Benefits of Struggling

A man found a cocoon of a butterfly. One day a small opening appeared, he sat and watched the butterfly for several hours as it struggled to force its body through that little hole. Then it seemed to stop making any progress. It appeared as if it had gotten as far as it could and it could go no farther. Then the man decided to help the butterfly, so he took a pair of scissors and snipped off the remaining bit of the cocoon. The butterfly then emerged easily. But it had a swollen body and small, shriveled wings. The man continued to watch the butterfly because he expected that, at any moment, the wings would enlarge and expand to be able to support the body, which would contract in time. Neither happened! In fact, the butterfly spent the rest of its life crawling around with a swollen body and shriveled wings. It never was able to fly. What the man in his kindness and haste did not understand was that the restricting cocoon and the struggle required for the butterfly to get through the tiny opening were natures way of forcing fluid from the body of the butterfly into its wings so that it would be ready for flight once it achieved its freedom from the cocoon. Sometimes struggles are exactly what we need in our life. If we were allowed to go through life without any obstacles, it would cripple us. We would not be as strong as what we could have been. And we could never fly.

“Trimming The Tree” – another Short Essay I wrote in the mid-90’s

I find many similarities between my Cuong Nhu training and philosophy and my own personal career. I am constantly applying philosophies I learn in Cuong Nhu to my work life and martial arts path. Bigger isn’t always better.
I recently read an article about a company that is in “demolition mode”. This company has become too big to efficiently compete in their market. Their cup appears to be too full, their tree too big. They seem to have sacrificed speed, innovation and quality for stability, profit and brand recognition. Dilution of what initially made them great will ultimately lead to their failure. It takes a visionary to be able to trim back a huge oak tree to allow it to flourish to its maximum capacity and maintain its original mandate. If a tree has been growing for a hundred years it takes courage to switch its path and vision to see how trimming it back can ultimately create a healthier and more successful outcome.
This can also be exemplified in the martial arts. If you are feeling weakness in your extremities, think about trimming your branches. Are your higher level techniques lacking strength or precision? Perhaps it is time to get back to basics. There is nothing more refreshing than jumping into a beginner’s class and working on basics (the foundation), deepening the roots instead of adding or lengthening branches. There is a sense of old and familiar yet there is always room for innovations and learning. You may be surprised what you can learn as an advanced rank while working out in a beginner’s class with white belts. Their trees are young spruces just sprouting leaves (1 and two green stripes). They have flexible and yielding branches, small and compact with the ability to change and bend as needed. Their cup is empty and they are not yet stuck in their ways and have minimal pre-conceived ideas. We see the lack of flexibility frequently in more established business organizations. How many times have you heard a manager say “We do it this way around here”. Perhaps washing away a great idea of a younger employee. That manager could benefit from being a beginner again for a fresh perspective.
As a martial arts career matures the tree grows upward and outward. Roots also sink deeper into the ground. It takes deliberate effort to grow roots; an open mind will help deepen roots. The deepening of the roots is both mental and physical. The roots grow by emptying ones cup and learning in a deeper way by exploring earlier curriculum with a different perspective as an advanced rank. The representation of rank as the growth of a tree helps visualize this connection. The young martial artist starts out as a seed, white belt and beginner. As the young martial artist learns he is exposed to the ideas and practices of those that came before him. He can also interpret those in his own unique way to best suit his capabilities and abilities. For example, a smaller person will perform a technique against a larger person in a way to best suit their size. The same technique but applied in a smart way to be most effective.
Like the seed, the martial artist is exposed to the sun (nourishment through learning) which allows the seed to sprout green leaves. It is flexible and full of energy. Thin roots start to grow and help strengthen the young trees hold on the earth. More water and sun will help build stronger branches and deeper roots. Time and exposure to the elements will develop bark (building a harder shell of protection and endurance). With this hardness and maturity comes some absence of flexibility (what the young green spruce white belts posses). But the larger tree is here to stay and will not be washed away. Black belt is the full maturity of the tree but the tree has yet to experience fertility. The larger tree that can’t be washed away also provides stability to the younger trees around it and should strive to protect the younger generation of trees that are less rooted.
Dan ranks signify the creation of new young martial artists and the development of the new Sensei. As one gains rank above black belt and trains and develops the younger generation, the creation of new students grows the style and deepens the new Sensei’s black belt with red stripes signifying their students and deeper experience. Training young students allows a Sensei to maintain contact with the younger white belts and share in their flexibility, suppleness and fresh perspectives. These shared experiences will enable the mature martial artist to stay young at heart and practice emptying his/her cup and maintain flexibility. Practice makes perfect. Teaching provides the opportunity to empty ones cup and grow. It also allows the mature martial artist to stay close to innovation and flexibility. The manager mentioned earlier could benefit from this approach.
Trimming the martial arts tree or business tree can help one reach new goals, deepen perspectives and increase quality. It is a common practice among gardeners to trim back bushes in order to make them fuller and healthier. If they get too big and lanky, the extremities become neglected and weak. They are far away from the source of nutrition and the heart that provides them with what they need. The goal of a Cuong Nhu student is to improve themselves and their abilities in the martial arts in order to serve the people. Improving abilities doesn’t always mean just learning another new technique or creating a new demo. It can mean improving that lower block, weapons disarm or nutritional balance to a deeper level, creating a stronger tree, not necessarily a bigger tree.

Providing Honest Feedback

I read the other day that a soccer club in our area for kids wanted to take away the score so there were no winners and losers. I thought that was the most ludicrous idea ever and so detrimental for the kids. It also insults their intelligence. They know who won so why sugar coat it or remove “the score” all together.  Kids aren’t as fragile as adults may think. I have 2 of them. I think giving love, security, food, shelter and a nurturing environment that stresses education is enough. Spoiling them or devaluing their accomplishments (like taking away the soccer score) is destructive and not in their best interests. Loving kids and doing what’s best for them is sometimes hard – as a parent and instructor. Many times that hardest path leads to the best result. The easy way out (ie praising everyone or taking the score away)-  not a great a result. I think this is also prevalent in the corporate world too. So many “meets expectations” filed away in personnel files so someone didn’t have to confront a performance issue. Maybe if a manager had stepped up to the plate and done the right thing and told an employee they were not performing well in that job, maybe they would have improved their abilities. Maybe they would have quit and become a famous actress. Who knows. Honesty is the best policy in my book.  One of my favorite books in this arena is called “Fierce Conversations” and it transcends family and work and would be beneficial for martial arts instructors also. I highly recommend it.

In my dojo, I have merit badges – listening, balance, coordination, stretching, falls etc. I only give them out when the student has really earned it. Many still don’t have some badges. They really want the ones they don’t have and I give them guidelines for how they can better improve their abilities and what to strive for.  Balance Badge for example – If you can’t do the required number of kicks without putting your leg down or a variety of other balance activities, you don’t get the badge. They earn other badges in areas they are good at.  Some students are really good at their falls and take it to another level and get a second Falls badge.

Everyone isn’t good at everything – but we can put our best foot forward and give it our all is what I tell my kids. I feel the same way about rank. One of the reasons I started my own kids program was because I wasn’t satisfied with the belt mills in my area. One kid that trains with me now, said he got to a green belt at another dojo and he felt like he hadn’t earned it. He said he missed half the classes and didn’t know how to do anything and it made him feel bad. But he got the belt anyway because the rest of his class did. Kids are really smart – sometimes smarter than adults! I really love working with them. They can also be brutally honest; something a lot of adults could get better at.

Instant Black Belt – a belt to hold up your pants!

Kids class tonight was all about Memory. We discussed why memory was important in order to be a good martial artist and leader (respnding with the appropriate technique for example). The kids gave me examples of good foods that help to build good strong bodies and minds (that can remember things easily) – Brocolli, spinach, salad, fruit and ….. ice cream (ha).

Everyone got an animal stamp in the “Memory” Box on their participation grid in their books!

We worked on:

  • Drills like Cuong Nhu Freeze Dodge Ball. If you get hit by a certain color ball you have to “remember” which technique to do in order to “un-freeze”.
  • Brazillian jujitsu crawls to develop strong arms adn legs and develop coordination.
  • Jump the Wet Noodle is a class favorite! It helps improve hand/eye coordination, strong legs for later curriculum favorites (like flying kicks!).
  • Sensei Says Warm Up – repetition of some basic Cuong Nhu stances and techniques.
  • All throughout class we spoke about philosophy and what it takes to excel – effort, focus, determination. Most of the kids know the 5 First of Friendship (Communicate, Smile, Share, Care, Forgive!).

Finally, we read a story from “Eye of the Hurricane” Tales of the empty Handed Masters by Terrence Webster-Doyle. The story was called “Instant Black Belt”. The kids chuckled and said they all wanted an instant black belt. The story developed around a trapped hummingbird inside the dojo that was captured and released by the Sensei. The Sensei commented on the Hummingbirds intensely focused life force. The Sensei walked over and gave a black belt to one of his students. That student was an instant black belt for a day. The student worked out harder and stronger than normally during class. The student said he felt strong and powerful. So the Sensei asked where he thought all this power came from? From the black belt, the student replied. The Sensei stood up and took off his blackbelt and asked the class what they saw. Strength, wisdom, energy they called out. One student called out that he only saw a piece of black cloth (smart student!). So at that moment I stood up in class and took off my black belt and asked the kids – am I still a black belt even without my belt – can I still do a flying side kick or kata or self defense technique. They all said yes! So this is just a belt to hold up my pants then (quoting from the story). It doesnt give me anything special – it just identifies me in class as we work out together. Its not the most important thing – gaining knowledge is! That is the true power, the true wisdom!

Winning by Losing

Today in kids class we focused on understanding the importance of respect in our daily lives and how it will make us great martial artists! We practiced Cuong Nhu bows by doing them with each other (developing new friendships). We talked about what words we can use to be more respectful – kids in class answered “please”, “thank you”, “can I help you”, “excuse me”. We discussed the 5 Firsts of Friendship: Communicate, Smile, Share, Care, and Forgive. Isobel (my 4 year old) whispered in my ear “Mommy, add hugs, love and be nice to your brother”.

We worked our minds with thoughts of respect and friendship and the student creed (obey your parents, respect your elders, use good manners at all times with all people, help others, do not fight). We worked our bodies with drills like jump the wet noodle, team balloon chop, jump duck dodge block, and breaking off into rank curriculum work. Then we all huddled closely on the floor so I could whisper the secret of a really great martial artist. The kids got so close I thought we probably looked like one big mound of white karate uniforms with black and red ying/yang patches. They eagerly waited for the secret……. so I told them “the secret of a great martial artist is to give 100% effort to everything you do.” We start class by shouting Gang (effort in Vietnamese) so we can remember to give 100% effort during class. We end class with Gang to emphasize the importance of taking effort back home, back to school, back to life!

Finally, we checked off our training books, animal stamped our theme page (Respect), decorated our books with stickers and read a great story called Winning by Losing. In this story, martial arts students practice in the rain and mud. Falling down. Never beating the rain and wind with their chops and punches. The kids liked the idea of falling in the mud! This story goes along with giving 100% effort in everything you do. When you play a game, it doesn’t matter if you win or lose, you win by playing! You win because you participate and you learn and get better, which makes you a winner regardless of what the outcome is. It is always important to know the score of a game and have pride in that accomplishment, congratulate others for their accomplishments (good sportsmanship) but there are so many other moments of winning. From the moment you start the game until it ends. Failing just means you are trying new things. Without failures your successes are limited. I remember a student of mine in Paris that always struggled to learn new techniques, always lost the sparring match, always finished last in the mat crawls. One might have thought at first blush that he lost. Many years went by, he struggled and improved. Each time he failed at doing something he looked deeper into the technique, practiced it harder, found a different way, a different approach. He became a much more successful Sensei/teacher than some other students who “got it” the first time. Students who naturally would excel and win sparring matches or finish the race first. His understanding was more profound. He was a winner by having failure along the way. He also grew internally with modesty and a non-defeistist attitude and was a true pleasure to work out with.

Class ended with everyone going home with a balloon, a smile, new friendships and a glimpse into winning by losing! Gang!

Wild Horses

First day back for Cuong Nhu kids class at Temple Israel rocked! 3 new students participated with our yellow, purple and blue belts in activities like “jump the wet noodle”, “jump, duck, dodge”, “karate freeze dodge ball” and tons of mat work and curriculum work. During our journal updates at the end of class we read the story “The Test of the Wild Horse” from Eye of the Hurricane by Terrence Webster Doyle. You can find used copies on line if you would like to purchase one. A great book for bedtime stories which teaches great life lessons. One student (14 yr old) writes “This book told me how to solve fights peacefully. It taught me that karate means empty self. It also taught me to be still and calm around wild animals and they will trust you. It said that the essence of nothing can be something. It taught me what winning by loosing means. It means to dance with the elements of something like, like rain or wind. So all together, a black belt is not what gives you power; it is what is inside of you.” As you child to tell you what he learned from the story and perhaps ask him/her to draw a picture of the 3 students as they chose different paths to accomplish the same goal. The goal was get to the other side of the ravine guarded by a wild horse. One student charged the horse and used blocks and skills to avoid the horse. The second climbed the tall cliff walls, too high for the horse. The third used the least energy and easiest path, like water flowing, befriended the horse and rode the wild horse through the ravine. The ying (soft) solution versus yang (hard) solution. What we all strive for in work, family and life.

Control: “Balance Your Coin” – the first of a few short essays I wrote in the mid 90’s

Control is a two sided coin. On one side you want to have control over yourself physically, mentally and emotionally. A martial artist may strive to control the situation during a sparring match. A CEO may attempt to control a board meeting and a wife or husband might hope to control a relationship. Parents often hang on to the control they once had over their children, which they may start losing during the teenage years. Those who lack control in their lives many times strive to attain it. Controlling personalities might struggle with themselves to “let go” and relinquish control for a happier and more balanced lifestyle. Control may create stress in certain situation when taken to an unrealistic level and could lead to feelings of failure and inadequacy. A balance should be found. I try to strive to balance the coin on its edge, practicing control in certain areas at various times and in other areas relinquishing control. Being able to experience both sides also leads to a deeper self understanding and understanding of others which helps with relationships in and out of the dojo.
Control can sometimes be the reigning in of the wild beast within; the conscience battling with the instinctive. Emotions (justified or otherwise) are a constant antagonist for a controlling personality. Have you ever been in a sparring match with someone who challenges your self control and who exhibits no control and sometimes hurts you? Maybe they have lost sight of the purpose behind free sparring. Camaraderie and a healthy competitive atmosphere are positive aspects of sparring. Sparring is a good tool for practicing physical and mental control. Control your thoughts, actions and outcomes. Do not come to the sparring match with preconceived ideas. Cuong Nhu Philosophy on the 10 don’ts for sparring is important to reflect upon: Don’t be angry, fearful, tense, hurried, don’t waste energy, don’t be overconfident, distracted, or have pre-conceived ideas, don’t be discouraged if you lose, or afraid of losing. Emotionally, we strive to maintain our composure in stressful or challenging situations. Human instinct when hit is to be fearful or angry. One must learn to control these feelings and remember the purpose of the sparring exercise. When our classmates make an error, we must remember the 10 don’ts of sparring. You can always in control of the situation if you put your mind to it. If you feel threatened or afraid you have the ability to end the match, exercising your control over the situation.
In some cases having or needing control over a situation or other people can be frustrating and stressful. I used to battle with a fear of flying that I developed in my mid 20’s due to a near air collision on my way back from training camp in Boca. I think control was my arch enemy in my battle to overcome this fear. I wanted to be the one in control of the plane. A passive non-interactive role is a difficult seat to take on a plane after a close run in with a collision. While having control during a sparring match or during professional negotiations can lead to successful outcomes, needing control during a trans-Atlantic flight doesn’t. I can practice control over my emotions now during my time as a passenger on a plane. The more I practice the better I become at relinquishing control. I came to the realization that perhaps training the mind to focus on something else while flying would be a good alternative. Focus on something positive, like writing a paper for martial arts class for example. This is the purpose of this paper for me as I am 35,000 feet above the earth as I write it.
Breathing and meditation are also excellent tools for gaining control of yourself and your emotions during difficult situations. When faced with a situation over which you have no control, it is best to focus on something you can control – breathing is one of those things. I am reminded of the 5 Wins of A Winner (Win over yourself, Win over your opponents respect, win over the audience, win over 3rd party and win over the situation). In many situations where you need to gain your composure you may need to focus on winning over yourself as the situation may not be something you can win over – like being a passenger on a commercial airline. Winning over yourself can mean gaining control or relinquishing control based on the situation you are faced with. Flexibility in any situation is the key.
To control or not to control, that is the question. Flexibility in your response to any situation is the answer. If you balance the coin on its edge it can roll, spin, turn and dance and chose which side to land on to best suit the situation at hand – keep an open mind. I am flying over the mid-west right now and I am practicing relinquishing control over my current situation. Cuong Nhu philosophy extends to all aspects of life, even at 35,000 feet. It is not reserved for the dojo. Tomorrow night during class I may spar and my coin will spin, roll and dance and perhaps it drops to the opposite side.