Wednesday, November 28, 2012


The process of discovering who you are is fascinating, and often easier in review than in the moment.
I think there was probably a phase in my early 20s when I thought I could be any kind of person I wanted to be, but that belief did not contunue into my 30s when I started to notice that I had edges - things I was drawn to, things that make me happy, and things that make me angry and upset.
Who knew?
As I get older, these edges become a little harder and narrower, my patience for many things has worn thin and I find myself concentrating more and more on that which has held my interest over these many years - martial arts and the art of the sword.

Nothing wrong there .... Follow your passion and all that ....

But I was struck by a couple conversations recently, on line and in person, about this apparent 'self discovery' of individuality, and what that means.
On the one hand it is good to 'know yourself' your strengths and weaknesses, and particularly what you can give back from your unique point of view, as a teacher or whatever ...
On the other hand, this definition builds rigidity, in the same way that we walk a certain way that makes us easy to pick out in a crowd of strangers, we dance how we dance, and we look out of the eyes we have seen out of through many many decades of habits and tendencies. We all have a 'schtick' if you like, a thing we do, a role we play, and at this point in life, I am not sure if to view this schtick as a gift or a hindrance ..

Specifically in the context of dueling, this 'schtick' is your fighting personality, your tendencies and your glitches, and having one limits you in two ways - first in that you are predictable to those that can read you, and second, and more corrosive in my mind, in the natural ceiling this sets up as to how much you can improve.

There is a limit to every game, how fast, subtle, or even slow you can do what you do, accuracy has a finite quality to it after all .... So this may be splitting hairs, I mean after all, enough is enough, right? Surely we should be happy with who we are, and accept what we can do, including our limitations .... But, this tendency as we grow older to close in, and narrow down our comfort zone, is starting to feel claustrophobic to me. It seems natural, but that just makes it more insidious.
Improving yourself gets harder with age, I suspect mostly because of this 'edge hardening' of our personalities and self identities. Some may point to physical diminishment, but if the most highly skilled fighter I learned from was a skin and bone, chain smoking, cancer sufferer, then I don't think I can agree with that. I think it is because at some point you have to look outside yourself to do this, and often that is not so simple, it involves the possibility of change, and the older we get, apparently the less we want to do this. It make us vulnerable and uncomfortable, two things that we tend to avoid as we age.

So, to those out there feeling the same claustrophobia, here are a few things that I've come up with that seem to help -

Play outside your system
Work with different weapons, different, and new people.
Try absolutely different pursuits.
Particularly look for resistance to certain things and go do them.
Keep your eyes open and you will see the links and the patterns without forcing them, and remember, the most potent place for improvement are in mistakes, errors, close shaves .... and losses ...

Other suggestions welcome.


Mike Panian said...

Gotta tell ya Maija, your blog is one of my favorites. You often say things that I am also reflecting on. This whole rigidity as we get older thing...when we first met I was thinking a lot about the physical changes that we face and learning about how our physical challenges shift as we get older. More recently I have been thinking about the internal stuff. These are the mental blocks and structures that we build over time. Usually built for good reasons initially, these constructs start to ordain how we live because we are creatures of economy. We come up with something that works and then we re-use it. We have all sorts of structures and programs within us that we hold onto because they have worked in the past. These can be defense mechanisms, beliefs, memories of good and bad events, some really positive image of ourselves that we hold, memories of what others have said about us or a conclusion that we have drawn that helped us to get out of a sticky situation. I used to have a lot of confidence in my "world view" being a coherent (internally consistent) set of beliefs that were my best bet about how things work. I figured I have the ability to continuously update my world view with new information so it’s always current and aren’t I clever!
I don't think we work like that anymore. Instead I think we build up a rag tag collection of "Rube Goldberg Machine"-like mental constructs. Some of these worked pretty darned good at some point. Over time though, we change, circumstances change, and the logical consistencies that we try to build and rely on just do not fit. Those beliefs that used to work become tired, worn and brittle. They are the stuff of repetitive stories about times past and a source of the rigidity that you are speaking of.
I came upon this realization that our minds hold a pile of what is essentially "vaporware" when I returned to meditating after years of dropping it for more "important" pursuits. Circumstances led me back to it and I started by really looking at the question "Who am I?" and realizing with a twinkling eye "I really don't know!" I watched my mind at work, all the crap that's going on that generates emotions and a lot of it has nothing to do with what is happening to me right now. My mood has become based on stuff that happened a long time ago that doesn’t even make sense now. Most of what I have held onto that initially felt like wisdom has become bullshit. It’s not current and out of context.
It sounds like a bummer to divest yourself of your “Rube Goldberg” machines. It's actually staggering and exhilarating and a way to avoid rigidity.
After you allow the vaporware in your head to evaporate what's left? Whatever is left is something that is fresh and current and unencumbered. It feels light. Maybe its that "Beginner's Mind" Suzuki was talking about in his book. I don't worry about forgetting anything important. The really good stuff seems intuitive. Besides we are really good at building new vaporware...current updated versions and trying to hold onto that as well. I am trying to learn not to do that.
I am clearly speaking more broadly than martial arts and practice but I will end with some martial thoughts. I think it’s really important to do internal mind really face your weaknesses, the real life weaknesses that have been a part of most of our lives, as a martial artist. Doing so is what I think the old masters really meant when they said that you must “Face Yourself” and “Polish your Spirit” and all that.
As I do this internal work I feel rejuvenated and open in practice. Ultimately the rigidity that gets in the way of practice is the same sort of rigidity that encumbers our minds in general.

considerphlebas said...

Reminds me of one time when I was at a fencing tournament and ended the first period of a match down 8-2. I was doing the best fencing I knew how to do at the time - solid positions, decent technique. Another fencer came up to me at the break and said, "Yeah so, what you're doing? Isn't working. Time to bring out the crap."
and I thought, "Oooh! The crap!" The crap being the assortment of gimicky maneuvers and unconventional positions that you make up when you're on the far side of just playing around. and I won, because my opponent couldn't get any sort of handle on what I was doing.

So I would add: It's possible to get too locked into what the best percentage kind of actions are, the best technique, and forget that pure beginners can be a nightmare with sword because what are they DOING? Take some time to try out the crap, and then turn your experience and analysis to figure out in what weird, specific circumstances it can be the best possible move.

Maija said...

Thanks Mike!

cp - yup, absolutely ... isn't there some saying about how the 'best fencer in France fears the worst fencer in France more than the second best fencer' ...?

Jake said...

Fantastic post.

I swear that Musashi had some line about fearing the beginner with a sword far more than a master, but I could be misremembering.

I think there's a lot to be said for going and playing with stuff that is WAY outside your experience or expertise. Of course, the trick is to learn something new from that experience, and not just use it to reinforce the biases you've already created...