Writers and Ritual – Bowing In

I heard some great advice recently, and it’s been working well for me this past week. It’s one of many useful practices from Ally Nathaniel’s “Productivity for Writers” session, in the Nonfiction Writers Conference (NFWC), a tremendously valuable presentation at this annual online event.

The idea is to create rituals to support your work. Simple things you do every time you write, habits that help you get into your focused flow state. Writing every day in the same place at the same time. Drinking coffee from your special writer’s mug. Listening to a certain kind of music, or a playlist of songs that work for you.

My Own Writer’s Rituals

So I put some thought into what my environment is like when I’m in a good flow for writing. When I just randomly walk into my office, listening to a podcast on my phone, I flip the overhead bare light bulb on and try to work, it feels like I’m only dropping by casually. Perching. I don’t settle in. I can’t seem to focus, and tend to wander off, either mentally, or physically. Maybe I should start my laundry, feed the cats, tidy up my desk…

So now I’m being more deliberate about it. I turn on three indirect “daylight” lights that create a whole different natural, open kind of energy to the space. I take my earbuds off, and set my phone on the charger instead of leaving it in my pocket. I put my favorite writing music on, playing through the speakers in my office.

It makes all the difference in feeling like I’ve settled into writing right from the start. Now I can achieve a flow in my work right away, rather than stumbling into that state randomly after hours of aimless fiddling around.

Bowing In

These actions are like bowing in. When we go to the dojo we put on our uniforms. Before we step onto the mat, in Aikido and other martial arts, we stop and bow. Those are rituals too–declarations of intent. Bowing in is a gesture of respect for the space, and it’s also an opportunity to set aside whatever daily concerns might be rattling around in our brains and commit to focusing on our training.

Bowing in works at the dojo. The same concept can be applied for writers in our work.

Ruthless Compassion – Resolution Without Apology

This is the eighteenth in this series of 26 posts, one for each letter of the alphabet, that I am writing during the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, April 2016. You can find all the posts, as they are published throughout the month, by following the A-to-Z April 2016 tag.   

R is for Ruthless.

When I first heard Sensei speak about “ruthless compassion” I was sure he was saying it backwards. He must have meant compassionate ruthlessness – tempering our ruthless nature by expressing compassion toward our partner. You know, that whole “protecting our attacker” thing we always hear about in Aikido. He kept saying it wrong, though. Weird, because he’s very articulate. He taught English for years. You’d think he wouldn’t mix it up like that.

I don’t know when it finally sunk in. At least two years into training. “Ohhh!” He meant exactly what he was saying. Ruthless compassion. It was just such a foreign concept to me that I couldn’t hear it.

So, what is ruthless compassion?

My current understanding of what Sensei means is that we can be absolutely clear, with no question about it, without becoming belligerent or aggressive, when taking charge in a situation. We can have boundaries, assert ourselves, and manage conflict while keeping our center. We can calmly, deliberately do what’s required to bring about a good outcome.

Remember that we can think of an attacker is as someone who has lost control, and is posing a danger to us, to others, or to himself or herself. The compassionate thing to do is to manage the situation, to get them safely under control. We can do this without hostility, and without hesitation. An act of compassion, performed ruthlessly.

An everyday example:

An example Sensei sometimes gives is that of firmly refusing to let one’s child eat cookies for dinner. Cookies are OK in their place, but aren’t a complete meal. Besides, the family is having salmon and vegetables tonight.

“No. You may not have cookies for dinner.”

That seems obvious enough. A direct, clear statement. And in this context it seems easy to to. The parent is responsible for the child’s welfare, and is in a position of authority. Of course they should not  let their kid have a dinner of just cookies. The parent is doing, without pity, what is best for the child.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“No” is a complete sentence.”
~ Anne Lamott
Author of many books, including “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

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For the sake of contrast, let’s look at a couple of alternative ways a parent could handle the kid who’s wanting cookies:

“But I went to all this trouble to make salmon and veggies, and I was hoping you’d like to have that.”

“No, you idiot! What are you thinking? Cookies aren’t dinner!”

You can see that neither of these would be an optimal way of communicating what’s going to happen with regard to cookies and dinner.

Clear, direct communication

Let’s hang out with verbal communication for the moment, since it’s an easy way to illustrate the concepts at work here. It’s plain that those aren’t the best responses when dealing with one’s child. How often do we find ourselves saying something similar in other contexts? At work, in traffic, in relationships?

“Oh, please be careful.” “You’re making me uncomfortable.” “I wish you wouldn’t” “Excuse me, uh, I was trying to say something.”

“Back off, you jerk!” “How dare you interrupt me!” “Do that again and I’ll bust your face.” “Where do you think you’re going?”

Both kinds of responses are inappropriate. One way is wimpy, whiny, and powerless. The other is angry, confrontational, and reactive. What if we could just be grounded and direct?

“Take your hand off me.” “I don’t discount my prices.” “Step away from my car.” “I’m speaking.” “No.”

For many of us, at least in some situations, directly expressing where we stand, without pleading or becoming argumentative, can be very uncomfortable. We haven’t had any experience with it. It feels awkward.

What if we could practice it somehow? Make it our default, natural response. Get it into our bones.

Practicing ruthless compassion in the dojo.

There are – of course, there always are – physical manifestations of these ways of dealing with conflict. Our physical presence is a kind of communication, more powerful than any spoken words. In reading the words above it’s easy to visualize the speakers in each case, and imagine their body language. Closed posture, eyes down, hands clasped, or leaning forward, red-faced, fists clenched.

These same habitual and inappropriate responses to conflict often reveal themselves on the mat.

Some of us may find ourselves hesitant to attack with conviction, or to take our partner’s balance (a critical component of most Aikido techniques). We may hold back, or feel unsure. We may not want to seem mean or rude, or we may be afraid of hurting or upsetting our partner. I have (many times) heard fellow students say “Oh, gosh, I’m sorry,” for simply executing a technique well, and throwing their partner with solid form and powerful energy. They are not used to asserting themselves, and don’t want to be a bother. It can be a shock to their system when they take decisive action.

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“It’s nice to be nice, but it can be extremely draining and self-destructive when it mutes our voice, holds us back, and undermines our authenticity.”
~ Arianna Huffington
On Becoming Fearless

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

When I started training I found it very difficult to be direct and strong without summoning anger to provide the motivation. I didn’t do the techniques with full commitment because the only way it felt right to be that sharp and clear with someone was to be mad at them, and I didn’t feel mad. The feedback I got from Sensei was that I was being tentative, or too careful. I was doing the Aikido version of “Gee, I do hope you’ll think about having something besides just cookies for dinner.” I couldn’t say straight up “This is what’s for dinner. Not cookies.”

Alternatively, we may find ourselves being forceful or pushy. We may notice that our attention is on getting the better of our partner, and “winning.” We may get reactive and aggressive when we perceive an attack, even in friendly training.

Noticing these dysfunctional tendencies on the mat gives us an opportunity to look and see if we are doing similar things elsewhere in life, too. Do we meekly give others’s needs priority over our own? Do we stand by and watch when we should step in and take charge? Do we bully our way through interactions, getting our way without concern for our affect on others?

By deliberately, consciously, mindfully training we can learn to practice techniques with assertive, clear energy. Ruthless energy. What’s more, we can do so while maintaining our compassionate goal of ending the threat while caring for our attacker. It is through such embodied practice in resolving conflict in a better way, that we can not only be more effective in our Aikido, but more effective in life.

Linda Eskin is a writer, Aikido student, personal trainer, horse person (with a pet donkey), and former software/web industry professional (tech comm and UX). She is currently completing two books for students of Aikido, one for children and one for adult beginners. Linda trains with Dave Goldberg Sensei at Aikido of San Diego, in California, and holds the first black belt rank, sho-dan. Sho-dan literally means “beginning rank.”

Training New Muscles, or Half-Halts in Real Life

Training New Muscles, or Half-Halts in Real Life

13 Days and Counting

I have 13 training days left before my 1st kyu exam on March 9th.

It’s been a very difficult week for me, personally, quite outside of my comfort zone. But I’ve been learning to deal with conflict in a way that benefits everyone. And isn’t that the whole point after all?

I’ve been training really hard, with a lot of focus, and things are starting to come together. I’m seeing more patterns, groupings, and relationships, rather than dozens of separate techniques. And I’m starting to find some new subtleties and details. It still seems like there’s a long way to go, but I’m basically feeling on track.

There’s quite a large group of us all training for exams on the same day – from 1st to 6th kyu. We’ve all been supporting each other and training together, which has been a fantastic experience. We’ve also had a great deal of help from our very generous yudansha, who have spent hours with us refining techniques, clearing up confusion, and polishing the rough spots. I’m feeling very fortunate indeed to have them!

Tomorrow, Sunday, we have another three-hour open-mat session in the afternoon. I want to focus on smoothing out some techniques that I basically understand, but haven’t gotten into muscle memory very well yet. Slow, smooth, relaxed, repetition. Breathing is important, I hear, too. 

Right now, though, I’m really tired, and looking forward to a hot bath and a good night’s rest.

Always trust your cape

I’ve been applying Aikido off the mat lately, in a big way. Feeling what’s actually happening, instead of imposing my interpretations or expectations. Blending with circumstances instead of fighting them. Seeing things from others’ points of view – and seeing others as cooperative partners, not in opposition. Keeping my center and integrity, speaking clearly and directly. Finding a resolution that leaves everyone in a better place. I’d be kind of impressed with myself for being so clever, except that it’s simply an effect of my Aikido training that I can’t not-do these things. Oh, I did plenty of resisting and fumbling around first, but ultimately the Aikido came through.

I’ll start with right now. So far this weekend has been absolutely wonderful. I am starting to decompress and breathe lately, and am getting caught up a little at a time.

Yesterday (Friday) afternoon I got checked for new glasses, which I need for an upcoming trip; my eyes aren’t happy about contacts lately. Then I had a couple of hours before going to dinner with family visiting from out of town, so I was able to putter in the yard, watering the native plants I put in months ago. Dinner was relaxed, and we all sat and talked and enjoyed each others’ company. Afterward, Michael and I went for a walk along the beach boardwalk at Coronado. Before bed I did some planning for upcoming projects I’m excited about getting started.

This morning I did a bit of writing on an idea that came to me while driving to the dojo. I’m getting over angry back muscles, so I just watched the first class and warmed up at the break. I was able to roll the length of the dojo and back, which was very encouraging. I participated in the second class – weapons. The 2nd-kyus and up had a great class on the first five kumi-jo, while the white belts went through the first 10 jo suburi.

After class I picked up food at the little farmers market store across from the dojo, and drove home eating bar-b-que potato chips. Not the best nutritional choice, but man were they good! This afternoon Michael and I used the tractor to take out dozens of accumulated trashcans of donkey manure, and filled our 3-yard dumpster to the brim. Later, he headed east with a friend to do some astronomy out where the skies are dark and the air is clear, and I went to a friend’s house to celebrate her birthday.

After coming home I picked up my guitar for the first time in many months, and discovered to my delight that not only can I still pretty much play the thing, but it’s easier than in the past because my arms and hands are stronger. I spent a few minutes watching our local mother raccoon and her babies eating on the back porch, and then I rinsed a huge handful of delicious cherries for a snack, and sat down to write this. And it’s still only Saturday. Bliss.

This pleasant, relaxed weekend isn’t something that Just Happened. A few months ago I was completely bogged down and overwhelmed. I was tired from working long hours for months, and frustrated because personal projects were piling up. I was falling behind on chores and house maintenance. I drove by my neglected plants on the way out the driveway, knowing I wouldn’t be able to tend to them any time soon. The neighbors dropped by to pick a bag of our amazing oranges, since we were just letting them fall and rot – they thought due to lack of interest, but really it was lack of daylight hours to pick them. The first time I noticed my bed of beautiful red Amaryllis flowers they had already bloomed and dried up and I missed seeing them at all. These are warning signs that things aren’t right. “Your life might be out of balance if…”

I couldn’t see a way to dig myself out, nevermind getting into a position to pursue some of my own work that’s really important to me, including writing. As you may have noticed, or maybe you even stopped noticing by now, I haven’t been writing much. Only a few gasps, coming up for air from time to time. 

I paid attention to what I was feeling, and finally recognized what was so: I was exhausted, frustrated, and burned out. I realized I was in a situation that didn’t work for me. Seeing something clearly that way is like seeing a hidden image in a drawing – once you’ve noticed it, you can’t not see it; it’s right there. I was being pulled in too many directions. I wasn’t able to focus or do my best work. I wasn’t happy at all. Once I saw that, I stopped trying to deny it, minimize it, or hope it would go away. I also stopped trying to figure out what was wrong, or who was to blame. Those things just didn’t apply. The reality was what it was. I simply wanted to change how I was handling it. 

If you’re swimming as hard as you can against a strong current, and still not able to keep up, the answer isn’t to try to swim harder, it’s to get out of the middle of the river. 

I needed to make a serious change: Somehow not work so much. Focus on one project at a time. Have time and energy for my personal work. Communicating that is an interesting challenge, and a risky one, but it was a risk I had to take. It felt like an irimi, an entering blend. Get close, see your partner’s view of the world, find a positive resolution. I spoke honestly, from the heart, about what I needed, and suggested a solution.

This week I am starting a new way of working: part-time, hourly, as needed. That means when there’s work, I can work, and when there’s a lull, I can focus on learning, writing, training, and finally getting some gardening done. I will be working almost exclusively off site, which I’m very happy about, since I do well with fewer distractions, a quiet office, and my stand-up (sometimes) desk.

My Michael is being supportive, and is looking forward to some of the house and yard projects I have planned. My employer, to their credit, is willing to give this a try. In theory, it should work well all around. I can ease the workload during busy times, and not be a burden on the payroll during slow times.

I’m taking a few weeks off, too. I’ll get caught up on some things, get started on others, and take an actual vacation with Michael – a two-week road trip to Portland to visit some friends. It’s been a long time since we’ve gone on a proper vacation and we’re both really looking forward to it.

There is no way before training in Aikido that I would have found my way to this outcome. I would have denied the reality of the situation. I would assigned blame and felt victimized. I would have avoided conflict by leaving my job (which I really do enjoy – just in smaller amounts), instead of initiating difficult conversations about alternatives. I would have moved toward a “resolution” that really didn’t work well for anyone. Regular training in embodying these skills, feeling, aligning, blending, acting with clarity and directness, is what let me be who I need to be to have this happen.

Tomorrow, Sunday, I get to sleep in. Eventually, we’re going to the Sea Chanty Festival at the San Diego Maritime Museum. I’ve been wanting to go for years, and somehow haven’t gotten around to it. On the way home I’m stopping by the office to clear out my desk, and leave it ready for a new hire who can now be in with the team. I’ll finally get my oil changed – another long-overdue chore. To top it off I have a massage in the evening. Joy!


By the way, the title of this post is taking from a Guy Clark song, “The Cape”. I highly recommending listing to it – right through to the last verse. :-) Enjoy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T6bZ37nexSY

“Spread your arms and hold your breath, and always trust your cape.”

Stop Resisting.

It’s funny how we have to keep learning the same thing over, and over, and over, and over again. An old lesson looks unfamiliar in a new situation. Principles that are old friends in one context seem strange when seen in a different light.

The lesson? Stop resisting. Stop denying. Stop wishing. Notice. Feel. Become aware of the actual direction of the energy. Not your story about it. Not how it was supposed to be. Not how you meant to have it work out.

Notice what’s actually happening. Blend with that. Align with that. Move into that. Use that. Act from that

Being in harmony with the reality of the circumstances is the only place you have any power. You can’t act from resistance, denial, and wishing. Effective action is only possible from awareness and acceptance. Not resignation, acceptance.

This is what’s so. Stop dragging your feet, and move.

I think I get it… Again.

Things Your Sensei Says?

Someone on Facebook recently asked what your sensei says regularly that sticks in your mind & helps inform your Aikido or other Martial Arts practice mentally, physically, or spiritually?

I actually misinterpreted the question as asking about things Sensei says about Aikido that inform my life outside the dojo. Off-the-mat Aikido. Here are the things (not his actual words, of course) that came to mind, plus a few more, that stick with me:

  • Constant reminders to settle, check our own posture and alignment. Be in integrity with ourselves. 
  • Attend to doing what we are doing as well as we can, not to trying to make it affect our partner.
  • Notice where we are, and where we are going. Being aware of these things is what allows opportunities for positive transitions to arise.
  • Keep our eyes up and see the big picture. Don’t focus attention on the attack.
  • Work with others at their level. Help them be safe, and don’t pile on information or levels of detail or finesse they are not yet able to understand.
  • It’s not about having a soft or a hard style. It’s about being appropriate to the situation. 
  • If you operate at the mind-based level of planning each action based on if-then decisions leading to codified responses, you won’t experience freedom in your actions, and you will always be limited in what you can achieve.
  • And one that I heard for the first time in tonight’s class, that seems to fit here: If your attacker wants to retreat, build them a golden bridge on which to get away.

Important lessons for every aspect of life.