Tag Archives: zen

Anger for Sprints, Humor for Marathons

Yesterday was my third mounted archery lesson. I show up early enough that the mists still cover the hills. The vineyards, the barn, and the arena are still chilled and dewy. Usually, no one’s around except for the dogs, cat, and occasional hen that come to see if I have food or cuddles, or both. When someone asks how my training is going, this is never what comes up. They expect the hobby to be fueled by revenge. They expect me to be angry.

Anger gives energy in short bursts. It can be an extra jolt of motivation, and armor to wrap yourself in. It converts two-way communication into a one-way street. Under certain circumstances, when you need to protect yourself, when you need to pull yourself up over the ledge — anger is excellent. Anger rises when someone has crossed a boundary. Anger is both an alarm system and a security system, and it will snap shut on the offender. It is as intense as it is instant, and when you’re done, you’re worn out. Even for those who have a long fuse, I’m referring to the moment the fuse triggers the explosive.

The obsessive mind latches onto a perspective and holds there. It takes a stance, chooses a narrative, and makes it into the sole truth. It chews and chews until the original flavor — the objective truth of events — is gone. Only the narrative is left, and that’s what the obsessive mind feeds on. If the narrative is the story we tell ourselves, then we have the power to choose that narrative.

For example, I’ve unconsciously started looking for his car when I’m out driving. I can’t help it. Since I don’t know how to stop playing this game, I look for the cars driven by people I love and am still close to, instead. Chew, chew, obsessive brain, chew on something healthier.

After the breakup and subsequent loss of our child, I couldn’t find my anger. I felt drained of strength, and without my strength, I had no identity. Without anger to shield me and energize me, I didn’t know what to do or where to go. What confused me even further was that the strongest feeling wasn’t anger, but love. I was still in love, and generated love, but I had no place to put it.

Without anger, I felt weak, but the love and warmth in my heart kept growing and growing. Love wrapped itself around the heartbreak and grief. I didn’t want to be bitter. I didn’t want to destroy or be destroyed. I wanted to transcend this, and be transformed by it. When I started practicing archery more often, those feelings imbued the experience. I wasn’t ok, (I’m still not ok), but archery helped me get out of my head and into my environment for a little while. I felt the bow, the arrows, the targets, the trees, the grass, the hawks and the quails, and my fellow archers. They and I were all wrapped in presence and stillness. In that stillness, I could pay attention to the tiny movements that influenced my technique. Shooting wasn’t about the kill; it was about the stillness.

When I found a mounted archery teacher, it was the same thing. We think of warriors on horseback as a thundering wave of death; but one-on-one hasn’t been like that at all. It’s me and the horse, learning to talk to each other. You have to listen to the animal, and acknowledge the terrain and other distractions. You also have to listen to your own mental state, and its effect on your body language. Riding wasn’t about taking power; it was about listening.

My body has always told me early on when something was wrong, from vitamin deficiencies to appendicitis. I’ve learned to trust it. It knew that anger wouldn’t make me better this time.

Don’t get me wrong — there’s a lot of giggling in the midst of the zen. I’ve had arrows hit the target and then flip over themselves and land in the grass somewhere. I’ve done a great fast-draw and then dropped the arrow on my toe before I could shoot it. More than once, while standing in the stirrups, my horse would just stop and pitch me forward. This is silly, slapstick shit. Beauty and stillness is all well and good, but it’s not really fun. Fun is being able to laugh at yourself. If you want to climb a mountain, you’ll have a much easier time if you enjoy walking and sweating. If you can make your fuck-ups funny, you’re set. You look forward to the victories, but also for the jokes. It’s hard to quit if you love what you’re doing.

After the ride, I feed the horse and sit with him until he finishes. I brush him and pet his flank while he eats, the same way I pet the other animals at the barn when they ask for it. Then I take him back to his pasture. The exercise, the countryside, and being with animals is helping me heal in a way that breaking, burning, and screaming never could.

Even the self-talk has shifted. Rather than say “fuck!” when I make a mistake, I say “well, that was silly.” Maybe I was silly. Maybe the horse was silly. Maybe the arrow or the target was silly. Blame and negativity aren’t part of the learning experience. Each success is a surprise, and each mistake is hilarious.

So no, I don’t picture my ex when I’m shooting. I have no desire to do harm. My own pain was enough. When I ride, I’m with the horse. When I shoot, I’m with the landscape.

There was a woman I trained with a long time ago who always smiled. I’ve never seen a photo of her where she didn’t have a big toothy grin. At the time, I took her less seriously because of it; but I was wrong. She’s knowledgeable, formidable, and a fantastic friend. I think she was on to something.

If I were angry, I couldn’t do any of these things. I’d be stuck in the cycle of raging, passing out, and raging again. That’s not a long-term strategy.  Instead, I’m learning to flow with what is, and let go of what isn’t. I won’t hit the bulls-eye every time. I won’t always be graceful in the saddle. But if I’m laughing the whole time, who cares? I’ll be back tomorrow, no worse for wear.

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
― Sun Tzu

Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.
― Samuel Beckett

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The Unbreakable Strength of Humility

What would you like to do?

There are a million bazillion writers out there, it’s true. It’s an intimidating thought, but it doesn’t have to be. The reason for this fear is a sense that we won’t be able to distinguish ourselves. Fact is, there’s something you have to say, in a particular way, that no one else can. Your writing (like all your other life choices) are influenced by your experiences and perception. That’s entirely yours. One way to mitigate this fear is to think of your end game. What would you like to do?

In your wildest most whimsical fantasies, what would you like to do? What kind of stories do you want to tell, and what kind of reader would you like to reach?

This is a marketing question also, but that aspect is for another day over another beverage.

This is the time to consider what you’re immersing yourself in. What are you reading? What kind of feedback are you getting? Are you enjoying yourself? Most importantly, are you challenging yourself, learning and growing?

Echo-chambers, whether they’re full of encouragement or full of disdain, don’t really serve you. The truth and reality of your skill is as valuable as the “you are here” sticker on a map. It sucks at first, but the value is immeasurable. Look at yourself and your abilities. Look how far you’ve come. Now look where you want to go. The only way to get there is to keep an eye on the goal. To use the parlance of the earthy, holistic practitioners I’ve been hanging out with lately: The quality of what you consume affects the quality of crap you produce.

You consume your environment. Not just the location; but the weather, the people and the energy there.

The right environment and access to the tools you need are smack-dab at the intersection of luck and boldness. Sending out query letters isn’t the only brave thing you have to do. You have to seek out new stories, and other writers. Listen to short-story podcasts in your genre. Sign up for Duotrope and see what else is out there. Blog. Get on Google+. Look for those you want to emulate. You’ll find a lot of material that’s much better than yours.

That’s what you want. Seek it out with sincerity.

Read. Study. Ask. When you encounter something you like, find out how it was made. Ask to see more. Acknowledging the gulf between your talent and theirs is only the beginning. It doesn’t end there. Lift your eyes. It’s much easier to build a bridge across that span if you can see the other side – and even easier if you have a buddy over there to catch the first rope.

 

It is much more valuable to look for the strength in others. You can gain nothing by criticizing their imperfections.”

― Daisaku Ikeda

 

In the land where excellence is commended, not envied, where weakness is aided, not mocked, there is no question as to how its inhabitants are all superhuman.”

― Criss Jami

The Zen of Nightmares – How to Use a Dream Diary

I see this and panic a little.

I just had the worst dream.

I was trying out a new gym. When I returned to the locker room I found that my katana had been destroyed. That’s right, the one in the banner above.

I looked around the locker room, and all these thin blond sorority girls applied deodorant, dressed or did their hair. The smiled at each other, but never at me. I knew in my bones that they had done this. I looked down at the remnants in my hands. The blade had been snapped off a few inches from the cross guard. One strip of wood dangled off the tang, two of the pins were gone, and the wood on both sides bristled with jagged splinters where the end cap would have been.

I ran around the locker room looking for the blade. Three or four shards of it were being carried away on the backs of brown mice and black rats. I chased them, but they scurried down a hole too small for me to follow.

I wandered the streets with my shattered hilt. I saw the mice carrying the shards into a hole in a warehouse wall. I found the door and went inside. There were two men seated in the front waiting room, wearing baseball caps and looking at the floor so I couldn’t see their faces. I asked for the pieces back. The two men said they didn’t know what I was talking about, and then three lamia appeared from a back room. They were disembodied floating women’s heads, each with a spine still attached. They wailed and screamed, trying to bite me. I ran outside and slammed the door.

I had to get the pieces back. I went back inside. The two men were still there in their baseball caps, drinking beer and staring at the floor. This time, the blade had been reassembled, but it was weak and flexible like a tai chi sword. I burst into tears. I couldn’t see how a flexing blade could ever re-attach to the shattered parts I held. The blade, of its own volition, wriggled away like a snake. I went back outside.

I took a breath and stopped crying. I went inside a third time. The whole room had re-arranged, and the two men were working at two tables. Their baseball caps were gone and I could see their faces. One was blond and wore glasses. I asked them if they could fix my sword, and held out the pieces for them to see. They looked up at me and apologized. They only made latex boffer weapons here. The blade was gone.

I woke up on the verge of tears. I rolled out of bed, scooted over to my weapons rack and had to touch it to realize that my katana was still there, and undamaged.

What This Has To Do With Writing:

Nightmares make better story-seeds than dreams, and not always because of the conflict and content. My sword broke. So what? I could have just gotten a new one, right? Wrong. The anguish was never about the sword, it was about what the sword was/meant/represented. Once you write out your dreams, look at why they triggered an emotional response.

The dream seemed to point out my attachment to material things. Or how I’m clinging to something that’s broken. Or a warning that physical strength is fleeting.

Meaning without a story is preachy. Stories without meaning are hollow.

Tension and choice are the story. Any problem you create with technology or magic can be solved by technology or magic — that’s not compelling. The deep human meaning of these things is what makes them relatable. It’s not what you lost, but the idea of loss itself.

Part of a warrior’s path is the capacity to confront things that scare you — whether you’ve planned or not. We do it so others don’t have to. Your path is toward your fear.

When you want the hero (and the audience) to suffer, think about the underlying meaning of the event. If it’s contrived, it’ll fall flat. If you find yourself crying as you write, you’re on the right track. Are you translating those feelings to your stories in an authentic way?

Nightmares exist outside of logic, and there’s little fun to be had in explanations; they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear.
― Stephen King

People with intelligence will… try to push through whatever they want with their clever reasoning. This is injury from intelligence. Nothing you do will have effect if you do not use truth.
― Yamamoto Tsunetomo

Deli Guy Philosophy 03 – Greatest Person

Deli Guy

When I go pick up a coffee and bacon egg & cheese croissant on my way to work, I stop at the same deli. Each day, my deli guy has a philosophical question taped to the cash register.

Question 3: “Who was the greatest person that ever lived?”

I thought about it while he made my breakfast. I thought about famous people, heroic people, politicians and kings, generals and spiritual leaders. In the end, I told my Deli Guy that my dad was the greatest person who ever lived.

He followed his heart and worked his dream job as a news cameraman in NYC for thirty years. He’s artistic, musical and can read a 300-page book in two hours. He’s open-minded and engages new philosophy and technical details with equal enthusiasm. He can be a little paranoid when it comes to security and preparation — he always reads instruction manuals cover-to-cover — but he isn’t overbearing. In fact, he laughs easily. He’s never mean-spirited with his jokes.

He married a woman he’s still madly in love with (our mom). He gives good advice. He reads Zen and the Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance once a year, and gets new meaning out of it each time. There’s nothing Electra about this. My dad’s a really neat guy.

He did have a rotten temper when we were children; but trying to wrangle three brilliant kids who made bad choices in clever ways would drive anyone up the wall.

I couldn’t choose a big famous world-shaking hero because I don’t know them. We cover up the flaws of history’s heroes. Maybe da Vinci was a jerk.

What do you think constitutes Greatness? Can an individual be Great without being a prominent public figure?

White Belts, First Drafts, and Cutting Yourself Some Slack

The white belt (beginner stage) is hard to see, but it’s there on the left.

Karate belts are pretty handy. They keep your gi closed. They tell everyone where you fit in a school. When everyone’s lined up, they make a rainbow. They’re also a big fat metaphor.

Let’s set aside technical terminology (kyu/dan) for a moment. Say you start training when you’re twelve. You train hard, you sweat, you get knocked down, you get up, and you keep going. You wash your uniform. You don’t wash your belt, and it yellows. Two or three years later, you’ve grown a bit and need a new uniform. Your rank doesn’t change purely because you did. You still have the same belt – only now it’s starting to get moldy, and it goes green, or blue or purple. You grapple. Something spills. Before you know it, your belt is totally brown and you’re ready to train for black.

Your belt is a symbol of the time and effort you’ve put into your pursuit.

Last night, I watched my newest dojo-brother go through some basic drills. His instructors lectured him and picked apart the details of his technique. “Build good habits,” they said.

He’s generally a happy guy, but his smile was replaced by overwhelm, frustration and doubt.

His instructors spent a lot of time on the details of his punch, and that’s when it hit me. He wasn’t just learning how to punch. He had way more on his plate than that. He was learning footwork, movement, balance, coordination, torque and ambidexterity – and everywhere he looked, there was a mirror.

The white belt is your first draft.

You think you’re practicing a punch, but you’re really learning your own body. You think you’re writing a story, but you’re really learning your own style.

Your first draft is your sloppy, uncoordinated stage. The only thing you have to master at this juncture is your pace. How productive can you be, and still write regularly? How flexible are you? What’s easy and what’s challenging?

This stage is where, most of all, you learn how to cope with the stress and cut yourself some slack. Pace yourself. Avoid laziness, but never push yourself too hard. Your doubt, expectation, impatience and jealousy surround your writing as sure as mirrors surround you in the dojo. A crisis of confidence will lay you out as fast and painfully as a knee injury.

Building stamina is fine, burning out is not. Burning out stops you. Continuous progress leads to mastery.

If you’re a white belt at anything, don’t sweat the details. Don’t worry about what other people say in those early stages. You’re already surrounded by your own mirrors.

Embrace your white belt, and be patient with yourself. You’ll get there.

Combat discouragement with your desire to learn.”
― Phillip Toshio

While you are continuing this practice, week after week, year after year, your experience will become deeper and deeper, and your experience will cover everything you do in your everyday life… Do not think about anything. Just remain on your cushion without expecting anything. Then eventually you will resume your own true nature. That is to say, your own true nature resumes itself.”
― Shunryu Suzuki

**Update! The belt color story is apocryphal, according to the scholars over at Ikigai. I have decided to leave this post up, however, because I like the metaphor.