Friday, April 20, 2012


With all this talking, what has been said? The subtle truth can he pointed at with words, but it can't be contained by them. Take time to listen to what is said without words, to obey the law too subtle to be written, to worship the unnameable and to embrace the unformed. Love your life. Trust the Tao. Make love with the invisible subtle origin of the universe, and you will give yourself everything you need. You won't have to hide away forever in spiritual retreats. You can be a gentle, contemplative hermit right here in the middle of everything, utterly unaffected, thoroughly sustained and rewarded by your integral practices. Encouraging others, giving freely to all, awakening and purifying the world with each movement and action, you'll ascend to the divine realm in broad daylight. The breath of the Tao speaks, and those who are in harmony with it hear quite clearly. -- Chapter 81 of the Hua Hu Ching, trans. Brian Walker
I haven't been blogging as regularly as I used to. As of late, I've been offline, taking care of what's truly important to me. And all the while, I've been dormant, hibernating, perhaps gestating — engaging in reflection, mediation, personal study, and introspection that's got me undergoing what feels to me some kind of "inner transformation".

I've been observing nature, watching my kids learn and play, trying to be a better listener, and doing my best to let go of my over-inflated sense of importance and the need to be in control. I've been reading and re-reading the Tao Te Ching, the Hua Hu Ching, and several books on meditation. I've been enjoying my training at the dojo, mostly for for what it is and releasing my expecations for what I've always wanted it to become. And I've been working out harder than I have in a long time.

Admittedly, I don't have any particular insights to share at this point in my journey, other than to say that I think it's time for me to sundown this blog: After some five years of writing, all these words do not appear to have increased my wisdom or my happiness.

But I'm sure it hasn't been a total waste of time or effort, either.

I've already written a little bit more about this on my UBBT blog. I'm sure I'll emerge from my coccoon at some point, to resume my regular writing with something interesting to say, but it probably won't be here. Thank you for being a part of this journey. My learning and growing continues — I hope yours does, too.

Monday, February 6, 2012

On Orchids and Bonsai

One of my goals for 2012 has been to reconnect with nature, primarily by spending more time outdoors. That's been a tough one so far — I work a corporate nine-to-five, and I teach my classes at the dojo indoors. I've come to realize that I just don't get out all that much! I'm working on that by trying to add in little five-minute nature walks throughout the work week, but honestly, the office park parking lot just isn't all that exciting. I'm going to start biking to work when the warmer weather gets here. Not too long now.

Inside my office, my primary connection to nature has been a little bonsai tree that I have sitting on the windowsill. I've managed to keep the same tree alive for a few years now, which is a pretty good accomplishment in light of my many bonsai failures. I've kept up with the watering and pruning. I've trained the tree with wire. I fertilize it. And every year at about this time, I begin looking closely to detect the first sign of new buds as the tree emerges from its winter dormancy. Bonsai need to be kept wet: I water mine thoroughly up to three times a week, and I'm told it's basically impossible to over water them. The tree's looking pretty good!

This week, I added to my "indoor nature preserve:" I picked up a small and delicate-looking orchid. Now, I've killed an orchid or two in my day, but I'm willing to try again! In sharp contrast to bonsai trees, which are impossible to drown, I've learned that the main cause of death for orchids is overwatering. So rather than placing the orchid in a dunk tank, as I do with the bonsai, I've been instructed to simply place an ice cube in the orchid's pot once a week, and let it melt slowly so that the roots can absorb the dripping water. And I need to make sure I drain the pot adequately so that standing water doesn't kill the roots.

So now I've got two plants in the office, each beautiful in its own way, each requiring an entirely different approach to keep it healthy.

Back at home, I've got a spider plant. Now that thing takes some serious abuse! I've had it for years — I've totally ignored it, I've forgotten about it on more than one occasion, and I've even left it for dead several times only to see it somehow stubbornly come back to life after receiving the least amount of care. Perhaps I should bring the spider plant into the office, too. I could stand to learn more about it. It deserves just as much attention as the two plants in my office. The spider plant, I'm sure, also wants to be vibrant and alive and appreciated for what it is.

I'm coming to see how people are like plants. Each person is beautiful and uniquely different. Each person wants to grow and express their individuality. And each person needs a different kind of attention. All people need "water and sunshine" to grow and thrive, but beyond the basics, what will injure, stunt, or kill one will nourish another and make it bloom.

And so with the people in my life, as with the plants in my life, I must pay close attention.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Some Random Thoughts on a Rainy Wednesday

Alignment. Authenticity. Transparency. Vitality. Today these qualities seek their full expression through me. May I find the way.

I desire to live a well-lived life in which my thoughts, words, and actions are all in accord, and in line with my highest personal values and my true, ever-wise, "best self."

I endeavor to live a life of profound integrity — a life that is free of any pretense or artifice, in which there is no need to hide or shelter or differentiate my "private self" from my "public self." What I appear to be, I am. And if I cannot be totally "ego-free," then let me strive to at least become less "ego-centric."

Above all, I seek a certain something. A vibrancy. An "aliveness" to help me to learn, to love, to grow, to share — always.

I want to live and savor my life to the fullest, and to continually express myself vigorously, creatively, and passionately — with grace, dignity, and perhaps a bit of style.

I know for sure that I have all the tools that I need for this journey. I need only to apply them.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Still a Beginner: Thougths on "Shu-Ha-Ri" and needing a Guru

I wrote an earlier, draft version of this post as a response to Grace Gravelle's insightful blog entry, "One Guru." Grace is a talented instructor, and she currently leads yoga classes at my dojo on Tuesday and Sunday evenings. You can check out lots of her writing on her website, Front Porch Yoga.

Many martial artists dedicate themselves to one teacher, or sensei. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. In my case, there are many fine instructors out there whom I would call "sensei" out of respect for their knowledge and expertise, but there are only two people, Sensei Dennis Mann and Sensei Brian Ricci whom I would call "my Sensei."

Sensei Mann and Sensei Ricci are great martial artists. I've spent DECADES learning from each of them. The style of karate that I've learned from them has a particular name, a specific lineage. That's important to me, and I do my best to "keep the faith" when I teach. I feel a strong sense of responsibility to pass on the art just as it was given to me. But there's a big martial arts world out there, full of many, many things that I do not know. There's so much I'd still like to learn. I am, to be sure, a beginner — a mere babe in the woods.

And for me, no post on the subject of the people whom I consider to be my teachers, sensei, or gurus would be complete without mentioning Coach Tom Callos, creator of the Ultimate Black Belt Test. Now I've known Coach Tom for years now. He's part guru, part life coach, and a very dedicated martial artist of no small skill or reputation. Tom is my teacher, "my other sensei," but he's never corrected my posture, taught me a kata, or told me to blade my foot more when I throw my side kick. In the interest of full disclosure I must state here that I've never even met him in person. But we have a vibrant virtual relationship through phone calls, emails, Skype conversations, and blog posts. He's helped me bring meaning and clarity to how I practice and teach the martial arts in ways that no one else has.

I know that cannot learn "everything" (related to the martial arts and otherwise) from either of my sensei. Or my "other" sensei. They are great role models in a number of ways, father figures even. But they're not enlightened spiritual beings. (At least I don't think they are.) They are people. With flaws, just like me.

So in a way, I guess I consider everyone to be my teacher. Everyone has something to teach me. Especially those folks outside of the world of the martial arts who we might call our "Living Heroes". In the martial arts and out, I am an Artist of Life.

In the martial arts, I believe that a student should follow a teacher only as long as it serves that person's growth and development. I try to be a good sensei and role model for all of my students, but it's not my place to guide and advise them in the non-martial areas of their lives. Inside the dojo, in the world of blocks and kicks and punches, in the world of conflict, tactics and strategy — well, I tend to know a whole lot more than my students do. That's to be expected — after all, I've been at this game a long time. And I expect my students to do their utmost to absorb and precisely replicate the things that I have to teach them on the mat.

But spiritually and morally? Well, I've got room for improvement, too. The best I can do is try to lead by example; my students can/will choose to follow the path that I walk only if they find value there. And if they don't? Well, that's okay, too. I don't want to change anyone. I simply want to help people become a more genuine, authentic, present, confident version of themselves. And hey, I stumble a lot on my path. Aren't we all walking in the dark?

In the Japanese martial traditions, there's a concept called shu-ha-ri that tries to explain the phases of learning: First, the student tries to copy and emulate exactly what they're being taught. Then they try to master it, to make the teachings theirs. And finally, they must transcend the teaching and forge their own path. They must actively create, but this cannot happen without a solid foundation somewhere. So while I still call Sensei Mann and Sensei Ricci "my Sensei," there's not too much more at this point that I'm actually going to learn from them other than external forms... Have I learned my lessons well? Perhaps. There's still a lot that they've taught me that I've yet to master. And by now, they don't really need to correct me anymore. (Honestly, they're probably tired of repeating themselves when I continue to make mistakes.)

I know exactly what I need to work on to improve and grow. From here on out, I'm more or less on my own. (But I'm not "alone." My Sensei are still my wise councilors and advisors.) The work ahead is mine to do. Part of that journey, I suppose, will be to find another sensei (or two, or three) — people who can guide me along the trails I've yet to walk on. But I must also turn within, and find more lessons there:

More and more these days, I surprise myself on the mat while I'm teaching. I find "cool stuff" in what I already know that I never knew was there, stuff that no sensei has shown me, but has always been there, awaiting discovery. There are variations, subtleties, and small shifts that produce different (and sometimes surprising) results. My "fighting" is becoming creative play. (It must drive my students crazy when I digress...)

But I'm still a beginner, to be sure.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The World Needs More Warriors

I wrote this essay today as a submission for "This I Believe."

Humankind's history is replete with warfare and violence not because (as some would say) engaging in warfare is part of our genetic hard wiring, but because going to war is easier than maintaining or creating peace. Hitting, hurting, raping, and killing is far easier, I believe, than developing compassionate understanding and true self-knowledge.

Our education systems have failed us in that they have taught us to value peace, but they have not really taught us how to be peaceful. Peace is hard work! Therefore, we need to study nonviolent communication and anger management. We need to develop our capacity for empathy and our ability — and our willingness! — to resolve conflicts through respectful dialogue and intelligent negotiation.

We are as much a part of nature as the trees, the sky, and the ocean. We are one with the unfathomable and miraculous matrix of life. We should consciously reconnect ourselves to sunrises and sunsets, to the stars in the sky, to the animals in our oceans and forests, and to the plants that spring from the soil.

As Dr. Wayne Dyer says, "we are not organisms in an environment; we are 'environorganisms.'" It is imperative that we become active stewards of the environment who are cognizant of how our actions affect the whole. For if we do not take care of Mother Nature, she will surely "take care" of us.

So long as I'm alive, I'll have to do my living in the body I was born with. So, if I'm going to enjoy the ride we call LIFE, it's my duty to take care of the vehicle. That means a healthy diet, plenty of physical exercise, daily meditation and contemplation, continuous learning, and constant cultivation of positive relationships and attitudes.

We are here to maximize our potential, and as our potential grows, we must put our talents to use to benefit others through community service and acts of kindness. We belong to one another. I envision the day when everyone looks beyond their own family, ethnicity, neighborhood, and nationality to see that we are all fundamentally and inseparably connected.

We do not need more warfare, but we do need more warriors. Cultures around the world and throughout history hold warriors — those who will stand up and fight for what's right, precious, and worthwhile — in the highest esteem. Warriors are responsible leaders who embody compassion, integrity, discipline, courage, and honor. Warriors are predisposed to take difficult action, to sacrifice, to serve.

But there really are no enemies "out there." This means we can all benefit from cultivating and living a warrior's life beyond all fighting, beyond all warfare. Confidence, character, and a passionate devotion to others are the best and highest forms of "self-defense."

My path to self-mastery involves engaging in peace education, environmentalism, healthy living, and community activism. I'm pursuing the most worthy and authentic kind of "warriorship" I know so that my life may someday become an inspiration for others to go beyond all self-perceived and externally imposed limitations.


This blog is part of the Ultimate Black Belt Test Program, which is an undertaking of The 100., and a part of Emerald Necklace Martial Arts in Boston, MA.