pessimistcupHi. My name is Shawn, and I am a professional malcontent. The cup shown here sits on my desk at work (The Pessimist’s Cup from I am a card-carrying member of Cynics of America. I firmly believe that the depressive realism hypothesis is valid in some circumstances. I am the Darth Vader of the Down Side. I offer this self-assessment as those who know me will find it ironic (and probably hilarious) that I am about to blog about the indisputable benefits of a positive attitude.

You see, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes the Maine Traditional Karate Dojo a special place. If I had to pick a single defining aspect, I would have to say the amazing atmosphere of the learning environment. Our Sensei epitomizes positive attitude. Positive energy just radiates out of him. He brings it better than anyone I’ve ever known. (My guess is that it also oozes out of his pores even as he sleeps.) I’m not exaggerating. It’s incredible. It doesn’t matter how bad my day has been. I leave every class taught by Sensei Steve Apsega feeling better and more centered than when I arrived. Don’t believe me? I invite you to come to our dojo and observe a class. From the moment he belts out “How’s everyone doing tonight” and the dojo members respond “good Sensei”, the line has been cast, the hook is set, and he just reels you in.

Now, obviously, studying karate-do is not the only way to learn to exhibit, and benefit from, a positive attitude. What is interesting about the Maine Traditional Karate “positive experience,” however, is in the variety of ways a positive attitude and its effects are exhibited. High energy, supercharged instruction and encouraging feedback exist as only two of the many ways a positive attitude and supportive learning environment are maintained in the dojo. Sempai Scott Daigle, Sandan (Third Degree Black Belt), for example, approaches teaching in a fairly subdued, laid back manner. His dry wit and quiet manner help produce an environment geared toward improvement. A skilled and respected practitioner, Sempai Scott possesses the confidence necessary to share stories of his own difficulties at various times over his karate career to help a student understand struggle as an important part of the learning process. Additionally, and most importantly to me, Sempai Scott recognizes that no-one can be on 100% of the time. “Eh, it happens” is the response I’ve grown accustomed to when I flub a technique I know how to do, have demonstrated before, but at that particular point in time simply just blew it. His response is not one of disinterest, but, rather a lesson that no single event defines anyone – karate student or otherwise.

Finally, Sempai Isaac Roberts, due to be testing for Nidan (second degree black belt) in a few days,  recently displayed the importance of honesty in promoting a positive attitude. As I emptied the dishwasher at home, I asked Sempai Isaac, who happens to be my son, how a certain technique of mine looked a previous night. His response,”eh … it was okay.” He didn’t stop there though. He then offered, “you had some pauses like you were thinking about what to do next in a couple places. I think you need to approach it with more confidence.” His response hurt my feelings a little. I quickly got over it though as I realized he had done what he had learned from me and the dojo – honesty is important if others are to respect your opinion. He also offered a path to improvement for me. The following week, I had to perform the techniques in class again. Later that evening, Sempai Isaac mentioned to me, “you know Dad, your Anunku (the techniques) looked a lot better tonight.” I thanked him and agreed, “yeah, I tried to approach it with much more confidence and it helped a lot. I’m still having trouble with the turn near the end and then the simultaneous block kick.” “Yeah, but those are the things that come with practice.” Implied in Isaac’s final statement was that attitude, a positive and confident attitude, is an important base on which to build.

So, when it starts at the top with the Sensei and is reinforced in multiple ways through instruction by the Sempais, the positive attitude and learning environment then rubs off on the individual students as well. A few weeks ago, a fellow brown belt, Tom, and I trained in technique through a series of structured 1-step sparring exercises known as ippon kumite. Tom and I are of similar rank, but he is far superior to me in technique, fitness, and physical skill. He actually teaches a beginner class in the Old Town branch of our dojo and does a fabulous job. (Sorry, I digress.) Tom executed the first technique we were working on perfectly. You can tell by how it feels. In this case, my arm went numb and he would have followed by knocking me on my butt had we really been fighting. My response – an excited and enthusiastic, “wow, that was awesome.” It was. His being awesome in no way diminishes what I can contribute to, and learn from, our dojo. Why not acknowledge it out loud?

I’m still not quite sure what happened the second time through.  Tom did this step, dance-like thing as if a squirrel had run up the pant leg of his gi. “And that time, not so much,” I oh-so-helpfully offered with a smile in my voice. Tommy’s response, “man, that was ugly.” Not wanting to disagree with my training partner (he was right after all), I responded, “yep, ugly with a capital U.” We both laughed and then reset. Tom returned to his awesomeness the next time through the exercise.  My joking was not meant to be, nor taken as, jealous criticism.  It was simply meant as healthy acknowledgement between two students that we are just as quick to identify and address areas in need of improvement as we are to cheer successful efforts.

My point is this. Despite being the Duke of Discontent outside the dojo, a much more positive approach to life seems to be emerging inside the dojo. In “Hai Sensei,” we touched upon how karate-do is as much about development of character as it is about the physical aspects of self-defense. Development of a positive attitude as exhibited through energetic acknowledgement of the good in others – thank you Sensei. Be genuine but gentle in acknowledging another’s missteps as part of the learning process – thank you Sempai Scott. Criticism can be positive and not hurtful, especially when offered with thoughts of how to improve – thank you Son … Sempai Son … Sempai Isaac. … Oh, and thanks for your awesomeness Tommy, as well as the occasional demonstration that you are indeed a mere mortal like the rest of us.

… You would think that would be a great way to end this post. But no. If anyone is still reading, I wanted to share an experiment I did at work a while back. I encourage everyone to try this experiment and report back here on any results, positive or negative. For a single day, I resolved that the first statement in any interaction with any of my coworkers needed to be a positive statement. Didn’t matter what the statement was. It just needed to be positive. (Exceptions were made for some situations like “watch out for that bus!”). At any rate, the results were amazing. Some people straightened a little and became energized. Some seemed pleasantly confused and appreciative. A few wondered who was doing the bad impression of their coworker formally known as Shawn. I think the best result came from the interaction with a coworker I’ve never been particularly fond of. The coworker really enjoys laughing and was listening and chuckling at a story as I wandered by. I stopped to simply remark “you know, you have such a great laugh. When you laugh it just brightens the office.” Ever since that day, my interactions with the coworker have been easier for me, friendlier, and certainly more productive.

Maybe someday, this positive attitude stuff will simply become ingrained as part of who I am.

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