Monday, 27 April 2015

Stress, how to deal with it, and what I learned about it through martial arts

Divorce, moving house and the death of a loved one, not necessarily in that order, are thought to be the most stressful things that can happen to us.  What about smaller stresses, though?  The confrontation with the driver of the other car, the argument with your loved one and problems at work, make up just a part of your day.  Surely their effect on our stress levels will be minimal?

The small stresses can be much worse, in a way.  We may be unaware of the cumulative effect of the many minor issues which face us each day, and yet we find ourselves irritable or easily upset by things which, in the grand scheme of things, shouldn't matter.  These are the emotional indicators of accumulated stress.

Anyone who has a career or hobby that requires an awareness of their body - a dancer, for example - will develop that awareness.  I have no doubt that those who attend yoga or pilates classes will be similarly attuned to external and internal physiological cues.  I hesitate to mention martial arts, but let's accept that martial artists are similarly concerned with movement, and will necessarily be in tune with their physiology to some extent.

Every Thursday, I would attend the jujitsu class.  The twenty five mile journey to the leisure centre, mostly on unlit country roads, had a meditative quality.  Nevertheless, the stresses of the day, or indeed the week, were still there when I arrived at the class.  I was dimly aware of the effects of the stress, though I didn't pay it much attention.  The nature of the jujitsu class made it possible for me, if I was wound tightly enough, to become an immovable object or simply overpower a training partner.  I was using stress to my advantage.  At the end of the class, I was wound considerably less tight, but the process of accumulating emotional tension, until I could get back to the class the following week, would start all over again.

Eventually, the strain told.  I started to realise that the way I felt after each jujitsu class should be my default mode, rather than feeling constantly uptight.  I started to learn methods of stress relief, and came to the conclusion that slowing down, meditating and practising mindfulness were particularly effective.

Through jujitsu, I learned that physical exertion is also key to reducing stress.  The fight or flight response, often mentioned in connection with heightened anxiety, is not always appropriate.  Trouble at work, for example, must not be resolved by attacking a colleague or running from the building.  The stress hormones - adrenaline, cortisol, homocysteine and others - prepare us for those reactions, and regular exercise is a more acceptable way to reduce their effects.

I sometimes don't spend as much time managing my stress levels as I should, or I've had a particularly difficult day or week.  Wing chun is somewhat different from jujitsu, and is made much more difficult by the presence of tension.  By the time I recognise the signs, however, I am already taking part in the class.  The first sign is that even novices are able to take pot shots at me.  As the class draws on, I realise that my thinking has become clouded, and I'm not really able to take in much of anything that is said.  In the worst cases, as happened this week, my difficulty with being in a room with more than about three other people makes an unwelcome return.

Apologies if I sound too much like a psychology student, but I have, unfortunately, attained a programmed conditioned response to martial arts classes, especially when being tested in that environment, and that response is muscular tension.

Given that I usually arrive early at the class, it is possible for me to do some chi kung, yoga or even meditation before the class begins.  I remember that one of the older students in the class used to do tai chi before the class began, and I understand that now.  Hopefully, I can be more effective, and more consistent, in the future.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015


Few things puzzle me more than humankind's talent for making things complicated which should be simple.  So it is with mindfulness.  If you have young children, it is likely that you are observing masters of mindfulness at play on a daily basis.  Strange then, that something children are able to achieve without conscious effort should require so many pages to be written, so many courses to run, and so many fortunes to be made.

So, let me simplify mindfulness for you with a definition.  Mindfulness is a focus on the present moment.  That's it.  Whenever we feel anxious about the future, or let concerns about past mistakes cloud our mind, we are not being mindful of the present.  Ask someone who drove, or was driven, to an important meeting, for example, to recount their journey to the meeting.  Beyond telling you the route they took, they will probably be unable to tell you any more details.  Why?  Well, the likelihood is they were too focused on the upcoming meeting.  It would be nice to think they were focused on their driving, on where they were going, but it is likely that some of their focus was diverted to other matters.

In his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness, Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh uses the example of washing the dishes.  Are we washing the dishes to have clean dishes, he asks, or washing the dishes to wash the dishes?  Paul Wilson, in Instant Calm, refers to this as "the total effort".  The basic idea is a total focus on what we are doing in any given moment.  This principle, in both cases, is explained within a few pages, surrounded by numerous other pages which contain useful exercises.

Modern life teaches us bad habits.  In our work, in our lives away from work, we seem to have so little time that we are tempted to attempt multitasking.  As a result, our focus is pulled in different directions.  Ideally, we need to prioritise and give our focus to one thing at a time.  Few of us have this choice, so the exercises in those guides to mindfulness become necessary.  We should set aside some time each day, the guides say, to sit quietly, focus on where we are, what is happening right now, and concentrate on our breath as a method of grounding us in the present.  They sell this to us as "mindfulness meditation".  Wrong.  It is simply meditation, and it has retained the same basic form for thousands of years.  Mindfulness is not the process of meditation; it is the result.

I've heard it said that, as we age, time seems to pass more quickly.  "Where did the time go?", I have heard people ask.  It should be clear, from what I have said here, that life continues to pile distraction upon distraction on us, so it is increasingly difficult to be mindful, to be completely in the present moment.  Once these moments are gone, they are gone forever.  If we are not mindful of their passing, they are lost to us.

You may have heard yoga, tai chi, chi kung and similar disciplines referred to as "moving meditation".  If done correctly, it is an accurate description.  A focus on these movements is more effective, for some, than a simple seated meditation.  The day's problems, and concerns about the future, fade away as we are absorbed in having correct posture, performing movements correctly and being aware of how our bodies respond.

If you are eating, actually taste your food.  Savour every bite, rather than greedily shovelling it into your mouth and swallowing, barely registering its presence.  Notice your surroundings.  If you are taking a walk, take time to think about how the sun, rain, wind or snow feels on your skin.  What do you see?  What do you hear?  What do you smell?  What do you feel?

This present moment is all you have right now.  Make the most of it.