The Path of Mastery

The path of mastery is something which is discussed a lot, sometimes written about, but seldom really understood. The wonderful writer and teacher George Leonard wrote a beautiful book about it and helped to define the field, but in some ways I think it may be even simpler, even more straightforward than what he and other great teachers have laid out. I think part of the problem is that historically the path of mastery has been shrouded in mystery. Some of that mystery is appropriate, much of life is essentially mysterious and if we are going to look at a concept as numinous and deep as the idea of mastery then I think we have to accept some of that sense of mystery. Maybe we can even enjoy it! I think some of that mystery is less helpful and possibly grows out of the fact that this concept of mastery in many of the dialogues where it arises originates in the "perfumed East" and as such is treated with a semi-magical reverence that nudges us towards unquestioning acceptance rather than deep and committed enquiry.

Something which I think could helpfully demystify the concept of mastery is to look at our own European tradition for something which correlates to it. I actually think we have a very close, corollary in the shape of the concept of the "True Artist." In many crafts or otherwise fairly technical professions when you get someone who is especially skilled, who we could say has reached a level of mastery, often people will say of that individual "that guy is a real artist." We already use the word 'artist' not just to mean someone who makes art, but to indicate someone who has reached a level of skill in their craft such that what they create, what they do has a sense of beauty and surpassing quality about it.

So, perhaps it is not such an alien concept but the 'how' of reaching mastery still maintains a certain level of mystery. Again, in some ways that's entirely appropriate: if you create wonderful things then people should wonder at how you did it! One thing which I have seen as clearly helping people to move towards a sense of mastery is having a great teacher. Now of course, you want that teacher to be excellent at teaching you the skill or capacity you're trying to develop, however I think if they're going to help you to really master something it needs to go beyond fantastic technical instruction. If you are really going to go places with a teacher then I believe they have to fully embody what they are teaching (the deep principles, values, attitudes, and philosophies) and then you have to absorb that. Speaking of absorption may seem strange but my experience has been that much of my greatest learning has come from what one of my teachers referred to as "spiritual osmosis." Just being in my teachers' presence has helped to inform my practice, sometimes almost more than the technical instruction itself. All of the best martial arts teachers I have studied with would not only show me the forms and techniques, or get me to practice them, they would also do them alongside me and it was often while practising together that something about the quality of the form, a way of being, a state, or an attitude would fall into place and the deep understanding of what I was really trying to achieve would emerge. So… Find yourself a great teacher! Then hang out with them as much as you can!

I had a new insight into mastery the other day however which may be even easier to make use of. In a way it's not a new insight but I felt like I was seeing it from a new angle, with a new clarity, and blessedly with greater simplicity. George Leonard certainly spoke about this, as did one of my teachers Lance Giroux, but like I say this feels like a new angle on that old chestnut. Essentially I would say that the path of mastery is exactly that: a path. It is not a destination, it is not a particular level of skill which you can achieve and then sit within, it is a continuing journey regardless of how skilled you become. Part of the nature of that path is that whatever you find mastery within (the discrete skill), what you learn in that environment helps you to better understand all of your life and how to live that life in a positive and empowering way. As such, in some ways what you choose to master, the skill or field of study, almost matters less than the fact that you choose to engage with it as your path. What you need from that path is a well-defined criteria for what you are trying to achieve. That could be as simple as sitting meditation where the criteria is to constantly bring your attention back to the breath, or it could be as complex as an extended Tai Chi form with all of its postural specificity, or ballet, or oil painting, or joinery, or any number of other things in fact I'd say it could be pretty much anything. I think the most basic distinguishing factor which means you engage with what you're doing as a path of mastery is that you have a deep enough understanding of the criteria you are trying to meet and then you are in a constant journey of bringing yourself back to that goal and bringing yourself back to that goal and bringing yourself back to that goal.For me it is this constant returning to centre (however centre is defined in your practice) which is the heart of a path of mastery. As human beings any strict goal or criteria is unlikely to be something we will meet 100 percent of the time, it is the constant striving to get back on track when we stray which defines the path of mastery.

So, find a great teacher, don't just learn from them but absorb the best about their way of being in the world, and keep striving - coming back to centre over and over again regardless of the difficulty or boredom. I'm not suggesting it's easy, but it might be simpler than those invested in shrouding mastery with mystery might have you believe.

Wishing you joy and grace in your exploration, with love.

Fudoshin

This is a Japanese word most commonly used in the martial arts. Broadly speaking, Fudo means immovable; and Shin means spirit. As you can probably guess sometimes this is used to describe a martial quality of being so firmly rooted and grounded that you cannot be moved even with great force. However, the deeper philosophical meaning has as much to do with flow as it has to do with solidity. The "immovable spirit" is the essential nature at the very heart of our being that is unchanging; that within us which is constant, absolute. It is considered that when we are deeply connected with our unchanging core, then everything else about us can be fluid, graceful, and able to blend with the changes and challenges life brings to us.

So Fudoshin, is both the mountain and the waves that surround it. The mountain, immovable, a constant of the landscape across millennia. The waves, always changing, always flowing; rising and falling with the tides; fierce and dramatic one moment, still and tranquil the next.

For me, developing Fudoshin is a journey of contacting and cultivating our immovable, essential spirit, while also growing our capacity to flow gracefully in the dance of life. That is what I seek to grow in myself and to develop in others.

A Happy Ending

Endings are important.  I find it an easy thing to forget, after all, the real stuff is done isn’t it?  Ending is just the name for… well the end, when you’ve finished what you’re doing…. No?

Well if you’re anything like me, I’d suggest it’s worth bringing some attention to how you do your endings.  My wife is a psychotherapist and I’ve learned from her and my own training and experience in Spiritual Counselling about how important it is to find a conscious way to finish working with a client.  That therapeutic space is a delicate, significant, and intimate part of people’s lives and we would be doing them a disservice, and failing to honour what I consider to be the sacredness of the work we do together if we don’t find a conscious way to bring our work to an end.  Equally, when working in ritual, whether that is in my personal life in the way I mark the turning of the year with friends, or in my formal work as a minister it is vital to bring things to a close rather than just letting it all go.  We must honour that which we call forth within ceremony and ritual whether you consider that to purely be a part of our psyche, or a spiritual or divine presence, and the place for that honouring is at the end.  That is how we finish. 

Serge Kahili King writes about the most basic structure for any ritual as being a beginning to get the attention of your whole being and say “this is something special”, a middle where the body of the ritual happens (whatever that may be), and an end which closes the ritual and releases the energies you have collected back into the world and your psyche to do their work (healing, changing, manifesting etc.).  This reminds me of Joseph Campbell’s (the famous mythologist) simplest map of the Hero’s journey as an archetypal Rite of Passage: Separation, Initiation, Return.  In simple terms this means that you leave or are taken away from your community or normal environment, you go through a challenging or transitionary experience, and then you return to your community and normal environment transformed and armed with gifts from your adventures to share with others.  How amazing would it be to feel like every ceremony or ritual you attended had that quality?  How wonderful to have that ‘time-out-of-time’ and then return feeling better equipped to be present, to help, and to love than when you left.  That is what I aim to do when I hold ceremonies for people, not necessarily in a grand and explosive way (it’s not a seminar after all!) but in a gentle and subtle way to help us all step out of the everyday, to share a connecting experience that helps us to access more beauty, connection, and love (to transform perspective), and then to create a conscious gateway to return to our day-to-day lives whereby we return refreshed and awakened.  I don’t know for sure my success rate but it feels to me that I witness people leaving a little brighter than when they arrive, and I have had some wonderful feedback from weddings, and other ceremonies I have designed and held for people.

What I have recently turned my attention to is how I bring this ceremonial or ritual awareness to my every day life.  I have been doing this in various ways for years and it is part of why the core practices for my Somatic Presence work are Breathing, Standing, Walking and Talking.  However, I have been bringing some attention to my endings… 

How often have you got to the end of the day and then just rushed out of the office?  How often have you been having a meeting and run short of time, crammed as much as you can in, and then rushed to finish so people get away on time.  It is a well-known phenomenon in therapeutic work to get a “door-handle comment.”  This is where the client seems not to settle into the work for much of the session and then just as they are leaving (hand on the door-handle…) they say something that is so profoundly what they needed to be talking about for the whole session that it is both a deep frustration, and a deep joy.  The frustration comes because they’ve only just said it as you're finishing, the joy is there because you know you can start with that thing next time and maybe, just maybe you’re starting to get somewhere…  I have both heard and made plenty of door-handle comments over the years, not just in therapeutic environments but in coaching calls, meeting a friend for a coffee, and in business meetings – especially team meetings.  The good news is that the person who says it, trusts the environment enough to say it at all.  I think in many ways we are all terrified of endings because they are the little deaths that happen all the time.  Most of us have some fear of death – the ultimate end in most people’s minds – and these little endings are constant reminders of how easily and frequently things end…or die.  But just as we may fear death, a nearness to death also tends to bring out in people a willingness to reflect on our lives, our choices, and our deeper needs than we might normally have.  Many people when a loved one dies make big changes in their lives as the death has brought a certain sense of perspective.  Death can give birth to courage.  I think this may also be why we get door-handle comments – the nearness of one of life’s little deaths helps us to be brave enough to face-up to what is really going on.

Endings then can be wonderful gifts, but we need to face them consciously.  An unconsidered death will tend to indicate an unconsidered life.  I remember a conversation with a friend about an exercise they’d done in a workshop where they had designed their own funerals.  She described her own which was very simple (barely there really!) and her friend’s which had been huge, grand, even epic!  I identified with her, in my imagination at that time my funeral would have been as quiet as possible, after all, why make a fuss?  I can see the same pattern in my day-to-day habits.  I would tend to leave the office without saying goodbye to people, I would leave parties when I was done and similarly probably only say good bye to the people I was directly speaking to, I would work right up to the end of a day, chuck things in my bag and go.  Part of what my friend shared with me in that original conversation and I have come to appreciate since is that all this is representative of my not appreciating the impact I have on the world and those around me.  I fail to realise that I matter to people or that my actions – or lack of action – has a knock-on effect.  Funerals are in so many ways not about the person that has died but the people left behind.  Saying “Goodbye” is not just about my need, it is about honouring the needs of others.  I have an impact.  I matter.  If either this, or indeed the opposite is true for you, then considering endings may be a worthwhile thing for you to do.  Do you make a grand exit because you need constant affirmation from others that you are important?  Either ends of this spectrum could indicate a lack of self-esteem.  That is certainly part of the picture for me.

All these little endings give you a chance to refine and practice making a graceful finish.  All of us will one day face an ending which we can’t do again so it’s worth getting good at endings now!

So… what have I done about it?  Well to start with I have started making use of a little ritual from the martial arts – bowing when you leave a place.  Usually upon entering and exiting the Dojo (training hall or ‘Place of the Way’ to give it the poetic translation) you bow.  This is to show respect to those more senior to you in the room, but in my mind, more importantly to the spirit of the place.  Obviously doing this everywhere you go may get embarrassing or even be inappropriate but I have started bringing my attention to it more and one way I do it is to take the moment as I leave to look back into the place I’m leaving and offer up some gratitude for it’s sanctuary - an internal bow if you will.  In my own office, I can bow as I leave and I take pleasure in that quiet moment.  That’s one thing I’ve re-focused on and I’m enjoying that.  The big thing though is that whenever I’m in my office working (rather than off facilitating a group or delivering training or something), I finish my main work a little early and take the last half-hour to work on my book ‘My Tao Te Ching – A Fool’s Guide to Effing the Ineffable.’  Because this is a translation of contemplative wisdom into modern language, I read a bit, ponder a bit, and then write a bit in a notebook (strictly non-computer time).  I love this time.  I am finding I leave the office feeling refreshed, inspired, and energised.  Instead of arriving home preoccupied and weary, I get back ready to have fun with my son and to help my wife.  It really is better for everyone.  This is my ending ritual for my days and it is helping me to feel lighter and more consistently connected to my purpose in life (which can get lost amongst the email mountain sometimes).

So, I’ll leave you with a question:  How do you do endings (big and small), and how could you engage with them more consciously? 

Obsession, Artistry, and Faith

Some of you who read this regularly may remember me posting an article called 'The Right Costume' which was inspired by a quote from the Hagakure - the Book of the Samurai, which I often quote from when I am running The Samurai Game.  Well, I dug up another one!  I've re-worked it a bit but I like it and I hope you enjoy it too.  As the title suggests, this is about Obsession, Artistry and Faith.  Funnily enough, while I haven't seen this article for a few years, it really resonates with the book I published earlier this year which I posted an excerpt of here.  It would seem my thinking has at least a little consistentcy...I'm either on the right track or a very slow learner!  Anyway, here it is:

 

“It is bad when one thing becomes two.  One should not look for anything else in the Way of the Samurai.  It is the same for anything that is called a Way.  Therefore it is inconsistent to hear something of the Way of Confucius or the Way of the Buddha, and say that this is the Way of the Samurai.  If one understands things in this manner, he should be able to hear about all Ways and be more and more in accord with his own.”

-  Hagakure, First Chapter. (Trans. William Scott Wilson)

 

 

                        It is rare in our modern world for people to speak of having a Way, or a ‘Calling,’ which is probably the English equivalent.  To have a Calling was most commonly associated with joining the church and becoming a minister but could be applied to many paths.  I suppose the modern equivalent is ‘having a career,’ but I seldom encounter this having for people the kind of unreserved commitment that is associated with a Calling or a Way.  Also, in my understanding of such things it is quite possible to follow a Way that is not necessarily directly associated with one’s career.  To pursue a Way is like a path of healthy obsession, it is where a mere technician becomes an Artist.  This kind of obsession takes skill to balance with the rest of one’s life and is also not generally considered very ‘cool!’  Discovering and embracing our own personal Way requires us to connect with our inner ‘geek,’ to find that thing which takes no effort to be completely focused on for hours, days, and years of our life – not so that we are cut off from the world and become exclusive in our attitudes, but so that we have an arena to fully embody and exercise our passion.  We can achieve a high degree of focus with discipline as our motivating factor, but the image of “discipline,” can fall into some very unhealthy traps.  For years I practised martial arts with a great deal of discipline, but my version of discipline back then involved internally beating myself over the head until I got up and trained.  My discipline was based on anger and as such was unsustainable and essentially self-harming.  In this way, my entire practice was built on a foundation of anger and it has taken a lot of work since realising this to break that foundation up and put a new one in place.  It’s not a process I would recommend duplicating!  You will be best served to find a Way that you keep going back to just because it brings you a quiet inner sense of pleasure and satisfaction to do it. 

            Anything can be embraced as a Way, it is just a matter of asking yourself what you are obsessed enough with to explore it that deeply.  When we really commit to such a course of study there comes a point where everything in our lives is automatically related to this Way; it becomes a lens through which we view the world and a forum for us to develop ourselves.  I have studied many things but only 3 things to anything approaching this depth:  Acting, Martial Arts, and Shamanism.  What I have realised over the years is that none of these is really my Way.  They are all a part of the picture but my Way is the Way of Presence.  I am completely and effortlessly obsessed with Presence.  So I continue to study several arts but with the clarity that all the time I am using them as tools to develop my commitment to the Way of Presence.

            The Ascetic or Hermit’s path (referred to in some shamanic traditions as the ‘via negativa’) of enlightenment is to keep shedding attachments, constantly letting things go, removing oneself from the world to enable total non-attachment to anything whatsoever so that nothing distracts the Ascetic from being totally free.  The Warrior is involved with the world and as such has to take a different path of realisation (sometimes called the ‘via positiva’):  the Warrior becomes completely involved with the world to the point of love and obsession, so completely invested in the present moment that they pass out the other side of obsession and find freedom.  The destination is essentially the same but the path is different.  This is a fine example of structure leading to freedom.  This is similar to the Zen arts of Chado (Way of Tea – the tea ceremony) and Kyudo (Archery).  2 everyday activities (in the time they were developed) which have been heightened to the level of an Art through structure and ritual.  Once a practitioner is so well versed in the formal ritual of the practice that they can do it without thinking, they can completely surrender themselves to each and every tiny moment knowing that the ritual, the structure will take care of the bigger picture.  The practice provides a framework for us to practice emptying ourselves and totally trusting.  In practicing such arts, or any martial art with Kata or Forms (solo patterns of movement) there comes a point where the ritual is so familiar it is essentially boring; then, having become that familiar with the form you can forget about where you are going next and become obsessive about the details within each movement and moment; finally once the detail is sufficiently refined you can pass out the other side of obsession into a freedom where the form (or pattern, or ritual, or Kata) is ‘doing’ you rather than you doing it.  There spontaneously arises a mindful effortlessness.

                It seems to me that mostly in our modern world we just keep giving up when we get to the boredom stage so we never develop a Way and everything seems “too much like hard work.”  We just have lots of fragments of knowledge and no understanding, no sense of an underlying structure – no faith.  What is faith if not an underlying structure, or a sense of being supported and held?  In practicing standing meditation I found a benefit I had no idea I would find there.  I found such a profound awareness of my connection with the ground that I began to feel totally supported by the Earth – by Mother Earth -  all of the time, as indeed I am! In this way Faith seems to me to be a practice, not a passive waiting for something to fall in our laps.

 There is nothing wrong with trying things out and letting them go if they are not what we want, but if we stick at nothing, or do everything mindlessly then we end up with what my Mum used to call a ‘readers digest knowledge’: small facts about many subjects and no real understanding of anything.  By gaining a deep understanding of one subject, this subject can serve as a microcosm for us to learn about the macrocosm of our lives.  This is wisdom.  Through practicing something until it is the structure that underpins our lives, we learn faith.  It is not a matter of randomly picking a pursuit and blindly sticking to it, but of connecting with our heart’s passion to find out what nourishes us.  I have had 3 main paths of study and each of them have served me well in their time. With each of them I felt that maybe there was something that would suit me better, but without being sure what, it was a matter of sticking with something until it led me somewhere else.  That ‘somewhere else,’ is my Way.  It is a Warrior’s Way and having found it I feel more confident and centred in myself and in my life.  From this place of confidence I don’t need to justify or defend my way of life, so I can have experiences and learn from all Ways, and be more and more in accord with my own. 

 

The Art of Dad-Fu

 

Not long ago I became a dad.  There are lots of things that come with being a dad both wonderful and challenging much of which I was kind-of expecting.

 

On the wonderful side I have got to see my wife blossom into motherhood, I got to witness her awesome strength in giving birth, I get to play with and generally enjoy my gorgeous baby son, and perhaps most importantly we get to put various cute and funny hats on him and take pictures!

 

On the tougher side of things it was not an easy birth and it was very difficult to see my wife work so hard and not be able to help, I have occasional bouts of terror about providing financially for my family, and it’s hard running my own business to find the right balance between work and family time.

 

One thing that I didn’t expect when becoming a dad was to put on weight.  It is apparently very common though and it has happened for me.  I’m a stocky build and am never likely to be either skinny or conventionally ‘Buff’ but I keep in reasonable shape through martial arts training and walking.  I am now heavier than I’d like to be.  During pregnancy when the mum-to-be is being flooded by hormones, the man does often have hormonal changes too.  In many men their testosterone production goes down (the hormone that makes you manly, active, lusty, and when there’s too much of it – aggressive!) and progesterone production goes up (progesterone goes up in women too and is often associated with ‘nesting’ tendencies).  This shift tends to bring with it a weight gain.  Also once the baby is born it’s common for a new dad to gain between half a stone and one stone just because you end up eating more and being less active.  So while I didn’t expect this change, it looks like I’m not the only one.

Now, pre-baby I would have got back into training Karate and Kung-Fu with my teacher, upped my solo training and not worried about it too much.  That was what I first set my sights on.  However, finding an hour or so a day plus the 2-3 hours I would spend with my teacher each week doesn’t seem very realistic in the post-baby new world.  That doesn’t mean I’m giving up on my training, but it’s clearly something I’m going to have to find my way back into more slowly than I would have hoped.  Right now, I need to up my exercise… so what do I do?!  If I take time out of my work day then I get less hours at that when my time already feels squeezed; if I take time out of my family time then that’s less time with my wife and child and my wife having to manage without my support more than is the case already.  It’s a bit of a rock and a hard place.  Well, it was… Until I invented the art of Dad-Fu!

 

Anyone who knows me or my work will know that I am passionate about creating practices – taking regular activities and making them conscious and meditative processes to engage in.  I even have a book coming out soon on this very subject: A little book on finding your Way – Zen and the Art of Doing stuff.  Watch this space for more news if you’re interested or get in touch and we can put you on the mailing list.  The art of Dad-Fu is a practice.  What it involves is taking my son, Samson out for a walk for an hour every day in the sling.  Doesn’t sound like such a big deal?  Let me explain…

 

It meets my need for getting some good basic exercise (walking is great cardiovascular exercise providing you walk swiftly enough to raise your heart rate slightly and keep it raised), Samson is perfectly happy wrapped up in his furry super-suit (and usually goes to sleep within about 10 steps), and my wife gets an hour to herself to do with as she pleases!  It meets everyone’s needs and I get some more bonding time with Samson.  If he’s awake I often talk or sing to him (I don’t look any more crazy than your average blue-tooth headset user!) and if he’s asleep then at least he’s still in my energy field.

This has taught me a valuable lesson about developing practices: whatever high ideals we might have and as wonderful as some practices may be, sometimes what’s most important is that the practice fits your life not the other way around.  If your practice is not supportive of you taking this one precious life you have and making the most of it then what’s the point?  That’s not to dismiss taking special time out to meditate or do Karate or have a tea-ceremony or whatever floats your boat.  That can be vital to living a fulfilled life too, but right now my highest priority is being the best dad I can so I practice Dad-Fu.  I think the key question to ask ourselves here is: “What is this in service of?”  It’s a big question and one that comes up a lot in the Samurai Game when I run it.  ‘Samurai’ translates as ‘One who serves.’  I see the warrior archetype as an archetype of service.  The warrior serves the ruler or King, so what rules you?  Negative habits and addictions can rule us whether that is alcohol or shopping or too much TV (and I’m not against any of these things per-se, see my previous article on TV as a practice!).  Equally, apparently positive practices can end up harming more than they help if they rule us.  A meditation practice, or going to the gym can be great for your spiritual or physical health but if it takes up loads of your time and damages your relationships, is it worth it?  You need to take into account the fact that devoting time to a solo practice may be what makes it possible to be really present in relationships so it is not a simple equation to solve but definitely one worth considering.

 

You may be wondering “Why Dad-Fu?”  Well partly because I think it sounds cooler than “The art of going for a walk in the cold with my son” but also I think there is a valuable parallel between Kung-Fu and being a dad.  Kung-Fu can be translated many ways from the original Chinese but one of those translations is ‘time and hard work.’  I find it a heartening reminder of the nature of committed practice whether that is to a martial art or to being a father.  It is going to be hard work sometimes: deal with it.  It also takes place in an extended time period and while that means that the hard work keeps going, it also allows lots of time and space to make mistakes (and we’re all going to), to learn from them, and to heal from the disappointments (and these will happen).  Taking up any form of committed practice is both a burden and a gift – I think that’s doubly true of parenting – and that is the wonderful, mysterious dichotomy of life. 

As with any new practice, Dad-Fu has had some unexpected delights.  Brighton is really quite beautiful at night in a way that you just don’t see during the day.  The sea-front is wonderfully quiet and peaceful, the sea dark and mysterious in its murmurings.  I also get time to just ponder things as I walk.  An hour largely devoted to pondering and walking feels like quite a treat!  I have also discovered hidden architectural delights, sometimes just on regular houses, sometimes in more obvious places like the beautifully repaired bandstand on the sea-front (the pictures throughout this article are from my walks in the last week or so).  It feels like a really magical space to be mostly on my own, Samson asleep on my chest and find a spot, view, or moment which conjures something in my imagination or sparks a story in my mind.  I am really enjoying my new practice.

 

So what can you take away from this article?  Maybe just consider your own practices (and whatever you’re doing again and again is a practice) and have a think about what you want to be in service of and whether those practices are the best use of your time.  There is a saying which has been attributed to various people over the years (right back to a Latin version from ancient Rome):  “Necessity is the mother of Invention.”  I have certainly found that to be true in creating ‘The Way of Dad-Fu.’  Perhaps you have necessities which are calling for your creativity…?

 

Whatever you practice, I hope it brings you joy in the easy times, strength in the tough times and growth all the time.

 

Warriors for Peace

It may seem odd to some to consider the Warrior archetype in conjunction with an orientation towards peace, however, I see the 2 things as not only linked but necessary to each other.  One symbolic way of looking at the connection would be through the lens of Taoist beliefs that opposites create each other, as shown visually in the Yin Yang symbol – the black half contains the seed of the white half, and the white the seed of the black.  In a slightly more concrete illustration, when I say yes to one thing I am simultaneously saying no to many other potential options.  Yes and No are opposites but are interdependent upon one another.

To deal more specifically with the matter of the Warrior and Peace, a perfect example can be seen in The Samurai Game®.  George Leonard who created The Samurai Game® was a senior grade Aikido practitioner and former World War II fighter pilot.  This was a man who had seen war and had deep experience of martial arts.  He originally created the Game after he had met with a bunch of his old war buddies.  They had all been reminiscing about their time together during the War and most of them had been saying that life had seemed dull by comparison since.  This was not George's experience but it did set him to thinking about a question he had pondered often before:  Why, when we know the consequences, do we continue to make war?  There are many possible answers to this question ranging from the surface of any political considerations which are specific to each conflict but can be categorised as essentially being questions of power and control; right through to much deeper considerations of fundamental aspects of human nature.  After many years of sitting with and experimenting with this question, one of the possible answers George came up with was:

Maybe it's just the Juiciest game in town!

This could seem light or even crass, but pause for a minute.  There is a part of the human psyche which craves vivid experience and as we have become increasingly 'developed' and 'civilised' this has become less and less nourished as time has gone on.  When aspects of us which need expression are suppressed or ignored they will find ways to leak and burst out on their own.  This is the nature of the human shadow.  Maybe part of what keeps human beings making war is a basic craving for vivid experience.  I think this is part of what George Leonard learned from running The Samurai Game® for many years, with all different kinds of groups.  Certainly, part of what I see people coming into contact with through the Game is not only a deep connection with their own Warrior selves, but an experiential understanding of the consequences of war.  This runs the range of very positive in that they have lived brightly, vividly, profoundly and completely connected to a higher purpose; right through to the truly terrible consequences of massive loss of life and ultimate futility.  Here we have a fascinating dichotomy: a game about War where we learn profound and lasting lessons about Peace.  In the modern world this is a rare, example of the beautiful balance of being a Warrior for Peace.  Some martial arts dojo’s manage to embrace and explore this but even there it is not as common as you might think.

In ancient times and indigenous cultures I think this marriage of Warriors working for Peace was more common. In many indigenous, tribal societies in recent history there were ritual ways of doing combat that limited the danger of loss of life.  These were used to settle inter-tribal disputes but were often invoked and enacted at certain times of the year whether there was a conflict to settle or not.  I see The Samurai Game® as being similar to this, and part of George Leonard's work to create a more vivid peace in the hope that we can one day relinquish war-making.  When your community is smaller you notice the loss of one of you much more keenly – this is clear in The Samurai Game®, as I think it would be in smaller tribal village communities.  I suspect death was in some ways a weightier matter in these communities than it is today in a world where we have such phrases as ‘collateral damage’ and ‘acceptable losses.’  In the arena of mass war, leaders have to numb themselves to the casualties or they will be overwhelmed. 

Examples of the old ritualised combat forms are still visible today whether we draw a parallel between the mass bonding and vivid experience of war-time and sports events like football games, or we look to extant tribal communities and practices closely derived from them.  Lacrosse began as a warrior game amongst first nation American’s and was very much an arena for the young bucks of the tribe to let off steam and work out their aggressive urges in a contained environment.  Many rites of passage and initiatory experiences were designed with a similar intention.  As the saying goes “If the young men are not initiated they will burn down the village for warmth.”  I think this can be particularly true of young men but I think it is true for all of us that we need places where we can let our wild sides out of the box for a while.  If we can find safe, contained ways of exercising our wilder nature, and aggressive tendencies then that is far preferable than risking hurting ourselves and others on a regular basis.  This then becomes a conversation not just addressing external peace-making, but being at peace in ourselves – an issue which to look at the statistics about drug abuse, alcohol abuse, overeating, compulsive shopping and street violence is clearly a pressing issue for us to address both individually and culturally if we are to create a genuinely healthy society.  To see some other examples of ritualised combat we can look at the Dundunbar rituals of West Africa (please forgive me if I have spelled this incorrectly, I have only heard it verbally described).  Young men come together to do ritual combat with sticks.  A great deal of pride and social recognition is at stake and while injury’s can be serious it is nothing like the damage they would do if they were left to create real combat with heavier weapons.  Capoeira is a martial art from Brazil that may have it’s roots at least partially in the ‘Zebra Dance’ of Africa and is generally practised to avoid physical contact with a strong emphasis on ritual and an exercising of aggressive and competitive tendencies without doing harm.  Part of the tradition of Capoeira is a dance called the ‘Maculele’ which is a ritualised dance-combat with sticks.  One story I have heard about it is that originally it was a ritual created by 2 tribes who lived on either side of a valley.  Once a year the 2 tribes would meet at the bottom of the valley and ‘do battle’ through the Maculele.  Whether this story is historically correct or not, it is another example of ritual combat being used to alleviate the Warrior’s call for real combat.  

Whether we are looking at promoting inner peace or creating outer peace, it is clear to me that a healthy embrace and inclusion of the Warrior archetype in all of us is not only preferable but necessary.

For people who are seeking to be peace-workers themselves, I would see it as particularly important that they have not only studied peace but have learnt about and embraced their warrior selves.  Otherwise, the potential that they will repress their aggressive tendencies is much greater.  Aspects of ourselves which are repressed or ‘left in shadow’ in my experience not only leak out unconsciously in many small ways but also have a tendency to explode out at the most unfortunate moments.  Imagine if you are working on a mediation case and one of the emotional dynamics pushes your buttons… It would be the worst possible moment for you as mediator to have an emotional explosion yourself!  However, when our warrior tendencies, our need for healthy expression of anger, our need for vivid experience, and our need to be able to say “No” and draw hard boundaries when necessary have not been listened to, exercised and understood for long periods of time an emotional explosion is exactly what we are likely to get.

Even without the potential for unfortunate emotional outbursts or subtle emotional leakage, I think the Warrior has a fundamental role to play in creating Peace.  To truly choose Peace we must be coming from a position of strength, other wise it is not something we are choosing, it is our last remaining option for survival.  This idea is beautifully articulated by Paul Linden in his book 'Embodied Peacemaking' and by Daniele Bolelli in his book 'On the Warrior's Path.'

 

“If Attila the Hun comes riding over the hill all set to pillage your village, the first, civilized step is to say, “Excuse me, Mr. Hun, but I’d really rather you not pillage my village.” Of course, we know what he’d likely say. So the next step would be to make a clear statement of the negative consequences for him of his trying. And of course, we know what he would be likely to do. So the necessary last step would be physical self-defense. Without the capability of bottom-line, practical self-protection skills, other conflict resolution skills rest on a foundation of sand.”

                                                -Paul Linden

 

“You can only renounce what you are able to do. Peace is a choice only for those who are able to do battle. Otherwise, it’s the desperate pleading of someone who has no alternatives. Unless you are a mean, violent bastard with murderous tendencies to begin with, renouncing violence probably is not to the main thing on your mind when you pick up martial arts. Renouncing violence, anger, and aggression is a by-product of growing as a human being, of becoming more confident and secure in yourself. Once you are confident enough, you can afford to be sweet and open up emotionally to others because you are no longer afraid. Ultimately, mastering combat is a path to face one’s fears and, at least partially, overcome them. Abandoning violent tendencies is only one of many transformations that take place when fear lessens its hold on us.”               

                                                                                    -Daniele Bolelli

 

The Warrior and the Peacemaker may be apparent opposites, but like the Yin Yang symbol they are completely necessary to each other if we are to be whole people and if we are to create a more peaceful and loving world.  They are not enemies, they are brothers.  I think this is why so many great teachers through the ages have embraced the Warrior archetype while essentially teaching us to be more peaceful and loving: Chogyam Trungpa, Gichin Funakoshi, Morihei Ueshiba, George Leonard, Paul Linden, Richard Strozzi-Heckler, Paulo Coelho and many others.  This too is why I do the work that I do.

 

If you’d like to know more about The Samurai Game® and Warriors of the Heart workshops, or would like to work with Warrior Leadership in your organisation, please do check our calendar for upcoming events, or get in touch.  Thanks for reading.



The Nature of Justice

Karate stands on the side of Justice

 

This is the third principle of Gichin Funakoshi's 20 principles of Karate.  I'm going to continue to unfold my reading of these principles for martial artists and hopefully anyone with an interest too.  If you'd like to read the first two then click on '20 Principles' in the tag cloud on the right.  So, Justice:

If you look up the word justice in the dictionary much of what is talked about is 'being fair,' and also 'doing yourself justice' as in giving a good account of yourself.  How I choose to interpret this principle is about taking a balanced view.  Let's first look at this idea of fairness.  A child's idea of fairness will usually be different to that of the parent.  This is because they have different perspectives.  How much chocolate a child is allowed to eat is determined in the child's head mostly by a measure of enjoyment:  more chocolate = more enjoyment.  The same scenario will involve many other factors for the parent: health; behaviour – both now and when bed-time comes; having some left as a treat for tomorrow; teaching the child to have self-control etc.  Generally speaking it is my experience that most people choose to do what they think is the best thing in the moment.  What counts as the 'best thing' for that person may be governed by a different set of rules to you or I, it may, like a child be governed more by pleasure than any sense of 'the greater good,' or more by taking care of themselves than taking care of others.  None of these perspectives are inherently 'good' or 'bad,' they are just different.  I know what choices I want to make, and even with the best intentions I will sometimes be more governed by my patterns, habits, or neediness than by my conscious judgement.  That's life, that's what it is to be a human being!  I do my best to do what I think is 'right' but that is just a choice, one of many.  With this in mind I try always to look at someone's behaviour and not judge them for it but look at what has motivated that behaviour.  I may make judgements about the behaviour – on the basis that from my perspective it was not the choice I think would have been best in those circumstances – but where I can I try and balance my sense and experience of the behaviour the person exhibits, with a desire to understand why they have done what they have done.  This is how I see justice:  the balancing of what people do with why they have done it.  If the behaviour is essentially destructive then through understanding what has motivated the behaviour we may be able to introduce them to a different perspective.  It is generally my experience that if people understand why something works better, that they will feel happy to do it that way even if it takes a bit of practice.  In relationship, if my partner understands why something doesn't work for me, and I can understand why it does work for her, then we can usually find  a way of being with each other that truly works for both of us.  This is not a compromise of 2 choices, it is a genuine 'third' choice that will be better for both of us.  This is justice.

          Now to mention the other version of justice: doing yourself justice.  Previously to this I have mentioned humility as something to be cultivated, and I think particularly in English society, it is a quality that many will have been brought up to have.  However, if we are truly to embody humility we must also always give a good account of ourselves.  False humility is when we have arrogance about something we can do but we pretend that it's nothing special.  Just thinking that everything we do is worthless is not humility, it's low self-worth.  So true humility is actually when we acknowledge our abilities and talents, but don't show off about them.  It means putting our skills on the line when it is appropriate and saying “Yes, I can do that, I have something to contribute,” without making a grand show of what we are offering or demanding huge recognition for our contribution.  In this way it is similar to meekness.  The original meaning of being 'meek' was to be like a powerful horse that is under control.  It is this kind of wise power that I think justice, and specifically doing ourselves justice, is all about.

          If we don't find this quality, this humility in ourselves we can end up convincing ourselves we are much less talented or valuable than we really are and thereby not only generate a lack of self-worth which is very destructive, but also deny the world of our talents.  If you are the best in the world at something there is nothing wrong with saying that you are!  It is not then arrogance, it is just a fact.  If you are good at something, there is nothing wrong with acknowledging it.  When we play small we only encourage others to do the same or to dominate us; when we acknowledge our strengths we encourage others to share theirs too; when we act arrogantly we only encourage others to compete negatively with us, or to play small around us.  Both self aggrandizement and self denial are lose-lose behaviours.  

          “Karate stands on the side of justice” to me means that as Karate practitioners we must always seek to take a truly balanced view of life, other people, and also ourselves.



There is no first strike in Karate

This is the second of Gichin Funakshi's 20 principles of Karate.  This has often been interpreted as meaning that while Karate is primarily a form of self-defense (not offense), the true Karate practitioner will be so aware and so fast that as soon as they detect an attack, they strike with such swiftness and certainty that while both combatants move together, the Karate-ka strikes the winning blow.  I think this is at least a little shallow, and considering Funakoshi was a Confuscian scholar and deeply contemplative individual, I'd like to think he intended a deeper reading of it too.  So here's my interpretation...

There is no first strike in Karate

 What this means to me is that Karate is about relationship.  When I sit in a place of judgement I can say “you started it, it's your fault!”  or “I struck first, I won.”  But if I see everything as a form of interconnected relationship then there is no blame and no winner: somehow 'we' create the moment where conflict or achievement occurs.  Karate should be first and foremost an awareness discipline.  The teaching of 'self defense techniques' is, I believe, misleading.  There is the whole issue of what a fight really looks like (which is frankly very ugly) as compared with what is often taught (which is choreographed).  I have often seen people (including myself at times) walk out of a dojo with a greatly inflated sense of skill when dealing with 'real fighting.'  This is dangerous because this attitude will tend to make you more, not less likely to get into a fight.  It is important to gain a sense of physical self confidence, and some studies have been done that seem to suggest that career criminals instinctively steer clear of people who are grounded and centred regardless of their size or sex (these are cited in George Leonard's book 'The Way of Aikido').  So learning to be grounded and centred, to have sufficient physical awareness and confidence that your physicality does not say “victim” is an important learning and may prevent trouble in the first place.  The attitude that goes with “I can take care of myself” tends more towards some arrogance or even mild aggression – which is more likely to attract the attention of a certain kind of trouble-maker.  In these examples the 'first strike' has gone from being a physical act to an attitudinal stance.  Without necessaily being aware of it, in thinking 'I can take care of myself' I walk around projecting subtle 'what are you looking at?!' vibes.  I have been very fortunate to train with wise and subtle teachers (both physically and through reading some excellent books) who have encouraged me towards a deep kind of physical awareness rather than focusing on the fight.  I believe it is this kind of physical awareness which should be at the heart of what we learn in Karate (or any martial art for that matter), and is also at the heart of what I consider to be 'self defence.'  Even once someone seems to have engaged with us aggressively (which most commonly begins verbally), how we respond to that mentally, emotionally, and physically, can have a huge impact on whether the situation escalates.  In this way, there is no point we can call the 'first strike' because every situation is an environment where many subtle forces are interacting moment to moment.  This interaction begins at the subconscious level so the more aware we can be of what is going on in ourselves, in the world around us and the interface between the two, the better we can become at ensuring a first strike never becomes necessary (whether that 'strike' as an act of aggression is physical, mental or emotional). 

          The Kanji (Japanese writing) for Budo which means 'warrior way' is made up of 2 other Kanji:  one which means 'halberds', the other means 'to stop.'  So the root of the warrior path is to stop combat happening.  This gives us a different idea of what it means to be a warrior than most of the popular films portray for us, and it is from this perspective that I interpret  Gichin Funakoshi's second principle.  With this at the heart of our understanding of the warrior way, we become warriors of compassion, warriors of peace.

3 Cultural Learning Styles: Linear, Cyclical, and Holistic

Over the last 15 years I have been blessed to have studied with numerous excellent teachers in a variety of fields of learning and educational settings.  In that time, with those teachers and in those places I have observed 3 key approaches to teaching and learning which I have not seen described elsewhere and I thought may be useful to others as they consider how they are going to teach something or how something is being taught to them.  I have made use of my understanding in these ways of structuring learning in the courses I have run over the years and have found them to be excellent ways of pinning down the best large-scale structure for a course either becuase it will match what the students are used to in terms of learning, or so that the structure of the course itself is part of the teaching - challenging the students to engage in a new way of learning, thinking and being.

The 3 styles are Linear (or modular), Cyclical (or spiral), and Holistic (or 'master key').  The first style, Linear seems to me to be the primary way of teaching and learning in Western culture and is therefore (rightly or wrongly) the most common method used and the most widely recognised method in terms of creating qualifications.  The second style, Cyclical I discovered first when studying shamanism and I would suggest is the traditional method of teaching and learning in tribal, indiginous cultures around the world.  The third style, Holistic I encountered while studying Japanese and Chinese martial arts and I would say was the most common way of teaching and learning in the Orient and possibly India (I say 'was' because Western methods of teaching and learning have become much more common in both Japan and China in the last 100 years).  There may be other places where any of these styles of learning and teaching have been common or even originated, I am making an 'educated guess' about their origins and regions of application based on my experience and observation, this isn't an evidenced scientific paper!  So, that gives you a bit about the background of these approaches, now let's sink our teeth into each of the styles in turn....

Linear

This is the style most of us will be most familiar with and will probably have grown up learning within.  Learning progresses from 1 step to the next, to the next, and you need to start at the beginning in any area of study.  Progress is measured by how many steps (or modules) you have completed along the path and completion of a module usually entails some kind of test or examination on the knowledge you have gained so far.  Each step along the line of development is discreet and well defined and there are key things which should be learned at each step before progressing to the next level or module.  People are valued based on how many steps they have taken along their chosen path and being an expert in one field is more commonly recognised and valued than being midway along several lines of development.  A 'jack of all trades and master of none' is less valued than an 'expert.'  An old person who has only studied 2 modules is less valuable than a young person that has studied 10.

Cyclical

This teaching and learning style is less familiar for most of us.  The most common teaching tool is the circle or wheel, often referred to in shamanic teaching as a 'medicine wheel.'  The learning is modeled on and usually associated with the turning of the seasons during the year.  Other common correspondences which are used to 'anchor' certain learnings on the wheel are the cardinal directions (North, South, East, West), and the 4 elements (Earth, Air, Fire and Water).  Incidentally, it is commonly assumed that because many of the Chinese (and oriental generally) systems use 5 elements that they haven't evr used the 4 elements more commonly referred to in Western culture and most indiginous cultures, however, I have found instances of oriental systems pre-dating extensive contact with the West which use the 4 elements.  Whichever correspondences are used the mirroring of the cycle of the year is the common factor.  In terms of how this is reflected in teaching and learning, it means that just as we pass through the seasons every year, our learning will pass through these same areas of study repeatedly over time.  Your learning therefore spirals continually deeper with every cycle you are part of.  While the student may be put through initiatory experiences at various stages along the journey of learning, these are not assessments in the same way that the linear style of learning uses them.  That is one of the most common confusions in Westerners being educated by cyclical means.  The initiations are experiences to be lived through.  There is rarely a 'well defined learning outcome.'  The lesson that the experience has for you is personal to you and cannot be judged or assessed by another person.  Similarly, what is learned as we cycle around the wheel of learning is what is there for us that time around.  We will come back to essentially the same lesson on the next cycle so there are no 'begginners learnings' or 'advanced learnings' as such.  There are the learnings you get this time, and there are the learnings you will spot next time, and there are some learnings it will do you well to face more than once.  If you keep going around the wheel long enough you'll see it all eventually.  Just like learning about gardening, you can only learn winter lessons in winter and spring lessons in spring, and what you don't pick up this year you might spot next, or the next, or the next.  Where this mode of learning and teaching is used people are valued by how many times they have been around a cycle.  Of course if you have not been engaged in a particular course of study then you won't have even begun the cycle for that area of knowledge no matter how old you are, but old people are innately valuable because they have been through the cycles of life many times.  While younger 'experts' who have seen several cycles of their area of expertise are very valuable, in terms of the cycles of life, no-one has seen more cycles than the oldest person.  The nature of this method of learning and teaching means that just by the fact of having 'been around the block' a person has something worth listening to and learning from.

Holistic

This is the most alien style of learning and teaching for Westerners.  It involves a huge amount of trust on the part of the student as much of the learning will be done 'blind.'  There are often ideas of 'Mastery' in this approach to teaching and learning and the teacher will typically be someone who exemplifies the skills they are saying the student will learn by following their method.  For students engaging in this approach to learning it can be vital to see some of the Master's other students and see if they are progressing under the Master's tutelage as some people can do but not teach what they have seemingly mastered.  The teaching and learning is made up of bodies of knowledge and practice which often don't have immediate application (or at least, not obviously to the student).  Even if there is some clear (ish) connection between what you are learning and what the teacher can do, there is usually some significant leap to be made between learning the technical skills and applying them in any way that resembles the teacher's skill.  All of this means that there is a strong tendency to deify the teacher.  In reality this only creates a mindset which makes you even less likely to mature into your own sense of mastery as you make them 'special' and yourself 'ordinary.'  Some unscrupulous teachers encourage this disempowerment of their students either unconsciously to bolster their own ego, or deliberately out of a paranoid need to control their educational legacy.  The piece that is needed to make best use of all the seemingly unconnected knowledge that the student acquires is a 'master key.'  This will be a core body of knowledge which gives context to what the student has been studying all along.  "Why not give the master key up front?" you might ask.  Well, some teachers do, and in some systems that works really well.  It can help the student to have enough of a concept of roughly where they are going so that they find it easier to trust the teacher even when the body of teaching seems a little strange.  However, often, without having the experience of living through the learnings of the system the master key will have very little meaning to the student (or prospective student).  This is, I believe, why some teachers using the Holistic teaching modality will keep the master key to themselves until they deem the student ready to have it.  Otherwise it is 'casting pearls bfore swine' so-to-speak.  For me personally, I'd prefer to give people the key, and keep giving it to them until they understand it's value.  I feel this approach makes the student less likely to put me on a pedestal as a teacher (if anything they may think I'm a little strange or even dim for keeping telling them this obscure bit of information or harping on about the same thing all the time!).  This system of teaching and learning typically has many small tests along the path and some would see every lesson as a small test.  Ironically then, people are valued not necessarily for a particular skill set or measured and tested proficiency (although there is typically a level of skilled mastery which is observable in a respected educator in this style), nor are they valued just because of years in the practice (although that is more important here than in linear learning cultures), a practitioner's and teacher's value is largely determined by whether or not they have received transmission of the full system.  In simple terms, do they have the master key?  As you may have spotted, depending on the teacher's approach, any monkey 2 weeks into training may have been showed and even thoroughly taught the master key, but whether you know it and whether you've really 'got it' are 2 very different things!  One way to spot if this is the case is if the entire system is expressed in every part of the system when they perform it.  What I mean by this is that when they perform even the most basic techniques or methods of the system, their performance is invested with the depth of learning engendered by a full embodiment of the whole of the rest of the system.  If you don't know the system intimately yourself this can be very hard to percieve.  This difficult to define level of qualification is, I think, part of what makes this approach to learning and teaching so difficult for Westerners to get a handle on.  Coming from our background of linear study it is hard to quantify or equate the knowledge a teacher in this style has, and this is further confused by the potential for someone to claim 'full transmission' and be a charlatan.  After all, how do we measure them up?  How can we gauge their veracity?  With our linear tools we can't so it is easy to either deify all who make such claims or declare all such teachers baseless charlatans.

In case it helps to have a reference: my Warrior Leadership is taught using a Holistic learning method.  That doesn't mean it is baseless nonsense(!), or that I am claiming to be a 'Master' but the model which you can see on the Warrior Leadership page is the matser key (so to speak).  It probably doesn't mean much to you on the page and is difficult for me to describe in a satisfying way.  However if you come on a workshop and live through the exercises, while no one exercise will explain the whole model, the exercises are given context and a framework to 'hang from' by the model.  As a whole body of learning it is coherent but any part alone doesn't give you much.  There is no 'basic paper' to study which will give you any real understanding of the system.  Also, there is no one starting point or ending point.  There is no basic skill and advanced skill.  All aspects of it can be explored as a beginner or as an advanced student.  The study of the subject is the study of the whole.

Conclusion

I hope this has given you some insight into these different methods of learning and teaching.  If you would like to know more then please get in touch and I can do my best to help deepen your understanding or run a course to teach how to consciously enagage with each of these styles and how to skillfully apply them under different circumstances.  From the point of view of each approach the other approaches look crazy.  They are profoundly different approaches to learning and teaching and each has its place.  The key is understanding what style you are learning within so you can fully immerse yourself in the learning rather than getting confused by the methodology.  Or, on the flip side, it is about assessing a group of students and gauging which style of teaching will give them the right balance of familiarity and novelty to challenge them to grow, but not freak them out!

Enjoy your adventures in learning out there!

Karate begins and ends with 'Rei'

Gichin Funakoshi, the father of modern Karate defined 20 principles of Karate.  There is much debate in the hard-core Karate fraternity about how true to the original form of Karate Funakoshi was, and others have questioned how great a figher he was when compared with the likes of Kano (founder of Judo) or Ueshiba (founder of Aikido).  However, whatever we think of  Funakoshi's physical prowess, I consider him a true Warrior because of his commitment to his Way - his Do; and because he was a great philospher and teacher.  He was a Confucian scholar and, as was the case with many of the great martial teachers (including Kano and Ueshiba) he sought to teach his students a harmonious and compassionate way of life, not just a physical skill.

I wanted to 'unpack' the 20 principles of Karate so that they can be applied to the whole of life and not just to Karate.  I will do this 1 at a time and will drop them into this blog over the coming weeks and months.  Here is the first:

Karate Begins and ends with Rei

Rei is the word used to denote the formal Japanese bow that you will see a lot in traditional Dojo's (Dojo is the name for a training hall and means 'place of the Way').  Rei also means respect.  Karate classes literally begin and end with a bow, as do all engagements with an opponent, but what I think we are being reminded of here is more relating to the symbolic aspect of this practice than the literal.  The constant bowing in martial arts classes can be seen as just cultural garnish, keeping the art 'Japanese flavoured.'  However, I see it as a vital part of our practice.  Bowing is a practice of humility.  We are bodily offering deep respect and gratitude to whoever and whatever we are bowing to.  I say whatever, because traditionally the Dojo would have had a shinto shrine which would have been the first and the last thing we would bow to.  This shrine was, amongst other things, the home of the spirit of the land and building it was in.  As such, when we bow to this shrine, we are offering our respects to the place we are training in, and in my mind, this also means the land itself.  Indeed, with Shinto being a religion which recognises many spirits of nature, I think that this respect would traditionally have extended out to the land and the natural surroundings.  This reminder of respect for our environment is perhaps more important now than ever.  With the damage that has been done and continues to be done to the natural world, we must bring this awareness to every day of our lives if we are going to leave an inhabitable world for our children and their children. 

          The other bow that comes at the beginning and end of the class is to the sensei.  They are the teacher but with some subtle differences.  Sensei means 'one who has gone before' so it is someone who has walked the path we are setting our feet on so they can help us find our way safely and can set the pace so that we are constantly challenged.  Of course it is important to respect our teachers, but also, my feeling is that when we bow to the outward sensei, we also have the opportunity to bow to our inner sensei.  There is a part of us which is naturally connected to a deep wisdom and it is this part of ourselves that makes our learning possible as much as any external teacher or guide.  There is also the opportunity to remind ourselves to be grateful for all our teachers, even the people and events in our lives which are difficult.  It is a reminder that all experience has something to teach us.  

you

          So when we bow, when we rei, we are physically reminding ourselves of our gratitude for the beauty of the world around us; the challenge and learning offered by all of our opponents in life (internal and external); the humbling wisdom which lies in the teaching we receive from others and ourselves; and we are reminding ourselves to bring the quality of respect to every moment.  Gratitude, humility, respect:  Karate-do begins and ends in rei.

You don't need to go to a Karate class to practice Rei.  If you have a meditation practcie you can begin that and end it with a bow of some kind and bring this awareness to your practice.  If you don't have a practice already then you could take up bowing as a practice.  It only takes a few moments and it is a wonderful way of bodily invoking these qualities of gratitude, humility and respect.  So, maybe when you first get up in the morning, or when you enter and leave your house or living room you could take a moment to centre yourself and make a really conscious bow.  Remember, you are bowing to the world, your immediate environment, yourself as you are, the 'master' that lives within you, and all those opponents you have faced and will face who are teachers for you if only you can discern the lesson.