Taking the Road Less Traveled (Part 2): Fear, Panic, Anxiety, and the Calming Effect of the Martial Arts

I remember sitting on my knees on the mats to the far left, Mark Sensei was beside me asking me what was stopping me from successfully executing ukemi (safely falling).  I had been at it for weeks by that point.  Fear stiffened my body, either preventing a decent roll, or stopping me altogether.  I had to keep going no matter what, but man oh man, was it difficult to push myself into this art.

I answered Mark Sensei with two words, “My thoughts.”  The wild nor’easter of fear gripping my mind was the only thing stopping me.  Anxiety, fear, and panic are realities I deal with daily.  Over the course of almost 28 years of recovery these things have lessened somewhat, but not nearly enough by November 2015 (from the previous post this is when I started Ninpo).  The child of an addict almost always grows up with a skewed sense of reality.  Not knowing what was coming next in the form of abuse left me in a constant state of anxiety.

By the time I was an adult, seeing life through panic colored glasses was my modus operandi.

The martial artist lives within a constant tension that comes from practicing violence for the sake of peace.  If I believe in the spirit of Budō (click here for a definition), learning to overcome oneself is the ultimate goal of practicing a martial art.  Nearly every level of technique and practice I’ve encountered fear is involved.  For the uke (receiver of the technique) to be a good training partner,  there must be a certain amount of willingness to receive pain.  When faced with a hard fall, one where my ukemi needs to be on point, my metaphorical knees tend to knock together. At this point I MUST overcome to be true to myself in my efforts to grow as a person.  I have failed at this a few times and I’ve spent hours unnecessarily beating myself up.  But, when I succeed and overcome my panic, the feeling of triumph is incredibly satisfying.

This is where the rubber meets the road in the grown up mind of an abused child.

It’s not easy to be thrown to the mats repeatedly by those bigger and stronger and get up and ask for more.  It’s not easy to face the tension of moving fast in a line up of ukemi practice knowing I could crash into someone else if I move incorrectly.  It’s not easy to receive hits and blocks that leave marks every week, so similar to marks left by adults who should have known better. Believing in myself enough to push through fear, panic, and anxiety and do what’s asked of me and then succeeding brings the confidence needed to calm the mind with truth.  The truth is, I can do these things because I’ve already succeeded.  The phrase “practice makes perfect” isn’t just about muscle memory, it’s about knowing that whatever one’s practicing can be done.

Practicing violence so I can be at peace seems like an impossible paradigm, but it works so well to calm the mind and spirit. I’m glad I stuck it out and eventually tested well for my ukemi belt test.  I’m so glad I’ve stayed the course and learned how to be knocked down and get up again.  I’m so thankful to those who’ve helped me so much along the way, who believed in me enough to help me keep coming back again and again.

Most of all, I am thankful to God for getting me through door to begin with.

 

Taking the Road Less Traveled (Part 1): From Victim to Victor, Within the Context of the Martial Arts.

As I sit here on my couch, I find myself reflecting on my past.  A lot of things people normally experience in their youth were lost to me: happiness, security, a sense of purpose, and so on.  It wasn’t until I became acquainted with Jesus that I got on the true path to recovery.  He usually sends me on an unusual path, unusual even in Christian circles, to find healing and wholeness.  Like a surprise laid out long ago for me to find at the right time and place.

My path to the martial arts is an example of an unusual journey I was sent on.  In November of 2015 an idea sparked in my thoughts, that I should talk to my friend (and now sensei) about the martial art he was involved in.  We chatted for a bit, but he recommended talking with his sensei, Mark Bramble (Renshi), so I did.  I came out to the dojo to observe a class and see what I thought.  I was immediately hooked and terrified.  I had done a little kung fu at age 20, and was really fascinated by martial arts in general, but I hadn’t taken any steps to join any schools.  Mostly because I was concerned about what I would be bowing to, and any spiritual influences I would likely encounter.  The thought of joining an intense martial at my age (45 at the time) and my physical shape (I’m considered obese) was making brain go nuts with all kinds of anxiety.

Knowing that God was sending me there got me through the door again and again despite the panic attacks every time I had to leave for class.  After all, I didn’t want to disappoint my Heavenly Father.  This went on for over a year.  I finally settled down after my fourth test to obtain my stripe for my third level (8th kyu).  I knew the whole time I was there because I was sent, what I didn’t know was why I was sent there.  That became obvious in the second quarter of 2017.  Things about my past started popping up in my mind about abuse I had suffered as a child on into adulthood.  I count the first 23 years of my life as one continuous string of abuse, by various people with various methods. I’m not exaggerating when I say I’ve experienced almost every kind of abuse possible.  It’s not unusual for me to be working on some aspect of my experiences. Starting at age 20 I had been in counseling for 26 1/2 years by the spring of 2017.  But, the unusual way God was healing me expedited some things I never expected to be a “thing” I had to deal with this far advanced into healing.

It’s fairly common for people who suffered childhood abuse to consistently see themselves as victims in pretty much every aspect of life.  Watching life through the victim’s lens sways and colors my perception of what is happening to me.  Generally, I thought that I had no choices and was powerless to stop what people would do or say to me.  I tended to believe I was helpless and thereby hopeless.  I didn’t have the will or strength to stand up to people or to withstand judgement or rejection.  I suffered endlessly, and needlessly.

In my mind, I had no value beyond my usefulness to others.  I looked for ways to exist and be counted as important in other’s minds.  When I was ultimately rejected in my attempts, I would spiral downward into sorrow and more suffering at my uselessness.  I was caught in a self-defeating cycle of wanting to be needed and dying inside a little more each time I was rejected, which was every time.  People don’t want to feed into another’s victimhood and don’t want to be a part of their neurosis.

From April 2017 to December 2017, I was on this intense path of self-discovery that would release me from victimhood into victory.  Many of the epiphanies I experienced came directly from my training.  Ninpo is not an easy art to master.  Even if you aren’t an abuse survivor on the path to healing, it takes a certain amount of grit to push past the fears associated with practicing any worthwhile art.  Ninpo can be scary and intense, especially for females.  More than once, I had to take a big gulp and shove down my fear to receive, and to give, a certain amount of pain or learn how to land safely, or put up with the burning in my legs from repeated calisthenics.  However, by staying the course  in my training I learned incalculably valuable lessons on becoming a victor while on the mats.

The next couple of posts will be specific examples of epiphanies I received and how my training was used to teach me truth.

Stay tuned for more…

 

How to Find Your Fighting Spirit

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I’ve learned a lot about myself in the past 2 years as a martial artist, and as a woman I don’t think I could have learned in just any environment.  Learning a martial art takes a lot of perseverance and grit, it’s not easy, and it shouldn’t be.  I’ve been downright frightened at times and had to grit my teeth and force myself to keep going.  Because of this, the greatest lessons I’ve learned through ninpo have to do with my internal life, how I think, how I behave, what I allow to bother me, or not, and what I think about myself and others.  My sense of value changed through several intense experiences in class and private lessons.  I went from only valuing my usefulness, to valuing my existence.  Learning one’s true value is something I desire to transmit to other women.

I held my first women’s self-defense class today.  This is something I am passionate about and plan to use to proclaim the message that women have value beyond their usefulness to other people.  I think too many women only feel valued when they are being a wife, a mother, a boss, or coworker or any other role women fill. I believe that women are not generally attracted to defending themselves, or violence, because the innate sense of inherent value is missing.  However, often women will become violent when necessary to defend their home or loved ones.

I’d like to bridge that gap between the instinct to defend others and defending one’s self.

I believe that self defense starts with understanding one’s value.  Developing a fighting spirit comes from this understanding.  A fighting spirit is a tool we can use to give us the strength and energy to be violent if necessary.  If this piece is missing, defending ourselves won’t be quite as effective because fear can take over and cause us to cower.  I discovered through a grappling lesson that I had no desire to fight back if someone was attacking.  Even in the calmer environment of the dojo, I felt intense fear and blanked out everything I had learned to that point.  Unbeknownst to me at that time, I didn’t know my inherent value.  Once I learned about it, and made it part of myself I developed a fighting spirit fairly quickly.

I believe learning one’s value, and learning techniques for fending off an attacker are valuable to any women of any skill and physical capabilities.  Heck, a woman in wheelchair can find ways to defend herself given enough learning and practice.  We just have to change what we think about ourselves and dig deep into our sense of self to find what we need, when we need it.

Little hands, little feet, doesn’t mean you can’t be beat.

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People make a lot of assumptions about women.  Sure, we are smaller than men, and we have less muscle mass, but does that translate to automatically losing a fight? The short answer is “no.”  The long answer is “only if you’ve been trained and know what you’re doing.”

Unless we get involved in heavy lifting in the gym and become, we cannot match the strength of even a average sized man, so we have to find ways around this problem.  If a man gets a woman in a rear naked choke, it’s safe to assume she cannot muscle her way out that hold.  But, that doesn’t mean all is lost.

As you can see above, my hand is significantly smaller than my husband’s hand.  I cannot out do him in thumb wrestling, arm wrestling, or any kind wrestling for that matter.  Believe me, I’ve tried.  When trying certain techniques in the dojo, sometimes my hands are just to small to get a good grip on whatever body part I’m holding onto.  That can be frustrating when I’m trying for that tap out and my uke is just lying there saying “Twist my arm more.”

Geez guys, have you seen my tiny princess hand?

My training teaches me how to exploit weaknesses inherent in all human bodies (There are a very few exceptions to this, I know a guy who barely feels pain.  I can twist his wrist till the cows come and he’ll just be laying there smiling at me). This gives me an advantage I might not otherwise have if I was ever attacked in real life.  It’s surprising to me that so much pain can be produced with so little effort.

The concept of “work smarter, not harder” becomes handy to us smaller, weaker females when we know how to hurt you.  We can pinch, gouge, poke, prod, twist, strike, scratch, or whatever those places you didn’t know could hurt like that.  We don’t have to wrestle you to the ground, we don’t have to muscle our way out of a grab, we just have to know where to strike and how to make it hurt more.

It’s best not to make assumptions.

The Battle Has Just Begun

I’ve heard rumors that once a person reaches a black belt, they’ve only just begun to train.  All of what happened before was preparing for the next level of training which is sort of like starting fresh at something.  Not say that all of the previous belt levels are useless, but they are essentially basics.  Many of the black belts I know seem to be on a different plane of learning.  It seems they’ve achieved something, are more aware of themselves and their capabilities, they can think a little more out of the box.  However, there is an understanding that the real work is just beginning.  In a blog by the Budo Bum, when speaking of budo (武道 “way of war”) he often refers to how budo is a journey, in other words it’s not a means to an end, it’s a way of living. The ideas behind budo translates well into the notion that a black belt is just getting started.

I’ve been battling several things for my entire adult life (27 years) from a very traumatic childhood. I’ve achieved a lot, I’ve overcome a lot, I’ve battled fiercely and defeated many things.  But, I’ve recently had a blow to my ego.  I’ve developed a panic disorder for no explainable reason.  It’s costing me my health, my blood pressure is too high, the physical symptoms are too strong, my stomach is being damaged.  The high blood pressure alone scared me enough to get me to the doctor’s, but while I was there I experienced an intense panic attack.  He decided I needed four medications: an anti-depressant, an anti-anxiety, anti-reflux, and, of course, a blood pressure med.

I had told myself several years ago, as I was weaning off yet another anti-depressant, I NEVER wanted to do this again.  Sure, it helped for a time, but the side effects sucked too much.  I wanted to be rid the need for a crutch to help me cope with life.  I wanted to be my own woman and stand up on my own 2 legs without help.  With recent spiritual and emotional achievements, I honestly believe I had “arrived.”  I could move on happy into the new land of fruitfulness and giving back.  Like I said, getting the news I need so much help hurt my sense of self and my ego.

As I prayed and asked God “why” for the 15th time in 3 days, he showed me two keys things: One was Him sweeping my legs from under me so I had to land on my back, the second was the analogy of only just beginning the battle as one achieves their black belt. Essentially, He showed me that submitting to Him in this way would help me achieve greater things.  He needs to break my ego (again) and set me on a new path of conquering.  He promises to fill in my weak spots, and sometimes that means medications.

All of the years I’ve been fighting for my life, I was learning the basics, and now the real battle begins. The real work of breaking my ego and forming me into the best warrior I can be looks more intense and has greater sacrifice.  Just as a martial art student must submit to their teacher, I must embrace this new thing, and submit to the wisdom of my doctor, and ultimately my God, to win the next battle.

The Breath of a Lion, or a Mouse.

“Kiai is more art than anything else.”

I had asked sensei, for probably the millionth time, if the technique I was doing was defensive, or an attack.  The above was his reply.  No explanations of what he meant, just that cryptic phrase and slight smile.

We normally use two, sometimes three, different sounds with which to kiai, and which sound we use depends on what we are doing in a technique.  It has to be said that my brain frequently switches up what I’m supposed to be doing and any manner of sound escape my mouth.  But, that’s not really my problem.

MY problem is going from squeaking like a mouse, to roaring like a lion.  Heaven help me, but sometimes the sound coming out of my mouth is literal squeaking.

When sensei said that thing about kiai being more of an art, it occurred to me that I’ve been thinking about this all wrong.  I’d been trying to create energy and intent by focusing on imitating other’s sounds, and trying to get it “right” (whatever that means).  As a novice it’s easy to get caught up in mimicry, which isn’t necessarily wrong, but at some point I needed to find my own voice.  What I was missing was the connection between my emotions and the sound I produced.  Sure, it’s helpful to say the correct sound in practice, but what about in pressure situations? Is it helpful then?  Eh, not so much.

To release the lion within, I needed to find something to connect to, like a sense of worth.  To grow as a person, and a martial artist, I needed to understand my own value.  Through various means, my (Heavenly) Dad showed me what He thinks of me, and what I should think of myself.  He installed a sense of purpose coupled with the idea that I had value simply because I existed.  As my favorite Krav Maga instructor put it “We have to protect what God has given us.”

I’ve encountered people who value themselves in way not connected to their usefulness.  Their sense of self is palpable, and if trained properly, can feel like a warning to “stay away.”  A person who values their own existence is not an easy target, it shows in their walk, in how they deal with others, how they deal with conflict.  Their ego is not driven by what they can do, but who they are on this earth.  My concept of myself has changed so significantly in the past year, that I’ve noticed a change in my kiai.  I get it now.

That sense of belonging, value, and self helps me to want to fight back, to release the breath of the lion when I need to.  Putting energy into my defense, or attack, is about focusing my intentions and skill in the right direction, my kiai is mostly the end result of an internal process.  The more protective I feel, the stronger the emotional connection, the more I can let my opponent know exactly how I feel.

Let there be less squeaking and more roaring.

I go to the mats.

I’ve never seen the movie The Godfather.  But like many in my generation (X to be exact), the movie is referenced by so many other movies, literature, and TV shows, I might as well have seen it.  The Godfather being sourced frequently through other media is like getting the Cliff Notes version accidentally.  Honestly, I don’t think I can stomach this movie’s particular version of Murder and Mayhem so I’ve avoided it.  That won’t stop me from referencing The Godfather via another pleasanter movie genre, the rom-com.

In You’ve Got Mail, Joe Fox the secret IM buddy/”evil” bookstore magnate advises his friend/love interest/rival Kathleen Kelly to “go to the mattresses.”  He attempts to inspire her to literally fight himself and his mega-bookstore that’s putting her tinier neighborhood bookstore out of business.  Joe has to explain to Kathleen what that means and references a line in The Godfather.  Via ancient Italian practices, it means to prepare for war.  Multiple times every week, I mentally prepare to go to war, mainly with myself.  Sensei hasn’t put out any mattresses for me to land on, but we do have our ever slippery tatami mats.

So, instead of mattresses, I go to the mats.

My face, my body, and my sweat are frequently ground into the mats (Thankfully nothing else is ground into the mats but those three because awkward).  I’ve been tossed face up, down, and sideways, pinned, and laid upon on those tatami mats.  I learn so many things I didn’t know were a thing on the mats.

I’ve lost count of how many times my right cheek was pushed into the mats hard enough to make fish lips.  I’ve learned how much punishment I can take on those smooth-as-ice mats, face down while someone twists my arm in unnatural directions attempting to provoke a tap out.  I’ve learned how to silently hold my ground, staring down my opponent as metaphorical tumbleweeds roll by.  I’ve learned how easily an omote kote gyaku can put me on my back on those tatami. I’ve learned how to keep my knees from clacking as I perform techniques in the testing environment.  I’ve learned how to hold kamae with my legs, as well as my heart.  I’ve learned how easily my mind is tripped up by fixation on the unimportant.  I’ve learned how to trust “relax” more than my own feelings. I’ve learned how to be freer, more confident, and less afraid.

Mostly, I’ve learned how to be me.

The war within myself consistently results in skirmishes, full-scale battles, and well-choreographed melees.  Sensei frequently reminds us that practicing Ninpo is like polishing a mirror.  And what does one do with a mirror?  One looks at “self,” the Grand Poobah of humanity.  Or the Godfather, if you like.  Paradoxically, self must be broken to win the war.  Jesus tells us in the Bible that “24 …”Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” (Matt 16:24-26, NIV) 

In other words, get rid of yourself to gain something better.

Go to the mat(tresse)s.