Saturday, 20 June 2015

I'm listening

Earlier in the week, I attended an interview.  I'd like to tell you that it was a job interview, but it was an interview for voluntary work with Samaritans, something I last did over two years ago.

Later in the week, I practised my counselling skills, as part of the counselling skills course I am currently attending.  I thought the other members of the class were very good, and they received some constructive feedback from the observer.  I wasn't confident about my own ability but, surprisingly, all the feedback I received was positive.  I was puzzled.  No criticism at all?  Surely there is always room for improvement?

During the interview at Samaritans, I was asked about my reasons for leaving the service two years ago, which is understandable.  I replied that, at the time, I had too many things going on outside of my volunteering with the organisation.  That's true.  It's not the whole story, though.

The problem


For as long as I can remember, I've been an introvert.  People would say I was a quiet child and, even now, might say I don't often contribute much to a conversation.  In reality, I listen.  I process what people say.  Only when I have something meaningful to say do I say it.  Mostly, though, I listen.  Any introverts who are reading this will know how tiring this interaction can be, and will be familiar with the need to be alone sometimes, to recover.  It can seem that others are throwing words and feelings at you, at a machine gun pace, and it can be overwhelming.

I'll admit to being flawed in one essential way.  I can forget that empathy is not a universal trait.  I'm only human.  It can seem that no one wants to listen to my concerns, or how I feel.  In the past, I've seen this as a fault with others.  My relationship with them, I reasoned, is one-sided.  I'm the one who listens intently and, when it is my turn to speak, no one wants to listen.  For a long time, I carried a lot of anger and resentment around with me, over this issue.  Unfortunately, this idea that no one wanted to listen led to me being even less vocal, withdrawing from opportunities to socialise with others, and going into a downward spiral that eventually resulted in a major depression.

To some extent, volunteering equipped me with skills which were necessary to deal with this.  Most importantly, I learned not to judge others, to accept that I could only ever see their behaviour, and never fully understand the forces driving their behaviour.  The pace at which those skills developed, however, was easily outpaced by the cumulative effect of dealing with other peoples' problems and not being kind to myself.  It was this concept of being kind to myself which would prove vital to my continued support of those who needed my support.

Winding down


It is acceptable for us to take some time out.  If you'll forgive my use of a metaphor, we have to press the reset button.  I've heard that some like to go fishing.  Others play golf.  At least one person I know likes to go to a coffee shop and read a book.  There are no rules.  There is something you enjoy, and you are more relaxed when you are doing it.  We must restore the balance, and ensure that we have some positive experiences in our life.  As I discovered, at great cost, a lack of these positive experiences leaves us ill-equipped to deal with the challenges we face in our daily lives.

I reconnected with mindfulness in the time since.  There are things I enjoy, of course, but mindfulness serves as my reset switch.  The simple realisation that I can support others, not having to carry their suffering with me, enables me to find the peace that I was previously unable to find.  Best of all, I don't have to find a river, a coffee shop or a golf course.

During the practice of my counselling skills, I had to take on the role of a client, so that another student could practise their skills.  It was noted that I am uneasy with talking about myself, and especially how I feel.  I need to work on this.  I have to accept my flaws, so that I may work around them or work to improve, but I also need to work on accepting that, in some ways, I am okay.  So, I'll take the lack of constructive criticism as a sign that I may actually be quite good at supporting those in distress.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Carrying a burden

Most of us carry a heavy weight with us, wherever we go.  It can take many forms.  It may be that someone is far from us, or lost to us forever.  We may feel guilt over past mistakes, or anxiety about the future.  It is increasingly clear that clinical depression is more common than was realised.  Whether the pressures of modern life are responsible for an increase in the prevalence of mood disorders is questionable.  Maybe we simply have a better understanding of these things now.

We carry our burden around with us.  When we feel weighed down like this, the likelihood is that it is by something we can't forget.  Should we forget?  Well, it could be that there's a reason for us to remember.  If it is grief for someone who has gone, for example, it may help us to keep their face in our memory, the sound of their voice, and other memories connected with them.

So, what can we do?  I would suggest that, occasionally, we remove the burden from our shoulders and put it down for a while.  Otherwise, as other pressures are added, to use an old clichĂ©, we may end up carrying the weight of the world.

It is okay to put down your burden, to not carry it everywhere.  Be kind to yourself.  Do the things you enjoy.  Your burden may start to feel a little lighter.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Thought for the day: diminished empathy and concern for others

One of the things we're taught as counselling students is unconditional positive regard.  This means, whatever a client may say or do, whatever beliefs they may hold, as long as they are not actively harming others, we have to believe they are basically good.  This comes from one of the other foundations of the person centred approach: not being judgemental.  We have spent our whole lives being who we are, and only who we are, so we have no idea of what motivates someone to live the way they do, believe what they believe, or act in a certain way.

At the same time, there is a need for congruence, or being genuine.  I occasionally see friends, or people who I thought to be friends, acting in ways which contradict my own values, beliefs and attitudes.  I have to keep the need for unconditional positive regard in mind, and remember that I am unable to judge, as I may not understand the motivation for the behaviour.  I have the right to feel offended, and maybe express that appropriately, but not to judge them as a bad person due to one incident.

I often question whether we are, on the whole, experiencing a failure of empathy.  It seems that people are increasingly aware of how things affect them.  In modern terms, this is known as getting in touch with ourselves, or something similar.  It's commendable, but it seems to have arisen alongside a diminished sense of how things affect others, or even a diminished concern about them.

I doubt that many of the things posted on social media, for example, are actually meant to cause offence.  There are exceptions.  Seeing friends using social media to snipe at each other is uncomfortable, especially when a relationship is breaking down.  Again, I can't judge people for this but, if they took the time to think about how this spectacle affects others, would they behave in the same way?

Maybe my thoughts are guided by my own nature.  Though I've become somewhat expert as disguising it, I'm an introvert.  A friend noted this recently, when he remembered times when we would be at a party or other gathering, and he could clearly see that I wanted to be somewhere - anywhere - else.  Clearly, he is able to feel great empathy with others, even if he doesn't fully understand.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Thought for the day: having nothing to say

I worry that I bore people.  I am often seen to be sitting quietly, saying nothing, even in the presence of others.  An English teacher once said that I don't speak unless I have something worth saying.  She was right and, in the time since, it has become clear that there is great wisdom in saying less.

Read How to Win Friends and Influence People.  Read The Miracle of Mindfulness.  I can think of no better message to give to you today.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Top methods of self defence

I sometimes stumble upon lists of martial arts that are supposedly the best for self defence.  Now, in theory, they are lists of martial arts, so I have no problem with them.  In a wider sense, however, they are misleading.

If you want an art that is effective for fighting when there is no other choice, then the lists are useless.  Check what is available in your area.  Go along and ask the instructors if what they teach can be used for self defence.  Their answers should tell you whether you should join their class.  If taught correctly, almost any martial art is good for fighting, and the deciding factor will be how hard you train.  If the class is too far away, if you don't like the instructor, or what you see and hear seems fake, your motivation for training will be low.

Is it available in your area?  No?  It's useless to consider it then.  Does the instructor answer a straight question with mystical nonsense?  Don't waste your time with that kind of class.  Have you found a method of combat you enjoy learning?  Stick with it, because your motivation to keep training and improve is arguably the most important thing.

With all of that in mind, I'm going to tell you what should always be in a list of effective methods of self defence, ahead of any martial art, and what any responsible instructor will also recommend before coming to blows.

Run away

Am I suggesting that, regardless of how many years you have trained, you should always take the opportunity to escape a violent encounter?  I am indeed, and the law is with me on this one.  If you have the opportunity to run, and don't take it, everything that follows your decision is something that could have been avoided.

I'm not going to soften this one for you.  The possible outcomes of a violent encounter include, but are not limited to, temporary or permanent injury or disfigurement, violent death, theft, abduction and lasting psychological trauma.  You think you can win?  Ha!  No one EVER wins!  You want to injure someone else, when it could have been avoided, and you call that winning?  You think you can explain yourself in a court of law?  You think you're ready to cope with revenge attacks?

No, forget all misguided notions of honour and check your pride.  They could have a concealed weapon.  Their friends could be around, somewhere.  If you want to talk about honour and pride, talk first about what is the right thing to do.  There are times when running away is impossible, and that is when you need the ability to fight.  Otherwise, just don't be there.

Be nice

What is self defence?  If you're thinking of launching a counter attack or throwing an attacker to the ground, you've got the basic principle wrong.  Those things serve a purpose, and that purpose, rather than a specific way of achieving the aim, is the essence of self defence.  So what is the aim?  Well, self defence is not about harming an attacker, but about avoiding harm ourselves.  If we can avoid being harmed without causing harm, that is the preferred way.  If a self defence instructor doesn't instil this wisdom in his students, then he is at best irresponsible, and at worst a charlatan.

Given that our aim is to avoid harm, it makes sense that we should be the kind of people that no one wants to harm.  This doesn't involve being a doormat, but simply being a nice person.  In reality, it's impossible to be someone who is liked by everyone, but that probably says more about the nature of others than it does about you.  We can make an attack less likely, though.

To paraphrase Wong Shun Leung, the art of invisibility would be more useful for self defence than a martial art, because a martial art is a weapon.  A weapon is designed to cause injury, not prevent it.

In aikido, Morihei Ueshiba enshrined the basic principle of self defence: subdue your attacker using the method likely to cause the least harm.  Even closer was Sun Tzu's statement that the greatest victory is one earned without bloodshed.

What?  Only two methods?

Yes, only two methods, and that is the essence of self defence.  Think defensive, not offensive.  In a martial arts class, you are learning to fight, but hopefully your instructor is also telling you that it is a last resort.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

What's important to me

I bought a new laptop this week.  My old laptop is five years old, and probably has a few years of life left in it yet, but a number of factors played a part in my decision to upgrade.  Obviously, the newer laptop is more powerful, and has fewer little problems than the old one.  Now that I have the thing I wanted, though, it's just another thing in the collection of things I have around me.

It's a reminder of the Christmas days of my childhood.  I would get presents from my parents, and other relatives, and it wasn't long before the thing I had been anticipating for months became just another thing.  It's not that I'm ungrateful.  Far from it, actually.  The thing was still valued, but the joy of owning it was short lived.  What remained was a feeling.  Someone else had bought something for me.

My fiancĂ©e recently bought a book for me, as a birthday present.  What was thoughtful about it was that she took notice of something I said in passing, knew exactly what to get and bought it for me.  Long after I've read the book, probably many times, the thought behind the giving of the book will remain.  The laptop, I bought for myself, and I'm pleased that I have a new computer, but it simply serves a purpose.  Other than the photos, music and copies of personal communications it holds, and the ability to communicate with loved ones who are far away, there is no inherent emotional value to the laptop.

In Ancient Wisdom, Modern World, the Dalai Lama states that the unhappiest people he has met are those who have the most worldly riches.  His argument is the more we have, the more anxiety we feel over the possibility of losing it.  So the question has to be whether we own our possessions or whether they own us.

An attachment to things

I have quite a large collection of films and music.  There was a time when watching the films, or listening to music, was a social activity.  Now, the friends who watched films or listened to music with me have families, other responsibilities, and little time.

Similarly, I like driving at night, especially in the rain.  It took me a long time to figure out why I would like such a thing, and then I remembered being the designated driver for friends who wanted to drink on a night out.  Other times, I would be one of the passengers in a friend's car, at an age where being able to drive was a novelty, so we would spend a night being driven around, because it was now possible.  Music would be playing, and we often drove down unlit, largely deserted country roads.

Sometimes a song will play on the radio, and a memory associated with the song will come to mind for the first time in years.  I'll remember a place, an event, but mostly the people who were there.

An attachment to people

It's difficult to say how we feel about others.  I've had a few people walk out of my life or pass away, never being sure whether they ever meant anything to me, and I suppose that most of us could say something similar.  In fact, everyone with whom I have spent a great deal of time means something to me.

There's nothing I would like more than to have my friends at my home, having a chat in person, rather than through a phone or over an internet connection.  Life just isn't like that, though.  I'm as guilty as anyone of having little time to spare, and it seems that we have so many things in our lives which steal the time we would use to connect with each other in a meaningful way.

Maybe it is an effort to make time for friends, but maybe it's important that we do it.  We have so much technology devoted to communication now, and yet people arguably feel more lonely than ever.  Communication through an earpiece or screen seems to have replaced communicating in person, and it is a poor substitute.

Technology has shortened our attention span and, far from making our lives easier, as promised, we live in a world where more is expected from us, where our time has become a commodity to be bought and sold.

If someone takes the time to sit with me, tell me how their day has been and what is happening in their life right now, I'm happy.

Our lives are busy but, if we don't have time to spend with friends and loved ones, what exactly are we working for?  More things?  Will that make us happy?

Improvisation in a martial arts class

It was, on the face of it, a simple sequence.  A straight punch was to be met by a bil sau (knife hand block in some other arts) to the outer gate, which would flow into a double lap sau (arm drag).  To keep us on our toes, our training partner would occasionally throw a hook, which would be met with the standard bil sau and punch on the inner gate.  All very simple.

I stopped the straight punches with a bil sau and performed a double lap sau, repeatedly.  My training partner then threw his hook punch, and I checked this with a pak sau (slapping/pinning block) and punch.  I realised that I had strayed from the drill and we started again.  I played the role of attacker, and my punches were met with a bil sau and double lap sau.  My hook punch was checked with a bil sau and punch, as planned.  Again, it was my turn to defend and counter, and again I checked the hook with a pak sau.  I happened again, and again, and again.

I managed to do the drill correctly, intermittently, but it took a lot of conscious effort.  I questioned why I was straying from the sequence, especially as it seems to be happening on a regular basis.

Reasonable adjustments

It's a great source of pride that the other students forget I am ill, or disabled, or whatever the politically correct term is right now.  I would say a large part of that, and a reason why I sometimes struggle to pick things up, is that I have been adapting what I learn to my specific needs.  The time I spend in solo practice, and the effect that training so much with weapons has had on my spacial awareness and coordination, have helped enormously with this.

Earlier in the class, we had a sequence where punches aimed at the head were punctuated with random blows to the abdomen.  I was happy about this, because my defence against low blows is not my strongest point.  The low gaan sau which was meant to stop the low blows was soon replaced with a jum sau.  This goes a long way towards confirming my suspicions, because a gaan sau performed with my left arm is structurally much weaker than one performed with my right.  The jum sau often requires a step back, though.

Abnormal reactions

It has been said that my reactions to an attack are not what would usually be expected.  When pulled by the double lap sau, I noticed that I was going into a semi squat, as used in some more traditional styles of kung fu.  I have no idea why I was doing this, because it meant that I was essentially in a bowed position when I had to follow up.  There must be some way I can use this to my advantage.  I don't know where it came from, but that's true of the other strange things I do sometimes.

Losing momentum

In the class, there is one other student with the same grade as I am.  There were three of us, but the third seems to have developed a preference for private tuition.  Between the two of us that remain, there is a consensus that this is the time when it is difficult to remain motivated.

I understand this.  Wing chun is not a competition sport, it is a method of unarmed combat.  The first issue is that you are developing skills which you hope will never be needed.  Furthermore, something which becomes clear, especially when training the third empty hand form, is that some of what you learn could not be regarded as reasonable force under any circumstances.

Given the restrictions of the law, at least in the UK, maybe boxing is the most realistic form of self protection for a civilian.  Away from the CCTV cameras, and potential witnesses, maybe it's a different story.  In the end, it is unlikely that the modern world is going to adapt to traditional martial arts, so the traditional martial arts must adapt to the modern world.  If you add in the fact that most of these arts come from cultures which are very different to the western world, you start to see that there are added difficulties.  The basic philosophy of Filipino martial arts, for example, is that weapons should be used, if available.  Any objects within the immediate environment, and the environment itself, is to be seen as a weapon.  From a legal standpoint, this is shaky ground, to say the least.

I don't want to fight

If I'm accused of spilling someone's pint, or looking at their date or significant other, my standard response is that I don't want to fight.  It's true.  Even as I am expecting that my words will not be taken on board by the knuckle dragger who feels he has something to prove, I'm hoping that the anger will dissipate and the situation will be resolved without bloodshed.  On one occasion, I explained my stance very clearly.  Pointing out that everyone's night would be ruined by one of us leaving in a police car, and the other in an ambulance, without saying which was more likely for either of us, it appeared that the potential consequences of his actions became apparent to him, and my would be adversary shook my hand and said that I was a good man.  Yes, I found it weird too.

On another occasion, a friend and I were joined by someone we both know vaguely.  He went into great detail about all the fights, real or imagined, in which he had been involved.  If his stories were true, then many people have been injured by a fist, a boot or a head butt from him.  I listened to his stories until he asked what I thought of him, whether I considered him to be a tough guy or a hooligan.  I replied that I prefer not to make such judgements about people, but that fighting should be avoided if there is any other way of avoiding a situation.

After a few more pints of fermented hops and barley, my friend had to drain some of the fluid from his system, so he staggered off to the toilets.  Hmm.  It's funny how you don't realise that you've had a little too much to drink until you stand.  Sorry, I went off on a tangent there.  Left alone with me, the young man who had been so eager to tell tales of his fighting ability said that he'd been thinking about what I had said, and he didn't like to fight but, for him, it seemed to be unavoidable.  He said that he supposed he just had one of those faces people like to punch.

I said nothing for a moment, aware that the situation could still turn.  I said to him that, if people have learned to expect you to throw rocks at them, they too will pick up rocks whenever they catch sight of you.  He nodded.  He understood.