Monday, June 4, 2018

Chinks in the Armour

In karate, we speak of Shin-Gi-Tai - the interplay between the mind, the skill and the body.  But watching the NBA Finals last night I saw a remarkable example of this indivisible trinity at work and it reminded me of something that I've known for a long time...

There's no room for error at the mountain top.  Every misstep at the top is a slight tumble back to the Earth...

The example in this case is of course, someone who is at the top.  And for a long while, the mountain top in terms of individual basketball prowess has been LeBron James.  His prowess was on full display in this first game of the 2018 Championship round matched yet again against the Warriors of Golden State creating a third consecutive rematch following their first battle in 2015.  When all was said and done, LeBron's performance was superlative: 51 pts on 19/32 shooting.  It was a level of excellence and rhythm and mushin that is rarely seen at the highest levels of competition, when so much is at stake. But LeBron did all that one man could do to put his team in a position to win...

That is to say, he almost did...

Even to one from whom so much is asked, even more is needed.  This is the nature of asymmetrical warfare which lay at the heart of karate-jutsu - how you behave when you are outmatched but must fight all the same.  LeBron is laughably outmatched by the collective talent of the Warriors - the disparity is humbling to say the least.  And yet, the combination of his patience and his urgency on the game allowed his team to play the Warriors to a standstill: to an actual stalemate in the dying seconds with a pair of chances to win the game outright.

Cue the miscues.

George Hill can't be expected to hit every free throw and the one he missed that would have given the lead to the Cavs mightn't have given them the win.  But miss it he did.  And having secured the rebound from that miss, JR Smith mightn't have put a shot in the air that would have struck true, mightn't have found daylight trying to score, might have been blocked.  He might have found LeBron at the top of the circle, eager for the chance to win the game at a stroke with one finishing technique - with todome.  Instead, Smith picked this moment to lose a sense of his surrounding - a flaw in his zanshin - the abiding mind that remains aware of the situation and the circumstance.  He mistakenly thought that his team had the lead when it was in fact tied.  And thinking this, he ran as far as possible from the opposing players, trying to allow the remaining seconds to expire and secure victory when he had the outcome of the game in his hands for the taking.

LeBron spends those precious 4.7 seconds going through every possible thought that one of his level would think.  He gives himself an angle to receive the pass and calls for the ball.  He signals to Smith to go towards the net not away.  He tries to get Smith's attention to make another pass.  He turns to his bench in an last-ditch attempt to call timeout.  Yet the time expires.

Aghast, he chastises Smith for his lapse right there.  Smith admits that he lost track of the score.  LeBron thinks to push the issue and then relents, making his way to the bench.

And in that moment, there was nothing else that could be done.  That precious opportunity - there for the taking - was gone.  All that was left was to marshal his talents for the five additional minutes of basketball.

But the disappointment, the dismay, of a mistake of that magnitude on this stage, with such a small margin for error as it was, was too much.  These were the things that were going through LeBron's mind - exhausted from 47 minutes of basketball at the highest intensity - when he sat back on his bench and asked the simple question of his team:

"Did we still have a timeout?"

Coach Tyronn Lue confirmed for him that they did.

And what comes next is so profoundly human, isn't it?  To have tried so hard and to be undone in that one moment through no fault of your own.  To let slip that inner despair, that hurt, to let it seep out of you so that it doesn't swallow you whole.  Trying as hard as you can, feeling victory in your grasp and watching it slip away through the mistakes of others...anyone who had ever felt what LeBron felt in that moment probably felt it with far less of a burden on their shoulders than the burdens that LeBron shoulder.

But that's the thing: LeBron isn't allowed to be human.  Not being human is what made him 'LeBron'.  It's what set him above others at the mountaintop, in a position where others would have to look up.  He is a leader.

The naked display of emotion that he shows is a small chink in the armour.  Compared to the previous 47 minutes of superlative basketball where he answered every challenge posed, those ten seconds of disappointment should be inconsequential...

Instead they are the most important thing that he does all game.  The game, in that one moment, is lost.

And this is an essential lesson of karate - one characterized by these terms such as suki, fudoshin, shitai, kuzushi, kakugo.

Kyle Korver feels the moment, does what he can.  He claps his hands vigourously trying to rally the troops, trying to salve the pain of the moment.  A trigger to the Captain; a message that we haven't lost yet.

But what is that small vocal display of resistance when compared with the broken spirits of the Captain.  If the Captain's spirit is broken, so too, is the team's.

The Warriors would outscore the Cavs by 10 points in the final 5 minutes of the basketball game after having played them to a standstill for the previous 48 minutes.  Nothing during the game would suggest that they would be suddenly that much better than the Cavs during the overtime frame.

Save for LeBron's chink in the armour.

We all have gaps in us - suki - places where we are vulnerable.  When we are struck in these vulnerable spots, it is very, very, very easy for us to lose heart and it is even easier for someone to say that we shouldn't.  But resolve - kakugo - becomes the most important skill that anyone can have in these moments, more important than any punch, any kick and any jumpshot.  We are unbalanced - kuzushi - by these pitfalls when they hit us at a moment when our emotional investment is greatest, when our hopes are at their highest. We are knocked off our stride and almost invariably the disappointment fills our mind and then seeps out into our bodies and our posture - shitai - the listless body that follows the mind that has lost heart.

LeBron had done all that one man can do, but leaders must be able to do more than just a man.  They must abandone their own needs & their entitlement to their own emotions in order to be what the moment demands.  And even the greatest, most skilled humans can find this undertaking a bridge too far - so in moments when a person unaccustomed to great demands finds themselves similarly challenged, chances are good that they too will stumble.

To the karateka, who builds an army of one and then would dare to command that army irrespective of your fortunes or the chance at victory, the lesson of keeping heart in the direst of circumstances is one that we must take to heart.  Because there is no reason to think that LeBron couldn't have won that game if he'd sat down and said "Bad break, boys.  But I'm going to score on anyone they put in front of me in overtime and y'all are going to do the same!"  He'd been doing exactly that all game and he just needed two of the following three things to happen:  to believe he could do it, actually do it or convince his teammates that they could do it.  Resolve was all that was needed to win that game.

Asking this of him, of anyone really, is so simple as to be naive.  Perhaps fate was already decided.  But for those of us who would defy fate and the inevitable, be the outlier that challenges the odds as LeBron himself has been for so much of his life, for those of us who decide to live our lives to the last and fight because we have no other choice, this is the answer to the question of how to win when you have no reason to.  The only chance that anyone had to win a battle that seemed lost was to fight.

LeBron lost that fight.  The question is: is that insignificant?  Or is it the real reason that they lost the game?

Monday, December 4, 2017

12. On the Road Again...

As always the challenge is to simplify. Chop wood and carry water.  Jog and strengthen your core.  Lots of soreness in my vastus lateralis and my glutes.  Got to spend less time sitting.

Trying to stay in the moment, focusing on breathing and midfoot striking.  Still a fair amount of ankle pain.  Days off have to be devoted to stretching, strengthening the my groin and strengthening my ankle.  It is my biggest gap.

I feel so heavy out there.  I feel like each step is a 1.0 on the Richter scale.  2-3 weeks of going out every day should build up the needed capacity in my joints and ligaments.  Then we’ll start opening up the distance.

I figure once I’m able to run a 5k in an hour then it might be time to buckle down and do the handstand and pullup treatment.  Who knows when that might be.  Jogging for 20 minutes and my heart is bawling most of the way.

I’m an unfinished sentence.  I’m a work in progress.  It took me 12 months to count to 12.  Just need to improve on that mark.

I’m happy to be on the road again.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

11. Human being or becoming myself?

I am unfinished.  I am unfinished.  I am an unfinished sentence.  An unfinished story, an unfinished work of art.

The illusion is the idea of stasis: the idea of status quo.  The universe is defined by vectors and to understand this is to see our lives dramatically different - as big a difference as the difference between classical physics and relativity.  Yesterday I didn't do any exercise.  I didn't stay the same.  I changed. I got weaker.  Today I did 10 leg lifts.  And I will change again.  Tomorrow I'll be stronger.

There is a mountain top out there for all of us.  A vision of ourselves that we have in our heads.  We work at jobs we don't like and it's like an itch in your head that you can't scratch.  You know that you were meant to be more and we try to define 'more' by our salary, by things we buy.  But 'more' is that person in our heads: the vision of ourselves, a person who is unafraid and made real through pursuing what actually moves them.  We call this 'following our heart' but that expression reduces it to something emotional and irrational.

Living life this way is the most rational process a conscious, mortal being can make.  Living any other way is irrationality driven by an overvaluation of what we have and an undervaluation of what might be - of possibility.

We think that we are ourselves that we are beings and complete and definitive.  But the definitive version of ourselves is up on that mountain top.  And we know inside that we aren't there.  It is very important for us not to be okay with this.  Because once we become okay with it - with not being as good as we could be - we have decided on a direction.  We aren't standing pat, we've chosen a direction.

The direction is down.

Just because mortality has a 100% win record does mean that we should stop fighting it.  If we aren't going to fight it, why not just hasten it's victory?  Why equivocate?  I have a great deal of respect for people who smoke and drink and live themselves into an early death.  It's the difference between doing something and simply saying that you're doing something.  Why exist between those two decisions, those two positions?

Why do I do that?  After all, I think I know better - I always think I know better.  But do I really know better if knowing doesn't make me better?

Prove that you know.

Friday, October 6, 2017

10. Surprise…Counting to 52 will take longer than I thought

It wasn’t an unexpected turn.  Things just get away from us.  I’m disappointed that I let it get to my head.  I surrendered.  I told myself that I’d catch up after the fact but I surrendered.  And now I’m on the road again.

Ideally, I won’t worry so much about falling off the path.  I’ll worry a lot more about how fast I can get back on it.  Suki – suki is the appreciation of small things.  Small things can make a big difference.  I have always taken small things – like a step, or a day for granted.  I’m still working on it.  Human becoming and all that.

One kata.  One push-up.  One walk.  One sentence.  Even for a master calligrapher, the number one is the hardest to write.  One is the hardest part of counting to 52.  It’s just that when you count to one for a while it gets less hard.  I can’t see how it ever gets easier.  Just less difficult.

That's a big difference there.

The Stillpoint calls to me again.  I sprained my ankle and I thought that I was 26 instead of 36.  It still hurts and I have no excuse.  I used my recovering ankle as an excuse to postpone my counting.  When I know full well that being hurt is the most important time to count of all.   It is my hope that knowing this I’ll do better next time that I forget to count.

But for now, I’ll take pride in being able to finally count to…


Monday, April 3, 2017

9. Rational extremist

Think of how useful it would be - I’m just thinking aloud here – how useful it would be to choose exactly what memories to remember and what to forget.  What to reinforce and what to undo from existing in your mind.  Every bad memory banished, every blessing polished.  It would be a form of extremism certainly, but if done right, it could be a kind of superpower, couldn’t it? 

The obvious benefit of such an ability would be an overwhelming amount of confidence.  If you could forget or selectively diminish your failures, you’d think that you had proportionately a lot more success than failure, justifying your confidence.  Would your newfound confidence lead you to have more success or would it just make you dangerously overconfident?

My shot starts from my calves.  My heels should be off the floor, a slight forward lean.  The ball is held mostly in my off-hand, with my off-arm having very little tension.  My shooting wrist is minimally flexed and the ball is held lightly.  The ball is pumped down forcefully in time to the bend in my knees before rising into my shooting pocket.  My shooting wrist flexes more extensively rolling the ball up to position just above my forehead.  There is a feeling of alignment between my hip, my shoulder, my elbow and my wrist and a pushing motion in my pecs and triceps driving the ball up like a shot-put.  My off-wrist pops and snaps off the ball as my shooting wrist extends forward towards the basket.  There is a coordination between the extension of my calves, knee, and wrist.

The difference between the rhythm of this sequence in alignment and balance and this rhythm out of sequence out of alignment and out of balance is stark.  Like breathtakingly stark.  When the rhythm and sequence and alignment is in sync, I feel like I have control of the shot to within probably four or five inches at 15 feet away.  When anything is out of wack, I can tell that its out of wack but I have no idea whether the ball will be long or short.  It really is akin to shooting versus shooting in the dark: it’s like I can see the basket, but I can’t feel it.  It feels like I have no idea where the basket is.

Now what would happen if I couldn’t help but remember the feeling of my shot and the feeling of knowing where the basket is?  If I had no memory of something being out of alignment?  I spent 40 minutes shooting badly on Tuesday, another 20 minutes shooting poorly today before putting it back together: more pressure from the off-hand, more flex in my wrist in the shooting pocket.  But couldn’t that time have been saved if I could only remember shooting the one way?

I tell myself that the bad shots and the misses are necessary: one less miss for when it counts.  But each miss shot is the memory of having missed.  It’s the memory of the possibility of missing.  Missing is good for your muscle memory – it improves through both the trial and the error.  But to the conscious mind, the rational mind, missing is bad.  Missing becomes more than a possibility; it becomes an option and then a reality.

Confidence makes courage possible.  Confidence comes from familiarity, the readily available memory of capability.  Familiarity is simply mushin and rhythm – what you do without thinking. But sometimes that memory is so far away, so elusive.  The memory of missing is sometimes much more available.


I don't generally take breaks from my measured nature.  I don't really explore extremes.  I've never really been terribly good at being obsessive.  I should try it out considering I talk about visiting extremes as a means to find actual balance.

Monday, March 27, 2017

8. Leaning

Karate is about centeredness.  It’s about keeping your weight directly above your base.  This isn’t glamourous but it is necessary.  We – I especially – always want to get ahead of ourselves.  We want to get there sooner so we lean forward.  We want to avoid unpleasantness so we lean backwards.  People who love fighting are always leaning forward.  People who hate conflict are always leaning backwards.  Well-balanced people, centered people, are actually quite rare.

In many things, my center stays directly above my base.  But in many other things, my training comes to mind, I’m forever getting ahead of myself.  And despite my admonishments, despite my actively trying to avoid doing exactly this, I think I’ve gotten ahead of myself.

Things aren’t built high and strong through plan and will alone.  Things are built high and strong by having a broad and dependable base.  Things are built high and strong by building over a strong base.  It’s both.  A strong base is necessary to build anything that lasts, but to build high, there is an alignment, both in space and time.  You build up and over the base, centered.  Otherwise, if you’re lucky, you have the leaning Tower of Pisa.  If you’re not lucky, you get something worse.

The base and the alignment to the base.  The foundation and the center.  The faster you find the base and the faster that you align yourself to the base, the higher you can go.

I leaned to far forward, getting ahead of myself, out of eagerness.  And now, my groin hurts, my knee aches and I have to wonder whether I’m stronger or weaker than before.   The white belt has to learn to recognize leaning and alignment before anything else.  They have to know what leaning looks like and feels like so that they can find their center again.  Finding your center is especially difficult when you don’t realize that your leaning.

My center is simple.  My weight, my groin, my knee, my feet, my rotator, my core and my heart.  So long as these gaps – these suki – remain, any skill or strength I gain somewhere will simply weaken my foundation in one of these places.  A day gone by where I don’t improve or strengthen one of these things is a wasted day – and even the smallest improvement is a massive victory, a return to my center.  I thought that I could start being strong, then sturdy then powerful.  But before I’m any of those things I have to be balanced enough to stop leaning, to fill the gaps in my foundation.  I have to be able to stand up straight, above my base, completely centered.  That’s the first task of any white belt.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

7. Places to visit

I was eating a cookie.  I could feel the refined sugar assaulting my system, the baked carbohydrates.  I could feel my brain revelling in it, craving more.

And then I closed the container.

The cookie, delicious and full of delight as it was, was just a vacation.  It was just a place to visit.  But I wouldn’t want to live in a vacation.  It wouldn’t be long before I didn’t consider it a vacation anymore.

Training with weights is a vacation.  As is jogging.  And skipping rope.  And swimming.  Biking.  Rock Climbing.  They are all productive vacations meant to reinforce the collection of thoughts, movements, actions and behaviour that constitute me.

I want to be better at these things not in and of themselves.  I want to be better at these things so that I can one day consider myself to be good at karate and basketball.  Karate and basketball are where I live and work.  Everything comes back to that.

It is a shame how many days and weeks and years that I avoided my home, the places in my heart where karate and ball reside.  I think that my absolute peak will never be what it could have been and it saddens me…

And then I think of the peak that I’m yet to reach and I continue my climb.  Chopping wood, carrying water.