The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~


Friday, January 01, 2016

Getting Your Martial Arts Training Off to a Good Start in 2016

Happy New Year!
 
I have always found that training during and just after the holidays to be a real challenge. With holiday gatherings, rich food, late nights and oceans of beer, I find my good habits are usually blown to the four winds and with the coming of the new year, that I have to pick up the pieces and begin all over again.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. The train wreck of my practicing at the end of the year naturally gives me an opportunity to re evaluate, access and with hope, move forward.

There was a post in the excellent blog, The Art of Manliness about elevating the level of one's routine to that of a ritual and what that might signify. I think that this has everything to do with our own martial arts training.

Below is an excerpt. The full article may be read here. I send my best wishes for your training this year and hope that you enjoy the article.

For Henry David Thoreau, the summer of 1854 had brought the onset of a stifling malaise — one that had left him feeling “trivial,” “cheap,” and “unprofitable.” The air was dry, the heat was unending, society was pressing in too close around him, and he missed the intensity with which he had lived during his Walden years. So it was with much relief that he greeted the cool nights that arrived with fall, and took advantage of them by taking long walks in the moonlight. Thoreau already thought of his regular, hours-long daytime walks as akin to heroic pilgrimages in which the crusader reconquered “this Holy Land from the hands of the Infidels,” and he brought a similar questing spirit to his moonlit saunters through the woods.

The enemy here was spirit-suffocating triviality, and Thoreau found his night walks to be potently effective in beating back the scourge. He reveled in the cool dampness and mist, thought about how the same moonlight had fallen on humans stretching back thousands of years, and contemplated the way the darkness aroused one’s primeval instincts and symbolized the human unconscious. He often walked along a river, exulting in the way “The sound of this gurgling water…fills my buckets, overflows my float boards, turns all the machinery of my nature, makes me a flume, a sluice-way to the springs of nature. Thus I am washed; thus I drink and quench my thirst.”

While Thoreau’s nocturnal, sense-heightening walks became a regular occurrence, they never became pedestrian. They were never simply a way to get from point A to point B. Rather, they had a purpose beyond their mere mechanics; they were sacred opportunities to re-create himself.

His walks were rituals, rather than routines.

If your life has been feeling trivial, cheap, and unprofitable, the cure may be taking one of your own daily routines and turning it into a spirit-renewing ritual. How exactly you do that is what we’ll be exploring today.
What’s the Difference Between a Routine and a Ritual?

Both routines and rituals consist of repetitive actions undertaken on a regular basis. But there are a couple important differences between them.

One of the defining elements of ritual is that it lacks a strictly practical relationship between its enacted means and its desired ends. For example, there is no direct, empirical causality between shaking hands and making an acquaintance, throwing one’s graduation cap in the air and closing a chapter in life, or making the sign of the cross and receiving divine grace and strength. All of these rituals have historical, cultural, and theological reasons behind them, but the actions themselves do not have efficacy in the absence of this context. There is a meaning and purpose behind a ritual that transcends its observable components.

Routines, on the other hand, employ means that are practically connected with their ends. When you brush your teeth or drive to work, you’re solely aiming at removing tartar and getting to the office, and the actions involved empirically move you towards these goals. The efficacy of routines lies in the actions themselves. There is no deeper meaning or purpose behind a routine; it’s done for its own sake.

Second, routines can be accomplished without much thought. You may arrive at work with little awareness of how you got there. In some rituals there is a different kind of submersion of self-consciousness as one loses oneself in the act, but oftentimes rituals require not a cessation of cognition, but a heightening of it. The efficacy of a ritual is often found in its exact and undeviating performance. Carrying it out thus requires careful focus and presence of mind.

Because of these differences between a routine and a ritual, each is capable of accomplishing different ends. The result of a routine is external and tangible: clean teeth or a timely arrival at work. The effect of a ritual is inward and transcendent: a centered mind, expanded spirit, or renewed dedication to a goal. A ritual cannot be merely a routine, but as we’ll see, a routine can be turned into a ritual.
What Are the Benefits of Creating Rituals in Your Life?

There’s a lot of resistance to ritual in our modern world — both on the institutional and personal level. Some see rituals as boring and pointless, empty and meaningless, or just plain too much work. Others look askance at rituals as being too superstitious and insufficiently rational.

But there are many reasons to view rituals in a new light — as highly effective ways for enhancing your life on a variety of levels. We’ve previously offered an in-depth exploration of the numerous benefits of rituals, particularly on the institutional level. Let’s today look at those benefits as they apply to creating your own:

Rituals center your mind and build your focus. Much of our life is spent going through the motions of mindless routines, tackling a swarm of endless to-dos, putting out “urgent” fires, and surfing from website to website and social media feed to social media feed in a spaced-out haze. Rituals bring you back to the present moment, renewing your awareness of that which is before you, and directing your focus to certain objects, physical sensations, and thoughts. You must concentrate on what you’re doing, and act with care and deliberation.

Set rituals not only quiet the daily frenzy of your mind, but can also help carry you through times when greater irruptions have burst upon your life. A morning shaving ritual, for example, can become a salve — a single daily pocket of calm and centering — in an otherwise grief-stricken or stressful period.

The exercise your focus receives from engaging in ritual will extend out to other areas of your life as well, improving your attention span for other tasks that require keen concentration. In his forthcoming book, Deep Work, professor Calvin Newport notes that many famous men used rituals as preparation for immersive work sessions: “Their rituals minimized the friction in this transition to depth, allowing them to go deep more easily and stay in the state longer.”

Rituals encourage embodiment. In the digital age, we can often feel like disembodied non-beings, floating around untethered to reality. Because physicality is one of the essential components of ritual, it counteracts these feelings by encouraging greater embodiment and renewing our connection with the tangible world.

For example, primitive people had many hunting-related rituals — pre-hunt rituals to increase chances of bagging game, rituals for how to kill the animals, rituals for how to cut them up and handle the corpse, and rituals for how to eat the meat. Such rituals connected them to the rhythms of life and death. Today, we wolf down our food without even tasting it. We’re disconnected from the process of how we obtain and consume our sustenance, and this can have detrimental effects on our health. Rituals — such as saying grace before a meal or making coffee with a French press — can help us slow down and connect with what we are doing in the moment, reorienting our bodies in time and space.

The greater sense of embodiment encouraged by ritual isn’t only beneficial in and of itself, but also enhances the effectiveness of the intended act. Making certain movements and putting your body in certain physical positions can change the way you feel and alter your mindset. For example, if you wish to lose yourself in fervent prayer, kneeling will immediately make you feel more reverent and humble than lying in bed. Similarly, walking can often spur your thinking in a way that sitting at a desk does not.

Rituals invite special powers and inspiration. While we often feel that inspiration is a mysterious, spontaneous force we must wait around for, it can in fact be coaxed into paying us a visit. In fact, strict consistency has proven time and again to be a greater enticement to the muses than irregularity. Special forces of mind and spirit flow better through a controlled conduit — or in other words, a ritual.

A perfect example of this are the various rituals many writers perform before they get down to work in hopes of priming their minds for inspiration. Some brew a fresh pot of strong coffee, go for a walk, or clear their desk of everything but their laptop. In The War of Art, author Steven Pressfield describes the pre-writing ritual he uses to prepare his mind to overcome what he calls “The Resistance”:

    “I get up, take a shower, have breakfast. I read the paper, brush my teeth. If I have phone calls to make, I make them. I’ve got my coffee now. I put on my lucky work boots and stitch up the lucky laces that my niece Meredith gave me. I head back to my office, crank up the computer. My lucky hooded sweatshirt is draped over the chair, with the lucky charm I got from a gypsy in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer for only eight bucks in francs, and my lucky LARGO name tag that came from a dream I once had. I put it on. On my thesaurus is my lucky cannon that my friend Bob Versandi gave me from Morro Castle, Cuba. I point it toward my chair, so it can fire inspiration into me. I say my prayer, which is the Invocation of the Muse from Homer’s Odyssey, translation by T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, that my dear mate Paul Rink gave me and which sits near my shelf with the cuff links that belonged to my father and my lucky acorn from the battlefield at Thermopylae. It’s about ten-thirty now. I sit down and plunge in.”

Do Pressfield’s invocations and various totems actually extort a force on his writing? Far be it for me to rule it out, but much of their power lies in the way they prepare his mind for the task ahead. Going through the steps of the ritual enhances his receptivity to inspiration, and any other mysterious forces and powers that may be hanging around his office.

Rituals create sacred time and space. Religion historian Mircea Eliade made famous the idea that there are essentially “two modes of being in the world”: the sacred and the profane. The profane constitutes our natural, secular lives, while the sacred represents fascinating and awe-inspiring mystery — a “manifestation of a wholly different order.”

In a traditional society, all of man’s vital functions not only had a practical purpose but could also potentially be transfigured into something charged with sacredness. Everything from eating to sex to work could “become a sacrament, that is, a communion with the sacred.” In the modern, thoroughly profane world, such activities have been desacralized and disenchanted.

The creation of personal rituals can help you revive some of that enchantment in your life. And it isn’t just something for the religious to seek. Even if you wouldn’t term it the “sacred,” we all crave moments of deeper significance — moments that are special and extra-ordinary and open an insight into the greater meaning of things. Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, the authors of All Things Shining, call this experience in which “the most real things in the world present themselves to us” a “whooshing up.”

In creating the circumstances by which we become more receptive to extra-ordinary feelings and inspiration, rituals can help more of life whoosh up to us. As Eliade puts it, rituals allow participants to “separate themselves, partially if not totally, from the roles and statuses they have in the workaday world” and cross a “threshold in time and space or both.” In this they add not only more mystery and magic to one’s life, but also a greater feeling of texture. When the landscape of one’s existence consists of an unbroken expanse of the profane, life can feel flat and one-dimensional. Rituals allow us to move between the ordinary and the sacred, opening up richer dimensions of experience.

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