Friday, 28 October 2016


Sometimes, you find yourself outside your comfort zone. Sometimes, you've stepped so far away from your comfort zone that you can't remember where it is any more. At that point, it's all too easy to focus on that uncomfortable feeling, rather than give yourself credit for the courage you've shown.

I don't ever forget how terrified I was, walking into that first modern jive, salsa, bachata or kizomba class, though. I don't forget because, honestly, I've just become better at hiding it as time has gone on. What gets me there is the fact that, much against my expectations, I love to dance. Also, the people I've met and got to know are so nice that, when we dance, or if they come to talk to me, the fear goes away for a while. A few have even managed to break through to the point where I dare to ask them to dance. So, when one of those people invites me to a Halloween party, there's the sense that not going along would be letting them down. Knowing that the proceeds from the event go to charity, I'm even more likely to attend.

If I don't go, the thought that I might have had a good time will play on my mind. After all, a number of people that I quite like will be there. The worst case scenario is that I turn up, and sit alone, not having the courage to talk or ask anyone to dance. Actually, the worst case scenario is that I feel completely overwhelmed and have to leave early. It's a very real possibility, and I don't expect anyone will understand. Maybe they'll think I'm weird, because I showed up to a party but wasn't really there in any way that was meaningful.

Thankfully, this being a Halloween party, I have the option of covering my face, and that helps: it'll get me through the door, anyway. I have to accept that my courage may fail me at some point, but that's okay.  There's a good chance that I'll actually have a great night.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Imbalance or, how I'm feeling

Someone wrote about how I'm feeling...

Then, I saw something written by a friend, and the feeling intensified...

One of the kindest things that anyone has ever said about me is that I don't know how much I help people.  I couldn't help thinking about this a few days ago, when I was at a dance, and a couple of friends were telling me to stop replying to my messages, at least for a while.

The problem is that, to a greater or lesser extent, I love everyone.  I'm not talking about the gushing, romantic love that you feel for your partner because, frankly, that would be weird, and more than a little problematic.  What I'm talking about is a tendency to care for others and be deeply affected by what they feel.

There are people to whom I willingly give my support.  I'm privileged to call a lot of these people my friends.  They are good, kind, generous, supportive and patient people.  There's a sense that I couldn't do enough for these friends because, as someone recently said of me, they're probably unaware of how much they help me.  The problem is that not everyone is so good.  There are people who abuse my good nature.

Where I'd disagree with the post about INFJ burnout is the need for validation.  I have a need to feel hope, though.   The world can seem like a cold, uncaring, unforgiving place.  If I spend too much time with people who demand my empathy and positive regard, and I feel I haven't received enough of these things myself, then the temptation to write the world off as a bad place and limit my contact with other people is strong.

The piece by my friend made me feel sad initially, that such expressions of acceptance are, for her, a rare occurrence right now.  Then, I felt hope, because at least one person refused to respond with fear, hatred or anger.  As the post mentions, in that area, there are more than enough reasons, historically, for the local population to feel those things.  Maybe the world isn't such a bad place.

Tuesday, 7 June 2016


The counselling skills course is coming to an end, and I knew the end was coming.  People move on, and that's not unexpected either.  Then, you start to realise that, even if you stay in touch, you'll never meet in the same way, or under the same circumstances, again.

I felt the same way when a year of studying the Welsh language came to an end.  In some ways, that was even harder, because people drifted away during the course, leaving a very small class.

I know it's that whole INFJ thing again.  I unintentionally pick up a lot about people, without trying.  At the end of a study year, especially in a subject like counselling, I feel that I know my fellow students.  I think back to that first class, when few people, if any, knew each other.  Friendships develop during the course, and then...

I know the social conventions.  I know that people don't understand how I see the world.  No one understands.  If I told people that I see the beauty in everything and everyone, they might suggest that I seek help.  Still, I detect warmth, sensitivity and other great qualities in certain people, and I wish I had a way to tell them that I see those things in them, without breaking the social norms or freaking them out.

What they see is someone who doesn't express these things.  Would I say that it might be nice to just hang out with them and chat some time?  Could I tell them how much I'd love that?  No, definitely not.  So, people don't know whether I even see them as a friend.  At most, I'll have the courage to say something that's very much an INFJ thing:

"If you ever need to talk, you know where I am."

That's the INFJ way of saying something we know we can't say, for fear of going against what's expected by those who don't see the world in the same way we do:

"I sense that you're a good person.  I see that in you.  I'd like it if we could get together some time, maybe, as friends, and just talk about things - anything, really.  I enjoy your company." 

Of course, you can't say any of that.  You're aware that most of your behaviour can be wrongly interpreted as flirting anyway, so telling someone that you like spending time with them is tantamount to booking a hotel room for the two of you, in their eyes.

How about saying you consider them to be a friend?  Whoa!  What if they don't say it back?  Or, worse, what if they say it back, and that talent you have, as an INFJ, for picking up what people are really feeling tells you that they don't mean it?  That's not just rejection.  That's the worst kind of rejection!  Besides, social norms dictate that, if you say any of that, they'll think you're a bit weird as well.

Play it cool.  That's the way.  There's no risk of rejection then.  People will walk out of your life, but at least you can believe they could have been friends.  No one will understand.  Only another INFJ would really understand, and you know how rare those are.  We're the loneliest people in the world, and yet we spend so much of our time making sure that others don't feel alone.

Sunday, 5 June 2016


"To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you." ~Lewis B. Smedes

I hadn't danced with her for over six months.  The last time I'd asked her to dance, she'd refused, telling me that I should ask someone else.  As the intermediate class came to an end, however, I found myself partnered with her.  I couldn't help thinking of the time when we were friends, and how we'd regularly dance together.

The talent I have for detecting the slightest changes in body language, facial expression and other things, interpreting them in terms of feelings, doesn't always serve me well.  The waves of animosity I felt coming from her made it difficult to concentrate, so I fell back to basic movements.  It was still a difficult dance.

As the music ended, I bowed politely, and thanked her for the dance.  She returned the bow.  As I started to process what I'd seen, I realised that there had been another feeling, hidden beneath the waves of animosity I'd detected all too clearly.  On the surface, she'd tried to appear impassive, but she hadn't been able to hide her ill feeling towards me.  Underneath all of that, there'd been another feeling entirely.

I see and hear a lot of things said and written about forgiveness and, to my mind, it's a concept that is often misunderstood.  Accepting an apology is not forgiveness, nor is a willingness to act as though no injury had been caused and no offence committed.  Forgiveness is not about the actions of another person: it is about us.

In the case of a friendship falling apart, it's natural to question how much of a part we played in its destruction.  Often, the degree to which we were responsible for the breakdown of the relationship is not important, and it's enough for us to simply acknowledge that we played our part.  From there, we may understand the actions of the other person, however hurtful, as a reaction.  We might feel that their actions weren't justified or were out of proportion, but these things aren't important.

The important thing to realise is that, when other people hurt us, it doesn't come from nowhere.  They hurt us because they, themselves, have been hurt.

Now we're getting to the essence of forgiveness.  I don't have to repair the relationship to forgive the other person.  What I have to do - and this is the whole point of forgiveness - is to let go of the hurt.  Forgetting the incident, or incidents, which caused the hurt is not a part of this.  Indeed, we must accept that these things happened, rather than brushing them under the carpet.  To forgive and forget, as they say, is the ideal, but forgetting is not always possible.

Sometimes, letting go of the hurt involves accepting that the relationship you once had with the other person is beyond repair.  This can be hard.  Unless it's in your nature to see people walk out of your life, which would say more about you than it does about them, it's difficult to come to terms with the fact that moving on involves firmly shutting the door on someone to whom you may once have felt close.

Forgiveness is all about letting go of the hurt.  Sometimes, however, it is about just letting go.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Making peace with myself

I'm told that, when I make a contribution during the class, what comes across to the rest of the group is a wealth of knowledge and depth of understanding.  It's also been said that I don't seem to realise how much I help people.  What I've heard from some of the people I've supported, whether informally or in my work, is that they've told me things they would never tell anyone else.  Occasionally, people go as far as to tell me that I've been good, that I've helped them, and they feel a weight has been lifted from their shoulders.

I should be able to accept all this positive feedback.  I think it's now reached the point where I really should accept it, because a failure to do so would suggest that either I don't trust the judgement of the people saying these things, or I believe they are being dishonest.  Actually, that was never the problem.  The problem was that I was suffering from impostor syndrome - a feeling that I really shouldn't have been there, and certainly not getting praise for it, because doing so only meant that I had successfully pulled the wool over the eyes of a lot of people.

I'm at an age where I've started to question everything that's happened in my life so far - the journey, as it were - and try to understand what it all means.  Hopefully, by asking ourselves these questions, and finding the answers, we reach a state of congruence, self-actualization, self-acceptance, or whatever it may be called in the school of psychology or belief system to which we subscribe.  I prefer to look at it as being at peace with who are, because I believe that reaching this state brings us peace and, if we are to make peace with the outside world and the people in it, we must first make peace with ourselves.  I also believe that, in trying to achieve this inner peace, we are, to some extent, aiming at a moving target.

I realise that a piece of writing such as this could be seen as a narcissistic drone, but I sincerely hope it doesn't come across as such.  If you see it in such a way, it is easy enough to stop reading.  Maybe you'll see something that applies to your own situation, though, and reading my self-absorbed waffling will help you in some way.  Has that been my intention all along?  I'll leave that for you to decide.

If we accept that a sense of inner peace is a moving target, how do we achieve inner peace?  Some people find it through religion or spirituality.  Some people find it through finding a sense of purpose.  I hear that some find a certain contentment in family life, whereas others like to travel and learn about cultures that are different from their own.  One of the things I find wonderful about us humans is that we are all so different.  It stands to reason that a sense of inner peace will look different to each of us and, as I have said, is likely to be something that changes over time.

I started by talking about my inability to accept positive appraisals of my ability as a counsellor.  I regard this as an obstacle on the path.  I feel that achieving a sense of peace within ourselves requires many of the same elements which are needed to make peace with others: patience, understanding and, most importantly in my eyes, acceptance.

We change and, hopefully, we grow as individuals.  So, a sense of inner peace is largely a moving target.  As much as we change, however, key aspects of us remain the same, or were there all along, and we were barely conscious of them.  We could see these as the core, or fundamental, truths of who we are.  In person-centred therapy, this is known as the organismic self.

Abraham Maslow spoke of a hierarchy of needs, where basic physical and safety needs must be met first, before a sense of belonging and self-esteem lead the individual further along the path towards what he termed self-actualization.  Maybe there should also be a hierarchy of acceptance, where we first accept the fundamental truths about ourselves, then the things about us that will change, before we are able to practise acceptance of the wider world and the people in it.

My own path is currently leading towards me becoming a counsellor, and stands in stark contrast to where I was being led by my earlier career and academic endeavours.  Looking back, I can see how I ignored the fundamental truths about myself or, as Carl Rogers might have said, I was in a state of incongruence.  What I would say is that, although I still struggle to accept positive feedback, I'm on a path where I feel more at peace with myself.  Should I say I'm in a more congruent state, or I'm further along the path to self-actualization?  I'd argue that those are equally valid, but those who know me will be aware of the effect that Zen philosophy has had on the way I see the world, and may be more surprised that I didn't refer to the path of enlightenment.

My reason for talking in terms of peace is that what I see are a great many people who aren't at peace with themselves.  Am I, through simply listening, without making judgements about them, able to help people find a way forward and feel more at peace with who they are?  I truly hope so.  I don't consider that I have any great skill or wisdom: I just listen.  If you've made it this far through my ramblings, then you have effectively done the same for me, and I offer you my most sincere thanks for that.

Monday, 23 May 2016

The true self

For the last few months, I've been attending two dance classes and continuing with my study of counselling skills.  What I haven't been doing - and it's a change that was forced upon me - is attending lessons in wing chun.

Before my temporary break from martial arts practice, a number of things had pointed the way to feelings of which I was barely aware.  Some of the other students, and one in particular, had said that I was one of the more defensive fighters in the class, and didn't seem particularly eager to attack.  More tellingly, my performance in sparring sessions was poor.

As recently as six years ago, when I was a student of jujitsu, my performance in sparring sessions was anything but poor.  I'll say no more about that, because I take little pride in it now.  A few minor incidents outside of my time in the wing chun class also showed that I was more than capable of applying what I'd learned, if needed.  A sparring session with some mixed martial artists convinced me that I'd built up a great deal of skill.  So, why the poor performance in sparring and chi sao?  Why was I a defensive, rather than attacking, fighter?


The way that I came to learn to dance could almost be described as an accident.  I was at an outdoor concert, and one of the ladies present mentioned that she was going to give a dance class about which she'd heard a go, if someone would go along with her.  Eventually, it became obvious that I was the focus of her request that someone go with her to the class.  I agreed, with the warning that I probably wouldn't enjoy it.

I was wrong about not enjoying it.  I was learning a new set of movements, and none of them had anything to do with combat!  How could I be enjoying it?  Around this time, in the counselling skills class, we were learning about the concept of the organismic, or true, self.  The theory is that we try to mould ourselves to fit in with the expectations of others but, as much as we try to hold it back, the truth of who we are will eventually make itself known, to some extent, in a way that even we may not be expecting.  The real me likes to dance, apparently.

Things change

Now, the time has come for me to go back to wing chun, and taking a break from it has changed things.  When I tried to run through the forms again, I noticed that some muscle groups had been neglected, through not training, but dancing had developed other muscle groups.  More importantly, I'd had time to analyse my relationship with martial arts, and come to terms with it.

I've come to realise that violence, and the threat of violence, have always been a part of my life: sometimes in the background, and sometimes very much to the fore.  My response was to commit much of my time to attempting to make myself a one man army, so to speak.  On that journey, however, I became more interested in Zen and the other elements of philosophy behind the combat arts I was practising.  Again, this was a very clear sign that my true self was gradually becoming known to me.

A little bit of self-reflection, courtesy of my study of counselling skills, put the final piece of the puzzle into place, and revealed something that I really should have known all along.  I have no interest in fighting, and it's likely that I never did.  I've seen too much violence, and taken part in quite a bit of it myself, and I have no wish for that to continue being a part of my life.  I'm going back to wing chun, but with a different focus, or maybe the same focus that I had all along, if only I'd been able to admit it to myself.

I was reluctant to take a break, because I feared that a temporary break would become permanent.  What happened, though, was that the break became a chance to check my motivation, to ask the questions that weren't being asked.  The result is that I'm returning to something I love, but now it's different because, this time, I'm going as myself.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

No one's first choice

We all have things that we believe about ourselves, about others, and about how we are to interact with the wider world.  For example, we probably have some idea of how others see us, though this will inevitably be affected by how we see ourselves.

When someone I know came to talk to me recently, I pointed out that she didn't have to.  She'd arrived at the venue with her friends and, due to a problem between me and one of her friends, I sat alone.  The last thing I wanted was to create further problems, so I'd assumed that she would remain at her table, with her friends, and I would remain at mine.

When I said that she didn't have to come to talk to me, it wasn't that I didn't want her to talk to me.  I was simply thinking of the ongoing stand off between another person at her table and myself.  The reply was that she was there because I'm her friend.

It might be useful, at this point, to list some of my core beliefs about how people see me:
  1. No one really wants to listen to me.  It's best if I don't talk too much about myself, and that could also come across as me being self-absorbed anyway.
  2. If people want to talk to me, they'll talk to me.  If they don't come to talk to me, it's because they don't want to.  Approaching someone, or initiating a conversation, might mean I'm forcing a conversation they don't necessarily want to have.
  3. I'm no one's first choice of friend.  I'm there in the absence of other options.
When I list them in such a way, they sound very negative, and they are.  The incident I've mentioned highlights the negative and presumptuous nature of these beliefs.  I'd made assumptions about how another person saw me, and it seems that I was wrong.  Those core beliefs told me that I was simply someone she saw at dance classes, and nothing else.

Point number 3 is the important one.  I never feel that I'm particularly important to anyone although, even as I write it, I'm aware that it's more likely to be a self-esteem issue than an accurate evaluation of my worth.  I know that I often present people with difficulties, however, because they've been quite open in telling me that I'm difficult.
If you can see the image, and you're wondering what the letters INFJ signify, it's a personality type.  More accurately, it's a personality type described by the Myers Briggs Type Indicator.  Unlike a lot of personality tests that are available online, the MBTI, as it is often abbreviated, is based on genuine psychological theory.

Now, we should be careful about attaching labels to people.  The whole point about the MBTI, and Jung's personality types, upon which the test is based, is that these traits are apparent to a greater or lesser degree, and we must always see someone as an individual, rather than a type.  People are inherently complex, and psychological theory barely scratches the surface of that complexity.

Where those types are useful is in understanding how we see the world and the people in it.  If it wasn't clear before, it is now crystal clear that each of us sees the world in a different way.  I can't tell you, with any certainty, that the generalisations about the INFJ personality type are accurate but, in my case, they seem to ring true.

The first picture suggested that I keep a lot of myself hidden.  I've heard people say this about me.  On one occasion, someone noted that she'd told me a lot about herself, but knew next to nothing about me.  A good friend has commented that I'm a very private person.  There are so many other examples, but I'm sure you get the idea.  I realise I'm doing it.  What about the charge that people tell me a lot about themselves?
It's been said that people feel the need to fill the silences that I leave.  That's fair.  I listen and observe more than I talk.  I express myself better in writing, like I'm doing right now, but I still leave a lot of myself closed off from the world.  As the image above suggests, people tend to get the best response from me when they are showing me who they truly are, beneath the layers of pretence that they often use to protect themselves from the scrutiny of others.

Does this mean that I can tell when people aren't showing me who they truly are?  Do I have the ability to see whether someone is being genuine or not?  Is that my superpower?
I'd hardly call it a superpower.  It might sound like a good thing to have, and I admit that it's saved me from embarrassment a few times but, in terms of interacting socially, it's a nightmare.  You quickly realise that people present many different faces to the world, are different things to different people, and all of it is absolutely essential to the smooth functioning of social interactions.  You can see behind the façade, however, and it makes it difficult for you to deal with people.  If they stick around long enough to give you a chance, they eventually come to realise that they have to be genuinely themselves in your company, that you won't judge them for it, because you already know who they are.

The bottom line?  Most people don't like feeling so exposed and vulnerable.  You can count the people with whom you will develop a close friendship on the fingers of one hand, but those friendships will be sincere and meaningful.  The people who turn their backs on you either can't accept a fundamental aspect of who you are, or wrongly assume that you won't accept a fundamental aspect of who they are.
You're probably thinking I could put on a pretence myself, to make social interactions easier.  I can't.  What you see is who I am.  The only trick I have in the bag, so to speak, is to limit how much of myself I show.  This can present itself as me being cold, distant or reserved and can frustrate anyone who is trying to get to know me.  I can't be different things to different people.  I can only be myself.  That feeling of being exposed and vulnerable, which people often feel when I get to see behind the façade they've chosen to put up?  I feel that all the time.  I can only protect myself through being silent, keeping things to myself, and pushing down a lot of powerful feelings.

When Halloween comes around again, if I attend costume parties, I'll choose a costume that allows me to cover my face.  I believe a face like mine really should be covered, but that's a whole other issue.  If I have the chance to be present and still hide myself from view, I'm a whole lot more comfortable.  Like I said, it's the only trick I have in the bag.

The likelihood of me being the first person someone thinks of when asked to name a friend of theirs is remote.  If we've known each other for some time, however, they genuinely know me, and I know them.  I may not be the first friend they think of, but I'm a true friend.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

The problem of a crowded room

I always try to arrive early, before there are too many people in the room.  It doesn't always help, and it can only ever be a temporary fix.  More people will arrive, and the usual problem will soon present itself again.

The problem is empathy.  Without any conscious effort, I seem to pick up on what other people are feeling, and that feeling can affect me.  If I'm talking one to one with a friend, it's okay.  Actually, talking one to one with someone makes me feel a lot better.  If I'm picking up on the individual feelings of a room full of people, it's a different matter.  It can be overwhelming.  If I'm not feeling particularly good, it can be impossible.  At its worst, I feel like I need to get away and not be around other people for a while.

It seems to be a question of focus.  When I'm sat alone, and everyone is talking to someone else, I can't help noticing the greater number of people in the room.  If a friend comes to talk to me, I can switch my focus to just one person, and temporarily shut out the other people in the room to a certain extent.  I know they're there, but I don't feel their presence, or what they're feeling, quite so much.

There's a positive side to it, and I'm thankful for that.  If I'm approached with something that needs to be dealt with sensitively, I'm well placed to do that.  I won't tell anyone to pull themselves together, or that things could be worse, because I can see how they feel about this thing that's troubling them.  I can hear it in subtle changes in their tone and in non-verbal signs that all is not well.  I listen to how their problems have affected them, and imagine what it must be like for them.  Alternatively, someone might tell me they're feeling good, and that's great.  If someone's not being genuine, however, it doesn't work for me: I can tell.

I'm aware of the impression I must give.  Someone recently said they thought I didn't like other people, and I suppose it can seem that way.  From the outside, I'm the quiet guy sat in the corner, trying to avoid making eye contact with anyone.  Everything about me says I don't want to be there, that I don't want to talk to you, that you shouldn't approach me.  Well, I'll gravitate towards a corner, or the outer edge, of a room.  I'm the opposite of an attention seeker: I really don't want to be at the centre of things.  I can't stress that point firmly enough: I don't want to be at the centre of things, and getting too much attention makes me feel uncomfortable.

Maybe I seem strange, and maybe it's hard to understand, no matter how I try to explain it.  I guess I'm just different, and I have to accept that, but it would be great if I could feel that the people who are important to me accepted it too.

Do I want to be there?  Should you approach and talk to me?  Yes!  I'm not being unsociable.  It takes a great deal of courage for me to be there, knowing how it might make me feel, and if I didn't like being with people, I wouldn't put myself through it.  I might just be feeling a little overwhelmed, but your company is always appreciated.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Salsa, modern jive and other partner dances

The subject of leads who show off advanced moves, throwing their partners around and potentially making them very dizzy, has reared its head again.  As it came up on a group dedicated to salsa, and I'm very much a beginner in that style, I didn't feel confident enough to comment in the group.

The feedback I receive, as a beginner, is that keeping to the basic rhythm of the music and giving clear signals are far more important than whether the moves are basic or more advanced.  This makes sense to me.

I see dancing as a form of personal expression, rather than a purely technical exercise.  I always try, when dancing with a partner, to give her the space to express her own particular style.  Believe me, every woman has her own individual style and, for me, getting to see her express herself through dancing is a joy.  Why would I deprive her of the ability to express herself, and myself of the privilege of seeing it?

So, manhandling her into position is not something I want to do.  My task, as a lead, is to give a signal - a suggestion - of what will happen next, and her task is to interpret that how she may.  As one partner said to me, if she has a smile on her face, you're doing it right.  Really, it's just having some consideration for your partner.

Thought for the day: this isn't what I expected

I always thought, as time passed by, that I'd become more world-weary and cynical.  Strangely, the opposite seems to have happened.  I sometimes feel frustrated; I occasionally feel anger towards someone or something; I might feel a great sadness about the state of the world.  I clearly have the capacity to feel those things.  What I feel less and less, however, is hatred.  I truly believe that people are fundamentally good, though sometimes misguided.  With that in mind, how am I supposed to feel hatred towards them?

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Thought for the day: a fundamental truth

She stood in front of me for a moment and, briefly, our eyes met.  I remembered how she'd said - wrongly - that I was controlling, manipulative and a narcissist.  I remembered how she hadn't so much closed the door on her friendship with me, as slammed it shut and nailed boards over it.  Looking at her, I knew that something was wrong.  There are times when I curse my ability to see how someone is feeling, and this was one of them.

The look in her eyes; other little signs in her facial expression; the almost imperceptible trembling of her hand; the gathering tears that she refused to let fall - I saw all of them.  She wasn't okay.  I didn't know what had made her feel that way: only that she felt it.  I wanted to ask her if she was okay, although I could clearly see she wasn't, and tell her that she could still talk to me, if she needed to, at any time.

I didn't say any of those things to her.  I held on to the memory of how little regard she'd had for my feelings, how she'd completely misunderstood my intentions, and how she might take any kindness from me as a sign of a weakness to be exposed and exploited.  I remained silent.  The moment had passed.  In an instant, she was gone.

If you ever hear me saying that I don't care, about anyone or anything, you're hearing a lie.  I care about everyone and everything, as much as I sometimes wish it weren't so.  It's a terrible burden, but it's who I am.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Thought for the day: Dance!

I vaguely remember schoolteachers, eager that an upcoming school dance wouldn't be an excuse for inappropriate contact between pupils, walking us through some basic dance steps.  Other than that, September 2015 marks the time when I started learning to dance.

All things considered, as a complete novice, I didn't do too badly.  Still, I was surprised that some of the ladies wanted to dance with me.  I looked around at the men who obviously had many more years experience of dancing than I did, and I was puzzled.  Wouldn't it have been better to dance with them, rather than someone with my limited experience and knowledge of so few moves?  I pointed out to each of the ladies that I was a beginner, and each of them said it didn't matter to them.

I still have my faults as a dancer.  In fact, it's hard for me to think of myself as a dancer.  I consider how I move, and I know that many years of determined training in martial arts have set a template for how I learn new movements.  Sometimes, those old habits make themselves known, and my dance partner momentarily loses her balance.  Thankfully, those reactions I trained over many years allow me to quickly adjust and save her from falling.  The other side to knowing how to disturb someone's balance, and sometimes doing so instinctively, is that I also have the ability to restore balance.

If I ask someone to dance (with my lack of confidence, it doesn't happen often), they seem pleased that I've asked.  Some of the ladies also ask me to dance.

That early experience was in modern jive.  I'm still learning that style, but I recently started learning salsa as well.  So, I went from knowledge of no dance styles (I'm assuming that early informal attempts at breakdancing don't count) to actively learning two of them.  Again, I was welcomed as a dance partner, and I was no more coordinated than I was when I started learning modern jive.

The answer came to me recently, when I considered all that's been said by the ladies who've danced with me.  For the time that you're dancing with her, it matters little to your partner that you only know a few basic moves: to her, you're the best dancer in the world.  How can that be?  Well, at that moment, of all the dancers in the world, you're the only one who's dancing with her.

It's all too easy to get caught up in the technicalities and forget that this is supposed to be fun.  It's dancing!

Friday, 1 April 2016

He looks out at the sea and sky

He looks out at the sea and sky,
so infinite and grey.
He shivers as the cold wind blows,
and birds swoop on their prey.

He thinks of anger, hate and fear.
These things are on his mind.
He thinks of how some people are
so thoughtless and unkind.

He looks out at the sea and sky,
so infinite and grey.
He feels such peace, and that's because
there's no one here today.

He thinks of all the things he hears,
of problems and ill health.
They know that it is safe with him.
He'll keep it to himself.

He looks out at the sea and sky,
so infinite and grey.
He feels the weight upon his back,
and feels his legs give way.

He thinks of how they're never there,
whenever he feels low.
He questions if they even care,
and answers with a "no".

He looks out at the sea and sky,
so infinite and grey.
He thinks that they expect too much,
although he'll never say.

They do not see his value yet,
because he's always there,
but one day he might disappear,
and then, who else will care?

Why are you so quiet?

"Why are you so quiet?"

"Why don't you speak?"

When we talk, they don't understand.  They misunderstand, misinterpret and come to their own conclusions, based on their misunderstanding.

"Why are you so quiet?"

"Why don't you speak?"

They interrupt.  They talk over each other.  They're so eager to say what's on their mind that they don't listen.

"Why are you so quiet?"

"Why don't you speak?"

They don't question why something has been said.  They only see what would motivate them to say it, and reason that these were also the speaker's motives.

"Why are you so quiet?"

"Why don't you speak?"

They only wish to confirm their bias, suspicion and prejudice.  They will hear nothing to the contrary.

"Why are you so quiet?"

"Why don't you speak?"

They will repeat what has been said, with their own slant, based on what they think of the speaker.

"Why are you so quiet?"

"Why don't you speak?"

It will be repeated again, further affected by another person's thoughts about the speaker.  The original intent is lost.

"Why are you so quiet?"

"Why don't you speak?"

They don't listen.  They don't understand.  It is better that I say nothing.

"Why are you so quiet?"

"Why don't you speak?"

Monday, 21 March 2016

Time to recharge

I'm taking a break from a few things at the moment.  The things from which I'm taking a break are activities where I'm in a room filled with people.  At the best of times, that's difficult for me.  This isn't the best of times.

A few people have told me how strong I appear.  One in particular said she admired my ability to pick myself up again, no matter how many times life had knocked me down.  There has to be a limit, though.  There's a point where, as much as we try to be strong, we feel ourselves collapsing under the weight of the burden we're carrying.  I think I'd reached that point a few months before I decided to do something about it.

Doing something about it, for me, means disconnecting.  The last time I went to a dance class that I'd usually attend on a regular basis, for example, I had to leave early, and I knew I had to take a break from it.  For a moment, I wondered if the best course of action might be to challenge that part of my personality, to resist the urge to shut down for a while.  Fortunately, I knew myself well enough to realise that I needed to take some time out, to think things through and maybe recharge a little.

I've often pictured myself sat on the side of a hill, watching everything happening below: taking time to breathe, as it were.  Someone recently said that, even though I'm physically present, there's often the feeling that I'm somehow separate from everyone.  Yeah, I feel that too.  That's the point where I really want to be somewhere else.

I admit that I effectively shut people out, and it's easy for them to think that I'm not affected by things, that I don't feel anything.  The truth is that I feel things too much, that I care about people and things too much, and that aura of cold detachment is like my shield.  That shield can be lowered, however, and that's what had happened.

I pretended that being asked so much about my fiancée, our plans and when we would see each other again didn't hurt, that it didn't serve as a reminder that she wasn't with me, a reminder of how much I missed her.  I pretended that the events of the last six months hadn't brought me to a point where I was already struggling.  I guess they couldn't see that I was already wounded and that, though it would normally be taken as a sign that they cared enough to ask, and be appreciated, every enquiry about the woman I love felt like a dagger between my ribs.

I smiled through the pain.  I didn't know how to tell anyone that I was hurting, in a way that wouldn't lead to them feeling hurt too, so I said nothing.  Eventually, I could no longer hold my shield, and felt exposed, vulnerable.  I started to talk about how I was feeling and even - horror of horrors - became visibly upset.

I watched someone who had once been a close friend as she danced, and reflected on how things had fallen apart between us.  What had once been a good, solid friendship had steadily deteriorated to the point where, should either of us dare to lower our shield, we would invariably find the other had inserted a blade between our ribs.  For a time, I was only aware of how badly I'd been wounded.  Now, as much as it's her habit to cover her wounds, to admit no weakness in her defence, I see that my blade struck a number of times.

Empathy is a terrible burden, when we realise we have hurt someone.

I need to find the strength to hold my shield again, and maybe repair some of the holes that have started to appear in it.  The alternative is that people see how vulnerable I am without it, that I'm wearing no armour behind my shield, so to speak.  Needless to say, I'm currently limiting myself, as much as possible, to spending time with people I trust completely, or whose ability to hurt me is limited.

Right now, I'm sat on the side of the hill I spoke about earlier, metaphorically speaking.  It's a warm day, and a breeze is blowing.  Every so often, a trusted friend will come to sit next to me, and ask if I'm okay.  My reply is that I've just retreated for a while because, as much as I've tried to dress my wounds, they're still bleeding, and I need to rest.

Friday, 11 March 2016

Offering our support

Our friends, family and other loved ones may need our help at times.  If we're decent people, and especially if we're able to empathise with those we love, we offer our support without question.  As much as we want to care for others, however, we must also care for ourselves.

If we have a history of wanting to appear tough, strong, capable and generally in control, it's hard for us to seek help from others.  In families, there is often one individual who takes on the role of being calm in a crisis, of being a strong, safe pair of hands.  They provide emotional, and sometimes more practical, support to other members of the family.

Some people just have it in their nature to care for others, and that's fine.  Where it stops being fine is when that habit of wanting to appear tough, strong and capable reaches the point where we feel we can never, ever ask for support ourselves.  Rather than feeling tough, strong and capable, we have reached a point where we are trying to be invincible, and the sad truth is that we aren't invincible.

We will almost automatically offer our assistance to those we care about, so it can seem that we're doomed to just keep giving our support and receiving little to none in return.  The reality is that we need to stop trying to be invincible, and recognise that the help we need may have already been offered.  At least one of the people you care about - your partner, spouse, a friend or, more rarely, a family member - cares enough about you in return to want to help you.  Your relationship with that person is what all relationships would be in an ideal world: mutually supportive.

If you have a lot of people who want to offer their support in your time of need, then you are very lucky.  It's human nature, unfortunately, for some to advise, tell you what to do, or even go as far as suggesting that they're the only one who can effectively be there for you.  That's not a mutually supportive relationship: that's a relationship that's bordering on being dictatorial.  In truth, you are the one who is best placed to recognise the person, or persons, you want to turn to for assistance, and maybe that will change depending on the particular challenges you are facing at the time.  If they do offer advice, it's your right to either accept or reject that advice.

The important thing is not to take everything on yourself.  As much as you wish it were true, you're not invincible.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Please, do continue...

Some months ago, one of the ladies at a dance class I attend came to a startling realisation.  She turned to face me, said that she'd told me a lot about herself, and that she'd done so because I didn't say much, so she'd had to fill the silences.

Soon after the above incident, another lady, from the same class, said that she had noticed how I sat and listened to a number of the ladies in the class, and that I didn't say much.  She said that, when a man sits and listens so patiently to a woman, it could be interpreted as meaning that he felt a sexual attraction towards the woman in question.  Later, when I was alone, I thought about what she'd said.  It seemed to be a very cynical interpretation of male behaviour, and I hoped, while it was obviously not my reason for listening, that it wasn't true more generally.

More recently, I was out with a friend, and a woman I don't know so well joined us at the table.  Within a few seconds, this relatively new acquaintace started to laugh, and said that she found the conversation between my friend and I to be strange.  What she saw, apparently, was that my friend would talk, and I would often simply nod in reply.  My friend replied that she often has to fill silences, because I talk even less than she does (she's generally thought to be quiet).

Later in the evening, the woman who had found the earlier conversation so strange found herself sat alone with me.  As she talked, I nodded and used other continuation messages to show that I had heard and understood what she had said.  I got to know her better.  She asked questions about me, and I answered, showing her that the conversation wasn't just going one way.  She sat next to me when she next saw me with my friend, and talked to me again.

I don't talk much, but I'm a good listener.  I'm genuinely engaged and interested in listening to what others say, and it seems to show.  Whether it's right or wrong, it's who I am.

Monday, 29 February 2016

Thought for the day: a good friend

I notice the little things that tell me someone is a good friend.  For example, when you fall out with a mutual friend and, while remaining firmly neutral, they say they were concerned that you'd turn against them too.  If a catastrophic event in your life has led to you not eating or sleeping properly, they may be the only one who notices that something is wrong, and will ask if you're okay.  They might notice that you're feeling lonely, even though you're out somewhere with others present, and come over to talk to you.  If you tell them that someone is saying the worst things about you, they'll choose to see the best in you.  When your fiancée comes for a visit, even though they've never met before, and your friend is not generally comfortable with people they don't know, they'll do their best to make her feel welcome and a part of everything that's going on.

I'm talking about someone specific, and I'm sure I could use many other examples.  Friends rarely tell each other how much they appreciate these things, though.  The strange thing is, I've only known her for a number of months, rather than years.  However, she's one of the best friends that anyone could ever have.  I just hope that I'm as good a friend to her.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to get back to being a lot less serious, and pretending that I merely tolerate her existence.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Thought for the day: letting go of fear, hatred and anger

I'm taking a break from formally practising martial arts for a while, although I'll still be practising in my spare time.  It's a time to reflect on what I've learned in over thirty years of involvement, in one form or another, with the martial arts.  The most valuable things I've taken from this time are nothing to do with learning to fight, but what I've learned about people.

I see violence being used to create fear, and I know that fear will lead to anger and hatred, provoking more violence.  I learned this at an early stage of my training, and many still don't seem to know this, including many of the world's governments.  There appears to be a widely held belief that fear will encourage respect, and I have never known this to be true.  I repeat, fear leads to hatred and anger.

What if we fear something or someone?  How do we conquer our fear?  I've found that the most effective way to conquer fear is through understanding.  If we are unable to understand the person or thing we fear, then we must learn to accept those things we don't necessarily understand.

Recently, I've noticed that I've been talking about someone, who was once a close friend, in a way which suggests I'm carrying a great deal of anger, hatred and resentment towards them.  I told myself that it wasn't a true reflection of how I was feeling but, on closer inspection, those feelings are there.  This is someone I have to see, due to a shared interest, on a weekly basis.

Sometimes, we may feel that giving up our hatred and anger makes us appear weak or vulnerable.  The truth is that it makes us strong.  What I have to do, and plan to do from this point forward, is to let go of the hatred and anger I feel towards my former friend.  To do this, I have to lose the fear that they may hurt me again, should I let my guard down.  I have to be strong.

What of the fighting side of martial arts?  What have I learned?  In short, I'm good enough.  Technically, I might never be the most gifted martial artist, but it really doesn't matter.  I've long said that we must practise, practise, practise and then, if we ever need to use what we have learned, we should forget that we have learned a martial art.  Those who understand my point will know that I'm not questioning the value of what I've learned.

When I've been confronted, when the threat of violence has come my way, I've usually been able to stop it becoming physical.  If the situation has become violent, those movements which were so stiff, uncoordinated and so difficult for me to grasp in the class have been performed with little or no conscious thought, in exactly the right time and place to prevent injury to myself and, when absolutely necessary, to cause injury to others.

I take no pride in the above.  I don't see it as a show of skill.  The real skill, to me, is stopping an encounter becoming violent in the first place.  Going beyond that point means I am simply performing actions which have been practised to the point where they are instinctive.  Will I be feared by my opponent?  Maybe.  Will I be respected by them?  That's less likely.  Will I be hated by them?  That's almost a certainty, and I think there's enough hatred in this world.

People have asked me how I learned these things from martial arts.  From my point of view, I wonder how they haven't learned these things.  Maybe I just realised that it's relatively easy for me to hurt people, but also that it's the last thing I want to do.

Monday, 15 February 2016

From martial arts to dancing

"Turn into a doll made of wood: it has no ego, it thinks nothing, it is not grasping or sticky.  Let the body and limbs work themselves out in accordance with the discipline they have undergone." ~Bruce Lee

2016 marks the first year I'm beginning as someone who's learning to dance.  All being well, I should end the year being a much better dancer than I am right now - well, in one style of dance anyway.  I don't know whether adding another style to my repertoire, if it were possible, would help or hinder the learning process.

What I do know is that, from an early age, I learned a specific mode of movement.  At the time of writing, I'm still actively participating in martial arts and, though it's a different art to those I've learned before, certain principles remain the same.  It's these principles of movement which slow my progress in modern jive.

Solo practice

A defining characteristic of partner dancing, as the name would suggest, is the presence of a partner.  Given that I'm not learning line dancing, or synchronised swimming, I'm learning a dance which requires one partner to lead the other through the dance.  I'm a man - at least I was the last time I checked - which means that, unfortunately for my dance partners, I have to lead.  This is where practice would be useful, but there's a catch - to practise dancing with a partner, you need a partner.

Away from martial arts classes, it's possible to train alone.  In disciplines like wing chun, there are set sequences of movements, such as chum kiu, for example.

There are other forms of solo training as well.  If you practise a discipline which lacks set sequences, you might practise certain kicks, hand strikes or other movements multiple times.  The whole point is that you become familiar with the basic movements and, importantly, repetition makes it more likely that your brain will store them for later use.

Outside of the modern jive class, well, there are freestyle dance events.  This is where I get to practise my moves with a series of different partners, should they be willing to tolerate my relatively limited experience of modern jive.  How can I improve at my own pace?  The short answer is that I can't.


Let's start looking into the differences between dancing with a partner and practising, particularly making practical use of, martial arts.  When dancing, you have a partner, who should be aware of your every move, so they may respond appropriately.  In martial arts, whether fighting competitively or outside your local fast food outlet, you have an opponent, and you certainly don't want them to be aware of your every move, at least not until it's too late already.

I didn't realise what was happening until I saw various partners losing their balance or failing to respond appropriately.  I started thinking I was doing something wrong.  In reality, I was doing something right, but in the wrong setting.  Years of learning to conceal my movements, to move at a speed at which an opponent had little chance to respond, counted against me when leading a dance partner.  It happens less now, but I still occasionally get the odd confused look, or have to correct a partner's balance (that's where those supposedly lightning fast reactions are actually useful).

The solution actually lay in previous experience of martial arts.  I spent some time learning tai chi, and the way in which the slower form is trained provided a framework for learning modern jive - less swift, less sharp, more flowing.

The application of force

Okay, this one's a biggie.  I don't want to send a dance partner spinning out of control, across the floor, or injure them.  That short, explosive power which I've trained for so many years, and especially when learning wing chun, should not be used here.  The implication is that I hold back somewhat, but the amount by which I should hold back will vary from partner to partner and, only this week, I found myself accused of being an ineffective lead.

I still haven't figured this one out, so I tend to err on the side of being gentle.  I'll take the accusations of being a weak lead, for now.


You do THIS move, you catch the lady's hand in your left hand; you do THIS move, you catch the lady's hand in your right hand.  Whatever hand you're using to hold the lady's right hand (usually) dictates what you are able to do next.  Certain manoeuvres are used to change hands; certain manoeuvres end with no change of hand.  Your partner has a fair idea, not only of what you're doing, but of what you might do next, and where you might lead her.

If you use the wrong hand for a move, what happens?  At best, confusion; at worst, you tie yourself, and a partner, in knots.  It's one of the ways in which I have to fight against being trained to be unpredictable in my movements.  My mind rebels, and I catch with the wrong hand, going into something completely unexpected, and possibly not even a modern jive movement.

There is no way to counter this, other than to practise.  More than anything else, this is the issue which has seen me going to every single freestyle dance event I'm able to attend, in an effort to correct this tendency.


Ah, music.  Dancing just wouldn't be the same without it.  Thankfully, I have a sense of rhythm so, in theory, I should be able to keep in time with the music.

In practise?  Let's go back to the issue of predictability, and say that falling into a rhythm is a bad thing in martial arts, as any good instructor will tell you.  Breaking that rhythm is necessary, so your movements can't be predicted.  So, every time I learn a new movement, there is a conscious effort to bring it in line with the beat, and anything other than the familiar "four on the floor" rhythm gives me a problem.

Again, practise will correct this tendency.  That's the hope, anyway.

Proximity (or, resisting the urge to defend, grapple, throw or immobilise)

What's this?  I have to be close to people I don't know?  Can I trust them?  Yes, it's the age old problem of training to neutralise an attack, expecting that attack, and it leading to you having an issue with personal space.  Seriously.  Even in the queue at the supermarket checkout, I feel uncomfortable.  As much as I know the possibility of a knife being stuck between my ribs, or a strike being aimed at specific vulnerable parts of my anatomy, is unlikely, the movements of the dance leave me feeling defenceless and vulnerable.

As I get to know (and trust, to varying degrees) the people in the class, this becomes less of an issue.  When someone new joins the class, I'm automatically considering how much I should trust them, and slightly adjusting my movements to offer at least some protection to my vulnerable points.  Worse, someone that I've known for some time in the class has given me some very good reasons not to trust them, so I tend to dance defensively with them, and I can't see this changing any time soon.

Footwork, balance and leaving yourself open

I try to follow a certain way of stepping, and my mind rebels against it.  "What is wrong with you?" my mind screams at my body, "you could easily be pushed over, in that position, or struck, or thrown.  Stop it!"  An alternative way of stepping takes place, where I don't compromise my balance or my defence, and a confused look from my dance partner is my reward.  Worse, this alternative way of stepping might completely mess up the thing I was actually meant to do.

Absorbing what is useful (or, limiting myself)

Simple, direct, efficient: even before I started learning wing chun, this was how I viewed martial arts and, as a result, it became one of the principles of how I move.

On a practical level, it means the basic hand strikes, kicks and elbows appeal to me.  I've never been asked to perform a jump spinning back kick, but I'm pretty sure my attempt would cause more injury to me than an opponent.  If I can do it easily, it becomes a favoured technique; if I struggle, it may be rejected.

When learning the moves of modern jive, this means I tend to restrict myself to a few of the basic moves.  If they are simple, efficient and direct, I like them.  It means that my repertoire is very limited, however.  I suppose that becoming more familiar with some of the other moves will improve things, and that will come in time.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

I don't want to fight

"Have you ever used martial arts in a fight?"

I looked at him with suspicion.  I didn't like the question, or the tone in which it had been asked.  He hadn't been coming to the class for long, and his attendance was erratic, at best.  I'd also heard him asking similar questions of the instructor, who had the sense not to be drawn into the conversation, and some of the other students.

"Yeah," I replied, reluctantly but truthfully.

"Wing chun?"

"No.  Not wing chun."

"What, then?"

"Judo, karate, some other Japanese stuff.  It was a long time ago."

"Did you win?"

"What makes you think anyone ever wins?"

The look on his face suggested that he didn't like this answer.  He tried appealing to my ego.

"I'll bet you won," he continued, "Come on, how many fights have you had?"

"I'm not answering that one."

"Why not?"

"Because one fight is too many."

I wasn't surprised when he left the class, although he stayed with it for much longer than I'd anticipated.  He might come back some day, but I doubt it.

I've often written about martial arts, and my experience of them, on this page.  You might think I don't know what I'm talking about, and that's your right.  You might think I'm not a fighter, and I'd be happy for you to think that.  Maybe you think there have been few, if any, times when I've had to defend myself against malicious intent.  I'm happy for you to think that too.  In short, if believing that I'm weak, defenceless and no threat allows me to live in peace, I'm happy for you to think it.

The truth is that I spent more years than I should in a town in Northern Ireland - a town which was on the border with the republic - and I have an English accent.  There were people who really didn't like that combination of factors.  All I'll tell you about those years is that, after many years away from martial arts practice, I started to learn everything I could about jeet kune do, absorbed martial arts philosophy, principles and techniques from as many sources as possible, and eventually joined a jujitsu class.

In that class were many students who had so little faith in the Japanese roots of their art that they added movements from the modern Brazilian interpretation of jujitsu, via nights spent watching MMA contests on satellite TV.  To counter this, I went in the opposite direction, towards being hyper-traditional, to the point where I traced the roots of the art back to Chinese wrestling (shuai jiao) and started adding those movements, and others from simultaneous study of tai chi, into my game.  Pretty soon, I had to face the humiliation of being left alone at the edge of the mat, with no other student wanting to train with me.

Was I forced to fight, outside of the training hall?  Why did no one want to train with me?  I'll leave you to fill in the blanks for yourself.  Before going to Northern Ireland, I lived the kind of life that led to me being seen as a geek, a nerd, or whatever the latest term is.  In those days, it wasn't cool: it meant I was alone, and it made me a target.  Again, I was pretty much obsessed with martial arts at the time, and I'll leave you to work out my reasons for being so obsessed.

I have to question that past, and also my current involvement in the martial arts.  What is the purpose of my current practice?  Why, when some of the other students focus on hitting each other, is my focus more on avoiding being hit?

If I were to tell you that I've had to fight, that these were the kind of fights which might have ended in me going for a ride in an ambulance, or even a hearse, what would be your thoughts?  Would you expect that I know a thing or two about self protection?  Would you expect that I had gained some wisdom from the experience?  For the record, I'm not telling you any of that.  I'll leave you to fill in the blanks for yourself.  If those things had happened, it would not be something of which I'd be proud.  Quite the opposite.  I would regard it as a failure, either of my own ability to reason with others, or of their ability to behave with basic human decency.  Either way, it would be something that brought shame, rather than pride.

A few months ago, I went for a night out with a friend.  She told me of an encounter she had with another female, and demonstrated the ferocity of the slap with which she had hit the aforementioned female, barely missing my face in her eagerness to show the power with which she had struck.  I made no attempt to block it, even though the momentum of the strike would have caused no small amount of pain.  Her proud smile faded when she noticed me looking down, saddened that she had taken so much pride in hurting another human being.  Nothing more was said about the incident, and the subject was quickly changed.

I would much rather bring a fight to an end before a single hand is raised, before a single blow is struck.  I wish others felt the same.