Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Forging a Warrior's Heart

In Japan, a warrior’s blade, the katana, is created through an elaborate and tedious process.  From the start, with just the right combination of ore, the ingredients are fused, heated and folded over and over until a blade, honed to take a life, if necessary, is created.  The end result is truly a thing of beauty in its strength and resistance to any obstacle it faces in its life.  Such is the journey of the warrior’s heart and the development of strength of mind, body, and spirit.   
Watching a sword master forge a blade can give the appearance of a truly violent act.  He works in a fiery place, enduring hours of physical discomfort, while singularly focused on his vision.  Within his mind, his heart and his spirit is the here and now.  Each strike, each temperance, each inspection is but a moment in time.  Everything he had done has prepared the blade for this moment.  Everything he is doing sets the path ahead.  So it is true with life.  This moment, this very moment, is the direct result of what has happened.  This moment, this very moment, sets the path ahead.  When life challenges you, when it appears that all hope has disappeared, this is the moment to strike the blade and continue on, forging the end product.  These are the moments where strength of mind, body and spirit are created, forged in the flame and heat of the present.  These are the moments where a warrior’s heart is created.
Within the beating chest are compassion, empathy and kindness.  It also is a place to keep the strength of a demon, waiting to be unleashed in the midst of a firestorm, to destroy obstacles and challenges, to resolve conflict and fear within the mind, body and spirit.  It gives us the strength to face those paths that reside outside the here and now.  The crossroads are in front of you this very moment.  One way is the fear of uncertainty, the other the excitement of new adventures.  Both lead to the same destination, because this is the path of life.  Live with the excitement of new adventures.  Live with a warrior’s heart.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Perseverance Time

I am absolutely blessed to have my wife walking beside me in the martial path.  Although she is a beginner, as we all are, she is a lifetime warrior, having battled dark forces that are way too intense for a blog.  Last night we had an interesting discussion as we were walking back from class. 
The dojo we attend is small.  Without going into details, it allows for personal attention from our sensei some nights when attendance is low.  I relish these nights.  A subtle word such as “knee”  “foot”  “good”  “lower” triggers an inner fire that satisfies my warrior heart.  Last night was no different as my wife and I were the only ones in attendance.  We staggered back down the stairs to start our mile long trek back to the house in the cold, Baltimore night; oblivious to the temperature as we basked in the warmth of the 90-minute class.
Because my wife is new to the arts, our teacher can really focus on her while I continue honing the basics-plus a few feet away.  Last night, as I was coming out of a roll, I noticed my wife cutting her eyes over my direction before going back to “drop head, replace with hand, tuck, and knees over shoulder.”  On the way home, this became the topic of conversation.
“Boy, you really give it your all while we are in class,” she stated.  “Perseverance,” I replied without thinking, which got me to thinking. We had a short conversation on the rest of our walk about the word.  I love our conversations as it makes the leg pain go away as we walk back up the hill to the house.
Perseverance.  What does it mean to you?  One of the characters that symbolize our art is the word nin or “” which can be translated as perseverance.  I associate with this definition more than any other translation.  We talk about surviving as the ultimate art in combat.  This is perseverance.  But, there is a hidden meaning.  It about reaching down inside, to find an inner fire to light the path ahead.  Martial training takes dedication and perseverance, something I had forgotten over the years.  One of the things I absolutely respect is how when you think you have a basic movement down, it can be tweaked slightly to add another dimension.  And so it is with life.  You have to have the perseverance, the endurance, to recognize that you will get through this moment, right here, right now. And when the next moment arrives, it too, will become this moment.  I have mastered the perseverance to handle this moment.  I am not going to worry about the next moment until it is here.  Sensei mentioned her thoughts about our training as she leaves in the upcoming month for a few weeks in Japan, honing her skills, increasing her perseverance under the watchful eye of the founder.  Her hopes are we will continue to increase our skill, to continue pushing ourselves to our limits, and then “just a little lower, please.  Okay, now five on each side.”   This is the quest.  This is the journey.  The lessons learned on the mat apply to the broad spectrum of life. 
“Okay, so this time – pause in the squat position when you come out of that back roll, before continuing into a second back roll into Seigan.”  Perseverance, the art of endurance.  It’s not just for training on the mat, but for training in the art of life.  Perseverance time. 

Monday, December 31, 2012

Goodbye Dragon, Hello Snake!

Watching the tail of the dragon disappear as the snake pokes his head into the room.  What an exciting year 2012 turned out to be.  Not only did I survive the Great Mayan Apocalypse, and I will assume YOU did also, but there were some significant life changes that occurred.  Not as many blogs as I would have liked to have written, but sometimes silence is the best answer to those raging events around us, whether it is political, religious, or constitutional rights as some choose to interpret them.  Had to let a few friends go over the year and added and met quite a few more. 

This year I celebrated 18 official years with the woman I love with my heart and soul.  Marriage is hard work; a happy marriage built on trust, understanding, and compassion is an even harder challenge.  I am grateful that I have two ears and one mouth, and know when two is greater than one.  It has been wonderful and magical to watch year 18 come and go and I am looking forward to our “official” 19th year in 2013.
I am extremely proud of taking some “Mike time” this year to apply, interview, and acquire a promotion and subsequent move to Baltimore, Maryland as the Baltimore District, US Army Corps of Engineers Equal Employment Opportunity Specialist.  I have poured myself into this field for the last five years and extremely proud to see the immersion pay off, not just for me, but for my family.  We have officially put the south behind.  I got to explore some variations of my martial path before realizing that my karma had brought me within blocks of the Jinenkan dojo in the city.  In November, I began training there and have begun a new path of exploring what has always been my calling, the traditional aspects of the Takamatsuden arts.  It has been fulfilling to say the least.  No truer words exists than Manaka Sensei’s “Practice proper basics repeatedly and you will be able to always have natural movement.”  Of course, it will also be an absolute thrill to attend Manaka Sensei’s return to the United States for a seminar in October.

If I had to name one thing I would have done differently this year it would be paying particular attention to my physical health.  I think I spent a lot of the year rebelling, against diet, exercise, and training.  Restarting training has been challenging.  Refocusing my mind and spirit over the last month or so has helped.  
So that leads me to thinking about what I want to let go of in the coming year.  For me, personally, it is fear and apprehension.  2013 will be a big year for change at my work, as my manager is retiring and the organization will make a decision as to whether I can be placed in that position or whether they will hire someone new.  I know that no matter what occurs it will be what it will be.  I have to let go of old beliefs and behaviors instilled by past managers and supervisors, both military and civilian, who were only looking out for themselves and their careers, without developing and growing their future replacements.  My current manager has greatly assisted me in that inner development and it will be hard to see her leave; yet, joyful in knowing she will be moving into her next stage of existence.

So, where does that leave me for my vision and intention for 2013?  Of course, continuing to strengthen my marriage and put aside quality time with the one I love.  I also commit myself to training both in the dojo and at home. 
I have come to realize that I am also within blocks of the Ja Ling Tibetan Buddhist Cultural Center and will be making this a focus for the Year of the Snake.  They have a master singer and former chant master of the Sera Je Monastery which interests me greatly.  I will also continue my Shinto beliefs and explore opportunities as they present themselves.

Lots of things on the horizon; will be test driving my new 13 week training cycles that I feel I have spent a lifetime designing.  I will be focusing on “self” this year in recognition of the Year of the Water Snake.  I found some interesting advice when it comes to the Year of the Snake that really rang true to my soul.  “It is a year of risk, a time to observe, analyze and then strike quickly.  It is a great time to make sense of your life, open yourself to the universal powers that be to receive answers to longstanding problems.  Do not be put off from moving forward in a purposeful way; the Snake is both the wise Sage and the sneaky assassin; there is knowledge to be gained from both sides of its nature. Lending all its daring, boldness and outrageous nerve, the Snake likes to see people make use of these qualities and will put obstacles in your way to test them. If adversity does hit, be like the Snake, wait it out until the time is right to make your move, because the time will definitely come, but you must be focused, prepared and have your eye on the goal so that you can attack in a second.” 
I look forward to a great year of training – in body, mind, and soul.
In Kobudo,

- Mike (鬼梟)

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Wading in, Guns a blazin!

I really didn’t want to wade into the current gun debate, which is always how someone who wants to wade into the current gun debate begins their conversation.  We had a tragedy that occurred in Newtown, Connecticut over the last month.  Unless you live under a rock, you are well aware of the event.  No need to rehash it here.  It has brought out the best and the worst in people, from constitutionalists (the 2nd Amendment says I can have a gun) to those who interpret it as “a well trained militia can only have a gun” to the conspiracy crowd who keep seeing soldiers in blue helmets marching down the street kicking in doors and throwing your guns into an armored truck parked in your front yard.  As some of you may know, I don’t own a television, or to be specific, I do not have access to the 24/7 newsfeed that blindly leads our nation around the neck.  It has been a social experiment of mine since I realized I was feeding Comcast Cable about $220 a month that I could be spending on other things a little over a year ago.  So, I catch the news online, at various sources, and get a feel for what’s happening based on the people I associate with; a mix of extreme liberals, die-hard right wingers, “we’re leaving the Nation” groupies, moderates on both sides, as well as people who live in Europe, England, South Africa, Australia and Japan.  But, I digress.
I recently caught a Facebook comment thread that captured everything I feel about gun ownership.  I was raised in Texas by a father who was a Department of Corrections officer (prison guard).  He ran the rifle / pistol range for the maximum security facility, so I learned to shoot at around 6 years of age.  BB guns, .22 cal, .38 cal, .45 cal, and all kinds of rifles, to include what is being called “assault rifles” in the media.  I learned how to kick in a door at age 12 and clear four corners of a room.  I learned basic ammo reloading techniques to save money on shotgun and pistol ammo.  It, of course, led me to the Army where I continued to master my craft.  It culminated in the sands of the Middle East, in fire fights outside Fallujah, where, if it entered my sight picture, it dropped.  I don’t know how many people I have sent to the other side of life, but war is hell and I have a very strong survival instinct.    
Now, you may think my house is like that room in the movie Men In Black, the one with the secret door and a chamber filled with every firearm conceivable to mankind.  But you might be surprised to know I have zero firearms in my house.  Some of you are screaming “DON’T BROADCAST THAT, THE EVIL MEN WILL BREAK INTO YOUR HOUSE!”  Well, I had two home invaders try that in 2008.  It is not about gun ownership, it is about warrior skills.  It is about honing your instinct to take a life that stops violence.  It is about intent.  I mentioned I did not have any guns in my house, but there is something in every room that deters a home invader.  Maybe it is an inconspicuous Tupperware container filled with ground five alarm chili powder ready to be thrown into the nose and eyes of an invader, allowing me and mine enough time to survive.  Maybe it is a well sharpened blade that can inflict pain (because, trust me, pain is a combat multiplier) that is available.  Maybe it is a high lumen flashlight that temporarily blinds the attacker allowing you to launch your attack.  It might be wasp spray – be amazed what that does to the eyes.  Is that a cell phone or 20,000 volts coursing through your neck?  Maybe it is me dropping to the floor sobbing in hysterics that allows you to get a little too close to me so I can throw the mental switch into the mentality of "one lives, one dies" – I will live.  Gun disarms are tricky, but can be done.  Ask two snot nosed teens in Savannah, Georgia who were zipped tied and waiting for the police to arrive when they came out of my spare bedroom and found me waiting.  So, no guns in the house.  Just a little sign in the window that says Iraq Combat Veteran.  If you can’t figure out what that means, I will be glad to give you a very short brutally, painful class.
In the meantime, if you own a gun, be responsible, just like we do in the martial arts.  Train with it - in every condition; in the dark, in the cold.  Keep it secure.  Know proper sight picture before trigger squeeze.  Have tactical and situational awareness of your surroundings.  Know that you possess the difference between life and death.  It is a great responsibility.  Please treat it as such. 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Go With Your Gut!

-- Two loud men on the public bus talking about how some women’s clothes were just “asking for rape.”  Departing the bus, I am immediately met by two guys, with guns drawn, hopping out of a car screaming obscenities and ordering passengers in another car to exit their vehicle.  Quickly turning down another alley, a crowd of seven people going to meet the car pass by, prompting another turn into a side alley.  Moments later, I pass two prostitutes complaining their skimpy clothes are not protecting them from the cold weather.  Exiting the grocery store, my original destination, I decide to turn down another alley only to be met by a truck at the far end stopping to block the passage before the large male driver exits and strides purposely towards me.  Taking an immediate right to disappear, I make my way to a public street before making it safe and secure into the house.--

A tactical scenario fit for an exercise in situational awareness, except this is another day in Baltimore. 

This is the story my wife shares with me when I get home from work.  Her concern is that she only did her best to survive and might not be up to the warrior standard.  Actually, what she did was equivalent of passing an end of semester exam in survival.  No direct engagement, constantly on the move, fast as the wind in decision making, and home safe at the end of the day.

Baltimore is ranked consistently in the top ten cities for crime in the United States.  I call it the urban jungle, a term meant to envision the dense canopy jungles of what veterans experienced in Vietnam and my experiences in the urban environments in Iraq.  You don’t know who your allies and enemies are at any given moment.  The person you pass may be the scout that signals others to attack you upon passing.  It is a common method of operation for the criminal element in this city.  A reminder from Sun Tzu remains a constant thought:

“If your enemy is secure at all points, be prepared for him.  If he is in superior strength, evade him. If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him.  Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant.  If he is taking his ease, give him no rest.  If his forces are united, separate them.  If sovereign and subject are in accord, put division between them.  Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.”

There are many different ways to train tactical and situational awareness.  The bottom line lies in the word itself – aware.  Spend every moment observing, that is the purpose of our senses.  There is no need to take it to paranoia, just relish in the moment, every moment.  What was that sound?  Why is there an absence of sound?  Why did that vehicle pass me slowly and is now pulling fast and hard to the curb?  Is it suspicious that when the approaching individual met my eyes, he reached inside his jacket?  Why is his hand still in there after he has taken ten additional steps and he is not meeting my gaze anymore? 

It is subtle clues, visual and non-visual, the “feeling” we get, the brief tension of electricity that passes through our bodies that we should pay attention in our daily lives, the small voice that says, "Here.  Now." 

I think my wife summed it all up rather correctly, “Obey your gut feeling.  You have to protect yourself even if you have no idea what you are avoiding at first.  Just trust yourself.”

Go with your gut. 

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Art of Cowardice

I get the dreaded call at work.  My wife calls to say there has been a physical incident at the train stop.  She recalls the story to me.  She approaches the train stop where two men are seated at one end of the seats.  She is tired and takes a seat at the far end of the benches, about 30 feet away.  She becomes invisible – a term we share to just become a part of the environment, not making contact, not reacting to cat calls or comments; keeping situational awareness and monitoring the surroundings.   She said one of the men started yelling, “Hey, lady!”  She continued her invisibility.  She comments that he continued to get louder and eventually walked over and placed his hand around her upper arm.

Now, I will digress from this story for a moment.  I am a warrior.  I lead a warrior life.  I impart my knowledge to her on many occasions.  This meant that I took her into the rough part of Baltimore the very first week on an invisibility tour – making sure she knew the enemy, understood his terrain, and knew the strengths and weaknesses of those who would do her harm.  It is the warrior way in which I have been trained.  It is called intelligence gathering.  It is called surveying the battlefield to understand which strategy to apply to which tactic.  It prepares you to know that life is Banpen Fugyo, an infinite number of changes to be prepared at any moment to share the warrior skills and eliminate the element of surprise.
Now, back to our story:  The bully had taken my wife’s space.  He has decided that his life is forfeit because he does not know what he faces.  His perception of this lady ignoring him has become skewed because of his cowardice and belief that he will get his way.  He is not prepared for what comes next. 

In a flash, my wife has broken the grip and is upright, projecting her voice into his bone marrow.  That is what I teach her – show the attacker your intention – mind, body and spirit – shatter the inside of his bones with the projection of energy he has asked for when he touches you.  This is what my wife did.  She said the man, who seconds ago had grabbed her, realized that everyone at the train station was now focused on him.  He stole my wife’s space, so she let him have it.  My wife said he backed off, apologized and walked away.  She moved to higher ground, kept an eye on the enemy and went back to being invisible.
Every encounter is unique.  Most attackers are bullies, cowards at heart.  The true essence of the art of the warrior is the willingness to close with the enemy.  It is not an easy path.  It is not the art of cowardice.  It is not imposing your will upon others, unless they ask for their destruction.  I am proud of my wife.  When tested, training took over and she closed with and engaged the enemy.  Such is the life of the warrior.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Time to plant some flowers

Musha Shugyo \ 武者 修行;  
1. Warrior’s quest or pilgrimage.

    I have spent the last twelve years in the southeast, specifically the Fort Stewart and Savannah, Georgia region, a part of the United States called, “Coastal Georgia.”  This week, I pack away my swords and move to the next chapter of my journey.

     It has been quite the adventure.  I spent the first half of my time honing my skills with the 3rd Infantry Division on numerous training missions and combat rotations in Iraq.  I faced the darkest parts of my soul and peered into the fire of my inner demons.  It would only be in the face of absolute adversity and on the verge of destruction that I would be handed an option – give it all up and grow or remain impenetrable and rot from the inside.  I gave it all up so I could grow.

     I was offered an opportunity to work for the US Army Corps of Engineers.  Hanging up my fatigues and grabbing a shirt and tie, I spent the latter half of my journey honing my counselor skills and becoming a teacher of leadership and diversity.  From the flames emerged those parts of my psyche that I would be well known for – the Disability Program Manager and veteran advocate.  It would be in this final half of my time that I would truly become strong.

     I depart coastal Georgia a better man, capable of unconditional love and compassion.  I know what is truly important in life.  My life’s motto, as always, silently whispers to me, “We need to keep exploring and learning.  Keep going!”

     I end with an observation from nature.  For years, I stood at a bus stop under the shade of a massive oak tree.  Its strong roots had buckled the concrete sidewalk around it.  Its branches stretched across two lanes of traffic to provide shade to the house across the street.  It was home to birds, squirrels and city mice.  One morning there was a sign stapled to its trunk – “Condemned.  Scheduled for removal.”  I remember feeling sadness that this majestic, decades old icon would fall.

    A few weeks later I walked up to the bus stop.  Beside the bus marker was a stump.  On closer observation the truth was revealed.  The inside of this four foot wide tree stump was hollow.  It had rotted from the inside out to where only a shell remained.  While projecting strength in all weather, the city arborist knew it was only a matter of time before it fell.  My classes on teaching perceptions to managers and employees leapt to mind – “Sometimes, things are not what they appear to be.”

     I passed that stump a few days ago.  The owners of the seafood restaurant by the bus stop had filled the hollow area with potting soil and planted flowers.  They were in full bloom, a reminder to find joy, positivity and hope in every situation.

     So, we bid farewell to Coastal Georgia.  It is time to go plant some flowers and enjoy the next part of the journey.