Work on a Weakness

The idea of working on a weakness resonated with me because of my martial arts training. Mark Davis, my teacher at the Boston Martial Arts Center has long advocated that students – especially senior students and those who wish to teach – must actively work on their weak points – what we call “sutemi” – in order to improve ourselves and our skills. Many times, the physical skills that we aren’t necessarily good at are dwarfed by the mental and spiritual weak points that can hobble our progress. Working on a physical skill is relatively easy and only demands that the practitioner be willing to work on it over and over and be comfortable with the idea of being critiqued in order to improve.

Mental and spiritual weak points, however, are much harder to work on and are far more demanding. Ninjutsu has an inherent attrition rate to it; if you aren’t comfortable doing something, you can either adapt and evolve until you do become comfortable (prior to moving on to the next challenge) or you can simply give up, remain stagnant, and then eventually watch your skills deteriorate.

In order to work on mental and spiritual weak points, the practitioner must be willing to face their insecurities, their ego, and a host of other things that routinely sabotage our progress. When we are unable to do so, our minds and our perspectives become narrow; cynicism becomes rampant; and bitter divisive behavior is commonplace. In short, we start to devolve. No one is immune to this; even the brightest stars can fade unless they take corrective measures.

True confidence comes from the ability to face our insecurities and our ego; it stems from a willingness to admit that we aren’t perfect but are simultaneously committed to the ideal of seeking perfection in whatever we do. We know that the path before us won’t be an easy one, but our determination to walk it – fully embracing the challenges ahead and what they reveal about our innermost workings – is unswayed. This confident determination to meet challenges head-on leads to an all-encompassing perspective; a mindfulness of action/response; and a level of happiness unmatched by merely living at where we were yesterday. There is a simple and profound excitement embodied each morning when we rise and wonder what we will face on any given day. How will we be tested? How much will we learn about ourselves and others? How much more appreciative will we be of the life we have when we go to bed each night?

If you want to get better at living your life, you actually have to live your life. Don’t settle for what you did yesterday. Don’t grow complacent with where you were before today. Get out there and seek the challenge of actively embracing who you are as a human being. Set goals, find challenges, and seek the betterment of your mind, body, and spirit. Avoid the narrow confines of “why bother?”

If we fail to address our own weak points as a means of evolving, we are only isolating ourselves in a self-imposed prison with four little walls and a limited view. Break out and embrace the joy of living an unbridled existence full of challenge and reward.

Who Do You Learn From?

2013 has been an interesting year of exploration so far. It marks my 22nd year of training in Togakure-ryu Ninjutsu under Mark Davis at the Boston Martial Arts Center, and my roughly 30th year of training in martial arts in general. In January, I also embarked on a new adventure: CrossFit. To say I am enjoying myself would be a severe understatement. CrossFit – especially for someone like me who has never enjoyed working out in a gym – is a perfect vehicle for challenge. It manages to be both humbling and empowering at the same time. Humbling because the workouts can be intimidating and seriously challenging. Empowering because once you complete the workout, you realize that you’ve gone further than you thought you were capable of going. Fantastic stuff.

In the course of this new exploration, I realized that I really enjoy learning. (This might sound like one of those “Well, duh…” moments until you stop to realize that many people choose to shut off their learning.) And I also realized that I’ve set up my life in such a way that I learn from numerous sources every single day. The benefit, to me at least, is that I go to sleep each night full of new adventures, experiences, questions, answers, and many new things to ponder. As a writer, this is extremely beneficial as it keeps my mind filled with new avenues to explore in my work. But I also have come to more deeply appreciate the life I have and the moments that go into making each day worthwhile and fun.

I am truly fortunate that I have a wonderful role model in my martial arts training. My teacher Mark Davis has always led by example and routinely exposes himself to new ideas and new avenues in life that I think make him a better teacher and practitioner. Mark has never been content to rest on his laurels. His trains with his teachers frequently – having his experiences and skills challenged. He sits down with people from different walks of life – from auto mechanics to physicists – and learns from them over coffee or lunch. He isn’t afraid to go out of his comfort zone and be a beginner again. It’s pretty refreshing to find someone like that, and I’m thankful to have him as an example I can follow.

Each day, I also make sure that I read posts by my friend and fellow Ninjutsu practitioner, Christopher Penn. Chris is, frankly, a near genius in social media, marketing, and all sorts of tech. Each day he posts five key bits of news and information that I always make a point to read, even if I don’t think it will directly benefit me. I’ve been amazed at what he posts and the points he brings up often illuminate things for me in another area. I am very much a beginner in the field of social media and other areas Chris specializes in, but I’m also extremely fortunate to be able to learn from him.

I’ve also made a point lately of visiting my good friend Barry Meklir at Muscular Solutions. Barry has been teaching me a lot about how to take care of my various injuries (and after so many years in martial arts, you can bet I’ve got a slew of ’em…) Barry is brilliant at his work as a healer and I’ve learned a ton from him so far. And he’s helped me extensively with a number of muscular issues – one of which had been plaguing me for about twenty years! Getting regular “tune-ups” is going to be a fixture in my life. At this point, I’m not getting any younger and I need to make sure the ol’ bod can keep up with all the crazy stuff I want to do.

Every Friday night, Mark Davis holds advanced black belt training at the Boston Martial Arts Center. I’ve been going to this class as much as possible for many years. And despite the 22 years I’ve been studying, each class I attend always presents something new – even if it is hidden in the guise of a technique we’ve worked on before. Because Mark is never content to settle for what he learned yesterday, he brings that same attitude into the classes he teaches and ensures that we learn something new every time we train. It’s weird how much more I’ve come to appreciate this after stepping outside of my comfort zone and getting involved with CrossFit. Sometimes you have to get away from something very close to your heart to better appreciate it.

In addition to classes with Mark, we spend a great deal of time talking on the telephone. Some of the greatest lessons I’ve learned from him have taken place over the phone as we discuss strategy, combat, mind sciences, and much more.

These days, I’m busy setting up my life to ensure that I always continue to learn. Martial arts, CrossFit, social media, body tune-ups, endurance racing, and many more things besides. Yes, life is busy, but I find myself truly valuing what I learn from others even more now. And I’ve found the best teachers set their lives up this way as well. Other don’t. Others are so keen to be seen as an authority figure that they box themselves into a corner and can never again embrace that “beginner’s mind” that the 34th Grandmaster of Ninjutsu says it so crucial to training.

Embracing the beginner’s mind isn’t easy. It requires the confidence to accept being a nobody again. It requires effort to keep the ego in check and not dismiss the prospect of learning from those who are younger than you or who you might be senior in rank to. But the payoff, for me anyway, is a life far richer than what I had yesterday. For that, I am grateful.

So…who do you learn from?