Thursday, May 24, 2007

Developing Personal Qualities 2: Self-Discipline

I see the exercise of self-discipline as a composite of the following personal qualities:
  • Drive
  • Patience
  • Persistence
  • Imagination
Exercising self-discipline requires and strengthens these qualities.

Self-Discipline: Who Needs It?
If I find an activity pleasurable or interesting then I have no need of self-discipline to persist. It is when an activity is painful or boring that self-discipline comes into play.

Of course there is another option: Avoidance. A fair question to ask is, "Why am I doing this?" If the answer is "For a greater goal" (e.g. future pleasure, avoidance of pain, financial reward, ambition, helping out a friend, raising a child) I might just need to call on self-discipline to help me.

So I need self-discipline with respect to an activity when:
  1. The activity is not pleasurable
  2. I nevertheless have good reason to carry it out
Getting Smart about Self-Discipline
The first trick is to make the new activity part of your routine. For example, I brush my teeth after breakfast and before I go to bed. You can piggy-back other non-pleasurable activities onto existing routine. This makes them seem "nothing special" and you relieve yourself of the burden of "making time" to do something unappealing.

The second trick is to apply one's creativity to minimize the boredom or pain, and increase the interest and pleasure.

A third trick is to take advantage of the social effects of positive peer pressure. For example, in taking up a martial art such as jiu-jitsu, the major initial act of self-discipline is making it to class regularly (routine!) and applying yourself diligently. Once you are in class you will be swept along by the example of the instructor and senior students, and motivated to do your best by the desire to improve and to help your fellow students.

Case Study: The Horse Stance
In Jiu-Jitsu formal stances are typically used transitionally, and are learned in the context of actual application. For example, in this photo I am applying a reverse-armbar -- a restraint and control technique -- from a horse-riding stance:
From here I could take Adam down to the ground or move into a more mobile lock to better escort him to the local police station. Either way I would not need to stay in this position for very long.

By contrast, in training in a Chinese martial art such as Hung Kuen Chinese Boxing (a Southern Shaolin style) stance training -- i.e. holding stances statically for significant periods of time -- is a core part of training. Of all stances, the horse stance is generally regarded as the most fundamental.

Here is Adam in the orthodox Hung Kuen horse stance:

Now, anyone who has ever tried to hold a horse stance for a period of time will know that it is not pleasurable! In fact, folk law has it that the horse stance is a device best used by cruel martial arts teachers to test a student's commitment or punish him (or her) for misdeeds.

But: I have it on good authority that learning to hold a horse stance for long periods will significantly improve several aspects of one's martial art. [Apparently, it used to be the case that students of Hung Kuen first had to learn to stand in horse stance for half-an-hour before being taught any other forms or techniques!]

The Twenty Minute Horse Stance Challenge
So I have recently set myself the slightly more modest challenge of learning to stand in horse stance for twenty minutes. Given that most people will wilt in under a minute the first time they attempt a horse stance, this is a substantive goal which cannot be achieved by will-power or bravado alone. In fact, I aim to get the most out of the challenge by not purely increasing my pain-tolerance and will-power, but by learning how to stand more effectively and relaxedly in horse stance.

So this challenge fits the bill of not being pleasurable, but something that I wish to do in the service of a greater goal (developing as a martial artist). The exciting bit is that there will be other benefits that I will discover through the course of the journey.

Update (January 2009): For a different spin on stance-holding see Dojo Rat's post on standing meditation. He discusses somewhat less physically demanding stances, but longer durations. This comment by Jose de Freitas is particularly informative.

My approach
Most mornings I get up very early and do around 45 minutes of solo Chinese Boxing practice before breakfast work or family time.

While engaging in the challenge I do the standard warm-ups and then sit in horse stance for "a period of time". I do this immediately after the warm-ups to get straight into it and avoid the temptation to not work on the challenge today. It also contributes a degree of stability to my routine and allows me to feel purposeful (and a little bit virtuous).

At first my plan was to count a standard number of breaths to help estimate the time-in-stance and ratchet up the number of breaths on a weekly basis, but interestingly I found that with daily practice my breathing rate slowed down considerably. First benefit: Improved awareness of breathing and increased relaxation under the stress of holding the stance.

Every week or two I plan to time how long I can stand so that I can quantify my progress.

After completing the stance I do some other training activities -- typically empty-hand or weapons sets -- and intersperse these with other horse-stance related exercises, such as punching in a horse-stance or "holding the ball". I am also careful to train other stances a bit, such as cat-stance and forward stance. Second benefit: The other stances seem to be getting easier without particular effort.

You see, although I want to succeed in this challenge, the challenge is not an end-in-itself. I am interested to see how working my horse stance is affecting the other parts of my training, and what I can bring from other parts of my training into the crucible of the horse stance.

Although I have set a quantifiable goal -- a very Western thing to do -- the ultimate benefits may be more qualitative.

After sitting in horse stance for a while usually something starts to hurt. Having gotten through the simplistic "pain bad - avoid" attitude through years of martial arts training, I now distinguish between pain as a sign that something is wrong, and pain as a warning of imminent structural damage. In the case of horse stance it appears that the pain is telling me where I am holding tension and need to subtly change my posture. Third benefit: I am becoming more aware of habitual tensions and starting to work them out.

Update (September 2008): I have found that working with my breathing is a great help here. See my article on breathing, especially the part about breathing through your feet.

Sitting in horse stance has started to feel less boring. By simply accepting it as part of my routine -- like brushing and flossing my teeth -- I do not give myself the option of avoidance. As my familiarity with the stance increases I am becoming more attuned to my body while in the stance. It is no-longer boring because there is so much to observe and learn.

Hopefully more benefits will ensue. I am enjoying the challenge aspect, and am looking forward to consolidating the benefits that I am already experiencing. In fact, horse-stance training is starting to look like a super-efficient exercise.

Finally, having blogged about this, I have made the challenge more real, and feel honour-bound to give it my best shot, but sensibly, and on my own time-table.

Hmmm, I think that I had better stop writing now and get back on the horse!

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Developing Social Qualities - Part I: Trust

Kancho, the grand-master of my style said: "The Martial Arts begin with trust".

I had just given my first martial arts seminar on The Science of Judo, in which I likened the training hall to a laboratory for personal experimentation, and it was generally well-received. But Kancho was making a fundamental point: Without trust between student and instructor, and between training partners, there can be little learning.

When you first step into the world of martial arts you need to make the decision to trust your instructor. This is critical, not only to learn, but for your own safety and that of your training partners.

Training in the martial arts involves learning deliberately dangerous techniques which must be practiced safely:
  • There are throws: You need to learn to fall safely as quickly as possible, and to learn how to throw your partner safely
  • There are strikes: You need to learn how to strike safely so that you are learning proper technique and distancing, without damaging your partner when (s)he fails to evade or redirect the strike
  • There are joint-locks and strangles: You need to learn to apply these techniques slowly and gently, and when receiving signal submission when the technique takes effect and not be a hero by "toughing it out".
Maybe you are a skeptical person who thinks that trust must be earned and cannot be given. Then you should observe closely before joining a new class and ask yourself,
  • "Is this instructor trustworthy?", and
  • "Do the students trust each other?"
If the answer to either question is no, you should not join the class. If the answer is yes, then you can trust your own initial assessment and begin by trusting the instructor and your new class-mates.

Through on-going training, your trust for your instructor and training partners -- and their trust of you -- should grow, as you all practice in a sincere, safe and trustworthy manner.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Developing Personal Qualities - Part I: Resilience

Personal Development is a a fairly fuzzy concept. As a notion, I like it. Develop yourself in deep ways. But what does it mean?

We can make the concept more substantial by formulating a list of desirable qualities, and then look at how these can be developed in concrete ways. In doing so I will explore how the martial arts can act as a vehicle of personal development, not just in physical skills, but in mental, emotional, social, and -- I have to be careful here! -- spiritual dimensions.
The key idea is that the physical and social aspects of martial arts training lead in to the other dimensions.
Training physically, observing etiquette, and working with others act together to develop the individual as a whole.

Desirable qualities

If -- like me -- you are a parent of young children an easy way to come up with your own list of desirable list is to think about what qualities you would like your children to develop. [Be sure to include ones you would like to develop or further in yourself to avoid an exercise in narcissism.]

Other approaches are to think about the qualities that you admire in others, especially friends and your own role models. You can even make a game of it: What are your the top three admirable qualities?

You may wish to construct your own list independently at this point, before reading mine. Leave a comment if I have missed a quality that you hold in high esteem.

Here is my working list, ordered mostly according to whim:
  1. Resilience
  2. Perceptiveness
  3. Decisiveness
  4. Patience
  5. Humility
  6. Perspective
  7. Compassion
  8. Loyalty
  9. Honesty
  10. Reflection
  11. Scepticism
  12. Love of learning
  13. Sense of humor
This is my number one quality. Resilience, especially the dimension of mental toughness, is what gets you through when external circumstances conspire and you are hit with more than you you can handle. You may have all the qualities and skills in the world, but sometimes you just cannot hold your ground or get out of the way, and you get knocked down. In the words of the old and much-covered song Pick Yourself Up:
Now nothing's impossible,
I've found for when my chin is on the ground,
I pick myself up, dust myself off, and start all over again.
Life, with its slings and arrows, is kind of a school for resilience. Just wait for disaster to strike, and see how you cope. It will happen! "What does not kill you makes you stronger."

But can resilience be learned in a less chancy fashion? Organizations such as Outward Bound have quite a good recipe: Put people into new circumstances and give them challenges outside their comfort zones, but within their capability, and do it in a social group with competent leadership.

This description also applies to martial arts training:
  • The initially unfamiliar setting is the traditional training hall
  • The challenges are the physical techniques
  • The social group are the other beginners
  • The competent leadership is the instructor
Additionally, there is a physical metaphor for resilience in learning to fall correctly (an essential skill in martial arts that use throwing techniques). Each time that you are thrown to the mat you literally -- and repeatedly -- need to pick yourself up and start all over again. This is a metaphor, model and practice opportunity all rolled into one!

And there are many other benefits to learning correct falling technique.

* * *

I will look at how the other qualities listed are developed through martial arts training in future installments. Which reminds me of one more:

14. Persistence