth, historical truth, or personal truth.  There is an easier way to think about it, however.  Integrity is what you do when no one is watching you.  You sacrifice your integrity every time you change your behavior for others.  In order to take your character (and your training) to the next level, you must find a way to become a person of Integrity all the time; 24 hours a day / 7 days a week.   Find the person that you are when no one is watching, and make that person who you are in all situations.  You will be one step closer to becoming a more happy, comfortable, fulfilled person.  A person of Integrity.

Its OK to be a White Belt.

white beltArticle provided by Paul Fanning, 6th Kyu

Think back to a time when you learned a new martial arts technique.  Did you get it right the first time?  Probably not.  How did that make you feel?

If you were a white belt, you probably didn’t feel surprised at all, because you knew you were a beginner.  You knew it was natural to make some mistakes when starting something new.

If you were a more advanced student and didn’t pick up the new technique immediately, how did you feel?  Did you

feel stupid?  Incompetent?  Did it make you wonder if you really deserved the rank you wore?

There’s a challenge to learning in martial arts that tends to grow as we move up in rank.  The farther we move forward, the more we are tempted to feel frustrated when we don’t pick up new things instantly.  When our sensei shows us a new move and makes it look effortless and even magical, some of us think, Wow, I’m a [insert belt color] so why can’t I do it like that?

Let me suggest that the problem is that advanced students frustrate themselves because they think they should be experts right away.  My previous martial arts instructor told me that sometimes you have to give yourself permission to be a white belt.  His point was that anytime you learn something new, you’re still a white belt as far as the new material is concerned—no matter what color belt is tied around your waist.  So if you tell yourself it’s okay not to get something right the first time, you can avoid the self-doubt and frustration that come with expecting perfection.

This has been one of the most valuable lessons I have learned in martial arts.  I came to aikido less than a year ago after training for much of my life in taekwondo.  Although I hold a black belt in that style, I could not expect to do perfect aikido the first day I stepped onto the mat because most of the concepts in aikido were new to me.  As I put on

a fresh gi and a white belt for the first time in 30 years, I had to give myself permission to be a white belt.  I knew I wouldn’t do aikido like a black belt the first night or anytime soon—and that was okay.  It was more important to acknowledge I was a beginner if I was going to give myself room to learn and not grow frustrated.

This is a valuable lesson in life off the mat too.  Some people don’t try new things because they think they wouldn’t be any good at them.  Maybe they are right, but so what?  Maybe people would try new things if they would give themselves permission to be beginners.  When you take up a new hobby, start a new job or take a new class, you are a putting on a white belt in that new hobby, job or class.  Suppose you’re learning to play the piano.  Work hard, but don’t demand that you will play like a black belt in piano immediately.  Tell yourself there is no shame in not getting something right the first time.  Then you won’t get as frustrated about your mistakes and shortcomings as you polish your new skill.

Can an advanced student catch onto new material faster than a beginner?  Sometimes, because the advanced student has spent more time on the basic material that leads up to the new technique.  But even for an expert there is a first time for something new.  If the expert admits that, he is ready to learn with the open-mindedness and humility of a beginner.

Remember, no matter what rank you wear in class or what you do outside the dojo, we all have moments when it’s okay to be a white belt.

The “Art” in Martial Arts


In any athletic endeavor, there is a progression of understanding  as to how to perform.  In our martial arts school, my instructor taught that you started by learning;

  1.  the form of the technique (or movement)
  2. the function of the technique (or movement)
  3. the effectiveness of the technique (or movement)
  4. the art of the technique (or movement)

I believe that this applies to all athletic endeavors, from yoga to football.  The progression of form to function to effectiveness seems self-explanatory.  We must work to make our movements more efficient, more effective, with less thought, whether its blocking an incoming attack, or returning a tennis serve.  Where then, does the “art” phase come in?  We all have seen the “art” in watching games or performances in which athletes went “beyond” themselves.  But what did they actually do?

I tell my students that hopefully, if I train them properly, someday they should be able to walk in to another martial arts school and perform their techniques the way that school performs them.  Why?  Because I did not teach them techniques; I taught them how to move.  Thus, if I taught them how to move properly, they should be able to instantly adapt to the new movement they are seeing.

The art of the technique, then, is the ability to perfectly move in any given encounter.  This is not easy.  It requires precision, timing, and an understanding of oneself, and the environment that one is placed in.  But when you see the perfect tackle at the goal-line, the perfect lay-up in basketball, the perfect serve in tennis, it is because the athlete has moved beyond technique, and has entered into the essence of movement.

Look for the “art” in your chosen field.  Practice until you can move exactly the way you want.  Remember, it may take years of practice until you move with this kind of precision.  Work on your techniques, but ultimately, find the essence of the movement.

Courage in Everyday Life

One of the things that martial artists do is take warrior concepts, such as honor, duty, courage and discipline, and try to make these concepts more concrete so that they can be used in everyday life for “average” people.  Just because most people do not have to face life-or-death decisions everyday in modern society, does not mean that they have no use for courage and discipline. In no where is this there a more important example than the recent Penn State scandal.

As I tried to come to terms with the information coming out from Penn State , I tried to understand what I was most upset/angry about.  I came to the conclusion that , oddly enough, I was not most upset at the main suspect.  Don’t get me wrong; if the allegations are true, I view him as a monster that should be put away forever.  But you can only get so angry at a predator that does what predators do; prey on the young or the weak.  I realized that I was much more angry at the others involved in the scandal.  I was angry at the good people who did not have the courage to do the right thing.  I was angry at the people who stood by and did nothing, to the detriment of several little boys.  They did not understand the concept of courage.

Courage has many definitions, I’m sure, but the definition that is most useful for me is; courage is taking action in the face of fear.  Courage is doing the right thing when fear tells you not to.  Those other people involved in the Penn State scandal were (and are) good people.  They pay their taxes, they work hard at their jobs, they take care of their families.  But when faced with a criminal act, they knew what they were supposed to do, yet didn’t, because they were scared of the consequences.  They justified it by saying to themselves, “I didn’t commit this crime.  Why should I have to suffer the consequences of reporting it?”  So, they either did nothing or the bare minimum, and tried to ignore it ever happened.

This lack of courage has catastrophic consequences for society.  When good people do nothing when they see crimes against humanity, it allows ever-increasing atrocities to occur.  It is this mentality that allows countless wives to be beaten, that allowed slavery as a way of life, that allowed the Nazis to commit horrible crimes.  One can quickly see that not having the courage to stand up and report wrongdoing damages us all.  It certainly did not save the Penn State staff from consequences.  Karma always comes around.

Here is the question you must ask yourself right now.  I am willing to bet that you are a good person.  Do you have the courage to report wrong-doing?  There will always be criminals and crime.  But good people who do not have the courage to do the right thing make criminals 10X more powerful.  It is very difficult to know what to do when you are in the middle of the problem.  Remember, courage is taking action even though you are scared. So, get a hold of your fear,  go ahead and do the right thing.  Not only will you be able to live with yourself better, society will benefit as well.

Mind Body Spirit Revisited

A prospective student came in one night and was observing class.  I asked him if he had any questions. He asked “what kind of mind-body-spirit improvement will I get if I train here?  What specifically do you do that improves mind-body-spirit?”  What a wonderful and complicated question.  I believe the student was right to ask such an important question, but I also believe he was looking for a one-sentence answer.  Silly Student.

Most martial arts schools pay lip service to the mind-body-spirit idea, but many do not deliver.  For many the concept is too esoteric, and it is left up to the student to “find” it within his/her training.  Actually I believe it boils down to a relatively simple concept – if you want to strive for mind/body/spirit improvement in your life, you must strive to become perfect at your chosen endeavor.

I had the privilege of watching the “Yamato” taiko drummers give a performance in Lincoln last weekend.  It was phenomenal.  They received multiple standing ovations.  The audience could tell at once that is was more than just a good drum performance.  It was athletic.  It was graceful.  It was transcendent. It was beautiful.  I read that the drummers all live together on the road, so they can pick up the nuances of each other.  Their daily routine consists of a 10K run, followed by weight lifting ( which was definitely required judging from their performance) until noon.  They practice drumming together in the afternoon, and individual practice continues until they go to bed at night.  They are on the road 10 months a year in foreign countries, and either prepare, perform, clear, or travel from their performances.

The Yamato drummers are a clear example of striving for perfection, and the mind-body-spirit is manifest in their performance. “Wait,” you say, “my mom used to say nobody’s perfect”.  That may be true.  But that does not mean you cannot strive to become perfect.  The struggle is what is important.

Do you want to find the mind-body-spirit connection in your Aikido training?  Excellent.  Strive with every fiber of your being to execute your techniques perfectly.  Strive to develop perfect awareness.  Become perfectly calm in your mind.  Will you ever become perfect?  Maybe not, but your training and your life will be taken to a whole new level.  The level of mind-body-spirit.

What is the Ideal Aikido Student? #LNK

What is the Ideal Student?Some visitors who came in to observe an Aikido class one night, noted the adult students starting to clean the dojo, like they always do after class.  “Why do you make them clean the dojo?”  the visitor asked.  I answered, ” I don’t make them clean the dojo.  They are free to leave at anytime.”  The visitor looked at me like “Yeah, right.”, but didn’t say anything.  The visitor was correct in thinking that I did have something to do with the students cleaning up after class.  But the visitor obviously considered cleaning as a punishment, or “beneath” the students.  This misunderstanding is common, and begs the question; what is the role of an “ideal” student?

As a new student, I must understand that, in terms of the martial art, I know nothing, and accepting this is difficult for Americans.  All of us want to feel “competent” in whatever we are doing, even when we are just starting out.  But this is the very first step in learning how to extinguish our ego; our arrogance that we “know something”.  Once we accept that we know nothing, it becomes liberating.  We stop worrying about how we are perceived by others, and concentrate on learing what we are excited to learn.

But even this is not the primary requirement to becoming an “ideal” student.  What makes the ideal student is; the student is willing to learn whatever is required  in order to become a better person.  For example, when the student cleans the dojo, the student is learning to respect and appreciation for the surroundings that allow them to become a better person.   When the student says “thank you” to their partner each time, they are learning that their partner is assisting in their own self-improvement, and this must be recognized.

This willingness to learn whatever is required is not easy.  It requires great trust in the instructor to guide the student in their self-development.  It requires the student to give up their ego, and their own control, and allow others to help them.  However, the benefits from this mentality becomes priceless.  The student starts to excel past his peers, and become a person of power and integrity.

So, at least during class, give up your control, and allow others to help you become a person of power and integrity.  Become the ideal student.

Self Defense Concepts #78 – Read Your Opponent

Have you ever wondered how warriors and Martial Artists develop that “sixth sense” that allows them to anticipate movements of their attackers, and choreograph strikes and techniques with 4 or 5  attackers?  I’ll let you in on a little secret.

It’s not magic.

They just pay attention more than you do.

“Reading” people is a time-honored skill, and is useful in all types of endeavors, from poker, to business, to martial arts.  What does “reading” someone mean?  It means that you pay attention to all the information coming to you from that person; how they hold their posture, their facial expression, how their weight is placed, where they focus their eyes, how they are reacting to you and the people around them, etc.

Seriously,  when was the last time you noticed which way someone’s toes were pointed?  Good Martial Artists notice those things.  It tells them which way your adversary might move or strike, whether the will use their feet, hands or with a weapon.

Like anything else, learning to read people is not a skill most of us were blessed with;  it requires patience and practice to master.  As you become more attuned to reading opponents, you will find yourself evaluating people as they walk down the street toward you.  Hone that skill.  It will serve you well in all aspects of life, from music concerts to business meetings.  The more you can learn to read people, the more successful you can become in your own endeavors.