mindwandersmallOn the first and third Tuesday of every month, our Sensei (or his Senior Student) conducts a focused training class just for Brown Belts.  The need to be vigilant in maintaining one’s own proper actions served as a prominent theme during last night’s class.  As the most advanced of the kyu rank (non-Black Belt) students, Brown Belts are expected to model proper technique, intensity, attitude, and protocol to a greater extent than students of other kyu ranks.  A Brown Belt’s position at the front of class during training means that he or she is always on display for other students (and teachers) to observe.  Despite their own and others’ high expectations, Brown Belts are fallible like everyone else.  An interesting thing happened in class last night.

Ippon kumite (one step sparring) comprises an important part of our training.  A specific sequence of punches, kicks, and blocks  are practiced with a partner.  Among many other benefits, ippon kumite helps one’s body develop almost an automatic response to a stimulus ( e.g., a punch to the head) such that very little conscious effort and processing time are required to respond to the threat.  We took turns demonstrating the 10 Brown Belt Ippon Kumite techniques in front of the class last night.

My partner and I positioned ourselves in front of the group for our turn.  I brought the punch.  My partner performed the block/counterattack.  WHACK! (Think Batman graphics and sound effects from the 1960s and 1970’s show).  The sound from the strike caused a collective “oooooh” from my classmates.  What you have to understand about ippon kumite is, as the initial attacker, you end up in a position of severe disadvantage and wide open for counter-attack.   As Brown Belts, we are expected to have developed sufficient skill and control to make contact or near contact when counter-attacking, but not hard enough to cause serious injury.  My partner struck harder than I expected (enough to leave a bruise), but not excessively hard.  I kind of raised an eyebrow, but more at everyone’s reaction than to anything else.  We moved on to practice the same technique to the other side of the body.  Punch, block/counter-attack – WHAMMO!  Geez, another loud contact, another bruise.  The Senior Student made an interesting remark – something to the effect of “oh, payback is always a possibility in ippon kumite.”

It is.  You see, it was now my turn to practice the counter-attack.  We often will joke with our partner by making the type of comment made by the Senior Student when any technique is performed by a partner with a little bit too much enthusiasm.  Think of it as kind of a light hearted way of communicating with your training partner that a little less force would be appreciated.  The fact of the matter is that my training partner is an amazing karateka and a great person who has my complete trust.  I consider him a friend.  The thought of intentionally harming him in response to being accidentally hit a little too hard (not that I was) did not even cross my mind.   I completed my turn with the exercise without incident, and we moved on.

We later stepped in for our next turn.  I am the lower rank so I always serve as the first attacker and ultimately victim.  I punched.  My partner blocked and struck.  POW!  Yet again, the contact was clearly audible and exactly in the same spot as where the first bruise had been left.  On the one hand, kudos to my partner for such precision.  On the other hand, I experienced enough discomfort to cause me to open my mouth to offer some verbal feedback.  No one will ever know what was about to be said.  To be honest, I am not sure what I was going to say either.  But in that split second, I took a deep breath, shut my mouth, and kept it shut.  I turned and took two steps away from the group.  With no exaggeration, in almost movie-like fashion, a visualization of one of my favorite stories jumped to mind – The Story of the Samurai and the Fisherman. …

Centuries ago, a samurai set out to collect money he had loaned to a local fisherman.  Arriving in the village and finding no sign of the fisherman, the samurai travelled to the shore to find the debtor mending his nets.  Distracted from his work by his colleagues scurrying out of the way of the approaching samurai, the fisherman realized his day of reckoning had arrived.  The fisherman threw himself to the ground, bowing his head in the greatest show of respect he could muster.   “Get up,” commanded the samurai.  “Your grace period of one year has now passed.  The time has come for you to repay your debt to me.”

The fisherman rose to his feet but kept his gaze focused toward the ground.  “I understand our agreement,” trembled the fisherman, “but the seas have not been kind to me and it has been a very bad year.  I fear I do not have the money to repay you.”

“What?!” bellowed the samurai.  Despite his position of stature, the samurai was not known as a man of patience.  The large group who had gathered all turned away at the distinctive sound of a sword being expertly drawn from its sheath.  The silver blade flashed in the sunlight as the samurai prepared to strike the fisherman down where he cowered.

“Wait!  Please!”  cried the fisherman.  “I am nowhere near as skilled as a noble samurai, but I have been studying the martial arts for some time now.  My master teaches that one should never strike when angry.  I beg for your mercy and one more year to repay my debt to you.”

The samurai carefully considered the man’s words.  “I have studied my art under the finest masters of the sword,” said the samurai as he slowly lowered and sheathed his sword.  “Your master is wise.  My teachers also instruct that to wield one’s sword in anger is a defect in character.  I am very angry with you, fisherman, but I will not turn to violence in vengeance.  You shall have one additional year to fulfill your agreement.  Should I return next year and you not have the money to repay me, I will take your life instead.”

The samurai made the long journey home, only to arrive well after nightfall.  He quietly entered his home so as to not disturb his wife.  As he entered his bedroom, he saw the silhouette of his wife and an unknown person, fast asleep, side by side.  The clothes of the stranger, however, were unmistakably those of another samurai.  Enraged, the samurai drew his sword and prepared to slay them both.  Before he delivered the fatal blow, however, he remembered the words of the fisherman, “never strike when angry.”  Upset that, twice in one day, he had nearly dishonored his own masters by not following their teachings, the samurai stepped back in haste, accidentally knocking over a chair in his chambers.

The loud noise caused the samurai’s wife and the stranger to startle.  The samurai’s wife quickly lit a candle.  The flickering light revealed the stranger to be none other than the samurai’s mother.

“I almost killed you both,” screamed the samurai.  The samurai’s wife quickly explained that she feared for her household’s safety when the samurai had not returned home by dusk.  The samurai’s mother had dressed in the samurai’s clothes so that any intruder who dared enter the bedroom would think the powerful samurai still at home and would run away frightened. It was at this moment that the samurai realized that his tendency to strike out in anger without thinking nearly cost him the life of his wife and his mother.

One year later, the samurai returned to the fisherman’s village.  The fisherman excitedly approached the samurai. “My Lord, the sea has been very good to me this year.  Here is all of your money plus interest.  I thank you for your generous mercy.”

Dwarfing the fisherman with his size, the samurai placed his massive hand gently on the fisherman’s shoulder. “Keep your money old man,” replied the samurai softly.  “You repaid your debt to me long ago.”

… When I turned around, the Senior Student had stepped in to replace me.  I’m not sure if he thought I was going to retaliate or if he was just annoyed that I had caused a brief pause in our training.  Ultimately, it makes no difference.  I thought of the wisdom of my Sensei who, less than an hour earlier, spoke of the need for Brown Belts to always be mindful of their actions as they are explicitly and implicitly observed for guidance.  I glanced at the three youth Brown Belts in the class, all of whom were looking at me perhaps wondering what I would do next.  All three of them outrank me.  All three of them surpass me in skill.  Consequently, they have nothing to learn from me in terms of martial arts technique.  Nevertheless, as an adult, I must express great care to not model unacceptable responses to frustration.  I simply said, “No, I’m good Sempai,” as I finished the drill with my partner.  With eyes upon me, I made a very conscious effort to make sure I brushed my partners gi with my punch but made no contact to the body.

I hope someday to be more like my son, Isaac.  He is a second degree black belt currently.  He handles things with an outward calmness and compassion well beyond his years.  If I were more like him, I wouldn’t have felt the need to consciously make sure my punch made no contact.  I wouldn’t have felt the need to take a breath.  I wouldn’t have had any reaction at all to what was simply a normal part of training in karate.  But, like I said before, no Brown Belt is perfect.  Sometimes though, how we choose to express our imperfections is as much a valuable lesson to others as if we had done things right the first time.


Are You Offensive?

My morning ritual on the way to work usually involves stopping at the Big Apple on South Main Street in Brewer. A few days ago, I happened to be wearing a shirt with the Maine Traditional Karate and Kenshin Kan logos on it. Another customer approached me from behind and asked “do you teach there?” Assuming he meant at our dojo and not at the front counter of the Big Apple, I turned and responded that I was a student at the dojo located in Orrington.

The middle-aged man had a hard look about him – with weathered features clearly reflecting the toll of a rough life.   “Can I answer something for you about our school,” I inquired.  “Yeah,” the man responded, “is your style offensive or defensive?”

I pondered his question for a quick moment and responded “ahhh grasshopper, is the lioness who strikes out to protect her cubs from the attacking hyena engaged offensively or defensively?” … Okay, I didn’t really say that, but, you have to admit, that would have been a cool reply.

I’d be really interested to hear from everyone reading this, how would you have answered this question?  If you are not a member of our dojo, please identify what martial arts style you practice and answer in reference to your own experiences and training.  If you don’t actively practice a martial art, your perspective is of no less value or interest – it simply reflects a different point of view.  Please share your thoughts on martial arts as you perceive them in our world.

Please be bold and post even a short answer (under a pseudonym if you must).  All responses are appreciated and will be respected.




(lioness picture: By greg willis [CC BY-SA 2.5]via Wikimedia Commons)

Have You Hugged Your Sensei Today?


Have you hugged your Sensei today? It is “International Appreciate Your Sensei Day” after all. … Okay, I made that up. But really, isn’t every day really one in which you appreciate that which you receive from your Sensei and other instructors?  I am particularly appreciative today for a reminder lesson I recently received on effective teaching methods.

Now, I do have a little tea in my blog cup on this one. I’ve taught in special education classrooms, in residential treatment facilities, and in public schools.  I’ve coached middle school soccer, track, and basketball.  As a graduate student, I regularly lectured to 500 or more University students. I’ve presented or co-presented research at national and international conferences in front of thousands of professionals.  Oh man, despite such fairly extensive experiences, did I ever get schooled by a 10 year old boy a few weeks ago on how a one size fits all approach to teaching is a recipe for massive failure.

At our annual training workshop with the US Director of our karate federation, I was tasked with helping run a lesson on use of the bo (staff).  We’re spinning; we’re spinning; we’re spinning the bo when “plink …. plink  …. plink, plink, plink, rattle, rattle, settle”  Ah, the distinctive sound of someone dropping the bo on a basketball court floor. (Cut me a little slack, how would you describe the sound?)  The guilty party – a 10 year old green belt from our dojo.

“Oh, ten pushups,” came out of my mouth – a reduced sentence for dropping a weapon while training.  The student had picked up the bo and stood at attention, eyes forward, back straight, heels together, bo and hands to his sides – he didn’t move.   …  With a hundred people in the gymnasium, I thought the noise had prevented the student from hearing me.  “I know it’s usually 25, but you can just do ten,” I clarified.  Nothing.  I stepped into the student’s line of sight, “it’s okay, you can do them now and then we’ll all move on to the next exercise.”  There was no ambiguity at this point – I had eye contact with the student.  I had spoken gently but firmly.  Drop a weapon – do some pushups.  It’s just the way it is.

The student dropped down and made it about half way down on number 1.  I immediately realized that I had COMPLETELY BLOWN IT.  His arms shook under the weight as he struggled to push himself back up.  Trying to redeem myself, I quickly instructed “you can just owe me the rest.  Let’s get back to work.”  He got up and we all moved on as a group.

During the next break, I stopped to talk with the student’s mother.  “I’m sorry Mrs. X (not her real name).  I think I was a little tough on Student Y (nope, not his real name either).  I may have inadvertently upset him.”  I told Mrs. X what had happened.  She understood immediately.  She explained that her son has a hard time with pushups and that they usually do them at home so he can work on his upper body strength without everyone watching.

Let me recap.  There are 100 people in a gym with you, many of whom you don’t know.  You’ve been working hard – you’re hungry, you’re tired.   You are the cause of a sound that makes everyone pause, albeit momentarily, to take notice of the associated event that we all know so well.  Under these conditions, you are then asked to perform a task which makes you extraordinarily self-conscious.  You are 10 years old.

Options?  The student could have cried. He could have stomped his feet and thrown a temper tantrum.  He could have wet his pants and gone running for his mom.  I likely would have done all of the above at age 10.  Heck, now at 44, I probably still would.

He didn’t though. Despite the frustration and anxiety he likely felt inside, this remarkable 10 year old didn’t even flinch.  He did one of the most respectful things he could do  – he stood in a perfect attention stance as he contemplated how to handle the situation.  When the time came to do the deed, he didn’t talk back, he didn’t roll his eyes, he didn’t walk away.  He dropped and did the best he could.

I’m proud of him.  Gichin Funakoshi, founder of Shotokan Karate-Do, once said “The ultimate aim of Karate lies not in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of character of its participants.”  At age 10, this young man demonstrated more character, resolve, and respect than is shown by many adults with whom I interact on a daily basis.  Hopefully, by now, Student Y has forgotten my blunder.  I, however, will not forget the valuable reminder he gave me that day.

You see, long after the world has forgotten whether you failed or succeeded, were slighted or wronged, won or lost, it will remember with great clarity how you conducted yourself under such circumstances.

So, what does all this have to do with International Appreciate Your Sensei Day?  Nothing really.  I kind of got off on a tangent and liked where I ended up so I went with it.  Sorry.

It is funny sometimes how the lesson learned through the study of karate-do has little, if anything, to do with the material being practiced. That happens to me quite a lot actually. I think I’m heading in one direction only to find myself arriving at a different but equally interesting destination. It’s okay. Eventually I end up where I thought I was going. It just takes me longer. I am fortunate that my Sensei is patient and understands this about me. It’s like at a Nitan Bo seminar last year when I was struggling to learn a kata. I overheard our Sensei’s colleague (respectfully) pointing out “Shawn doesn’t seem to be getting this.” My Sensei’s response, “It’s okay, he will.”

Indeed.  I did … eventually.  Similarly, I will get to my black belt and beyond someday – but at my own pace and on my own path.  If I am lucky, I will have plenty of side lessons like the one above along the way.   You see, my Sensei teaches me karate, and, in doing so, provides me an ever growing repertoire of jaw-droppingly lethal techniques I hope I never have to use.  More importantly, my Sensei and instructors walk with me, encourage me, and guide me in my exploration of karate-do as a framework for living and a way of being.   With every step along that path I become a better person.   Hmm. Maybe this post really is about Appreciating your Sensei after all.





A Double Doggie Dare – Part II

When we last left our hero (okay it was just me and my prior blog), he was wallowing in self-pity after an impressive display of lack of skill in the martial arts.  Chalking my exhibition of excrement up to yet another lesson on learning to be humble, I got up the following morning and went to day 2 of the Hanshi Shipe’s Annual Training Seminar in Maine.

As my son and I stretched out in preparation for the day’s activities, the most amazing thing happened.  A Sandan (third degree black belt) came up to me and said, “I just need to tell you how much I enjoyed reading your blog post ‘Hai Sensei.’  Being able to write well is such a gift and the message was really well presented.  I was reading and thinking ‘ I wish I could write like that.’ ”  I thanked him and noted that his feedback was very well-timed as I was just thinking last night, ‘Geez, I wish I could physically perform like him and the other advanced students.'”

As the black belt walked away, it hit me right between the eyes, “The Stonecutter” from Bejamin Hoff’s Book, “The Tao of Pooh.”  Okay, neither a book nor an actual professional stonecutter emerged to hit me between the eyes, I mean the concept of the story told in the book came to the forefront of my consciousness.  (The book is a great read, by the way.  And yes, Pooh, as in Winnie-the-Pooh).

There was once a stonecutter who was dissatisfied with himself and with his position in life.

One day, he passed a wealthy merchant’s house and through the open gateway saw many fine possessions and important visitors.

“How powerful that merchant must be!” thought the stonecutter. He became very envious, and wished that he could be like the merchant. Then he would no longer have to live the life of a mere stonecutter.

To his great surprise, he suddenly became the merchant, enjoying more luxuries and power than he had ever dreamed of, envied and detested by those less wealthy than himself. But soon a high official passed by, carried in a sedan chair, accompanied by attendants, and escorted by soldiers beating gongs. Everyone, no matter how wealthy, had to bow low before the procession.

“How powerful that official is!” he thought. “I wish that I could be a high official!”

Then he became the high official, carried everywhere in his embroidered sedan chair, feared and hated by the people all around, who had to bow down before him as he passed. It was a hot summer day, and the official felt very uncomfortable in the sticky sedan chair. He looked up at the sun. It shone proudly in the sky, unaffected by his presence.

“How powerful the sun is!” he thought. ”
I wish that I could be the sun!”

Then he became the sun, shining fiercely down on everyone, scorching the fields, cursed by the farmers and labourers. But a huge black cloud moved between him and the earth, so that his light could no longer shine on everything below.

“How powerful that storm cloud is!” he thought. “I wish that I could be a cloud!”

Then he became the cloud, flooding the fields and villages, shouted at by everyone. But soon he found that he was being pushed away by some great force, and realized that it was the wind.

“How powerful it is!” he thought. “I wish that I could be the wind!”

Then he became the wind, blowing tiles off the roofs of houses, uprooting trees, hated and feared by all below him. But after a while, he ran up against something that would not move, no matter how forcefully he blew against it — a huge, towering stone.

“How powerful that stone is!” he thought. “I wish that I could be a stone!”

Then he became the stone, more powerful than
anything else on earth.
But as he stood there, he heard the sound of a hammer pounding a chisel into the solid rock and felt himself being changed.

“What could be more powerful than I, the stone?” he thought.
He looked down and saw far below him the figure of a stonecutter.

(Excerpt from Benjamin Hoff’s, “The Tao of Pooh”)

Please indulge me in a single example.  The final stages of training in achieving one’s first degree black belt involve a fairly intense level of scrutiny of mind, body, and spirit.  The student’s technique is constantly evaluated “under the microscope” and, to the uninitiated, excessive nitpicking may appear to be occurring.  Performances are expected to be consistently crisp, responses to questions immediate and full of resolve, and proper dojo protocol to be exhibited in everything the student does.  One’s training becomes as much about mental toughness and skill as it does about physical proficiency.

One evening, a junior student who would be testing for his black belt was having a particularly off night.  He seemed to be hit with a series of questions for which he had no good answer.  With each incorrect answer, you could just see his confidence lessen as his responses fell to be barely above a whisper.  As everyone was instructed to work on their own material, the student was clearly rattled as he tried to practice his.  At one point, he had to leave the dojo floor so that he could collect himself in the dojo office.  By the end of the night, he had been metaphorically beaten.  It was painful for me to watch.

After the Sensei had dismissed the class and as the student prepared to leave, I approached the student.  “You know something, Student X (not his real name), between myself, Isaac (my son), and Sue (my wife), our family has been involved with this dojo for almost a decade now.  I’ve seen many students come and go.  Out of all the students I’ve ever witnessed here, adults or youth, you put more energy and effort into your katas and training than anyone else I’ve ever seen here.  It really is energizing to watch, even for old guys like me.”  He started to respond with “but …”  I just cut him off.  “But what?  One night of being off doesn’t change who you are to me or anyone else in this dojo.  Most important though is you don’t let it shake your self confidence.”  You could literally see him straighten and push his shoulders back as his characteristic smile returned to his face.

Did my feedback have any long term effect on the student’s training – likely not.  It did help turn his evening around and leave the dojo in a more positive frame of mind.   However minor, I had made an important contribution to our dojo that evening.

It’s like our Sensei often says, “karate is so much more than just punching and kicking.”  Indeed, when you have your moments of doubt and you wonder about your place in the dojo or your worthiness to hold your rank, understand that you are on the path – and further than you may realize.  Karate-do is so much more than just how well you punch and kick  It is an excellent road to travel on one’s journey of self-awareness, self-discovery, and self-improvement as a human being.  Our dojo’s students come  in a wide range of shapes and sizes, of levels of skill and fitness, and of social “outgoingness.”  The common factor shared by all students, however, is that every student brings a strength or  set of strengths to the learning environment that makes us all better.  EVERY STUDENT.   In times of self-doubt, and everyone has them, I encourage you to examine what positives you bring to the dojo or to your world in general.

Don’t think you have any or have you had a particularly demoralizing class?  Flag me down before you leave.  Dare to share your doubts.  Risk being vulnerable.  I won’t be able to demonstrate the technique as well as others.  My mind is not as sharp as it once was, so I may not remember certain techniques at all.    What I will do, however, is be as equally brave as you and tell you of the greatness I see.  It’s something I can bring to the dojo regardless of if I ever learn to balance correctly when performing Wansu. …  Sometimes being a stonecutter isn’t so bad after all.

A Double Doggie Dare – Part 1

doubledog2I had to open my mouth.  I couldn’t help myself.  I should know better.  “Stick fighting, Sensei,” I responded when our Sensei asked for ideas that his teacher could discuss when he came for his annual visit.  Our Sensei’s teacher is 8th Degree Black Belt and co-director of the United States Branch of the Okinawa Shorin-Ryu Matsumura Seito Karate and Kobudo Federation, Hanshi John Shipes.  Hanshi Shipes also happens to be an expert in the non-traditional martial art of Kali, which includes knife and stick fighting.

As a new Brown Belt in our system, I am now allowed to attend certain advanced training seminars that get offered.  Hanshi Shipes provided such a seminar last Friday night.  I had come home sick from work and slept most of the afternoon, but I was not going to miss the once a year opportunity.  Hanshi Shipes taught a basic stick fighting exercise and then we practiced with our partner.  I paired up with my son, now a 2nd degree black belt, and we went to work.  Well … work may not be quite the right term.  My son did great – he picks things up pretty easily.  I, on the other hand, would now be in the unemployment line if what I was attempting to do was work.  At one point, I finished an attempt and thought “ugh, it can’t get much worse than that.”

As comedian George Carlin once said, “you should never challenge worse.  Never say, it can’t POSSIBLY get worse.”  It almost always can.  It did.  I turned around to find myself face-to-face with the highest ranking US karateka in our federation.  “How’s it going over here,” Hanshi Shipes inquired.  “Ahem … having a little trouble, Hanshi” – a massive understatement.  Despite his rank, Hanshi did what any good teacher does, he invited me to try the technique once or twice … or several dozen … times with him.  How did it go?  Let me put it this way.  If it had been possible to have a level of technique more basic than basic, I would have failed miserably on that one too.  “But Shawn,” you say, “you weren’t feeling well” … Thanks for trying to throw me a bone, but, nope, my dismal performance had nothing to do with illness.

Part of the issue for me involves my learning style for new physical techniques.  It’s kind of like when you get behind someone on the highway who is not only driving slowly, but is driving so slow that if they went any slower they would be going backwards.  Seemingly oblivious to your growing desire to offer greetings via the social finger or offer multiple four letter words of encouragement for them to go faster, the driver putts along at his or her own pace.  I am the slow driver.  I’ll get there eventually, but I need the time along the way to think about things very intensely before I will even come close to getting it right.

Despite knowing this about myself, I still felt frustration when not performing up to my own expectations or my perceived expectations of others.  Self-doubt crept in.  I enviously watched the 10 year olds who could perform the technique almost flawlessly the first go round.  I began to wonder if I deserve to be wearing the belt around my waist.  I began to drown in a well of self-pity … Okay, it didn’t get quite that bad, but the other feelings were definitely there last Friday night.

… That’s it.

What do you mean that’s it?!  That’s depressing.  Why did I just waste 5 minutes of my life reading this trash?!

Fine.  It’s not quite it.  I challenge everyone who has read this far to think about how or why you continue with martial arts (or any endeavor for that matter) if you have had a particularly bad night, week, month, or year in or outside the dojo. How do you cope?  What do you do?  How do you feel?  I dare you to then take a risk and share your story in the comments below.  In fact, I double doggie dare you!  You never know when you may offer a strategy that will be helpful to others.  Put a false name if you wish.  Change all names to protect the innocent and not so innocent.  I do not share or use your e-mail other than to respond if requested.   I have, however, double doggie dared you.  As all true karateka know –  you are morally, spiritually, and possibly legally bound to do a double dog dare. Deny it, and you screw up your karma for a month.  (I read this on the internet so it must be true.)

As for me, I plan to answer this call to action in part 2 of this blog.  Here’s a hint: it has to do with petrology. (let the googling begin).


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.

Hai, Sensei!

“Geez, won’t somebody tell that kid to be quiet?” Almost a decade ago now, I sat watching my six-year -old’s karate class thinking this about a junior brown belt who kept shouting “Hai Sensei” every five seconds while the Sensei spoke. Now a student myself, and a little less ignorant, I understand the power and importance these two little words hold.

Meant to reflect respectful acknowledgement of the teacher’s statements, students respond “hai Sensei” during group announcements, individual instruction, and private conversations. Proper protocol in the dojo reinforces accepted and expected ways to show one’s respect to others with the goal of having such respect become an important part of one’s character. The danger, and subject of this blog, is the remarkably ironic and massively disrespectful phenomena that occurs when expectations, and not one’s developing belief system, drive adherence to protocol.

Huh? Consider an example. As I practiced a bo (staff) technique a few months ago, I caught the tip of my bo on an overhead steel I-beam that runs the length of our dojo. Given that structural steel tends to have a more solid block than my typical opponent, the sudden and complete deceleration of my bo caused me to lose my grip and drop it. Clank! Every member of our dojo knows the sound of a dropped weapon and its consequences — twenty-five push-ups on the knuckles (regular pushups for youth). I dropped and did them. I did not complain. I did not make excuses. I did not ask for a free pass. I just did them. Own your actions, accept the consequences, learn from the experience, and move on. I expect this approach of myself. Some days I am more successful than others.

A few weeks later, a youth student dropped a sai while practicing. At the end of class, the Sensei asked the student if he had done his pushups. Out it came – “hai, Sensei!” The problem – he hadn’t. Our Sensei used the event like any other. He made it a positive learning experience through a quiet discussion with the student about honesty and integrity. The student erred, not in failing to do the pushups, but in being untruthful.

Lessons in the importance of sincerity in “hai Sensei” are often more subtle. For example, partner exercises usually involve our Sensei moving around the dojo and offering individualized corrections while the students practice technique in pairs. Through my training in karate-do, I have developed a much healthier view of correction as a gift representing respect a teacher shows by valuing my development and sharing his or her knowledge. Reframing failing as a natural part of learning makes accepting criticism a much more positive experience. Several years ago, my partner and I were practicing a particular kick -block and grab technique. Wham – great block … whoops – epic fail in trying to capture the leg. As our Sensei wandered by, he suggested a more circular, scooping block. Even though he moved on, I signaled my acknowledgement and understanding with a loud “hai Sensei.” I prepared for the next attack. Our Sensei, now actively engaged helping another student, stood several feet away with his back to me. The attacker’s kick came and, one scooping motion block later, I effortlessly blocked the kick and controlled the leg. With his back still to me, Sensei reacted with an enthusiastic, “See Shawn! Good job!” Our Sensei simultaneously helped another student AND monitored my progress in one of the dojo mirrors.

The moral of the story here is not that I accepted feedback, implemented it, and experienced success (although that is a good moral). The moral of the story lies in backing up one’s words with actions. Whether the Sensei, your boss, your school teacher, your spouse, or whoever is there to witness your actions, to strive to be a person of your word is an admirable pursuit in character development. In the dojo, EVERY TIME you declare “hai Sensei” to acknowledge that you heard and understood feedback, you need to mean it as a commitment to, and respect towards, your teacher and yourself. Imagine the monumental disrespect shown in acknowledging your Sensei’s feedback and then ignoring it completely. To say the words without the accompanying resolve is the definition of lip service. Repeated engagement in lip service makes it a habit. Habits come to define who we are.

What?! Think about it. EVERY TIME you respond “hai Sensei,” you not only are saying “yes I heard you and think I understand” but you are also saying “I will do my best to improve myself through the knowledge being shared.” Listen, acknowledge, try, fail, try again – completely acceptable. Listen, think you understand, try, fail, realize you do not understand, ask for clarification – undeniably honorable. Character is developed and shown in the process not the result. Every time you wholeheartedly attempt what you have said you would do, you reinforce that behavior as something important to you. Repeatedly attempting to do what you have agreed to try to do makes it a habit. Habits come to define who we are.

Hmm … Who knew that a two word phrase could be so important in development of who we are? I imagine our Sensei did.

The Meaning of “Sharing the Empty Cup”

A loud, impatient knocking interrupted the old man’s afternoon mediation.  At the door stood a young adult clearly in a hurry to have his needs met.  “I have traveled this land to share my Zen wisdom,” said the young man.  “Everywhere I go I am thanked but told my teachings seem incomplete and that I should seek out you, the old man on the hill.  I believe my understanding of Zen philosophy to be complete, so I have come to see what possibly I have not yet learned.”


“I am about to pour my afternoon tea,” said the old man.  “Please come in and join me and we can discuss your teachings.”   With great focus, the old man began to fill his young visitor’s cup.  As the tea reached the brim of the cup, the old man continued to pour, allowing the tea to spill onto the table and flow into the young man’s lap.  “You foolish old man,” screamed the visitor.  “What could I possibly learn from you?  You cannot even pour a simple cup of tea correctly.”


The old man calmly replied, “You are correct young man.  There is nothing you can learn from me.  Much like the cup, your mind is so full with your own ideas, it cannot accept any more.  Return to me after emptying your cup and perhaps we can learn something together.”


The “Sharing the Empty Cup” Blog presents my thoughts on various martial-arts related topics.  Unlike the young man, I make no claims of being an expert in anything.  My goal here is to share a topic with the hope that others will come and share their wisdom, thoughts, questions, and life experiences.  It matters not if you are a Matsumora Seito karateka, practitioner of another martial arts system, parent, family member, friend, or complete stranger.  The cup offered at my table is nearly or completely empty.  I invite participation from any who wish to help fill it.  I have one requirement for participation: be respectful of each other’s viewpoints.  Divergent opinions are welcome and encouraged, but weaving the common thread of respect into all postings ensures a healthy opportunity to learn from one another.


Yours in karate-do,

Shawn Roberts

Karateka of Sensei Steve Apsega

Maine Traditional Karate