My full-time job requires interacting with Northern New England and Eastern Canada’s elderly and disabled populations. Budget cuts, hiring freezes, staff retirements, and increasing workloads have made the work environment very challenging lately. Both staff and management officials are struggling with stress levels. A staff meeting a few months back became especially confrontational and heated.
After the meeting, an office management official seemed to believe that closing me into a private office and subjecting me to an expletive-laden verbal assault constituted acceptable behavior. (The official felt chewing me out and swearing at me would make the official feel better.) Interestingly, I experienced frustration, but no desire to respond in kind. The official’s face literally turned red with anger as I steadfastly refused to return fire. Had the official’s behavior escalated into physical aggression, no doubt existed in my mind that I possessed the skill and ability to address any contingency. As I turned to leave the office, the official demanded to know “where the $^%@” did I think I was going. An almost unnerving calm washed over me. I simply expressed to the management official that the behavior and language being exhibited was unprofessional, unacceptable, and would not be tolerated. I then left the situation in order to return with an employee advocate.
To our younger readers, think of it like if the school lunch lady lost her temper with you because you simply did not like the broccoli she was shoveling … er, serving. Granted, eating your vegetables is expected. Even the most compliant student, however, would be on solid ground to question being asked to swallow it stuffed in cabbage and wrapped in spinach. BUT, instead of turning up the heat when the lunch lady boils over at your suggestion for some unhealthy melted cheese to be poured on the broccoli instead, you choose to leave the situation and get the Principal for help with finding a peaceful resolution.
Now, this blog post could go on as a discussion of self-control, self-confidence, and avoiding a violent encounter, but that would be ridiculous. I mean, seriously? Do you really want a post about how it is through karate-do that one can best handle the lunch lady’s temper tantrum over one’s dislike of her veggies? It would be a disaster. You would get pummeled. You would be laughing too hard to defend yourself against the lunch lady’s need to start a fight about your preference for Whoopie Pies over greens in general. (To our southern US readers and those abroad, a Whoopie Pie is a uniquely New England, yummy, sandwich-like desert where cream is spread between two chocolate cake-like ends).
Today’s blog actually focuses on the events of the following day. I arrived at work to find that about half our staff were out for various reasons. Their absences left us extremely short-handed. Answering the phone and trying to handle walk-in customers would be the only workloads accomplished. It was probably the best day I have had at work in the last 5 years.
You see, the reality of the situation forced us to completely abandon any hope of getting to any backlogged workloads. Our sole focus that day involved meeting the needs of the moment and not worrying about anything else. “Liberating” best describes the feeling that resulted from the unwavering concentration on the present moment. Free from (a) having time to think about piles of unfinished work and/or (b) the chance to ponder frustration about what had transpired the day before, I was left with only the here and now. I provided some of the best customer service I ever have. Complete immersion in the present moment proved to be the key. Buddhists call this concept mindfulness.
(Okay here comes the karate part.) Being mindful in the dojo produces the best training experiences. For me, the possibility to turn a regular class into an opportunity for enlightenment exists in that brief moment right before we pay our respects to our lineage by bowing to the Shomen wall.
Every Maine Traditional Karate class led by our Sensei begins with the same ceremony or ritual. Students may socialize and stretch before class starts. When our our Sensei issues the command Seiretsu (say-de-tsu), however, karateka (students) line up according to rank and stand at attention. At the time, I ranked as the second highest adult kyu student (non black belt) in our dojo. As such, I usually stood in the front row, second from the right. In a nutshell, smack dab in front of the Sensei. Believe me, there is no hiding if your are having an off night. The senior student in the dojo will then issue the command Ushiro O Muite Gi Toh Obi O Naosu (u-she-doe-O moo-ee-tay gee to obi o nay-o-sue) which means to turn around and straighten your gi and make yourself presentable for the Sensei. The commands Shomen (show-men — turn to face the Shomen wall/front of the dojo) followed by Seiza (say-za — kneel) leave all students kneeling, clenched fists on thighs, elbows in, back straight, heads up and facing the front wall of the dojo.
Sensei commands Shomen Ni Rei (showmen nee ray — bow to the showmen wall/pay your respects to the centuries of knowledge represented by pictures of the masters in our lineage). Students bend forward at the waist, stretch their arms and hands forward, place the left hand then the right on the floor, and finally place the forehead in between.
What few students may know is that it is at this point that Sensei very quietly whispers Onegai Shimasu (Oh-nee-gash-I-mus) which means please teach me. This is extraordinarily serious and not hokey. It is a request to our karate ancestors for knowledge, strength, and guidance in the training about to be undertaken. The students later make the same request of the Sensei. The bowing in ceremony then continues with a few more steps.
That brief instant between Sensei commanding “Shomen Ni Rei” and my beginning to bend forward is the moment of truth for me. I take a deep breath in through my nose. As I exhale through my mouth, I do my best to expel any frustrations, anger, anxiety, depression, joy, or sorrows that I have carried with me to the dojo. My ability to let go of my attachment to the day’s baggage is directly related to what my training experience is like on any given evening.
On nights when I cannot let go of the day’s events, my balance is off, my technique sloppy, and my ability to be articulate suffers. I still enjoy my time. I still benefit from my experience, but not to the same degree as when I can clear my mind and focus on the here and now.
Shoshin Nagamine once said “the dojo is a sacred place where the human spirit is polished.” It undoubtedly is … in many ways. You have to work for it though. No one gives it to you. You can’t simply bury frustrations and anger. They will destroy your soul if left to fester.
Karate-do is helping me learn how to expel anxiety and anger that serves no purpose. Personally, I try to actually visualize negative energy leaving my body as I breathe out and bend forward. In my mind’s eye, I see red, sewer green, yellow, and brown fumes projectile vomited from my body. (Well, almost. I mean, it’s not like I had eaten too many hot dogs before class or anything.) At any rate, some days I am far more successful then others. But, just like with my punches, blocks, and kicks, proper practice makes perfect.
Sometimes we have to eat our broccoli. It doesn’t mean we have to like it. Sometimes we get to eat a Whoopie Pie. Yummmmmmmy. Good AND bad come and go – many times beyond our control. One can and must learn to expel the aftertaste of the bad however to make room for complete immersion in the good when it happens. It is not easy. I have a long way to go. How successful I am tomorrow is beyond my control right now.
Right now, listening to my son laugh at the iFunny video he is watching, knowing my wife is enjoying her book on the couch behind me, listening to my kitty purr behind the monitor while I type the final words of this blog post, This exact moment is AWESOME but will never be here in exactly the same way again. … See, it’s already gone. I guess I am glad I was here to experience it.