What is a Langkah?

Langkah (Indonesian) - noun: literally step, move, pace, action, measure, stride, leap, foot, footstep, gesture, tread, footpace

In Indonesian martial arts, Pencak Silat, it commonly refers to geometric patterns on the floor used to train footwork and develop an understanding of the role of the lower body in maintaining balance and a base from which to generate power.

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Saturday, December 26, 2015

A New Look

I have spent the past few days rebuilding the AGPS website from the ground up. My primary reason for this was to clean up the backend.

If you have never dealt with programming and/or website maintenance, it may surprise you to learn a lot goes on behind the scenes. Over time, problems arise. As in the rest of life, these hassles tend to crop up at inopportune times. The developer, in a rush to keep everything running and get back to his/her regularly scheduled activities puts a band-aid on the problem. With luck, the user never realizes the situation existed.

As you can imagine, those band-aids build up. Before long, the developer has to put band-aids on band-aids and solutions get more and more convoluted. At some point, the developer (in this case, me) looks at the code and says, "I'm not sure what this does or how it affects other things. I don't think it's being used anymore, but I don't want to delete it because it might break something. Time to rebuild."

Fortunately for my sanity, I keep the reality of impermanence in mind when programming. When I put something together, I know at some point I will scrap it and start from scratch. When it happens, I don't mourn the passing of what was. I rebuild and take pleasure in what is.

I also overhauled the website because, aside from changes to content, the site has not changed in five years. The site was not cutting edge five years ago, but it did employ some pretty new methods. Five years on the web and in the world of technology means generations of improvements.

So, the site has a new look. I stripped some of the features that never got used, but all the content is intact in a (in my opinion) much more attractive package. And for the developer (me again), it will be easier to maintain moving forward. Enjoy and feel free to offer feedback on the new site.

The URL has not changed: http://trainagps.com

The Wandering Guru

"All fixed set patterns are incapable of adaptability or pliability. The truth is outside of all fixed patterns." --Bruce Lee

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Respect the Jar Jar?

When I watched Star Wars episodes 1-3, I disliked Jar Jar Binks—like most people I know. In fact, "loathed" might express the sentiment better.

In preparation for watching episode 7, I re-watched 1-3 mostly to get the chronology straight in my head because, for me, episodes 4-6 had happened before 1-3 even though I intellectually knew they didn't. I planned to re-watch 4-6, too, but didn't have enough time before going to see The Force Awakens.

Anyway, I found on my re-watch, Binks didn't disturb me as much. Sure, he was still annoying, but I didn't cringe every time he appeared on screen or opened his mouth.

Now I'm watching the animated series, "The Clone Wars," on Netflix. My friend/brother Rick (RIP) loved it, and I caught some parts of episodes at his house while visiting, but I had never watched the series.

I am finding I actually like Binks—though the idea still surprises me. He is a bumbling fool, but—somehow—his bumbling tends to work in everyone's favor. He's cursed with luck—both bad and good. He's not the brightest star in that far away galaxy, but he has a knack for surviving and, when he or his friends are in danger, he can be downright clever.

What I find most fascinating is that his dim wits are the root of his cunning—much as Monk's extreme OCD was precisely what made him such a good detective (TV series, not Star Wars related). Under stress, Binks tends to notice things overlooked by other people in the same situation.

In the episode I just watched, for instance, pirates shot down a ship carrying Binks and some clones. They crash landed on a barren plain. One of the clones pointed out the geysers on the plain spewed acid. Binks noted the herd beasts didn't like the acid either.

When the pirates attack them, the clones see no way out. Binks leads them into a geyser. They follow because, technically, as a formal Representative of the Republic, he is the most senior surviving member of the mission. The pirates, more focused on the ship's cargo, lose track of Binks and party, and assume they died in a geyser. The brigands collect their booty and head off.

Binks watches the herd animals at the top of the geyser. When they start running, he and the clones jump out of the geyser's opening and run.

Because of Binks's simple-minded approach, he tends to act without a lot of analysis. As often as this gets him and his friends in trouble, it also gets them out of it. I wouldn't trust Jar Jar to plan an operation, but I'd be glad to have him on my side in the thick of things. He's far more than comic relief. He's a comedic good luck charm.

I know, I know. Binks is also a stumbling, bumbling racial slur--as are many of the aliens in 1-3 (Viceroy Gunray and his people scream Asian stereotypes, for instance)--but, nonetheless, my respect for the character has grown in the past few weeks. I'm as surprised as anyone can be by this news.

The Wandering Guru

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Road Within and Jessica Jones

Just watched The Road Within starring Robert Sheehan, Zoe Kravitz, Dev Patel, Robert Patrick, and Kyra Sedgwick.

Netflix categorizes this movie as: Comedy, Drama, Independent Drama

Really, Netflix?

The plot from IMDB.com:

The Road Within is about Vincent, a young man suffering from Tourette Syndrome. His mother dies so his estranged father, Robert, is forced to step in. However, Robert's running for political office and doesn't want his son on the campaign trail - so Robert puts Vincent in a clinic that's run by the unconventional Dr. Mia Rose. Once there, Vincent falls in love with an anorexic woman named Marie. Together, they steal Dr. Rose's car, and end up having to kidnap his OCD roommate, Alex, when he threatens to tell on them. With Robert and Dr. Rose in hot pursuit, Vincent, Marie and Alex go on a life changing road trip to deliver the ashes of his mother to the ocean.

The movie does have several moments of humor and, considering the subject matter, I would label the movie upbeat. I would not, however, categorize it as a comedy. The actors did a great job of portraying their struggles, especially Vincent (Robert Sheehan) and Alex (Dev Patel). I had no problem empathizing with them. In fact, I sympathized with them because I have issues of my own—albeit far less severe than these characters.

One of the several stand out scenes for me showed Alex forcing himself to remove his latex glove and hold Vincent's hand.

The scene reminded me of the posts I see on Facebook that belittle a person's bravery by comparing them to soldiers in combat. These people think "bravery" is a black and white word. They don't understand that bravery requires overcoming fear. Yes, soldiers and cops do it every day they put on their uniform. But a severe OCD sufferer overcoming his/her compulsions to touch another human, even if for a moment, is huge. The two can't be compared in any objective way.

But ... I have strayed down a tangential path.

I liked the movie a lot. Each of the three main characters, and the two supporting characters, show a clear development arc. In the end, each is still flawed but has grown and learned. One of them backslid, but that's part of the arc, too.

The backslide reminded me of a lesson I have to keep in mind for my own characters when writing. Sometimes they do backslide. Sometimes they fail. Sometimes they make poor choices and choose not to learn--but that choice affects them too, even if they can't see or won't admit it. A story involves conflict. Not everyone "wins" their conflict. I think I've said what I want about the movie, so now I'll take an intentional tangent related to this idea.

I loved the first season of Jessica Jones. On Facebook, I read a comment where someone said they were disappointed because Jessica didn't have a strong arc. At the beginning of the series, she was a cynical alcoholic and at the end she was a cynical alcoholic.

The critic, in my estimation, missed the point. Jessica did have an arc. It just didn't involve her cynicism or alcoholism. Maybe she'll fight those demons in season two, we'll see. The arc Jessica did walk involved overcoming her fear of emotional connection. At the beginning of the series, she fears to get close to people or let them get close to her. She pushes everyone away and keeps her shields up all the time.

By the end of the season, she has reconnected with her adopted sister, developed a strong friendship with Malcolm, and has allowed herself to get involved with Luke. She still has baggage—a hell of a lot of it, in fact—but she did manage to let go of at least one or two of her suitcases and leave them behind.

The Wandering Guru

Saturday, December 5, 2015

A Day to Remember

Tonight, I used Lyft--if you are unfamiliar with it, google it. The driver was listening to a talk show where they were interviewing Robert Kennedy, Jr. They asked him, "What is your favorite memory of your father?"

This got me thinking about my own dad, and I asked myself the same question. I did not have to give it much thought.

I started training in martial arts in 1978. Dad took me to classes and watched sometimes. In '86 or '87, my parents took me out of formal training. I got together with friends, often at my parents' house, to train and spar. They shared whatever they were training at the time. My dad watched some of these ad hoc sessions.

When I resumed formal training, I was twenty-one and no longer living at home. I think dad came to one tournament where I competed and one event where our Karate class did a demo. Then, in '96, I moved to Ohio and started training in Sikal.

Dad knew what I trained, knew I trained hard and consistently, and knew I had earned my instructorship, but he never saw any of it until 2003.

In 2003, I taught a workshop in Muncie, Indiana. The event was about forty minutes from my parents' house, and Dad drove up with my brother-in-law. Dad watched me teach a roomful of people. He watched as I moved with confidence. Pride beamed from his face as he watched me guide people along the same path on which he had watched me take my first tentative steps twenty-five years before.

That day, that look of pride, is my favorite memory of my dad. From the example he set, I learned what it means to be a man--in all the most positive uses of the word. He was my role model in so many ways. I am honored to call him dad and glad beyond words he got to share that day with me and see me following my passion.

The Wandering Guru

Monday, November 30, 2015

What is a Kimono Grab, and why should I care?

Kimono Grab was the technique I heard given a name. My friend Rick, back in the early 90s, started training in American Kenpo. I was training Okinawan Goju-Ryu at the time. We had names for motions--Gedan Uke for low block, Mawashi Geri for roundhouse kick, etc.--but this Kimono Grab was something different. It involved several strikes instead of one motion. The idea intrigued me, but my training didn't involve such things, so I didn't give it much thought.

Years later, when I started training in Shen Chuan, I once again encountered named techniques. Shen Chuan, with roots in American Kenpo, adopted some of its methodology for laying out the curriculum, and one of the things it adopted was naming techniques.

While I am still strongly affiliated with Shen Chuan and have a fourth degree black belt in the system, I haven't trained the curriculum in years--in fact, the Shen Chuan curriculum has undergone some serious revisions and evolutions, and the curriculum I trained lies deep in the foundation of the current curriculum like the leavings of an ancient civilization on which a new and improved structure has been built. In spite of my time away from the curriculum, I still remember several techniques because of the names.

Names like "Three Hammers and a Piston" and "Fanning the Horn" still evoke specific motion sets in my mind and, if I choose, in my body. I believe this is the strength of named techniques.

Tai Chi uses the same method within its forms. Names like "Single Whip" and "White Crane Spreads Wings" describe motion sets. These sets could be viewed as mini forms unto themselves.

Humans love labels. We label everything, and we do it reflexively. Rarely, do we look at something and see it as it is. Our tendency is to look at something, then tell ourselves a story about it--and in the process, we assign labels to tell the story. The serene experience of sun rise, within nanoseconds of the lightening of the sky, becomes, "Oh my! That is the most beautiful sun rise I have ever seen. It takes my breath away." There's a story, and we're no longer experiencing the sun rise, we're connected to the story and the labels, we're still in the past, trying to hold on to what was.

That microscopic moment before labeling and story, that moment is what people mean by "enlightenment." That moment of absolute immersion in the experience, experiencing without labeling, without attaching to a specific moment.

But I digress.

We're talking about martial arts and techniques and using the human fascination for labels to enhance the learning process. At this point, I have given a name to each of the applications (buah if you're interested in the common Silat term) for three of my seven jurus in AGPS. Granted, the names for the applications in Entry Juru are rather uninspired, but they work. I plan to name all the applications over time.

You may be asking, "Why the delay?" Well ... naming the buggers is trickier than I expected, and probably trickier than you would guess unless you've done something similar.

My intention--as you can probably surmise if you've read this far--is to make the applications easier to remember for students and, honestly, for me. If you think the naming of the techniques is strange, this explains why I'm doing it and from where I drew the inspiration.

The Wandering Guru

Friday, November 27, 2015

A Counter for Counters

I do not make a habit of teaching counters. Specific techniques should be taught to *illustrate* principles and guide students to an understanding of principles. Understanding *why* a technique works is far more valuable than learning the technique.

In martial arts training, it is easy to fall into the trap of becoming a "technique collector." Focusing on techniques, though, limits understanding. Performing a technique exactly as you learned it, while admirable, is less important than understanding why the technique works and being able to explain it--at least to yourself. When you understand the principle involved, you can develop new techniques based on the principle and adapt to new situations.

Further, and going back to the point of this post, if you understand why a technique works, you also understand its weaknesses. This knowledge leads to the ability to find counters without learning them from an instructor.

I do not make a habit of teaching counters. I prefer to teach people how to *find* counters. I got this, of course, from my primary instructor, Guru Ken Pannell in Sikal, but GM Richard Bustillo fleshed out the idea at a seminar I attended and his presentation had a significant impact on how I approach the topic now.

I will use a standard wrist lock when I need a specific example, but *any* technique--strikes, sweeps, locks, disarms, chokes, throws--can be countered.

The first thing to understand, counters are timing dependent. You can't counter a technique after it's completed. You must finish your counter before the technique is complete, and the earlier you begin the counter, the more likely you are to counter.

Taking our wrist lock example, the "completion" of a wrist lock is defined by the person's intention. If their intention is to *break* your wrist then the break is the completion. If they intend to submit you, it completes when you submit (this means you have a lot more time to counter since *you* choose when to submit). If someone intends to disrupt your balance/structure with the wrist lock, then they complete when you stumble or your structure is compromised.

Remember, the earlier you begin your counter, the better your odds of pulling it off. So, in training, start by going back in time. Find a counter in the moment before the technique is complete. Then the moment before that. Continue until you counter before your opponent has a chance to *start* the technique.

When looking for counters at each moment in the timing breakdown, look for these things:
1. What is threatened?
2. How is it threatened?
3. What is threatening it?

If you neutralize any one of those things, you neutralize the technique. Bear in mind, neutralization is *not* countering, but it is a vital step to finding a counter. A counter means you neutralize the attack *and* launch a counter attack.

Looking at our basic wrist lock for example, and we'll look at it from just before completion:
1. What is threatened? My wrist and, ultimately, my structure and balance.
If I can remove my wrist from the situation, it cannot be threatened. At this timing, it is too late to remove the wrist--at least in this example.
2. How is it threatened? He is applying torque toward me and off to the side.
If I can prevent him from applying torque, I neutralize the lock. I might press against the palm of my threatened hand with my other hand. By doing so, I can neutralize his torque and the lock. If, instead, I *strike* my palm with my other hand, I explode against his structure and may find my own counter--maybe a finger lock presents itself in the explosion.
3. What is threatening it? In a classic wrist lock, both of his hands are on my hand to apply the torque. 
If I remove one of his hands, he often cannot complete the lock with a single hand. I know this sounds too simple, but it can work. Reach out with your non-threatened hand and lift one of his hands--the one closest to your non-threatened hand is the easiest. You might also strike it to release it.
What else threatens? His mind. In order for him to complete the technique, his mind must be present and controlling his hands. Put his mind elsewhere--give him something to think about. Pain is good for this, so kick him in the shin. The lock tends to melt once his mind leaves the equation.

These are dead simple examples. Do not take these as gospel. Do not collect these techniques. Take any technique your training partner knows. Apply this method. Find your own counters based on your understanding of the technique. Then train what you find. Develop it, then test it. Take it into resistance training, sparring, scenarios, etc.

The Wandering Guru

Monday, October 5, 2015

Camp Lansdale #19

The first weekend of October, I attended Camp Lansdale #19 at Lansdale's Self-Defense in Nacogdoches, TX. Attendance was lower than hoped for, but the people in attendance had a blast and covered some great material.

Professor Lansdale, as usual, brought the pain. In his inimitable fashion, he presented a blend of dynamic striking, pressure points, balance disruption, and joint locks. The blend formed a cohesive whole and helped everyone develop their understanding of each aspect, and the sum which was greater than its parts.

Glenn Haley brought out several techniques from American Kenpo and explained how they all tied together. While they might seem like a variety of different techniques, a common thread united all of them.

Darren Dailey showed some great examples of the correlation between empty hands and sticks from Modern Arnis, with a bit of Shen Chuan flavor thrown in for good measure.

Billy Jack Worsham, mourning the death of his brother, made a cameo appearance and illustrated some great principles for fluid striking.

Coy Harry invited us to join him in his personal exploration of space. Not outer space, but inner space. "Go where your opponent isn't." He showed how this principle can be used to counter joint locks and improve mobility and stability for power generation in techniques.

I continued Coy's train of thought with my take on it, "Move and fill empties."

All in all, it was a great camp in spite of low attendance. People who missed it, missed *a lot*.


The Wandering Guru

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

National Lampoon's Greyhound Trip

The Greyhound bus had driven north from Houston into Lufkin. The driver called to the passengers, "Can someone tell me where I'm supposed to go?"

We, the passengers, had mixed emotions. For my part, I sat speechless. Thoughts rattled in my head in search of dance partners, or at least sanity. I hoped, as I think did others, the woman was joking.

Another passenger voiced one of my stray thoughts. "Ain't it *your* job to know?"

The driver said, "I'm lost."

I guess the idea of putting a GPS, or at least a smart phone, within reach of the driver never crossed Greyhound's corporate mind. The bus pulled into a motel parking lot where a police cruiser was parked, dome light on.

The driver got out and talked to the policeman. He gave her directions to the bus terminal. Our driver had, in fact, been lost.

Five minutes later, one of the passengers said, "Hey! You just drove past the bus station."

After a few more wrong turns, the driver asked another policeman and got more directions. At this point, I started wondering when Chevy Chase would make a cameo appearance.

We finally arrived at the Lufkin terminal. Some people got off, some new ones boarded. The bus resumed its northward trek.

About five minutes south of Nacogdoches, the driver pulled off onto the shoulder and stopped. The dome light at the front of the bus lit. I assume she consulted a map or directions or something. Light off, and rolling again.

As the bus cruised past the first entrance to the Nacogdoches stop, I felt my stomach twist. Second entrance rolled by. I could see my friend Coy waiting to pick me up. As I started to call out, "Turn into the next entrance!" the driver read my mind and hit the brakes, slewing into the lefthand turn lane.

Two minutes later, as I stepped off the bus, I told the passengers, "Good luck, y'all."

My statement met a mixture of nods, anxious faces, and, from the few who had boarded in Lufkin, confusion.

Thus begins my Camp Lansdale 2015 adventure.

The Wandering Guru

Greyhound: Imagine a bus ride, but painted by Dali.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Why, Not How

In training, a student should look beneath the surface of what is being taught. When a student watches an instructor teach a technique, he or she is seeing how the instructor does the technique. Sometimes, an instructor can do a particular technique in a certain way because he or she possesses attributes which enable it. If a given student does not have the same attributes, he or she may not be able to use the how presented by the instructor. If the student digs deeper and learns why the technique works and why the instructor favors a particular expression, the student can develop his or her own how.

Everyone begins training through mimicry. This is part of the learning process but, if one remains at this level, they focus on the finger and miss all the heavenly glory--to paraphrase Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon. The easiest way to fall into this trap is to focus on how the instructor does the technique. A how-based mindset leads to mimicry without depth. A student should, instead, adopt a why mindset in training.

Techniques should, like the finger pointing to the moon, act as signposts to guide one to the why. Why does it work. With a why-mindset, the student digs toward the underlying principle which makes the technique work. A secondary why surfaces when one sees different expressions of the same principle and asks why a given instructor favors a particular method.

Looking at the why level and understanding the principle helps the student develop his or her own expression, influenced by the expressions of various instructors, and own the material. Training should lead students toward internalization of the material. Ownership shows itself when the student can not only perform the technique, but explain why it works and develop other techniques built on the same principle.

When training, students should seek a why-based mindset. This mindset leads them away from the mimicry of how a technique is done and toward an understanding of the principle driving the technique. Understanding the why allows the student to develop his or own how and, when the student becomes a teacher, he or she will be better prepared to guide new students toward the why.

The Wandering Guru

"It's like a finger pointing away to the moon. Don't concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory." -- Bruce Lee, Enter the Dragon

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Here's to the strong ones

September 3, 2015 -- 11:30 AM
A goofy guy named Dave lays in a hospital bed, fighting for his life. He's in his late seventies and has lived a hell of a life. Maybe it's his time. I don't know. What I do know is, he'll fight like hell because he wants one more talk with his son, one more visit with his brother, one more day with family, one more walk with his dog.
Dave is the father of one of my oldest and best friends, Adam. Adam and I met when I was in second grade, and he was in first. We shared an important moment together, then had no real contact until middle school when we rode the same bus. At that point, I was caught up in being a "cool" eighth grader and didn't want anything to do with a little seventh grader.
We became friends in high school, and we have shared a lot of experiences since then. Some good, some bad, some worse. Most were great. And Dave, or as most of us call him, Pops was always somewhere in the background doing his thing.
Pops was odd and eccentric most of the time and terrifying some of the time. Like all good fathers, I suppose. He had a lot on his plate, but we kids have only recently gained an appreciation for how much he juggled when we were growing up.
Looking back on it with the understanding I now have, his strength amazes me. He ran a small company. In fact, I think he ran a few of them over the years, but during and after my high school years, Pops ran a sign company. Running a company is a hell of a lot of work. On top of that, he kept his wife, who could be a handful (to put it politely), from going too far into the stratosphere, and he did a hell of a job raising a damn fine son.
He was never a saint, and never pretended to be one. He was a good man who did the best he could. He failed far more times than he succeeded, but he kept at it until he got it right.
His memory started failing him years ago. Everyone, including Pops, thought it was the early stages of Alzheimer's. After his wife died, Pops visited a doctor. The doctor did some tests and concluded it was not Alzheimer's. All the chemicals he had worked with in various jobs over the years had damaged the blood vessels in his brain. Pops moved in with Adam, and Adam stepped up to become the amazingly strong one in the relationship.
For years, Adam has excelled at his job while maintaining a marriage, going through a divorce, gaining a new love, being laid off, finding a new job, and through it all, he has taken care of Pops. He had help, of course. His ex-wife, Mary, and his current girlfriend, Jess, adore Pops and have done a lot to help him, but Adam carries as much of the load as he can. It's easy to see, from where I sit, the apple didn't fall far from the tree.

September 3, 2015 -- 1 PM
Pops is dead, but a long way from forgotten.

The Wandering Guru
Pops and Adam: Generations of Strength

Wednesday, August 26, 2015


Varekai makes the fifth Cirque du Soleil show my wife and I have seen. As before, the performers brought their A games. Each performer--aerial, acrobatics, gymnastics, juggling, baton, and more--made me say, "Wow." at least once during their performance.

Varekai picks up the myth of Icarus after his fall. Instead of crashing into the sea and dying, he lands in the strange world of Varekai. As the show opens, Skywatcher fiddles with some of his inventions and tries to get in tune with nature. He notices the figure of Icarus falling from the sky and tries to revive him after his crash.

When The Guide appears, he and Skywatcher work together to revive Icarus. Icarus comes to and realizes he's surrounded by strange, alien creatures whose mannerisms are intense as they poke and prod him. When he tries to get away, he realizes his legs don't work. His fear spikes as he crawls away.

Then he encounters The Betrothed, a beautiful female creature, and the attraction between them is palpable. Her presence soothes and reassures Icarus.

The various acts of the show tell a story of the native's efforts to rehabilitate Icarus. As the show progresses, he learns to stand, to walk, and to dance. The love he shares with The Betrothed strengthens him and provides a catalyst for her to make her own transformation. The Guide and Skywatcher move through the action, the teaching, and the learning, helping where they can.

I want to make special mention of Arisa Tanaka for her baton twirling performance. In a show packed with world class performers doing amazing feats, Arisa's skill with the batons stood out for me. Her act blended standard baton twirling with juggling and contact juggling of the batons. The contact juggling blew me away. She spun the baton around her neck and body without using her hands, letting it roll over, rotate around, and bounce off her neck, shoulders, etc. For several seconds she spun and threw the baton using her elbows. Nothing else contacted the batons. 

While the overall story is dramatic, there is a lot of comedy thrown in. The Guide and Skywatcher have some great comedic moments, but the bulk of the comedy comes from two unnamed characters, a man and woman. Their antics are at times flirtatious with each other and with audience members. These two interacted with several audience members--including me. The characters don't have official names so I'll call them Thin Man and Blondie.

Before the show begins, there is a sort of pre-show where these two characters come out and act like ushers. Margaret and I sat in the second row. The characters had just had some fun with some people in the first row, then Thin Man's eyes lit on me and went wide. He rushed over to me and squeezed my bicep and said, "So big!" As he moved on, Blondie winked at me and gave me a flirtatious wave.

Enouh about me, though. One of the most amazing things about Cirque du Soleil is how well the performers use body language. Throughout the show, I would guess there were, maybe, a dozen lines of English spoken, and most of those were spoken to the audience through breaks in the fourth wall. I remember two lines of English spoken between Skywatcher and The Guide. Thin Man did sing one song in French. The troop performed the rest of the show in a Varekaian (gibberish). The emotions and interactions between the characters were expressed with body language.

This wasn't my favorite Cirque du Soleil show, but it was excellent. My favorite is still Qidam.


The Wandering Guru

Monday, August 17, 2015

Heroes in our name

Just finished watching the "Robot Hood" episode of Doctor Who. I spent most of the episode chuckling at the absurdity of the episode while being impressed by how well it was put together.

At the end, I realized the deeper value of the episode. It serves to push the Doctor's character past the trauma he experienced in the previous episode. Of course, it's not obvious about it.

The best part for me was an exchange between the Doctor and Robin Hood at the end of the piece. I'm not going to bother with a spoiler alert because (a) the biggest spoiler is that Robin Hood and the Doctor are alive at the end of the episode and (b) I am *way* behind on my Doctor Who so most people who might care about spoilers have already seen the episode.

I'm not going to post the whole dialog, but I'll pull the bits I feel most relevant and, for me, poignant.

Robin calls the Doctor a hero and the Doctor says, "I'm not a hero."
Robin says, "Well, neither am I. But if we both keep pretending to be, perhaps others will be heroes in our name."

I love this sentiment. It reminds me of a line Angel delivered in the episode, "Deep Down." "We [champions] live as though the world is as it should be, to show it what it can be."

I think many of the heroes we hold in high esteem today would agree with these ideas. In their time, they would have told you something like: "I am no hero. You call me a hero for doing the best I could in adverse circumstances but I did not live a life I would call heroic."

In those actions for which they are honored, they "lived as though the world were as it should be" and I think most of them would agree their highest achievement came posthumously when others became heroes in their names.

Or maybe I'm a romantic with his head stuck in the clouds. I don't know. But I figure *someone* needs to live as though the world is as it should be and that is my goal, lofty though it may be.

The Wandering Guru

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Paradigm shift

Last week, my laptop went belly up. The logic board is toast and repair/replace is beyond my current financial means.

I am now using an iPad mini with a bluetooth keyboard for all my online and writing tasks. I had considered doing this before, but the shift requires a lot of rewiring in how I do things. My entire workflow has to change and the transition is uncomfortable.

I suspect, though, this will become my norm. Even when I can once again afford a laptop, I doubt I will. The new normal will have become habit and going back to a laptop will seem odd and cumbersome.

I have yet to work out comfortable methods for website development on iPad. Fortunately, I do very little of it these days and it's all personal projects. I will end up with a desktop companion--we have a Mac Mini stored at a friend's house in Arizona. I will pick it up in a few weeks when I return to the area. The Mac Mini will be my tool for video and graphics editing and, unless I can sort out how to print from iPad, I'll use Mac Mini for printing documents.

Still some hurdles to overcome, but life would be boring without challenges. Adversity = adventure :D


The Wandering Guru

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Repetition among friends

When I teach at a Progressive Arnis training camp I find myself repeating a lot of words. Words like awesome, great, fantastic, incredible ... you get the idea.

We just wrapped the 2015 Progressive Arnis Summer Camp. Considering the amount of praise I've given the prior PA camps I've attended, it's hard to believe anything could top them. This year did. In many ways.

First, the location was amazing. Not to say Santa Fe, where previous camps were held, isn't amazing, but visiting and training on the property where Chad, the founder of Progressive Arnis, grew up made this event something special. Second, his mom, Deb, and step-dad, Brad, welcomed this large group of people with open arms. Deb made some great meals and snacks for us.

The group, as always, brought amazing energy to the training. Every face exhibited an eagerness to learn and share. As usual, the instructors covered a range of specific topics but the theme for this year's camp was Form to Function to Fighting. Each instructor presented material in a progressive manner to help the students move from the form of static training and fundamental tool development to making the material functional and dynamic in training to understanding how the material might look in an actual fight.

Guro Chad Bailey, of course, was the headline instructor. His system, his camp, his headline. He had three guest instructors. I was one of them, along with Sensei Jason May of Nan Sho Kempo Jujutsu and Sensei Matt Ansari of Shihairyoku.

All the instructors did a fantastic job and brought a unique perspective and approach to the overall theme.

Several Progressive Arnis instructors and senior students were also present and did a great job working with less experienced attendees to keep everyone engaged and learning. The event lasted somewhere in the neighborhood of sixteen hours, starting Friday afternoon and ending Sunday afternoon. It was hot and humid, though not as bad is might have been, and the weather contributed to the drain everyone felt on top of the hours of training. People were tired—but I didn't see anyone zone out from overload. A couple of people came close but the willingness of instructors and advanced students to help out kept the overloads to a minimum.

Every bit of feedback I heard was outstanding. Everyone else had the same problem with repetition I do. Great, amazing, incredible, etc. I know everyone came away with useful information and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves the whole weekend.

Last but not least, I want to congratulate Andres Arias who tested for and achieved his black belt in Progressive Arnis. As a black belt candidate, he served as the primary slap monkey—er, I mean, uke—for all the instructors and then he went through the formal test. He did a great job all the way around and when he wasn't getting tossed around or actively tested, he joined the training and helped anyone who needed it with the material.

I am honored to call the Progressive Arnis group family. Guro Chad sets a fine example and his students do an excellent job following it.

I could go on and on about this year's camp, but I would be repeating myself. Again.

The Wandering Guru

At the beginning, we are born. At the end, we die. Between, we walk the earth. This is life. I'm glad I have so many good friends to walk with me.

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Humble Stem

Time and again, I see or hear people disparage the "stem" training method with comments like:
  • "Try that against a resisting attacker."
  • "People don't just stick their arm out and let you respond."
These comments are true. But they are irrelevant.

Stem training isn't about realism. Stem training is essentially the same as using a heavy bag or a mook jong. At the most basic level, your training partner is providing you with a human-size and shaped target.

If your training never progresses past that level, you're not working realistically.

But stem training is the first step. The nice thing about stem training is, as you progress, your training partner progresses with you. Different training methodologies will employ different steps but here's an example. Once you develop the tools on the static dummy (e.g.: your training partner who is giving you the stem), your partner can add dynamic motion, then follow-up attacks, then active avoidance, then counters, then active resistance, then sparring. It's all necessary.

I have been training for nearly forty years, have trained in quite a few systems with quite a few instructors, and have been exposed to a whole slew of others. All of them use stem training. Period. In my experience, it's the universal first step in training. It's where you learn the foundational motions.

The motions done while your training partner stems aren't intended to be "fighting techniques." They're intended to help you develop an understanding of your body and how to move and, to some extent, how to move around a human-shaped/sized object—albeit a static one.

Another thing to remember, in training—not sparring—we almost always launch our counter-attack on the first or second motion of our training partner but we are not training to deal with the first or second attack launched. We are training to deal with the attack we catch. We may have been fighting for several seconds and exchanged a dozen glancing blows each before I catch the one I catch. Once I get that one then I can move into my material.

The goal isn't to learn prearranged series of motions. The goal is to learn flow. To familiarize our bodies with the tools and how they commonly fit together.

All of this is true regardless of what you're training. The most common critics of the stem method I see and hear are MMA practitioners. But watch them train. They're hitting a heavy bag—which is still stem work but with an inanimate object. They're striking focus mitts—at beginning stages this is stem work. They’re working single leg takedown on a partner who just stands there and lets it happen. They're working something like a guard pass to side mount to arm bar and they're partner isn't fighting them in their early stages.

Stem training is part of the progression. When you watch a video or watch someone teach, saying things like, "No one just sticks their arm out there." is, at best, a sign of ignorance—you just don't know any better. At worst, it's a sign of willful denial because you're denying that aspect of your own training and I can almost guarantee it is an aspect of your training even if you don't recognize it as such. Or you're just trying to find something wrong with the video/instruction so you can save face while ignoring the lesson.

An extension of this happens when someone trains somewhere for a brief time, only sees stem training, and decides the training is useless. They just didn't stick around to see the progression. If there is no progression then, at that point, I agree there’s a problem.

For the most part, teachers use stem method when teaching because it gives them time to illustrate and explain what's going on. Imagine a teacher trying to explain what's going on in the middle of a full-speed sparring match or a fight. By the time he names a technique, at least three more things have happened.

I also think some of the criticizing comes from technique-based perspective. If you watch someone using stem method—either because they're new or because it's an instructor teaching—and you think, "My god, the guy was [unconscious/incapacitated/dead/etc.] after the fourth [strike/cut/stab/etc.]." you're missing the point. You're looking at it from a technique-based perspective. In a situation like this, you're not looking at a technique. You're looking at motion, pure and simple. The practitioner is exploring motion, flow, options. S/he doesn't expect to do the whole series. Ever. They’re just training their body to move, to feel options and move. When resistance is added, this flow becomes even more important.

Next time you watch a video or see someone teaching or training and you think, "This is useless." Stop. Empty your cup. There's a reasonable chance you're missing out on a great learning opportunity.

The Wandering Guru

"All the world is my school and all humanity is my teacher." — George Whitman

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Love Puppets? I think not.

As I sat eating lunch, I overheard a reporter on television talking about Joyce Mitchell—a woman now facing charges for helping several convicts escape from the prison where she worked.

A female reporter said, "I wonder if she was coerced or manipulated by love or fear."

A male reporter said, "Love. Definitely. It's the ultimate manipulation tool."

I find this statement disturbing on so many levels. First, it tells me a great deal about the reporter and how skewed his perspective of the world and, especially, of love is.

In my estimation, love is not manipulative. It can't be manipulative. It can't be used for manipulation. Only fear can be used for manipulation.

There are several ways I can see how love might be involved. Someone may try to manipulate another by threatening a loved one, but the fear of harm to the loved one is the manipulator, not the love. Someone may manipulate someone who loves them but the manipulation happens because the other person fears losing that love, or fears upsetting the person, or fears disappointing that person.

Fear is the manipulator. If love is involved in the equation, it has nothing to do with the manipulation.

I think people—like the male reporter—who look at a situation and say love is the tool used for manipulation don't understand love. Or their perception of love is so tainted with fear they can't untangle the two.

While I'm not religious, I do think the bible hits the nail pretty squarely in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

By this definition—and I believe it's a great definition—love cannot manipulate or be used to manipulate.

Only fear manipulates or can be used to manipulate.

The Wandering Guru

"Love comes when manipulation stops; when you think more about the other person than about his or her reactions to you. When you dare to reveal yourself fully. When you dare to be vulnerable." — Joyce Brothers

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Jenner: My Two Cents

I have seen quite a few derogatory posts on social media about the Jenner sex change. I'm going to throw my two cents out here.

First, people keep using male pronouns and the name Bruce. This is disrespectful. Period. If you're talking about Bruce Jenner, the man who won an Olympic gold medal, fine. He was a man then and his name was Bruce. But if you're referring to the post-op person then her name is Caitlyn. Why is that so difficult?

I have a friend named Otis. Years ago, Otis legally had his name changed from George to Otis. Knowing this, should I call him George? No. He's Otis. Period. Calling him George would be disrespectful, unless he gave me permission to do so. And just because he gives one person permission—maybe an old friend who knew him back when—doesn't mean anyone else can assume the privilege.

So when you read that Caitlyn's children still call her Dad, that doesn't give you permission to call her a him. She didn't give you that permission.

Second, people are naysaying Jenner's courage and saying things like, "If you want courage, look to our soldiers." Calling Jenner courageous DOES NOT detract from the courage of soldiers.

Consider this:

cour·age ˈkərij
   the ability to do something that frightens one. 
     "she called on all her courage to face the ordeal" strength in the face of pain or grief. 
     "he fought his illness with great courage” 

Courage = overcoming fear. Period. It's completely subjective. Picking up a spider and putting it outside, for most people, isn't a courageous act. For an arachnophobe, this simple act requires an immense amount of courage.

Jenner's decision to go public with her sex change was courageous.

Calling one person courageous does not diminish anyone else's courage and if you think Jenner's actions weren't courageous, you're welcome to your opinion but the next time you have to face a fear of your own, I hope you find your own courage even if other people aren't willing to recognize it.

And before you throw Noah Galloway into the mix, read this: http://www.buzzfeed.com/stephaniemcneal/a-double-amputee-soldier-did-not-lose-the-espn-courage-award#.cjO4GMxW

This is also a bit of food for thought: http://www.rawstory.com/2015/06/man-learns-amazing-lesson-in-irony-after-mocking-caitlyn-jenners-bravery-in-viral-facebook-post/


Jenner was courageous for going public. Period.

Jenner is a woman named Caitlyn. Period.

The Wandering Guru

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Embrace Failure

People tend to shy away from new things because they don’t want to look stupid. This reflects a fear of failure.

Growth comes from challenge. When you challenge yourself, you will fail more often than you succeed. You know you’re growing when you start succeeding more than you fail.
If you rarely fail, you’re not challenging yourself. If you’re not challenging yourself, you’re stagnating.

Some people get frustrated when they can’t immediately perform a new task. If this is you, let go of expectations. Accept the challenge and embrace the failure.

When you say, “I’ll try,” you’re A) setting up the possibility of failure, and B) refusing to embrace failure. You’re giving yourself an out. You’re really saying, “I’ll try but I won’t be surprised if I fail because this is too hard for me.” You’re both setting up the failure and refusing responsibility for it.
The only growth you can have from trying is to get better at trying. Like Yoda said, “Do or do not. There is no try.” Do. Push the envelope. Challenge yourself. Fail. Repeat.

Avoid preconceptions and expectations about how long the process should take. Remember, it is a process, not a product.

Of course, I’m specifically talking about martial arts training but this principle applies to everything. In fact, it applies to life.

The Wandering Guru

"Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts." — Winston Chuchill

Friday, May 29, 2015

Thoughts on Teaching

When I first started teaching, I assisted my instructor. Teaching in front of your own instructor—teaching material he taught you—is very nerve-wracking. Every time I got up to teach a swarm of butterflies hatched in my stomach.

In '98, I visited a school and one of the instructors, Eugene, asked me to cover a class for him while he was out for surgery. I had never met the instructor before and I was still six months from becoming a certified instructor under my own instructor. I don't know why he asked me to cover his class but I agreed to do it.

I called my instructor, explained the situation, and asked for advice.

He said, "Blow them away."

I didn't know if I could blow them away. I had no idea how good the instructor was or the level of his students.

I went into the class and asked the assistant instructor what they usually did for warm ups. He named a drill they often used. I decided to start there but tweak it from the way they normally did it—just adding a little spice to it from my own background. The modification was, in my mind, trivial. The assistant instructor picked it up quickly but the modification lost rest of the class. I had blown them away by accident.

The rest of the class went smoothly and the school owner, Joe, watched most of my class. Afterward, he told me, "That was great stuff and you're an excellent teacher."

That experience gave me the final puzzle piece in an epiphany that my unconscious mind had been putting together for me and I realized a few things:
  1. If I'm teaching—unless I'm just explaining something to a training partner—then someone has asked me to teach. They, at least, think I have something worthwhile to share.
  2. When I'm teaching I'm not teaching the material, I'm teaching my understanding of the principles which underlay the material. The material is the vehicle I'm using to explain those principles. Since no one else in history has lived my specific life and since my understanding is based on my life experiences inside & outside of training, no one else has ever had, or will ever have, my specific understanding of the material.

From these two realizations came confidence. When I get up to teach, no matter what I'm teaching, it's completely unique. No one else can teach it the way I do. Consequently, anyone can learn from it. Even if it's my instructor or his instructor. Even if someone watching knows the material a thousand times better than I ever will, they might still learn something valuable from my expression of it.
Over the years, many people—including some world class martial artists & instructors who are legends in their own system and well-respected outside of their own system—have complimented me on my understanding and teaching.

From all this, my advice to new and future teachers is to remember these things:

  1. When you start teaching, you will have years of training and hundreds (probably thousands) of hours of "dirt time." If you've been asked to teach then someone has faith in your ability to do so. If you keep a level head then you will live up to or exceed expectations.
  2. Be yourself. You're teaching your own understanding. No one else in the world, or in history, can do that.
  3. There are no mistakes, only opportunities for exploration and growth. This maxim applies to your students and their work as well as to your teaching.
  4. You're still a student. Be open to learning—even from the lowest ranked person in the room, or from a spectator on the sidelines who has no training or experience in martial arts. If you pay attention then you can learn from them and their questions/observations.
  5. Be patient. First, be patient with yourself. Frustration at yourself can bleed over to how you treat students. Breathe. Relax. Move on. Second, be patient with your students. Remember, your instructor's patience is part of the reason you've made it this far. Third, be patient with everyone. You never know what kind of day they had before you dealt with them or what kind of life they have in general. For good or ill, martial artists and, especially, instructors are looked to as role models and often held to a higher standard. We may sometimes fall short of those standards but we should always strive to set as good an example as we can.

There are other things I could say but I think those five items give a good, solid foundation on which you can build a strong teaching method and do right by your students while also representing the training you have been through and the spirit of the art you're teaching.

To wrap this up, I'll share a story from my Goju-Ryu days. One day Shihan Davenport asked the class, "What is Karate?"

After a long, uncomfortable pause, we each came up with an answer. He said, "Good. All of those are reasonable answers but they're all wrong. Karate is what I tell you it is."

Now, this statement may seem a bit overbearing or arrogant. I certainly thought so in the second after I heard it and before Shihan continued to explain. Students don't know what Karate is until an instructor tells them.

As instructors, we have a pretty huge responsibility. Our students don't know any better—though in this info rich age they are generally better informed than when I heard this from Shihan Davenport.
We must provide our students with the most accurate information we can and guide them along the path to the best of our ability. Our responsibility is to help them understand what martial arts is. We must always be true to ourselves, our teachers, and our training. Of course, it's possible to misuse or abuse the position and mislead or manipulate students out of some egotistical impulse. The students won't know any better (again, in this info rich age, they may figure it out at some point but the premise is still valid).

Going back to my previous comment about being role models. Some students put their instructors on pedestals—which pretty much guarantees the instructor will stumble & fall off at some point. Instructors are as human as the next person. However, since martial arts is, in a very literal way, "what we tell them it is" we have a responsibility represent the endeavor well and help others find the same passion and benefits that we ourselves have found in our own training.

That is why I teach.

I can attribute, directly or indirectly, everything in my life I label as "positive" (with very few exceptions) to my training in the martial arts. Martial arts have enriched my life and given me rewards beyond measure. I teach because I want to help other people find similar benefits/enrichment in their own lives. In fact, on top of my sheer love of teaching, I feel a current of obligation to use my training to "pay it forward." If I can have a positive impact on just one life then it's like a pebble thrown into a pond. The ripples can influence many fish and if the influence is positive then the resulting ripples will be positive and, in this way, my little pebble can have a positive effect on many people. It's a powerful and, for me, motivational thing to realize. It keeps me humble and makes me proud. It keeps me excited about what I do and excitement is one of the keys, if not the key to longevity both as a martial artist and in life.

I would sum up teaching in these five words: live, laugh, love, grow, share. Do those things and everything else should fall into place.

The Wandering Guru

"True teachers are those who use themselves as bridges over which they invite their students to cross; then, having facilitated their crossing, joyfully collapse, encouraging them to create their own." — Nikos Kazantzakis

Monday, May 4, 2015

Sanctified and Kiai-ed

Years of old school training instilled within me a belief in a pure art/system. At some point, though, I had an epiphany. I looked into the history of what I studied and, to varying extents, other martial arts. I realized there is no such a thing, in this day and age, as a pure art/system.

Every martial art system I know any of the history of was influenced by an older art/system. Yes, there are plenty of arts/systems I'm unfamiliar with but I do have at least a passing familiarity with the history of a lot of arts/systems from around the world.

Further and, in my estimation, more importantly, every art/system has been influenced by other arts/systems. Some were influenced directly, the way that "Okinawa-Te" was directly influenced when Kanryo mixed it with his training in Chinese martial arts and, ultimately, developed "Karate."

Other arts/systems were influenced indirectly. Originally, martial arts were developed to fight other people. You can't interact with someone, even in a fight, without being influenced by them. Period. So the people/art/system they were training to fight against influenced the development of their own art/system.

Sometimes—very often, in fact—you get mixtures like the Filipino martial arts. Some were directly influenced by Spanish methods. Others were influenced by the Spanish or Portugese or whoever else they were fighting.

There is no such thing as a pure art/system.

Tangential to the concept of a pure art/system is the idea that an art/system can be considered somehow sacred. People like to set their martial arts training apart and, usually, above their training in other endeavors. There is no difference between teaching/training music or dance or sports and teaching/training martial arts. None.

The only thing sacred about an art or system is how you view it in your heart. The benefits it gives you. But that is also true of music or dance or whatever. Sacred is completely subjective.

So you know where I'm coming from terminology-wise, here are definitions for the terms I'm using:
  • art: a broad category of systems, usually defined by geographical region (Filipino arts, Chinese arts, etc.) but sometimes defined by primary methodology (grappling arts, striking arts, etc.)
  • system: a specific curriculum
  • style: an individual's personal expression of what s/he has trained

So, by my definitions, neither an art nor a style can be taught. One is too general, the other is too personal. Only systems can be taught. A system is just a curriculum. It's just a path for a student to walk. It's designed for the instructor to illustrate concepts, principles, pitfalls, etc.

Just like teaching music. Each teacher uses a curriculum designed by him/herself or one dictated by the school where they teach. One curriculum isn't any better than another. Each has strengths and weaknesses. Each has merit. Some teachers will teach a particular curriculum better than they might another. Some students will be better suited for one curriculum than another. Nothing "sacred" at all.

Martial arts systems are no different. When I tell people I developed my own system they think I've either (a) gone off the deep end because no one can just develop their own system, that's only for grandmasters—and, of course, they have some imaginary and subjective requirements for that role too—or (b) they think I'm delusional or "too big for my britches" or whatever.

Every system was, at some point, developed by some person. I would wager, every time the person faced the same sorts of responses when people found out about it. Over time, some people opened their mind—or open minded people saw it—and started taking it seriously. Over time people started looking at it and saying, "Yes. It's valid." Over time people started training in it and sooner or later it gained credibility. The system itself didn't change, just the perception of it. A few decades later and it's become an accepted system and it's considered traditional.

One of the most famous examples of this is Jun Fan/JKD. Bruce Lee developed the system of Jun Fan and the philosophy of JKD based on his training in Wing Chun, his experiences fighting, and his exposure to various other martial arts. When he first started coming out with it he had plenty of naysayers. Now no one gives the idea of training JF/JKD a second thought. Of course it's worthwhile.

All systems, at some point, were new. There's nothing special or sacred about any of them. The only thing special or sacred is what you bring to it internally but, again, that's true of any endeavor you undertake.

The only thing truly sacred in martial arts training is the fellowship and camaraderie. The friendships and bonds formed during training. Those are things I consider sacred aspects of martial arts—and I suspect most people would agree. The system, organization, art, material taught, etc. are all superficial expressions.

The Wandering Guru

“Every path through the woods is sacred to someone. No path is better than any other. They all lead somewhere valuable, even if it’s not a place you recognize as important.” — Guru Mike Casto

Dolphin Distress: Wandering Guru’s Plight

This guru's wanderings were brought to an abrupt halt at 1:30 AM on Sunday, May 3, 2015.  Now I'm all but stranded and effectively homeless.

In March, I bought an RV. It's a 21' Toyota Dolphin. It had some issues but seemed mechanically solid. In fact, to quote the mechanic who did a tune-up and looked everything over, "That thing's in *awesome* shape! It's barely broken in. Go put some miles on it and have fun."

Apparently, "put some miles on it" didn't mean ~1,000 miles in a week on mountain grades.

The Dolphin stalled out on I-84 E, just north of the Utah border.

At first, I assumed the alternator had gone out. It seemed the most likely culprit. I got towed to Tremonton, UT.

None of the garages were open on Sunday, of course, but O'Reilly Auto Parts was. I went and bought an alternator and attempted to replace it myself.

My minimal mechanical aptitude wasn't up to the task so I had pizza, watched a movie, and went to bed to wait for the garage to open on Monday morning.

The mechanic tested the alternator and it was fine. We jump started it and an ominous banging arose from the engine. The mechanic grimaced. "That's bad. And we don't handle anything that bad."

Here's the bottom line. I need to take the Dolphin to another garage and they need to replace the engine. Estimated cost is $4,000.

My wife and I are scrambling and scraping to come up with the money, not to mention trying to figure out how to meet my commitments over the next few weeks if I don't have a vehicle. And since I live in the RV, I'm also effectively homeless until it gets repaired.

I'll be able to fly to Atlanta to fulfill my commitments there and, hopefully, the Dolphin can be road-ready by the time I fly back next week.

Any donations will be deeply appreciated. Thanks in advance.

The Wandering Guru

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Hot Coals

Today, I sat in a left turn lane for well over five minutes as a stream of cars passed. After about three minutes a car behind me started honking. He held his horn in a solid blare for at least two minutes.

Bear in mind, I was driving a twenty-one foot RV. If I had been driving a regular car, or even a small pickup, there were several breaks in the traffic I might have managed. The RV is not built for acceleration and twenty-one feet requires a sizable gap to safely maneuver.

So there's this guy behind me sitting on his horn. He couldn't see around me, but the constancy of the traffic stream should have been obvious. I can only assume he was blinded by his frustration.

When a large enough break opened, I turned. A few miles later--in a no passing zone--a gray sedan blew past me. The driver, man in his early twenties, glared back over his shoulder at me, not bothering to watch the road. Luckily, no oncoming traffic greeted him.

The whole time he honked, I smiled. As he glared at me, I smiled. I couldn't have done anything differently. This poor young man caused all sorts of stress in his own mind and body, broke a law when he passed me, and could have wound up in a wreck for his trouble. I hope he felt vindicated. I hope he gained some satisfaction from his actions.

I was amused and somewhat bewildered by the whole thing. Not surprised. I've seen similar things before. Situations like this still puzzle me a bit. I can't imagine going through life with that kind of stress looming around every curve in the road or just over the horizon.


The Wandering Guru

"Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned." -- The Buddha

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Thus I have heard ...

Religion: noun the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods
  • a particular system of faith and worship
  • a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance
I often hear Buddhism referred to as a religion. I suppose, according to the third definition above—a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance—it fits the definition in a very technical way. In my understanding of Buddhism, though, there is no faith.

Buddhism, in my understanding, is agnostic. I know some branches of Buddhism are more religious than others but I take much of my perspective on Buddhism from the Parable of the Poisoned Arrow.

When asked metaphysical questions—questions about the afterlife or the nature of the world or similar—the Buddha remained silent. A monk named Melankyaputta approached the Buddha one day and asked him point-blank about these things. He said, "If I do not receive a satisfactory answer, I will renounce your teachings."

The Buddha responded, "Asking such questions is like a man, shot with a poisoned arrow, telling the surgeon, ‘Before you remove this arrow and neutralize the poison, I need to know who shot me. What kind of bow did they use? Were they of the warrior caste?' The man may die before these questions can be answered. Is it not better to have the arrow removed and the poison neutralized now?"

The parable explains that there are no immediate answers to the metaphysical questions. In fact, for many of them, no one can answer them from knowledge. Further, having the answers won't improve the current situation. It makes more sense to deal with the questions and problems in the moment, things which can be answered and addressed.

Another indication of the agnostic nature of Buddhism:

Do not accept any of my words on faith, Believing them just because I said them. Be like an analyst buying gold, who cuts, burns, And critically examines his product for authenticity. Only accept what passes the test By proving useful and beneficial in your life. — The Buddha (Jnanasara-samuccaya)

The Buddha didn't say, "Have faith in my teachings and accept my words as truth." He admonished people to analyze and apply critical thinking. Coupled with the Parable of the Poisoned Arrow, among other teachings I have read or heard from various sources, I interpret the teachings in this way:
  • Don't take anything on faith.
  • Apply critical thinking to everything.
  • Focus on the present.
  • The present contains all the seeds for the future.
  • We can't directly affect the future, but we can influence it and, to a large degree, shape its course by our actions in the present.
  • Be mindful, compassionate, and loving in the present and your future will tend toward the same path.
  • If something doesn't jibe with your personal experience, it's suspect.
  • Don't necessarily discard it out of hand; sometimes you're not ready for the lesson, but the lesson is still valid.
  • If it doesn't jibe with your personal experience, set it aside for future consideration.
In no way am I saying faith or religion is bad. I'm sharing my understanding of Buddhism so people who know me can understand me better. If others find useful nuggets in my thoughts, awesome.

The Wandering Guru

"There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting." — The Buddha

Monday, March 2, 2015

A Waste of Time

In 1998, I attended a seminar with a world-renowned martial artist. This man had over fifty years of training under his belt, had used his training to protect himself and others in life threatening situations.

To kick off the seminar, he had us assume a standing posture and breathe. My memory says we did standing meditation for about ten minutes, but I could be wrong so I'll just say "a while."

Afterward, the instructor asked the attendees what they thought about the exercise. A young man raised his hand. This guy was in his late twenties and had less than five years of training. The instructor said, "Yes? What did you think?"

The guy said, "I thought it was a waste of time."

The instructor, to his credit, said, "Good! If it has no use for you, throw it out."

I, however, as a senior student of the hosting school, was upset. This instructor had been training nearly twice as long as the student had lived, and at least ten times longer than the student had trained. Personally, if someone with that much more background than I have tells me something has value, I'm not going to argue. If I can't see the value, I assume it's a failing in my understanding, not in the material.

The student's statement seemed like the height of disrespect and ignorance to me.

That's not to say I believe students should blindly follow what an instructor teaches. Critical thinking is vital. The problem here wasn't that he questioned the lesson. The problem was that he dismissed it out of hand. He hadn't applied any critical thinking to it. He couldn't, at that point in his training, see the value of it, so he dismissed it as "a waste of time."

If he had said, "I don't understand the lesson. Can you explain why you had us do it, and what we gained, or should have gained?" I wouldn't have had a problem with it. That's an example of questioning with a goal toward critical thinking. It's not a dismissal.

Guru Ken Pannell, my primary instructor, used to have a policy. If he overheard someone say, "I don't like [insert a drill, exercise, technique]." That [drill, exercise, technique] would be the only thing that student would work. He’d keep them working it until they got it.

People often claim dislike for things they don't understand. It's new to them and they feel awkward with it so they claim they don't like it or it doesn't work. You can't judge something's validity until you understand it. You can't understand it without developing it.

If you find yourself thinking, "This doesn't work." or "This is garbage." or "This is a waste of time." or "I don't like this." you should check yourself to make sure you're not falling into this trap. Before you discard it, ask yourself, "Have I worked this enough to develop it? Have I developed it enough to make an accurate assessment of its merit, at least for myself?" If the answer is no then you've just cut your work out for yourself. Develop until you understand, and if it still doesn't work for you, or you still don't like it, then you should be able to express specifics about why it doesn't work for you or you don't like it. If you can't explain the why then you haven't developed it enough.

If someone with decades of experience more than you says something has value, don't dismiss it out of hand. The failing is probably in your perception, not in the material or their teaching. You can question it, but don't dismiss it until you develop it and understand it.

The Wandering Guru

"Mediocre minds usually dismiss anything which reaches beyond their own understanding." — Francois de la Rochefoucauld

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Comics for Grown Ups

No, I'm not talking about "Adult Comics." Get your mind out of the gutter. I'm talking about comics. The regular comics we all grew up with. Marvel and DC are the giants, but there are plenty of other publishers. Adults often ignore comics because they're for kids.

Tangential to this, adults often overlook anything for kids—be it comics, young adult fiction, children's fiction, animated movies, etc.

The fact people overlook is these stories are written by adults. The conflicts are as valid as those in any other fiction. Some aspects—language, violence, and sexuality—are toned down for obvious reasons, but the underlying truth of the story remains.

And fiction is truth. It's not factual, but it is truth. It's as true as any non-fiction. In fiction, the truth puts on makeup and costumes and works on a stage, but the trappings don't make it any less true.

Here I'm going to talk about a comic book. Specifically, The Amazing Spider-Man #537 (Published in March 2007).

When I was a kid, Spidey was one of my favorite heroes. One of the few titles I collected. As I got older, I stopped collecting. In part, my decision was financial. I lived alone, worked several jobs to make ends meet and to afford things I wanted to do. Comics became a very low priority. And, yes, I admit, part of the decision stemmed from my own belief that comics were for kids.

My brother, Rick, kept his interest in comics. It waned a bit for financial reasons, but he always kept his hand in. I lost count of the number of times I helped him move his large comic collection.

Back in 2006, Rick mentioned the Civil War storyline to me. In it, a group of children are killed when a super-powered villain named Nitro explodes near a school. The public outrage prompts the government to require superheroes to register. This causes a rift in the superhero community.

Iron Man and Reed Richards register. For them, it's simple. Their identities are already known. For others, like Spider-Man, who have gone to extreme lengths to keep their identities hidden for very good reasons, the decision is less clear cut.

Captain America, whose identity is public, decides not to register. He believes it runs counter to the ideals America was founded on, the ideals he vowed to uphold and protect.

After a lengthy discussion, Iron Man convinces Spidey to go public. After doing so, Spidey realizes it was a mistake when he finds out about the prison where the unregistered heroes are detained. He publicly argues against the registration and the treatment of the heroes in the prison and joins Cap.

The government tasks Iron Man, Reed Richards, and the rest of the registered heroes with hunting down and capturing the non-registered heroes who are now considered outlaws.

Stop and think about this storyline so far. It's not really about superheroes. It's about a knee jerk reaction on the part of the public prompting the government to have a knee jerk of their own. The government institutes a law to try to fix the problem, never even considering other options. The law is discriminatory and restricts the freedom of a specific segment of the population. Take out the superheroes and we could be talking about the start of the American Civil War, WWII, or gun control. Fiction is truth.

Oh, and as I understand it, Captain America 3 (movie) will be based on this storyline, too. Yay!

Ahem. I have strayed down a tangential path. Please follow me back to my original train of thought.

Comics are just for kids. Bah. I never understood the fallacy of that statement as profoundly as when I read a discussion between Spidey and Cap just after Spidey publicly argued against the registration act. After a discussion about how the media spun Spidey's presentation to turn attention away from the prison and focus on Spidey as a traitor, Spidey says to Cap, "They've got you pegged as a Benedict Arnold and a traitor to the American cause."

Spidey then asks, "When the whole country is against you ... when it's all bearing down on you like some kind of ten-ton weight, and you don't know your own heart anymore sometimes—." He breaks off, removing his mask. "How does someone like you deal with it? I mean, you practically are the country. How does the man who is the country react when the country goes a different way?"

Cap tells Spidey, "I was just a kid ... a million years ago, it seems sometimes. Maybe twelve. I was reading Mark Twain. And he wrote something that struck me right down to my core ... something so powerful, so true, that it changed my life. I memorized it so I could repeat it to myself, over and over across the years. He wrote—"

In a republic, who is 'the country?'
Is it the government which is for the moment in the saddle? Why? the government is merely a temporary servant; it cannot be its prerogative to determine what is right and what is wrong, and decide who is a patriot and who isn't. Its function is to obey the orders, not originate them.
Who, then, is 'the country?' Is it the newspaper? Is it the pulpit? Why, these are mere parts of the country, not the whole of it; they have not command, they have only their little share in the command.
In a monarchy, the king and his family are the country; in a republic, it is the common voice of the people. Each of you, for himself, by himself and on his own responsibility, must speak.
It is a solemn and weighty responsibility, and not lightly to be flung aside at the bullying of the pulpit, press, government, or the empty catchphrases of politicians.
Each must for himself alone decide what is right and what is wrong, and which course is patriotic and which isn't. You cannot shirk this and be a man.
To decide it against your convictions is to be an unqualified and inexcusable traitor, both to yourself and to your country. Let men label you as they may.
If you alone of all the nation shall decide one way, and that way be the right way according to your convictions of the right, you have done your duty by yourself and by your country. Hold up your head. You have nothing to be ashamed of.

Cap ends this recitation of his memories and concludes with his own summary.

Doesn't matter what the press says. Doesn't matter what the politicians or the mobs say. Doesn't matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is something right.
This nation was founded on one principle above all else: the requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences.
When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world
— "No. You move."

I won't lie. When I read this passage, looking at the panels of Captain America delivering this lecture, I was moved. A few tears found their way from my eyes. Even now, writing this, my vision is a bit blurred.

Now, obviously, there's a flaw in this mix. Just because you have conviction doesn't mean your beliefs are right. Within the context of the comic's storyline, the right and wrong were defined like the facets of a well-cut diamond. It's rare in our daily lives that things are so cut-and-dry.

This doesn't negate the essential truth of this passage. It just means we need to be apply critical thinking to all of our convictions and beliefs.

Before I go, I'll take a sojourn down another tangent. When I first read this lecture by Cap, and again as I'm writing this, it reminds me of a story from WWII.

I heard this from Lt. Col. David Grossman during his Bulletproof Mind lecture. Americans were retreating in terror through a forest, pursued by Nazi SS. Reserves and paratroopers were called in to stop the Nazi advance under very difficult conditions.

Grossman: And this is a true story. There was a photographer there, and a reporter there, and what happened was this. There's one American tank, 30 tons of death, fleeing down the road, and this one lonely paratrooper walks out in the middle of the road. And he's got hollow, sunken eyes, three days growth of beard, an M1 dangling from his hand and a bazooka on his shoulder. He walks up and stops the tank and looks at the tank commander.
He says, "Buddy, are you looking for a safe place?"
The tank commander says, "Yes."
The paratrooper says, "Then get behind me because I'm the 82nd Airborne Division and this is as far as the bastards are going to get."

The Wandering Guru

"No. You move." — Captain America, The Amazing Spider-Man #537

Monday, February 9, 2015

Meditate On This

At twenty-three, my exposure to meditation consisted of a couple of minutes at the beginning and end of martial arts classes. We sat in seiza or lotus position, closed our eyes, and were admonished to meditate on our goals for training or the lesson we'd learned in class.

These experiences left me with, at best, a superficial understanding of meditation. I didn't understand how valuable meditation could be, or how it could relate to fighting. Never mind the effect it could have on quality of life.

My Sikal instructor, Guru Ken Pannell, opened the door into deeper understandings of meditation and invited me to explore. In this article, I'm going to share what he taught me along with understandings I have attained in my own explorations. A good teacher tells you how to get somewhere and what to expect along the path. A great teacher points the way and lets you find your own truth. One of the many reasons I am glad to have had Guru Ken as my primary instructor was his ability to point the way without getting in the way.

A Beautiful Flower

Many types of meditation can be found around the world. Some have you focus on an image, some on your breath, some on nothingness, some on a mantra or invocation, many combine some of these. Personally, I also consider prayer a form of meditation which uses [insert your name for God] as the focus. All the methods I'm familiar with use some sort of focus.

Regardless of what your specific focus is, imagine it as a dot. Visualize it. As you meditate, you focus on that dot. It is your target. You try to remain focused there, but notice your mind has drifted. Sometimes it's even drifted into thoughts about focusing on the dot. You drag your focus kicking and screaming back to the dot.

Now imagine that, as your focus wanders, it draws a line. As you drag it back to center, it draws a line. See how this forms a petal type shape emanating from the central focus point.


What you end up with is a flower. I like to visualize this as a daisy with a prominent yellow center surrounded by white petals. If you mapped your meditation, it would look something like this flower.

Flawed Focus

A common mistake people make is to focus on the center.

I hear you thinking, “Wait, Guru Mike! I thought focusing on the center was the goal of the meditation."

No. It is the method of meditation, not the goal. People often make that mistake, see it as the goal, and ignore the petals. They get frustrated with themselves because they have so many petals. They get frustrated within the meditation when they realize they have drifted and formed a petal. They look at the flower formed by an hour of meditation and they see fifteen minutes of time spent in the center. Did they only meditate for fifteen minutes? Some think so.

This mindset is flawed. The petals are part of the meditation. They are part of the process. In fact, as counterintuitive as it sounds, I consider the petals the most important aspect of the meditation. If you discount them or ignore them, you turn your back on the true value of meditation. Among those petals resides the goal of meditation.

The Value Of The Petals

The center is the focus of our meditation. The goal is growth. I don't meditate to stay in the center. I meditate to grow and develop in some way.

Think of weight lifting. If you lift light weight and low reps you never challenge yourself. You never challenge your muscles. If you never challenge them, they don't develop. This is true of everything in life. We don't grow and develop by taking the easy road. We grow and develop by challenging ourselves, or facing challenges presented to us.

I'm not sure anyone ever loses the petals in their meditation. I think if you could see the flower formed by the world's most accomplished meditator, you might not be able to see any petals. If you asked him, though, he would say, "Yes. There are petals. See?” and he would point to what looks like a fuzzy line around the edge of the center. His petals are so tiny they seem negligible to you or me, but he can clearly see the petals. He knows his mind wandered in his meditation. It didn't wander far, but it did wander. This is conjecture on my part, I could be wrong. Maybe some people are able to meditate without ever wandering. I would postulate, their lack of petals indicates a lack of challenge, so they're no longer growing and developing. If such people exist, maybe they should start meditating with a two year old in the room who randomly bops them in the head with a pillow during their meditation. Add some challenge to it to find more growth and development.

A Funny Story About Challenges And Growth

Years ago, I read a story—maybe factual, maybe not—about a senior Buddhist monk, Bhante Adam, who visited a monastery as a guest instructor. The monk, elderly and frail, brought a servant with him. The young man, Todd, served with loyalty and helped Bhante Adam in every way necessary. But ... he complained constantly. His arrogance made him rude, and he frustrated and annoyed everyone around him. His rudeness even extended to Bhante Adam, but Bhante Adam seemed oblivious to all Todd's failings so the abbot of the monastery sat with Bhante Adam.

The abbot said, "Bhante, your servant Todd is rude, arrogant, and disrespectful to all around him. I've even seen him be rude to you. I know he serves you well, but his behavior is unacceptable. I don't know if you're somehow unaware of his actions, or willfully ignorant, but you need to talk to him or send him away. Any of our monks, including myself, would happily serve you in Todd's place."

Bhante Adam's eyes filled with sadness as he considered his esteemed host. "Abbot, I have never been a patient or tolerant man. Overcoming this failure in my character has served as my principal challenge for several years, but it is a stubborn habit. When you invited me here to teach, I thought, 'In a monastery filled with devout monks, I will find little chance to challenge myself in this area.' I brought Todd specifically because he does frustrate me. He is my challenge. Now I see, though, that I need not have bothered. Each day I find more and more things about your monastery to challenge my tolerance."

The Value Of Meditation In Life

Meditation provides us with a method to practice being present. Being present, in the here and now, is the only way to perceive reality, to see past the illusions of everyday life, to recognize the interconnected nature of everything. I've never had more than a glimpse of this, but even a glimpse is profound and life changing. In those few moments, I was fully awake, fully "enlightened."

To look at the morning sky and, for a single unmeasurable moment, see everything. It happens in the moment before you start labeling things. Before you start telling yourself a story about how beautiful the sky is. About the streaks of orange washing through the blue and white, coloring the horizon and the world around you. That moment can only occur in the present. By the time you realize you experienced it, it has passed. The experience happens at an unconscious level.

Through the practice of meditation, we get better and better at being present. Better and better at experiencing the present. Meditation offers a concrete method to practice an abstract experience. I can't explain the experience I've had in a meaningful way because as soon as I begin explaining, I am labeling and objectifying the experience. I'm not telling you about the experience, I'm telling you what I think or feel about the experience.

If you have experienced it then you have your own experience as a reference point. If you haven't experienced it then the analogy about that moment before you label the image as "dawn" is the closest I can get to an explanation. The second-closest would be to say, "Om." and leave it up to you to find.

The Value Of Meditation In Martial Arts

In our daily life, we tend to focus on either the future or the past. We rarely focus on the present. When you're in the shower, you think about what you're going to have for breakfast. When you're eating breakfast, you think about what your work day looks like. When you're driving to work, you think about what you're doing after work. These are examples of future focus.

While sitting at your desk at work, you think about the argument you had with your friend yesterday or the football game you saw on TV last night. These are examples of past focus.

In our day-to-day life, things tend to happen at a slow enough pace that there's little detriment to not being present. Sometimes we get yanked into the present, maybe when the car in front of you on the interstate slams on their brakes, or you twist your ankle and fall while walking into a gas station. Suddenly, life is rushing headlong at you, and you have to respond now. In general, though, being non-present doesn't pose major problems as we move through the average day.

Martial arts, at least in part, is about dealing with high level stress. Most of you thought I was going to say it's about fighting, right? Few things are more stressful than a fight, especially a life-threatening fight. But martial arts helps prepare us for high stress situations, including fighting. I'll use fighting as my point of reference, but keep in mind this is as relevant to those brake lights in front of you as it is to fighting.

A fight is pure chaos, completely dynamic. The nature of a fight can change in a fraction of a blink of an eye. One moment you're dominating, the next you're struggling not to get knocked out. The fight doesn't happen in the future or in the past. It happens right here, right now. If you're focused on looking good in front of your friends then you're not here in the fight. If you're focused on whatever started the fight then you're in the past. If you're focused on what you'll do if the police get involved then you're in the future. None of that matters, none of it is helpful in this moment in the fight. On the plus side, your opponent is probably doing something similar and isn't present either.

However, I don't train in martial arts to put myself on equal footing with my opponent. Any advantage I can get, I'll take, and being present is a huge advantage.

Meditation, then, is the mental equivalent of sparring. Sparring teaches our body what to do, what to expect, how to cope with the stress of fighting. Meditation is a way to train our mind to its part under stress.

Sitting Is Boring

Most people hear the word "meditation" and picture someone, or themselves, seated on the floor with legs crossed, hands in lap, and eyes closed. Seated meditation is, of course, a form of meditation. Some people with more understanding realize that practices like Tai Chi can be done as a form of moving meditation. Few people, in my experience, realize that meditation can be done almost anytime, almost anywhere.

I don't think I can do any better service to this part of the topic than to offer a quote from one of my sources of inspiration and understanding. Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, teacher, author, poet and peace activist. He lives in the Plum Village Monastery in the Dordogne region in the South of France, travelling internationally to give retreats and talks. I have had the immense honor to attend one of his talks. His writings have helped me find a much deeper understanding of ... living.

In The Miracle of Mindfulness, he wrote:

If while washing dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not "washing the dishes to wash the dishes." What's more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes. In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can't wash the dishes, the chances are we won't be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future—and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.

After much consideration, I recognized an implied truth in Thich Nhat Hanh's statement. If you're present with the dishes then nothing exists but you and the dishes. That cup of tea doesn't exist in this moment. Imagine being locked in a room with no windows, no way out, no distractions, nothing but you and the dirty dishes. You might spend some time wishing you weren't locked up, but eventually you realize it's just you and the dishes. You can choose to not wash the dishes, but they will still be sitting there. Or you can choose to wash the dishes. If you choose to wash the dishes then you can choose to enjoy the activity or not. Often, people choose not to enjoy it because they would rather be doing something else. If there is nothing else then you're left with the simple choice of enjoying it or not. With that simple choice, it makes no sense to choose to dislike the task.

Once I internalized this lesson, I was able to find enjoyment in any task or chore I chose to do. From dishes, to cleaning the house, to commuting to work.

Now I'm going to extend this lesson in two directions.

First, to seated meditation. If you think seated meditation is boring, it's probably because you'd rather be doing something else. If you apply the lesson above then you're left with two choices. Choose to meditate or not. If you choose to meditate then choose to enjoy it and revel in it, or choose to find it boring.

Second, if you're able to be present before sitting down to meditate then you're already meditating before you sit down. You're already present. When you internalize this understanding, you might as well go do dishes because, if you're present, that's as much a form of meditation as sitting and focusing on the center of your flower.


Throw out your preconceived notions about meditation. See it as the powerful tool it is. Recognize the choices you have about it. Choose to do it or not. If you do, you might as well choose to enjoy it. If you enjoy it, then you might as well choose to do it. Nice bit of circular logic, I know, but circles and cycles are vital to life.

The Wandering Guru

"In mindfulness one is not only restful and happy, but alert and awake. Meditation is not evasion; it is a serene encounter with reality." — Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation