Thursday, January 15, 2009

A Lesson In Action

Remember last month's newsletter? The topic was breathing as a practice in the face of fear.

The lesson was punctuated on Tuesday, December 23rd. A score of us attended an aikido class at Two Rock Aikido. Richard Strozzi-Heckler, our sensei, moved us into an exercise for which he is uniquely known: walking, turning, standing. A kind of organized chaos. Random and rapid, yet relaxed. The idea: in a confined and silent room, each of us moves and allows the space between us to appear and disappear revealing opportunity for best action. To be in this swirl you are encouraged to forego a plan, other than to allow a sort of gravity (created by the empty space and those around you) to pull you from one direction to another. Its value, either as a martial arts exercise or life metaphor, may be hard to imagine until practiced. Kind of like ice cream - explain all you want; but it's only through taking a bite that one really understands and enjoys. Such is the way with any commitment. A few minutes into the exercise Richard's voice cut the silence, "Pay attention to your breath! It's the platform of our art."

This month's topic for consideration, again for effective action during times of stress, tension and fear, is humor and laughter.

Google search laughter and you'll find a flood of online articles advising its mind-freeing benefit and remedies for creativity. A belly laugh every twenty-four hours is apparently good heart medicine - emotionally and physically.

Author Laurence Gonzales offers his perspective:

· "Every pursuit has its own subculture, from hang gliders and step creek boaters to cavers and mountain bikers. I love their dark and private humor, those ritual moments of homage to the organism, which return us to a protective state of cool. It unequivocally separates the living from the dead."

· "The fact is you have to deal with these things [fear and terror] to the best of your ability. If you don't work with it, it'll get to you."

· "It sounds cruel, but survivors laugh and play, and even in the most horrible situations -- perhaps especially in those situations -- they continue to laugh and play. To deal with reality you must first recognize it as such --- (P)lay puts a person in touch with his environment while laughter makes the feeling of being threatened manageable."

· "Moods are contagious, and the emotional states involved with smiling, humor, and laughter are among the most contagious of all. It's automatic, and one person laughing or smiling induces the same reaction in others. --- There is evidence that laughter can send chemical signals to actively inhibit the firing of nerves in the amygdala, thereby dampening fear."

· "It is not a lack of fear that separates elite performers from the rest of us. They're afraid, too, but they're not overwhelmed by it. They manage fear."
(p 40-41, Deep Survival, 2004, W.W. Norton publisher)

As for me, I recall a cold January afternoon twelve years ago. Laying seriously injured on Capitola Beach, California, I was alone. My fall from a boulder had completely split my left femur. My friend ran for help and returned an hour later with a bevy of paramedics and police officers. "Are you the victim?" they asked, " We're looking for a dead body." "Yes and no," I confessed. "Yes, I'm the (ugh) victim, and NO, I'm not dead." Into a metal basket I went. The pain - horrendous. Our trek, the rescuers figured, needed to be straight out into the ocean, avoid the big rocks, then circle back onto sand once near the ambulance. The tide was incoming. It was going to be a rough trip and we all knew it. Every step's jarring motion produced in me a scream. So I asked the medics, now up to their glutes in salt water, "You guys mind if I do something strange?" "Nah, go ahead," they agreed; and I began humming loudly - more like groaming (think hybrid hum and groan). The tune, "Think of Me" from Phantom of the Opera. The medics started to grin and laugh. Through half a mile of surf my groaming continued, mixed with intermittent screams. At times, I was smiling too. What a relieving way to overcome the pain (mine) and the work (theirs). It also kept me conscious. It remains for me an unforgettable journey. And for them, perhaps the strangest, funniest and most relaxed rescue ever.

Returning to Tuesday, December 23rd - a few days ago. Something happened that night that was unexpectedly funny (maybe that's what makes humor so powerful -it evokes spontaneity). Richard was in the midst of testing one of the students. The atmosphere was formal and serious, with high expectation for excellence in a display of deliberate attacks and blends. There was tension in the air. "Show me variations from yokomen uchi," Richard ordered. And he continued, "Now, show me variations from morote dori". And on it went becoming faster and more intense - "from katadori" - "from ushiro waza". Then suddenly, making no sense at all, his voice cracked the tension across the room, "Now show me - sand the floor." For an instant none of us believed what we had heard. I started laughing. The laughter became infectious. A warm wave of relief swept the dojo and the person being tested proceeded with ease, grace and dignity, and filled with breath. The rest of us watching, thoroughly enjoyed the art he displayed.

If you have never seen the film, The Karate Kid the "show me sand the floor" is as meaningless as un-savored ice cream. If you have seen that movie - maybe you're smiling too.

Consider this: laughter increases one's capacity for breath.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

In The Face of Fear- Take A Deep Breath

Last month it was Truman’s; “The only thing new in the world is the history we don’t know.” This month the quote is from his predecessor, Franklin Roosevelt, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

The quote is quite relevant given our national and international situation. And it’s concerning on another level. If Jay Leno, of Tonight Show fame, were to do his question-on-the-street sketch, poking microphones into faces and asking about history, many people would be stumped regarding who Truman and Roosevelt were. To stretch the sad humor of this and imagine Jay prodding his innocents with, “Well, let me help you. Roosevelt died on the job and Truman took over. Tell me, for a free foot-long hotdog, who was the vice president where Roosevelt worked?” The odds are we’d see a few people stumble, mumble and finally utter something like, “What company did Roosevelt work for?” OR if they knew Roosevelt’s final job we may hear, “Ahhhh, ummm, Richard Nixon?” Score “one” for Mr. Leno. Score “minus three” for FDR, Harry and the rest of us.

No doubt we are living in fearful and chaotic times that in many ways defy common sense. When last month’s newsletter was a work in progress a gallon of regular across the street cost over four dollars. Today, the same sign advertises it at $1.89. During this same period, the stock market has gone to hell, to the moon, back to hell, and now rests somewhere just above or below sea level depending on where you’re standing. Everybody’s cousin is appearing before the U.S. Congress asking for a bailout. Who will be next? Big oil? Obama and McCain were campaigning like crazy. That election is now history. Obama his more work cut out for him than anyone imagined (or admitted to) six months ago. Mumbai, economic center to one sixth of the world’s population, has just been shaken along by radicals who’s numbers probably couldn’t fill a section of Jay Leon’s Tonight Show theater or full staff the restaurant across the street from the station selling buck-eighty-nine gas.

When it comes to remaining effective during times of change, fear, pressure, chaos and crisis, where is the practical training? Practices were and are available through school: problem solving, test taking, theme writing, working to make the team, trying out for the band or the play. These practices are still available, though in some ways are increasingly weakened. Internet term papers are for sale. Calculators are smart enough to do the step-by-step thinking that used to strengthen a student’s mind. Steroids or other more easily hidden instant enhancers jolt athletic advancement. How’d those kids get so big anyway? Has our public has forgotten the inherent educational value (both right brain and left brain) of music and theater in school; as well as the inherent educational value of work for the sake of itself?

Does the end really the means? What is the end, anyway? Perhaps the means is its only justification.

In many ways we’ve become effective users of systems that problem solve for us. Question: What happens to one’s effectiveness when systems fail? When the car’s satellite navigation system and your mobile phone or OnStar simultaneously quit, and you’re disoriented without a paper map nearby, what to do? Or worse, an old map is available, but time was never taken to learn to read or use one? Or you learned to read a road map, but the map in the car is a topographical map. Worse yet, you’re in an accident in a desert or forest (even if that’s metaphorical) and there’s no one around with personal knowledge of such a situation to ask for help.

The time for learning effectiveness is best approached long before a need for that effectiveness arrives on the scene. But that luxury (a time for learning) is never lost, though it can be forgotten. Fact is, learning and practicing a skill, including being effective under pressure, can start anytime regardless of age or life situation.

In times of fear – times of chaos, change and crisis – a fundamental need is to have an increasing capacity to remain relaxed and calm under pressure. Why? First, because, the capacity to relax under pressure is a critical and primary component of problem solving, creativity, clear thinking, right and left brain communication, and sustained physical and emotional action. A capacity to relax under pressure allows the brain to function at its best. It allows the body to act at peak performance. Second, the ability to relax under pressure is a (if not the) key component to attracting and unifying others who also subject to the effects of chaos, change, crisis and fear.

Sure, we can muscle, macho and scream at five-day stretches and then numb out on a weekend. We can toke, smoke and tequila through pressure and take our aspirin, Aleve or Excedrin in the morning. We can bark at others in an effort to manage and boss through bad times. But bossing and managing, while related to leadership, are not what real leadership is about. We can fire or ignore people to get to an bottom line acceptable to temporary situations. But try to find those people later when times are calm – and try to keep fear from spreading through the organization (or country) when the layoffs and unemployment come. Channel surfing, Facebook-ing and Twitter-ing have their place. But when they become distractions to effective action, what’s the price?

As of this writing I have been attending a school for almost nine years. When I started, I would go once a week. After a year I stretched it into a perceived maximum of two nights a week. When I started, some of my closest friends and some family members thought this was odd undertaking and a luxury, given my responsibilities and the level of education I already had. The school had no intellectual components, outside of learning to translate some English words into their Japanese components and then into a universal language of embodied action. In some ways I used to think of it that way too, a luxury. I wanted my process and progress to go fast. What I found was the faster I effort-ed, the slower my progress became.

After three years my perspective began to shift. My attendance was drifting away from a luxury; it was becoming important. From this change of perspective I somehow found time to attend classes on a three and then four-day-a-week schedule. My level of effective and efficient professional work increased, as did my international business and travel. Simultaneously, my creative abilities (music, writing and art) began to soar. Social involvement and interaction with people also expanded. My friendships grew, accompanied by more time to spend with others. I found ways to attend related classes in the cities, towns and countries where my business took and takes me. Regardless of differences in teaching styles and competency levels, ALL of the teachers in these other places addressed the same basic message of the teacher at the school where I started and where I still live.

The message? Learn to become increasingly effective under pressure. Don’t learn about it. Learn it. How? Presence yourself. When you enter into pressure situations breath deeply in a measured rhythm, slow down, connect with your environment and others - including those you feel pressured by. Turn often and look from the perspective of the pressure and adversaries as they move and especially as they come toward you. Continue to breath deeply. Hold a relaxing image – a quality of peace and strength – in your mind. Don’t quit. Continue to pay attention. Continue to breath deeply in a rhythm.

Continuing. Learn to become increasingly effective in situations not involving pressure. Don’t learn about it. Learn it. Be Here Now. How? When you enter into these situations breath deeply, slow down, connect with others and the environment around you. Turn often and look from the calm perspective of the people and the environment within which you find yourself. Continue to breath deeply. Keep this quality of peace and strength in your mind for the future. Create a mental image of it that you can recall with all your senses. Don’t quit. Continue to pay attention to your breathing. Reflect on this when you prepare to enter into or are in situations of pressure.

The above may sound a bit esoteric. Overwhelming practical value it does have, of that is rarely understood until its practice is given honest effort.

Over thirty years ago I met a man who for a time became my mentor. In many ways he was very exceptional and successful at his skill and his business – a skill and business that demanded very little physical effort other than long hours of standing. He passed away eight years after we met. Throughout those eight years he often said to those who worked with him, “Some of you are going to want to invalidate the lessons we are studying because they don’t fit your background or because you think you’re smarter than this or because you are looking for instant gratification.” Then he would add, “Here’s a challenge. Take just one of these lessons and practice it with a sincere desire to DISPROVE it. I’ll guarantee you, you won’t. But go ahead and try anyway. Why? Because, if you honestly try to disprove a lesson through its practice you’re going to be practicing the process which makes it work. These lessons and principles have been around for thousands of years; they have withstood the acid test of time. The only thing that hasn’t been proven is – you, and your willingness to stick with it.”

The first lesson in all of his encounters? How to relax under pressure.

The way all his lessons and exercises began? “Pay attention. Take a deep breath.”